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.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

2010 iGene Awards-And the Winners are....

Welcome to the 2010 iGene Awards, one of the Carnival of Genealogy (CoG) monthly themes. For my readers new to CoG, it offers genealogy bloggers a new topic each month for our blog posts. February is the month to highlight our best posts of the previous year in the categories you'll see below--a fun "Academy Awards" for us family history devotees. I've squeaked into the competition--just like those movies that show up in the theaters at the very end of the year. I started my blog on November 16, 2010, but managed to find winners in each category. Thank you to Jasia at Creative Gene for making this all possible! 

Written by Josef Gärtz
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Josef and Natalie Portman as Lisi

Based upon his own diary, a 21-year old Transylvanian immigrant, Josef Gärtz, takes off for America on Christmas Eve, 1910. Too impatient to wait for proper papers, he leaves behind his sweetheart, Lisi Ebner, not knowing if he'll ever see her again. Along the way, he must escape border patrol agents by clinging to the top of a roaring train, endure endless health inspections that could at any time derail his dream, and bid farewell to Europe, wondering if he’ll make it alive across a roiling and frigid Atlantic Sea.

Follow this serial adventure from its start, on December 24, 1910, brought to life again 100 years to the date after he wrote about it. 

Threats to the Dream: Vienna to Bremen 12/28/10

"I can hardly wait to see what happens next on Josef's voyage." 

"It feels like Josef is writing to me. To have such a wonderful family resource is amazing. Thank 
 you so much for sharing it, 
and your photo choices add so much." 

Jickeli Household help, Elisabeth Ebner, my grandmother
seated 2nd from left

This photo is a winner because it not only shows my grandmother, Lisi Ebner, her employer (center), and co-workers, but also depicts the details of the domestic chores that ruled women's lives when Lisi was a young woman. Equally as thrilling as seeing this photo and the people Lisi held dear (including the little girl at right, Lisbeth, for whom my grandmother was governess), was to find the message that had been hidden for the last century on the back of the framed picture. Find out for yourself by reading more about this Best Picture.


Another serialized winner, Lisi Ebner's young life is revealed in these three posts which paint a picture of  a young woman dealing with early loss, finding her equilibrium again in a blended family, falling in love, and soldiering on through difficult times.

Blended Family Breakthrough


Young Josef Gärtz starts a notebook in which he records songs and off-color jokes (“moral and immoral contents” as he describes them.) His tongue-in-cheek reasons for purchasing the book, warning that it is not to be used to “instruct children” shows his cute sense of humor even when writing to himself.


This treasure deserves best documentary as the oldest indecipherable missive found thus far among scores of  letters written in an ancient German script and saved by my grandmother and now me over the past century. I published it on the 100th anniversary of its writing. It turned out to be a sweet love note from my grandfather, Josef, to his sweetheart, Lisi. To discover out how I found a Rosetta Stone to unlock the secrets held within these letters and cards, check out this winner!


Thanks to all the wonderful genealogy bloggers out there who are an inspiration to me to continue sharing my family history. A special thanks to those bloggers who so graciously welcomed me into the fold. I look forward to visiting more of your sites.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Road to Sibiu- Travel Tuesday

My cousin, Maria and I flew out of Stuttgart on September 16, 2007, and landed in Bucharest as the sunset washed the countryside in an peachy glow. At a nearby hotel, we met my two brothers, Paul and Bill, and Bill’s wife. The next morning, we squished five people and their luggage into a mini-van and took off for Hermannstadt (Sibiu), the big city near the two small towns, Neppendorf and Grosspold, which were the original homes to my grandfather and grandmother, respectively.

Peles Castle in Sinaei, Romania
On the way, we stopped for a few hours in Sinaei (named after Mt. Sinai, of Ten Commandments fame) to view Peles Castle on a perfect blue-sky day, crossing a brook, having wine on a terrace overlooking the castle, laughing and telling jokes and stories about our childhood.

Continuing on to Sibiu/Hermannstadt, the going was slow as the major highway was under reconstruction (roads and streets were ripped apart everywhere in an effort to rebuild a country that had been working for almost two decades   to overcome the neglect and brutalization under Ceausescu).

Scenes along the road were of another era. Passing through one small town near sunset, we yielded to cows on the highway driven home  from the pastures. Old women in their babushkas and long skirts sat at the side of the road, perhaps waiting for loved ones to return from the fields or watching the world go by.

We arrived at 9 p.m. in Sibiu, exhausted after about ten hours of travel, but were rewarded with dinner in a cellar restaurant with ancient brick domed walls, entertained by the musical duo pictured here. Lots of meat and salads of tomatoes and onions were typical menu choices.

We overnighted right next to the Evangelische Kirche Neppendorf, (Lutheran Church in Neppendorf) where the Gärtz family had worshipped for two centuries. In the next few posts, we'll see the  secrets this church yielded to expose unknown family  history.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Travel Tuesday-Transylvania Sights & Family Secrets

Welcome to the first post for “Travel Tuesday.” I plan to use Tuesdays to highlight the roots-finding trip my brothers and I made to Transylvania, Romania, in September, 2007. I’ve suggested this topic to Genea-bloggers as another possible prompt to which others may wish to contribute about genealogy research trips they have taken, and/or to highlight the lands of their ancestors.

Transylvanian Countryside

One of the scores of horse-drawn carts in Transylvania
A Breathtaking Land

The theme of Travel Tuesday is two-fold. One is to introduce my wonderful readers to the not-yet-fully discovered, gorgeous region of Transylvania in Romania. Some of the places we visited are as beautiful, historic, and fascinating as any destination in Europe. Romania is caught in a bit of a time-warp. We saw scenes every day that one would have to go back forty to sixty years to see in Western Europe: ubiquitous horse-drawn carts hauling harvests on the secondary highways, men actually cutting grass with scythes in the fields, cone-shaped haystacks out of another time, parents and youngsters working side-by-side to harvest potatoes. Breath-taking mountains and valleys, dotted with farms and grazing animals, created an unfolding panorama, a new view around each bend.

Ubiquitous cone-shaped haystacks squat throughout
the countryside

Gleaning Genealogical Treasures on a Roots-finding Journey

The second theme is to share the genealogical discoveries such a trip afforded us, which I hope will encourage others to travel to their ancestors’ native lands, if for no other reason than to breathe the air, and be part of the geography in which previous generations lived. In some places, this is no longer possible, so much was destroyed in the wars or built up with 20th century sprawl. But some vestige of the past probably remains that your imagination can latch onto as we all love to envision the reality of our ancestors’ lives.

So I’ve used up most of my words today just introducing this idea, but will begin next week where my my journey to Romania began: in Crailsheim, Germany, where the present-day Gärtz family, my cousins, settled after leaving Romania.

Family Resemblance

In my previous post, I wrote about my 1995 trip to meet these relatives for the first time in my life. The goal of my most recent visit in 2007, twelve years after the first, was to visit again with a part of the family that had actually lived and grown up in interview the elder Gärtz, Hans, and find out what I could about my grandfather and life in Romania.

Hans Gärtz and me. Hans's grandfather
was my grandfather's half-brother
I was struck, as Hans spoke to me, how much his gestures resembled those of my grandfather, Josef. Just like Josef, Hans used his hands, often spreading the fingers wide, palms down, to emphasize a point, leaning back, then forward in his chair, as he shared stories from Neppendorf, the little town he and my grandfather’s called home.

Like Josef, Hans laughed easily and had a quick sense of humor, Hans didn’t know Josef, who had emigrated before he was born, but Hans’s father, knew him. “Josef was always full of silliness,” his father had recalled. Same guy I knew -- always sticking his false teeth out at us grandkids to get a laugh.

Critical Family History Details Revealed in Interview

Hans’s interview, two years before I found Josef’s diary, was the first time I had heard that Josef had left Romania on Christmas Eve, and that he didn’t have the proper papers to leave. “He just wanted to go,” Hans said, “and didn’t want to wait.” When I found the diary, corroborating the Christmas Eve departure, combined with Hans’s story about missing papers (not mentioned in the diary) it was like the click of a lock. I knew I had important details, which explained why Josef had to escape detection at the borders. Without the Hans interview, I would have been left wondering what that was all about.

Lesson: interview your relatives!

So, dear readers, in order to keep these posts brief and readable in everyone's limited time, I’ll continue the Romania story on Travel Tuesdays over the next several months.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

German Mojo Defeats Cryptic Cursive

portion of my Grandfather's letter to view cryptic cursive

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.

Postcard of Frauenkirche
 from my Scrapbook 1969-70
"Ein Jahr im München" 
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!

Family members at funeral of Lillian Gartz, 8/1994
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.

Visiting Gärtz family in Crailsheim Germany. 2nd from left
is Hans Gärtz, whose grandfather, Michael Gärtz, was my
grandfather's half brother. Far right Hans Jr., my generation.
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.

Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, giving last
speech on12/21/1989 in Bucharest. He misread the
increasingly hostile.  crowd. The next morning, he
was whisked away by helicoptor. He and his wife, Elena,
were tried and executed on 12/25/89.
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.
Left: me; right: my 2nd cousin twice removed, Maria Gärtz,
 visiting Würzburg, June, 1995

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.

Approximately 35 old letters were found bunched together
in a  second Missler Wallet in Box #14 "Correspondence"

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.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ancestor Approved, Surprises, and Sharing Award

Recently I've received the Ancestor Approved Award from Nancy at My Ancestors and Me. Thank you so much for making Family Archaeologist one of your choices. My hope is to create a link to all of our ancestors' experiences, and our common humanity, through the words expressed in the diaries, letters, and documents I'm sharing.
This award was created by Leslie Ann Ballou at Ancestors Live Here. Leslie asks that the recipients list ten things that they've learned about any of their ancestors that have surprised, humbled, or enlightened them AND pass the award on to ten other bloggers who are doing their ancestors proud.

Here are my ten surprising, enlightening, or humbling discoveries:

1. Surprised: By searching through my trove of ancient letters, I was surprised to discover what a prolific correspondent my paternal grandmother, Elisabetha (Lisi) Gartz was. She corresponded for sixty years with the little girl for whom she’d been governess, for forty years with that girl’s mother, Mrs. Jickeli, (my grandmother’s boss in Hermannstadt, Transylvania/Siebenbürgen), and for decades with range of family and friends from the old country. The scores of letters they wrote in return, and that my grandmother saved, are proof of their lasting affection for all those decades.
2. I was shocked to find the loving, devoted, prayerful letters my grandmother composed to my uncle as he trained for and served in World War II. She was rather distant and uninvolved with her grandchildren, and I never saw this side of her. 
3. I’ve been humbled by the work ethic of my grandparents and parents -- learning more through notes and letters about their ability to work unceasingly, without respite, for most of their lives. I also realize now this maniacal devotion to work, while serving the new immigrants well, could have used a little tempering.
4. I was surprised to find the level of note-making and labeling on family photos and miscellaneous documents. It’s almost as if everyone was planning to to communicate with the future.
5. On my roots-finding trip to Romania in 2007, I was awestruck by the beauty of the homeland , Transylvania / Siebenbürgen, my grandparents left behind.
6. Finding out that the original Gärtz who emigrated to Transylvania came from Gerstheim, in Alsace-Lorraine, was a real surprise.
7. I’ve been humbled by the beautiful, loving letters, so sweet and sincere in their expression of love, between my grandmother and her little charge, Lisbeth.
8. I was stunned to find my grandfather kept a diary of his trip to America, and wrote a letter to Lisi just before boarding the ship (see previous posts) confirming the story he often told us when we were growing up.
9. I was surprised to find my dad kept diaries: from the ages of 19-21, in the 1930s, and again from 1950-1956, starting right after I was born. I was enlightened to learn about his youthful dramas and what life was like when I was too young to remember.
10. I was surprised to find out my grandmother had several siblings who died as infants or very young. She never spoke of them.

I'm passing on the Ancestor Approved Award to the following blogs. I chose them because their content is interesting and/or informative and fun to read. As far as I could tell, none have the "Ancestor Approved" logo on their sites. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Landing the Dream

Today is the 100th anniversary of Josef Gärtz, my paternal grandfather, arriving in America, losing the umlaut over the "ä" and becoming Gartz. My guess is that he didn’t record his first impressions because he was too excited and overwhelmed upon landing to be scribbling in his diary. So without his words to guide me, I’m going to try to briefly reconstruct what he, and all of our European ancestors who entered through Ellis Island, probably endured as initiation into this new land.

Let’s join Josef as he disembarks from his ship, Friedrich der Grosse on January 11, 1911, and get just a little flavor of our ancestors’ arrivals.

Passengers disembarking from barge at Ellis Island ~1910
From Library of Congress collection
After passing the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, steerage passengers (undoubtedly how Josef traveled--the cheapest) are loaded onto barges, transferring them to Ellis Island, where they will undergo a number of inspections before being admitted to the United States.

In many ways, Josef is typical of the immigrants arriving at this time. Like Josef, most of them (68-90%) fall between the ages of 14 - 44. He is 21. About half of the men in this age group are single, like Josef. But his skills aren’t typical: about one fourth of the immigrants, the largest percentage, are “common laborers,” while about 15% are “skilled laborers.” As a master carpenter, Josef belongs to the latter group. That probably bodes well for finding decent work. The others are primarily farm laborers or servants. Only one percent describe themselves as “professionals.”

Eye Inspection at Ellis Island 1913
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
"Doctor's inspection of suspects for skin diseases, etc."
Ellis Island 1902
After all the health inspections, inoculations, and eye examinations, Josef has already endured before arriving in America, he, and everyone else, is once again subjected to prodding, peering, and poking, and all are further questioned as to their ability to support themselves. Failing these tests ends the dream.

Great Hall - Ellis Island
In the twenty years from 1892-1912, 169,312 aliens were refused entry, overwhelmingly for three main reasons: likelihood of becoming a public charge, affliction with “loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases,” or due to being “contract” laborers (why this last one kept out almost 13% of immigrants in 1910, I haven’t a clue.)

It has to be nerve-wracking to wait in these endless lines, to wonder if some small oversight will send you back across the ocean. But all goes well. Josef overcomes the final hurdle and enters the United States of America. I can only imagine the elation and anticipation. (I'd love to hear from any of you, Dear Readers, who has a note, a diary or a memorable story passed down as to what  an ancestor's first emotions were upon realizing he/she was actually starting a new life in America.)

Next stop: Cleveland, Ohio, where a “Landsman” (another Siebenbürgen/Transylvanian German, from his home town of Neppendorf) will welcome him into his home, help him get on his feet, and teach him the ropes.

So it was with so many who sought out friends and relatives from the “Old Country” who could ease their way into the “New Country.”

In the near future, I’ll be posting some of the missives that went back and forth between Cleveland and Romania, and how Josef pulled out all the stops to get his Lisi to join him.

But before we get to those letters and postcards, I want to get back to what I promised to write about in my last post: how I got my German mojo back which allowed me to tackle these letters that allow us to peer into the minds of two young immigrants a century ago.

Note, except where noted othewise, the Ellis Island facts and photos included here come from this site: Gjenvik-Gjønvik Archives. The site provides footnotes at the end of its pages.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mystery Writing

While Josef makes his way across the Atlantic to America in early January, 1911, I thought I’d use his “travel time” to fill you all in on some details of this family archaeologist’s dig. First--a little more about the unreadable letters, diaries and documents.

21, 16, 4, 23, 24, 2 ... Who needs Numerical Order? Boxes
I access regularly are in my office. These... stored away.
In my first Welcome post, I told you that my brothers and I sorted through the remains of several lifetimes in my mother’s house after her death in 1994. We filled two dumpsters, had a huge house sale, and still had family treasure enough to fill twenty-five bankers’ boxes. (Here’s a photo of just some of the stored boxes.)

Box 14 became the repository with this label: “Joseph and Elisabeth Gartz, Correspondence and Memorabilia.” (We used the Americanized spellings of their names.)

My older brother, Paul, gets the credit for the letters’ continued existence. Both my younger brother, Bill, and I could have been persuaded to toss them. Paul wanted to keep everything that could be remotely related to family. We sighed. “No one will ever be able to read them!” I declared.

Now I’m the only sibling that has even passable German language skills. (For lack of a better idea, I chose German as my college major. Within a year, I got the payoff for that impulsive decision: I spent my senior year studying at the University of Munich, which fixed the language into the deep recesses of my brain, even when surface knowledge was forgotten).

In 1994, after almost a quarter century hiatus from German, raising two young children, acting as executor for my Mom’s estate, and with a newly gutted and renovated house that required serious attention, I looked at those letters and prayed for dispensation. I was certain I could never endure the agony (with my creaky and diminished language skills) or the time (see above) of translating the undoubtedly mundane details from the lives of people of whom I had no knowledge. Were they even relatives? Oh...and then there’s the ILLEGIBLE part.

Just to give you a sense of what I’m talking about, here’s a little book my grandmother kept, copyrighted 1881.The title: ABC Buch und Leseübungen für Schule und Haus: (Book and Reading Practice for School and Home). Its intent was to teach children to recognize both printed and handwritten letters of the alphabet in late 19th Century German. It shows the physical style of writing my grandparents, their friends, and relatives would have learned. This little book shows the handwriting used in the letters.

Below are just a few examples:  Page 6: Look how “u” “e” and “o” are written in longhand. Huh? No semblance to our way or writing. At the very bottom, you'll see pages 10 and 11 displaying even odder renditions, to our mind, of cursive letters.

So why would I want to keep correspondence, the handwriting of which was almost as inscrutable as hieroglyphics? To keep peace in the family. We dutifully stored the letters, giving them their very own box. At the time, I was sure they would never again see the light of day.

Next post, I’ll tell you how I got my German mojo back, how I began to unravel the letters' mysteries -- and then struggled to keep the work organized. It may offer you some ideas as to how to approach your own document quandary--or you may have better ideas!

Left: t, k, s, st.  Right: f (recognizable) h, and ch (a common combination
in German. I find it interesting that an American flag is used to
represent the letter "f." Promoting the dream?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Atlantic Crossing in Winter

Friedrich der Grosse. from www.norwayheritage.com
Crossing the North Atlantic in the heart of winter was a grueling experience, as Josef reports in his diary.

The first and second days were fine, but the other ten days we had very stormy weather so that not a single person remained healthy or found any joy or pleasure on the ship. The ship flew up, then down, and made us completely dizzy. I was only sick the first two days, [perhaps he means the first two days of stormy weather], and then I got used to the ship’s movements. Still, to travel over the water in winter is gruesome. The weather was so stormy that we could only see 80, 100 meters at the most, and the water flew about.

Besides the weather, other unpleasantries accompanied Josef's journey:

Another problem on the ship was eating. As long as I had mother’s bread and wurst, it was ok, but when I had eaten all that, I just stood there and didn’t know how to get something to eat because the cost [of food] is miserable on the ship.

It’s quite possible Josef ate sparsely for the entire trip as he had very little money. We heard that when he first arrived in America, he would buy a loaf of bread and a salami, and portion it out over a week. No wonder he was so skinny.

This is the last that Josef writes in his diary about his journey. I feel a little cheated, but don't want to be greedy either. I would like to have learned more about how he felt seeing the Statue of Liberty, pulling into the port of New York, and enduring more health inspections at Ellis Island. But then I'm grateful to have the records he did make --and that have been amazingly preserved for this past century. It is so much more than I even imagined existed. I hope you readers have felt a kinship with the efforts your ancestors made through Josef's trials and exhilarations as he made his way first across Europe -- and then across the Atlantic.

According to the Ellis Island Ship’s list, Friedrich der Grosse arrived on January 11, 1911. Thanks to Monika Ferrier, I was able to find Josef's name, name and age mis-transcribed, on the ship's manifest.

While Josef continues his journey, the next few posts will share more finds that shed light onto the process of my "archaeological" dig, along with a bit of history thrown in for good measure.