Saturday, June 25, 2011

Highlights from my Great-Great-Grandfather's Memoirs

Today I received a real treasure. My mom's cousin passed along a copy of my Great-Great-Grandfather's Memoirs to us. I just finished reading it and am truly grateful that this amazing bit of family history is in existence and in my hands. I don't know if anyone else will find the following highlights of any interest, but I'm gonna share them anyway!

George was born in Germany in 1857. There is a pretty detailed description of growing up and living on a farm, how hard yet simple a life it was, and lots of stories of his neighbors and fellow townspeople too. There is also a lot of talk about various wars and the military service of various relatives and eventually his sons. He had eight children with his first wife, my Great-Great-Grandmother Margaretha, and three more with his second wife, Rosina. He talks about the heartbreaking death of Margaretha, and reading it brought me to tears:
"Then it was on the 6th of May, as we awoke early to begin the day's work - I did my usual, and went to the stalls to feed the cattle and clean the stalls, while Mother dear cooked breakfast. When I came back from the stalls, she told me that she felt very bad and couldn't do anything more, and I told her to go lay down. When I came back from the fields, she still wasn't feeling any better, so I called the doctor... who promptly diagnosed pneumonia. Just days before we'd been in good health and had so cheerfully planted red beet seeds and all sorts of vegetables together - we'd come home late and laid down to rest all in good health. Now, I made sure to be very punctual in giving her her medicine, and the doctor came every day. But it was all in vain - 9 days later, with a broken and bleeding heart, I had to close her loving, trusting eyes. She was just 38 years old. Her birthday was on the 14th of May and she died on the 15th of May... 1859-1897. When I had seen that all hope was lost and the end was near, I gathered up all 8 children, ages 3 1/2 to 17, and brought them to her death bed to say their good-byes. That was a hard, cruel hour for me!"
He goes on to describe his grief and the relatives who helped him through it. It was surprising to me to see such emotional writing coming from a man in that time period. Next he describes how his son (my Great-Grandfather) ended up in America:
"One year after Mother's death and after his confirmation, I allowed the third oldest son, Heinrich, to move to America. Friends who had emigrated to America years before and were living on a farm in Creston Ohio had written to me and asked me to send two of my sons to them. Since no one else had the desire to go, he went alone. Oh how my heart ached as I sent him off - off into the big, wide world... so young [he was only 14!], and so alone. He, however, headed off in joy, singing along his way. For his welfare, I pinned the address of his final destination to his chest so that anyone would be prepared to help him find his way. And so he arrived, grateful and good condition."
Eventually Heinrich (Henry) settled here, got married, and sent his wife's uncle to Germany to convince George and Rosina to come to America. Just a few years after they immigrated here, World War I broke out, and they had three grown sons back in Germany and one grown son here in America, fighting on opposite sides of the war. This is a perspective I had not thought about before.
"I was so pleased that my son, Martin, who'd been drafted and was supposed to go overseas, refused to fight against his brothers and did not go along. The law allowed him this because he had been born in Germany. He did have to deal with the mockery and ridicule, but he held fast and did his time here on the land."
Then he goes on to describe his feelings about the war and what it was like to be a German living here at the time:
"On Good Friday, the 6th of April 1917, America declared war on Germany, and stepped in, full force. Oh how the lies and deceptions were spread about the Germans, just to stir the folks up. And they believed it all, and prosecuted the Germans wherever they could! I can never forget how they 'sat on top of us', and how we had to duck down and swallow the many curse words: Murderers and such... and more of the same - that's what came at us from all sides. On the street, you couldn't speak German or they'd spit in your face. ...Many church communities had their preachers stirring up the hate and the lies against Germany and its Kaiser. And the disgraceful pictures of the Kaiser and the Germans were passed around - especially through the Cleveland newspaper, The Plain Dealer. One German newspaper after another had to stop appearing. All Germans must get registered, and they were required to have their passport with picture and thumbprint with them at all times... etc. etc. Enough of that - it disgusts me just to think about it."
I found it really interesting how he seems to refuse to believe in the atrocities that were being reported. He must have loved his mother country very much. I imagine that would be a hard thing to come to terms with. I wish he'd have written more, later on, after the war was over. I'm curious about how his views may have changed (or not?) with the passage of time and when the evidence of the Holocaust really came to light.

One thing I discovered we have in common is our opinions of schooling... his education lasted from age 7 to age 14, and he describes his sisters bodily dragging him to school against his will, which gave me a chuckle. Later, he listed "the school laws" as one of the biggest things he disagreed with when he came to America. He says, "What is with this schooling that goes until the age of 19? This is the destruction of the youth..." I was really surprised to come across that snippet! GO Grandpa!

One area where we disagree is religion. He was apparently a very religious man, and at the very end of his memoirs is a series of biblical quotes, and then stories from his life illustrating how life (in his opinion) proved the bible right. They're mostly stories of what he perceives as "bad" people getting their just desserts (aka Karma). He must have decided that since he was preserving these memoirs for his descendants, he wanted to pass on some spiritual guidance as well. I think he'd be more than a little disappointed in me in the religious department. Oh well.

If anyone has actually made it this far - thanks for reading along! Like I said, I find this stuff tremendously interesting, but I don't know if anyone else will. When my kids are older, these memoirs will be a valuable learning resource for them... what better way to make history real than to read about the lives of the actual people you came from? We are so, so, so lucky. How many people have a sample of their ancestors' voices like this? The memoirs are a tremendous genealogical resource too - there are lots of names, dates, and even addresses of three places he lived that aren't too far from here. Sometime soon I'm going to drive by each of them and see if they're still standing and maybe take a few pics if I feel like I can do it without bothering anyone. I'll post an update if I do.

EDIT: Mom just brought to my attention a glaring error I made: the Holocaust was WWII, not WWI. Duh.

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