Between August 15 and 30 2017, we travelled to Germany. The purpose of the trip was to support research for my MFA Thesis.
We started in Sonneberg, Germany, my father’s home town. The purpose of this part of the trip was to gather information. There we met with the archivist at the Sonneberg Archive who provided us with address books from the late 19th, early 20th century. In these books I found the residential and business addresses of my grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather, as well as their occupations. We visited each of the locations to photograph them; some still existed, but some were gone. Our next meeting was with the archivist at the church where my father was christened. There I was able to look through church records, again going back to my great-great-grandfather’s birth in 1819. We also met with my aunt and her niece. Aside from the simple pleasure of meeting with our relatives, we were able to enjoy some of the local cuisine, and specifically Sonneberger Potato Dumplings.
Another aunt, Renate, wrote (in the 1980’s) a book Denk Ich an Sonneberg, recalling her experiences in Sonneberg between 1939 and the end of the war. After I completed translation, I used it a third source of information about Sonneberg. Among the stories was one that recounted her father’s return from the eastern front in the last few weeks of the war. He arrived in Sonneberg just in advance of the Americans. However, at the time, it was unclear whether Sonneberg would be taken by American or Soviet force. Fearful of capture by the Soviets, and with few transportation options, he rode his bicycle some 400 kilometres south to Berchtesgaden, where his brother was stationed. I had decided I would try to recreate the journey, but in plotting out the route, I realised that it would be impossible to determine the exact path. But, what I was able to do was to experience the landscape, first the hills and second the obstacles; there were four major rivers to cross, and I expect that at that late date in the war, all of the bridges had been bombed.
Arriving in Berchtesgaden, we stayed with Renate, the author of the book. I had hoped to be able to ask her questions, but now in the late stages of her life, she was suffering dementia and was unable to respond. However, we were able to hike up to the Purtschellerhaus on Hohen Göll Mountain. This mountain hut had been built by the Sonneberg Hiking Club in about 1910. My great-grandparents and grandparents used to visit this place. I found in the dinning room of the hut a photograph of the club members, that included my great grandfather.
Finally, we returned to the Sonneberg area, staying instead in Lauscha, about 20 km away. The purpose here was to visit the Thüringer forests, which as avid hikers, had played a role in my family’s past.