Glen Treibs is not your typical charming volunteer tour guide, and the German town of Fredericksburg, Texas did not have the kitschy beers steins and lederhosen I expected. Instead, Treibs, with his shiny shoes and tucked-in button-down shirt, stood under the archway of Der Stadt Freedhof, the town’s Lutheran cemetery, and told my cemetery tour group a dramatic story of hardship and treachery. He’s a fifth-generation descendent of Germans who first came to Texas in the 1840s. “We didn’t know that in two years, half of us would be dead,” he said, glowering at my group. “At least five of my family are buried in the sand in Indianola.”
This is not a beautiful cemetery, it’s an orderly one. Children were buried in a separate section; since they were shorter, they lined up better. And Treibs is not thrilled with my disorderly group, who dawdle and fail to stay close enough together for his taste. “I’m 71!” he yells. “And you can’t keep up with me?”
As I followed Treibs around the cemetery, trying to stay close so as not to displease him, to ask intelligent questions to prove I was listening and engaged, I started to wonder. Why did I care so much about making him happy? Did he remind me just a little bit of somebody? Was I seeing a hint of my own German roots in Fredericksburg?
Except for my maternal grandmother, my grandparents all died before I was born. Since my grandmother came over from Ireland as a teen, still had her Irish accent, and lived in the same town as me, I grew up identifying with her. I was Irish. I had red hair, went to Catholic church, drank strong tea. It was an obvious fit. Her old Irish friends would come over for card games. My sisters and I dressed up in nightgowns—our idea of cocktail waitress attire—and they tipped us coins when we topped off their Irish whiskey. One friend played Irish tunes on an accordion. They smoked cigarettes together.
My father’s family, on the other hand, was a mystery. Either his parents or grandparents had come from Germany. They split up when he was five years old, during the Depression. His father had an important job at a brewery but lost it during troubles with the union. After that, he carried a gun.
Dad had a much older sister who’d gone crazy and been locked up in a mental institution, or maybe she developed dementia with age. As an adult, I grew closer to him. But I grew up with the idea that I wasn’t supposed to ask questions about this side of the family because it would make my father sad. Or maybe mad. Many of my early memories of him involve being quiet when he came home from the office and sat on the couch, a newspaper held up in front of his face. He was an engineer who wrote in neat capital letters. He favored sharp pencils and tablets of graph paper.
I was artistic, emotional and slovenly. In seventh grade drafting, I couldn’t draw a straight line with a T square. Obviously, I was Irish. Not German.
The Germans who survived to spawn the present day citizens of Fredericksburg were tough, tenacious and take-charge. The rest died.
During my three days in Fredericksburg, I toured the pioneer museum, the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, the Vereins Kirche Museum and other German heritage hotspots. I learned about the Adelsverein, an organization that tricked thousands of Germans into boarding ships for the good life in Texas. They promised transportation, land and escape from the poverty many Germans were fleeing. But things didn’t quite work out. Those who survived passage in the miserable ships landed at the Texas gulf beach called Indianola to find…nothing! The promised wagons had been commandeered by the American government for the Mexican-American War. After waiting around without food or shelter, some of the new immigrants decided they might as well walk.
“Our ancestors do not give up—those who made it,” said Evelyn Weinheimer, archivist for the Pioneer Museum and a descendant of Germans who arrived in Texas in 1846. Weinheimer was less intimidating but not much cuddlier than Treibs. She admitted that her forebears had become quite cliquish and insular in response to the hostile and even murderous ways of their fellow Texas inhabitants.
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