The Rheinland American: First Voyage

In my explorations, I’ve come across a saying, sometimes attributed to philosopher George Santayana, and at other times noted as an old German proverb, that in German runs like this: Es gibt nichts Neues unter der Sonne, außer das Vergessene”: there is nothing as new in this world as that which we have forgotten. Less foreboding, perhaps, than Santayana’s famous warning about the lessons of history, this upgrade of Ecclesiastes gently reminds us that history, the accumulation of experiences and interactions that define our presence in this world, is always something near at hand. It is also a way of saying that when we forget our history, we forget in the process ourselves and our relationship with others.

It so happens that to be American, too, has often become synonym for having forgotten, or needed to suppress, one’s ancestral history. Calamities, wars, prejudice and the other usual tribulations have played pivotal roles in shaping an American cultural identity, but we’re quick to forget that these forces actively pressured and shaped life wherever our ancestors lived: a war might destroy a cemetery, or the very society that tended its grounds might call for its removal; a mother might die and with her goes part of a family’s oral culture, or it may be, as was frequent in the 1800s, that she’s not even granted an obituary.

The Rheinland American is a space in which those interested in the genealogical and cultural history of Rhineland emigrants can find what they seek, or in the least, find a new lens through which they might examine their family history. On a regular basis, I will publish posts and short essays to do with the  particular section of German America that Rhinelanders occupy: from helpful tips for navigating German-language records to essays on German-American cultural topics, this site is meant to expand what German-American genealogy might mean in the Digital Age.

Seventy years ago, the largest portion of my paternal family’s history, along with their personal effects, burned in a house fire: family bibles, photographs, letters, and all the small, uncollected items that compose the part of our history no one else will write for us. In spite of this loss, my grandfather and his siblings made sure to instill in their children and grandchildren an interest in where we came from, even if our family memory could only extend as far as their immediate families’ memories. When I was able, I took the helm of the research for my own side, and invigorated by the new territory of the Internet, picked up where my grandfather left off, but with a scope that he, working with paper records, could scarcely achieve. Doing so has been an undertaking and to this day continues to present me with challenges.

The difficulty of researching my father’s family, I’ve come to learn, was not coincidental or purely bad luck: it is a matter of confronting one historical erasure after another, the house fire being just one pivotal moment among others. Our first family cemetery was removed, the grave markers likely destroyed, and the inscriptions of most graves were not transcribed, despite the removal having occurred in the 1900s. The family bibles were all lost, and the church in which all baptisms, marriages, and burials were recorded let their earliest books mold. It seemed as if there was nothing left of my grandfather’s grandfather’s early life.

After years of labor and research, I discovered that conditions in German family history were no better: church book pages missing for the Napoleonic War years, a gap encompassing nearly all my emigrant ancestors on that side. Cemeteries that were never maintained, or intended to be. When I finally managed to return to the village my family left in the 1800s—the village whose name my family forgot, or lost—I remember standing on the swollen, greenly clovered church grounds where the cemetery lay, and noting the lack of stones. We stood at a great height compared to the cobblestone street—some fifteen, twenty feet above–and it dawned on me that this small space on which I stood was the village, a cross-section of those buried throughout the centuries, stacked, more or less, upon one another, the graves removed with each successive burial. It dawned on me that no may remembers us but ourselves. Our dead must live as much in our words and actions, or else, they become artifacts—evidence to fuel another hypothesis.

It is a great privilege that I was ever able to return to my family’s town of origin, but it is also a great, and surely modern, privilege that I even knew my ancestors’ names at all. Who around you, at any given point in your day, could recall the names of all their great-grandparents? It is something of an illusion that in the Digital Age we now have such reach and archival capability. The reality is less that we’ve lost our evidence but more that we’ve forgotten that it is up to us as individuals to recreate a family’s narrative. No one else can do this for us.

This site is dedicated to those who, too, now feel the urge not simply to find data for their tree, like some sort of ancestral Sudoku puzzle, but to find their narrative, and who wish to learn from and listen to “the newly forgotten” aspects of our life.

 

 

 

 

 

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