Ancient Beech Forests in Germany

Buchenwald_Frühling

Beech Forest Buchenwald Frühling by Nasenbär (Diskussion) / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)

I just learned this week that the ancient forests of Germany were beech forests. They were the first trees to grow in the land about 11700 years ago as the ice sheets retreated after the last ice age. If there had been no human beings or human agriculture, the beech forests would have covered the whole of Europe. But human development reduced the forests to a fraction of their former acreage. In 2011 five beech forests in Germany were made UNESCO World Heritage Sites to conserve them. 

I learned this after watching a movie called ‘Call Of The Forest – The Forgotten Wisdom Of Trees,’ a documentary featuring scientist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger. Along with other people around the world, she interviews Dr. Silke Lanniger and Meinrad Joos, who are involved in German forest preservation. One of them said that Germany is committed to keeping 30% of its land forested. It is a beautiful movie, and I was heartened to learn about the German commitment to its forests.

Mostly, however, I was intrigued because of my own connection to a copper beech tree in Boston, which I have previously written about. The copper beech tree was a primary spiritual anchor for me during the time I lived near to its location in the Forest Hills Cemetery.  I was also intrigued because of my more recent reaching out to my ancient Germanic ancestors.  I realized that they were living in these primordial beech forests, likely during many generations of my relatives. Sometimes the beech trees were considered fairy trees, or a link to all that is magical.

And isn’t it ironic, or magical, that, knowing none of this, I found the beech tree in Boston, or perhaps the beech tree found me?  There are so many synchronicities here. When I wrote about the beech tree, I also wrote about the magic of the runes–that ancient alphabet of the Northern Europeans which has been another link to my Germanic ancestors. Now, when I imagine my ancient Germanic ancestors, I see them in this beautiful forest.

Going back to the film, its message was wider and more universal than merely a link to my own ancestors. In her visits to forests around the world, Beresford-Kroeger speaks so eloquently of the gifts that trees bring to human beings, and also how important they are to the balance of all life on our planet. How important they are to the climate.  Perhaps they might be the most important being for maintaining our life on this earth. My spirituality is a tree spirituality!

Orphan Mystery

Margareta Graue

Margaretha Graue Henneke Englemann, 1890s

One of the first stories I heard about an ancestor was that of my great-great grandmother, Margareta, on my dad’s side of the family. My grandfather Heie Johnson wrote about her in a little notebook, and I have a copy of that story in his handwriting. He said:

Margareta Graue Henneke Engelman was born in Westphalia Germany, no dates. Parents died when grandma was 12 (she told of having to carry water for cows with a yoke until neighbors & friends interceded.) Seems she was given over to someone as bond servant. When she grew up, the brother of her husband, grandfather Henneke, came to US went to Calif. found gold. Sent for his bride & grandma Graue Henneke & her husband. Grandma’s husband died leaving her several small children. (Don’t know what happened to brother Henneke & wife). Later grandma married Menke Engelman. He was killed by a runaway team of horses & plow when our mom was very young. Grandma Henneke Engelman is buried somewhere in Kansas. Mom and I went to see Grandpa’s (Engelman) grave one time but I can’t remember the name of cemetery. I do remember that the tombstone needed attention. Wonder if it is still there. I often wondered what Grandpa looked like. That seems to be about all I can remember. Doesn’t sound like much does it? However I do feel thankful that they all came over when they did.

I feel thankful that my grandfather preserved this story! I’ve always thought of her as someone who overcame much adversity.  Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about her life, but her parents and the exact place of her birth have remained a mystery, even after 30 years research by my cousin Jim.

However, I am beginning to wonder if she too might be from East Friesland, like all the others of my grandfather’s ancestors. Here is why: according to a census in 1880, she described her birthplace, and the birthplace of her parents, as “Hanover.” The Kingdom of Hanover lasted from 1814 to 1866, at which time it became a province of Prussia. Margareta was born about 1827-9, and emigrated about 1861, so even though this area is now part of Germany, she would have known it as Hanover.  And, Hanover included East Friesland during that time, where notes seem to indicate that she was married to her first husband, Johann Heinrich Henneke, about 1852, [though I haven’t seen a source for this] and perhaps birthed her first children.

I excerpted this brief history of Hanover from another genealogy site:

Until 1708, Hanover had been a minor principality within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1708, its lands were combined with most of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg and became an electorate (essentially, a voting member state) of the Holy Roman Empire. Its rulers belonged to the dynastic lineage of the House of Hanover. …The status quo persisted until 1803 when Hanover was conquered by both Napoleon and the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1806, …16 states from the Holy Roman Empire, including Hanover, were joined together to form the rather weak Confederation of the Rhine. In 1807, the Treaty of Tilsit declared that Hanover would be joined with part of Prussia to create the Kingdom of Westphalia, ruled by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte. Westphalia joined the Confederation of the Rhine soon after… When Napoleon was finally defeated in 1813, it spelled the end for both the Confederation of the Rhine and the Kingdom of Westphalia. Rulership over Hanover reverted back to the House of Hanover.

The Congress of Vienna of 1815 …created the German Confederation, a loosely-knit group of 39 Germanic nation-states of which Hanover was a member. …The March Revolution in 1848 caused Hanover to temporarily leave the German Confederation, but after they failed, it rejoined in 1850. Hanover remained within the German Confederation until the Austro-Prussian War (or “Seven Weeks War”) in 1866.

Map_GermanConfederation

1815-1866 Kingdom of Hanover/Konigreich Hannover, in yellow, near the top.

But my grandfather said she was born in Westphalia, so I looked more closely at the Kingdom of Westphalia, which included Hannover (striped and purple on map) but didn’t include East Friesland, which came under the rule of Holland during those years. So another possibility is that she was born in an area of Hanover that was also included in the Kingdom of Westphalia during that time.

Westphalia

1808 confederation of the Rhine

Finally, down below, there is a map of the Province of Westphalia, after the kingdom was dissolved and it was part of Prussia. It is adjacent to Hannover, and just south of East Friesland. So it wouldn’t be impossible for her to be from there, later traveling north into Hannover, or East Friesland.  A further argument for this place is that both parents of her husband Johann Heinrich Henneke were born there. So perhaps they met up in Westphalia, and then moved to Hanover. However, another argument for East Friesland is that when her first husband died, in Illinois, she later married Meenke Engelmann, who was from East Friesland. People tended to cluster with others from their own regions and who spoke their own dialects.

I have been so interested in this question, since one of the reasons I am exploring my ancestors is to find out their connections to the lands that they lived in before they came to America. I also want to tell more about the family she created, but that will be another post. For now, her original home sadly remains a mystery, but I am so thankful to have her photo and part of her story.

East Frisian Ancient Grandmother

Holle_Sand_-_07

Holle Sand in East Frisia: a nature preserve on the duneland forest, near where my ancestors lived.

Are there any European ancestors who might help us to find a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth in our time? Today I was remembering that this was my original motivation for reaching back to these ancestors. Oh, it has also been helpful to gain a better understanding of how my ancestors fit into the larger story of the colonization of this continent in which I live.

But on a spiritual level, why would I reach for a true connection, if not to ask for help in the struggles we are facing in our time? Much of Australia is burning right now, fascism is running rampant over our country, hurting the plants and animals, and the people of our land, leaders plot for power and violence, and so much is being destroyed.

And I remembered what sparked my heart last spring about my patrilineal East Frisian ancestors. It was a line in a letter, a mocking recounting of a piece of old wives’ advice: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”   I wanted to reach out to those “old wives” to see if they might help me, help us.  During our Ancestor Wounds and Healing workshop in October, I introduced the group to the East Frisian tea ceremony, as part of our ritual of gratitude for the gifts of the ancestors.  We were short on time, and I considered leaving out the tea ceremony, but felt an unmistakable tug from spirit–“No! You must do the tea.”  And so I did.

Two days later I led our group on a trance journey with the intention for each of us to find an ancient ancestor–maybe from centuries ago–for each of us to meet someone who was at one with their land, in harmony with their land and people. So we traveled through time and out of time to make a connection. In that journey, I met my East Frisian ancient many-greats-grandmother, the same one who called for the tea.

When she arrives, I burst into tears and suddenly feel how wounded I am, we are. She is whole, she can traverse deep time and be called upon in any time. I burst into tears and she is loving me, with healing hands, and she knows how all of us have been broken. I felt the holding power of her love to contain the pain of centuries.  She is a healing presence, a witness to it all. She touches my heart, she says, “I can teach you how to laugh, even though the later Germans in your family lost how to feel.” She has a joy deeper than I know. She wants to continue our connection. She says, “Drink the tea ceremony to call me.”  

I was profoundly moved. I didn’t have a name for her that day, but later, a name came to me.  The German/Frisian affectionate name for grandma is Oma or Ooma. But a great-grandmother would be, in German, Ur-grossmutter and I am moved to call this ancient great-grandmother Ur-ma, or Oor-ma. The word also reminds me of the rune Uruz, which represents the aurochs, an ancient wild cattle species, now extinct, that was the symbol of wild strength, persistence, healing, and courage.

At the end of December, Margy and I shared in a rune reading. I used the runes to reach out to Ur-ma, and the first rune I pulled was Uruz.  Sweet.  Then came Nauthiz–which means Need, or difficulty, or struggle. How we are.  Finally I pulled Gebo, which means Gift, and the power of reciprocity which is love.

And so when I reach out to Ur-ma, I drink the tea and I pray: “You have wholeness, we are so broken. Bring your healing energies to our time. We have lost the connection to all beings and the land. We have forgotten our kinship. Help us heal. Help us to love the land, to love the spirit.” And I keep remembering those words, which somehow came down the centuries even so: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”

 

Mothers and Grandmothers

In the early days of my feminist awakening, I began to trace the ancestry of my mother line, to learn who my grandmothers might be, and what land we originally came from. I learned this: my matrilineal great-great-great-grandmother was an Innu woman, identified in the records as Marie Madeleine, Montagnaise. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terres Rompues, after the place where they came to live on the Saguenay River. Her name might be translated, Marie of Broken Lands, which resonates with what came later.

When I have been able to travel to Quebec, to the place the Innu call Nitasinnan [our land], I have felt the presence of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land. The very first time I drove into Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River, I came upon a book on the shelves of the Welcome Center in the rest area—it was about my ancestor Peter Macleod and his family. There have been other encounters over the years, a feeling of my ancestors reaching out to me as I reach out to them.

Learning about their stories has been an important part of my journey. I discovered many dislocations and relocations that occurred for my grandmothers, ways they were separated daughter from mother, separated from the land and the people from which they came. Marie de Terres Rompues bore several children with Peter MacLeod. Her daughter, Angele, was only twelve when her mother died, and Peter married another wife; Angele’s stepmother was a white woman. I wonder if Angele kept a connection to her Innu relatives? She was married at the age of twenty to a French Quebecois farmer, Joseph Tremblay, and they lived in the area of Peribonka near Lac St. Jean. I only know one story about them, from a census report. One year, all their grain burned in May, and they replanted with fresh grain but all of it was frozen and “not fit to be threshed.”

Her daughter Claudia was only eighteen when Angele died. At twenty-two, Claudia married Ferdinand, and during an economic downturn in their region, they moved over four hundred miles away to the town of Hull in the suburbs of Ottawa. Later, they traveled over seventeen hundred miles to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Ferdinand worked in the mica mines for five years, during the boom years when Westinghouse Electric was producing over $100,000 per year in mica. Then the mines closed.

Their daughter, my grandmother Yvonne, was born in Hull in 1897; she was nine when they moved to the Black Hills, and fourteen when they returned to Quebec. She became a chamber maid in a hotel in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, where she met Johann, an Austrian immigrant working as a waiter. At seventeen, she followed him five hundred miles to the United States, marrying at the border in Detroit Michigan.

My mother tells me Yvonne and her sisters worried that someone might think they looked Indian. Did she fear prejudice learned in Quebec, or in South Dakota? In Detroit, she became fully assimilated into the white and English-speaking world. Most of the stories were lost, but she did tell my mother they were part-Indian, and my mom grew up feeling proud of that heritage. There were occasional visits to family in Canada. When my mother was a four years old, the news came of Claudia’s death at the age of seventy-three.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother, Claudia Tremblay, age/date unknown

My mother was not quite twenty-one when her mother, Yvonne, died. I was a baby then. I have a picture [below] of my grandmother holding me in her arms. When I ponder this story of my mothers and grandmothers, I am struck by how most of these women lost their mothers before, or just as they were entering, adulthood. None of them had a chance to be with their grandmothers. They each turned to the life and the culture of their husbands. And I am struck by the many miles each generation traveled away from the place in which they might have felt a sense of belonging to the land. My mother, too, followed her husband on his travels across the United States. I grew up during those travels and none of those places ever truly felt like home. I didn’t know any other way.

Grandmother Yvonne with Myke

My grandmother Yvonne holding me as a baby.

It has been a long and important process for me to reclaim these stories and reweave a connection to my grandmothers.

[This story first appeared in my book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community.]

Little Land Spirits

Sunrise after Solstice

Sunrise, the morning after Winter Solstice.

In Scandinavia, there is a Solstice Eve tradition to leave a bowl of porridge outside for the Nisse, the little land spirit person who helps out with the work on the farm and serves as a guardian to the family and the animals. According to what I learned, it was very important to put a pat of butter on top.  The Nisse can be troublesome if not properly respected.

There are little guardian spirit people traditions in many other places, too.  Scots and English call them Brownies, there is the German Kobold, and I have learned about Wabanaki little people called Wonakomehsisok who were said to be spirit helpers who lived among rocks. The Wolastoqiyik spoke of Kiwolatomuhsisok, who were said to help people secretly at night, and have a breath that smells like mold.

All that said, on Solstice Eve, I put out a bowl of porridge in the back yard, with a big pat of butter on top, (which by the way is how I like my own porridge) as an offering for any little land spirits on our land that might appreciate it.  Perhaps it might be one more way to deepen our relationship with this land, to make friends with the spirits who protect and cherish the land.

Sadly, the next morning, it was still there, and frozen–but I moved it from the middle of the yard to the way back, where more wild creatures tend to go by. (We’ve put other food offerings out there in a similar way, and they disappear.) When I returned from my walk, I was happy to see a crow back there at the bowl, pecking at it with their beak.  They are also guardians of this land.

Crow eating butter – Version 2

Later, I discovered that the crow flew off with the pat of butter but left the porridge.  So I guess that our land spirits might not like porridge–which is after all a very European food tradition.  We’ll have to keep experimenting with other foods, to see what they prefer.  Still, I was happy to give a gift to the crow.

Where are the birds?

Bird Feeder no birds

We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.

In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet.  So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred.  More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years.  Is it finally affecting our own yard?

I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around.  It seems so strange and empty.  Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?

All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.

There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.)  Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.

Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is.  We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life.  So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.

So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives.  And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.

 

Empires in the Rhineland

As I explore my Germanic ancestors,  I have been struck by the repeated rise and fall of empires in Europe, somehow timely during these days in the United States when it seems that the impulse to empire is battling the impulse to democracy.  I didn’t study much European history during my educational exploits, so much of this has been new information. But most important to me, it seemed that the places where my ancestors lived were deeply shaped by the struggles of empires.

My grandfather Hochreiter’s birthplace, Linz, Austria, for example, was first named “Lentia” during the Roman Empire, one of the many frontier fortifications along the Danube River.  The Rhine River was also pivotal to the Roman frontier, and the Gerling’s town of Osterath was near the old Roman frontier settlement of Novaeseum, now Neuss.

The fall of the Roman Empire saw the rise of the Frankish Empire, the center of which was in the Rhineland. From Wikipedia:

Julius Caesar conquered the Celtic tribes on the West bank, and Augustus established numerous fortified posts on the Rhine, but the Romans never succeeded in gaining a firm footing on the East bank. As the power of the Roman empire declined the Franks pushed forward along both banks of the Rhine, and by the end of the 5th century had conquered all the lands that had formerly been under Roman influence. The Frankish conquerors of the Rhenish districts were singularly little affected by the culture of the Roman provincials they subdued, and all traces of Roman civilization were submerged. By the 8th century, the Frankish dominion was firmly established in western Germania and northern Gaul.

On the map below, the dark green area of “Austrasia” is centered in the Lower Rhineland. (Note that the city of Cologne is just south of where my ancestors were from many centuries later. They lived on the west/left bank of the Rhine.)

Frankish_empire

I somehow had always thought of Charlemagne as French, but he was actually Frankish, and likely born in the lower Rhineland area as well. The center of his court was in Aachen. The Franks were precursors to both modern France and Germany. Perhaps this explains something that my grandmother Johnson said about her family being both German and French. The Rhineland where they were from was Frankish, and went back and forth in later days between Germanic and French rule.

Soon after Charlemagne, his empire was divided into three parts.  I will skip right over the “Holy Roman Empire,” which was mostly a Germanic coalition of many kingdoms and cities that persisted through to the time of Napoleon. (My apologies to all true historians!)  But moving closer to the time before my own Gerling ancestors emigrated, the whole of the left bank of the Rhine was taken by Napoleon’s empire for France in 1795. I found out more about this time from a very helpful website describing the Rhineland Under the French.

The “Rhineland” only emerged as a united political entity in the first half of the 19th century. Before 1794 the area on both sides of the Rhine, between the river Moselle and the Dutch border, comprised a patchwork “rag-rug”, made up of many different territories and princedoms. …The French Revolution of 1789 was the event which influenced the political landscape in that epoch, beyond the borders of France and also in the longer term. …In 1794 revolutionary France conquered the regions left of the Rhine, which Napoleon subsequently annexed in 1801. They were systematically brought into line with the legal, administrative and political conditions in France. In 1802 the French constitution, le Code Civil, was introduced. The achievements of the revolution enacted in the Code Civil included the equality of all people before the law, an independent judiciary and the universal right to vote. However, “people” were still only defined as men; women were regarded as the chattels of men and were not recognized as independent persons.

It seems that the forces of empire and the forces of democratic ideals were beginning to wrestle with each other in those times, and I am very curious what my Gerling ancestors might have made of it all. Gerhard Gerling is described as a “hotel meister” (manager?) so he would have fit into the newly emerging class of small business people–whether by owning or working in a hotel.

In 1815, Prussia gained control of the area, and it became the new Prussian Rhine Province, but it had been irrevocably shaped by the prior years.

In 1815 the time of French influence was over, but had left behind far-reaching changes, which had been appreciated as a change for the better, especially in the areas of commercial law and administration. Therefore the population also resisted having to sacrifice such achievements for the sake of Prussian citizenship.

One thing that I wonder about. When sources say, “France took control,” or “Prussia took control”–they don’t mention the armies or the battles or what human cost might have been part of these shifts of power. It must have been difficult to live on the edges of these empires. In 1840, France threatened once more to claim the west bank, but it did not materialize. That was the year that the Gerlings, and many in their town of Osterath left it all behind to come to Missouri.

 

Life and Death in the 1800s

(Content warning-tragic deaths)

Theresa Gerling Heisler

Theresa (Gerling) Heisler 1886, the year of her marriage.

Continuing with my study of ancestors, I want to talk about the family of my great grandmother, my dad’s mother’s mother, Maria Theresia (called Theresa) Gerling. Earlier, I spoke of her marriage to Thomas Heisler in 1886 in St. Thomas, Missouri. Her parents were Heinrich (Henry) Gerling and Sibella Agnes Hahn. They were both born in what is now part of Germany, but came to Missouri before they met and married. They were devout Catholics.

Heinrich Gerling was born 18 April 1824, in Osterath, in the Lower Rhine region (in German, Niederrhine).  Osterath is now part of the town of Meerbusch, west across the Rhine River from the city of Dusseldorf.  His parents were Gerhard Gerling and his first wife Anna Christina Wilms (or Wilmes), who were married Oct 23, 1821 in Osterath. They had three children: Wilhelm (1822), Heinrich (1824), and Maria Catharina (1830).

When Heinrich was five, his 7 year old brother died.  When he was nine, his mother died, and some months later, on 22 Oct 1833, his father married Maria Christina Kronen (b. 1800-1805?). Heinrich’s sister also died the next year, but three more children were born to Gerhard and Christina: Joseph Herman (1834), Ludovicus (1836), and Michael (1839).  I am moved by how many children died at such a young age, in the stories of these families of the 1800s. This was also true for the Heisler family during a similar time frame.

Gerhard Gerling was identified as a “hotelmeister/hotel master” in Osterath.  In any case, they decided to leave, apparently along with several other families from their town. I found a great story of another family from Osterath who came over on the same ship at the same time.  They left from Havre, on the ship Edmund Perkins, and arrived in New Orleans on November 7, 1840.  They came with their children, Heinrich, who was 16 1/2, Herman, 6, Ludwig, 4, & Michael, 1.  One source said they were “early Niederrhine settlers in the Loose Creek area.” Another source said, “They were the second group of settlers that arrived in the St. Thomas area.”

Perhaps they started in Loose Creek, but they did end up in St. Thomas, where both Gerhard and Christina eventually died (Gerhard about 1852 and Christina 1885-6) and were buried.  Heinrich, it is said, had red hair! He married Agnes Hahn October 21, 1851, at St. Joseph Church in Westphalia, MO, but all their children were born in St. Thomas.  (All of these small rural towns are within 30 miles of each other.)

Agnes was born in July of 1833, but I don’t have much more information about where in Germany it was, or when she came to Missouri.  Her parents were Mathias Hahn (1778) and Margaret Durst (1788) and they remained in Germany, but her brother Philip also came to Missouri. It might be most likely that she was also from the Rhineland/Westphalia region, since people tended to congregate with those from similar regions.

Agnes apparently had an earlier marriage to a John Peter Loethen, but he must have died quite soon, since she was only 18 when she married Heinrich (26). She and Heinrich had nine children together, three of whom had died in childhood, when another tragedy struck, just a few months after baby Theresa was born. We have a letter from Heinrich’s second cousin Heinrich Koersches to family in Germany, loosely translated:

May 24 1868

I received your letter on April 20th. I’m so late in answering your letter because on the following Sunday an accident happened to Heinrich Gerling when we had divine service. In the afternoon after the divine service he wanted to mount his horse. Having one foot in the stirrup, he went to swing his other foot over the saddle. As he did so the horse jumped and threw him off so that his right leg hit on a tree stump that was cut about one foot above the ground and broke his shin, so that the bone could be seen from the outside. There lives in St. Thomas a German physician who was close to the church where the accident happened. They carried Gerling to a house where the bone was set. In the evening eight men took him to his home. There they had to put cold water and compresses on the leg every five minutes. The leg wound didn’t bleed.

Heinrich was a big, thick and heavy man. The compresses and water were put on as long as the doctor ordered it to be done. The doctor came on horseback every day. One day Heinrich would complain of backache, on another he would complain of chest pains. He had to cough up what looked like pus. He asked the doctor for medicine. The chest pains were increasing. The doctor ordered more medicine. On the ninth day it got so bad that the doctor said that he did not think that Heinrich would live another 48 hours. Then they asked for the priest to give him the Last Sacraments. Heinrich lived until the 15 of May.

Heinrich’s accident happened on April 26, 1868.  The following year, the 35 year old widow Agnes married his cousin Heinrich Koersches. They had four more children together, two of whom died in infancy. Then two more of her children died of illness in 1872, leaving only six of 13 to survive to adulthood.  Heinrich Koersches died at the age of 45 sometime after 1877.  I wonder how Agnes carried all of the grief she must have felt from so many deaths, and whether she found a balance to appreciate the joyous moments of life.

I also wonder what life was like for her daughter Theresa Gerling, my great-grandmother? Her father died when she was just a baby, and her step-father died when she was still a young girl. She never knew her grandparents, though her step-grandmother was alive until she was about 17. She married just before her 18th birthday, and had twelve children of her own, my grandmother the sixth of those twelve.  Perhaps the strength and sternness of my grandmother was somehow the inheritance of the grief and survival of those who came before?

Great-great grandmother Agnes herself died on Sept 14, 1901, at the age of 68. I want to close with this photo of Agnes from the 1890s.

Agnes Hahn Gerling-g-g-grandmother

Agnes Hahn Gerling Koersches

Note: There seem to be even more ads lately attached by WordPress to my posts. So sorry about that. I don’t have any choice about what ads are posted.

 

What Does It Mean for Me to Be Austrian?

So I come round to the question, What does it mean for me to be of 1/4 Austrian heritage? All of my ancestor research has been linked to my quest to understand the colonization process, and how my family fits into that long history. How might I be connected to my Austrian ancestors, and how were they connected to the land where they lived?  What might I learn from them? I have had very mixed and often troubled feelings during this particular search.

John Hochreiter Baby in Linz

Johann Hochreiter as a baby, in Linz

Linz, the city where my grandfather Hochreiter was born in 1884 and lived until 1910, was also the home of Adolf Hitler for several years, from 1898 to 1907. It is not a connection I feel good about. Wikipedia noted, “Like many Austrian Germans, Hitler began to develop German nationalist ideas from a young age.[34] He expressed loyalty only to Germany, despising the declining Habsburg Monarchy and its rule over an ethnically variegated empire.[35][36]”  Learning the history of Austria’s connection and disconnection from other Germanic states, (see my last post) helps me to understand this somewhat, but the outcome was terrifying.

I was glad to read that in 1996, Linz became the first city in Austria to deal intensively with its own Nazi past.  There was widespread research by the municipal archives, and the culture of remembrance extended to the construction of monuments for the victims of National Socialism. But of course all of these events, including both World Wars, were after my own ancestor had emigrated to North America.

In my family, we didn’t really learn anything about Austria when we were growing up. As far as I can tell, there were no cultural aspects that were carried forward to us, except that, ironically and randomly, the only classical music album in our house was Johann Strauss’s Vienna Waltzes, including “The Blue Danube.”

In fact, it is the Danube River (German Donau) which has called most strongly to my heart, of all that I have learned about Austria.  (Not insignificantly, the Danube also flows through the city of Ulm where the Swabian line of my ancestors is located.) The Danube begins in the Black Forest and flows through southern Germany and through Austria, and then on to the Black Sea. The Danube valley in Austria is north of the Alps, and one of the most fertile and populous regions of Austria. This river is at the center of all its history and culture, and was the major East-West transport on the continent of Europe.

Linked to its location on the Danube, the Linz area was settled continuously, from the late Stone Age Neolithic period, in 4000 BCE. They have also found early Bronze Age urn sites and burial sites from the Hallstatt-period. In the first century AD, the Romans constructed a wood-and-earth fort to secure the important Danube river crossing to control traffic and for military reasons. They named it Lentia. In the second century it was expanded into a stone fort. It was part of the Roman frontier called the limes.

The official history site for the city of Linz notes there were many Goth invasions during the second century and that by the end of the 4th century A.D., the indigenous population is thought to have withdrawn to the easily defensible district of Martinsfeld in reaction to the advance of peoples from the East and West.

Upper Austria on the Danube seems to have been a crossroads of many peoples–who knows whether our ancient ancestors were part of the Roman colonizer settlements, or were the “Barbarian” hordes on the other side of the river? Or some combination of the peoples from “the East and the West”? In my personal DNA analysis, there seem to be fragments (less than 2%) of Italian and Eastern European ancestry–maybe they met along the Danube river in Austria.

So much is up to conjecture and imagination, except that it is clear they were of the so-called “lower” classes. Maybe my very ancient ancestors lived along the river, and then later migrated north to clear the forests and farm. Maybe they were a part of the Peasant Uprisings in 1626, or one of the 62 known uprisings in Upper Austria between 1356 and 1849. Maybe they were not. Day laborers. Weavers. Farmers. But in any case, around 1884, they left their rural connection to land and became urban city dwellers, and thus also came my grandfather to the cities of Ottawa, Ontario, and then to Detroit, Michigan. So much is lost in the translation. But I am glad to make the acquaintance of the great river Danube.

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Linz in the year 1594.

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Linz on the Danube, date ?1889

Austrian Questions

In searching to understand my Austrian heritage, I was able to find a few further generations of the Hochreiter family who lived in the Mühlviertel. This region consists of the four Upper Austrian districts that lie north of the river Danube: Rohrbach, Urfahr-Umgebung (where my ancestors were from), Freistadt and Perg. The parts of the state capital Linz that lie north of the Danube also belong to the Mühlviertel.

My grandfather Johann’s father, as I have said, was also named Johann Hochreiter. Johann, Sr. was the son of Michael Hochreiter (who would be my great-great-grandfather), born in 1832 in Waldschlag (now Oberneukirchen) and Theresia Foisner (my great-great-grandmother) who was born in 1828. She had an earlier marriage to Joseph Waldhör in 1851, at age 23. (Joseph was born in Unterwaldschlag, also Oberneukirchen). They had two sons, and then later Theresia married Michael Hochreither in Oberneukirchen on 13th of July 7, 1856, when she was age 28 and Michael was 24. They had four sons: Johann, Franz, Joseph, and Matthias, all of whom lived to marry and have children. (The records I have don’t indicate if there were any other children who did not survive.)

I also found each of their parents listed: Theresia’s parents were Michael Foisner and Cäcilia Pichler. Michael’s parents were Philipp Hochreiter (who came from Bad Leonfelden) and Theresia Rammerstorfer.

One of the ways I try to learn about my ancestors is simply to look up their towns on Google Maps. Bad Leonfelden is about 12-13 kilometers northeast of Oberneukirchen, and 28 kilometers north of Linz.  When I zoomed into Bad Leonfelden, a few businesses appeared with “Hochreiter” in the name. So that’s cool. Bad means “bath” in German, and there are spa mud baths in the town. It is only 6 kilometers south of the border with the Czech Republic.Oberneukirchen

A Wikipedia listing for Oberneukirchen said that settlement and then village life probably started in the area in the 12th century.  Around the year 1500 agriculture and the weaving industry served as the main source of income. Very important was the trade in flax and linen, and also in wood, wine and salt. So it is possible that my ancestors lived there a very long time.  In the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the area was occupied several times, and in 1809 there were major fires that destroyed many buildings in Oberneukirchen.

But what did it mean to be Austrian? After learning about the Swabian roots of some other Germanic ancestors, I wondered what kind of “Germanic” the Austrians might be. I found out the question has many historical complications. Some sources indicate that the Austrians and Bavarians were essentially the same culturally and linguistically. Austria is just to the east of Bavaria. But when Germany was nationalizing from smaller kingdoms and duchies and so on, Austria was a rival to Prussia, and there were also fierce Protestant/Catholic rivalries.  According to Leif Jerram, (Senior Lecturer in History, University of Manchester, UK) on Quora.com,

Historically, Bavaria and Austria were much more similar. At the time of the formation of the modern state of Germany in the 1860s-70s, Bavarian politicians very much wanted Austria inside the new nation – they shared Roman Catholicism. Further, at that time, Bavaria tended to be more liberal and tolerant than the rest of the new state of Germany, and they wished to be able to preserve that. The Prussian elites who forced the unification of Germany, however (through warfare and blackmail), wanted to ensure that a) Catholics would be in a minority in the new nation, and b) that Prussian aristocratic elites would not face any competition for political power. If Austria were included, then many more Catholics would be included in the new state, and the might of the Austrian empire (such as it was – let’s say its wealth and prestige) would mean Prussian aristocratic landholders would have to make many compromises. So, Austria was excluded from the new state, and Catholics were vigorously persecuted as a minority for the first 20-or-so years of its foundation.

The history of the place seems incredibly complex, (but that seems true of most places I’ve tried to learn about in Europe.) A decisive moment for these developments was the Austro-Prussian War, in the summer of 1866.  Each side had ally states who were part of the loosely bound German Confederation, but the Prussians won that seven week war, and shaped the resulting eventual German Empire to the exclusion of Austria. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was then established in 1867 in the aftermath, as a constitutional monarchy (with Austria and Hungary as equal partners) that lasted until 1918.

So my grandfather’s parents and grandparents would have lived through these and other–often violent–transitions, but who knows how much or how little they were involved or effected by them personally in their small rural villages.  All of this helps me to understand just a little of the complex relationship between Austria and Germany in the World Wars of the twentieth century, (though my grandfather and all of my other Germanic ancestors) were gone from Europe by then. In each of those conflicts, there were some people who wanted Austria to be part of a wider Germany, and in the resulting peace treaties, that was explicitly forbidden. No wonder I find it all very confusing.