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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

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
Scroll down to the "Missler" link to learn more.

This piece is a repost, originally published on the blog on  December 23, 2010, a day before the 100th anniversary of Josef's departure for America. 

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.

Josef's Diary - page 1
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.

Next week I'll post the beginning of his diary, originally posted on Christmas Eve, 2010, the centennial of its writing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Hidden Message Behind Women's Work

Jickeli Household Help. Lisi Ebner seated 2nd from left. Mrs. Jickeli, center in black. 

This post was originally published on December 19, 1910

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Blended Family Breakthrough

This post was originally published on December 13, 2010
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, July 10, 2012

Life and Death Abbreviated

Grosspold Family Book 

This is a repost that was originally published on this blog on Dec. 7, 2010

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 that time. 
Left motherless, Lisi (my grandmother's most common nickname) clung ever more tightly to the father she adored. But then she felt he, too, was taken from her. What happened next spawned an amazing coincidence a century later to be explored in the next post.
  Grosspold Church's Family Book
shown to brother Bill and me by
Pastor Meitert 
Grosspold Lutheran Church rising above townscape

Friday, July 6, 2012

The moment that I knew...

May 15, 1911: L-R Katarina Gärtz, Lisi
Ebner, a cousin
This photo of my grandmother, Lisi Ebner, and her future sister-in-law, Katarina Gärtz, dated May 15, 1911, was in our family photo collection for decades. 

Only when I was able to decipher and translate a letter my grandfather had written that same month, did I realize its significance in my grandparents' long distance relationship and how he persuaded her to leave her family to join him.

It's one of the many ways I've been rewarded by delving into the past. How did it come about?

This summer, The Armchair Genealogist, by Lynn Palermo, is posting the stories of when fellow family historians knew they wanted to pursue learning more about their family history. Today she's posted my story.

See The Moment that I Knew at the Armchair Genealogist.

To learn the story behind this photograph go to:
If you love me...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Remember Me in 1910

This is a repost, originally published Nov. 29, 2010

About the time Josef Gärtz received his Military Draft Summons (see Drafted 100 years ago), this photo was taken of my grandmother, Elisabetha, (known most often as “Lisi”). It was stored with other old photographs in an envelope on which she listed the contents, including this one: “Mein Bild in Großpold Kleider." 

[My picture in Großpold clothing]. (Grosspold was her home town -- near Hermannstadt/Sibiu). 

On the back she wrote: “Zur Erinnerung des Jahres 1910 19/6”  [To Remember June 19, 1910].  Lisi was 22 about to turn 23. Did she give a copy of this photo to Josef to remember her as he went on his itinerant carpentry work?

Samuel Ebner (rear) Family:
L-R Maria, Elisabetha (nee Eder),
Elisabetha, aka Lisi, my grandmother

This second photo is the earliest I have of my grandmother, posing with her father, Samuel Ebner, mother, also named Elisabetha, and older sister, Maria, born February 2, 1882. My grandmother is the little girl on the right, about six, so the date of the photo must be about 1893, (Lisi was born July 30, 1887).

We don’t know much about Lisi’s early childhood, but we do know that life wasn’t easy in rural 19th century Europe. Decades before antibiotics, vaccinations, and advanced medicine, death was intertwined with life, ever-present --lurking on roadways or horseback, in the swoosh of a scythe,  stalking young and old, rich and poor alike. It came to the Ebner family often, each visit ending in heartache.

When my brothers and I went on a roots-finding mission to Romania in 2007, we found out just how often.

In my next post, you’ll get a first hand look at the
Großpold Familienbuch” (Grosspold Family Book), maintained by the Lutheran Church in Lisi's hometown, in which births, deaths, and marriages are recorded and what we discovered there.