Cryptic cursive was the number one barrier that held a century of letters hostage. The second, less daunting, but still real barrier, was the language, German.
As I mentioned in a recent post, I chose German as my major in college and spent a year studying in Munich. Then twenty-five years passed. Poof! German had barely crossed my lips until an extension class at a nearby high school caught my eye: “German for Parent and Child.”
My first son, Evan, was six, and I thought, “What a fun way to spend quality time with my boy, introduce his pliable brain to a foreign language, and indulge in a little refresher for myself.” The class was tiny — about 4-6 couples of parent and child. The teacher, Antje, a native of Germany, delightful. She filled the class with games and activities through which vocabulary was painlessly introduced and learned. I couldn’t have pulled most of those basic words from my quarter-century-old studies, but I was amazed at how simple reviews reignited long dormant brain cells. It was the start of my German language revitalization!
My mother’s death in 1994 also drove home what we all acknowledge, but only truly absorb through personal experience: Life is short. Death is final. It was time to stop talking about travel and do it! I planned for the whole family to go to Germany the following summer, lest another 25 years zoom by.
So in June, 1995, we landed in Munich’s airport and drove to Crailsheim, where, for the first time, I met my distant cousins — the Gärtz family that had lived in the same Romanian town, Neppendorf, and the same house as my grandfather, Josef. This branch of the Gärtz family is descended from Josef’s half-brother, Michael Gärtz, twenty-two years older than Josef. Their father had remarried in his 60s, and Josef was the result.
After enduring the brutal Romanian dictatorship of Ceausescu and his lunatic wife, thousands of ethnic Germans, including my cousins, reversed the immigration process of the previous 800 years and left Romania, returning to their ancestral Germany, where they were guaranteed citizenship as ethnic Germans.
Maria, my second cousin, twice removed, is my only contemporary female relative. (I have no aunts, no sisters). We hit it off immediately, and I feel I found in her the sister I never had. Speaking the language all day with my extended family abroad oiled up my German skills. I realized how much I liked expressing myself in a foreign language and how it breaks down barriers when traveling. Upon our return home, Evan and I continued the German classes for six more years, building my vocabulary, comfort level, and confidence with the language.
Fast forward to 2009. That summer is when I received the email from Uli, the German Professor we had met on our roots-finding trip to Romania, asking me if we had any letters. Realizing he might be able to help a bit with illegible German, Uli’s email was the spur I needed to look at the letters more closely.
So how to begin? On September 9, 2009, I hauled out box #14 and began looking through the piles of letters. One group stood out–folded inside yet another Missler Wallet.
(Remember the one in which I found my grandfather’s diary? Well, one of the ubiquitous Missler wallets came to America with my Grandmother too, and she used it to store some of her most precious letters).
Stuffed inside, folded together into thirds were a fat bunch of missives. Amazingly, most were not brittle or yellowed. I can only assume the paper back then was far more acid-free than today.
In grease pencil, she had written across the bottom of the one enfolding the bunch:
“From Jickeli, Lisbeth, Mutter Gärtz (Josef’s mother) and Father Ebner (her dad). All very good”
This seemed a fine place to start. At least I knew what signatures to look for. I found more than I had ever dreamed existed, but plenty of unknowns remained. In the near future, I’ll share my first stab at unravelling the mystery of the authors.
But first, I’m starting a regular weekly post, “Traveling Tuesday,” to share the discoveries of our roots-finding mission to my grandparents’ native land as well as to introduce the beauty and historical sites of Transylvania to anyone who loves travel. Read about it on the introductory post next Tuesday, 1/18/11.