In the past month I have been on a spiritual journey seeking my German ancestors. Six of my 2x great-grandparents were born in Germany, which means I am 37 ½ percent German. Growing up, I was subjected to a form of patriarchal family disciple I came to identify as German, but I was told very little, positive or negative, about my German heritage.
Though I had been researching my family tree for five years when I began my trip to Germany, I had no clue about where in Bavaria the Thomas Christ-Anna Maria Hemmerlein branch of my family originated. While making final preparations before the trip, I learned that German church records are no longer kept in individual churches, but are grouped together in church archives. Some areas also have family records in state archives. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of German records were not destroyed in the two World Wars. However, many of the German records are not online.
For several years, I believed that one of my 2x great-grandmothers was Anna Maria Haemmerle, born in Hirshau, Wurttemburg–despite the fact that census records gave her birthplace as Bavaria. Two days before my departure, a Catholic Church archive responded to my request with the information that the Anna Maria Haemmerle I had inquired about died in Hirschau and thus could not have been my ancestor.
I was devastated. Hoping to recoup my losses, I sent an email to the town of Ober-Floerscheim (Hessen Darmstadt) where another of my ancestors was born, asking where their archives were kept. This email was forwarded to a local historian, who by a great stroke of luck, was on his computer at the time. Less than an hour later, he emailed me a great deal of new information about my ancestor and offered to show us her village.
More in desperation than hope, I asked him if he had any idea how to find ancestors in Bavaria. He directed me to a colleague, who after checking his personal archives, told me that he had been unable to find any records for my ancestors in Bavaria. He guessed they came from northern Bavaria because they left from Hamburg. He found the Christ surname to be relatively common all of Bavaria, while Hemmerleins were clustered in northern Bavaria. Still, he said, finding them would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
I prayed to my ancestors for help. A few days later the researcher emailed saying he had discovered a resource previously unknown to him: a German newspaper called Allgemeine Auswanderungs-Zeitung that published passenger lists for ships departing from German ports in the 1800s.
As I had already given him the name of the ship and its departure date, he easily found “Th(omas) Christ, Preppach” and “Anna M. Hemmerlein, Gresselgund” on the passenger list. They originated in northern Bavaria. In 1875 Gresselgrund was a hamlet with 47 inhabitants, while nearby Preppach was a village of 218. Cautioning me that the town names could be birthplaces or places of last residence, he directed me to the Roman Catholic Church archive in Wurtzburg.
With help, I found the record of Thomas Christ’s baptism record in Unterpreppach on March 11, 1812. The names of his parents were Valentin Christ, a bauer or peasant farmer who owned or rented land, and Barbara Rueter. I found records of the births of Thomas’s siblings, including an older brother who would have inherited from their father, and the marriage record of his parents. The marriage record gave his mother’s birthplace as Jesse(r)ndorf, a town near Unterpreppach.
I was disappointed to discover that Anna Maria Hemmerlein’s birth was not recorded in the town of Gresselgrund. There also was no record of her marriage. The researcher’s hunch was that Anna Maria had been raised in Gresselgrund, but born in another town. Knowing that Catholic children in Bavaria were usually confirmed at age 13 or 14, and having a few free hours in Wurtzburg just days after our visit there, he discovered that Anna Maria was confirmed in Gresselgrund in 1834. This record stated that she was born in Stettfeld, a town south of Unterpreppach on August 5, 1821.
Anna Maria’s mother was Margarethe Hemmerlein, married as Stubenrauch. No name was listed in the space for father. Her mother’s husband was not Anna Maria’s father, because if he had been, he would have acknowledged her. Margarethe Hemmerlein had two sisters who also gave birth to children out of wedlock!
Further research uncovered a marriage in Gresselgrund between Michael Stubenrach and Margarethe Hemmerlein of Stettfeld, daughter of the teacher Georg Hemmerlein and his wife Dorothea Donat from Zaugendorf on July 17, 1827. Anna Maria would have been six years old.
In another nearby town, Baunach, the marriage record of Margarethe’s parents, the teacher Georg Hemmerlein and Dorothea Donat on February 24, 1788 was found. This record only contained the information that that Georg Hemmerlein was residing in (teaching in) Oberschleichach.
I was shocked to learn that three daughters of a teacher had illegitimate children in staunchly Roman Catholic Bavaria. In the 1800s in Germany, the population was growing. In order to avoid having to support increasing numbers of poor people, German Kings in collusion with the Pope and Protestant authorities, restricted the rights of poor men to marry. As a consequence, many children were born out of wedlock, but not as many as would have been born if their parents had been allowed to marry. Since Anna M. Hemmerlein, 26, traveled to America under her maiden name, we can assume that Thomas Christ, 36, a farmer, was also among those not eligible to marry.
There is a story in our family that our Christ ancestor immigrated because he was a socialist. Thomas and Anna Maria left Germany in the wake of the 1848 revolutions. During the winter of 1848-1849, popular assemblies in Bavaria sent petitions urging the approval of a new constitution for a united democratic Germany that would have granted greater rights to the poor. As an unmarried man with nothing to lose and no family to put into danger, Thomas Christ most likely signed these petitions. Following the breakdown of negotiations for a new government, the King of Bavaria published a list of agitators to be arrested.
It is likely that Thomas Christ feared he might be on such a list, because he and Anna emigrated as soon as it became clear that the new constitution would not be passed. Thomas and Anna Maria would have been deeply disappointed to see their hopes to marry and create a family in Germany put on hold once again. They would not have had a kind word for the King and the aristocracy. On his petition for naturalization Thomas Christ renounced the King of Bavaria. I am certain it gave him great pleasure to do so.
Years ago when Roots was shown on American television, I asked my father to tell me what he knew about our family history. He said only that “we are all Americans now.” I have learned that this answer was intended to shield me from painful stories my parents and grandparents thought were better left untold. And, it might be asked, “Why tell them now?”
For me, the answer is simple: with every piece of information I uncover, I learn about lives that made mine possible, locate myself in specific parts of human history, and find my roots in particular places. Ours is an interdependent life. We did not make ourselves from nothing. Nor did we spring full-grown from the American soil. As we who have become American learn our family histories, we discover our ties to others. We too have been refugees forced to flee our homes and homeland. We too have been strangers in a strange land. Knowing this opens a space of compassion and sympathy in our hearts.
*Thanks to Helmut Schmal and Reinhard Mayer for help on an amazing journey of discovery and to my second cousin William Christ for traveling with me and for photos of Unterpreppach and Gresselgrund. Also see Ancestor Connection Revisited: Anna M. Christ of Little Germany, Brooklyn.
Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Sign up now for spring tour and save $100. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ. Carol speaks in depth about the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in an illustrated interview with Kaalii Cargill. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.
A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press summer 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.
18 thoughts on “Finding Bavarian Ancestors by Carol P. Christ”
What a moving journey of discovery, Carol. Thank you for sharing this. I love that your researcher found the key resource after you prayed to your ancestors for help. This is another reason why I believe it matters to find out where we come from: to find a sense of a living and meaningful connection to those who came before us and gave us our lives. I believe, if we know and feel that connection with our ancestors, it is easier for us to care about the generations who will come after us; and if we care about what kind of world they will inherit from us, then we must face the challenge of making different life choices now. I completely agree that your Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete helps us make those kinds of choices to create societies of peace in our own lives and to pass this wisdom down to the future.
‘We are the ancestors of tomorrow.’
Hee hee, I don’t believe the ancestors exist anywhere else but “in” us. But they did give me the strength to continue to press the researcher to find them.
For much of the time I was in Germany (and now) I feel like I am living in the Dreamtime, as the information and the stories I uncover take root in me, and those ancestors begin to live and speak through me and in me.
Thank you for sharing your Dreamtime journey, Carol. What this also shows me is how interdependent we all are in our quests for knowledge about ourselves and others . . . . all the researchers who helped you, how generous they were! We are not alone.
We were indeed offered much amazing help along the way. Not only from the researchers, but also from many people who patiently struggled to understand my broken German and French so they could show us how to get where we were trying to go. The generosity of the people we met along the way was so touching, sometimes overwhelming. Like the woman and then the man who drove out of their way and told them to follow us, when language failed.
Quite the journey of discovery, Carol. Happy integrating!
Thanks for sharing your heritage, Carol. And this seems to me very important, where you say: “We too have been refugees forced to flee our homes and homeland. We too have been strangers in a strange land. Knowing this opens a space of compassion and sympathy in our hearts.” Yes, yes, indeed!
Amazing journey Carol. Makes me want to do more work on my own genealogy which is somewhat abandoned at present. One of my German cousins emigrated to New Jersey from Germany in the 1800’s because he was a pacifist.
I like especially your final statement about compassion – because we too were once “strangers in the land”.
Carol, Since reading your books for many years I have often wondered if you and my half-brother, Udo Karl Georg Christ, might be related. I will forward your article to him. Our mother’s family were originally from the Bavaria region. But I am not sure about his father’s family history. Thank you for your thoughtful article.
Hi Melanie, Will be interested to see what he has to say. Thomas Christ had only one surviving child, and unless your cousin is descended from George Christ d. 1895 of tb, the connection would have to be farther back. As Christ is a relatively common surname, not all Christs will be related. For example, everyone whose father owned a mill got named Miller or Mueller, and the connection is owning a mill, not genetic. Similarly the Christ surname may come from having been an early or devout convert to Christianity.
I found your story fascinating. On one side of my family, my cousin had traced back several hundred years to several places including Ireland and England and Switzerland. He shared 75 pages of research with me. I started researching on the other side and came up with nearly the same thing. My name actually can be traced to a specific person in Ireland a couple of centuries ago. I also have two great grandfathers, one on each side of the family, who came from the canton of Berne in Switzerland in the mid 1800s. Then I had my DNA done (I already knew my haploid group from my grandson having his DNA done). What a surprise. It was not what I expected at all in many ways. Given all the information I had from records, I expected to be a lot of Irish and English as well as Swiss. Not so. I apparently have almost as much Caucasus as Irish–4-7 percent, not much more English. Now I am sort of stuck because I realize somewhere along the way, people are not who they thought they were. In a previous post you indicated it is worthwhile to have your DNA done by several providers. I want to do that to compare but cannot decide which one to choose. Any suggestions?
I had my DNA for ethnicity done by Ancestry. Mine did not come out exactly as I expected, but after I understood that “Viking” DNA could be categorized as English or German or Scandanavian, and that there were other invasions and migrations of N European groups, there were no surprises in mine.
I sent my DNA results from Ancestry to Family Tree DNA for a small fee and to Ged match for no fee.
I got cousin matches from both. They don’t have exactly the same data bases. The cousin matches from Sweden helped me to find my ancestral home there.
With DNA you also have to take into account the way DNA is passed on. My mother was 1/2 Swedish and 1/4 German and 1/4 English. However she does not necessarily give her genes to me evenly. I could get only Swedish genes from her or no Swedish genes. This is why children in families don’t always look alike, the clear examples being the white and black twins, one of whom got mainly white genes from a mixed race parent, the other more of the black genes.
Family Tree links to the National Geographic Genotype Project. I might try that since that is where my grandson did his. I used Ancestry also–where the results surprised me. Thanks so much.
Google share Ancestry results with Family Tree. Good luck!
Wow, what fascinating information you found! I have some German ancestry, too, but I haven’t been able to trace it because I have such sketchy information, including a great-great-grandmother who was adopted. Maybe some day more of the German genealogy will be online and I’ll be able to trace it.
And how has all these details that you did not have in your formative years, Carol, when you were entering your professional life, inform the unconscious drivers that brought you to the here & now?
A family history that I did not know may have influenced my genetic inheritance. For example, both Thomas Christ and I are agitators. Was that tendency inherited? Anna Maria’s grandfather was a teacher. Was intelligence and even my desire to share knowledge inherited? Both are possible.
At the same time, a history I did not know did not consciously influence my decision (say) to become a feminist theologian.
What I mean and meant is that if my ancestors had not survived and persevered to give birth to children who gave birth to children, I would not be here today. Nor would I have been born in America if my six German 2x great-grandparents and other ancestors had not emigrated from their homelands.
The gratitude I feel towards them is not “because they enabled me to become a feminist theologian.” Rather it is a more wide-ranging gratitude for the lives of others that enabled me to be born, to be born in America, and to be born with more opportunities than they had.