I come from a rather small family, and I didn’t even know my own first cousins until about six years ago. Once they reached adulthood, my parents kept in touch with very few of their own cousins, but they did remember a lot of names. Because our surnames are not too common, I was able to use their memories to seek out my second cousins over the years, both by email and regular mail. In every case, I offer to share my research and I beg for copies of any photos they have. Results have been mixed. Most folks are friendly, but they aren’t really interested in the genealogy details. And as for photos, no luck yet except for copies of photos already in my possession.
At the farthest extreme, one second cousin insisted that I was wrong about some facts and stopped all contact. At the opposite end of the spectrum, another became a good friend and gave me one our great-grandfather’s Bavarian beer steins for Christmas (to date, one of my bests Christmas presents ever).
One of the best connections I’ve made was more distant, both in degree and location, when I connected with my 3rd and 4th Bergmeister cousins in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.
On my first visit to Pfaffenhofen in 1998, I was awestruck to find a building in the hauptplatz with the name “C. Bergmeister” on it. It’s a bakery! My great-grandfather Joseph Bergmeister was a baker! But wait…who was “C”? At that point in my research, I didn’t know. Attempts to communicate in the bakery were disastrous; my German is pitiful and their English-speaking associates must have been off that day.
After more research at home, I learned that C. Bergmeister was Castulus Bergmeister (1845-1912), son of Jakob Bergmeister (1805-1870). I descend from Jakob also, but from his son Joseph (1843-c.1885), which would make Castulus the uncle of my great-grandfather, Joseph (1873-1927), son of Joseph. Since Joseph (Jr) was married in Pfaffenhofen, worked as a baker, and his uncle owned a bakery there, chances are he worked for family – a family still running the bakery 108 years after he left Germany for the US.
Through the internet and some German-speaking friends, I contacted the bakery owners, and their son Hans replied in English. We exchanged emails occasionally, but when I knew I’d be “in the neighborhood” on a trip to Europe in 2006, I asked if I could visit. The next thing I knew, Bavarian hospitality was in full swing. No, we won’t recommend a hotel because you’re staying with us. No, we won’t give you directions, because we’re picking you up at the airport. Even though they weren’t even sure how I was related, they opened their homes and hearts to me. And as to how we would communicate, well, we’d figure that out when I arrive…
With some nervous trepidation on both sides, we finally met. Before dinner on my first evening there, I brought out my pedigree chart. Moments later, their chart was produced. Heads leaned over the dining table as we scrutinized each other’s data, and we simultaneously pointed to the common ancestor, Jakob. “We never knew any Bergmeister’s went to the US!” We both gained information – my research ended two generations back from Jakob with his grandfather Paul, who was born approximately in 1724 and died in 1784. Hans went back one generation more than I did! His chart named Paul’s father as Martin Bergmeister (1689-1752). This was a surprise since I thought my research in the Bergmeister’s original home village of Puch ended when the old records did.
By week’s end, my cousins’ English became far better than my German will ever be. I had many great experiences: dining with the extended family, visiting the cemetery and church, and spending an afternoon searching through boxes and boxes of unmarked photos in hopes of seeing a familiar face. It was the kind of genealogical magic I only dreamed of when I started out on this journey.
I didn’t want to show photos of my cousins without their permission, but you can see live images of the main square (hauptplatz) with Pfaffenhofen’s webcam, or you can take a virtual visit of the Bergmeister Bäckerei — serving the best pretzels in Bavaria since 1868!
[Submitted for the 40th Carnival of Genealogy: Living Relative Connections]