Sunday, December 21, 2008

OT: Ancestors

Some of  the begats, c. 1880

The picture above shows my German great grandparents, Reinholdt and Veronica, and their numerous offspring, among them my grandmother, Anna Eleanorizabeth, standing above that starved looking child.

This is the only picture I have of that side of the family, and for years I knew very little about them except that Reinholdt died around the turn of the 20th century. Veronica died in 1916.

After digging around quite a bit, I found that the elders had come from Germany, via Amsterdam, in 1848, leaving -- perhaps fleeing is the better word -- Frankfurt due to some unpleasantness among the masses. How fortunate for them. They settled in the Midwest, waxed prosperous in farming and banking, and had many children.

They were good Catholic burghers, as you can probably tell, though you might wonder...

I'd been told that they were great philanthropists, and I was shown Reinholdt's sturdy stone house on the bluff above the Mississippi River which he'd willed to the Church at his death and which the Church in Its Wisdom had turned into a girl's school.

In doing some research, though, I came upon a whole branch of the great grandparental family who were Jews, mostly in Germany and Holland, though a few were apparently in Switzerland, and I asked around and found out that yes, Reinholdt's ancestors were Jewish, though his parents -- or was it grandparents? -- had converted and were baptized in the Holy Catholic Church sometime in the 1790's. Veronica? Well, not that much was known about her and her family, but it was certainly possible she was descended from conversos as well.

It was quite a surprising and wonderful discovery for me at the time, though I was told that many German Jewish families converted in the late 1700's due to the spread of the Enlightenment. There may have been some other issues involved as well, including a sense of compulsion, especially in Bavaria.

In the fullness of time, Anna Eleanorizabeth married William Henry, my grandfather, who was descended from an Irish-American Catholic family, one that first settled in America in the late 1600's, though his immediate ancestors didn't arrive till sometime around 1715. While there was something of an aristocratic pretension on his father's side, my grandfather's mother, Alice O'Brien, had been a refugee from the Potato Famine, arriving in New York in 1848 or 50 in the hold of a fever ship, just lucky to survive. Somehow, she made it to the Ohio Valley, where she met and married my grandfather's father, James, and soon enough they set out on their own for new prospects on the banks of the Mississippi.

That story was told with great relish at some of the family gatherings. Needless to say, it was considered a delightful opportunity to denounce the British and their murderous practices in the Emerald Isle, and to go on at some length about the confiscated lands and estates now occupied by British squatters and reprobates none of whom would have anything if not for what they could and did steal from the Irish.

I learned to hold my tongue about who stole what from whom in the long pageant of Anglo-Irish and American history. We start down that path, we'll never return. For as bad as things were and have been for the Irish under British rule -- and there is no doubt whatsoever it was terrible in ways that most Americans can't begin to imagine -- what was done to the American Indians was at least as bad and in many ways worse, only now beginning to be made up for. I will say this, though, the grudge holding of the American Indians cannot compare to that of the Irish. After all, my own father could denounce the British interlopers who stole the ancestral land by names, titles, and degrees of perfidy. Oh, they hold a grudge!

The question arises: if what was done to you was so awful, why in hell's name do it to others?

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