Sunday, August 28, 2016

Finding relatives in East Germany, dead and alive

We testify that God lives and is active in our lives!  We are finding over and over how he answers prayers and blesses us in ways beyond our imagination or desires.  This week was another week of blessings for which we are more grateful than words can express.

This photo identifies the greatest miracle of this week, a wonderful man who provided us eyes to see and understanding to identify our lost ancestors.  See the story below.

Dr. Ludcheidt examining the records on the microfilm, with Elder Rueckert trying to help identify names.

Perhaps the best summary of our week would be our visit to the Freiberg temple, with Sister Rueckert's second cousin once removed and her husband.  It is symbolic of many activities related to family on both sides of the veil and the beautiful temple where families can be sealed together forever.  It is also an example of how the Lord can work miracles, as it was first built in East Germany while it was still under communist rule. 

With our newly found relatives in front of the newly remodeled Freiberg Temple
Our hearts are so full of love for our Heavenly Father and his blessings that he pours out on us, we pray that our words here can reflect his hand in our experiences this past week.

The rest of this blog covers many of these blessings the best we can.  I will give an outline format of the rest of the blog for those who might want to skip to certain portions.  This is a longer blog than usual:
  • Working in the office (Monday through Wednesday) - various self-reliance activities, etc.
  • A frustrating family history day on Thursday, lessons learned, sites visited
  • Visit to the Wartburg castle on Thursday with Saint Elizabeth and Martin Luther stories.
  • A Friday full of family history miracles, after the trial of our faith
  • Freiburg, Germany temple open house on Friday before the rededication next week
  • Visit with living relatives 
  • Saturday - Visit with Great Grandmother's niece in Berlin, a story of faith
We knew that this would be a short work week as we had planned some time ago to visit the Freiburg Temple open house.  We planned to include a trip to family history activities on Sister Rueckert's family and a visit to Berlin, where the niece of her great grandmother is living.

During our work week, we had our best conference call yet with our missionary couples, they were all in attendance without any exceptions!  This includes our new couple that just arrived in France and a new couple that we have "adopted" into Self-Reliance who recently began a Seminaries and Institute mission in Cape Verde.  The photo below shows all of them on our computer screen at the same time, including Elder Boam, our senior missionary contact at Headquarters:

14 links to the same "Zoom" room.  We are in the second screen taking a photo of the screen.
Backing up a little, on Monday evening we started participating in a family home evening with Jonathan Evans-Southhall and his family.  Jonathan participated in our Sunday My Foundation class, but for a variety of reasons missed four of our lessons.  He wanted to make them up so that he can complete the course and "graduate" with the others.  We suggested that he do the My Foundation lessons in family home evening.  He came back and suggested that it would be wonderful if we could participate with his family in these lessons.  He offered a free dinner each Monday night until we finish if we would do so.  Last Monday we began this experience.  It is wonderful, but we will save more detail about this family for our next blogs.

On Wednesday evening we were able to do our home teaching visit to Sister Mendes and her family.  She and her three children were all there.  We have learned to really love this family. They show us so much love and have made much progress over the past few months.  All of them have participated in Self-Reliance groups and will receive their graduation certificates in the coming weeks.  We discussed quite a bit with them of the goal to become temple worthy and receive the blessings of the temple.  We also asked them to be involved with the new Brazilian investigators that we had met the previous Sunday.  We suggested that this may be their way to serve others and it might be their Service Project for their My Foundation course.  They were very enthusiastic, especially as they learned of the temporal challenges of this family.  We also discussed the need for them to start completing their "My Family" booklet so that they can take ancestor names to the temple.  After this lengthy discussion, we asked if there was any other questions or anything we could help with.  They asked if we could come to lunch in their home, since they now have a kitchen and space for us all to eat.  We were delighted, we had wanted to have them to our apartment for dinner, but we don't have space to entertain very many people in our small apartment.  We love this family!

We were also able to attend our Book of Mormon class on Wednesday noon and an Old Testament class on Wednesday evening that we have started attending.  This class is taught by Sister Stay who is an amazing expert on Hebrew and the Old Testament.  We are learning so much from her.  Our Book of Mormon class is taught each week by a different missionary.  Each does a wonderful job with a different perspective.  This week we were taught about Jarom and the Words of Mormon by Elder Jensen, our legal senior missionary.  He gave us an amazing overview of the plates and how it all fits together.  Much was review, but there is always new understandings that come from the Holy Ghost when we spend the time to ponder.

During the week, we worked with our manager, Thomas King with preparations for our next committee meeting (next week) and our upcoming seminar.  Thomas was taking additional annual leave on Wednesday through Friday, so it was a perfect time to take our own family history and temple trip.

Okay, now for three amazing days of experiences.  We have learned to plan activities and destinations, knowing that the Lord will guide us differently if that is his will. Our plans were to do family history work for Sister Rueckert's ancestors in Erfurt on Thursday, travel to Freiberg for the temple open house on Friday and then spend that night and Saturday morning with Sister Rueckert's second cousin once removed.  In preparation for this trip we tried to schedule visits to pastors offices and the central archive in Erfurt, where we had heard that many of the records are stored. 

We started with the Central archive in Erfurt.  As we asked to have time there on Thursday, we were told that it would not be open on Thursday but that we could come on Friday from 10:00 am to noon. We were also told that there were not actual books to see, only microfilm. Knowing how we had been taking photos from books in Bavaria for the Rueckert line, we were a bit discouraged.  We knew that microfilm is so much harder to work with and we have always had around 4 hours in each of the other pastors offices.  After several emails back and forth, we were not able to improve the plan, so we adjusted our plans to be in Erfurt Friday morning.

With this we had all day Thursday to fill.  I started sending out emails to different pastor offices with no responses.  One included a pastor office that we had tried to visit the previous March without any success  For a few weeks, we receive no response.  Finally, last week I found one pastor office which stated that their office hours were Thursday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm.  I called them on the previous  Thursday and was able to make an appointment for the Thursday that we would be there.  They covered one of the cities (Thamsbrück) that a large branch of relatives were from.  We felt that we had one option at least that would be fruitful.  We finally left on Thursday without any other plans but went hoping for guidance. 

When we arrived at the pastors office on Thursday morning, we were shown a cabinet full of old books.  They all related to the local city and another one nearby.  However, we were told that the records for Thamsbrück were not available.  They did get us a book of deaths in the 1900s for Thamsbrück but nothing more.  We had one relative that was born in Merxleben in 1675, one of the cities for which they had records.  But the earliest records that had began in 1735.

So there we were in a pastors office with a lot of records that probably did not have anything to do with our ancestors.  We tried to find out how we could get access to the books in Thamsbrück, but we were told that only next year, maybe they could be made available.  Apparently the books are in the Thamsbrück church but are in terrible shape.  Even the books that we did look through were certainly falling apart.  We do understand how difficult it is to allow the books to be handled as they are so old.

The photo below shows Sister Rueckert with some of these old books.  The one on the front of the table was the oldest one, which was falling apart.  As we have seen the books that are before the 1800s, they are not organized in columns, but the writings are in paragraph form, with small print, that makes it so difficult to identify individuals and details.  Sister Rueckert is reviewing the deaths from the 1900s, the book across from her is from the 1700s.  What a contrast!

After spending a few hours reviewing and taking photos of what might be helpful, we felt that our efforts were not bringing the results that we had hoped for.  We also had the rest of the day available. We were able to get better contact information for neighboring pastors offices.  We started calling them to see if we could visit any of them that day, without success.  One of the larger cities with many ancestors has the pastor on vacation until  September 10.  They told us that many of these older records are in an archive in a city 200 kilometers to the north of where we were.  They also gave us the contact information of these archive locations, including one that was only 40 kilometers away.

  However, it did not appear that it covered the cities that we were looking for.
With a bit of discouragement, we left the pastor's office.  We have been so blessed in recent weeks, that we were expecting the same type of miracles, but they did not occur this time.  However, we went to the small city of Thamsbrück, since it is key to Sister Rueckert's family history.  Her great grandfather, Berthold Louis Wilhelm Stoll was from there, so we felt inclined to continue our search there, even without access to the records.

When we arrived in this small town (only a a few kilometers from the parish that we visited), we found the Church and a cemetery.  We walked around the Church and visited the cemetery, taking pictures of all graves that had names that sounded familiar.  We could not find any Stolls and limited success on other names..  We also stopped at a bakery across the street of the Church and bought some bread and eclairs.  Berthold had worked in a bakery in this city and this one had been in operation since 1877, four years after he was born.  Maybe a connection.  There is a wonderful book written about Berthhod and his experiences, but we left it in Utah and didn't bring it on our mission.  We sure wish we had it now!  As I am writing this, Sister Rueckert just found a the family history book on-line.  I have now lost her to her reading.  Hopefully we can learn more about where we just visited. (We just found out that he worked at a different bakery for a short time)

In front of the Church in Thamsbrück
Better view by the side of the Church , with a fountain

Müller Bakery across the street, since 1877

Truck from Müller Bakery in Thamsbrück, since 1877

We then went to the town of  Kleinwelsbach, another 6 kilometers away, where Berthold's mother had been born.  We found a church and a cemetery but not much more.  Photos below are from Kleinswelsabch.

Door in Church in Kleinwelsbach, showing the original date of 1691

Church in Kleinwelsbach

Sister Rueckert in cemetery behind the Church

We finished with these visits, again enjoying the history that we were viewing, but without any significant family history success.  We decided to go the archive location in Eisenach.  We had talked to them earlier and knew that they were open, even though their English was very limited.  As we continued on this next step of our journey, Sister Rueckert commented on how we have become too accustomed to blessings and that  we needed to accept that we were only getting new information on how to proceed this day.

When we got to Eisenach we stopped to get gas and to get money from an ATM.  However, I found that my Debit card from Charles Schwab was declined for insufficient funds.  I realized at that moment that I had not transferred money recently into our Schwab account and I was now stuck without access to funds.  Fortunately, my mother had sent us a new debit card from the Deseret First Credit Union with the chip technology just a few weeks ago.  This technology is required for debit cards to be accepted in Germany.  So based, on this timely new card, I was able to pay for the gas and we moved on.  We believe that this was another blessing from our Heavenly Father that we had received this card that we had no intent on using.  Otherwise, I'm not sure what we would be doing right now, working off our fuel bill.

We finally found the Evangelical Church archive building.  As we entered in, they confirmed that most of the records we were looking for would be found in Magdeburg, a few hundred kilometers north of here.   Our communication was difficult but a nice man came and helped us, he spoke a bit of English.  He showed me the maps below, which identified which records are in which location in Germany and in the Erfurt region.
Germany map of regions for family history arrives

More detailed map of Erfurt area

We once again were not able to find specific family history information, but at least we have learned where to access information and how it works.  This is part of building our family history base.  

We found ourselves in Eisenach with no more research options available at about 4:00 pm.  This city is the location of the famous Wartburg Castle where Martin Luther had translated the New Testament into German.  We decided to visit the castle.  It was first built in 1067 and has never been used in a battle setting, but it's history is marked by peaceful events

Aerial view of the castle, taken from the internet

Photo before entering the courtyard

photo in the courtyard

We were able to pay an additional 2 Euros to take photos inside the castle, so I made the big investment.  This is my favorite room of the royalty rooms.  It has been named Elisabeth's bower.  It was most probably the women's quarters.  However, glass mosaic was installed in the early 1900s showing scenes from the life of the saintly Elisabeth of Hungary, the most remarkable woman in the history of Warburg.  

In 1211 Elisabeth was brought from the Hungarian royal court at the age of four.  At the age of 14 she was betrothed to the landgrave of Thuringia, Ludvig IV.  She gave alms generously and had a number of hospitals opened.  At the age of 20, her husband died during one of the crusades.  She and her children left the royal palace and moved to Marburg, living in a monastery according to the teachings of Francis of Assisi.  She worked in s hospital that she had donated and died in 1231 at the age of 24. She was canonized a Saint by the Pope in 1235.

Reading the signs, there are English sections of the signs

Elisabeth giving alms to the poor

Saint Elisabeth and Ludvig IV

At the end of the tour we were able to go to the Luther Room.  This is where Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek and Latin to German in 1522.  The following is from Wikipedia:

Between 1498 and 1501, the young Martin Luther attended the St. George's Latin school in Eisenach in preparation for his following studies at the University of Erfurt. In 1521/22 he was hidden by Frederick the Wise at Wartburg castle to protect him from the Imperial ban. In that time, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, in what was an important step both for the German Reformation and the development of a consistent German standard language.

Room where Martin Luther translated the New Testament

Elder Rueckert in the Martin Luther room

Different angle in the Martin Luther room
As we finished our Thursday, the results were not what we had planned, but we did build some knowledge and enjoyed some meaningful history.  That night we arrived at our hotel in Erfurt.  We had a nice dinner at the hotel and found upon finishing our dinner, that of course our Debit card from Schwab still wouldn't work and the Deseret First Credit Union card also was not working.  They put the bill on the hotel tab to be resolved in the morning.  

When we got to our room and hooked to wifi, we discovered that I had an email from the Pastor for Eckstedt, a small city of one of Sister Rueckert's ancestors.  She apologized for not responding earlier, that she could not find any Rueckerts  born in Eckstedt.  I responded by an email, noting that we were not looking for Rueckerts but for lines related to Johann Friedrich Sickel and Marie Friederike Bauersfelt who were married in 1837 and apparently born in Eckstedt.   I told her we could still stop by the next afternoon.  I also transferred the funds to our Schwab account and tried to convince Charles Schwab to liberate the fund immediately, rather than their normal 4 day delay.  I also was starting to get a cold and a sore throat.

We went to bed, ready for our next day adventure with many unanswered questions and concerns.  I prayed hard that we could resolve our bank card situation, for we were with minimal cash (not enough to pay for the restaurant).  I also prayed that my cold could be healed, since I knew we would be in a hospital on Saturday visiting our elderly relative.

The next morning we awakened well rested and encouraged.  My sore throat had gone away and we had a wonderful breakfast.  We were able to check out of the hotel, with my Credit Union bank card working.  Prayers were answered even  before we left the hotel!  As Sister Rueckert prayed for our day, she asked that the Lord would bless our eyes and our understanding so that we could benefit from what we were to see on the microfilm.

We went to the address for the archive, found it to be the same as of the monastery that Martin Luther had stayed in that we had visited six months ago.  We found parking just a few blocks away and arrived at the complex of the monastery at 9:30 am.  As we approached I asked a man where we would find the archives.  Another man came and took us directly to the office of Dr. Michael Ludscheidt. This was one more blessing that we received that morning.  We had to go through the reception of the hotel and through the museum portion of the monastery.  At 9:45, Drl Luscheidt came out to his office and we were waiting and ready.  So far, everything had worked perfectly.

Dr. Ludscheidt asked which records we were looking for and we responded Gisperleben.  He mentioned that there was missing books for about 100 years,  beginning with about 1805.  Fortunately, our lines went further back than that so we went for the earlier microfilm.  He showed us how to get on the microfilm and helped us find the first name we were looking for.  He stayed at the microfilm, where he was able to read most of the entries.   He understood, the writing of the German, the old writing, the names, the format of the records, everything.  He was also willing to stay with us the entire two hours.  He was the eyes and the understanding that we had prayed for.  

We started with the births of some of the records in the late 1700s!  We found a few of the men a the end of the line of our genealogy, confirming the birth information that we had.  With this, we were able to find the names of the fathers of these men.  We then thought, how do find further back and we decided to look for the marriage of the man's name that we had found, assuming that he would be married sometime in the years proceeding the births.  At this point we had already made some good finds, but could not find the marriage for the first entry that we were looking for.  Since we only had one microfilm machine, Sister Rueckert was not sure how to help, so she started praying.  As she finished her silent prayer, one of the marriages that we were looking for appeared on the screen.  We were even able to take a photo of the microfilm image.

For example, in this special case, we had identified the birth record of Johann Andreas Hettstaedt as being born in March 20, 1782, rather than the approximate date of 1781.  This is Sister Rueckert's fifth great grandfather.  In that record we saw that his father's name was Michael Henrich Hettstaedt, that the son was the first child and that this was witnessed by a Hettstaedt brother Johann 
Andrew.  We then searched for marriages with the name of Michael Henrich Hettstaedt and found a marriage on Sept. 24, 1780.  In that a record below we identified that he was married to Susanna Margareta Frank who had a father named Andreas Frank.  Their location was identified as Wenimen Sömmen.  Susanna was the second child of her father.  We identified that Michael's father was Hans Rudolph Hettstaedt, who had already passed away at the time of their marriage.  That is a wealth of information that we got from this one entry on the microfilm, of which we would have been able to read almost none of.  This was a miracle!

We found several others, but this is an example of the miracle of having eyes and understanding that we had prayed for.  Dr. Ludscheidt stayed with until past noon, willing to keep working.  At one point he was reading off names in birth records and we were trying to identify some of them that would be the names that we had identified in marriage records.  We found a few of these also.  In total, we extended the genealogical lines for Sister Rueckert's grandfather, Arthur Karl Moeller for one or two generations in three different lines with additional information that may be helpful in others.

We considered Dr. Ludscheidt to be an incredible answer to our prayers.  Once we get organized to focus our efforts, he is willing to do this again at a future date.  What a find, directly from heaven.

Dr. Ludscheidt in this amazing library

One thing that made this special is that we were coming back to where we had been.  This is our third trip to this monastery, but never did we realize the treasures that were in it.

Sister Rueckert at the entrance to the monastery and archive

We were still hoping to hear from the other pastor in Eckstedt, but could not get my phone to read any email responses.  We tried calling her with no answer.  So we decided to visit one more time the location where Sister Rueckert's father had lived. Below are a few new photos taken:

In front of the building where Werner Moeller lived with his family
A current shot of the upper portion of the apartment building
Refurbishment shown on the steps of the apartment building.  We had noticed in our earlier visit that the steps were a bit higher than the original photo.  This explains why and confirms our feelings about this being the correct location.

We then continued our trip to the Freidberg temple open house, arriving around 3:30 pm.  Immediately we were greeted by Gabi Simon, the second cousin once removed of Sister Rueckert, who had been working at the open house all week.  She and her husband (Gernot Simon) led the tour group that we were in.  It appears that the majority of the people in our group were non members, learning about this remodeled temple in their midst.  It was fitting for us to be in a temple in East Germany, after finding the names of East German ancestors on the very same day.  We did not understand all of the German spoken on the tour, but knowing a little about temples, we had a pretty good idea and recognized quire a few words.

In front of the Freiburg temple with a unique tower for Angel Moroni and a beautiful setting with the sun behind the tower.

We then drove with Gabi for three more hours to drive in Berlin around 8:00 pm at night.  This gave us quite a bit of time to get to know our relative, who is so delightful.  We also were able to hear her husband's conversion story from him before we left Freiberg.  He stayed another day in Freiburg to continue helping with the open house until its completion on Saturday.  In their home in Berlin, we met up with Heidi, the cousin from Frankfurt who had been helping with their mom while Gabi was in Freiburg.

The three cousins together, Gabi, Sister Rueckert and Heidi.  I think we can see quite a bit of resemblance, certainly in their height.
Let me just take minute and define the relationship again.  The photo below shows Sister Rueckert's great grandmother Friedericke Sophie Wilhelmina Verges (on the left) with her youngest sister Frieda Auguste Verges.  The man is Friedericke's husband, Berthold Louis Wilhelm Stoll, the girl to the right is a friend.  Frederick was the oldest child in the family, her younger sister Frieda was 18 years younger.  Berthold embraced the gospel and shared it with Friedericke.  She joined the church as did her younger sister Frieda.  Their father joined the church also, but the mother never did.  Years later, Friedericke and Berthed moved to the U.S. with their daughter's family and her grandson, Sister Rueckert's father.  

Friedericke and Berthold Stoll, Frieda Verges (youngest sister and a friend.  Photo in possession of Frieda's daughter, Vera.
Frieda wanted to also move to the U.S. and had plans, however her first son died at the age of 10 in an automobile accident and she could not bear to move from where he was buried.  She had married and moved to Erfurt, Germany where she lived the rest of her life.  There she had five sons and one daughter.  Besides the son that died in an automobile accident, the next two sons died during World War II.  Her youngest and only daughter, Vera, fell in love with a German soldier during the war.  

Vera was very dedicated to the gospel and helped her new love to become converted to the Church.  They were married in Erfurt.  Her husband had smoked considerably, but quit smoking when he became converted to the gospel.  When he left Erfurt for West Germany after the war, he was searched and a Book of Mormon was found.  He had not yet been baptized but had already quit smoking.  When he explained the Book of Mormon and not smoking they examined his hands and found no nicotine stains, so they let him continue out of East Germany.  Others on the train were not able to continue on.  Vera continued to go through the bureaucracy of leaving East Germany in the 1950s and was finally able to join with her husband in Hildesheim, near Hannover.  There they raised their family, which included Heidi and Gabi our two very special relatives.

We loved learning about this and many other experiences of this incredible family that persevered World War II and remained true to the gospel.  This included their stories of traveling into East Germany to see their grandma during the time that the wall was up.   This was a very special reunion with our relatives.  We spent the evening talking and reviewing photos, etc.

That night when I got a WiFi connection, I saw that I had received an email from the Pastor for Eckstedt.  She had identified the marriage of Sister Rueckert's ancestors and identified the parents of each of them and additional siblings with their marriages.  Two more genealogical lines extended, without even making a visit, just due to the goodness of a pastor that is helping.  This day, August 26, 2016 will go down as a day of miracles in our family history lives, both for the dead and for the living.

By Friday night, my cold was getting worse again and I had not had a chance to get any medication.  Miraculously I found a few cold tablets in my toiletry bag that got me started on a recovery.  The next morning I got to a pharmacy and got the necessary medication to get over the cold. 

Heidi left early in the morning to visit one of her sons and then on to Frankfurt returning home.  We took her luggage with us in our car to make her travel easier.  

Siste Rueckert and the two cousins outside of Gabi's home in Berlin

We then went with Gabi to visit her mother, Vera, who is 90 years old.  She has been quite healthy most of her life.  The photo below is from her just a few months ago when she turned 90.  In the past month her health has declined and she has been in and out of hospitals.  However, she wanted to be able to see us and we certainly wanted to see this remarkable woman.

The plan was to visit her in the late morning when she was more alert.  With my cold medicine, I felt well enough to visit with Vera.     We were able to visit her at 11:00 am and had a wonderful reunion.  Gabi had visited the U.S. in 1977 and met with Debbie.  Her mother had been in the U.S. in 1995, visiting with Debbie's father at the time.

The photo below is of Sister Rueckert and her great, great Aunt Vera.  We were able to talk quite a bit and record her words of memories on our digital recorder.  She told us that she wanted us to visit again when she got out of the hospital and was stronger.

After finishing this wonderful visit, we left for Frankfurt, driving for the next 5 hours.  I got a little drowsy at one point and Sister Rueckert took over the driving for the next hour and a half, her first time driving in Germany.  All of her driving was on the Auto Bahn without a speed limit.  However, she did remain at a reasonable speed.

This is the recap of an amazing week.  We testify that God lives, that he hears and answers prayers.  We know miracles happen to help us identify and then do the temple work for our ancestors who have waited so long to be sealed to their families.  We know there is still much work to be done, but we are humbled to have had this experience of finding several of their names in miraculous ways!  We are also privileged to find our faithful relatives who have helped build the Church in Germany in such difficult circumstances.

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