In Diepholz, a family circle completed

At 81, a grandson visits the town his grandfather left more than a century ago.

Destination: Germany

September 29, 2002|By Gwinn Owens | By Gwinn Owens,Special to the Sun

My grandfather's old beer stein, rarely noticed atop a bookshelf, posed its quiet challenge. On its shiny, ceramic side is a picture of a tower, captioned "Schloss in Diepholz." Except possibly my mother in her early childhood, no one in the family had ever returned to Diepholz, the German town where Carl von Hartz, my grandfather, was born.

In the early 1870s Carl and his two brothers, August and Heinrich, left Germany and came to the United States. August became an oil company executive and returned to Europe, Heinrich died young. Carl married a German-speaking Alsatian named Ernestine Petain and went into the lace-importing business in Rutherford, N.J. They had four children, including my mother, who died in 1993.

In 1904, Carl suffered a financial disaster. His business went bankrupt, his Rutherford house and possessions were seized by his creditors. In desperation, he moved his family to Baltimore, then a heavily German city, to live with cousins. Their home was at 1534 Hollins St., a few doors from 24-year-old H.L. Mencken.

This past year, after the recent deaths of my older siblings, I realized that at age 81, I am now Carl's oldest descendant. With my wife, who also had German ancestors, we decided that, with our advancing ages, we had perhaps a last chance to visit Diepholz.

I wanted to know more about the town that produced my grandfather and also wanted to know why he and his brothers decided to leave. I sought, so to speak, to close the circle.

Thus it was that we found ourselves, after three tiring air flights, on a train trundling through Lower Saxony in northwest Germany, en route from the lovely city of Bremen to the unknown small city of Diepholz.

Curiosity and doubt

Our excitement rose as we passed through the strange but utterly inviting countryside. The land was flat as Kansas, but fresh, green and fertile, with frequent tree breaks demarcating the fields, lush with the multi-colored crops of late spring. The weather was perfect -- cool, with broken clouds drifting under a rich blue sky.

The very fact that we were at last in Germany represented a break with the past. My wife and I are annual visitors to Greece and occasional visitors to England, France and Italy. Until this year, the possibility of going to Ger-many never entered our plans.

We had to overcome our awareness of German aggression in two 20th-century wars. The resultant suffering of Europe, the evil of fascism and, most of all, the Holocaust, influenced our thinking. During World War I, or so my mother told me, my grandfather had to fly an American flag to assert his loyalty to his adopted country. He died in 1935 at age 79, agonizing over the rise of Hitler.

But we reasoned, correctly, I think, that two generations after World War II, there is a new, democratic Germany, the leader of a thriving union with the rest of western Europe.

Our curiosity about Diepholz thus was enhanced by the new climate. But when we opted for a visit, we were still full of doubts. Would it be an ugly industrial town or, like so much of this part of Germany, was it physically destroyed by Allied bombing during the last war?

These thoughts, however, were not in the forefront of our minds as we surveyed the charming countryside from the windows of the train. But then the hour of reckoning was near. With the conductor's announcement -- "Diepholz!" the train came to a halt beside a rugged brick, 19th-century railroad station.

We disembarked to instant fulfillment.

Serendipity

As viewed from the station, Diepholz was a picture-book town, immediately reminiscent of some of the loveliest country towns in England. The road leading into the city center was flanked by brick or half-timbered houses with the tiled roofs so pleasingly common in Europe. Each yard was classically neat, with carefully tended flowerbeds and sculptured hedges. Generous trees enhanced the landscape and shaded the streets.

I thought about how amazing was the good fortune that enabled us to travel with adequate preparation. When you are a stranger to a country, know no one there and don't even speak the language, where do you start?

Our help came through the kind assistance of a young woman named Barbara Jentzsch, who worked in Washington for German public radio. I knew her only by telephone, but when we asked her for help, she was invaluable. She immediately contacted the official archivist of the city of Diepholz.

This generous man, Herr Falk Liebezeit, wrote us by e-mail -- in English -- with a genealogical rundown of von Hartzes, including my grandfather, though there were apparently none of that surname living in Diepholz today. (Not surprising, since my grandfather and his brothers had emigrated to America.) Liebezeit also volunteered a list of hotels, with their locations and prices. By the time we left home, he had become a sort of e-mail pen pal.

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