Come, enter with me into the courtyard of the Evangelische Kirche Neppendorf. We’ve been here before—and learned when and from where (late 18th century and Gerstheim, Alsace, respectively) our forebears made their way to this little German community that became home to the Gerz/Gärtz family for nearly two centuries.
Like all families, they faced their share of trouble and tragedy: poverty, illegitimate children, death by sometimes tragic means. But tucked into the back of the church, a small museum celebrated the good things in life: the communal spirit and optimistic outlook of Neppendorf and Siebenbürgen residents. It was an ethic based on the belief that anything is possible—if you’re willing to work for it. We also discovered a stunning and unknown connection between our own family and this museum.
At the top of a small flight of stairs, Renate, the church secretary who had been our guide to our family’s genealogical history in Neppendorf, pushed open a heavy wooden door, revealing a small, neat, brightly lit museum of German life in Transylvania, and Neppendorf in particular. I felt immediately at home among the familiar—looking artifacts: musical instruments, furniture, books, and needle work in the same style my grandmother created, thick black or red embroidery on white woven cloth. I’d lived in Germany for a year as a college student and yet never felt as if I’d “come home” as I did here.
As we made our way around the room, shouts of recognition continued. In this little church museum, 5000 miles from our home in Chicago, we discovered three photographs that we recognized from our own family collection. Had we not come, we never would have known that our family’s photos help tell the story of the Siebenbürgen Germans in Neppendorf!
On this wall we found a photo of my grandmother posing with Katarina Gärtz, Josef’s sister, and Sara Reisenauer, his cousin. It’s the same photo my parents had included in a family history photo album they had made for us kids in 1984.
But it wasn’t until almost three years after this visit, when I was able to decipher and translate the missives between my grandparents, that the previously-unknown significance of this iconic photo emerged from the pages of a long-buried letter. Stay tuned for that stunner, coming up as we follow the correspondence between Lisi and Josef.
It doesn’t mention “fun,” and I think I know why. I feel pretty confident that working people of that era didn’t pursue “fun” as relentlessly as so many do today—as an end in itself. First of all—there wasn’t time. But humans need fun—so it was delivered by working together—as part of a community, creating beauty—in their gardens, their needlework, their craftsmanship, their churches, their homes, their singing-and then reveling in their creations. Yes, life was harder, illness and death ever-present, but perhaps without directly seeking “fun,” they found it in the pleasure of the every-day, and with it, satisfaction—whence they derived happiness.