I don’t remember when I first learned that one of my ancestors was from Germany. For a long time I would get confused as to whether it was my great-grandfather or my great-great grandfather. Now I know it was the latter. Anyway, that knowledge inspired me to take German for a couple of years in high school, so when some German-language documents came into my hands from my husband’s family, I figured transcribing them and translating them would be easy.
The first item was shown to me when I was newly married, nearly 30 (egad!) years ago. I had trouble reading the handwriting, so I didn’t get very far. Fast forward to 2019, and I ran into the same issue with some photo postcards sent to my husband’s grandmother from her family in München. At best, I could make out a word or two. I first wrote about these postcards in January 2020.
Helen Schiessl came to America from Germany in 1908, when she was 16 years old. She sailed on the S.S. Pretoria of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. I just this year found the genealogical connection to prove that this was our Helen, and not someone else of the same name. The document listed the address of an aunt, Mrs. Ursula Hartfeld. Just this year, I found Mrs. John Otto Hardfeld, born Ursula Brummer, living in Richmond, New York, as listed on that passenger document. Helen’s mother’s name was Teresa Brummer.
But I digress. This was supposed to be about the different language.
As I struggled with deciphering these German postcards, I had a chance to watch a couple of RootsTech panels on reading; I had purchased the online pass in 2018. (The whole thing is going to be online and completely free in 2021!) And I felt so relieved. Because it wasn’t me being stupid. The handwritten German language was very different back then. It was called Kurrentschrift. To the untrained eye, a lot of the letters look similar to each other, and some of them look like other English-language letters. The lower-case e for example, looks very like an n. And so does the c, kind of. And so does the u, except it has a little mark over it (a different mark than the umlaut, which still sometimes appears over the letters ü, ö, or ä).
Understanding all this and having a little chart with the letters is still not helping me a whole lot. If I had a better grasp of the language. Those high school German classes were almost 40 (egad!) years ago. I literally have to go letter by letter and then look up the potential word and see if it is a word and if it’s not, try to figure out which letter (or letters) I got wrong. I have not gotten very far.
I did find some help on a forum, but I only posted a couple of the postcards. I felt like it was too much to post them all at once.
One of the notes I posted on that forum was on the back of a photo (below) of Helen’s mother, Theresa, and five of her sons, one of them in uniform. The translation said, in part, “I’m adding a photograph that I had made from my poor Bertl so that we can at least see him if he doesn’t come home from the war.” I believe Bertl is Norbert Schiessl; records show he died on January 3rd, 1915.
I don’t know if all of these postcards will have clues about who’s in the photo or other crucial family details. I have to delve into that different language to find out.
This post is one of a series inspired by genealogist Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge. The idea is to write something about your family at least once a week, and Amy puts out a prompt to help spark ideas. It’s free. There’s no pressure. It’s a great way to record genealogical discoveries and your own memories.