From the Waters Have We Learned

Monday, July 15, 2013

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be
any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
-Ecclesiastes 1:11


We crossed the sea in a crowded boat and came to the harbor. We were tired. We were hungry. We were poor, we said. We settled the land, not remembering there had been others here before. Wars engulfed us and then passed. Times were better and then they were hard. We moved to the city. We moved to the suburbs. Then further and further away from each other. The story that had held us together grew vague. We could no longer remember the details.


A lack of detail is how I explain to myself why I began to find it necessary to spend exorbitant amounts of time, which perhaps should have been spent reading to my children or going grocery shopping or vacuuming up the hair the dogs were shedding, searching for men I did not know on the Internet. These men were dead, long dead. And their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the cold ground with them. Years ago they had crossed the sea on small boats with their wives and families: Joseph Schilli, Seraphin Donze, Wilhelm Naeger, Jacob Joerger. I was their great-great-great-granddaughter. I said to myself that because I grew up in the suburbs, where there was no past, I needed them. I needed a past because my present world was continually under construction.


The day after my cousin Anna’s wedding, everyone drove north out of St. Louis to her groom’s family farmhouse in a field near the Mississippi River. We sat on folding chairs in small groups under the cottonwood trees, eating barbecue and corn on the cob while children ran barefoot through the mown grass. The spring sun was warm and everyone a little weary-eyed from the reception the night before. Toward evening, my husband and I loaded our three girls, sticky and sweaty, into the car and began the long drive back to Houston. I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul, the groom’s brother had sung, playing his guitar while the bride and groom danced in the garden. Where I’ll end up well I think, only God really knows.

In theory, I don’t believe in the miraculous. I’ve not, as far as I know, experienced a visitation from beyond. If God’s finger had ever poked me on the forehead, I was wholly unaware. But south of St. Louis on Highway 55 near Ste. Genevieve, with the white limestone bluffs of the Mississippi River standing in relief against the black sky, the wind picked up and our car began to pitch and heave. Torrential rain quickly followed, and at the exact moment that Terry said to me, “I think we better pull over,” the sign for Ozora lit up in our headlights.

As it happens, Ozora is the town my paternal grandmother’s family is from. My grandmother’s mother was Anna Maria Naeger Schilli, and what I knew about her was precisely this: that she spoke German to my grandmother when my grandmother was a little girl. That she taught my grandmother to color Easter eggs in a dye made of onion skins. And that she died, probably of meningitis, when my grandmother was thirteen, leaving four sons and a husband as well, all of whom packed up and left for St. Louis soon after her death. My cousin, the bride who had danced to the Cat Stevens song in the garden, was named for her. At the Ozora Truck and Travel Plaza, we paid for a room, divided our five selves between the two beds and their thin covers, and went to sleep.

The next morning, a Sunday, we bought the girls powdered donuts and chocolate milk at the gas station and drove into Ozora, more of a settlement than a town, really, to visit the general store my grandmother’s father had owned and the church where my grandmother had played the organ. Though the store was now some other family’s home, it still looked out over a field and beyond to a farm with barns and outbuildings. I remembered my grandmother telling me how when she was a little girl, she would sit on her front porch and watch the sun set across what must have been that field, how she imagined that if she just kept walking, through those fields and the ones beyond, she would actually reach the sun.

My daughters and I wandered around the cemetery of the nearby Sacred Heart Church, among Naegers and Schillis and Hermanns and Lipps. I knew I was connected to some of them in some way, but I didn’t know who and I didn’t know how. I could no longer remember the details. When I found Anna Schilli’s gravestone, Died 7 November 1931, it said, Mother, it said, I wished I had something to offer. The rains the night before had washed away the heat and the girls were shivering in their shorts and T-shirts, so I sent them back to the car with my husband, who was patiently looking at a map, calculating how much later we would be getting home that night because of this accidental pilgrimage. But because the white marble Virgin Mary on the lawn was beckoning to me with outstretched arms, I went into the church, a solid buff-limestone Romanesque structure with thick walls and small arched windows lining the nave. The walls were painted a pale blue, which reminded me of the pale blue walls of the bedroom in my grandmother’s house in St. Louis where my sister and I would sleep on trundle beds when we visited my grandparents, after my parents had left Missouri for the Houston suburbs. I was thinking about that room with the pale blue walls and about leaving the place you know when an elderly man who had been distributing hymnals among the pews in preparation for the mass came toward me and asked if he could help. I told him that my grandmother had grown up in Ozora and had played the organ in this church, and so when he asked her name, and I told him “Alvina Schilli”—well, of course he was her cousin.

He was her cousin, and he knew that she had died some years before, and he remembered my grandfather and I told him that he was gone now as well. He told me that my grandmother had actually been born in Weingarten, a small community a few miles away, that her father had initially farmed the land before he’d become a shopkeeper, and that later, after the Schillis had left Weingarten for Ozora and left Ozora for the city, that land had become a POW camp for Italians captured during the Second World War.

I recall thinking as I listened to this cousin of my grandmother’s, or this instrument of the Almighty, depending upon how one looked at the situation, that perhaps I was not, as I had formerly assumed, enclosed by the date of my birth and what eventually would be the date of my death. Quite suddenly, I found that I stretched back, some strand of me stretched back to a time and a place before, when Raymond Schilli and Anna Naeger were farmers in Weingarten and their daughter Alvina was born. “I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,” Walt Whitman tells us; “I am the mate and companion of all people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself.” Was this pilgrimage, either accidental or contrived by an omnipotent being via wind and rain, sending me a sign? Was this—I . . . am not contain’d between my hat and boots—the revelation I didn’t know I’d been hungering for?


The religious historian Mircea Eliade distinguished two levels of existence for “traditional man” or “religious man” (to Eliade, the terms are interchangeable): the sacred realm and the profane world. The profane world is that world our bodies inhabit—in the case of my body, that would be a world of concrete and crepe myrtle, of strip malls, tidy lawns, billboards, baby dolls and books, an ancient pecan tree and a Volvo station wagon with 150,000 miles on it. Eliade says that into this profane space, at particular places, the sacred erupts, and that spot, which is a kind of center, becomes hallowed ground.

So what happened is that we returned home to Houston, and then it was summer and at night my daughters’ hair smelled of chlorine, and during the day, when we weren’t swimming, I fed them popsicles and let them watch rental movies far too often because it was too hot and humid to peel myself off the couch beneath the fan and think of something educational or cultural or, at the very least fun, to do with them instead.

But I kept thinking, I . . . am not contain’d between my hat and boots. I wanted to know about all those Schillis and Naegers, about how they ended up in southeastern Missouri near the Mississippi River in Ozora and Weingarten. “There are,” Eliade says, “. . . privileged places, qualitatively different from all others—a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.” And so it was for me that these farming communities settled by my German immigrant ancestors, into which I’d stumbled during a rainstorm, had become irruptions of the sacred into the profane, shrines in my own private holy land.



It is perhaps curious and not a little contradictory that a nation whose most enduring literary theme is self-invention, which requires a dispensing of the past, should also find itself an epicenter of obsessive genealogical research, which seeks it. Where does Gatsby, who “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,” come from, and Huck Finn, devising a new identity at every bend in the river? Or even Whitman tramping about in his broad hat and open collar, the guise of a common working man? Benjamin Franklin walking the streets of Philadelphia upon his arrival, three rolls in his pocket and hardly a penny to his name? “I have been the more particular in this Description of my Journey,” he says in his Autobiography, “and shall be so of my first Entry into that City, that you may in your Mind compare such unlikely Beginning with the Figure I have since made there.” Don’t these figures—all of whom chuck their past lives and selves for new ones of their own making—originate, at least in part, out of our creation myth? The emigrant boards the boat and crosses the sea and enters the harbor of these shores, and in that passage abandons the Old World for the New, the former self for the self of the immigrant’s choosing. It’s a free country and the watchful village is far behind. We can be whatever we choose to be. Or so we tell ourselves. We try not to think about the repercussions of discarding the past. We don’t often acknowledge that though we’d sometimes like to leave our old selves behind, this cannot be done without a certain amount of destruction.

It’s not only our literature, though, that is an emanation of this American will toward self-invention. He sprang from his Platonic conception of himself—wholly formed and unhampered by a past. This describes Gatsby and so many of our iconic literary figures. But does it not also describe our suburbs? Our suburbs, our vast, sprawling, forgetful suburbs that raze the landscape, itself a form of the past, and name their subdivisions and their streets for what they’ve destroyed or for what they long to be—Panther Creek, Doe Run, Whispering Pines. We leave the defunct industrial cities, the midwestern farming communities, behind and reinvent ourselves in a three-bedroom, two-bath tract house with one tree planted just to the side of the garage in every yard.

Suburbs often begin as utopian experiments. The Woodlands, where I grew up, was begun by an oil magnate and urban-planning visionary who wanted to create A Real Hometown, as the tagline had it, for all races and socioeconomic levels in the midst of the Piney Woods north of Houston, woods which he tried to preserve. But The Woodlands, with its mall disguised as a Town Center, is now known as a white upper-middle-class enclave with manicured lawns—a utopia perhaps, but only for the privileged. I often remind myself that utopia comes from the Greek root meaning “no place.” I am from, in essence, nowhere. But I had always wanted to be from somewhere. Thus genealogy. Thus the maniacal desire to reconnect severed ties, to fill in every leaf of every branch of the family tree. “Reinvent thyself,” said our father Benjamin Franklin. But “Know thyself,” said Socrates. Which commandment do we choose to follow? The genealogist wants to recover what the self-made man discards, what the emigrant threw over the boat into the sea.


Thank God for the Mormons, really. According to a doctrine of their faith, saving ordinances—like sacraments or rites in other faiths—are required for salvation, and, more important for our purposes, they must be made available to everyone who has ever lived. Since the church has only been in existence for about two centuries, while modern humans have been in existence for, oh, 200,000 years, these ordinances may be performed upon a living member of the church who stands as a proxy for those who long ago departed this earthly vale. Though the practice has apparently been curtailed in recent years due to complaints from members of the general public whose ancestors were unwittingly baptized and confirmed into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in the past this meant that in order to offer salvation to all humanity, all humanity had to be archived. And because all humanity had to be archived, today you can go to the LDS Family Search site on the Web or to a myriad of LDS Family Search Centers around the country and research your ancestors.

Or if you’re from southeastern Missouri, you can just ask Dr. John Krussel, professor of mathematics at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, who has spent many spare hours at LDS Family Centers, and whose ancestors were also Naegers and Schillis. I found Dr. Krussel through a Ste. Genevieve County genealogical website—Ste. Genevieve being the county in which Ozora and Weingarten are located. It felt a little anticlimactic when, after an hour or so on and an e-mail to Dr. Krussel, he replied minutes later with my family history, through my grandmother’s line, dating as far back as the year 1595. Actually, he called it a “pedigree”—something I’d previously associated only with racehorses and show dogs. And, of course, as with the old man in the church in Ozora, Dr. Krussel and I were related. My great-grandfather Raymond Schilli was his grandmother’s cousin, and my great-grandmother Anna Naeger Schilli was his grandfather’s cousin. But it gives me a headache to try to think of what that makes me and Dr. Krussel. Kin will do. Kin, from the Old English cynn: kind, sort, family, but also race, stock, tribe. I . . . am not contain’d between my hat and boots. I was now part of a tribe.


How old and how deep the desire for mystery and for revelation. And this, perhaps, the most ancient—Who are we? Where did we come from? Looking at the pedigree at night, after dishes had been washed and books had been read and daughters’ foreheads and cheeks and tummies kissed goodnight, it appeared that, save one strain from Fellering, France (did this offer a genetic explanation, then, for my penchant for scarves, casually but stylishly arranged around my neck?), every single soul came from Baden, a region in southwestern Germany. More precisely, they came from Offenburg, a town between the Rhine River and the Black Forest. More precisely, they came from Rammersweier, Waltersweier, Appenweier, Ebersweier, Bohlsbach, Durbach, Albersbach, Fessenbach, Zell-Weierbach. They were married, all of them, and probably baptized and buried, too, at Weingarten Church on Weingartenstraße. All this according to the pedigree and to the Google map I obsessively pored over, zooming in closer and closer, as if by doing so I might somehow find a street, a house, a familiar face—one that looked like my grandmother’s, I suppose. 

But what did this mean? Who were they, these Schillis and Naegers and Joergers and Donzes? What had they done in those villages between the river and the woods? And why had they left? And how? Did they sail in a ship from harbor to harbor? Which ship? Which harbor? Had they been tired and hungry and poor? We could no longer remember the details.


Weingarten Kirche

A few years passed. Our daughters ignored the commands my husband and I gave them not to grow. We tried to forgive them. I remembered vaguely that I was part of a tribe. And then one afternoon as I was walking out the door to collect the girls from school, a friend of mine I hadn’t heard from in some time called from Frankfurt to tell me that she was getting married. I had met this friend in graduate school long ago. Later I visited her in Germany, first by myself, when we traveled by train together to Prague and Vienna and Venice and Naples; later with my husband and our first daughters, Ellie and Mary Martha. I’d been pregnant on that second trip, and when our third child was born the following fall, we named her for my friend, Sabine, and for the East Texas river of the same name.

The wedding was in German, which we did not understand but did not have to. They sang a Bach cantata and the chorus from Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, his “Hymn of Praise,” while the muted light of a September afternoon fell through the stained-glass windows and onto our bowed heads.

Ich harrete des Herrn
Ich harrete des Herrn, und er neigte sich zu mir,
und hörte mein Fleh’n. Wohl dem, der seine Hoffnung
setzt auf den Herrn.
I waited for the Lord
I waited for the Lord, he inclined unto me,
and answered my cry. Yea, mine, who put my hope
and trust in the Lord.

Sitting next to my husband, I remembered how love always feels like a fated answer to our cry of longing. I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul. Where I’ll end up, well I think only God really knows. In the church of muted light, I wondered what guides us toward the future that becomes our life—the Lord, the wind, free will, our DNA. I thought that perhaps these are all, in the end, one and the same.


After the wedding, my husband and I took the train from Frankfurt to Offenburg, the town my family had come from, and in a café there we drank coffee with Ingrid Götz, who works at the Offenburg archives and had recently directed a project titled “Der Traum von der Freiheit: Offenburger Auswanderer nach Nordamerika”—The Dream of Liberty: Offenburg Emigrants to North America. Ingrid had flyaway hair, gray and white, and rosy red cheeks traced with delicate broken blood vessels. She seemed always to be on the verge of laughing, and she knew everything that I wanted to know—who my ancestors were, what their lives were like, why they left.

To start with, she wanted us to understand that Germany as a unified nation is much younger, even, than the United States. That until unification as a nation-state in 1871, the land was held together as a loose league of states; before that, a group of duchies; before that, tribes.

“And here?” I asked Ingrid. “Which tribe do the people belong to?”

“Here, we are Badish,” she said with obvious pride. “And our dialect is Alemannic.” The Alemanni were an alliance of west Germanic tribes who battled their Roman conquerors, and whose name, according to the third-century historian Asinius Quadratus, means “all men.” In many languages, the names of Germany and of the German language are derived from this early nation—Allemagne, Alemanha, Alemania, Almaani. This reminded me of my grandmother’s name, Alvina, which means “beloved by all.” I like the idea of being a descendant of the tribe of all men, and of a woman whom everyone loves.

After the Romans came the Franks, then the Holy Roman emperors, then Napoleon. The Protestant Reformation never reached this Catholic enclave. The plague did. As did the Thirty Years’ War, with its roaming mercenaries scavenging like packs of wild dogs. Many villages, Ingrid told us, did not survive the looting and burning, the disease. Of those that did, many families did not. But mine did.

“And the Schillis and Naegers,” I asked, “what sort of people were they?”

“Poor. Very, very poor,” Ingrid replied.

“What did they do? How did they survive?”

“They were winegrowers,” she told me, and I remembered the ride down from Frankfurt on the train, the vineyards scrabbling over the hills toward the Black Forest as we neared Offenburg. Winegrowing, weinbau, can mean both the cultivating of grapes and the making of wine. As far back as Tacitus in the first century of our common era, at least, the inhabitants of this region were engaged in weinbau. In chapter 23 of his Germania, Tacitus says of the Germans, “Their drink is a liquor prepared from barley or wheat brought by fermentation to a certain resemblance of wine. Those who border on the Rhine also purchase wine. Their food is simple: wild fruits, fresh venison, or coagulated milk. They satisfy hunger without seeking the elegances and delicacies of the table.” “Poor. Very, very poor,” Ingrid had said of my ancestors. But they’d been here since before the Romans, growers of wine, tillers of earth.


For the moment, we will leave the café with its tiny cups of strong coffee and its cheery light that holds at bay the gray sky and hovering mist outside. While I am pulling closer the scarf arranged just so around my neck, and while my husband is wondering whether the waitress will ask if he wants a refill, which she will not, and while Ingrid is explaining why and when and how they left, my winegrowers who had lived for centuries sheltered in those hills between the Rhine River and the Black Forest, we will pause and I will tell you what Ingrid told us, buttressed by what I learned later, from books.

Explanations for emigration from southwest Germany, beginning with the economist Friedrich List (who himself emigrated to America in 1825), have focused on the partible inheritance system, Realteilung, which required equal division of an estate among heirs. This system, List and later historians have argued, led to a splintering of peasant holdings and to the trend toward a “dwarf economy,” a Zwergwirtschaft, of diminutive, marginal holdings. Ingrid told us that families would often try to marry their sons and daughters to neighbors in order to increase their small parcels of land, which explains in part why on my grandmother’s pedigree the men and women who married at Weingarten Church were so often from the same small village. Mack Walker, in Germany and the Emigration: 1816–1885, emphasizes that this fragmentation of the land caused property prices to rise. And while the rising cost of land prevented subsistence farmers from buying more, it did allow them to sell what little land they owned and cross the sea to America, where they could buy a farm large enough to feed their hungry family.

But how had they come to settle in Missouri? Why on earth there? To answer this question, we must turn to Gottfried Duden, whose book Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America and a Stay of Several Years along the Missouri (during the Years 1824, ’25, ’26, and 1827) enticed tens of thousands of German emigrants to a state that had itself only recently been admitted to the Union. Though there were other promotional tracts for emigration to the United States published in Germany, Duden’s account overshadowed them all. In fact, come to think of it, in some tangential yet substantial way, Gottfried Duden may be responsible for my very existence.

Concerned about the consequences of overpopulation in his homeland, Duden believed that Germany should look to ancient Greece and Rome and entertain the concept of planned colonization. His journey to America was a scouting trip. He bought 270 acres along the Missouri River and lived there for three years, though he relied on field hands and servants to do most of the work of running his farm. When he returned to Germany, the Missouri he remembered and wrote about in a series of letters became a utopia, an Eden. In Missouri, he said, the soil was free of stones and so productive that it would not require fertilization for a century. The hills were so densely covered by grapevines that wagonloads of their fruit could be gathered in no time. The woods teemed with deer, turkey, partridges, pheasants, woodcocks, doves—woods of sugar maple, persimmon, pawpaw, cherry, plum. Gardens produced peas and beans, corn, pumpkins, lettuce, sweet potatoes. “People in Europe will not and cannot believe how easy and how pleasant it can be to live in this country,” Duden wrote in his 31st Letter. “It sounds too strange, too fabulous. Believing in similar places on this earth has too long been consigned to the fairy-tale world. The inhabitants of the Mississippi area, on the other hand, consider the reports of need in Europe exaggerated. The white people in Europe who with the greatest exertion can enjoy scarcely as much meat in an entire year as is here thrown to the dogs in a few weeks. They cannot believe that some families would even starve or freeze to death in winter without the charity of others; they are accustomed to attribute such statements to the intention and desire to praise and flatter America. However, sometimes one hears a person say: ‘Yes, yes, my grandfather told us that life was very hard there.’”

Poor. Very, very poor, Ingrid had said. Did my ancestors read Duden’s “Postscript for Emigrating Farmers and for Those Who Contemplate Commercial Undertakings” and then set out? Did they take his advice and pack what would cost five times as much in the American interior: axes and saws and planes, coffee mills, grain mills, light stoves, pipe, plowshares, copper pots, iron bedsteads, fire tongs, iron grills, spinning wheels, chains? I have inherited from my grandmother one trunk that came with them, though there must have been others. Who packed it? A woman, most likely. What did she bring? Linens? China? A quilt of her mother’s? What, besides the forest and the hills and the river, her church and home, the faces of her family, did she leave behind?


It is cold outside. Let us return to the café with its cheery light and empty cups, because just at this moment, Ingrid is pulling from her canvas bag a file on Joseph Schilli, born 20 February 1809 in Rammersweier, Baden; died 5 March 1888 in Zell, Missouri. And in between? Only this: on 14 September 1835 in Weingarten Church he married Anna Maria Jaeger of Bohlsbach, who gave birth to their nine children, and emigrated to America 30 January 1843 aboard the ship Mozart from Le Havre, France, through the New Orleans Port.

I think of archaeologists who reconstruct clay pots from broken remnants, or paleontologists who recreate long-extinct creatures from vertebrae and teeth. Shards are all that’s left from which to piece together these lives. We must be attentive interpreters of the available evidence to make vessels that will hold, to swathe with flesh and blood the bare bone. What can we surmise from the names of a few hamlets? From the dates of birth and death of people who lived a century and more ago?

Perhaps this. Between Bohlsbach and Rammersweier lie a mile or so of open fields, criss-crossed by side paths and a narrow stream. Did Joseph and Anna meet in these fields in secret? That summer before they married, beneath a blue sky, or a moon and many stars, in a field of wheat or barley, in an orchard of wild fruit—what tryst did they arrange that July? Because their first child, a daughter, was born in April, barely seven months after their wedding day. It’s nearly inconceivable that a baby who was premature by two months would have survived in those days and in that place, even with spring coming on. And to explain the other babies that followed in quick succession, one for each year at first, Mary Ann, then Joseph, then August, I imagine, fully aware I am imagining it, that Anna and Joseph loved each other. I want to imagine it this way because it makes more bearable the thought of their leaving everything they knew.

From Offenburg, Germany, to the port city of Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine in northern France is a distance of 444 miles. In those days, Ingrid tells us, before the railroad, the poorest walked. When I mention the trunk I have inherited, Ingrid says that those with a little more money had oxen, perhaps a cart, to carry food and seeds. Counting backwards from their date of arrival in New Orleans, and assuming there were no snags along the way, the Schillis would have left Offenburg in the fall of 1842. Perhaps they waited until after the harvest, in order to take some of the small bounty with them. Duden had warned in his Report that emigrants should leave Le Havre by December or January in order to arrive in New Orleans when there was no danger of yellow fever. Were they heeding his advice? They would have passed over the Rhine and through nearby Strasbourg and on to Metz. Then across the fertile plains of Champagne toward Reims. Past Paris, past Rouen. Then finally, Le Havre. Their children would have been four, five, and six years. Again, counting backwards, this time from the date of birth of Anna Maria’s fourth child, Charles Francis, 13 February 1843, I realize that she would have been pregnant at the time they made this journey.

I know so little of privation. 


In the café, Ingrid explained to us that beginning in the Middle Ages and up to the first half of the nineteenth century, most handicraft guilds required that when a young man finished his apprenticeship of three or four years, he had to wander from one master craftsman to another for about a year and a half to gain further experience. During this period the Wandergesellen (journeymen), who usually traveled in small groups, were not allowed to have any contact with their families or to come within about forty miles of their homes. As they wandered, they sang. One Wanderlieder, “The Linden Tree,” recalls shady branches beneath which the singer used to sit and which now, as he bends into a frigid wind, whisper to him, “Du fändest Ruhe dort. You’d find rest with me.” Another, “The Happy Wanderer,” declares, “Den Trägen, die zu Hause liegen, erquicket nicht das Morgenrot. The indolent, who lie about the house, will never be refreshed by the break of day. Sie wissen nur vom Kinderwiegen, von Sorgen, Last und Not um Brot. They know only the rocking cradle, and sorrow, the burden and the need for bread.” Another: “Nun ade, du mein lieb’ Heimatland, lieb’ Heimatland ade! Fare thee well, my dear land of home, dear land of home, good-bye! Es geht jetzt fort zum fremden Strand, lieb’ Heimatland ade! We are leaving now for foreign shores, dear land of home, good-bye!” When the Auswanderers left their homes for North American shores, they too sang these Wanderlieder, and their children and grandchildren after them, who eventually forgot that they were once sung by journeymen, and who came to call them “emigrants’ songs.”

When the Israelites were exiled from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in the year 597, David composed a song for his wandering tribe:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Vom Wasser haben wir’s gelernt,” goes another Wanderlieder, evoking the link between wandering journeymen and wandering rivers. “From the waters have we learned.”


With Ingrid, we took a bus through Offenburg and out to Rammersweier, then to Zell-Weierbach. In Zell, we walked through the village, past the butcher and baker, past half-timbered houses with clay-tiled roofs and green shutters and red geraniums spilling from window boxes. Tractors pulling trailers filled with huge vats of green grapes drove by. At the winery, we bought several bottles of the Riesling for which the area is known. Carved into a cornerstone of a house across from the winery, an inscription read: “Mathias Falk. Barbara Basler. 1839.” There are Baslers in my grandmother’s pedigree, though so far back I can’t make sense of my relation to them. “Mathias Falk. Barbara Basler. 1839.” This was three years before Joseph and Anna Schilli left Offenburg. Joseph and Anna would have been of the same generation as Mathias and Barbara. They lived in adjoining villages. Perhaps they were friends. I cannot say why all this mattered to me. I cannot say why I longed to trace with my finger that inscription carved in stone.

We approached Weingarten Church through an archway. Like the church in Ozora, this one was in the Romanesque style, but instead of native Missouri limestone, the church’s exterior was a creamy stucco, the roof red-tiled, the steeple copper, aged gray-green. Above the arch, another inscription, this one dated 1727 and partially worn away. “Gott gebe ihnen das . . . ewige Licht scheinet ihnen. Amen.” “‘Lord give them’ . . . but then some words are missing,” Ingrid says, and then translates the rest: “Eternal light may shine on them. Amen.” What was it the parishioners had asked the Lord to give them? When he didn’t, did they leave? Inside the church, I dropped some coins into a tin box and lit two candles. One for those who had to go. One for those who stayed.

While Ingrid waited for the bus that would take us back to Offenburg, my husband and I climbed a hill across from the church. We passed plum and apple trees and gathered some of the fallen fruit into my bag. At the top of the hill we looked down on the church, and beyond that to the clay roofs of the villages of Rammersweier and Zell-Weierbach. The vineyards undulated with the undulating land. The Black Forest and low clouds framed our view to the east. To the west lay Offenburg and the Rhine and the road to Le Havre, but we couldn’t see that from there. From there, we saw only green—of fruit trees and fir trees, of grapevines and grasses. Weingarten. Wine garden. Garden of vines. Another Eden. “It must have been so bad…” my husband began. I finished for him, “…to leave all this behind.”

On 9 December 1816, the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung quoted from the “Rhenish Papers”:

"We are bound by the eternal bonds of Nature to the ground upon which life welcomed us and we enjoyed our happiest years, where parents and kinsmen rest, and so many departed friends; and only a power stronger than all these attachments can break so strong a bond. . . . He must be truly unfortunate who will give up a certain present for a doubtful future, his homeland for an alien country, the known for the unknown."

Of the Auswanderers who left Germany for America, the historian Walter Mack maintains that they did so less to build something new than to regain something old that they remembered, or thought they did. They were people, he says, “who traveled thousands of grim miles in order to keep their roots, their habits, their united families and the kind of future they wanted for their families. They did not wait passively for their roots to be broken, to be sure; yet they were conservatives, who acted radically in order to preserve, and who journeyed to another world to keep their homes.”

“Do you ever wonder who made the right decision?” my husband asked me as we sat looking down on paradise lost. “Those who stayed, or those who left?”

I thought about it for a moment and then said that maybe we can only look at individual lives and fortunes. Both the men and women who stayed in Rammersweier and Zell and the other villages surrounding Weingarten Church and those who left for Weingarten and Ozora must have had their share of misery and delight. In both countries, the boys and girls fell in love, had babies, and grew old. Everywhere hunger. Everywhere feast days. Everywhere, moral ambiguity. Slavery on one side of the Atlantic; later Hitler’s death camps on the other. And now peace and relative prosperity on both. Who made the right decision? Isn’t it a wash?

But Joseph and Anna had a son, Henry, who married Louisa Donze, the daughter of emigrants from Fellering, France. Louisa bore thirteen children, one of whom was Raymond, who married Anna Maria Naeger, who bore five children, one of whom was my grandmother. How can I doubt that they made the right decision? Their leaving (the Lord, the wind, free will, our DNA) made me. And my connection to this place now had as much to do with the fact of being cut off from it forever as with having a great-great-great-grandfather who packed his family up one fall and walked away.



“Oh, you got bit bad,” my fellow guest at the bed & breakfast in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, tells me, referring to what he terms “the genealogical bug.” “Me too,” he confesses. This was after I told him that I had recently traveled to Germany to find the villages my ancestors came from, and that I was here, over Veterans’ Day weekend, to see the villages they came to. I did not tell him that I had in my pocket at that very moment a stone from the creek across from Weingarten Church in Offenburg, which I planned to bury beneath Joseph and Anna Shilli’s gravestone. I did not tell him that I had located the Schillis and Naegers, as well as the Donzes and Joergers, on all available census record from 1850 to 1930. I did not tell him that I was seriously entertaining the idea of mapping out the life of every single person on my grandmother’s pedigree, as well as his or her brothers and sisters and children, in-laws, and in-laws of in-laws, until I had a visible web laying bare the connections among them. But I’m sure he would have understood.

Before I got bit bad, I was pretty skeptical of the genealogy crowd. I suppose I imagined their work to be a little like that of the solver of crossword puzzles—using clues to fill in the blanks. And, okay, I was a little self-righteously shocked when my fellow traveler at the bed & breakfast, whose family also came from Baden, had only vaguely heard of Gottfried Duden and had not read any of the scholarly research on nineteenth-century emigration from the Rhineland to Missouri which posits that in addition to inheritance laws and the resultant dwarf economy, a decline in cottage industries and a rise in industrialization drove many to Le Havre. Still, I have come to believe that if historians are in some ways keepers of a nation’s memory, genealogists are perhaps keepers of the memory of families, of tribes. Both have their place.

But there is another aspect of the genealogy craze to which I still haven’t reconciled myself. When I read, say, about a rededication ceremony sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Sons of Confederate Veterans, when I watch a St. Patrick’s Day parade, when I listen to my fellow genealogist at the breakfast table at the B&B tell me he has tracked his family back to the fifteenth century, I have this uneasy sense that in tracing our lineage through the past and back to men and women with whom we share the most tenuous of connections, we believe—subconsciously, perhaps—that the glory or the suffering of those ancestors will somehow rub off on us and that we will be ennobled by association. But aren’t these narratives we create for ourselves out of the remnants of dates and names only, after all, another variation on the great American theme of self-invention, a narrative we compose out of the distant past because we are bored or embarrassed by the paltriness of our present? I grew up in a series of tract homes in A Real Hometown, where the houses and buildings and parks were younger than I was. I may be a descendant of poor winegrowers and farmers from the Rhineland who lived there before the Romans, but that life, with its vineyards and orchards and fields of wheat and barley, belongs to me only in my imagination.


What remains today of Zell and Weingarten and Ozora, settlements founded in that order by German immigrants to Ste. Genevieve County, is a church and a cemetery, surrounded in each case by farmhouses and barns and fields scattered across the hills and valleys, separated by great swathes of trees, which in this season were turning brilliantly, flaring into color before they went dark against the coming cold. In the past, these communities would also have had post offices, general stores, blacksmith shops, wagon makers, a brewery, a dance hall. But all that was gone by the time I arrived with my stone.

When I got to Zell, congregants for the Saturday evening mass at St. Joseph’s were parking their cars and climbing the steps to the church while the bells called out to them, solid and a little unyielding. As the sun’s light slowly dissolved, I made my way through the rows of graves—carved headstones and iron crosses, many in German. Geboren. Gestorben. Born. Died. Im Alter Vom 59 Jahren, 3 Monaten, 27 Tagen, read one marker. At the age of 59 years, 3 months, 27 days. But how many minutes? And did he, Franz X. Schweisz, born in Baden, Deutschland, 20 October 1825, savor each one? Most of the surnames I recognized from my grandmother’s pedigree, or from the manifest from the ship Mozart—Riehm, Seibert, Jokerst, Flieg, Schweiss, Baechle, Stuppy, Huck, Figge, Basler, Pfaff, Grass, Joerger, Hogenmiller, Gegg, Donze, Naeger, Schilli. Give or take a few names, that would be the case at every cemetery I visited. Give or take a few names, that would be the case for the oldest graves, and the freshest ones as well.

Roman Huck, who in 1882 was elected a county judge in Ste. Genevieve, was born in Baden in 1833 and emigrated with his mother, Johanna, and his stepfather, Joseph Doll, in 1847. There are Hucks buried in the cemetery in Zell. Hucks intermarried with Schillis and Naegers. Roman Huck’s emigration story was later printed in Goodspeed’s History of Southeast Missouri: Embracing an Historical Account of the Counties of Ste. Genevieve, St. Francois, Perry, Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Madison, New Madrid, Pemiscott, Dunklin, Scott, Mississippi, Stoddard, Butler, Wayne and Iron, published in 1888:

They had a long and tedious voyage, being about eighty days on the water, and during that time several on board died of cholera. They landed at New Orleans. . . . They then took a steamer and landed at Ste. Genevieve, Mo., where for some time they endured great hardships. They here rented land for some time, but finally purchased property four miles south of Genevieve, where they lived in a miserable little house of only one room, the roof almost touching one’s head and covered with clapboards, weighted down with logs to keep the wind from blowing them away. In this manner they lived for two years, or until Mr. Doll raised a wheat crop of 170 bushels, which he sold for 45 cents a bushel and with the proceeds succeeded in making his home a little more comfortable, but for the two subsequent years they were obliged to eat corn bread in the place of wheaten bread. The first two winters after coming to this country were mild enough but the winter of 1849–50 was bitterly cold and it was all they could do to keep the wolves at bay, that swarmed through the woods and killed the sheep and hogs of the settlers.

I imagine that this can’t be too terribly different from what Joseph and Anna Schilli, as well as all those other immigrants buried in the Zell cemetery, endured.

No Joseph and Anna Schilli at the Zell cemetery, though. No place to offer my stone from Germany. Nor in the cemetery at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Weingarten. I did find the graves there of Seraphin Donze and his wife, Gertrud, née Munsch, who were, like Joseph and Anna Schilli, my great-great-great-grandparents. Seraphin must have come over first, from Fellering, France, which is located in Alsace, that borderland disputed for centuries between the French and the Germans. On the ship manifest for the Cromwell, dated 15 October 1849 for its arrival in New Orleans, Gertrud Munsch, age 26, and her daughter, Louisa, age 2, are listed as passengers, along with Seraphin’s brother, Meinrad Donze, 19. But here’s a puzzle I haven’t solved: little Louisa’s last name is listed as Donze. Is the fact that Gertrud is a Munsch here merely a mistake of the maker of the list? Or had she and Seraphin not married before Louisa was born? Did they ever marry? Did their separate Atlantic crossings allow them to erase some shame and begin anew? Was that shame the cause of their leaving in the first place?

We could no longer remember the details


Outside of weddings and funerals, I had not set foot in a Catholic church to hear mass for years, but it was Sunday morning, and here I was in Ozora, at Sacred Heart Church, where my pilgrimage long ago had begun with a rainstorm. I arrived a few minutes before mass and wandered over to the cemetery. She was still there, Anna Maria Naeger Schilli, my great-grandmother—daughter, I now knew, of Bernard and Theresa Naeger, wife of Raymond, who was himself the son of Henry Schilli and Louisa Donze, who had been born in Fellering, France, and had come to America with her mother and her uncle when she was two years old. 

This Anna Maria and that Raymond Schilli are children on the 1900 census. The census taker, Henry Siebert, whom Goodspeed’s History describes as a saloon owner, “popular with the people,” “widely known and highly respected,” and at least some of whose family came over on the Mozart as well, lists the “Schilley” household as number 111. Raymond is twelve years old. His mother, Louisa, has told Mr. Siebert that she gave birth to thirteen children and that all thirteen are living. His father, Henry, the son of Anna Maria and Joseph, who was born two years after they arrived in America, is now a farmer, aged fifty-four. Just down the road are the “Nagers”: Theresa, who is listed as both “mother” and “farmer,” her daughter, Anna Maria, age nine, and a son, Benjamin, age seven. The Naeger father, Bernard, had died in November of 1892 at the age of thirty. I’d seen his gravestone in Weingarten. It did not tell me in what manner he died, or how Theresa had managed alone afterward, or what Anna Maria remembered of him, or if Benjamin had ever seen his face. But the census does tell me that my great-grandparents Anna Maria and Raymond were children living two farms away from each other, somewhere near Weingarten, Missouri, on the fifteenth day of June in the year 1900. And in no time at all, a mere thirty-one years later, fewer years than I’ve been alive, Anna Maria would be dead. By the following year, 1932, as the Great Depression was kicking in the teeth of the country, Raymond had moved his four boys and his daughter, Alvina, my grandmother, she who was beloved by all, to St. Louis, away from the farm and the Germans from Baden, away from the tribe.

Bells were ringing. In I went to the limestone church where Alvina had played the organ when she was a girl. Every part of this building and every passage of the service felt freighted with meaning that morning. The stained-glass window depicting Christ and his sacred heart had been donated by the “Family of William Schilli.” Aloysius Schilli read to the congregation from 2 Maccabees 7: “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” The priest read from the Gospel of Luke, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” When we prayed for the sick of the parish, the sick included Millie Naeger and Clem Schilli. I worried that Clem was the man I met years ago when he stood in the back of the church organizing hymnals and told me he was my grandmother’s cousin. I had no idea who Millie was, but I worried about her too. A nearly overwhelming urge possessed me to go up to everyone and proclaim who I was and why I had come and to tell them that we were, in all probability, related.

Because this was Veterans’ Day, the priest pronounced the recessional hymn “America the Beautiful,” and because there was no longer any organ player, we sang a cappella of fields of grain and spacious skies and brotherhood, which these farmers and descendants of farmers knew more tangibly than I ever would. We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors. I thought of my ancestors, those lying in the cemetery just outside, those across the sea. To me, as to the God in Maccabees, all are alive. 


Felix Fabri, a Dominican friar from Ulm, Germany, traveled to the Holy Land, to the port of Jaffa in the year of our Lord 1483. In a caravan of asses, escorted by Muslim guides, his pilgrim band crossed the plains of Judaea on its way to Jerusalem, where together they would see the sights. “We embraced the rock itself, as Job,” he says in his account of this crossing; “nay I know some pilgrims who so loved the Holy Land, that both by day and by night they would constantly bow themselves to the earth and caress it with the sweetest kisses, and would venerate the stones themselves as relics.”

I had been carrying this stone in my pocket, smooth and oval as a seed, picked out of a stream near Weingarten Church in Germany, as a sort of relic of that place where, for me, the sacred had erupted forth into the profane. Did I really imagine that it had miraculous charms? That it could assuage the ache I felt for a life more rooted to a place and to a people than the one I had known growing up in the suburbs? That if I returned it to my ancestors, they might watch over me and bring me luck? Well, okay, maybe a little bit.

But none of those possibilities came close to explaining the compulsion that possessed me to make this offering. I wanted, I think, to please my ancestors, to give them something for their troubles. For the hunger that drove them to travel from Offenburg to Le Havre with winter coming and a child on the way. For the hovel they lived in here, for the wolves, and the years of cornbread. And for what they made, too. Stone churches. Plowed fields. Wooden barns. An act of piety—that’s what this was, for to him, all were alive.

I had desperately wanted to bury my rock beneath the headstone of Joseph and Anna Schilli, but I had not found them in any of the cemeteries I’d visited. After mass, I decided to return to Zell. Perhaps I had missed them somehow. But when I passed through the rows again, I still did not see their markers. However, Mathias Naeger was there, my great-great-great-great-grandfather. That’s one more great than Joseph Schilli and Seraphin Donze. Born 21 February 1791. Died 6 January 1862. Mathias and his wife, Maria Sophia End, were both from Rammersweier, and they married in Weingarten Church on 26 January 1826. According to the 1850 census, they had seven children, all of them born in Germany. Because their youngest child, Lebant, was seven at the time of the census, the family had to have emigrated sometime before 1843. All of which is to say that of the many souls buried in Zell, Missouri, in the churchyard of St. Joseph’s Parish, Mathias Naeger, birth date 1791, my ancestor, was the oldest. He deserved the stone. 

I pulled back the thin layer of clover covering the rich soil beneath, soil which must have seemed so fertile after the rocky Rhineland, where grapevines grew better than wheat. I dug down a couple of inches and placed my seedlike stone inside the womb of the earth. I was not completely sure that no roots would grow from it. I wished I had stones enough to plant for them all.



The Choctaw carried the bones of their dead with them. They say the bones were the treasures of their people. . . . Since they had been traveling for a long time . . . the Choctaw decided to stay and settle down and bury all those bones, and the place they buried them was a great mound, our Mother Mound, Nanih Waiya.

—Choctaw elder, 1996

This from an interview conducted by the National Park Service, regarding the earthen mounds lining the Mississippi River. One of these mounds remains, a mile or two south of the town of Ste. Genevieve, and on my way out I decided to have a look. As I drove, a white limestone bluff rose up against the gray sky and, embedded into it on a ledge, a statue of the Virgin Mary, arms opened out, palms wide. “Mother, Protect Us” read the sign. Below was the rich delta, flat and sprawling, and, in this season, stubbled with harvested stalks of corn. Swallows gleaned what they could from the harrowed fields, from what remained. The mound here, planted and turned like the land around it, was only a small swelling, like the belly of a pregnant woman, just beginning to show.

Ten thousand years ago, the first mounds along the Mississippi began appearing. By the year 800 of our current era, the river was a highway, carrying copper, mica, alligator teeth, conch shells. Towns lining the waterway each had a number of mounds—platforms for temples and for houses of the elite. Huts of thatch and mud spread out among fields cultivated with corn and squash and beans. But when Hernando De Soto landed in Florida in 1539 and began tramping about the Southeast, the mound-building culture was in steep decline, perhaps a victim of its own success, unable, on limited resources, to sustain itself. By the time the French arrived in Ste. Genevieve in the early 1700s, the mound builders were gone. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after, says Ecclesiastes. Who is left to mourn them, I wondered, as I leaned against my car looking at the mounds they left behind. These mounds of dirt and bone.

Monday, July 1, 2013