Zita died. She, like many of my second cousins, lived in a small village in the Central Black Forest, Der Schwarzwald . My wife and I visited her the first of June of this year. She was not well, but her smile belied her pain. She was the 2nd oldest of my cousins; I am 3rd oldest. It was our fifth trip to the village and we are always enriched on our visit there. This was the village of my grandfather who last walked those streets in 1882 as he headed off to America at the age of twenty-four. Waiting for him in New York was his brother who left the village in 1871.
My grandfather left behind his father, step-mother, 9 brothers and two sisters. Zita surmised that he may have left because there were too many mouths to feed as well as the fact that, as the oldest child, he may not have relished the idea of being in charge of his many siblings. I do not know the reason because I never met my grandfather and my father seldom spoke of him. His brother fled Germany after being drafted into Bismarck’s war. When the authorities came to the village to round up the conscripts, his absence resulted in a penalty accessed against the family- said to have been 500 Marks, quite a hefty sum in those days. As a result, that American son was shunned by his German family. My grandfather’s departure was a lesser event.
My father never mentioned the village back in Germany and I only saw its name in a tattered address book which listed it next to my grandfather’s name. No street name. He did, however, have the names and addresses of other German relatives in Heilbronn and Koblenz, far from Der Schwarzwald . Our family would on occasion receive a letter from these places and I would be eager to snip the stamp and put with my stamp collection. In the mid 50’s we even had a ‘real German’ stay with us for a few days. She was not from the village and, as I recall, was a relative on my grandmother’s side.
One day in 2000 my mother, then 95, told me that she received a letter that morning from someone in Germany. “Of course I can’t read it,” she said in her still strong, deep voice, “you or Miriam will have to.” I opened it and slogged through it with my pig-German vocabulary limitation and noted that it came from the Black Forest village of my grandfather. The city of Heilbronn was mentioned with a name altogether unfamiliar to me. It was signed, “Zita.” When my sister Miriam, a former high school German teacher, arrived and I asked her to translate this mysterious letter.
The letter stated that Zita had received a letter from a 90-year-old woman in Heilbronn who, it turned out, was the daughter of my grandfather’s next younger brother. She gave Zita the ‘last address’ she had for the American Eble family which, interestingly, was the address of my mother. My mother came to that very house in 1938 as a bride and luckily never moved out. The odds of two 90-something women from across the ocean having active addresses is astounding. Within a year both women passed away.
Zita invited us to visit her and the Eble family in Germany. Why not? After all, I was to retire the next year and so, through several letters and a phone conversation with a younger English speaking relative, plans were made to visit the village where my grandfather, his father and his father lived. In Spring of 2002, my wife and a couple who became our travel partners, set off to meet Zita, her husband Matthias, her brother Felix and a whole slew of Ebles. Over our several visits to Germany, the stop at the home of Zita and Matthias, with her special meal and kuchen, was always the highlight of the trip. She was so welcoming, so vibrant and always interested in our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren.
The photo is from our last and now final visit with Zita. Perhaps you can see in her face the excitement and warmth she embued. Bless her soul and, as she always ended her letters to me: May God (now) hold her in the palm of his hands.