Saturday, February 21, 2015

Going Home to a Place I'd Never Known

                 When I was a child, my father would regale my sisters and brothers and me with countless family stories of his youth and young manhood in the Bronx in the 1920s and ‘30s. But we knew little if anything of the life his own grandparents had left behind in Germany. Who were they? Where in Germany did they come from? What did they work at? Care about? What were their dreams? Why did they leave all they had ever known to come to this new land with its strange customs and language? And what became of them as they lived out the remainder of their lives in Massachusetts? It was all a mystery to us. 
                  His own father, Arthur Conrad Kersting, my paternal grandfather, had emigrated from Germany in 1880 as an infant in the arms of his mother and grew up in the only land he had ever known, as an American. In 1898, he served in the Spanish-American War, then in 1906 would wed Elizabeth O’Donnell in New York City. By the time my father was born in 1916, the Kerstings had fully assimilated as Americans for two generations.   
                  Through the burning curiosity of my sister Liz and that of our cousin Eddie, whose passion for family history I share, a family tree began to emerge. Resources such as and immigration and census records began to provide a sense of who our people had been.
                  We had always heard that our paternal great-grandparents had “come from” Hamburg, in northern Germany. That turned out to be true—in a literal sense. Genealogical records would reveal that before they emigrated from the port of Hamburg, they had lived in the village of Ottensen, which is now part of greater Hamburg. But Johann Conrad Kersting, our paternal great-grandfather, had been born in Wiedenbrück, Germany, about 175 miles away, in 1848—exactly one hundred years before I was born in the Bronx. He would wed Leonore Baer in her hometown of Ottensen in 1876. Johann Conrad immigrated to New York City in May of 1880, some months after my grandfather was born. Leonore and the infant followed a few months later.
                In May of 2014, my wife, Rita, and I traveled to Weidenbrück in search of the place where so many generations of my ancestors had lived. But after 134 years, no one was home anymore. Before we left on our journey, I had tracked down on the Internet ten or so Kerstings in the Weidenbrück phone book. At our hotel in town, we connected with Renate Loebich, a local guide who confirmed for us that Kersting was indeed a local name in Weidenbrück. As our research had indicated, this is where the Kerstings had come from. With a promise to be in touch, Renate began to call the phone numbers I had shown her.
                  In the meantime, Rita and I began to scan the gravestones in the local cemetery. An abundance of Kersting headstones suggested that we were in the right place. Yet, while some of the given names were familiar, none of the dates coincided with our genealogical research. A visit to the cemetery office explained why. After a grave is unattended for thirty years, we were told, the plot reverts to the state, which routinely resells the gravesite. And so, 134 years later, the graves of our ancestors were as elusive as the stories of their lives. Local church and burial records from that long ago, it turns out, are stored in the state archives in the nearby town of Paderborn. We would save that research for another trip, another time.
                  A call from Renate assured us that all was not so bleak, however. She had contacted Anton Kersting, a retired local farmer who was eager to meet us. A few miles outside town we came to his farm, mostly fruit orchards and several acres of meadows now. Anton and his wife Karola met us at the door of their house, which has been in his family for three hundred years. As they spoke no English and my German was dusty at best, Renate translated. Despite the language barrier, they were warm and welcoming, as was evident in their eyes and their smiles.                  
                  To our dismay, though, we learned that Anton knew little more about his family history than we did ours. He had lost several uncles in the trenches of World War I, but beyond that—or perhaps somewhat because of it—his parents had spoken little of the past. Yet, in our search for common ancestral ground we discovered that our families shared our Catholic faith and several given names over the generations. We also shared some striking physical resemblances: height, body type, and several facial features. We departed with an invitation to return someday and hopes of doing so with my sister and some of my brothers. We were assured of a hearty welcome.  
                  Standing outside his door, Anton told us of a memory during World War II when he was a boy of five or six and allied planes were dropping bombs on a nearby farm owned by an SS general. Aside from that target, however, Wiedenbrück was spared destruction by the allied bombs, unlike the industrial sites in Germany. (As a port city, for example, 95% of Hamburg was  destroyed by allied bombings.) 
Today, many of the timber-framed houses and shops, some dating to the Middle Ages, survive in Wiedenbrück much as they were when my ancestors walked the streets of the town two centuries ago. The building next door to our hotel was in the midst of a renovation, though. “That used to be a cigar factory,” Renate told us, striking yet another genealogical chord. We had learned a while back from U.S. census records that Johan Conrad was listed as a cigar maker when he emigrated from Germany in 1880. This former cigar factory in the center of Wiedenbrück was likely where he had learned his trade as a young man. 
                  Built in 1505, the Roman Catholic church of St. Aegidius in the center of town, was where generations of our Kersting ancestors would have worshipped. For me the most striking feature of this historic church was not its medieval stone tower, not the bullet holes from the Thirty Years War, not its impressive gothic arches, nor its elaborately etched stone pulpit. Not its carved wooden statues, its well-preserved confessionals, not even its magnificent stained glass windows nor its historic wooden doors. I was drawn instead to the stone baptismal font atop a small pedestal of carved arches and biblical scenes. This is the font where generation after generation of Kerstings were Christened as infants, just as their descendants are today in “the new world.” 
                  In hopes of finding a connection, I had come to the town where generations of my ancestors had lived out their hopes and dreams. I had arrived with a vague notion of what I might find. Having walked the same streets my ancestors had trod, eaten local traditional food, and sampled the warm hospitality—the Gemütlichkeit—of the townspeople today, I came away with a distinct sense of the place, both present and past. As the language my ancestors had left behind now echoed in my mind, I found, in the end, that you can go home again, even after 134 years.