959 Biers: A Ketzelsdorf Jigsaw

During the early days of quarantine, way back in March, when people hunkered down and embraced being stuck at home, we found hobbies.  Some took up jigsaw puzzles or crosswords.  Me?  I decided to take up the archives at Zamrsk, in the Czech Republic. Yes, I leaned into a side of myself so entirely nerdy that I had to look beyond obsessive crosswords.  I gave into my genealogy geek fully and emerged having learned some things.

The regional archives building houses, among other records, digitized church record books from around Bohemia. The building used to be a jail. This photo was taken on our family trip in 2018.

As I wrote about in previous posts, the Zamrsk archives are the repository for church record books from hamlets and villages in what is now the Czech Republic.  I suspect that we are fortunate that the German Catholic records survived the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from the region after World War Two. We are even more lucky that they have been beautifully digitized and made available to any sleuth with an internet connection.

As I further mentioned previously, the Bier family originated from Ketzelsdorf, now called Koclirov, in Bohemian Czech Republic.  Before World War II, Ketzelsdorf was occupied primarily by Germans, many of whom emigrated to the Rock County region of southern Wisconsin.  The name Bier was overwhelmingly common in the village.  But how common? I wanted to know. I also enjoy spreadsheets. Perfect quarantine project. 

I previously dipped my toe into these confusing waters while attempting to solve a modern-day genealogic mystery that required knowing how a certain Bier and another Bier were related, which required going into these amazingly detailed, and amazingly unreadable archives.  Despite not speaking German, I developed a system for analyzing the various types of data, including birth registries, marriage registries, and death registries.  Thanks to their scrupulous record-keeping and use of house numbers to identify individuals, I ended up with a beautiful spreadsheet of 959 unique individuals–all with the last name Bier.

This is a sample page from a baptism registry book. There were separate books for more detailed birth records, deaths, and marriages.
Here’s a screenshot from my master spreadsheet, a true thing of beauty.

I love my spreadsheet. Is that weird? Perhaps. But I figure, if other people get to proudly post images of their completed jigsaws, I get to post this. In addition to tagging each person by date of birth, they are also assigned to a family group of birth and a family unit of parentage where applicable.

Once I batched all these Biers into family units, I tried to figure out how they all connected up to each other. I made a little index card for each family unit, 161 total.  I innocently expected to build a neat forest of family trees.  Instead, I ended up with a crazily tangled thicket of Biers.  You see part of it pictured below. I kept this on the office wall for several months, as I thought it lent a charming “is she going crazy?” vibe to my Zoom calls.

This is the largest interrelated group by far. There were four others which, all together, represented less than this situation.

So, each of those index cards is a set of parents and one or more children. It covers births from 1718-1920.  The colored index cards are founding ancestors, or what I considered to be founding ancestors, as the earliest record (where? Heck if I know) of Biers in Ketzelsdorf is back in the 1600’s. The lengths of yarn represent a child from the upper index card establishing their own family unit at the lower end of the index card. I followed only male lines, and so every family is a “Bier” family.  This is lazy, but I suspect that if I had traced out every maternal line as well, I would have essentially created a master family tree for all of pre-world war Ketzelsdorf.  And I have a lot of time on my hands, but not that much time.

Once I sorted out all of the interconnectedness (seriously, a LOT of interconnectedness), I ended up with 5 unique thickets of families, all joined through at least one marriage, often more than one.  The thicket that I posted on my wall like a crazed detective is the largest of the five.  It has 10 founding families and 659 people.  All are connected by at least a marriage, most through offspring. 

In addition to being the largest, the family taped up on my wall contains my branch of the family tree. I’ve written before about how numerous the Biers of Southern Wisconsin are. It’s crazy to think that our ancestors are just a teeny, tiny bit in this overwhelming sea. The Biers of Wisconsin trace back to Emil and Emilia, both born around 1750. If you were looking at this and didn’t know that the family up and moved to the United States in 1882, it would be a confusingly incomplete story. I imagine that is the case for many of the terminal index cards.

The Wisconsin Bier line goes Emil & Emilia–>Adalbert & Theresia–>Johann & Viktoria–> Valentine & Katherine Jiru and Anton & Veronika

Groups 2-5 did not have nearly so much intermarriage and were each founded by a single ancestor or two.  All together, these groups comprise 256 total individuals.  For the mathletes among you, that left 44 random Biers that I couldn’t attach to any family group, a satisfyingly small number.  Most of these were children born to Bier women without a named father, which tells an interesting story in and of itself.  In addition to the other 4 thickets, there were free-floating households and individuals that I simply didn’t have enough data or facility with the language to sort out.  When you trace the line down, some of the families “die out” because no further children were had, some were likely mistakes, and some up and left the village.

In addition to a satisfying, searchable spreadsheet (I’m sure I’ll become wildly popular for my spreadsheet) and crazy wall art, I was left with a few random observations.

  1. The Germans were not creative namers.  In fact, one of the few unique names was my great-great-grandfather’s: Valentin.  And thank goodness for that unique name, or I doubt I would have easily located my branch in the tangle.  In contrast to the lonely Valentin, the most common names were:  Franz (127), Anna (97), Johann (87), Anton (73), Maria (64), and Theresia (63).
  2. I mentioned that I was left with a number of stand-alone individuals, born to women with no father named. I imagine that many of these children appear in later marriage and death records as “claimed.”. The baptismal records evidenced a charmingly misogynist habit. In the case of a child born outside of marraige, a father could be added later, if and when the parents were married, thereby striking the word “illegitimate” from the record. In these cases, the records were physically scratched out after the fact, and the father added. I suspect that paternity was, actually, known in most all of the cases at the actual time of birth.
  3. I found a family in which twins occurred seven times across three generations, following the male line. Two sets of twins happened in the same nuclear family and all four children survived! There were other instances of twins, but they rarely survived infancy. Stillbirths were recorded, but the name and gender of the baby were not noted, the name being listed as “N.”
  4. Triplets happened in 1846. All three girls died the day after they were born.
  5. There were periods with extreme increases in the death rate, that I’m certain corresponded to infectious disease outbreaks. Some of these followed household patterns. In 1873, the spike occurred exclusively in toddlers. How my medical hands wish I could decipher the details in those records!
  6. The last event noted in the Catholic register of Ketzelsdorf was a death on July 10, 1945. As noted above, following the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the so-called Wild Expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakis began on January 25, 1946. Roughly 1.6 million ethnic Germans were deported to the American zone (West Germany), and an estimated 800,000 were deported to the Soviet zone (East Germany). To learn more about this time period, visit my friend and yours, Wikipedia, for a primer.

So, was I the lamest quarantiner? Perhaps. Did I miss the boat in terms of submitting my Zoom background for rating? Definitely. Did I keep myself busy and avoid the inevitable slip into housebound-psychosis? You’ll have to ask my family on that one.

Statler and Waldorf, exit stage left

I’m a moderate Muppet fan. Nothing like my little brother, who lists “Muppet Treasure Island” as his most-quoted movie, second only to “Clue,” but I’m right up there. I grew up watching the TV show, with its guests being shepherded around backstage by Scooter, and frequent appearances by John Denver. This is probably as good a time as any to commend the classic John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together to your holiday listening playlist if it isn’t already there.

Best in vinyl, so as to skip while you dance feverishly to the “Run, Run Reindeer” as performed by Doc Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band

The reason I bring up the Muppets (although, does one ever really need a reason?), is to explain my blogging absence. In addition to discovering that I really, really like being forced to stay at home an inordinate amount of time, I’ve spent the past 8+ months slowly slipping into an observer / heckler existence, akin to the classic Muppet characters, Statler and Waldorf. These two watch the entire show from their box seats, flinging witty insults at the performers below, but not really offering much of substance themselves.

As the world outside grew more hostile in so many ways, I sort of shriveled up, took to my box seat, and judged it from afar. Box seats are nice. They offer a good view, and the seats are quite comfy. You can force your words to be heard or not heard, depending on how much you want to applaud or insult the actors. Indeed, you can even gather up a little audience of your own, playing to the camera like Statler and Waldorf.

While I’m sure that my immediate circle is thrilled beyond measure to be the recipients of my ongoing, increasingly caustic and embittered observations, it’s gotta stop. I fear that I will come out of this quarantine a shriveled up Statler or Waldorf: safe, sarcastic, embittered, and unproductive. It’s time to turn a page on that mindset. Maybe you felt the same way, and maybe there’s good reasons. Fair enough. I’m looking forward to resuming some active participation in my own life again. For now, it won’t involve actually leaving the theater, but maybe I’ll climb down among the crowd and rejoin polite in a more virtual manner. Or maybe-gasp-I’ll venture onto the stage and create some content. That’s what this post is–dipping a toe back into the world of blog offerings instead of just nonstop criticism written, thought, or muttered under my breath.

There will be more to come. Bald, waistcoated, and felted is not a good look for me.


Today my sister, Louise, turns 40. Is it because she has reached this touchstone age to my almost-45 that I finally see her as a legitimate adult in her own right? Last night, while I was contemplating what to write, I realized that sometime in the recent past, I finally started to see Louise as not just a fully-formed adult, but one who has lapped me in so many “adulty” ways. For those of you who know her only as this amazingly kind, accomplished, adulty version of herself, please join my journey. A journey of a girl born in 1980, smack in the middle of a family of five kids.

I was almost 5 the when Louise was born. My only memory of the event was standing on the green, velour armchair at my grandparents’ house, talking on the black, rotary-dial phone that always sat on the buffet. “We’re naming her Louise,” Mom said. My only reference point to that name was George Jefferson screaming “Weezy!” on the show of the same name. It didn’t seem like a name for a baby. We called her Weez, Weezer Deezer, but never Weezy.

We grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural, southern Wisconsin. Our parents gave us a lot of opportunities and raised us to be open-minded and comfortable in the world. They also left us to our own devices a lot of the time. Fortunately for me, Louise always went along with whatever suggestions for fun (read, costume dramas and Esther-Williams themed water ballet in the 4 foot deep pool) I came up with. During our childhood, I definitely saw her as a character actor in the drama of my life.

As we got older and Louise stretched her proverbial wings, I took it upon myself to act as her shepherd into adult life, whether she needed it or not. Because, you know, she was my little sister first and foremost. Mom, I know you will not be pleased to hear this, but I provided Louise with what I believe was her first beer when she was visiting me at college. At the same time, I remained very protective of my pretty, smart younger sibling and recall one particularly awful dressing down about her high school aged behavior as we drove over the 27th street viaduct in Milwaukee. Sorry about that, Louise. But you so full of potential and promise, I didn’t want you to screw up IN ANY WAY. Turns out, I just needed to let you screw up in your own way. She was always inherently the smartest one in the family, but just didn’t need to flaunt it. It is now that I publicly admit that she scored one point higher than I did on the ACT. This admission alone would be an adequate birthday gift, but I shall go on.

A big turning point in the journey was when Louise up and left the midwest, moving to New York with her future husband, Ho Ying. I don’t think I realized at the time that this was, truly, a permanent move. I would have to create a version of our adult lives in which we weren’t an easy drive away from each other. I couldn’t resent the move though, even for a minute. I’m a Ho Ying fan. Pun fully and always intended.

One role that Louise defined all by herself was that of Cool Aunt. Other than foisting my children on her on every possible occasion, this had nothing whatsoever to do with me. I never have to nudge the girls in any way to spend time with “Aunt Tooise.”

In the past few years, I find myself calling Louise more and more often asking for advice. Somewhere she snuck up on me and stockpiled all sorts of adult skills. Folks, at the age of 40, I can say with confidence that Louise has fully lapped me. I am the older sister in name only.

Happy 40th birthday! In reality, you lapped me long ago.

PS…at least we didn’t do anything like this to you.

Anatomy III

A third in a series that I wish you wouldn’t mention to my daughters just yet…


This morning, my neighbor texted me.  Her fifth grade daughter realized the one advantage of school being closed for shelter in place:  no Human Growth and Development!  My friend wondered whether I would be available for virtual lessons in the interim, given my matter-of-fact nature and access to various anatomy texts.  It wasn’t the first time that I came dangerously close to taking over the public school’s sex ed curriculum.

I was first exposed to our school district’s approach to the fraught subject when my oldest was in fourth grade.  I was left feeling that the school’s approach left much to be desired.  All that she seemed to retain from her instruction was a paralyzing fear of pimples and a vague notion of change and butterflies. This left me convinced that I needed to step in before the thing was too derailed.  The girl needed some facts, and she needed them quick.

The car being the best place for awkward conversations, I just launched into it, glancing up occasionally to force eye contact in the rear view mirror.  

“So,” I announced, “you may have noticed that I bought you some sports bras.”


“Well, that means that you’ve officially entered puberty.  Do you know what that means?”

“Something about pimples and change?”

“OK, good.  Pimples. Yes.  That’s right, that’s why I’ve recommended that you start actually washing your face even when there’s no visible Nutella streaks on it. What else do you know that happens in puberty?”

“You start growing hair?…” vague gestures towards her pits.

“Okay, fine.  So, you’ve already started wearing deodorant, so not much will change in your armpit maintenance routine other than if you decide to shave them.  And if you DO decide you want to shave them, please let me help you, because bleeding pits are a definite fashion don’t.”

The conversation then wandered to such topics as feminine ideals of beauty and why our showers take longer, European pit hair, and the fact that most dancers don’t seem to sport hairy pits while in fifth position.  The general levity of armpit hair seemed like a safe landing strip (pun intended) for the whole purpose of the conversation: the period talk. Every menstruating female has a harrowing tale of when IT started. Some strike a celebratory tone, and at least 50% seem to involve a pool party.  This seems statistically unlikely.

I remember the dawning horror as my mother and I convened in the less-trafficked bathroom off the playroom at the end of the house.  The irony of my brother’s potty chair parked in the corner struck me, while I was forced to watch the mortifying display of the diapers that I’d now be forced to wear for the rest of my life.  So much for toilet training, why bother? A brief time of respite during childhood, and we’d all eventually end up back in diapers of some variety anyway. My cousin, who worked for Kimberly Clark, confirmed my teenage hunch, noting that their marketing plan is to normalize some form of diaper wearing for “every stage of life.”  

My mother thoroughly researched every aspect of child rearing up to about the aforementioned toilet training stage.  However, mom sort of phoned it in on a lot of the later stages. No carefully prepared Welcome to Womanhood basket for me, instead I was presented with a brick of of sanitary pads that, given their bulk and absorbency, must have been leftover from one of her numerous birthing extravaganzas.  

I was determined that Natalie would be more prepared and have menstruation normalized.  I plowed on:

“So, another thing that happens during puberty is periods.  We’ve talked some about that. Can you tell me what you know about periods?”

“There’s a little bit of blood …” vague gesture.  

How to prepare her.  How to let her know that the “little bit” was a white lie perpetuated by nervous health educators through the ages?  When I was around her age I stumbled across a book in the library, I’ve forgotten the title.  A young slave girl describes her cycle as having something to do with gravel scraping down her insides and causing, crazy amounts of pain and crime-scene level blood.  Mom found this book and, while not censoring it completely, encouraged me to step away from the less than factual accounting. Of course I immediately devoured the entire book and, along with it, a healthy dose of fear and respect for the old menstrual cycle.

Natalie did not accidentally read this charming work of juvenile fiction.  She was blissfully clueless.  Time to ruin that;  I just laid it all on the line.  “Well, it’s more than a little.  It’s enough that, if you don’t have something to catch it, it will in fact soak through your clothing.”


“Fear not, the paper products industry created a dizzying area of options, and I will stock your bathroom and a cute, discreet bag for your backpack, such that when you need them, they are available.  I’ll show you how to put them in your underwear so that it’s not a big deal.”

“So I have to wear a diaper for one day every month?”  

Way to go Kimberly Clark, already anticipating the diaper.
“Well, it actually lasts more than one day…”


“Yes.  It will be fine.  I’m sorry that you are being taken by surprise by this, I suppose I’m partially to blame…”

“Well, yeah, it’s not exactly what we learned in school!  I thought it was going to be like needing a band aid one day a month.  Geez.”

“What, exactly, did your teacher tell you about periods?”

“I don’t know, she mostly focused on the butterflies and acne…”

And there it was.  All the of the reading on feminist topics, all of my own body acceptance issues, eagerness to please, dating the wrong people, all of it flashed back in my mind.  Could I save her from this? Her friends? Was this my moment? Could I provide that turning point in their lives, such that she and her peers wouldn’t need surreptitious code words about Aunt Flo?  Wouldn’t need to discreetly walk ahead of their friends through the hall to check for period stains? What about the rest of it? Could a good factual source of biologic and feminist principles steel them against sexting, pill parties, and all the rest of the crap that I’m currently working hard to pretend will never darken my door?  I could be that person! I would be the Messiah to the Southwood Glen Elementary feminine population! I could–”

“Mom, I see what you’re thinking.  Don’t get all volunteerish about this.  Just buy me some pads, show me how to use them, but whatever you do PLEASE don’t volunteer to teach my classmates about puberty.”

So, yeah.  It wasn’t my time to shine.  But maybe now it’s time to shine VIRTUALLY?  Let’s not run this by my girls though, all right?