Tuesday, March 4, 2008

19 October: In Search of Ancestors

We enjoyed the typical buffet of meats and cheeses in Schloss Petershagen’s sunny dining room; other than a table of conference attendees, we were the only people there. We walked around the grounds a little bit before checking out but couldn’t get around to the river side of the castle for a picture, so we ended up taking quite a long walk out onto the highway bridge to get the view I was looking for (photo, right). We could see two old-fashioned windmills way off in the distance; I hoped that we would see some more of them up close as we headed further north. A plaque mounted on the wall in the courtyard indicated that Schloss Petershagen was the residence of the prince bishops of Minden beginning in 1306; in 1605 it passed into the possession of crown prince Mark Brandenburg, and in 1901 it was taken over by the Hestermann family.

We then set off on our rather slapdash search for John’s ancestors. We had set aside this day to drive around the Minden countryside visiting several sites mentioned in old family records. We didn’t have a whole lot to go on – a copy of John’s great-great-grandfather’s birth certificate from the little church in southern Illinois and a couple other records that John had found online in the Mormon Church archives – so John was a bit pessimistic about the whole thing, but we figured we could at least visit the general area that John's family had called home. Of course I was quite certain that we would walk into a graveyard and just happen across a family headstone. Our first conundrum was that John’s ancestor, Ernst Heinrich, was born at a place called Bergkirchen near Minden. Bergkirchen means “hill churches” and, as you might imagine, there are a number of towns bearing that name in Germany. Unfortunately two of them happen to be in the general vicinity of Minden. We decided to head to the Bergkirchen nearest to Minden first. We found ourselves traversing a gently rolling countryside and took a winding road up the side of a long ridge to a sprawling village at the crest. There wasn’t much to the town aside from a rustic stone church (photo, right) and a hotel; the rest was largely newer residential construction. A plaque above the side entrance of the church dated it to 1752 but unfortunately the place was shuttered up and no one responded to our knocks (we tried every door we could find). An old graveyard surrounded the church but there were surprisingly few headstones and, of the few that we could actually read, none mentioned any names we recognized. We went across the street to the “new” cemetery in hopes of finding more recently deceased ancestors, but to no avail. The cemetery was divided into family plots and many of them were carefully tended with elaborately landscaped gardens.

A bit frustrated but not yet without hope, we continued on to the village of Langenholzhausen (“long wooden houses”), where John had traced another relative through online records. We found another old stone church there; this one was also locked up and had no date on it, but looked even older than the one in Bergkirchen. There were very few headstones left standing in the graveyard and the inscriptions were all virtually illegible. We looked around a bit but couldn’t find the new cemetery.

Next, on a whim, we looked up Westerwalder Hof in our Germany atlas. Westerwalder means “western forest” and a Hof is a farm; this place was mentioned on another birth certificate that John had found online. Amazingly, there was only one Westerwalder Hof listed in our atlas for all of Germany and it wasn’t far from our present location, so off we went. We found ourselves on a narrow tree-lined road and passed a green-and-yellow sign labeled “Westerwalder Hof,” which means it is smaller than a town – not much more than a cluster of farms, really, surrounded by beautiful countryside (photo, right). There was a roadside German-Italian restaurant called “Westerwalder Hof” in an old red brick farm building, but it was all closed up – which seemed to be the trend for the day. All of the farmhouses and outbuildings in this area were constructed of red brick, some with quite ornate façades – very different from the architecture of southern Germany. We spotted two women talking outside the house next door and I convinced John to approach them – what if they were relatives and we never knew? One of the women headed to her car and started to drive away as we walked up; she stopped and John asked her if she knew of anyone by his name in the area, but she pointed at the house and told us we would have to inquire there. Reluctantly, John knocked on the door and an elderly woman answered with a small dog yapping at her heels. She looked at us rather skeptically even though John explained in his best German that we were Americans looking for our ancestors. She just shook her head and shut the door rather quickly in our faces.

Our final shot of the day was the second Bergkirchen, which was also not far from where we were. It also had an old stone church but there wasn’t a single headstone left in the empty churchyard. We looked through the new cemetery nearby but didn’t find any familiar names. We had exhausted all of our leads and were no closer to finding John's ancestors than we had been this morning. I did take lots of pictures everywhere just in case we ever find more information to link the family to one of these locations. We didn’t feel like our time had been wasted – it was a lovely day and we had enjoyed our meanderings through the rolling countryside. John wondered what painful circumstances had convinced his ancestors to pick up and leave this beautiful place for the great unknown of America, and, ultimately, the flatlands of southern Illinois. We stopped for gas and ate some candy bars but otherwise hadn’t eaten anything all day, so we decided to hit the road for Hamburg.

It was a two-hour drive to the great Hanseatic city of Hamburg and we arrived in rush hour traffic with me at the wheel. Susie navigated us faithfully into the city and we found the swanky Hotel SIDE near the bustling Neustadt shopping district without too much trouble. The area around the hotel entrance was crammed with black Mercedes – a large group of businesspeople seemed to be arriving all at once – but I managed to squeeze the car into the loading zone and we were assisted by a friendly doorman who spoke German with a funny accent; I think he might have been Russian. We left our car to the valet and walked into the sleek and cavernous lobby, where we checked in with a woman who switched smoothly to English when I balked after she asked me for my credit card. She suggested a couple of restaurants for dinner.

A doorman showed us to our room on the sixth floor and gave us a quick runthrough of the bewildering amenities. The SIDE is a “design hotel” true to its word – everything was stark white and sleek dark wood and very chic, almost to the point of being more about style than functionality. Hidden switches controlled innumerable lights and window blinds, a flat-screen TV rose from a square console at the foot of the bed, and the bathroom was a wonder of opaque green glass. The toilet was square. We quickly changed into more stylish clothes (everyone in the lobby seemed to be wearing crisp black suits) and headed out.

The city seemed strangely quiet for 8 p.m. on a Friday night. One of the restaurants the woman at the desk had recommended, a sushi place called Soho on one of the canals, was totally abandoned, and we couldn’t find the Italian place she had referred to along the Binnenalster (one of two large lakes in the middle of Hamburg), so we wandered down a promising-looking street and ended up in a cramped Fischstube populated by a mostly older crowd. It was cozy and quaint, with a menu of traditional seafood fare. John had Zanderfillet with a creamy sauce and spinach and I had a huge steaming pot of mussels in white wine sauce. Unfortunately the service wasn’t great – the waitstaff kept ignoring us while serving the German guests seated around us – so we left without getting dessert and headed back to the hotel.

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