My Elisabetha Part VI: Mother's Day & New Questions Raised
My Elisabetha Part VI:
Mother's Day & New Questions Raised

Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Resources
A Postscript

Mother’s Day

View of Altenbamberg's valley from up in the vineyards on hiking trail to FeilbingertIt seems highly fitting that the climax to our genealogy trip occurred on Mother’s Day (given that I was researching my great-great-grandmother). Still in Altenbamberg, we headed out early in the morning for a hike up the two miles, through the steep vineyards from Altenbamberg to Feilbingert.

I imagined my great-great-granduncle, Heinrich Betz, making this same journey from his home in Feilbingert to court Catharina Dern down in Altenbamberg. When she learned that he and his siblings were all leaving for America, did she run off with them? [We subsequently learned that Heinrich and Katharina had a pre-marital child who died a few years after they emigrated to Buffalo.]

We strolled through Feilbingert and examined its cemetery (friedhof). A World War II memorial listed a Valentin Betz "gefallen" in 1944 or 1945. But other than that, we found no Betzes. We later learned that there simply were no more Betzes living in the area.

Note: Don't expect to find the gravesites of your 19th or 18th century (or older) German ancestors. Real estate is carefully conserved in Germany, and most villages rotate the available burial space to make room for the newly deceased.  It is very rare to find gravestones older than 100-120 years old.

When we returned to Altenbamberg in the early afternoon, the sounds of a brass band playing polka music and waltzes reached our ears. The town was holding its annual Mother’s Day festival on the grounds of the Protestant church. Open air tents were set up over many picnic tables.  A man at a grill was cooking sausages.  Another table was laid out with cookies and cakes. A couple of kegs were the source of beer. We changed out of our hiking clothes and joined the festivities, our "foreignness" turning most heads. (Altenbamberg is a small town.)

Buying a couple of beers, we then used internationally recognized hand gestures and mumbles to ask if we could join a particular table. Of course, sit down, was the recognized reply.

The band concluded with an American spiritual (sung in German), "Amazing Grace." I sang along – in English – turning a few more heads. The elderly woman beside me introduced herself as Oma Puff, Grandma Puff. With no common language between us, I pulled out my one-page Betz family tree, handwritten with our most recent knowledge incorporated, and indicated my position on it as well as that of my Feilbingert-born "ur-ur-grossmutter," Elisabeth Betz, as well as Catharina Dern of Altenbamberg.

The burgermeister (mayor) of Altenbamberg with Frau Erica Lehmann geboren Wagner of Feilbingert - a possible distant cousinSoon another local resident came by to look, then he brought over the town burgermeister (mayor). The mayor took the sheet of paper over to one of the oldest residents in the village, Mrs. Erica Lehman. One of the new names on the tree was Maria Magdalena Wagner, my great-great-great-great-grandmother. "Ich geboren Wagner! Im Feilbingert!" This lovely, 81-year-old’s smile made my day. I was looking, quite possibly, at a very distant cousin.

She invited us to her home to look at her family’s lineage. Unfortunately, our schedule did not permit it, but I’m currently seeing what’s possible from this side of the pond.

Somewhere in there, another round of beers appeared before us. We spent the rest of the sunny afternoon enjoying the company of the living residents of my ancestral homeland.

Jillaine standing in front of Altenbamberg's town sign

New Questions Surface

While exploring the Altenbamberg cemetery, I noticed that off in one corner a group of tombstones stood—barely—that were significantly older than those throughout the rest of the cemetery. I was surprised at this because, as noted above, Germans rarely keep graves older than 100 years due to limited space. As I approached, I saw that this section was gated and locked. A sign, I later learned, warned that this cemetery was closed, that the tombstones were falling, that parents should guard their children, and lastly that permission to enter must be obtained by the mayor. Clearly no one entered this section. Most of the tombstones were hidden beneath tall, overgrown grass.

I could walk around the edge of this separate cemetery and get a little bit closer look at the tombstones. They all had Hebrew inscriptions on them in addition to names and dates in German. But I was too far away to make out any details. Clearly this was a Jewish cemetery and it was also clear that there was no one left in the town to tend the family plots—a practice actively pursued by families in the main and exceedingly well-groomed cemetery.  Someone we met later referred to this as a "dead" cemetery-- no one left living to care for it.

Herr Berens, our innkeeper, later showed us a book with old photos from the town. One of the photos indicated that a synagogue had existed immediately next door to the inn. (It’s now a few parking spaces along the river.) The caption explained that the synagogue had been destroyed in 1938.  It didn't say how.

Detail from the Altenbamberg town sign - this is the town's crest with two stars of David incorporatedThen, to top it all off, the current town crest for Altenbamberg had two stars of David as part of the design. The crest appears on the town’s large wooden sign that welcomes visitors to Altenbamberg. The sign’s construction is clearly contemporary—at least since the War, and most likely carved in the last 15 years. Perhaps in the 1980s when the 12th century castle on the hill was renovated.

Herr Berens didn’t know the meaning of the stars' presence on the crest, but when I drew it for the archivist at Speyer, she said it clearly had a Jewish connotation. She also felt strongly that had Herr Berens known its meaning and significance, he would have explained it. Interestingly enough, the town crest as displayed on the town’s current Web site has the two stars—but they are now five-pointed stars.

More fodder for research!

Since writing this document, I've done a small amount of research on the Internet and discovered some more interesting facts:

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