Ketzelsdorf and Schönhengstgau updates

Although I declared my intent to turn my family history attention to my Grandmother’s story, I have to  share a few updates regarding our family homeland in Ketzelsdorf / Koclířov before I do so.

Since receiving a letter from Pepi, our friend in Koclířov, in the fall, a few interesting things have transpired.  And all of them are creating a fascinating, real-time experience in seeing how history is created.  Recall that a year ago, I was still grappling with the fact that Ketzelsdorf (German) had become Koclířov (Czech).  Since then, I’ve seen the evidence of the Slavic version of this story during our time in Prague.  More so, recent correspondence has introduced me to the displaced Germans’ version of the story, and it is a passionate one.

Before Christmas I received a letter from Dr. Franz Kossler, who you may recall is Pepi’s
“professor friend” in Berlin, a fellow Ketzelsdorfer and an historian of the area.  He kindly wrote me in English, and here is his email:

Dear Dr. Angela Bier,

because I was mentioned by Pepi (Koclirov), by Stephan (Berlin) and actually in your article „Voices from the backseat“ (…who is this Dr. Franz Kössler?), it‘s time to introduce myself.

Really, I was born in 1931 in Ketzelsdorf (Koclirov), home no. 60. My father was a carpenter and worked in Zwittau (Svitavy), our mother took care of the children (altogether six, born between 1923 and 1942). She also took care to our small farm with several animals as well as to the agriculture (some hectares).

Until the end of 1944 I visited the school in Ketzelsdorf, but after the wild repulsion (Juni 1945) I was living five years as a farm worker in a small Prussian village. From 1950 to 1953 I visited schools in Potsdam; after that I studied Biology in Berlin five years long.

In 1958 I entered the Institute of Occupational Medicine and was engaged in different fields. During this scientific work I met a lot of famous scientists, among them some from the USA, e.g. Prof. Gergely (Boston), Prof. Hazlewood (Houston).

During my investigations on bioluminescent bacteria I had contact by letters and reprints exchange with the pope of bioluminescence Prof. J. W. Hastings (Boston) and I met him in Chabarowsk (East Siberia) and Boston, in 1979 and in 1996, respectively. In my second dissertation (Habilitation, 1969) many persons of bioluminescent research are cited, among them was Beatrice M. Sweeney (perhaps related to McSweeny?).

I retired 1997, then I started some activities in historical fields, beginning with the history of Botany in Berlin and Potsdam, followed by writing books about my home village Ketzelsdorf, my home area Schönhengstgau and about countries in Eastern Europe where German was spoken earlier..

The term Schönhengst originated presumably from a male horse (in German: hengst) in connection with an ancient burglord with a pretty (in German: schön) horse. Another legend tells that the old traffic road between Ketzelsdorf and Mährisch-Trübau (Mor. Trebova) which has to cross a mountain passage and this crossing was a great strain for horses (in German: schinden, schind den Hengst – Schinhengst-Schönhengst).

Finally, I want to congratulate you to your engagement in family history and the enthusiasm for Ketzelsdorf and the landscape Schönhengst.

Thanks for the informative paper, delivered to Pepi who sent it to Berlin; I prepared a short communication for the Journal Schönhengster Heimat.

With best wishes for cheerful Christmas time and Happy New Year,

Sincerely yours

In addition to being interesting in its own right (bioluminescent bacteria?  Wow!  Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article.  ), I found the description of how the beautiful region along the Bohemian and Moravian borders got its name.  Finally, if the summary of the story of the Biers’ coming to America ends up being published, I’ll be simply delighted.

The Journal Schönhengster Heimat that he mentions is produced by a society of the Sudeten Germans now residing in Germany.  They also maintain a small museum in  Göppingen, Germany, which is in the Stuttgart region.  Any of you who speak German will probably get more out of this website than I have, even with the assistance of Google translate.

Museum

Schönhengster Heimat Museum in Göppingen, Germany

In exploring some of the information contained on this website, I’ve discovered that there’s actually a song to the Schönhengstgau region.  Here’s a google translation of the lyrics, which are quite poetic and evocative:

Between March and Adler spreads
a richly blessed land,
which traverses the wanderer’s path,
captivating as a sweet spell.
Blessing rests in every valley,
Peacefully greenens on mountain and on the meadow.
Greetings many thousands of times,
Trauter German Schönhengstgau!

Our native mother tongue, of
our ancestors of the same kind, is kept
under every roof
like a delicious good.
Manly courage and women’s dignity
Carries the people there proudly.
Stay of the earth garden Zierde,
Trauter German Schönhengstgau!

And the girls, like the boys of
our future, comfort and reverence,
are to dig deep into the heart of
their fathers. Word of Solace :
Shine happiness in golden shades,
Come days dull and gray,
Faithfully bound, yours forever,
Trauten deutscher Schoenhengstgau!

I’ve received further correspondence from Stephan Bier, our presumed relative in Berlin, and I include a few “Google translations” from his letter;

Our small commemorative book “Memories of Ketzelsdorf in Schönhengstgau” will be sent to you by our representative in the local newspaper Wilhelm Bier. He lives in Roitsch in the larger town of Bitterfeld. In Roitsch a larger group of 1,945 stranded Ketzelsdorfern and many of them are still living there or in the neighborhood.

Guess what I came in the mail literally as I was writing this?  The aforementioned copy of the book from another presumed relative, Wilhelm Bier.  It’s wholly in German and I think I’ll have to seek some help from the University on this one!  The small commemorative book, which I was presuming would be a pamphlet, is 278 pages long!!

Ketzelsdorf book

Recently arrived.

I will have to add this to my reading list (after translation) after I finish Orderly and Humane, which tells the story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans after WWII.  For some interesting insight into how contentious the issue of the ownership and telling of this story is, read some of its reviews on Amazon.  The author, R.M. Douglas, is careful in his introductory material to emphasize that he in no way conflates the story of this group’s treatment with that of the treatment of the Jews, Gypies, homeosexuals and other targeted groups during the Holocaust.  Nevertheless, the need to tread excruciatingly lightly is brought into relief in those reviews.

Orderly and Humane

Finally, a comment from Stephan Bier at the end of his letter drove home the point of history being the provenance of the victors (recall that this is a rough Google translation and likely misses some of his nuance):

I was Ketzelsdorf only interested because I was born there. The political conditions were not pro-German. Even the current administration in Prague is not interested in historical truth. I have a garden Czech neighbor and told me that many of his relatives in Prague and its surroundings believe that the Germans came in the former Czechoslovakia only with Hitler 1938. You do not know that the German settlers hundreds of years ago, large parts of the country have made it all under cultivation, the land was donated. That is not taught at school. The expulsion of more than 3 million Germans and the appalling atrocities be concealed today. Bohemia and Moravia were hundreds of years to the German association of states. The language has Slavic origin and people have little cultural differences, but otherwise it is a European country like other countries.

So there you have it.  Learning history as it’s being written is an interesting, contentious subject.

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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