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 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…