Archive for the ‘Family tree’ Tag

I still love to dig

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Digging for Roots.”

I think the person I am is greatly influenced by the family I came from. When I wrote my first posts on my blog site a couple of years ago I told about the 30+ yrs. of genealogy research and work I’ve done digging into my paternal grandfather’s past and family. They were Germans from Russia, immigrated from Odessa, Russia (now the country of Ukraine) in 1889. Much of my research and information was used to create my current novel and project entitled, The Informant’s Agenda.

I was blessed to be able to travel to Russia and Ukraine in 1989 to commemorate their immigration to the U.S. and learn all I could about them and their own journey out of persecution and anarchy. I later learned too that their family were once originally from Jewish descent, then later converted to the Lutheran faith. These are the genealogical roots of my family that define me in such a way that makes me proud of my heritage, my faith, and my insatiable drive to learn more. I am so thankful for the opportunity to have made the journey, literally to the country of their origin, and also through the years of time travel with all the resources, books and research materials used so I could learn all I could about them. I have scrapbooks and binders so full of collected documents, records, old family photos, and Ged files that they cannot hold any more. Still I continue the ‘digging’ at times into my father’s side, and also my mother’s side from Germany . It is a legacy I will pass down to my children and grandchildren. It is a ‘dig’ I would not have traded for anything.

_____________

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter II, – The Mengelders of Omaha

Chapters and pages in chronological order

Family photos of paternal grandfather’s family and his German Bible

Chapter Two

The Mengelders,

Omaha, Nebraska

 Grandfather Jacob, his wine glass raised, as if standing for communion at his Lutheran church stood addressing the Mengelder family on Thanksgiving Day. Forty-eight of us crowded together at my grandparents’ home for the annual family  reunion.

“Does this sound familiar?” Jeremy said quietly, leaning towards my ear.

“You think? Yes, just a little.” I said, smiling. “But, this stuff is important to him. He just wants to remind us of the virtues of  ‘family values’, our ‘beginnings and rich heritage’, all of the above.” I said. We all bunched together, anxiously waiting for him  to finish while he delivered his speech, “embracing family, country, and freedom” once again.

Grandfather continued. “When our family came here in 1889 they earned the right and privilege of American citizenship. They embraced a new world, a new country. They could vote, go to church, and worship God openly, without fear. They could obtain an education, exercise free speech, without persecution or imprisonment.  They could visit friends and not worry about spying eyes, or listening ears. No opportunities were taken for granted.  They were patriots. Today, we are Americans in a free world that will one day seek to return to all once gained, that is now all but lost.”

Winding it up, he added, “At such times as we live in, there might be intervention by the evil one to take our most esteemed privileges from us and place in its stead the works of men with ruinous strife and hatred. But we will fight for our rights and with dignity we will stand before our flag and God, and declare our country, built with pride, perseverance, and respect for all. To God, our flag, our family, and our freedoms.”

At that point, grandfather took a sip from the wine glass in his right hand, while holding a little American flag in his left hand marking the occasion and the day of ‘thanks’ as we raised our glasses, the younger ones their soft drinks, and my uncles their beers, pronouncing a toast to, “freedom, democracy and liberty of one nation, and its people.”

“Hip, hip, hooray! To our flag, freedom, and the grand ole U.S.A.”, shouted Chad with a smart mouthed smirk, gulping down his Coke.

“Here, here! Let us pilgrims march forth into victory. And dinner.” declared John.

“Cheers to the red, white and blue. Cheers to me, and you.” said, Ben, our ‘poet’.

My cousins enjoyed a good laugh, not meant to be at the expense of grandfather Jacob. He just tended to be a bit long-winded when they stood impatient, waiting to load their plates from the bounty spread out over the buffet table.

When he finished and the prayer said we filled our plates and found seats at tables spilling out of the dining room, living room and kitchen. It was enough to freak out a fire marshal. We made a noisy bunch, laughing, joking, everyone talking at once.

Grandfather Jacob sat at the head of the dining room table in his chair looking like a proud peacock, patriarch of the family clan. His once thick silver locks now ringed his pink pate like a wispy white halo. His wire rimmed glasses framed kind, but intense, dark brown eyes. His face, the color of old ivory bore the deep lines, wrinkles and aging spots of his eighty-six years.

He worked on the mounds of mashed potatoes, dressing, and corn custard beside a half eaten turkey leg.  Another small plate with salad and rolls lay beside it disappearing just as fast. While eating he listened to bits and pieces of everyone’s conversation around the table, not missing a beat to add his input on all.

Grandmother Lisle sat beside him, her dainty hands cutting through a slice of turkey while discussing her Sweet Potato Pie’s ingredients and secret to a “flakier crust” with aunt Libby.

Sitting beside my uncle Heinrich at the other end of the table I nodded politely to all his ramblings about the things wrong with our government, and all that needed to be fixed in Washington, DC.

It was a typical holiday gathering, some watching football games on TV, my cousins in the basement playing pool, and the women cleaning up in the kitchen, gossiping while they worked.

Grandfather excused himself to go watch the boys play kick ball, and “get some fresh air”.  His pallor, and quiet mood seemed a bit off as I watched him through the opened window above the kitchen sink where I helped with clean up.

Their noise drifted in, as did the heat from the unusually warm day in late November.

With some nudging from the boys, Grandfather relented and joined them in a game of kickball, but had a harder time keeping up with the ones he once bounced on his knees calling his “little patriots”.  He jostled around, returning the ball a few times when suddenly he clutched his chest and collapsed to the ground.

We all ran out. My cousin wasted no time calling an ambulance.

Grandfather’s face turned red. He struggled to breathe. His words came slowly, his eyes turning to grandmother Lisle now kneeling down beside him, stroking his hot, perspiring forehead.  “Tell them… the truth. Make them…. proud….of… their heritage. My dear Lisle,… love. I will…see you, one day. Tell… Moni….”

Grandmother Lisle shook her head. “No, Jacob! You cannot leave me. Not now. There is no time for you to be sick.” she said, her voice breaking. She sobbed, imploring our help.

My uncle and cousin tried CPR, not waiting for paramedics to arrive. But, it did not help. A final breath and he lay quiet. A white cloud moved across the midday sun, his eyes staring upward, unmoving. A strange calm came over me as I looked down at his still form, realizing we had just lost him. In my mind I had an image of grandfather Jacob soaring through clouds, into the heavens, enlightening all the angels carrying him. And God smiling, while he “went on, and on,” his speech to all who would listen.

When the paramedics arrived their attempt to revive him was futile.  He was rushed to ER, but was pronounced dead from a “massive coronary,” turning our day of “thanks” into one of mourning.

A week later bouquets of flowers draped his coffin, as the Lutheran minister delivered the eulogy. The family gathered again in Omaha, Nebraska for his funeral, wept and mourned, then went home returning once again to busy lives, their jobs, all except me. It was grandfather Jacob’s wish to make me the “keeper” of our records, archive our history, and “preserve it for the coming generations.”

“Moni,” – he always called me that – “do not memorialize me when I am gone.  Learn the truth of our family’s history.  My grave will be but a stone to the quarry you will come to find. Learn our heritage. Write our story that it may be remembered. The patriotism to our country will live on in the hearts of the descendents that carry the banner of our beliefs. Those who value the words honored in our constitution will uphold the principles our nation’s founders swore to live by,” he’d written in a letter to be given to me upon his death. It was saved and kept with his old German Bible, passport, photos and naturalization papers.

Known jokingly as the ‘reporter’ in the family I lived up to their word, receiving my BA degree in journalism from UN, Lincoln, Nebraska. My father once told me, “Monica, develop your rapport with people instead of the report on them. Be sensitive to those whose lives and stories are subjected to someone else’s disclosure.”

As the creator of the literary press research paper, THE QUILL AND QUEST while in college I developed a web site and blog, enhancing it with new features.  By updating our site daily our readers could read articles, post and blog on political issues at home and abroad. Our newest feature; genealogy and archival research on diverse ethnic groups became a special project promoting interest, inquiries and questions from people wanting to research their ‘family tree,’ many of them becoming regular contributors or bloggers. Its success drew the interest of other professors and students majoring in history and genealogy studies in other schools. German, Russian and East European Jewish ethnic history became the most popular of our research studies project. And my obsession.

After earning my Master’s degree in history and genealogy studies I began assessing what I had on my own family history. Grandmother Lisle and I went through old documents, files and photos during our coffee talks, always with a plate of her “fresh from the oven,” Oatmeal Raisin cookies, my favorite.

Carefully turning pages of grandfather Jacob’s German Bible, I read the scrawled names, birth and death dates on family record pages, personal notes, mementoes and bookmarks stuffed inside, even favorite scriptures underlined and noted.

The worn, antiquated passport of my great-grandfather with pages as fine as tissue spilled loosely into my hands, well over a hundred years old now. Names and dates of family members’ immigration were scribbled on lines in Old Russian Cyrillic script.

Then she brought out another box, dust settling on it as it had been stored, hidden away, its contents giving off a musty, old smell. In unbelief I watched as she pulled things out, and it was then I learned the secret kept, like a hidden piece to a puzzle needed to complete the picture. And I realized the reason for grandfather Jacob’s fanatical patriotism.

Months later grandmother Lisle became weak and frail after suffering the flu the previous winter. Unable to regain her strength and recover she died peacefully in her sleep. Our family once again came together to mourn their loss. Like grandfather Jacob she believed anyone could be, “an American forging paths with a spirit of adventure and greatness,” like the first patriots and immigrants who came to shore pioneering the way.

We buried her a week later beside grandfather Jacob. Their adjoining gravesite now held another fresh bouquet of yellow daffodils, her favorite. It was Memorial Day.

While applying for a current passport and visa papers to travel abroad I received a call from the U.S. Genealogy Department of History and Research in Washington, D.C. They hired me, and I was sent on assignment to Europe with a team of archivists.

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson

Note: The above story is fiction, but the photos above are mine. They are ones of my own family and grandparents. The story is based on facts, some true, some from other resources to create the fictional story of The Mengelders of Omaha.

A Family History

… there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down,

it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots

may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil,

 Yet at the scent of water, it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant.

Job 14: 7-9 (NIV)

Family photos of my paternal grandfather’s family and his German Bible

 

            I started researching our genealogy in 1983, one year after my father’s death. After he passed away, I had a strong desire to know about our heritage, our family history, and the countries of Germany and Russia, where they came from. My father often talked about Russia and how his father and family “came over” from Odessa, Russia. I was always mystified by that country, its history, past, culture, and people. He told about there being no freedom to worship in a church, read a Bible, or pray aloud. To do so meant arrest, imprisonment, being exiled to Siberia and labor camps. Little did I know until later with my research that all of that, and worse things, actually did happen in Russia. I learned that thousands of Germans in Russia went to their death, or to labor camps. What was their crime? They wanted to congregate with other believers, attend a worship service, construct a church, or keep alive their German roots, their culture.

            In the mid and late 1700 ‘s the Germans were invited to immigrate to Russia and settle on the steppes of South Russia in territories now belonging to Ukraine and Moldova. Catherine the Great, a German princess, and Czarina of Russia promised them their freedom to live as they had in Germany. They trusted her manifesto, declaring such promises, and protection. But, she did not keep her word. The Germans did not want to follow a Marxist,  or Bolshevik regime, or serve in the Red Army, under the ruthless, murderous dictator, Joseph Stalin. They did not believe in the Socialists’ ideology, or want to conform to Communism. German Jews who were part of this group were coerced into converting to the Russian Orthodox religion. Hundreds more chose to convert to the Lutheran faith before or after their immigration into Russia, like the Mannhalter family. Pogroms and persecution followed, directed at the Germans and Jews. They were rounded up and placed in cattle cars, taken away to labor camps, or put in prison cells, many of them tortured, many dying while incarcerated.  Hundreds more died from the famines in the 1930 ‘s.      When the Berlin Wall was built it was not only to confine the East Germans, but all the ethnic Russians, Jews, and everyone within the communist countries of Eastern Europe. When the revolution rose up against the Communist regime in 1991, and a democratic government was formed it freed everyone of restrictions. It allowed them to travel where they wanted to go, live the way they wanted, worship God, or practice their religion. The Germans in Russia left en masse, pouring into the unified Germany, the United States, and other countries. Many of the Jews immigrated to Israel.          

            My father’s interest in his family’s background inspired me, and a strong desire to begin the quest for our ‘story’ began. It inspired me on to learn all I could about their past. It has been thirty years of research, an emotional journey.

            When I took a trip to the former Soviet Union in 1989, it marked the 100th year of my great grandfather, Adam’s (and his family) immigration in 1889.                   

            I took along my father’s Living Bible given to me when he died. I declared it on my declaration document as I entered the Soviet Union. I read it in my hotel room the first day of the tour, as I prayed for protection, that God would make His presence known to me while traveling in this Communist country. He did. In a way my father too, took the journey with me, in spirit at least. When I returned home, a small American flag hung above our front door to welcome me back home after the ten-day trip. My husband, Wayne had put it there.

            In 1998, Wayne and I went to New York, the New England states, and Washington, D.C. for a vacation. We were able to spend a day in New York City touring the historic Ellis Island (now a museum), the Statue of Liberty and Battery Park (the former Castle Gardens).

            It was at Castle Gardens where our family disembarked and proceeded through the lines of immigration. On the day that we went there, I sat on the ferryboat staring up in awe at the beautiful Statue of Liberty. I was overcome with emotion, wiping the tears from my face. The statue had been set in place just a few years before great grandfather, Adam and his family disembarked from their passage ship. They must have seen it too. Did they maybe also wipe tears from wide-eyed faces? It was crowded the day we were there. There were long lines of tourists waiting to get inside. We were unable to get in to see the rest of the monument. We could only walk the grounds outside it due to the late hour. We had spent considerable time at Ellis Island and Battery Park the same day. We had to use the ferryboats to cross to each site.

            When we walked around Battery Park, the very place of their immigration processing, a park ranger gave us a personal tour. I told him about my family genealogy research. He took us to the place where the early immigrants came ashore to go through immigration processing, just as thousands of others did a few years later at Ellis Island when it opened in 1892. Then they closed Castle Gardens.

            Ironically, there remains buried underneath Battery Park an old landfill that was covered, filled in and beautifully landscaped with a memorial to honor the immigrants. Trees, grass, flowers, and plants are everywhere, thriving and maintained. What a beautiful way to honor that spot by planting the trees, flowers, and plants. I thought about that as a wonderful illustration of our family’s historic past. Our ancestors who went before us were like a tree, transplanted upon American soil, watered, nurtured, and cared for by those honoring them, wanting to keep alive their legacy. They came ashore, walking from the portals of their past through the gates into their future, into freedom. They came with hope and purpose, and believed it would be easier for those coming after them. It is my hope that my children and grandchildren will walk through the portals of their ancestors’ past with this book to get a glimpse of the life our ancestors left, to come to a blessed land, America.

 

Joyce E. Johnson

© 2012

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