Annella Teresia Yench Cousin: Let’s try a challenge

Over the past several months, I’ve shared a lot of information on the Bier family, and there’s still a lot more to share.  Why?  Because I’m lucky.  My Grandma Bier was a collector, and I received a trove of primary sources, artifacts, and already-done work from her.  When it comes to the Bier family, I feel more like an archivist or docent than a true genealogist;  there just weren’t that many difficult questions to be answered.  Just an ever-increasing mountain of things to be digitized, cataloged, and preserved.

So for the new year, in addition to continuing to tell the Valentine Bier story, I want to take on a new challenge.  The biggest challenge on my genealogical horizon will involve making a dent in my husband’s Kim and Lee heritage given that, (a) I don’t speak Korean, (b) well over the half the population of Korea shares the surnames “Kim” and “Lee” and (c) he himself knows next to nothing about his family story.  I’m going to set that particular challenge aside until my skills are a bit more honed.

Instead, I’m setting myself a different challenge:  my maternal grandmother’s family.  My Grandma was named Annella Teresia (Yench) Cousin.  People called her Nell, Nellie, in addition to mom, aunt, sister, grandma and great-grandma.  She was a lovely, loving woman and deserves a post in her own right.  For now, though, I went to set the challenge of discovering a bit more about her family history.

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A sketch of Nell drawn by her husband, Fred Cousin

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My beautiful grandma Nell on her wedding day

See, in all of my family trees, her story truncates with the names of her parents:  Thomas & Helen Yench.  According to my mom, they defected from Lithuania and never talked about nor communicated with relatives in the old country again, save for once receiving a photograph of someone laid out in a coffin.  So, I thought this would be a fun challenge both for myself and for my readers to live vicariously.  I’m trying to convince you that genealogy is fun, after all.

Where to begin?  In the words of Glinda the Good Witch of the North, “It’s always best to start at the beginning”  So, with no further ado, here’s what I know about my Grandma Nell’s family history:

 

 

She was born May 17, 1925 in Hartshorne, Oklahoma. I know this is true because my mother told me so.  However,  in the world of genealogy, this isn’t good enough.  I need documentation of both those facts.

Item #1:  Verify her birthdate and place, ideally with a copy of her birth certificate.

She was baptised on July 28, 1925, at the Church of the Holy Rosary, also in Hartshorne, Oklahoma.  Her godparents were Enoch and Katherine Polonis.  Her date of birth is verified on her baptism certificate.

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Her father’s name was Thomas Yench.  Yench is a anglicanization of the Lithuanian name “Jankus.”  He was a coal miner when the family lived in Oklahoma.  He arrived in the United states in 1901 and applied for citizenship in 1907.  The Declaration of Intention, below, is rich with interesting details, including that he was 5′ 10″ and had gray eyes.

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Thomas Yench

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Question #2:  Why does he list his country of birth as Poland rather than Lithuania? 

Question #3:  Who were his parents and brothers and sisters, if any?

 

Her mother’s name was Helen Shareva.  At least that’s what my mother told me.  I have no record of what her unmarried name actually was, and further a cousin of my mother’s reports that her last name was actually Dubas!  What’s up with that?  And finally, there was a photograph amongst my grandmother’s things showing a picture of her mother, Helen, with another woman identified on the back as “her sister from St. Louis.”

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Helen Yench, whose story prior to marrying Thomas Yench is a mystery to me

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Helen Yench and “her sister from St. Louis”

 

Question #4:  What was Helen Yench’s actual maiden name?  Who were her family?  When did she emigrate?

Nell was the youngest of seven children.  This is confirmed by census records and numerous, amusing photographs.

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Thomas Yench family before my grandmother, Nell, was born.   Back row:  Joseph, Peter “Bob,” Anthony “Fed.”  Front row:  Philip, Thomas, Ann, Helen, Veronica.

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Back row:  Joseph, Peter “Bob,” Philip.  Front row:  Anthony “Fed,” Ann, Nell, Veronica, Thomas.

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Back row:  Philip, Joseph, Peter “Bob.  Front row:  Nell, Anthony “Fed,” Veronica, Ann.

 

 

 

By 1930 the family was living in Proviso, Illinois, where Thomas was working at Richardson’s Battery Factory.  The federal census of that year shows a lot of other interesting things as well.  Their neighbors were all uniformly Lithuanian and Italian.  Two of the boys were working out of the house at that time as well.  Finally, the census includes a field for “age at first marriage” and a little math indicates that not only was Thomas married previously, but so was Helen.

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1930 Federal Census

 

Question #5:  Why did the family move to Illinois?

Question #6:  What are Thomas and Helen’s previous marital histories?

In 1936, when Nell was 11 years old, her mother, Helen, died of pneumonia;  this is verified in the Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths Index of 1916-1947.  It was at her mother’s funeral that Nell learned some shocking news.  I’d recorded the story in my mother’s words some time ago:

Bob, Joe, and Fed were Thomas’s children by his first wife.  Nell never realized they were her half brothers until her mother, Helen, died. She died of pneumonia when Nell was about 12 years old. At the funeral, she overheard some neighbors talking about how Helen treated those older boys just like they were her own sons. Nell got mad, yelled, and ran from the room.  –Janice (Cousin) Bier

So, this is further confirmation that Thomas was married before he married Helen.

My mother also made a point of recording her mother, Nell’s, recollections of Helen, few as they were:

I remember her ironing. She talked with the other Lithuanian neighbor ladies. I called her mama. She used to have to yell at the boys. The girls would help, but I was so much younger, I didn’t have to help as much. My mom was stocky. I don’t remember her singing. She was a full-time homemaker. She was born in Lithuania. I think they came over becvause the Russians were taking over.  –Nell (Yench) Cousin

After her mother died, my Grandma Nell was essentially raised by her two older sisters, Ronnie & Annie, before moving to Wisconsin and meeting my grandpa, Fred, and the rest is much more recent history.

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The three sisters, Nellie, Annie, and Ronnie, at my Grandparents’ house on Elm Street in Beloit, Wisconsin.

 

So where will I begin?  How will I even begin to answer those questions?  It was hard for me to NOT start the work before posting this;  on some level I wanted to be sure that they were answerable.  But I did it–I held off.  I didn’t even call my mom to clear some points up.  So stay tuned.

If you are reading this and have recollections, questions, comments, or answers about the Yench family history, please comment below!  

 

 

Eine Botschaft aus der Heimat – A message from the homeland

It seems like just yesterday that I was on the Bier trip to the homeland.  However, it was actually four months ago!  I have some interesting updates to share, most a result of some letters that I sent back to Koclířov.  I sent a thank-you to our guide, Pepi, along with some pictures of the Bier family farm, the emigrant Valentine Bier family, and snapshots from the trip.  To simplify things, here’s a F.A.Q. summary of recent updates:

How is Pepi doing?

About two months ago, I heard back from Pepi.  I can’t tell you how excited I was to see a note slipped into the storm door from the USPS indicating that I needed to sign for a package from the Czech Republic.  The package contained some photos of his family and farm, a commemorative book on Koclířov and a note:  

“Dear Angela, belatedly, we are thankful for your latter, he came alright.  We were wery happy.  With love, Pepi from Koclířov with family.”  

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Greetings from Pepi

 

So, I think he’s doing well.  To Pepi’s family, thank you for sharing him with us!

 

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Pepi’s wife, Miluska, and granddaughter, Emma

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Pepi’s home & stunning gardens

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Pepi’s farm in winter

 

Did you figure out why “Pepi” is his nickname?

You may recall that Pepi’s actual name is Josef, and I wasn’t able to figure out how he acquired this seemingly unrelated nickname, despite asking.  My sister, Louise, was telling the amusing story of how Pepi answered my question of how got his nickname with a seeming non sequitur (“How did you get your nickname?”  “Well, Josef is a very common name…”).   Her colleague explained that Pepi or some variant thereof is a common nickname for Joseph in many countries.  Turns out, in Latin, Saint Joseph’s name is always followed by the letters “P.P” for pater putativus (commonly accepted) father of Jesus Christ. A Pepe / Pepi variant as a common nickname for Joseph / Josef is found in many countries.

Didn’t you send some additional materials to Pepi?  What happened with those?

Why yes I did, thank you for asking.  I sent some basic genealogical information on the Valentine Bier family to be shared with Pepi’s “professor friend” in Berlin.  What I gathered through our translator was that this professor friend was interested in the story of displaced Germans following WWII.  Well, that professor friend must have shared my information, because about two weeks ago I received an email from a (presumed) relative in Berlin, Stephan Bier.  Talk about excitement!

Well how on earth did you read it?  You ain’t got no German.

True.  Luckily I have a friend and retired professor named John McSweeny who helped me with translation and interpretation of the information that Stephan sent.  Those of us interested in learning the story of the Biers out of Ketzelsdorf (Koclířov) owe a debt of gratitude to Professor McSweeny.  He not only translated, but provided background materials and recommended reading.  You know what they say: you can take the professor out of the research stacks, but you can’t take the research stacks out of the professor.  Or something like that.

You’re killing me, Smalls!  What did the email say?

Stephan’s original email contained a translated first paragraph with the remainder in German.  Here, for your reading pleasure, is the message as translated by Professor McSweeny:

I am Stephan Bier, born in 1936 in Ketzeldorf , House No. 48.   [recall, the Valentine Biers were in number 78]  Pepi has sent your family document to me in Berlin.  BTW, Pepi grew up in House No. 35, which is his family’s home, and which is in the same neighborhood as my parent’s home. Some Ketzeldorfers ended up here in Berlin after several detours. Most of the people were victims of the “wild expulsion” of June 28, 1945. On June 29th we were aimlessly transported under guard by rail from Abstdorf in open coal cars in the direction of what was then central Germany and is now eastern Germany. That was eight weeks after the end of the devastating Second World War.  The country was devastated and there was no functioning German administration; chaos reigned!

Thanks to the list of residents of Ketzeldorf in June, 1945, produced by the Czechs, I can see that there were 280 house numbers with about 1600 persons who were all German.  In 69 of the house numbers there were 250 people with the name Bier! This level of concentration of the name does not appear anywhere else. My compatriot, Franz Kössler (Born 1931), House No. 60, has looked at the documents a little more closely and has already written a draft for an article in the Schönhengster Newspaper.   We hope that it will be published soon.  The newspaper is only published monthly in Göppingen.

Under the direction of Dr. Franz Kössler, and with my collaboration, we published a small booklet in 2015 entitled   “Memories of Ketzelsdorf in Schönhengstgau” in memory of the expulsion 70 years before.  The booklet is probably no longer available.  However, I have almost the entire printed version in the computer and so this could be made available electronically if desired.

I am sending you my findings about your family from the Ketzelsdorfer birth register, which you can see on the Internet. I am also attaching two short overviews or summaries that I created for myself.

Best wishes from Berlin,

Stephan Bier

 

Wow, that’s amazing!  I have so many questions.  First, are we related to Stephan Bier?  Unclear.  I’m sure that somewhere in the past we had a common ancestor.  He provided a nice link to a slightly more navigable version of the Zamrsk archive, so that’s a good starting point.  It’s still in German though, so this is going to be a long term project.  I’ve already replied to Stephan and asked whether he knows the origin of the name “Bier”–famous producer or consumer thereof.

Fair enough.  What’s Schönhengstgau? And who’s this Dr. Franz Kössler?  Remember how I kept describing the region in which Ketzelsdorf is located as “an area comprised of regions of Bohemia and Moravia where a majority of ethnic Germans lived that’s now in the Czech Republic”?  Well, IT HAS A NAME and that’s Schönhengstgau.  Of course, this region now only exists historically.  Schönhengstgau is roughly translated as “Beautiful Stallion Shire” in English.   A “Gau” was an administrative area in Germany roughly equivalent to an English shire.  With a new search term in hand, a research community can be discovered.

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Symbol or crest of Schönhengstgau

Enter Dr. Franz Kössler.  As Stephan Bier’s letter indicates, he is a fellow displaced Ketzelsdorfer.  HIs Wikipedia entry indicates that he has worked professionally in areas including botany, radiation biology, environmental biophysics, musculoskeletal disorders.  And his hobby in retirement is Ketzelsdorf specifically and, generally, Schönhengstgau.  I presume that this is the “professor friend” that Pepi mentioned.

Dr. Franz Kössler

Dr. Koffler from a website listing his curriculum vitae:  https://www2.informatik.hu-berlin.de/~koessler/Vati/LebenslaufVati.html

 

Hmm, interesting.  If I want to learn more, what do I do next?  And why are you hogging the information that he says he shared?

Thanks again to Professor McSweeny.  He identified a few great options, such as a family research forum, and a dedicated website.  Also look at the Wikipedia entry for Schönhengstgau which includes the Schönhengstgau Homeland song.  Finally, I’m not nearly so selfish as I seem:  here is a link to the two translated chronologies that Stephan Bier provided.

I see that Stephan Bier seems to think that Ketzelsdorf holds the record for Bier concentration.  What about Southern Wisconsin?  Where are we at?  That is a good question.  I realize that my family data is not particularly up to date as far as recent generations go.  I can identify at least 140 “Biers,” assuming a 50% rate of marital name changing.  So, we’ll have to take a roll call.  I’m looking for anyone with the last name Bier.  In the Vincent V. Bier family (son of Edward, son of Valentine), we have:  Thomas Bier, Janice (Cousin) Bier, Angela Bier, Catherine Bier, Louise Bier, Peter Bier, Mary (Schwichtenberg) Bier, Liesl Bier, August Bier, Patrick Bier, James Bier, Tim Bier, Amy Bier, and Kelly Bier.  So that’s 14 to start with.   Please comment.   I guess I have to add “recent family activity” to the ever-expanding list of things to do.

It sure sounds like you’ve got a lot of work to do.  Truer words.  But at least it’s fun!

 

 

 

Bier Trip to the Homeland Part VII:

As we boarded the bus for our trip to Koclířov,  I tried to keep my enthusiasm in check, but it was hard.  This town, formerly Ketzelsdorf, holds so much enchantment for my Bier family.  Thanks to the diaries of the emigrant Valentine Bier family, the town seemed almost palpably real in our collective imaginations.  There’d be the ancestral home at number 78, St. Philomena’s Church where Valentine and Catherine had been married and the first seven children baptized, and a magical quality of recognition.

 

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A new day dawns on the Bohemian countryside

 

I harbored some additional secret hopes.  I hoped for some clues of relatives, pre- or post-Valentine, maybe a few friendly townspeople, a good beer.  I know that my Uncle Jim hoped to stride up to the door of 78 and, after flashing his I.D., be invited in for a game of mariáš.  But I didn’t dare mention these hopes–better to keep the group’s expectations low.

Our guide, Jana, had a contact in Koclířov, a lady who would let us in the church.  In fact, she said that of all the towns that she contacted, Koclířov was the only one that yielded a positive response.  However, we were running an hour late, and I anticipated a crabby old church lady when we finally rolled into town.

 

 

 

 

Imagine my slack-jawed surprised, then, when we were met instead by two people who, quite simply, none of us will ever forget.  Hana spoke English and, therefore, did most of the greeting.  She is a member of St. Philomena’s parish, a devout Catholic, and works for the other Catholic enterprise in town, the Fatima Center.  She welcomed us with unbridled enthusiasm, warmth, and awe.  She was amazed that we had traveled so far and repeated in numerous ways how blessed and lucky she felt.  It killed me when I had to do something so pedestrian as ask for a toilet!

She also introduced us to Josef, who goes by Pepi.  (“Why Pepi?” we wondered.  “Because Josef is such a common name.”  Something lost in translation there…).  Pepi spoke German and was mildly disappointed to discover that none of us did.  His mother was one of three Germans allowed to remain in the village following WWII, by virtue of the fact that she married a Czech man.  She secretly taught Pepi to speak German, and passed on to him her sorrow over the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans.  Indeed, he made her a deathbed promise to mend that rift.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think we helped him fulfill that promise to his mother.

 

 

 

Hana pointed out some of the sites in the town, including the community hall where Pepi had celebrated his 70th birthday the night before.  She reiterated the remarkable fact that a town of 700 supports not one but two Catholic institutions–St. James the Elder & Philomena Church and the Fatima Center.  This is all the more remarkable in a country in which 80% of the population is atheist.  St. James & Philomena is the traditional town church.  The Fatima Center is both a parish church and a pilgrimage site / education center / conference center / gathering place that sells amazing pastries for 40 cents.  It was built at the site of a former convent.

 

 

 

Hana and Pepi took us into the church and related it’s history, of near total destruction and decay during Communist rule and eventual restoration.  This was due to what Hana called a miracle and what I called a little bit of shoddy bookkeeping at the government offices.  I don’t want to get anyone in trouble–you’ll have to ask one of us in person!

 

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St. James the Greater & St. Philomena from the cemetery.  In the distance you can see the Fatima Center.  You can also appreciate the valley in which Koclířov lies

 

The cemetery’s German section was protected by destruction by the Communists by Pepi and his people.  You could barely hold me back as we entered through the gates.

 

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View from the church into the cemetery

 

Holy cow, the place was awash with Biers!  And I knew absolutely NONE of them!  It was simultaneously exciting and overwhelming.  So much work left to do!.  Pepi led us from grave to family grave, pausing to shed a few silent tears at the grave of his dear mother.  Fear not–the less legible had rubbings taken by the Laning boys.  Can you believe all of this unexplored history?  My only disappointment was that I didn’t see a single Jiru grave.  Fingers crossed that the archives at Zamrsk will prove more fruitful.

 

 

 

Flanking the church and cemetery on either side were a series of niches.  These contained a set of restored stations of the cross and additional memorials.   The money to restore these came from Koclířov’s former Sudeten Germans.  Pepi has organized a series of reunions with 80+ of the Koclířov Germans who were deported.  Hana relates that many were very hesitant to return, feeling the place would be “tainted” or “cursed” to them.  However, most wept tears of joy on their return, recalling and recognizing the home of their childhood.  The expat Koclířov-ians and current population now make yearly alternating visits between the Czech Republic and Germany.  Talk about making good on his promise!

 

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Niches flanking the church that contain old stations of the cross. The restoration was undertaken as a joint effort with the exiled German former residents of Koclířov, under Pepi’s guidance.

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Niches flanking the church that contain old stations of the cross and memorials. The restoration was undertaken as a joint effort with the exiled German former residents of Koclířov, under Pepi’s guidance.

 

Finally we stepped inside the church.  Hana gave a touching impromptu speech, led us all in prayer, and then proceeded to sing a song of St. Philomena as requested by Pepi, who softly hummed along to my right.  I know that I simply wept in astonishment.

 

 

 

Feeling overwhelmed with it all, we were then led across the street to the Fatima Center for more.  We had a brief tour of the beautiful grounds.  And note to self:  rooms are available to the public for 290 Kč per night (about $12!!!).

 

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Grounds of the Fatima Center

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Grounds of the Fatima Center

 

Then Pepi brought out the homemade plum brandy.  It was his birthday, after all.  I didn’t detect any plum, and I’m pretty sure that the 57% alcohol was a low estimate.  Oh well, twist our arms, cheers to Pepi!

 

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Pepi and Jana pouring out . . .

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serving to Eug . . .

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to Pepi!

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A second for some.

 

We had two things left that we hoped for:  to see the home at 78 and to see a statue that Pepi mentioned that was commissioned by a Bier.  Pepi was sad to inform us that the Bier home was one of 145 razed after the removal of the Germans after WWII.  He was able to point out its approximate location, however, which is now the site of a small yellow apartment building.  It’s nestled on the banks of the valley, just adjacent to a creek and a 3 minute walk from the church.  He also provided me with a hand-drawn map of the town’s layout prior to the destruction of the 145 homes, as drawn from the collective memory of the town.

 

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Apartment at the site of the former Bier home

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The site lies adjacent to the small creek that runs through town

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On the other side of the creek is a bus station and parking lot; you can just see the yellow apartment building in the background to the left.

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View from the bus station facing away from the house; you can see St. James & Philomena’s steeple in the distance and appreciate just how close to the church the Bier home was.

 

We didn’t want to the leave the town, but we had to eat.  No problem.  Hana called in some additional staff for the small restaurant owned by the Fatima Center.  They stayed open just for us and the beer and dumplings were sublime.  Of course, Pepi, Jana and our intrepid bus driver, Alex, joined us as well (Hana had to get back to work).

 

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Still trying to master mariáš after lunch

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The group outside the restaurant

 

Finally, Pepi led us to the statue at the edge of town.  It depicts St. Jan Nepomucký, an icon with whom we’d become familiar.  A Czech king had thrown him into the Vltava river after he (the saint) refused to rat out the queen’s confession.  The site where he went in was said to be identified by five stars.  As a result, he’s traditionally depicted with five starts around his head.  Ironically, he’s the patron saint of swimmers.  The back of the statue did, in fact, include a name “Joseph Bier”–another relative that I didn’t know we had.  Seriously, so much work to do . . .

 

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Statue of St. Jan Nepomucký

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Inscription on the back, with the name Joseph Bier and the year 1834

 

As I write all of this, I still can’t really believe it all happened.  The day was simply magical, and I know that we all felt it.  And it’s all due to the intervention of three amazing people whom I can never thank enough . . .

 

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Pepi

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Hana…the Czech “Sister Jan”

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Jana

 

Until we meet again, ahoy  Koclířov

 

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Bier Trip to the Homeland Part VI: Wishin’ and Hopin’

We had two days blocked out for our trip into the Bohemian and Moravian countryside.  I had been referring to this portion of the trip as the “black box:”  I had no idea what it held, could be good or bad, and I made no promises.  That being said, I still felt a great deal of responsibility for the group’s enjoying itself.

Day one, while visually stunning,

was a little bit discouraging.  

Our lovely guide, Jana, started off by having a sidebar with me about how most of the stops that the tour company had booked for the first day weren’t going to be worth it.  See, she had received copies of my research.  She got it.  She understood that I didn’t want to spend hours at archives that didn’t have what I needed.  I quickly agreed to adjust our plans, reassured her of our easygoing nature, and began to develop nervous diarrhea.

Once we were outside the Prague metropolitan area, we were again struck by the visual similarity of the Bohemian countryside to southern Wisconsin.  I imagine that the original Bohemian immigrants to Wisconsin just stayed on the train until things looked familiar, then disembarked and got to work.

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Save for the occasional castle, the Bohemian countryside is reminiscent of southern Wisconsin

 

The more agriculturally inclined in the group entertained themselves playing “name that crop” and “how many combines can you spot?”  The bus had to circle back many times as we encountered narrow lanes and bridges unable to bear the weight of a tour bus.  Additional time to kill was spent attempting to learn the complex rules of the traditional Czech card game, Mariáš.  My uncles kept hoping that they’d stumble upon a group of avid players with whom they could bond.  Instead, most people said that they knew of the game, but that it was too hard to learn!  Also, that their grandpa played.

 

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Name that crop!

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Counting combines

 

Eventually we stopped at the town of Zamrsk, where the district records are kept.  Jana assured me that over 90% of the records are digitized, and that a long stop would probably be a waste of time.  This was a good thing, as the building was closed and the records in indecipherable Gothic German.  Speaking of which, anyone know a good Gothic German translator?  So, we snapped a few pictures of the closed archives, Eugene and I had a beer with some kind people with whom we were unable to converse, Jana and the bus driver tried to fix the air conditioning, and we were off.

 

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The Zamrsk regional archives are housed in an old, charming prison.  The records therein are digitized, and I have a lot of work to do.

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We visited on a Sunday.  Oh well.

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My spirits were buoyed by this lovely Czech woman who shared a cold beer with me and cousin Eugene.  She was lovely, and nobody understand a bit of what the other was saying.

 

We drove a bit more.  The tour company booked us for a lunch stop in the town of Litomyšl.  I understand why–the main street is picturesque and there’s a castle.  (My God, I’ve become jaded on castles.  So. Many. Castles.)  But, again, I was left concerned that our journey to our roots was going to be a pastiche of the Czech countryside.

 

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Charming Litomyšl castle

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Charming Litomyšl main street

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Charming Litomyšl side street

 

Finally, after lunch, we set off for Dolní Třešňovec, the home of the Langer family for several generations.  Sure, none of my direct ancestors had lived there since about 1810.  Sure, we didn’t have any contacts in town.  Sure, the Sudenten Germans had all been expelled after World War Two and there were likely no actual relatives still there.  We were confident that armed with a house number (95), the knowledge that a chapel with a Pieta existed, and some basic luck, we were bound to find something.

And we did!  I truly don’t know if the abandoned overgrown house that we found was the house, but I hope it was.  I don’t know if the chapel-shaped firestation was the chapel, but it seems likely.  I am pretty sure that the Pieta next to the chapel / firestation was, in fact, a Pieta.

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Abandoned number 95.  Could this be the long-ago home of my Langer ancestors?

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Stucco chipping away on the side of the house reveals an old brick exterior that, to my amateur eyes, could be the required several hundred years old.

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If this is a refurbished chapel, the use of steeple as hose-drying tower was a clever conversion.  “Way to go boys,” says firefighter Tom.

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Descriptions of Dolní Třešňovec mention a Pieta next to the chapel.  This certainly fits the bill.

 

So….it was a start!  The cluster of houses hugging the roadside in  Dolní Třešňovec wasn’t all that inspiring, but with a few deep breaths and imagination, there was a flicker of magic to the place.  But the day had been long and the a.c. never really improved.  My frayed nerves were getting the better of me, and as we pulled away in the bus, I was truly focused on hoping for a better tomorrow.

I had been worried that the Czech people would be irritated with us German Americans nosing around the place.  Instead, no one seemed particularly interested at all, which was somehow worse.  Sure the scenery was beautiful and evocative, but I needed something more to make it seem just right.  After all, this was the capstone.  This was the part of the trip that was supposed to somehow bring us full circle.  I needed a little magic.

Fear not, fair reader.  On Day Two, we got our magic in spades.

Bier Trip to the Homeland Part V: Alternate Facts

The two days that we spent in Prague were beautiful, overwhelming in their information, and did quite a bit to set my assumptions straight.  Thesis: the Slavic people weren’t totally into the German population that my ancestors represented.  Correllary:  Prague is beautiful.

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Prague from the Strahov Monastery, above the castle complex.  St. Vitus Cathedral can be seen in the distance, along with the Vltava River.

 

As recently as two years ago, I was still muddling through the confusing fact that the towns in Bohemia from whence we sprang had new, Czech names.  As our guides slowly recounted the histories of the sites that we saw, it became clear that renaming these towns with Czech names was actually an act of reclamation rather than complete rebirth.  I learned a Czech history of being dominated first by the the Holy Roman Empire, then the Austro Hungarian, brief independence in the early 20th century only to be occupied by the Nazis, then the Communists.  The Velvet Revolution brought self-determination in 1989.  How did I miss this nuance?  I suppose that, before this trip, I was looking at things from a narrow point of view.

A brief review of a few Prague highlights, however, tells a story of nationalistic pride having nothing to do with the identity of any of their former occupying rulers.

St. Vitus Cathedral is located within the so-called Prague Castle complex. The current building is a prime example of Gothic architecture.  The altar end was built under the rule of Charles the IV, begun in 1344.  Construction paused to address more important issues to the Austro-Hungarians, such as the Protestant / Hussite “threat” and various sundry wars.  The Nave end was finally completed in Neo-Gothic Style in the 19th century.  The current cathedral is actually the third on the site built to celebrate the arm of St. Vitus that King Vaclav (who we know as Good King Wenceslas) acquired.  There are a lot of other popular Slavic saints their too, including Vaclav himself.

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St. Vitus Cathedral, eternal home of many popular saints, kings, and emperors.

Another, in my opinion more  beautiful, chapel in the Prague Castle is known as the Old Chapel and is done in traditional Romanesque style.  There, the grandmother of Good King Vaclav is buried and venerated a saint and Slavic folk hero as well.  She is Saint Ludmila.  She is noted for having raised Vaclav and for having been strangled by her daughter in law.  They were trying times.

 

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The beautiful, austere Old Chapel of Prague Castle.

 

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The Old Chapel in Prague Castle features this ancient fresco of Queen Ludmila, grandmother of king Wenceslas (Vaclav).  She is usually shown wearing a white cloth over her head.

Vaclav is a huge folk hero.  There is a statue of him astride a horse at the top of Wenceslas (Vaclav) Square.  He was actually a Duke of Bohemia, not a king as the song implies.  Also, he was killed by his brother.  Again, trying times.  Wenceslas Square has been the site of numerous massive demonstrations, especially in the days of communist rule, such as the Prague Spring in 1968.

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Duke Vaclav (“King Wenceslas”) in the eponymously named square.

 

Another guy we saw in bronze a lot was King Charles the IV.  He was considered the greatest of the Bohemian Kings.  In addition to initiating the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral, he founded Charles University & built the Charles bridge.  Bonus:  he had 4 wives, none of whom he killed!  Charles University today has over 40,000 students and is free for Czech citizens.

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King Charles IV in Křižovnické  Square, Prague

Looking for a new, fun sport?  Why not take up defenestration?  This is a historically popular way to both demonstrate against and take care of one’s enemies in the Czech Republic.  It means, literally, “to throw out a window.”  So, the rules of the game are easy.  We saw a famous defenestration window in the Prague Castle that Czechs used to defenestrate some Hapsburg clerks during the days of Austro-Hungarian rule.

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Famous defenstration window in Prague Castle.  Watch your back, I might defenestrate you.

Outside Prague castle is Golden Lane.  This series of pocket-sized homes are built into the castle walls and were the site of craftspeople.  In the early 20th century, Number 14 was the residence of a famous fortune teller.  When the Gestapo was clearing the place, she foretold their eventual defeat.  So, they killed her.

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Home of Matylda Průšová, Golden Lane, Prague Castle

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Detail from the home of Matylda Průšová

 

As I mentioned above, St. Vitus Cathedral wasn’t completed until the early 20th century.  So, all of the stained glass windows in it are modern.  One stands out, the painted window of Czech Art Nouveau artist, Alphonse Mucha.  It highlights King / St. Vaclav in the Center–as a young boy in red with Queen Ludmila, and just above being baptised by Sts. Cyril and Methodius.  Their lives are highlighted in the side panels.

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Stained glass window designed by Alphonse Mucha, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

I was so taken with the window that I made a visit to the Mucha museum.  He gained massive popularity through his theatrical advertising posters in France, mostly for Sarah Bernhard.  Later, though, he turned his attention to more traditional Slavic themes.  The most striking to me was the poster below, nominally advertising a lottery, but really advertising Slavic independence and self-determination.  The lottery was used to fund Czech language classes to keep the language alive.  A young schoolgirl stares accusingly from the poster, daring the viewer to NOT buy a ticket.  In the background is a dejected Slavic woman on a dying tree.

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Alphonse Mucha, from “Lottery for the Union of Southwest Moravia.”

Finally, we stopped at the exuberant John Lennon wall.  The wall has been used since communist times as a place of public expression of dissent.  It was a spontaneous gathering place after Lennon’s death, after which it earned its current name.  It is now the only place in the city where graffiti is legal.

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Joan Shadel & Tom Bier adding to the John Lennon Wall, Prague

When we were walking to our hotel on our first day in Prague, we passed through a hotel.  The statue by David Cerny there was totally confusing.  By the end, it became a welcome and understandable site.  This modern artist is big into grand public displays.  This is his most famous work, a takeoff on the Vaclav square statue, with a Vaclav astride a thoroughly dead horse representing communism.

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David Cerny’s “Svaty Vaclav”

 

Good lord, isn’t Prague achingly beautiful?  Nevertheless, I ended these two days in Prague a little nervous.  How would we be received, Germans showing up in the now-Czech villages of our ancestors?  Were we suffering from a bad case of hubris?  As we head into the countryside, only time will tell…

Bier Trip to the Homeland Part IV: A Brief Separation in Time and Space

The journey to “the homeland” has begun in earnest!  After soaking up the culture of the Bavaria for the past few days,  today we boarded a bus and drove to Prague in the Czech Republic.  The purpose of the Munich part of the trip was to get a taste of what our ancestors’ German cultural homeland is like;  this second part will investigate their lands from which they physically sprung.

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The areas of the Czech Republic on which we will be focusing:  Prague for the sheer pleasure of it all, and the Pardubice Region for the familyhistory.

165 years ago, the Bier and Langer strands of my family tree were living what I imagine to have been an uneventful life in Bohemia.  In fact, their families lived less than 20 km apart from each other in, essentially, the same county (Pardubice) of the now Czech Republic.  For a brief review, here’s a copy of my father, Thomas Bier’s, ancestor tree:

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Ancestors of Thomas Bier.  Those who are Germans from Bohemia are circled.

Did the Bier / Jiru and Langer / Janisch families know each other in the old country?  Who’s to say.  The Langer / Janisch clan emigrated about 30 years prior to the Bier / Jiru family–in 1853.  Further, the Langer family settled in a large enclave of German Bohemians in the Watertown area.  While Watertown is also in southern Wisconsin, it lies over 30 miles away from the greater Janesville area that attracted the Biers.

Wouldn’t be an amazing story, though, if my Grandpa Vincent Bier and Grandma Mary Alice (Langer) Bier’s families were friends 3-4 generations in advance of their wedding?  Some exciting sleuthing into the historical record provides some tantalizing clues that this was, in fact, the case.

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Wedding of  my Grandma Mary Alice (Langer) Bier & Grandpa Vincent Bier.  21 November, 1946.  Did their grandparents–Emil Langer and Valentine Bier–ever meet?

 

Franz Langer was Mary Alice’s Great-Grandfather;  he was the one to make the move to the United States with his wife, Barbara Janisch.  Valentine Bier was Vincent’s Grandfather and was the emigree.   And, according to a brief clipping in the Rock County  Recorder Times, Valentine actually served as a pallbearer for Franz Langer at his death in 1894.  While the name is actually spelled “Valentine Beers,” it seems reasonable to assume that this was, in fact, Valentine Bier.  Both men attended the same church, St. Mary’s in Janesville.  The timing also lines up:

 

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Obituary of Franz Langer from the Rock County Recorer Times 11 October, 1894

 

 

Another source that I frequently reference is the Bier Family Journal.  This ledger-like document chronicles the daily life of the Valentine Bier family from 1899-1903;  most of the Valentine Bier children contributed at some time or another, although Father Charles Bier was the most prolific diarist.

 

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The Bier Family Diary:  a ridiculously rich source of primary information.

The diary generally concludes each day by enumerating the visitors that stopped by.  Take a look at who visited the house in the summer of 1899:

Wed. Aug 16, 1899:  Weather is quite agreeable, but rather warm in the afternoon.  Father, Louis and Fr. begin to haul manure.  Chas sees the great base ball game taking place between Janesville and Milwaukee league teams.  The score is Mil 2.  Janesville 0.  Visitors of the eve at home are Mr. Emil Langer Senior and Junior, Uncle Anton, and cousin Chas. Bier.  Fr. Baar, and Fr. Schneider, Jno. and Bertha.  Jno. begins tobacco harvesting.

 

Emil Langer Junior would be Mary Alice’s father.  Edward, the youngest of the Valentine Bier clan, was Vincent’s father.  At the date of that visit at which they surely met, Emil Langer, Jr., was 14.  Edward Bier 10 years old.  Their children would marry in just over 47 years.

Wow!  Genealogy is FUN!

In a few short days, we will retrace beginning of these families brief separation in time and space…

Bier Trip to the Homeland Part III: Old is a relative term

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I took this to capture the onion-domed village church in the distance.  The Bavarian landscape is familiar to any southern Wisconsinite.

Over the past couple of days the group has experienced some sights that have messed with my notions of time and space.  In terms of space, the drive from Munich’s airport to our hotel let me to wonder why on earth we’d traveled all this way to come back to southern Wisconsin.  The landscape is eerily similar and, save for the street signs, one could easily think that we’d barely moved at all, let alone journeyed over thousands and thousands of miles.  I’m not sure who the first German Bohemian was to settle in southern Wisconsin.  However, I now believe that they did so by simply getting off a westward-bound train when things looked familiar.

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Typical Bavarian Farmhouse, geraniums adorning the window boxes and barn attached to the stuccoed front in the rear.

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The size of our hoard qualifies earns us a full bus. Luckily is has tables in the back . . .

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As numerous rounds of cards are required daily.

The compression of time is a far more nuanced and complex discussion.  I was struck by how some structures made to look old were actually quite new, and vice versa.  Equally striking was the interwoven nature of my family’s “dates” and histories with those events of the past.

 

1754:  Wies Church completed

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Wieskirch exterior, Steingaden, Bavaria, Germany

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The interior is concerned a masterpiece of the Bavarian Rococo style.

This church was built as a pilgrimage site, and located smack in the middle of the countryside.  It is dripping in the pastel gilt that is textbook Bavarian Rococo.  It commemorates the miracle of a wooden statue of Jesus that was reported to be seen weeping on several occasions.  This miracle, one that I would have thought to be thoroughly shrouded in the mists of time reportedly occurred in 1738, less than 100 years before…

1822:  Franz Langer born

1845:  Valentine Bier born

1853:  Franz Langer family emigrates to U.S.

1855:  Hohenschwangau Castle completed

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Hohenschwangau Castle was built in relative modernity on the ruins of 11-12th century fortresses.

 

I knew nothing about the Bavarian monarchy prior to this trip.  While the Wittelsbach family consolidated power as Dukes for many years, Bavaria was only a Kingdom from 1806-1918.  Thus, while this castle was made to look old, it is really quite new.  It was built as a summer hunting residence for King Maximiliian the II and is where his son, King Ludwig II, grew up.

1876:  Telephone invented

1881:  First public electric utility established in the U.K.

1882:  Valentine Bier family emigrates to U.S.

1886:  Neuschwanstein Castle completed

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Perched high on a hill, Neuschwanstein Castle truly seems like the stuff of fairy tales.

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Hohenschwangau with Neuschwanstein in the distant

This castle, commemorated on calendars and puzzles worldwide, is built just a stone’s throw from Hohenschwangau.  Ludwig II built a fantasy castle decorated on the inside with fairy tale scenes from Richard Wagner’s operas.  The interior is amazing but photographs are not allowed;  a peek at interior shots is worthwhile.  Ludwig II gazed out from a window in Hohenschwangau as his dream, the exterior conceived by a set designer rather than an architect, went up across the gorge over years.  He only slept there for 172 nights before his strange tale ended mysteriously.  The castle is only a pastiche of the medieval:  inside was running water and a telephone (that only connected to the post office and Ludwig’s mother).  All of this opulence existed while my ancestors, and countless others, toiled in poverty and obscurity in Wisconsin.

1894:  Franz Langer dies

1918 / 1919:  Vincent Bier & Mary Alice Langer, my grandparents, born

1918:  End of WWI, Bavarian Monarchy dissolved

1922:  Valentine Bier dies

1933-1945:  Dachau Concentration Camp in operation

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A sobering view from one of the reconstructed barracks over the expanse representing the rows of former barracks, surrounded by guard towers and razor wire.

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Gates of the camp with the taunting phrase, “Arbeit macht frei”  or “work makes you free.

We  spent several sobering hours at Dachau.  The horrors committed and endured here rendered the experience solemn and horrifying.  The experience is etched forever in our collective memories.

1945-1946:  Ethnic Germans “transferred” out of Czechoslovakia

1951:  Thomas Bier, my father, born

Overall, an interesting couple of days taking in sights, surviving the rain, and thinking about the compression of time.

 

Here’s a few parting shots that don’t fit in with the theme but need to be seen:

 

Patrick dressed in a natty fashion for our castle tour, feeling that royalty is truly in his blood.  His management of this schnapps glass suggests otherwise.

We had rainy days for our tours of the Bavarian castles, but managed thanks for the preparedness of the numerous former Girl Scouts in our group.