Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Case of the Springfield Dilemma

Where were my ancestors really from? 

If you've ever watched The Simpsons you know that they live in Springfield. Everyone knows where they live.  It isn't even a question; it's a fact. Springfield, duh.

That's nice. Now let's imagine we're going to visit the Springfield archives and dig into the Simpson family tree a little bit?
The Simpsons Family Tree
Which Springfield should I visit?  Oh... I see...  Hmm...    Well, it turns out that every state in the United States has a Springfield. And, it's not limited to the good old USA.  Australia, Canada, and a few other counties are have Springfield's liberally scattered about.  There are a lot of Simpson fan theories about where Springfield is located. The most current one is that Springfield is in the Southern Hemisphere.

I have run into this exact same issue when doing genealogical research on my family tree. The town of Reichenbach is clearly written in many places as the birthplace of my great grandfather Zimmer from Germany. So, there you go. Case closed. Grandpa Zimmer was from Reichenbach. End of story.

That nice. Now let's imagine we're going to visit the Reichenbach archives and dig into the Zimmer family tree a little bit?

Which Reichenbach should I visit. You mean there is more than one? Wait, what? And, how nice of Wikipedia to rub the salt in and have a nice list of all 27 Reichenbach's in four countries and one on the ever-loving moon!  The moon? Really. Thanks.

Yes, I need to come clean. My family is from the moon, not Germany as we've all been telling you for so many years.

So, what to do.  Getting the actual hometown is critical. You have to get it right, as searching through thousands of pages of old Germany church books is hard enough without being in the wrong state or country. Or on the moon.

Well, as with any case I kept compiling all the data and clues and tried looking at it from as many different angles as I could think of.

Here's how I solved my Springfield Dilemma  

1) Newspaper Obituaries: My first big break came when I found two fuller references of the place, which listed it as Reichenbach, Schleising.   Well, Google didn't find that either, and it's not on that nice Wiki list I mentioned earlier.  In fact, Google sent me off down a road that turned out to be the wrong place with their top listing of Reichenbach im Vogtland, Saxony.  Sure, Saxony starts with an "S" so let's run that one down all the way to the dead end.

2) Death Certificates: The death certificate also listed Reichenbach, Schleising. That had to be the place.   Then I found my great grandmother's death certificate which lists her birthplace as Breslau. That was really helpful! There is only one Breslau, and at the time is was the German capital of the Prussian province of Schlesien.  Schleising, Schlesien. Same thing, and thanks for the misspelling -- it makes my life much more interesting!

3) Old Letters and Postcards: Over the years, I managed to get scans and copies of some old family letters and postcards sent from the old country. I carefully gleaned any place names from those documents, and tried to make sense of them. One key postcard was sent from a sister who was getting married in Waldenburg, Germany -- only five Waldenburg's...  The nice thing about the 1800's and early 1900's is that it is much more likely than Waldenburg is somewhere near Reichenbach, otherwise they wouldn't have ever met.  And likewise, they both must be somewhere near Breslau.

Photographer in Deutch Lissa
4) Photos: Old photos often have the photographer's name and place of business somewhere on the front or back of the card -- sometimes both.   These places are also critical, as I used them in the last step. The towns matched many of the ones listed above, with only one Berlin wildcard thrown in for good measure. But Berlin is like New York; everyone has to visit there at least once. One very old photo was taken in Gnadenfrei, which really helped in the next step. There was also this weird place called Deutch Lissa, but that turned out to be part of Breslau.  You learn something new every day.

5) Google Maps: This was the final and conclusive step in locating the right Reichenbach.  I mapped each and every Reichenbach on the map with a blue dot. I then mapped every family location I could find with red dots.  And guess what.   All the red dots clustered around Breslau in Schlesien, including the Reichenbach right next door to Waldenburg.  In fact, the aforementioned Gnadenfrei  is literally the next town over from Reichenbach. It's a 10km drive. Yes, there it was. My family's Reichenbach! And, it was even listed on that Wiki page I mentioned earlier.

6) Old Maps: Then just to confirm, I found some old German maps, written in German.  Yes, there all those cities are with the names that my family used and talked about.

7) History: Now, I'm simplifying this a little as there was one extra complicating factor. History. You see, Germany lost WWII and the former province of Schlesien was handed back to Poland. Most of the German-speaking population moved into East Germany. All the German cities were renamed, so Breslau is now Wrocław, Poland. Reichenbach is now Dzierżoniów. Deutsch Lissa is now Wrocław-Leśnica. Gnadenfrei is now Piława Górna. And, Waldenburg is Wałbrzych.   Therefore, while I was looking for the German town of Reichenbach in Germany, it wasn't in Germany any longer.  I didn't think of looking in Poland, why would I?  Germany is Germany, right? Yeah, probably should have paid a little more attention in history class.

Reichenbach, Schleising

What's especially nice is that now I know for sure what area my Zimmer family came from, I can reconnect with it a bit more. And reconnected with the right things!  I found this amazing painting by Hans Holzapfel that shows the view of the mountains and cities above Breslau.  My Reichenbach is right there in the middle, on the first plateau at the base of the Giant Mountains.

Topographical panoramic view from Breslau by Hans Holzapfel
Reichenbach close-up from Hans Holzapfel painting

Case closed and Reichenbach Pinterest board created!

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