In the far western part of Germany, west of the Rhine River and not far from the border with Belgium and Luxembourg, lies the little village of Gimmigen, Germany. Although it is a very old village (it traces its history back to the year 853), it was never very large – its present population numbers around 750.
Gimmigen is nestled in a beautiful valley, surrounded by low, tree-covered mountains and vine-covered hills. It is near the Moselle River valley, which is world famous for its white wines, and nearer still to Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, a spa town famous for its mineral springs. In the lowlands are cultivated pastures and field crops – most of the inhabitants in times past were involved in agriculture or viniculture.
In 1870, a family that had lived for many generations in the village left Germany for America, never to return. Peter Josef Becker emigrated from Gimmigen to the United States with his wife Anna Maria Witsch Becker and their 5 children. They lived for a short time in the state of Wisconsin, and then moved to a farm near Clarkson, Nebraska. It appears that the two branches of the family, in Germany and in Nebraska, lost track of each other until one of their members, Valdene Brabec, began her genealogical investigations a century later.
The family had deep roots in Gimmigen; Peter Becker’s family can be traced back to 1675, and his wife Anna Maria Witsch’s family back to an ancestor who died in 1685. Why did they pack up and leave in 1870, having both been part of this tight-knit community for at least 200 years? The most likely reason is the one usually given by immigrants to the U.S. – economic opportunity. As elsewhere in Europe, there was too little farmland in Germany after being subdivided among large families, and the promise of hundreds of acres of cheap, fertile land in the American Midwest was a powerful lure. But it is worth noting that this was an unsettling time politically in this part of the world. The numerous small German states were being united into an Empire under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and he was beating the war drums, preparing to go to war with France. (The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 didn’t last very long – France was defeated in less than a year – but Peter and Anna Becker might have dreaded the thought of their four young sons being conscripted into a Prussian army that had fought one war after another for nearly a decade). Also in 1870, Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf, an effort to strengthen the new German state by breaking the power of the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops and priests were imprisoned, and Catholics were persecuted and their activities restricted. The promise of Freedom of Religion in the United States might have appealed to the pious Beckers.
In Nebraska, the Becker immigrants encountered a very different environment from the lush, green Moselle Valley. The terrain was very different from Gimmigen – the hills are low and there were few trees – only endless miles of tall prairie grasses. The climate was harsh – precipitation was lower and more variable in Nebraska, often coming in the form of winter blizzards. The summers were hotter and the winters colder than in Western Europe. But the Nebraska soil was very rich and the agricultural crops were good.
Upon arriving in Nebraska, the Beckers established a farm within a mile of the small Holy Trinity Catholic Church, south of Clarkson. This picture shows the original wooden church that was built in 1878, and behind it the brick church that replaced it in 1928.
This church is also called Heun Church, because the area is named after a German, William Heun. William Heun was the Burgermeister of Lahr in the early 1860s, and immigrated to this area in 1866 with his wife and 11 children. Heun’s wife and 6 of their children died during the voyage. William Heun and his 5 surviving sons lived in West Point, Wisconsin and later moved to Nebraska. He was a postmaster, a farmer, and operated a general store near the church. William Heun donated 5 acres of land for construction of the Holy Trinity Church.
The pioneer farmers also bought land for a cemetery at the Heun Church in 1871, well before the church was constructed. Burying their dead in consecrated ground was a high priority for the early settlers, who previously used private plots on their own farmsteads.
This is the gate to the Holy Trinity (Heun) Church Cemetery:
Both Peter Josef Becker and Anna Maria Becker died in 1875; they were among the first people to be buried in the Heun Cemetery. Here are some pictures of their gravestone.
Standing by the gravestone are Valdene Marie Roether Brabec and her daughter Phyllis Marie Brabec Čada, descendants of the pioneering Becker family.
Peter and Anna Becker’s oldest child was Christina Mary Becker. She was born in 1849 and was 21 years old when she came with her family to the New World. She married another German, John Roether in 1876. (John Roether helped haul lumber for the construction of the first, wooden church at Heun). John and Christina Roether also farmed near the Heun Church until they moved to Clarkson in 1886. John Roether was the first mayor of Clarkson, and he operated the Roether & Becker saloon/billiard hall/ dance hall. John Roether died in 1907. Christina Becker Roether lived in Clarkson until 1930. At age 81, she slipped and fell down the steps of a potato cellar, and died from her injuries a few days later.
John and Christina Becker Roether are also buried at the Heun Cemetery. Here are some pictures of their gravestones.
To continue the family tree – one of the sons of John and Christina Roether, also named John Roether, married Mary Mastny. They had two children – Allan Roether and Valdene Roether Brabec. Valdene and her husband Marcel Brabec are the parents of my wife Phyllis. Which is how I got interested in the family…
Fast forward a century or so to the Year of Our Lord 2013. Phyllis and I were vacationing in Europe, following the course of the Rhine River from Switzerland down to Amsterdam. I knew that we would be driving near the village of Gimmigen, so I had brought along photocopies of some of the family records that Valdene Brabec had compiled over many years, as wells as an old photo from the 1970s of the Becker home in Gimmigen. We decided to spend the day looking around town and inquiring about the family, perhaps even find out if the Becker house was still standing.
We drove into the little village of Gimmigen and up and down its narrow, winding streets. It seemed unusually quiet even for a small town – we later learned that it was the Day of German Unity, a national holiday that celebrates the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. So people were sleeping late or had already left town to spend their holiday elsewhere.
Not seeing anyone, we drove around town and the surrounding countryside, a pastoral setting with farms in the valley and tree-covered hills. Eventually we parked the car and began to walk toward the main street that runs through town. At that point, a family van began backing out of its driveway, and as we waited for it to back out onto the street, one of the family asked if they could help us. Phyllis produced Valdene’s genealogical material and explained to them (in English) why we were in town – to see where her ancestors, the Becker and Witsch families, had lived. The head of the family (Robert Fell) looked at the papers and exclaimed that he also was a descendent of the Witsch family! (Happily, Robert speaks English pretty well, and his daughter Caroline speaks very well, which made up for our inability to speak German).
The Fell Family had been headed out of town to spend the holiday in Cologne, and it was serendipity that put them in the path of two confused American tourists. They graciously delayed their vacation in order to show us some of the sights – the little city park that was named after one of Robert’s relatives (and had been submerged in a flash flood that swept through town earlier in the year), the little village chapel where our common ancestors worshipped, and… both the original Becker and Witsch family houses, still standing across the street from each other! The Becker house had been substantially remodeled, but the Witsch House (still in the family, but presently unoccupied) still had the look of a 19th Century German home.
Becker House Witsch House
Less than 100 feet up the hill from the two ancestral houses is a little Catholic chapel, dedicated to St. Cosmas, St. Damian, and St. Katharina. It has been in that spot since the middle of the 14th Century, and was restored in 1820. There is no doubt Phyllis’ ancestors prayed there. But it is little used now, and the doors were locked on the day we visited Gimmigen.
A more substantial church was just a few miles up the road, in the village of Kirchdaun. This church, dedicated to St. Lambertus, dates back to at least the year 1131. It is the parish church for Catholics in the area, the church where most of the Beckers and Witschs were baptized, married, and buried. The beautiful sanctuary was constructed in 1908, so the Becker emigrants would not have seen it.
However, Phyllis was drawn to a small side chapel/baptistry off the back of the church. It was a very peaceful, prayerful room with beautiful statues and paintings that were clearly older than the rest of the church. We found out later, when I translated a plaque, that this side chapel was the only part of the original church that remains, dating back many hundreds of years. So it is likely that many of her ancestors worshiped and received the sacraments in this space.
The last bit of amazing luck occurred when we took a stroll through the lovely graveyard next to St. Lambertus. We had been reminded that in many parts of Europe people only “rent” graves for a time – after several decades the bodies are exhumed in order to make room for the newcomers. So we knew we would not find the graves of Phyllis’ ancestors in this small cemetery. However, we noticed two young women tending to the grave of their father, who had passed away in recent years. The name on the gravestone was Witsch, so once again we waved Valdene’s family records in front of them, and once again found two distant cousins for Phyllis.
Since our journey we have added to information about our ancestors through the miracle of the Internet. Through our e-mail exchanges with the Fell family we’ve learned about life in their little village of Gimmigen, and have gotten more genealogical information (for example, Robert Fell has traced one branch of Phyllis’ family back to a Johann Witsch, who died in 1685). There are a lot of parallels between our two villages, separated by an ocean. For example, they suffered a serious flood in the Spring of 2013 when a little creek that runs through town swelled out of its banks, flooding the main street and damaging a lot of homes (I was reminded of Clarkson’s Maple Creek Flood of 1944). Excellent roads and fast cars and trains have enabled them to travel to large cities for their jobs, purchases, and entertainment, and as a result the local businesses have suffered. Gimmigen struggles to keep a variety of traditions and annual festivities alive in the face of satellite television and the bright lights of nearby cities. Like Clarkson, they have endured the losses of their young men in 20th Century wars – the war memorial outside the chapel in Gimmigen lists the names of several Witschs and Beckers who were killed in WWI, and Robert Fell’s grandfather, newly married and with a baby on the way, was sent to fight in Russia in 1943 and was never heard from again. Like the Village of Clarkson, the Village of Gimmigen has had its ups and downs. But those who stayed are happy with its tranquility and sense of community.