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.)

Advertisements

History of Me, Part 4: The Lives of Medieval Women

In this episode of History of Me, I get a detailed front-row-seat look at what life was like for Scandinavian women in early- and late-medieval Europe. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

A Brief History of the Holy Roman Empire

Last time we focused specifically on the religious side of the coin, learning how Christianity grew and spread on the “trellis” of Roman infrastructure and trickled down from nobles to commoners. This is apparent in both of the books I read (more about those shortly); but first, I want to point out a couple other common themes that cropped up in this month’s Mighty Fortress reading:

  • Roman / Christian fusion led to Roman-Catholic ascendancy. This chapter looked at Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty of Franks (more on their terrible conversion practices in the last post). As Germanic tribes, especially the Franks, stepped into the vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian bureaucracy growing on the trellis of Roman administration became fused with the Frankish kingdom. When Frankish power passed into Saxon hands in 919, the seat of power was retitled as the new “Roman Empire,” which by the 1200s had become the Holy Roman Empire. As the title suggests, this role became deeply entangled with the Church and with the office of the Pope… but suffice to say that this formalized the hand-in-glove relationship that had already been going on for some time. (We can also see, however, how incorporating the church, and thus the Pope, into regional politics lays the groundwork for later corruption and the Protestant Reformation.)
  • Partible inheritance (sharing between multiple children) was more equitable, but also led to greater political instability. The practice of partible inheritance (as opposed to primogeniture, in which inheritance is passed only to the firstborn son) sounds really great — and in fact, it was “based in the moral and religious belief that parents should treat their children even-handedly” (Ozment p.44). The problem occurred when monarchs tried to do it with their kingdoms, as Charlemagne attempted. This led to the Frankish kingdom being divided in two, and eventually fragmenting into ruin, from which arose “five loosely organized duchies (Franconia, Saxony, Thuringia, Swabia, and Bavaria)” which were “thenceforth the foundation stones of a fragmented and competitive medieval German realm” (Ozment p.49). This fragmented regionalism is partially why when we get to the Renaissance/Reformation era (which we will next time), Germany is still a collection of smaller princely states whereas England and France are highly centralized monarchies.

These are the broad strokes of this era of transition from the ancient world of the Romans to the medieval world of kings, princes, and popes. Keep them in mind as we turn to our two books…

Gunnar’s Daughter: A Rape Survivor’s Epic

[As noted above, rape is a major plot point in this book, so proceed with caution, and also, major spoilers.]

The first book I read, Gunnar’s Daughter (by Sigrid Undset), is set in the 11th century and follows a pretty awesome maiden named Vigdis. She is courted by Ljot (pronounced Yot, but I keep saying Lee-ott in my head), a foreigner who visits her father’s hall. She likes him and is thinking about accepting his proposal… but then he rapes her and flees in shame. (He’s written as a reckless, hyper-sensitive man with a million red flags for toxic masculinity.) Vigdis, however, is left alone and pregnant with her family, and the rest of the book follows her life as she deals with her trauma and raising a child alone, as well as cultural expectations in an honor-based society.

This book, I’ve got to say, was AMAZING. It’s written in the style of a Norse epic — very action-packed — but with a rape-survivor single mom as the protagonist. (RIGHT???) I HIGHLY recommend it, so if you’re planning to read it go do that first before you read all my points below, because I will be discussing the ending. Here are some of the major themes from this incredible book:

  • The setting is a world in between paganism and Christianity. In the story, Vigdis has a “runic knife” and references some long-ago priestess kinswomen “at the high place in the grove here”, but tells Ljot during one of their talks that her father “believes in nothing but his own power and strength” (Undset p.7). Paganism is fading, but it’s clear that the common folk have not yet embraced Christianity; in fact, later in the book Vigdis and her people are baptized essentially for political expediency when they journey to the court of King Olav, the first Christian king of Norway.
  • Vigdis embodies many of the idylls of Norse epic heroes, and her being a woman does not interfere with that (and makes it even more badass!). Okay — imagine a book written about a rape-survivor single mom who escapes attackers via skis with her newborn on her back, then assassinates the man who murdered her father, overcomes her PTSD to raise her child as a single parent, protects herself and her child from outlaws in the forest by convincing them to go on a quest to the king’s court with her, resists the king’s proposal by instead agreeing that she and her people will be baptized, and rather than decide between her two rival suitors instead brokers other marriages for them that make them allies to each other and herself and secure their protection and tutelage for her young son. NOW imagine that book was set in 11th century Norway, and was written in 1909. (1909!) That book is this book, and it’s AMAZING. I’m also incredibly impressed that, although the story does check back in with Ljot, the suitor-turned-rapist, periodically, it never (in my opinion) drifts into rape apologism or excuses what he does in any way.
  • Vigdis’s character is also incredibly emotionally present in this book, working through trauma and emotional healing to learn to love her son. Undset does an amazing job of depicting the emotional realities of surviving trauma, healing, and learning resilience. At first, Vigdis ignores her pregnancy, and initially when she gives birth to her son (alone, in the wilderness) she abandons the infant to die. However a few months later, she learns that her step-mother (who noticed her pregnancy and helped her hide it from her father) found the boy and had given him to the care of a neighbor, and she decides she wants to raise the child. What follows is a really beautiful tale of Vigdis’s emotional healing and growth into a wise and capable leader and mother. Seriously one of my favorite book characters. There is, however, a tragic element to this story… [LAST CHANCE TO STOP BEFORE MAJOR ENDING SPOILERS]
  • The downside of Norse tradition is blood vengeance, which leaves families — and Vigdis — grieving and empty. The sad ending is that Vigdis’s son, Ulvar, grows up and meets his father on a ship — but Vigdis, in accordance with the “unrelenting social code” of the time, insists that her son avenge her by killing his father or she’ll never speak to him again. (Again, in no way does the book excuse Ljot’s actions, but it does paint Ulvar’s desire to know his father in a sympathetic light.) In the end, Ljot actually falls on his sword so Ulvar won’t have to do it, but Ulvar is so heartbroken and traumatized at his mother’s willingness to banish him that after delivering his father’s head to Vigdis he rides away and never returns, and Vigdis dies alone. Sigrid Undset wrote Gunnar’s Daughter during a revival of national obsession with their Nordic heritage as a critique of the “nationalist tendency toward isolationist race mythology” that perpetuated a “glorified image of the Vikings” but “obscured the fact that they had not been peaceful, diplomatic cultural ambassadors but brutal marauders, raiding, destroying, killing, and abducting innocent people” (Undset p.xiii). It serves as a reminder that cultural heritage includes things both beautiful and destructive, and as we deal with our own pain and issues we need to be conscious of how our reaction(s) to our trauma affect(s) our children.

Another reason this book was important to me is that I actually have a single mother in my family tree. According to family stories and my research, one of my immigrant ancestors, Bertha, arrived here with her parents and siblings in the summer of 1891, pregnant and unwed at 25, and gave birth to a son in December. No one knows who the father was, or whether Bertha was a willing or unwilling participant. Either way, she did not marry the father and in fact never married. So I picked this book specifically to spend some emotional time with Bertha, my single-mom foremother.

In thinking about Bertha in the context of Vigdis, I’m really glad that Bertha had lots of family around her to help her raise her son, unlike Vigdis. Both Bertha and Vigdis, though, raised their sons in a new land away from where they grew up, which is scary but also provides a way to leave old painful memories behind. I wonder if, like Vigdis, Bertha ever struggled with uncertainty about whether she wanted her child, or with PTSD, or with having to hide her pregnancy from her family. I visited her gravestone last summer, and spent a moment standing there, thinking of her. I hope her life improved. I hope she was able to love her son and enjoy him, and live life without too much bitterness or loneliness.

Kristin Lavransdatter: 14th-century Norwegian Immersion

The second book (really a trilogy of 3 books) I read was also written by Sigrid Undset and is a massive masterwork, and the primary reason why Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. It follows the entire life of Kristin Lavransdatter (daughter of Lavrans, as traditional Norwegian naming customs go) as she is betrothed to a respectable, reliable man; falls in love instead with a dashing rogue (Erlend); sleeps with him (which was a huge deal for a betrothed girl of noble lineage); persuades her betrothed to back out and her father to consent to her marriage to Erlend; manages Erlend’s rundown estate back to relative prosperity; gives birth to seven sons; loses her husband’s lands when he plots against the crown; becomes estranged from Erlend, who then dies; sees her sons grow up and scatter; and then enters a convent where she dies of the Black Plague.

Whew, that’s a lot! Honestly I’m impressed I could summarize it that short, since altogether it comprises over 1100 pages printed.

Reading Kristin Lavransdatter is definitely a commitment, but the beauty of it is that when you turn that last page you feel as if you’ve just lived a whole life. There is so much detail, and Undset does such a good job of letting you into Kristin’s infatuation with Erlend, struggle to manage motherhood and marriage, and wrestling with herself over the guilt she feels from what she sees as a massive sin and betrayal of God and her father, Lavrans. It’s truly an experience.

A couple themes that stuck out to me:

  • Christianity is much more omnipresent, but paganism still lurks here and there. Much of the language and fabric of Kristin’s world is shaped by the church — cathedrals and convents and priests and Hail Marys — but sprinkled here and there are things like the ancient practice of leaving offerings at the burial stone of the first owner of the estate, or describing odd babies as changelings. There is even one scene where Kristin, who is a healing woman, practices “sorcery” by laying grave dirt on a dying child to try to save his life. (She views this as a serious sin, but does it anyway out of debt to the child’s parent.) It is clear, however, that Christianity is ascendant and paganism is fast fading.
  • Conflict between feminism/self-determination and family honor. Kristin fights to marry the man she wants, and wins. And her own self-determination is a strong theme throughout the entire book, not just at the start. However, Kristin also wrestles with how to uphold or regain her family’s honor, when she’s clearly transgressed it with her defiance of her father. (In addition to getting pregnant before marriage, which was a huge no-no, Kristin also spends much of the book trying to offset the rash and unwise actions of her roguish husband, Erlend.) At times her self-admonishment comes off as extremely harsh on herself and there is a lot of self-denial for the good of her family and sons later, but at other times it’s amazing to see what kind of autonomy she has even as a woman in 14th-century Norway. One of my favorite things about this book was getting to see Kristin change her mind and vacillate between conflicting ideas, because that’s how life really is — it made her very human. (Side note: we again got to see the symbolism of keys as the markers of women’s ownership and management of the estate. When Kristin is married, her husband places the keys to his manor on her belt, and when Kristin’s son marries, she gives the estate keys to her new daughter-in-law to signify the transition to the next generation.)
  • Pervasive sense of fatalism, but with a strongly stubborn individualistic streak. If you remember back to the first post about Norse mythology, one of the big themes I highlighted was the belief that a person’s fate is already decided, but how people live their lives is up to them. The incredible detail and specificity with which Undset tells Kristin’s story reinforces both the sense of personal choice AND the sense of “your fate is your fate,” and in fact Kristin herself remarks toward the end of her life that “All that had happened and would happen was meant to be. Everything happens as it is meant to be” (Undset p.989).

Conclusion

I think this might be my favorite reading group so far, possibly because I love that I got to immerse myself in the lives of medieval women. The history in Ozment’s Mighty Fortress is a good overview of the religious and political upheaval that provides the backdrop for these stories, but to me the most realistic account of what life is like at any given time and place is getting to experience the everyday lives of women at that time and place. 

I feel like I so resonate with both the survival and emotional resilience of Vigdis (as well as her getting caught between healing and what society demands of her) and the daily grind of Kristin trying to balance her own happiness with caring for all her various family members as a daughter, wife, and mother. Although I read these books to gain more understanding of life as a medieval European woman — and I did — I also think these themes are still incredibly relevant to life today.

It’s still important to be connected to our families and our cultural roots; and those connections still bring us both joy and pain. I’m thankful for the ways these books have helped me to connect more deeply with both the joys and the pains of my ancestors, especially the women.

Tune in next time as we dive into the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation — just in time for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses.