(This post is part of a serial blog. Please see previous post: Generation Four, Maternal).
Here is where my ancestral trail leads off into the thick underbrush, obscured by barriers of country, language, handwriting, and purposeful camouflage.
All I have on my paternal fourth generation are the names on this chart, the fact that they lived out their lives in Germany, and how many children they had. According to an (unfortunately) undated letter from my late aunt, Henry and Louise had three children: two girls, and then my grandfather William. Since William abandoned his own wife and children when my father was still very young, he did not impart any family stories to him that he could remember. His father’s life prior to immigrating was shrouded in mystery. So ends the trail from my grandfather’s lineage.
Karl and Dorthea had 9 children (four boys and five girls), of whom my grandmother Charlotte was the fifth. Her youngest sister’s name was Gretchen and her youngest brother’s name was Herbert, and they were still alive when my aunt wrote to me about them, probably from the 1990s.
If the interview Charlotte Gaedike provided to the Sheboygan newspaper shortly after immigrating (see Generation Three, Paternal: William and Charlotte) was any indication of the cramped quarters and want for food and even soap that she experienced upon leaving her homeland, her parents likely did not enjoy a life of comfort – – but rather one of poverty, overcrowding, and want. At least at that time.
Fortunately, Charlotte’s photo collection was saved by my father, and in turn passed on to me. Included are photos taken prior to Charlotte’s leaving Germany in 1922, and also ones that were sent from Charlotte’s family after she immigrated, including several of her parents and presumably her siblings and their children.
I did make attempts at trying to piece together more of my great grandparents’ lives through these photos. My father could not identify most of the subjects in the photos, nor make heads or tails of the German script on the backs. Though German was his first language, he never learned to read or write it. I invited a German friend of a friend over for dinner one night to see if she could decipher the old script, but she could not.
One day my father and I took the box of photos to the apartment of the quite elderly Christina – – Charlotte’s friend who accompanied my father to kindergarten and acted as his translator (and left dimes on the icebox on Saturdays so my father and his siblings could go to the movies). We thought Charlotte might have shown Christina her photos, or shared them with her when they accompanied a letter from home. If anything, it provided some quality time going through the photos together, and an opportunity for my father and Christina to reminisce. And she was able to read a little bit of the script on the backs.
Among the collection was a photo postcard, postmarked 1917, addressed to my grandmother Charlotte at Friesenstrasse 51 in Magdeburg. It shows a World War I military regiment, with an x above a man in the back row. Was this a brother?
Thanks to Google maps and satellite imagery, I was able to see what the building at Friestrasse 51 looks like today (well, back in 2012 when I researched it): businesses on the ground floor, likely with living quarters upstairs.
Could this be the same building pictured in the background of a darkened and faded family photo from 1921 of Charlotte’s brother Erich’s wedding? Dorthea is seated to the right of the groom, and Karl is seated at the far right.
Other than this information, I have no way of teasing out the tragedies or even the humdrum everyday life of Karl and Dorthea (although how could life be humdrum with nine children?!). I don’t know when they were born, when they married, whether all their children managed to outlive them, or when they died. And of their parents, Generation Five, there is nothing. Except, perhaps, for a photo dated 1922 of an elderly woman holding a baby (Marga, a granddaughter of Karl and Dorthea). The scripted writing on the back seems to include the word “mama” – – could this be a photo of Karl or Dorthea’s mother holding a great grandchild? The woman is clearly too old to be Dorthea.
Although most of Charlotte’s photos bring up more questions than answers, they do relay some important information: the photo of a well-dressed Karl and Dorthea having tea or coffee in a cozy-looking kitchen with nice dishes implies that they did not lead a life of total or lasting poverty.
The fact that the family lived at Friesenstrasse 51 shows that they were not farmers, but lived in town. Karl was likely a merchant of some type and they lived above the family business.
Of the photo of their son(?) as part of the World War I military regiment: what happened to him? Did he survive the war intact? Did he suffer shell shock like my grandfather William? Did he ever come home? Was he wounded? Did more of their sons fight in the war? I know these questions would have weighed heavily on Karl and Dorthea’s minds when he enlisted, whether or not the outcome was favorable or tragic.
And the photo of “Mama” with a great grandbaby? If she was indeed my grandmother Charlotte’s grandmother, she must have lived to be quite elderly, a testament to her constitution, resilience, and strength – – which she likely passed down in her genes.
Charlotte’s photo collection is the last tangible connection I have to any of my ancestors. I am so fortunate that she kept them, and my father saved them after her death, and that they have ended up in my hands.