On Jan. 23, 1943, my uncle, Frank Ebner Gartz, (photo in uniform, above) reported to the draft board in Chicago to start his training for WWII. So began the correspondence between him and family & friends, comprising almost 300 letters going both ways. I’m posting many of these World War II letters, each on or near the 70th anniversary of its writing. To start with his induction, click HERE.

This blog began in Nov., 2010, when I posted a century-old love note from Josef Gärtz, my paternal grandfather, to Lisi (Elisabetha) Ebner, my paternal grandmother, and follows their bold decision to strike out for America.

My mom and dad were writers too, recording their lives in diaries and letters from the 1920s-the 1990s. Historical, sweet, joyful, and sad, all that life promises-- and takes away--are recorded here as it happened. It's an ongoing saga of the 20th century. To start at the very beginning, please click HERE.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Out to Sea

12/30/1910 First page of letter
from Josef to Lisi on  F. Missler stationery
Once Josef arrived in Bremen, and his path to America seemed clear, he wrote to Lisi. Not only had Friedrich Missler,  probably Bremen's most successful ticket agent, given thousands of passengers a brown, canvas wallet like the one in which I found Josef’s diary, he also provided stationery emblazoned with “F. Missler” and the agency's address at 30 Bahnhof Strasse [literally: Train Station Street], proving Missler was a marketing wizard of his day. Many descendants who have these wallets have mistakenly thought "Missler" was the name of the ship pictured and researched in vain to find it.

Here’s the first page of Josef’s letter to Lisi, written on Missler stationery. If you look closely, you can see the date at the start of the letter (the date is first and the month follows in Roman Numerals).
30/XII 1910
December 30, 1910

Dear Lisi,

I want to tell you that I have arrived in Bremen happy and healthy. Now I want to tell you about my nightmare trip.

At this point Josef describes his misadventures and narrow escapes, which have already been shared in previous posts, so I’ll skip over that part and start with Bremen:

Thank God I am here, and I thank our Lord God again many times for the good thoughts he gave me. But such a trip! I thought it would undo me!

Missler Emigrant Hall, Bremen, 1907
Perhaps this is where Josef sat with his new-found friends
We’re sitting here at F. Missler, and already it’s going a bit easier because each person [fellow travelers he’s met] makes the other happy, and so we are getting along fine.

Tomorrow, December 31, 1910, we’re going to board the ship, as long as we remain healthy. Every day we are checked by a doctor, and up to now, I am completely healthy. Many people, who got sick on the trip, have already been here in Bremen for eight weeks. One woman, who had eye inflammation [probably trachoma--pink eye] has already been waiting here four weeks. She’s finally received authorization to depart for America.

With heartfelt greetings, I end my letter. Please, dear Lisi, tell me in your first letter what you have heard of my colleagues.

With greetings to all,
Gärtz, Josef, Bremen

We must look to his diary now, to see into the heart and mind of a young man, his written emotions  a reflection of what thousands of others must have felt at this point in their journeys, as he travels the final leg that will transport him to an unknown land and future.

Friedrich der Grosse, ship that brought Josef Gärtz
to America. Thanks to Norway Heritage for image
December 31, 1910

Early Saturday morning at 4 am, we saw a doctor who looked us in the eyes and inoculated the left hand with four shots. At 7a.m. we took a two-hour train to the ship. We boarded the ship at 10:30 a.m., and at 11:30, it departed directly for America.

Throngs at the Port of Bremen. Not the era of Josef's
departure, but gives a sense of the kind of crowd
 he describes. 
(From the collection of Maggie Land Blanck)
I was moved by sadness, joy, and fear as the mighty colossus pulled us far out over the waves of the great sea. Everyone on land waved after us with their handkerchiefs as they wanted to share with us a last and friendly farewell. They know such a trip deals with life and death, and we’re never certain if we’ll see each other again.

Josef truly rang out the old on New Year’s Eve, 1910, departing from everything familiar -- and hoped to ring in 1911 with a new life in America. But first he had to endure the harsh winter crossing over the frigid, stormy Atlantic seas.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Threats to the Dream-Vienna to Bremen

Josef wrote both in his diary and to Lisi about his terror atop the train from Pressburg (Bratislava) to Vienna, one corroborating the other, but each using slightly different language. In the diary he wrote:
I thought the sharp wind would throw me under the fast train like a piece of paper, but I held tight until we were in Austria. Then I came back down into the car and was very happy, but also distressed because my colleagues weren't there, and it was very much fun to travel as a threesome.

In his letter to Lisi about this moment, he was more emotional and wrote: Oh, no! My colleagues had disappeared, and I stood crying in Vienna. Nevertheless, I pulled together some fresh courage and waited two days in Vienna, thinking perhaps my friends would come, but it was in vain. I had to set out further alone.

He must have arrived in Vienna, late December 26th or early December 27th because he wrote,
I departed Vienna Wednesday evening [December 28, 1910] at 10 pm. On Thursday [December 29, 1910] at 11:00 am, I arrived at the German border, where it got dicey again. There the border officer asked me how old I was. I answered 24 years [he was only 21]. Then he asked for my passport. I said, 'Immediately, Sir. My passport is in my suitcase.

I used that brief moment to step off the train and remained standing there until he went into the other car. I came inside again and laughed from heartfelt joy at my second clever ruse.

Making it successfully across the German border reduced the threat of Josef being sent back to Transylvania, but more threats to his dream of America still lay ahead.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the United States had pressured European countries to require increasingly stringent medical exams for emigrants before they even boarded a ship to America. A sure-fire way to be left behind was a diagnosis of trachoma, pink eye, highly contagious and, in those days, incurable. Sure enough, the medical exams begin well before getting to the port city of Bremen.

The trip continued to Leipzig where we got out and had a medical examination by an eye specialist. From there we traveled directly to Bremen. We arrived in Bremen on Friday [December 30, 1910] at 9 a.m.

It was from Bremen he wrote the letter to Lisi from which I've been quoting portions. How he began that letter and what happened after its completion will be published on December 31, 2010. He, along with hundreds of others, still had hurdles to jump before boarding the ship to America.

New Year's Eve in 1910 ushered in a new year with a completely unknown and uncharted future for Josef's -- and therefore, Lisi's -- life.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Terror Atop the Train

Josef Gärtz, 1909 or 1910, age 20 or 21
I'd always known my grandfather was often impatient, and apparently was so as a young man. I learned from my cousin's family (also from Neppendorf, the same Transylvanian town as Josef) that Josef didn't want to wait for the long visa process, so he just took off for America before his exit papers were in order. As we'll see from his diary entries, he almost didn't make it. 

Here is a map of the route he planned to take, starting in Hermannstadt (Sibiu-hard to see on the map), traveling north to Klein Kopisch (Copsa Mica), and then west toward Budapest, through Bratislava, (a border stop), and on to Vienna. (Note: This is a modern-day map, but the cities have stayed in the same relative places.) 

Christ Saturday (Christmas Eve), December 24, 1910
“I left from Hermannstadt [Sibiu] with Lichtneker [a friend] for America.”
Josef’s plan was to hook up with a third friend, Rastel, in a town called Klein Kopisch, and the three would travel together from there. The first snafu occurred almost immediately. When Josef and Lichtneker arrived in Klein Kopisch, they went to get coffee. Sure enough, as soon as they left the tracks, Rastel’s train pulled in! They jumped up, but by the time they found their friend and gathered their luggage, “the train slipped out right from under our noses, and we had to wait twelve hours for the next one.”

Sunday, Christmas Day, December 25, 1910
The three friends boarded the noon train to Budapest, about 270 miles away and, based on notes he made on a previous trip, a nineteen hour train ride. When they arrived in Budapest, on December 26th, he sent another postcard to Lisi, this one much more upbeat than the one posted yesterday, and signed by all his companions as well:

Budapest, December 26, 1910
Dear Lisi,
I’m sharing with you that we have happily arrived in Budapest and today, on the 2nd Christmas Day, we will travel onward with the fast train, God willing. With greetings I wish you a Happy New Year [and] from all my colleagues.

Each signed in his own handwriting, thereby corroborating the friends’ names he had recorded in his diary.

Gärtz Josef
Also from me: Johann Rastel
Also from me Andreas Lichtneker
Bye and Adieu

It would be the last time the three young men would be together, for things went downhill before they ever got to Vienna.

In Budapest, they switched to a fast train to Vienna. In those days fifteen to twenty miles per hour was “fast.” Josef urged his friends not to sit together “in case they had to get away quickly, but they didn’t listen,” leading me to believe none of the three had proper papers. Josef followed his own advice and sat in a separate compartment with “two colonels." He fell asleep on the long train ride, which stopped in Bratislava, on the Austrian border. Josef was shaken awake by a border agent. “I threw him a frightened look, but he asked me in a friendly manner where I was traveling to."

“And what do you do in Vienna?”
The agent ordered Josef off the train. “I knew what that meant,” he wrote. Thinking fast, he concocted a daring solution. “Sure. No Problem. I just have to fetch my things,” he told the officer.

“I left my luggage behind, went out the door, climbed up the ladder, and lay down on top of the car. I cannot thank God enough for sending me this thought. But when the horrid train started to move, the sharp air cut through me so that I thought I would fly away like a piece of paper.”

Now picture this: it was December. At best, maybe 25-30 degrees. He would have been battered and buffeted by a frigid windchill for the 37 miles from Bratislava to Vienna. Based on the travel times he had recorded for previous trips, and the train moving at about fifteen miles per hour, that’s two hours he’d have to endure the terror of literally hanging on for dear life, wondering if he’d live to see Vienna, much less America.

In  the next post, scheduled for December 28th,  we'll find out what happened.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Channeling the Dead to Life

Missler Wallet with Josef's Gärtz's diary inside.
Note: "Missler" was a ticket agent in Bremen, Germany,
but for years people thought it was the name of this "ghostship."
Scroll down on the "Missler" link to learn more.
I sometimes feel like a medium--you know--those people able to communicate with the dead. But in my case, they are speaking to me, and I’m channeling them back to life from across the last century.

One of the most astounding discoveries I made just recently was Josef Gärtz’s diary of his trip to America. Several times I had seen the small, brown canvas Missler wallet inside of which my grandmother had written, “Dad’s Pass,” meaning his passport. But inside was no passport--just printed pages in Hungarian and some strange writing in the back. I have so many documents, photos, and artifacts (twenty-five banker boxes full) that even after I’ve gone through them, I can come back to a box later and discover some small detail I had overlooked.

Josef's Diary - page 1
The reason I think I noticed the diary this time around (just a few months ago) was because I was becoming more familiar with the ancient handwriting, able to recognize more letters and words. On this page in the back of the “passport” wallet, I easily picked out “Amerika” and 1910. (see it to the right) That was promising! Looking more closely I realized he had written “Die Fahrt nach Amerika.”

My heart soared. “The Trip to America!” What else could it be but a diary of his journey! Even if I weren’t related to the author, I’d love to read a century-old diary of a young immigrant in order to discover what a he experienced on that risky, bold trip. I sent off a copy to Meta, and within a few weeks, Josef told me about his adventure in his own voice.

Combined with the discovery of a letter and two postcards that he wrote to Lisi along the way, we can hear the fear, sorrow, and excitement that accompanied a twenty-one-year old about to leave behind everything familiar to strike out for an unknown future with only his optimism and confidence to carry him through.

But his greatest trepidation may have been that he was leaving his Lisi behind, hoping she would eventually come to meet him in America. This postcard he sent her doesn’t have a specific date, but its Christmas wishes and melancholy tone place it at the time of his departure. A small "2" in the upper left indicates that it must be the second page of a longer missive, the first part of which is missing. The romantic image of two hands clasping under the flowery good luck horseshoe seems to reach out to Lisi with longing. I imagine it was sent near the beginning of his trip. It’s a little hard to translate, but it's about like this:

I wish you much happiness and Merry Christmas on this sad day and say many thanks for the farewell gift. And I certainly will take my little heartfelt remembrance of you and will carefully protect it.

Please excuse me because it is now only as it is and not otherwise. [Perhaps he means, he just has to go, and it can’t be otherwise]. God be with you until we see each other again. Adieu, Adieu. Forget me not.

Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, on the 100th anniversary of his departure, I'll post the beginning of his diary on the centennial of its writing.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Last Summer in Europe

In 1910 Josef began a second book, this time the notebook in which I found his Military Draft notice handwritten on the first page. (See post, Drafted 100 Years Ago). After making some inquiries with Transylvanian natives, the consensus at this time is that Josef probably copied the contents of the draft letter into this notebook to keep it handy. Such official notices were typically sent by mail.

Despite the serious command with which the notebook begins, Josef changes the tone immediately. On the opposite side of the “Draft Summons” page, he enters the date, followed by a tongue-in-cheek explanation of the notebook's raison d’etre:

July 5, 1910

This book should not be used to teach or as a toy for children, but only for amusement during serious and hard times. It wasn’t because of an excess of money that I purchased this book, but rather unbearable boredom tempted me to do so.
The moral and immoral contents from recited poems and songs which I entered into this book are a remembrance of the fantastic, fun trip I made to Vienna in the most wonderful years of my youth, from 19-21.

In the center of the page he writes in large, bold letters the Vienna address to which the military draft summons had been addressed, followed by a request:

VIENNA VI Mariahilferstrasse Nr. 78
Third Floor (our 4th floor); Door #7

This book is dear to me and whoever steals it is a thief, and whoever gives it back is a good fellow and whoever finds it, in case it is lost, will receive on delivery 5 Kronen. Please send it to my home Neppendorf Nr. 587 near Hermannstadt in Hungary.
Yours sincerely, Josef Gärtz.

The notebook book comprises 57 pages with 95 numbered entries. Most of them are folksongs with multiple, numbered verses, but several are off-color jokes or anecdotes--the “immoral contents” he probably was referring to in his introduction.

Josef Gärtz 1909 or 1910 in Vienna
This photograph of my grandfather is undated, but Lisi, my grandmother, wrote on the back:  “Josef In Vienna at age 20” (1909).  I always assumed she made a mistake, that he was 21 (1910), and already on his way to America, through Vienna. But the more I look at it, the more convinced I am it was taken in the summer, given the clothes he’s wearing. Also, propped on his trunk is a sign that says “Wien” (Vienna) along with the street address where he was staying in the summer of 1910, as listed in his notebook. Whether it was 1909 or 1910, it records his appearance during the days of his “wonderful fun youth.”

But he still had that draft notice hanging over his head, was in love with Lisi, and undoubtedly surrounded by buzz about America.

Did he respond to the draft summons on September 30, 1910, in Vienna, as ordered? I believe he must have at least registered, for he often relayed a story that he was told he was “too skinny” for the army, a trait that four years later, at the start of World War I, would have been meaningless. But later letters to him from Mrs. Jickeli indicate that he still had some sort of unfinished business with the military.

Whatever the circumstance, in the following few months he had made up his mind.
He was heading for America, and the next time he writes, he will record his harrowing trip, leaving Transylvania on Christmas Eve, 1910. I’ll explain how I made the extraordinary discovery of his diary documenting his trip in my next post, and post the diary 100 years to the date after it was written, December 24, 1910.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Cash and Song Book

Katarina (Schnell) Gärtz, Josef and his
sister, Katarina. About 1902-03
When we asked my grandfather why he had come to America he always said, “Nothing from nothing makes nothing.” 
A little background may illuminate that statement. Like Lisi, he had lost a parent when very young. His father died when Josef was just four. We were told his widowed mother stood in a frigid stream, beating soldiers' clothes clean with rocks, in order to earn money to raise him and his sister.

Here's the earliest photo I have of Josef with his mother and sister. 
He told us that at age six, he was tied onto the back of horse (his little legs couldn't reach the stirrups), guiding the beast to plow fields and earn some extra money for the family. He went on to be a carpenter, but based on several notebooks he kept, employment near home must have been scarce as he often had to travel as far as Vienna (about 470 miles away) to find work.

Kasse Buch of Josef Gärtz, 1909
In 1909, at the age of twenty, he started making notes in a small book labeled “Kasse Buch,” literally a “cash book,” to keep track of earnings and expenditures, apparently for a trip to find work, first in Pressburg (the German name for Bratislava), where he spent two weeks, and then to Vienna. But he ends up finding a much more entertaining use for this book, according to Meta, a ninety-year old Siebenbürgen woman, now living in Germany, who took over Uli’s job of deciphering all the unrecognizable writing in my collection. 

Born in 1920, Meta learned to write with the old German handwriting, and for more than a year, she has been my abiding Rosetta stone. Her intelligence, skill, and effort have already unlocked secrets trapped in more than forty inscrutable letters, diaries, and notebooks, shining a light on the lives of people whose first-hand experiences would otherwise have been lost forever. Not only has she decoded the writing, but she’s also made connections between events and often interpreted the intent behind the words and phrases that don’t easily translate to English.

I sent Meta a copy of Josef's Kasse Buch, and she figured out its contents. Josef did some ciphering (calculations are scribbled on the inside of the cover), but despite good intentions, Josef filled almost 50 pages of this “bookkeeping ledger” with the text from well-known folk, children, church and “Fatherland” songs.

My grandparents knew hundreds of songs and often would spontaneously begin singing, in harmony no less. Imagine an era decades before radio existed--never mind television, computers, MP3, I-tunes, podcasts and Ipods. Imagine that all the music that entertained you was self-created. Everyone was his own sort of “American Idol." How thoroughly we have relegated our own musical creativity to “stars" and "celebrities!” This book, and another he created, are testament to the importance of singing in daily life -- and also of my grandfather's overriding cheerful approach to life. 
I'm not certain it was common for young men to write down the words to scores of songs.

In 1910, Josef began a second book, this time the small notebook in which I found his Military Draft notice written on the first page (see Post, “Drafted 100 Years Ago" - November 22, 2010), commanding him to appear before the draft board on September 30, 1910.

How did Josef make use of this second book -- and what would his response to his Draft notice be?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hidden Message Behind Women's Work

Jickeli Household Help. Lisi Ebner seated 2nd from left. Mrs. Jickeli, center in black. 
This photo hung in my grandmother’s house for her entire life. The image has been carefully stylized to depict what women did in at the turn of the last century, but hidden on the back for 100 years was an inscription that gave insight into what they believed.

Women’s work: peeling potatoes, mixing ingredients, grinding meat, baking (a large container labelled “Zucker” [sugar] sits on the table), cooking, spinning, knitting, washing, and ironing [two irons were used, one heating on a stove to be switched out with the the one in use when it cooled off]--all tasks necessary to keep a household running smoothly in the early 20th century.

My grandmother, Lisi Ebner, is seated second from left, whisking up something in a bowl. In the center, dressed in black, is Berta Jickeli, the employer of the women in the photograph. It’s hard to see, but she’s holding knitting needles in her hands. My grandmother adored Mrs. Jickeli, as she always called her, and was devoted to her daughter, Lisbeth [LIZ-bett], the little girl at the washtub, for whom she was governess.

Uli, the professor whom I met on the 2007 roots-finding mission, told me that the Jickelis were a prominent and wealthy family in the area. Mrs. Jickeli’s husband, Carl Friedrich Jickeli, owned a large hardware store in the center of Hermannstadt. Their children were educated and accomplished. Mrs. Jickeli’s nephew, her sister’s son, was Hermann Oberth, known as the “father of rocketry/space travel.”

Clearly impressed, Uli asked how my grandmother obtained such an excellent position. “She was smart, loyal, and had an abundance of focused energy,” was the answer I knew to be true.

After she left for America, Lisi corresponded with Mrs. Jickeli for more that forty years and with Lisbeth for more than 60 years. She saved every letter, and through them I’ve come to understand the love they shared for each other and how much Mrs. Jickeli depended on Lisi’s intelligence and devotion. The letters are a chronicle of these European women's lives through the first half of the 20th Century and a first-person view of the devastation visited upon my grandparents' homeland in the aftermath of two wars.

A few months ago I removed the photo from its frame to make a digital copy. On the back, hidden for 100 years, was an inscription and date! I discovered for the first time that this photo was a gift to Lisi from Mrs. Jickeli, inscribed with two verses (more like aphorisms) that undoubtedly were intended to help guide Lisi through life. (I later learned the verses were written by Georg Scherer, 1808-1909).

Kommt ein Lichtgedanke dir,
Laß ihn nicht entschweben,
Eh` du ihm die helle Zier 
Klarer Form gegeben.

Und wenn auf dem Pfad der Pflicht
Dir ein Leid begegnet,   
Ring mit ihm und laß es nicht, 
Bis es dich gesegnet.
If a clever thought comes to you
Don’t let it disappear
Before you share it with others.

And if on the path of duty
You still have troubles
Wrestle with them; don’t allow them [to get you down]
Until you turn them into blessings.

In other words, share your good ideas, and when life is hard, don’t give up. Endure! Fight against your troubles until you can find some good in them. It’s a philosophy that would serve my grandmother well as as she struggled to make a new life in a foreign country.

In the bottom right hand corner, Mrs. Jickeli signed the photo with the following message:

Ihrer lieben Lisi zur Erinnerung an viele Jahre
treuer, gemeinsamer Arbeit.
Weihnachten  1910  Berta Jickeli

To my dear Lisi -- to remember many years of faithful work together.
Christmas, 1910     Berta Jickeli

It was the first time I learned the date of this iconic photo, a century after it was taken. Perhaps Mrs. Jickeli realized that Josef would be leaving soon for America, that Lisi might soon follow, and gave her this photo as an early farewell gift. 

In fact, Josef would leave sooner than anyone expected, and he and Lisi would never spend another Christmas together in their homeland.

Merry Christmas - 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

Blended Family Breakthrough

Maria Schuster marries Samuel Ebner May 22, 1899
recorded in the Church "Family Book" in Grosspold, Romania
Samuel Ebner, my great-grandfather, did not remain a widower for long (see how my great-grandmother died at Life and Death Abbreviated). In May 1899, he married the widow, Maria Schuster, who brought at least two daughters into the marriage, creating what we call today a “blended family.”

The bottom of the Samuel Ebner page in the "Grosspold Family Book," shown above, records the marriage. Maria Schuster (née Wagner) was thirty-two when she and Samuel married. It may have had as much to do with practicality as love. Each had suffered the loss of a spouse. Each had children to raise. Joining together made sense, but Lisi, Samuel's daughter and my grandmother, felt abandoned a second time.

She wanted her father all to herself and felt she was losing him to this unknown woman. The same dynamics that affect blended families today--children not accepting the new step-parent, resentment, parental loss still palpable--those feelings existed just as strongly 100 years ago.

A neighbor took Lisi aside, we later heard, and in trying to convince her all was for the best, whispered, “A man needs a woman.” Twelve at the time, Lisi probably missed the sexual connotation of this remark, but never forgot it.

Just like today, it probably took a lot of patience and love for Maria Schuster as the step-mom to win over Lisi, but she did--and Lisi came to love her new mother and sisters as her own. Difficult times and a strong community code that encouraged families to stay together probably helped, but I believe unconditional love was at the root of this blended family’s success.

Two new children were born to Samuel and Maria: Theresia, known as Resi, in 1900 and Johan, called Hans, in 1904.  But the sisters brought into the marriage remained a mystery--until our family trip to Romania in 2007.

Agnetha Schuster), left, my
grandmother's step-sister. Wedding photo
In searching for my great-grandfather’s house in Grosspold, Pastor Meitert met a woman he wanted to introduce us to, Elisabeth Kirschlager. We were puzzled about her connection to our family--until she produced a familiar photograph--one I had puzzled over many times in our family collection because it was unlabeled. This is the photo Elisabeth Kirschlager showed us: her grandmother’s wedding photo. As we struggled through the language barrier, it suddenly became clear: Elisabeth Kirschlager’s grandmother was one of the daughters brought into the new marriage -- and grew up side by side with my grandmother.

Elisabeth Kirschlager center
L-R Bill, Paul, Linda Gartz 2007
I spontaneously threw my arms around Elisabeth and cried. Though not related by blood, we shared a common family past through our grandmothers. It was a breakthrough in understanding the connection of family that goes beyond genes. Blended families know these bonds are as strong and true today as they were a century ago.

Next: Lisi's third mother.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Life and Death - Abbreviated

Grosspold Family Book 
My grandmother kept a photo of her hometown church tucked into the hymnbook she brought with her from Romania. No wonder. That church was more than just a place of worship. It was the repository of her entire community's history. That's why my brothers and I made the Grosspold Lutheran Church a crucial stop on our roots-finding mission to Transylvania/Siebenbürgen in 2007. But we had no idea just what we would discover. 

After finding the Ebner family house number (403) during our background research in Hermannstadt/Sibiu, we arranged to meet the Grosspold church’s minister, Pastor Meitert, who presented us with enormous volumes of ancient ledgers and narrowed down our grandmother’s family to this one. Centuries of handling is worn into its cover on which is handwritten: Familienbuch Grosspold  [Grosspold Family Book].

Like churches throughout Europe, the Lutheran church in Grosspold encapsulated the lives of its parishioners in columns and dates maintained in "Family Books." A sense of life’s harsh calculus in 19th century Europe emerges from those stark numbers.

Pastor Meitert used the Ebner “house number” (Grosspold has no typical street addresses -- only house numbers) to search the book, and began turning the pages. History was literally unfolding before our eyes. At the top of page 283, the name “Samuel Ebner,” my grandmother’s father, was handwritten under the heading, “Name of Family Member.” 

Here’s page 283, photographed at the church. 
Samuel Ebner Family-Page 283
in Familienbuch
Under Samuel's name is "Elisabetha Ebner, geb. Eder" [née Eder], my grandmother's mother. The next three columns record the "year and date" of each family member's birth, marriage, and death. (I cropped out additional columns with little info to make viewing easier).

The entries show Samuel Ebner was born December 20, 1854, and married Lisi’s mother, Elisabetha Eder, on November 23, 1879. He was 24. Born September 3, 1863, Elisabetha was only 16.  

Their first child, Maria, arrived about two years later, February, 1882. What good news this book holds! I imagine Samuel and Elisabetha's  thrill. But then the entries turn tragic. The next baby, born in December, 1883, was named Elisabetha, after her mother. It was winter. She died three and half weeks later. A little boy, Samuel, bearing his father’s name, was born in April,1886. The book records he died July 2, 1886, living only two months.

Names were assigned to children over and over until they could stick. My grandmother was given the same name as her deceased sister, Elisabetha. But the book erroneously records her birth as July 30, 1886, impossible since baby Samuel was born three months prior to that date. The year should have been 1887

A good archaeologist has to be sure even recorded history makes sense! But it makes me wonder. Was the pastor pondering little Samuel’s birth and death dates when he absentmindedly entered the wrong year for my grandmother's birth? 
Only 23 when my grandmother was born, my great-grandmother had already suffered through the deaths of two children. But more heartache for the family was to come. In May, 1890, little Johann was born. He lived one year. My grandmother would have been nearly three when her baby brother died. Her parents’ grief must have affected even a child so young, but she never spoke of it. She would have plenty of other losses to hold in her heart.
Elisabetha gave birth again in June, 1893, another little boy, again named Samuel.  But his mother never got to see her only son live to grow up. Death bypassed Samuel -- for the time being -- and sought out his mother this go-around. On January 13, 1898, thirty-four-year-old Elisabetha succumbed to what Grandma later told us was pneumonia. The book doesn’t record the cause of death, but in an era prior to antibiotics, disease was the likely culprit for every death the Ebners endured. In this one family's ancient record, we see first-hand the kind of loss endured by virtually all families of the era. 
Left motherless, Lisi (my grandmother's most common nickname) clung ever more tightly to the father she adored. But then he, too, she felt, was taken from her. How what happened next spawned an amazing coincidence a century later.
Pastor Meitert shows the Family Book
to brother Bill and me 
Grosspold Lutheran Church rising above townscape