Walking in the footsteps of your ancestors often leads to unexpected feelings and emotions as you discover layers of history where significant events took place. The smallest forgotten places seem to burst out from the pages of history touching you in extraordinary ways.
On a cold dark blustery day in December, friends and I departed for a day trip from Bavaria into the former homelands of our German-Bohemian ancestors located in what is now the western border region of the Czech Republic. My hope was to see some villages where my Warta and Roppert ancestral familie’s lived prior to immigrating to the United States in 1884.
Since 2009, I have had the opportunity to travel every year to Europe and to this part of the world exploring hundreds of places where ancestors once forged a living from the land in this mountainous and rugged region. Often leading groups of people who share heritage from this crossroads of central Europe. It is extremely rewarding helping others make connections and finding traces of their ancestors etched in the history of the land.
On previous trips, I had attempted to find the site of the family mill on the Lunzenbach Creek in the forest between two family villages. The road or rather muddy trail was blocked with barbed wire and a herd of cattle.
We drove down a steep and narrow road into Molgau/Málkov. It is the only road into this small almost deserted village. It is small circular community situated on a steep incline. In the center a school once stood and we squeezed our car into a small place directly in front of a stone monument crowned with an iron crucifix. Blending into the mossy green and gray stone hung a Nazi era German Soldiers helmet. Weathered, rusted resembling swiss cheese was this eery symbol calling out to remind us of the troubled and dark history thrust upon the people who once lived here.
A deep chilling breeze struck us as we stepped onto the frosty ground. The helmet enticed us to imagine stories as to why it was here.
No one seemed to be home in this quite village and we separated to quickly identify some houses and hopefully a road in the direction of the mill site. Within minutes dogs were barking and one man came out of his small cabin in the center of the village. He didn’t speak any English and he was able to learn what I was doing there with my basic German.
My friends from Germany, Helmut, Birgit and Tobi Mages, were able to communicate with Antonin Hofmeister. A Czech man from Domazlice who learned German by using a short wave radio to intercept German stations during communist times and closed borders.
Mr. Hofmeister is local historian and shared a story about a battle in the last days of WWII on the edge of this village between German and American soldiers. A number of German soldiers were buried at the site. Recently, eight bodies were exhumed with a lot of ammunition and a Bazooka.
Much of my research has been focused on the times my ancestors lived in these locations. There is a rich history going back to the 11th century, through wars, plagues, draughts and cold wet seasons and each point in over hundreds of years holds a special story of survival. Life goes on and layers of history continue to build on the foundations of the past.
Living here in the United States, we are somewhat removed from the long written history of Europe. For me WWII seems so long ago and so far away. Exploring these places and learning about these events brings the past to life. Traveling in the footsteps of your ancestors helps one gain a better perspective and understanding of history. You learn how these events directly effected the lives and actions of your ancestors and later how it affected the lives of distant relatives who remained. Traveling to these places also helps one connect with different people and cultures living in there today.