Baltimore-German link reaches across 40 years

December 15, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

WE NEVER HAD a formal invitation to visit my father's people in South Baltimore. But on many Sundays, in the afternoon, we piled into his Dodge (later a Rambler American or Checker Marathon) and rang the doorbells of my grandmother, her sister or her brother. Somebody was bound to be home.

One of those days found us at 728 Light St., a three-story rowhouse just north of Montgomery Street, where my bachelor Uncle Frank Bosse resided. He was a jeweler by trade, a Sunday painter by hobby and as grand a German uncle as you could ask for. As a child, I was dazzled by his primitive oil paintings of the ships anchored along Pratt Street.

We had wrapped up this particular visit when Frank said he was going to spend his later evening hours fine-tuning a letter to his father's cousins. It would be difficult, rendered by hand on onionskin paper in old-style German script.

I was 5 years old and full of questions. Why was it so difficult? Frank patiently explained to me that the airmail letter would be in his rusty German and sent to a little village he had never seen. He was, however, the family's designated correspondent to the main stem of his Bosse kin on the other side of the Atlantic.

Today it is easy to lose sight of Baltimore's once-enormous German-American community, a world that in 1900 found one in every four residents of this city speaking German as his or her mother tongue.

Frank's letter to Bad Laer, a small village outside Munster, could well have been his last. He would soon be dead, and the family communication link would lapse for 40 years.

I never forgot that exchange with my uncle. It was his responsibility in the family to keep up the ties within a clan that did not visit back and forth. The Baltimore Bosses did not return to Germany. The German branch remained at Bad Laer.

The Bosses I knew best -- my grandmother, her brother and sister -- lived in South Baltimore rowhouses, in the neighborhood of Holy Cross Church, Cross Street Market and the old wharves along Light and Pratt streets. These people called the Howard and Lexington department store district "uptown" in the same way that my mother's Guilford Avenue family referred to it as "downtown."

Nearly 40 years after Uncle Frank's death there came an inquiry from the children of the people with whom he had once corresponded. My German cousins had spent months trying to re-establish contact with their American family branch. They had written stacks of letters to people named Bosse and found no link -- nor any encouragement -- until a Catonsville gentleman, Martin Lenzi Bosse, unrelated to my family but of the same name, went to the Maryland Historical Society and located my grandmother's obituary in that institution's files. The listing of survivors provided my German cousins the final clues to the family puzzle.

Soon the long-lost Bosses were buying trans-Atlantic airline tickets. My Aunt Mary Agnes Evelius took off for Germany soon after the tie was established. Six members of the German family visited Baltimore last summer. I made it over two weeks ago.

I arrived on a Saturday afternoon. Soon the village's church bells were pealing away, a long ring for the evening Angelus prayer at 6 p.m. By 8 o'clock the next morning, we were in the pews of that church, whose interior (especially the columns and windows) bore more than a little resemblance to Baltimore's old German-American churches.

The similarities didn't stop with the architecture. I jumped when my distant cousin Elisabeth walked into the room. She so much looked like my sister Ellen. Her body movements and physical stature were uncannily similar.

The name Bosse has died out in Bad Laer. My great-grandfather's people there are now named Moller. The patriarch is Hubert Moller, who resides in the venerable family home where he told me my great-grandfather made the window frames in the most ancient part of his house on Bahnhofstrasse. The Mollers have grain elevators and an agricultural supply business.

After church, Hubert's wife, Anni, served dinner, a huge meal that could have been served on a Sunday in the South Baltimore of my grandmother's day.

Anni's table was set with a cloth of starched and ironed white linen, a tradition she refuses to relinquish, even if her assembled children (Hubert, Heinrich, Gerhard, Christiane, Elisabeth and Maria) do chuckle a little about her loyalty to old-fashioned domestic values.

The menu could have been what my grandmother served -- red cabbage (I managed to flip some on the previously inviolate tablecloth), potato dumplings and rolled beef, sweet red wine and dessert puddings.

Later in the day, my cousin Hubert and his daughter Christiane drove me around the countryside. We visited the gracious old dairy farms, their neat vegetable and flower gardens and brick barns that our ancestors had owned and worked.

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