The Meaning of Bier

I’ve mentioned my correspondence with Stephan Bier, a former Ketzelsdorfer who now lives in Berlin.  He publishes on the history of the area and has been someone with whom I’ve been lucky enough to correspond.  Before the family trip to the homeland, one question that I hoped to have answered was, “where does the name Bier come from?”  Many from this side of the pond have suggested, joking only to a degree, that a predilection for the beverage may have something to do with it.  Indeed, even when the family was newly arrived and largely destitute, their small gatherings always included a small keg, in addition to music and card games.  These activities are still cherished by the Valentine Bier progeny to an almost universal degree, as far as I can tell.  In fact, the eventual homestead now boasts what is essentially a small private club in what used to be the pig barn, known as “Bob’s Man Cave.”  The Biers, they love their beers.

So at the risk of upsetting the familial apple cart, I proceed.  Once again, I owe thanks to John McSweeny for translating the following from Stephan’s February message:

You asked me where the name Bier comes from.   I confess that I asked myself the same question for quite awhile.  My parents (ordinary people) also did not know the answer, just as they could not explain how we had come to the Bohemian-Moravian highlands so long ago. [However], these puzzles were already solved by clever people before me.  In the book “Ketzelsdorf: A place of pilgrimage in Schönhengstgau“ by Otmar Embert (a teacher in Ketzelsdorf), Franz-Sales-Press, Eichstätt and Vienna, 1984, there are some explanations. (To be specific) there are some explanations of the names on pages 192-194. This book primarily concerns the old Ketzelsdorf residents and is only available in a small edition.

In anticipation of the question of those more scholarly than myself, this book is out of print and I can find no obvious source of a copy in my online searches.  I’d be happen to be proven otherwise to any potential sleuths.  Fortunately, Stephan transcribed the portions of mutual interest:

Origin and Meaning of Some Ketzelsdorfer Family Names

Old German names: In pre-Christian times, the Germans took a single name which was closely related to (the everyday life) of the old Germanic culture and which originally was taken exclusively from the German vocabulary. These ancient names continue to exist in many current family names. However, in the course of centuries most (of the names) have become transformed such they are difficult to recognize. For example, the current family names come (from):  

Here follows a list of such old-Germanic derived names until we come to . . .

Baar, Behr, Bier = Bear (Considered by the (old) Germans to be the king of the forest).

I mean, what else is there to say?  Our Biers, the ones who left from Ketzelsdorf, historically acquired their surname from the king of the forest.  Hopefully, this highfalutin’ derivation will provide some solace to those who will part with their stein only reluctantly.

Stephan goes on to include some information on the arrival of the Biers to their neighborhood of Ketzelsdorf and neighboring Schönhengstgau towns:

Baar – Bier. The earliest bearer of the name Baar is Gierg Par, who appears in Schöffe in 1532.  The name Bier does not appear in the early days of the city (of Ketzelsdorf) but we do find a Merten Bier in 1600 in Hemersdorf.  The [eventual] strong distribution of the two names Baar and Bier in neighboring Ketzelsdorf, which was already a part of Bohemia, is striking.

Are there Biers roaming about whose name DOES derive from the beverage to some degree?  ancestry.com would seem to suggest so, explaining that the origins of the surname Bier are several, including:

“German and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from Middle High German bier ‘beer’, German Bier, Yiddish bir, a metonymic occupational name for a brewer of beer or a tavern owner, or in some cases perhaps a nickname for a beer drinker. South German: from the short form of a personal name formed with Old High German bero ‘bear’. Northern English and Scottish: variant of Byers.”

A colleauge of John McSweeny’s at the University of Toledo reviewed the evidence, and seems to agree.  According to Dr. Bernhard Sulzer

It seems to me that the name “Bier” as it is used today and has been used earlier has at least two roots, either from bier (beer) as in the drink or from bero (bear) which, according to a site I found, was derived from the Old High German word bero for “bear” and used especially in Southern Germany and quite likely, in the parts that were once the Sudetenland.

 

So, my dears, the bear didn’t turn into the drink.  Rather, Bier seems to have come to us via two historic paths: one originating from the drink and one from the animal.  Maybe you will be slightly disappointed, but I know one person who will not be:  my brother Pete, who sports a tattoo of a bear on his back.  It is of a size that he once told me that the head is “about the size of a melon.”

 

bear by david creighton-pester

From Pinterest, by David Creighton-Pester

Valentine Bier Family: What came next?

On this Valentine’s Day, I’d like to pick up the thread of the story of the Valentine Bier family.  I started weaving this story a year ago, in honor of Valentine Bier’s nameday and birthday, with an introduction to the patriarch of the Bier family in southern Wisconsin.  After several more installments, we left Valentine transplanted to a meager existence in Rock County, and his wife and children newly arrived from Ketzelsdorf to join him.  Then I was distracted by the Bier trip to the homeland and related topics.  For today, I’d like to pick up the thread of the family’s story where I left it.  Valentine and Catherine were reunited at the train depot in Janesville after almost a year apart.  He was meeting his youngest daughter, Amalia, for the first time.  They climbed onto a lumber wagon and began their journey home.

They arrived in the fall of 1882, and that winter the family lived in a two-room shack on the property of the farm on which Valentine was employed as a hired hand.  The farm was owned by Al Husker, and the building in which the family was to be housed was a two-room shack previously used as a woodshed and rummage room.  In the Memoirs of Father Charles, who was 3 at the time,

The walls were not plastered, and a single layer of siding boards, not too well matched, was all that kept out the wind and weather.  The larger room had two small windows and was used as kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedroom.  Into it were crowded a small kitchen stove, a table, a cupboard, two rough wooden benches, and a bed.  The smaller room had no window at all and was used as a bedroom.  There was no plumbing in the shack nor any household convenience whatsoever.  —  Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.

When my mother and I drove to the site, we found that a farm house sits on the north side of the road, and an open expanse of prairie to the south.  The winds through the ill-matched siding must have been fierce.  In order to fit into the tiny space, the two older children, John and Frances, were housed with other families where they worked to earn their keep, of course.  They were 11 and 12.  Valentine worked long hours and was seldom home before well into the night.

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The Al Husker Farm straddled Wilcox Road in between Harmony Town Hall and Vickerman.  The pond just to the north is now on the grounds of Camp Rotamer.  1891 Plat, Courtesy of the Charles Tallman Archives, Rock County Historical Society.

The following fall of 1883, Valentine rented a few acres south of Milton where the family lived for 4-5 more years in the small farmhouse.  I don’t know the name or owners of the farm on which he worked, but on those few acres he raised the cash crop of the day:  tobacco.  He did so on half shares, meaning that 50% of whatever he earned from its ultimate sale went right back to the landlord.  As the meager amount that he earned from this enterprise wasn’t enough to support the family, he also hired himself out to other farmers at a rate of 75 cents per day.  The family’s principal income, however, depended on the labor-intensive tobacco crop.  Fortunately, much of the tedious work could be done by Catherine and the children.  In Father Charles’ words

The price paid for the leaf tobacco at the time was about 5 cents per pound. and the average yield per acre was about 1500 pounds.  This amounted to about $75 per acre of which half was paid to the landlord as rental. — Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse

Around this same time, the two eldest children began to formally work out of the house as hired hands.  John worked for a local farmer for $10 per month with only Sundays off.  All of his earnings, save for what it took to keep him fed and clothed, went back to the family and allowed Valentine to invest in farming equipment and a few cows and to steadily increase his farming enterprise.  Similarly, Frances’ work as a hired girl was equally arduous and brought in $1.50 to $2.00 per week.  Valentine set aside the money she earned and after three years was able to buy his first team of horses with it.  Without John and Frances’ sacrifice of, essentially, their childhoods, Valentine may never have been able to break out of the cycle of subsistence or tenant farming.  Neither of them were able to formally go to school, save for a few months to learn English upon first arriving.

 

Edward, John, Louis, Frank & Charles Bier

Neither John . . .

Jiru-Bier Women Four Generation Portrait

nor Frances had the luxury of a gradually exit from childhood, nor did they ever really learn English.

During the time on this small farm, there were several joyful arrivals.  The first was the birth of the third to last child, Caroline, in September, 1884.  She is described from suffering from some form of epilepsy, and I suspect that this may have contributed to the fact that she never left home.  Far from being an invalid, however, later diaries show her as an integral member of the family, devoted to helping Catherine run the household as children and eventually grandchildren passed through.  The other arrival was that of Catherine’s mother and two brothers, Johanna, Frank, and Florian Jiru in 1885.  They had also become dissatisfied with life in Ketzelsdorf.    Frank was accompanied by his wife, Anna Hanauska (sister of Frances Bier’s eventual husband, Wenzel Hanauska) and baby daughter, another Johanna.  They all joined the Valentine Bier family in the tiny rented farmhouse, and for awhile there were 12 people under the tiny roof.

This only lasted a short while, however, as Valentine transferred his brood to a larger rented farm, the Lime Borden farm on the southeast side of Milton.  Frank Jiru and his family stayed behind in the small rented farm that they vacated, and Florian and Johanna Jiru stayed on with the Valentine & Catherine Bier family–Florian for a couple of years and Johanna for the rest of her life, about 20 more years.  The Lime Borden Farm had a relatively palatial 8-room farmhouse, along with the usual farm buildings and a tobacco shed.  Despite the better setup, however, the three years spent there were far from profitable, as the summers were all quite dry and the prices of farm products including tobacco were quite low.  When my mother and I drove by the place, on M-H Townline Road just west of Vickerman, it looked quite rocky as well.  It doesn’t seem as though the three years spent on the Lime Borden Farm were remembered very fondly.

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The Lime Borden Farm is just to the East of the area now occupied by and ethanol plant outside of MIlton, Wisconsin. 1891 Plat Map of Milton Township, Courtesy of Charles Tallman Archives, Rock County Historical Society.

Father Charles specifically recounts a few of the more harrowing incidents that occurred during this stretch of time that are best quoted directly in his words:

In the spring of 1886 while Father was doing work in the fields, the horses were accidentally frightened an ran wildly into a barbed wire fence.  The better one of the team was cut so badly that it seemed impossible to stop the flow of blood.  My parents were both in great distress and well I remember how they cried aloud to God to help.  As soon as father was able to quiet the animal sufficiently, mother pressed some rags into the worst of the wounds till the bleeding gradually stopped.  Incidentally, this was the valuable mare that was being paid for by my sister Frances with the wages she was earning while working as a hired girl for the family from whom father had bought the mare, and it took almost three years of this service to pay this sum in full.  –Father Charles Bier, Memoirs of an Old Recluse.

Can you imagine, working for three years just to pay off off a mare?  And what if it had died–she still would have had to keep working for the debt alone!  No wonder they invoked prayer!

The second incident involved Valentine attending a turkey raffle and winning a few birds.  Apparently these events differed from today’s meat raffles in that the turkeys were still alive rather than in a freezer.  As he was walking home with them, some jealous fellas jumped him and ended up injuring one and killing the other turkey!  And this is why we can’t have turkey raffles (or anything nice, kids.)

While Valentine toiled away and fought off turkey muggers, the children still at home started school at the Vickerman School, a short walk from the farm.  Yet, this wasn’t all sunshine and roses.  As the only Catholics at the school, they were automatically outcasts.  This was made worse by the fact that they didn’t speak any English and were quite visibly poor.  Eventually the other children let Charles and Frank and their siblings play with them, except they never got to be the blindman in “blindman’s bluff,” as they didn’t own their own handkerchiefs, and the other children didn’t want Bier germs on theirs.   Kids being perhaps unintentionally mean is a problem across the ages, I suppose.

So what happened next?  Did the venture on the not-terribly-profitable Lime Borden Farm do them in?  Stay tuned…

 

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.”  

Pepi's letter

Greetings from Pepi

 

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

 

Pepi's family

Pepi’s wife, Miluska, and granddaughter, Emma

Pepi's farm

Pepi’s home & stunning gardens

Pepi's house winter

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.

Schönhengstgau

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 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:

Thomas Bier Ancestor Chart

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

After years of muttering about how we “really oughta,” we’re doing it.  We’re taking all of the rich first-hand narrative information about our family history and doing a mission of discovery.  I along with an assortment of my Bier relatives are spending our first night in Munich.

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Our guide, Christiane Haack. She was quite popular holding this sign in the arrivals hall.

This trip was about two years in the making, and we set up an itinerary to accomplish several things:

  • Go back to Ketzelsdorf (Koclirov) and see the village that our ancestors left behind.  
  • See a little of the other villages that other relatives came from (more on this later)
  • Stop by the nearest big city, Prague
  • Take in a smattering of German and Bavarian culture in Munich.

The trip ranges from my parents at the older end of the spectrum to my cousin, Nick Laning, who is 17.   Here’s a fun little tree to see how we’re all related and who’s along for the ride.   The tree is set up in relation to my great grandfather, Edward Bier.  He’s the youngest of Valentine’s kids, and the most recent common relative of us all.  Trip participants are circled:

Edward A Bier Hourglass Chart

We spent this first day getting here, wandering around the city in bleary-eyed fascination and taking in a delicious dinner of sauerbraten, bread dumplings and bier at the Augustiner Keller Biergarten, proudly serving Augustiner bier which has been brewed since 1328!

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Louise Bier and dessert and some scrap metal on the wall that we sat next to.

Now I’m in bed writing and the younger and heartier of the group are out pub hopping.   Also Uncle Jim. For my family, discovering our “German roots” is not proving to be that much of a stretch!

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Mom and Dad walking home from Augustiner Keller

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Discovering our German roots in the hotel bar–Bier and Riesling