History of Me: Journey to Ancestral Lands

Well, I have done it. I have traveled to my ancestral lands. It was quite the whirlwind trip — and now, 4 countries, 8 travelers, and a jillion miles driven later, I’m going to tell you about it.

First Impressions

The first difference I noticed was even before I set foot on German soil: the lay of the land. Usually when I’m flying over the Midwest, the fun patchwork of farms looks like this:

NW Minn farm land - NASA
(This is a NASA aerial photo of NW Minnesota.)

But as we flew over Germany, I noticed that the German patchwork looked a little different…

(This is a Google Maps view of just outside Husum in NW Germany.)

See the difference? The US land divisions are very square and rigid, while the German land is much more of a mish-mash of various bits. Why is this? Modern colonialism.

As we learned back in the Little House / Wounded Knee project, the prairie land here in the present-day Midwest was systematically taken from Native inhabitants, divided up by white men with maps, and distributed to (mostly European/white) settlers via several Homestead Acts beginning in 1862 and extending through the early 1900’s. So, the land in NW Minnesota (and the rest of the land settled this way) was divided up all in one go, overwriting the footprint of previous inhabitants and their land-ways to parcel out equal squares to whatever applicant was granted the land — and the lay of the land shows those scars.

Germany, on the other hand, is still mostly populated by its original people groups (particularly in my family’s parts) and was able to keep its varied, traditional, organic land structure. Generally people lived (and still live) in their small towns and villages, and farm the land surrounding the village. This is in line with what we read in Kristin LavransdatterMorebath, and Daily Bread — folks lived in small communities together, and pretty much stayed put where they were. And although there is more movement and urbanization now today, as we drove through the countryside of Germany and the other countries we visited, it definitely felt like people had been living in these same European villages for hundreds (or thousands) of years. And in many cases, they have been. 

Snapshots

I’ve been struggling to put my trip into words for a while now, and at this point I’ve recognized that there’s no way I can adequately express everything we saw and felt and learned. So instead, I’ll just give a quick snapshot of each of the places we traveled to give you a little taste. If you want to know more, feel free to leave me a note in the comments and/or let’s grab coffee sometime!

Pellworm / Nordfriesland (The Clausens)

At the family barbecue in Nordfriesland!

The first week of our trip was spent in northwestern Germany — we traveled all over the state of Schleswig-Holstein, but focused particularly in the district (like a county) of Nordfriesland. By far the highlight of this place (and the trip!) was spending the week with our fantastically fun cousins. They definitely welcomed us like relatives immediately, and we had so much fun seeing their towns, their farms, their musical talents (including one accordion and many enthusiastic singing voices), and just getting to know them!

 

In addition to just being their awesome selves, our Clausen relatives also kindly took us around and taught us about the region. Due to being right on the North Sea, residents of Nordfriesland have always been fighting a neverending battle with the sea to keep their land from eroding. In fact, my family’s home island of Pellworm became an island in 1634 when a huge sea-flood broke through the sea-dikes, washed away most of the larger island of Strand, and left only the few smaller islands we have today. The old land is still there, but submerged — so now Pellworm and its neighbors are known for their mudflats, which are visible (and walkable) at low tide.

 

It was also super cool to get the cousin-guided tour of Pellworm itself. The island is just plain beautiful, and it was really meaningful to just be there and see the place and walk on the mud and breathe the air (and be blown over by the “not that bad today” wind!). Plus, when we visited both the Old Church (Altekirche – built in 1100’s) and the New Church (built in 1600’s… and still new, LOL), it was so cool to see the Clausen name EVERYWHERE! One of our cousins kept pointing it out, saying “our family gave this candelabra to the church” or “our family’s name is on that plaque from when they bought a new organ”. I could really feel both my connection to the place, and the old-ness of everything, in a very personal way. It’s my matrilineal island (or, as Daniel likes to say, “the place your mitochondria are from“) and being there felt in some ways like greeting a very long-ago friend. It was pretty special.

 

I’m not even coming close to doing justice to this part of the trip… but to avoid this post being incredibly long I’ll leave it there for now and go on to the next place. 🙂

Gerdau (The Hillmers)

It was a pretty long drive out of the way, but a few of us made the trek over to Gerdau, a small town in the modern-day state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), to see if we could find the burial places of our ancestor Hilmers (they only spelled it with one L). We didn’t find any direct ancestors in the cemetery, but we *did* find a sign proclaiming the town’s 1000-year anniversary celebrations (back in 2004)! Gerdau was another place where I really felt I could feel the ancientness of the village… people have been there since the year had three digits!!! (So basically as long as anyone knows.) We also found an entire street called Hilmer! We decided to go for it and knocked on the door of a house with a Hilmer mailbox, and met some very delightful Hilmers to whom we are probably not related (there are several unrelated lines of Hilmers from this area, including ours), but they gave us a book about the town that was printed for their millennial anniversary and were very kind. All in all, it was definitely worth the trip just to walk around such a beautiful and ancient village. And who knows, maybe I’ll find the right Hilmers next trip!

 

Cuxhaven (The Heldts)

This was the least certain family connection, as we’re not even certain this is the right place, but we have a photo of family in front of the Cuxhaven tower. We enjoyed recreating the photo, and appreciating the beautiful view of the sea (and the beach basket chairs!)

 

Lachen, Switzerland (The Kriegs)

Next we flew to Zurich and took a short train along Lake Zurich to the town of Lachen. We arrived on a Sunday, and it was really interesting to see just how shut down the whole town was. Pretty much everything was closed, and we hardly saw any people on the streets except a few walking or biking to church and some kids at a track meet. The two most interesting things about being in Lachen were (1) it was beautiful to sit and think of our ancestors living there along the lake, looking at the same view we were looking at; and (2), it’s possible (and statistically probable) that at some point these relatives were Catholic! (This is a big deal for old-school Europeans — as we discussed on our previous readings about religious divides.) There wasn’t a Lutheran cemetery in town, so we checked the Catholic one and found a couple of (unsure if related) Kriegs… so that’s an interesting twist. Regardless, it was a beautiful little town with a relaxed Sunday morning vibe, nestled between the lake and the beautiful (stereotypically Swiss) hills.

 

Brezno, Slovakia (The Surovis and Blaskos)

Having recently read my book about Slovakia and learned a ton, I was pretty excited just to spend some time in Brezno with the Tatra Mountains that my dad grew up hearing about from his grandma and aunties. It was a beautiful drive from the airport through the mountains to the town. On our way we stopped at a (Hungarian) castle that really gave me a visual, visceral sense of what it must have felt like when that castle was an active defensive fortress (and what it must have felt like to live in the town down the hill). It was super awesome and cool because castles, but it was also a little complicated because I knew that the Hungarians used this as part of their domination over the local Slovaks. History is messy, y’all.

In Brezno, the overwhelming feelings were amazement at the beauty of the surrounding mountains and trees, and relief whenever we found anyone who spoke ANY English! We also had a really good journey to the very well-maintained local Lutheran cemetery, where we appreciated the obvious care given to the ancestors — and we were able to find grave markers with all the different last names in our Slovak side of the family! This town definitely felt less Western, partly because of the extra language barrier, but also partly because you could see it was more run-down (per 1000 years of being under Hungary’s thumb) and had clearly been part of the Soviet bloc. It also felt more isolated to me, I think maybe due to the mountains as well as the less-complete infrastructure (they are still completing their first freeway). The mountains really dominate the landscape, so I can see why my great-grandparents would still be talking about the Tatra Mountains even once they lived in the middle of a city halfway around the world.

 

Dretyn, Poland (The Schulzs and Schwichtenbergs)

Our last stop was in Dretyn, Poland (formerly known as Treten, Prussia), which is located in the region of Pomerania. When my ancestors were there, it was called Pommern and it was controlled by Germany. My ancestors left when it was part of Prussia — but my one Schwichtenberg cousin that I know of no longer lives there, because after WWII they had to leave. Knowing this, we weren’t really sure what we would find in the village. Another cousin of mine has done extensive research on the Schwichtenbergs, and there is a network of towns where they lived, but we only had time to visit Dretyn, so we just crossed our fingers and drove.

The countryside was beautiful — there are these tall, thin trees that have a red tint, and they seem just magical! That combined with the alternating rolling farmland had me double-taking to see if I was actually in Minnesota. (No wonder my ancestors liked the Midwest!) Once we arrived in the town of Dretyn itself, the cemetery told the tale: the old section was full of German surnames and overgrown by decades of weeds, while the new section next to it was full of Slavic names and very well-tended, like the cemetery in Brezno. Now, whether this neglect is malicious or just due to the exodus of all the German relatives of those buried there, I’m not sure. But it was pretty clear that the era of Germans living in these parts was a thing of the past.

 

After returning to Hamburg, Daniel and I were able to have lunch with our Schwichtenberg cousin and visit the Auswanderer (Emigrant) Museum. He told us about how Dretyn had been occupied by the Russians after the war, and then his forebears were forced to leave with nothing. They found work in Niedersachsen, which is where he lives now. Although the Schwichtenberg house is still standing in Pomerania, and they wrote a letter to the Polish government requesting it back… they haven’t received a reply. Obviously Poland has some good reasons to be angry at Germany… but it’s sad to see that neglected cemetery and think of all the deaths and pain and wounds caused by violence in this oft-occupied area. As my cousin and I walked through the Auswanderer Museum together, I thought about the hardship of choosing to leave your homeland (like my ancestors) and the hardship of being forced to leave (like my cousin’s ancestors). Different, but both hard. So, we dealt with it like good Germans: we ate fish and drank beer. 🙂

 

Coming to America

Daniel and I had a few days of rest on Pellworm before flying out, but the Auswanderer Museum got my imagination ticking. By the time we got in our third (and fourth, and fifth…) line at the Hamburg airport to have our documents verified yet again, I was thinking of my ancestors waiting in Hamburg to get on the boat to America, worrying about getting their documents in order (or about getting caught if they weren’t in order), worrying about making the journey safely, standing in crowded and hot rooms with too many people, hoping things would be better where they were going. They probably didn’t know what they were in for… but they hoped it would be better, so they came. And brought their German (and Slovak) homelands in their hearts with them. This time, I carried those places with me too as I took one last look and got on the plane.

Conclusion

I have learned SO MUCH from this trip… I learned a bit of German (not much), I know what my home-places look and sound and feel like, and in some rather intangible way I feel more… rooted. Whole. Connected. I can’t even describe it. I’m sure little tidbits and thoughts will continue to come up as I finish my official reading project and beyond.

The other thing I am still pondering is something one of my cousins said, which I think is really smart. I commented how they had made us feel like family immediately, and she said, “I think Germans are like coconuts and Americans are like peaches. Germans have a hard shell, but once you get past it the middle is all soft and good; Americans are nice on the outside, but there’s a hard core that it’s tough to get into.” I just resonated with that so much — and I wonder how German-Americans lost that coconut-ness, since at one time WE were Germans — but it made me start to think about how I want to be more of a coconut and less of a peach. I want to have a thick skin, but be all soft and good on the inside. I think my cousin is super wise, and I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind as I return to the last bit of my reading project, about immigration and how my ancestors became “Americans” (whatever that means).

Next up, back to my reading list as we continue with the immigration book on my list, Not Fit For Our Society: Nativism and Immigration in America. (And unfortunately, it’s still a pretty relevant read right now.)

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