Ever since I was a kid, I have always wondered where my family had come from. As I got older, I always told myself that I would head over across the pond to see where my family’s ancestors lived before they made the life changing decision to move to the United States. Our trip to Europe proved to be the perfect opportunity to head to the very hometowns of people long past that were yet so close to me.
Luckily, one of my Aunts has done extensive family research and has provided the family with much of what we know about our family history. Thankfully for this, I did not have to do any research prior to my arrival in the towns. Our journey would begin in Germany, as we Searched for a deeper understanding of those whose name I still bare.
Our first stop was visiting the small German town of Frankenthal, located in Rhineland Pfalz, a region that borders France. Throughout history the area has changed hands many times, being under control of France or Germany (or German States) several times over. The town itself, while appearing pretty normal now, in the past used to be one of the largest producers of high quality porcelain outside of France. In the 1900s, the town industrialized which resulted in the town being completely destroyed during WWII. Luckily, the town records were sparred as they were relocated during the war. Due to the bombing, all of the buildings date back mostly from the 1950s or later, even the ones that look older.
Due to Napolean introducing a standardized government system for recording births, deaths, and marriages, locating family documents is fairly easy and straight forward in Germany. One simply has to go to the archives located in the town they wish to visit, where they will be given a reference book that lists the names of those involved in a particular event organized by year. Once you locate the names and reference numbers, you can then access the real records themselves. Luckily, our curator spoke English and was more than happy to translate the documents for us. The documents proved useful as we gained more information on myfamily. We found other siblings of my Great Great Grandfather, found out my Great Great Great Grandfather served as a policeman in the town, and that the Schollmeyers were actually from an even smaller town named Schweganheim. It was also pretty cool to see my Great Great Great Grandfather’s signature as well!
Before visiting Frankenthal, I had believed that my family was originally from there. After finding new information, I really wanted to go to the small town where they moved from and search in the local archives. As we had to catch a train the morning after our day in Frankenthal, I was pressed for time. After a train ride and a 3 mile walk, into the village, I only had about two hours to spare. Unfortunately, the town hall was not open during my visit as it was only open 3 times a week! Although I didn’t get to extend my family tree further, I did get to see where the Schollmeyers first known home was. Many of the buildings were still from the time they were there and much of the surrounding landscapes has not changed. After a walk around town and a few moments to take in the scenery, it was time to head back to meet up with Claire and continue the search for family.
Our last area to research and explore was the hometown of my Great Great Grandmother, Aschaffenburg. More of a city than a town and along the edges of Bavaria, this town had enough tourist sites to keep us busy as we waited to get access to the archives. The process was exactly the same as Frankenthal’s but our result was much different. Unfortunately, we found no information on my Great Great Grandmother and the curator working at the archives concluded that it was most likely that my Great Great Grandmother wrote down Aschaffenburg on her immigration papers but was from a small town just outside of the city. While it was disappointing not being able to find any information, the city was very enjoyable as it proved to be a good introduction into Bavaria without the tacky tourism found elsewhere.
Tips for Family Research
Be Flexible with Time
Many small towns have poorly developed websites therefore making it impossible to be sure when the archives are open. It was very frustrating when we would arrive in a town to do research only to find out that the archives were not open on that day. It is important to add in additional time in each place to account for this.
You also may not know everything that you think about your family. Schwagenheim was a complete surprise and I wish we could have had more time to spend there. Always assume that your research is incomplete and be ready to have to go to other towns and villages in order to gain new information.
Places Change but Landscapes Do Not
While buildings are taken down for new ones, the towns you visit will most likely not look like the places where your family once lived. Rather than soak in the towns themselves, take in the landscapes that your family once lived in and experienced themselves. Gaze out into the mountains, meditate in the endless farm fields, or reflect about your family’s past along the lakes or streams they most likely used. These places will make you feel much closer to your family than having a meal in a restaurant that just opened up twenty years ago.
Understanding Home a Little Better
Traveling to my family’s hometowns was well worth the trip. It proved to be a nice break from the typical tourist travel, giving Claire and I time to reflect on and appreciate small town Germany. While not 100% successful, I still learned new information about my family’s history and was able to share the common experience of simply being where they and generations before them had grown up. The best part of all, getting to see all the places and learning about the people who’s decisions that ultimately resulted in me and the family I know and love today.