Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Misadventures in the Land of My Ancestors

The Village of Sankt Martin, Germany

 “Where are you going?” snarled the woman at me in German. I jumped like being pursued by an angry dog. “This is private property,” she said. “You have no right to be here.”

“We are tourists from the USA,” I tried to explain to her after recovering from the initial shock. “We wanted to see how your wine operation works.”

My new friend
I was visiting my friend from Virginia at his yearly retreat in the quaint town of Sankt Martin, Germany, nestled against the rising hills of Haardt mountain range and the Palatinate forest. It is on the “Weinstra├če,” or Wine Route that stretches more than 50 miles through the wine country of the Rhineland-Palatinate. It features vineyards with a great variety of grapes, wine festivals and picturesque villages like Sankt Martin. It is in the middle of the region where many of my ancestors came from some 300 years ago.

Almost immediately the woman calmed down. She proceeded to give us a royal tour of their wine-
making facility, from the hose leading from the trailer full of grapes, to the press where the juice was made to the leftover hulls from the processed grapes. When she found out that I was seeking information on my ancestors who had emigrated from the Palatinate to Pennsylvania, she told me how she understood Pennsylvania Dutch. She also knew about the Mennonites a few miles up the Wine Route in Neustadt, the church my hosts attended.

The original confrontation turned into a lovely conversation, a new friendship and an international connection of understanding formed.

This was not the only confrontation I had with an upset German. I had been told that Germans tend to be very open and frank with their thoughts and feelings. This contrasts with the Swiss who tend to be more reserved and passively aggressive—not unlike my own sub-culture in the USA.

The entrance to the Hof where my Horst ancestor farmed
I found the property (Hof) where my Horst ancestor had been a tenant farmer in Mauer, in the Kraichgau region east of Heidelberg. It had been renovated into a nursing home and apartments for the elderly, named after the Baron who had owned the property, and now run by the government. I was beside myself with excitement. Through old pictures from friends who knew where the property was, I located it on Google Earth.

Accompanied by a different friend, this time a German, I strode confidently into the entrance of the facility, hoping to find a receptionist or someone who would be interested in my story of ancestral relationship to the Hof. I started taking pictures when a huge man whose build reminded me of a professional wrestler, shouted at me in German, “What are you doing here?” I tried to explain to him that my ancestor was a tenant farmer on this Hof, but he was not in the least bit impressed. “It is strictly forbidden to take pictures in this facility,” he stated emphatically. I’m sure my countenance fell as I realized I wouldn’t be able to make a pleasant connection with my past. He made me erase the pictures I had taken.

My German friend explained to me that German privacy laws are very strict, and that the employee was only doing his duty to protect the identity of the residents of the home. I still nursed a desire to return to try to talk to a receptionist. But my German friend ushered me out of the building as quickly as he could.

I moved on to the west side of the Rhine to the Palatinate. I wanted to contact a Klemmer
The Klemmer house
(Clemmer/Clymer) in the region, hoping to make an ancestor connection, maybe even do a DNA swap to see if we were a match. There was only one Klemmer listed in the phone book. My friends in the region told me that most of the Klemmers had died out, the last one they knew died 25 years ago. But I was determined to make contact.

The number listed was a business. I decided to approach the business, again hoping to speak with a receptionist, and maybe even the owner, Mr. Klemmer. When I arrived at the address, it was a private home. I knew I had the right address, because there was a plaque on the door with “Klemmer” on it. I gingerly rang the doorbell and waited. And waited. There was no answer. Disappointed, I left, deciding that I would try to call him later in the day.

I thought that I would get my host, who was from the region and well known in all the surrounding communities, to make the call and introduce me to Mr. Klemmer. And so he did. I waited nervously while the phone rang, conjuring up in my mind what I would say to him when my host handed over the phone. I heard my host explaining to Mr. Klemmer, that I my ancestors were Klemmers from the area who had emigrated to the USA, and that I wanted to find or meet a Klemmer who still lived in the region. I could hear enough of the conversation to ascertain that the party on the other end of the phone was not very enthused about my presence in his world.

My host, realizing that the phone call was not going to be fruitful, was about to hang up. I desperately asked for it. He gave it to me. More than anything else, I wanted to hear the voice of a Klemmer from the old country. I gave him my name, told him where I was from and why I wanted to talk to him. He was very blunt. “I’m not interested in meeting you, or Klemmer family history.” With as polite a “thank you” as I could muster, I wished him well and hung up. I was disappointed, but at least I had heard the voice of a Klemmer.

Lest you be misguided, I had lots of wonderful experiences during my week in Germany. I will have to save those adventures for another blog post.