Saturday, October 26, 2013

Viddy viddy vit boom boom

“Henry’s Church,” the village of Heinrichskirchen, in the Upper Palatinate, in Bavaria, seems to consist of only two roads and a fire station.  Highway CHA35 runs north and south, and Highway CHA34 runs east and west.  Heinrichskirchen was combined in 1972 along with seven other villages with equally delightful names: Bernried, Diepoltsried, Fahnersdorf, Grassersdorf,  Hillstett, and Pillmersried I and II, and attached to a town with the anything but delightful name of Rötz.   Together they number today some 3464 souls, according to the Bavarian State Office for Statistics and Data Processing (Bayrisches Landesamt für Statistik und Datenverarbeitung).  I am unable to come up with figures for Heinrichskirchen itself.

You can walk to Rötz from Nuremberg in about 24 hours, according to Google Maps – or drive it in about and hour and a half.  From Regensburg it’s an hour by car, twelve hours on foot.  That’ll get you to the center of Rötz; it’s still another ten minutes up the CH35 to the firehouse in Heinrichskirchen.

The presence of a firehouse in this village too small to register on the map may have something to do with Rötz’s history.  The city’s website lists the following historical events, among others:

1017 – founded by Emperor Henry II
1255 – first church built and pastor named
1408 – established as legal seat of the Schwarzenburgs
1433 – inhabitants join the battle of the Hussites at Hiltersried
1505 – officially called a town
1600 – great fire in the northern part of town
1634 – Schwarzenburg tower destroyed by invading Swedes in the Thirty Year War
1705 – people’s uprising against conscription by occupying Austrian troops in their war over Spanish succession
1709 – 23 houses destroyed in a town fire
1742-44 – rape and pillage by Austrian troops
1771 – 87 main buildings and 69 minor ones burned to the ground in a fire
1840 – largest fire in the history of the town: 143 major buildings, 145 minor ones.
1868 – founding of the Rötz Voluntary Fire Department
1915 – rail connection established; water line connected
1921 – connected to the electric grid
1924 – streetlights introduced

Just to the northwest of Heinrichskirchen, and still on the main highway, is the town of Oberviechtach.  Oberviechtach’s main claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Doctor Johann Andreas Eisenbarth, a barber-surgeon who practiced medicine without a license and specialized in bone fractures and cataracts.  Although Eisenbarth abandoned his birthplace and never seemed to have done it a bit of good, they have named their Middle School after him and established an Eisenbarth fountain.  The local pharmacy sells an “Eisenbarth Elixir”.  Eisenbarth travelled with an entourage of up to 120 people all around Germany, with harlequins and musicians performing as he did his surgery to drown out the cries of pain.  In 1800 a song was written which went, “Ich bin der Doktor Eisenbarth (My name is Doctor Eisenbarth), that functions like a folk-song and is still sung today.  “My name is Doctor Eisenbarth, viddy viddy vit boom boom.  I make the blind walk and the lame see, viddy viddy vit boom boom.”  It loses much in translation.

Today this picturesque region of Germany near the Czech border is a center for tourism and relaxation.  The wealth of modern Germany has enabled the inhabitants to leave the misery of war and  destruction behind and hold folk festivals and bring tourists in from around the world.

It wasn’t always so.

Barbara Gebhard's Passport to America
For the past day or two I’ve been helping a friend of mine decipher a document from 1840.  It’s the passport issued by the Bavarian State Court Authorities to his great great great grandmother, Barbara Gebhard, who was born and was still living in Heinrichskirchen at the time but went to Oberviechtach to get permission to leave Bavaria and travel by way of Hamburg to her not-yet husband and father of her child Johann Baptist.  The document is written out in longhand in the script in use in Germany as late as the 1940s, a horrible system of up-and-down lines and letters (e, n, c, m, i and u) which all look alike to the uninitiated).  I learned this script as a child and remember my grandmother teaching me to make a loop over the u “so you don’t get it mixed up with the n”.  The year was 1840, the year of the fire that burned Rötz to the ground, but Barbara Gebhard may have known nothing about that, since we know only of her travels between Heinrichskirchen and Oberviechtach.  On the other hand, Rötz was less than seven kilometers to the south and it might have spurred her on to get the hell out of Dodge all the faster.

Looking at old documents is almost as much fun as a good read, for me.  Certainly a great distraction from watching the United States of America burn to the ground thanks to our modern-day invading Austrian army equivalent, the Koch Brothers and their Tea Party troops.  I was able to correct notions I had had all my life about German script, for one thing.  (See footnote)

For another, I reflected for the first time on the reason so many old documents had detailed descriptions of people involved.  Obvious, once you think about it, but I had never considered the consequences of living in a world before photography.  From a historical perspective it dawned on me for the first time that a vivid description of the pass holder was necessary, because photos were not yet invented.  And that meant that every time Barbara had to present her travel document she had to watch as the officer checked to see if indeed her forehead was rounded and her nose came to a point.  And know that they were thinking, “Here she is, big and bold, traveling just like anybody else with her little bastard son.  What’s this world coming to?”

The description of Barbara’s son as illegitimate took me back to the day in 1960 when I went in to register my residence as a foreign student in Munich.

“Name?” – asked the police official, poised to write down my answer, rather than let me fill in a form myself.  Was that because there were so many illiterate people still around?  Or was it simply German officiousness, and it took an official being to make marks on an official paper?  It can’t be for fear of bad handwriting, if Mr. Wolf’s writing is the standard.

I gave the officer my name and he wrote it down as best he could, leaving off the Mc in McCornick as a kind of “von,” which he had no use for, being working class, I suppose.  (I can only speculate, but I do remember being told at some point that it was arrogant of me to be using the Mc, that “democratic” people got rid of the honorific titles of nobility.  I had to explain the Mc was Gaelic for “son” and not a marker of nobility at all.)


Torrington, Connecticut.

He writes down “Torrington, USA”

“Legitimate or illegitimate?”


“Were you born legitimate or illegitimate?


I was only 20 at the time and still sensitive about my identity, and there I was standing in a room full of strangers, all within hearing distance.  I don’t remember what other information he wanted after that.  I just remember making a bee-line home to write a letter of gratitude to my mother and father for getting married before bringing me into the world.

Oh, there was one more question I remember:

“Where were you on September 1, 1939?”

An honest and true answer would have been, “in my mother’s uterus,” but I lacked the moxie to make that plain and simply muttered an apology for not yet being born.

That memory flooded in as I noted on this travel document for my friend Steve’s great-great-great grandmother that she had to declare before God and all the world that her little boy standing next to her was born out of wedlock.  No matter that she was leaving Germany to emigrate to America to join the boy’s father, and presumably marry at some point, that she was one of thousands and thousands of immigrants who left tired old Europe for a new start in the new in the 19th and early 20th centuries, people who now make up America’s educated ruling class as well as the modern-day equivalent to the peasant and worker class which most of them stemmed from.

Barbara Gebhard got her passport and a scribe of the Bavarian State Court named Wolf asked the world to give her “safe and unhindered” passage as she made her way to her ship in Hamburg.  For that, I suppose some gratitude is in order, although I find it astonishing how much care went into documenting the rounded foreheads and pointy noises of ordinary citizens of the German lands.

What a picture this all makes, when you put it all together – the ravages of the Thirty Years War, invasions by Swedes from the North and Austrians from the South, fires that burn your town to the ground and make you start from scratch, separation from your loved ones who go on ahead to make their fortune in the new world and bureaucratic humiliation as you wait patiently for the bureaucracy to document your comings and goings.

Barbara Schindler and her son John the Baptist Schindler made it.  Her great-great-great grandson is here to tell the story and poke around looking for details of his family’s origin in the Oberpfalz, the “Upper Palatinate.”  Such a noble sounding name, reminiscent of the Palatine Hill in Rome, the home of the Caesars.   (How the name travelled through the centuries of the Holy Roman Empire is a story for another day.)  Much of Southern Germany carries the name Palatinate in one form or another.  Upper Palatinate is a more out-of-the way and separate region of Bavaria, only recently come into its own as a tourist destination, a place to stop and rest on a whizz-bang tour as you run from the Romantic Road of old half-timber houses (the ones that managed not to burn to the ground) to the delights of modern-day Prague and beyond.

One could do worse than be a child of the Palatinate, methinks.

An Zucker sparengrundverkehrt!
Der Körper braucht ihn, Zucker nährt!" -
"To skimp on sugar -
fundamentally wrong!
Your body needs it, sugar nourishes!"

Footnote on the Fraktur and Antiqua Scripts: 

Barbara Gebhard’s single-page laissez-passer, the “Reisepass,” the same word used today in German for “passport,” is written in the so-called “Kurrent” script, a way of writing by hand which corresponds to the typeface we know as “Gothic Script” or “Fraktur” (from the way the letters appear to be “broken” or “fractured.”  (See the Brühl Sugar Factory ad on the right to see what I’m referring to.)  

My German grandmother, wanting to make a good little German of me, naturally taught me to read this “old” script, insisting that I’d need it if I wanted to read the Bible in the original Lutheran version.  She didn't call it "Kurrent" - she used the name Sütterlin Script, which I only today learned is a version of Kurrent introduced only in the 1930s and used for a mere fifteen years or so.  Close enough for government work, I suppose, but it’s nice, after all these decades, to have some mush swept clear from my brain, however trivial the detail.

It remains a curiosity, however, why Barbara Gebhard’s passport has both Fraktur and Antiqua styles together.  Were they both written by the same scribe, the Mr. Wolf, whose signature appears at the bottom, with Antiqua functioning as a kind of bold face or italics?   Or were there two hands at work, with another person filling in the individual biographical details, I wonder.  

If I could go back in time, I'd not only check in on Jesus to see if he really did marry Mary Magdalene.  I'd also go back and ask Mr. Wolf why he was writing in two different scripts.  No sense in not using your powers to the limit.

I'd then probably want to suggest to Barbara that if she had any money from the old country with her after arriving in America to hang onto it and pass it on to her kids.  I noticed she paid 3 Kreuzer to get her passport.  If by any chance she had a 20 Kreuzer coin in her possession, it would be worth over a million dollars today and I could hit her great great great grandson up for a free lunch, I'm pretty sure.

credits: Sugar man
Barbara Gebhard's pass, courtesy of Steve Schafer

1 comment:

William D. Lindsey said...

Dear Alan,

I am in your debt, and doubly so! First for the initial help you provided me on details of transliterating enigmatic "Gothic" letters, and now, for the wonderful story, commentary, history and travel excursion--all occasioned by this old 1840 scrap of paper!

I am including, with your gracious permission, your posting--verbatim and en toto--in my draft family history (which I hope will be published some day, in one form or another). This posting will be found under the section of notes on "Großmutti dreimal" Barbara!

With gratitude,


Stephen J. Schäfer