It is almost exactly two years ago today, (on Wed. 16 Sep 2009), that I was sitting in this same SeaTac airport waiting for my flight to take me to Madrid and my incredible experience walking more than 500 miles on the Camino francés across northern Spain to Santiago and on to Finisterre. The camino will be with me on this journey too, as I am starting and ending the European part of the trip spending time in Finland with people I met on that walk. Veera, who I met in Pamplona and was my primary walking companion as we left Leon for the dry, wide and empty expanses of the meseta. In addition while in Finland I am hoping to meet up with at least some of the 7 lively Finns, Anna-maija, Sane, Layla, Ilse, Merja, Ilse and Heli. I will also be seeing Beate in Wurzburg, Germany. Even Peter, not met on the Camino, sent me a book on his town of Hamburg in which I saw a photograph of the Santo Jacobi church…. Yes, a place passed on the Jakobsweg.
But the origins of this trip started with the idea of very different journey of discovery. A journey to the places my great-great (& – great) grandparents lived in what was then Prussia and is now the western edge of Poland.
I first knew of Grandma Kurth (dead 20 years by the time I was born) as grandpa’s grandmother, the gently smiling sepia photograph that sat on my grandpa’s dresser until the day he died. I know he loved her very much. He must have told some stories about her, because it seems like I always knew that she had immigrated from Germany, she never learned to speak English, he had learned some German as a child and could talk to her, but had stopped speaking it with the advent of World War I.
I knew Grandma Kurth – my great-great grandmother, Marie Luise Ottillie Menze Hennig Kurth, “Ottillie” – and her husband Carl Julius Adolf Hennig, “Adolf” had immigrated to the Fargo, North Dakota area in 1880. Their life there sounded like the plagues in Egypt. Locusts, droughts, floods. There was one story of the family huddling in the basement during a tornado and the house shifting during the storm leaving them trapped below. Only a small child could get out, and ran to the next farm for help. Less than a week after the birth of their 7th child, Adolf died after drinking kerosene. The story we heard was that Ottillie then married the hired man who was working on the farm, Frederich Wilhelm Kurth, and proceeded to 7 have more children. The family returned briefly to Germany in the early 1890s. Great-grandma told stories of being unmercifully taunted for being “American”, and getting in trouble for seeing how far she could kick her wooden shoes. Family story: They returned to the US when Kurth was in danger of getting nabbed for poaching.
My cousin Dick Dillon had Grandma Kurth’s family bible, in which in German she had faithfully recorded the birth dates, places and christenings, and occasionally deaths of her 14 children in addition to numerous god-children. My great-grandmother, Tilly, her 5th child was the first born in the US.
Several years ago I scanned the bible, and with the help of some German internet acquaintances who determined that the places mentioned were mostly in an area formerly known as “Neumark” posted the data recorded there on the on-line Neumark list database.
This is how I came in contact with Wolfgang. When he was born his family was living in Grabow, the same town where Ottillie was born. One of the people in his family tree was listed as a Godchild in Ottillie’s bible.
And that was how I was first able to conceive of visiting these places.
Wolfgang was able turn the unfindable German towns, villages and hamlets mentioned in the bible into places on today’s map of Poland.
For this trip he has done much more than that. He has done an amazing job of turning our vague notions into a reality. Using a hotel in Lagow, Poland as a center of operations he has organized a concrete visitation plan. So with Wolfgang as our Guide, my mom’s cousin Dick, his wife Bev and I are off to our family’s past just over the German border in Poland.