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.