Thursday, May 24, 2007

Family Tree

Last night I was struck by one of my regular bouts of genealogy housecleaning. This means I go online and see if there’s anything new out there that will let me fill in any blanks.

The karma must have been right because I found, I think, the record of my great-great grandfather’s passage to America. Henry Kohleisen has eluded me for some time. The only documentation of him is his name on my great-grandmother’s birth and marriage certificates, and a single line item in an 1890 Newark, NJ City Directory: Kohleisen, Henry, 433 Springfield Ave. Occupation: Hatter.

Last night in the passenger manifests, I found a record for Henni Kohbrissen on the SS Rhynland, arriving in NY on 2 Jun 1881. Occupation….(wait for it)….HATTER.

(Click here to see the manifest)

Unfortunately these early ship records don’t tell you much more than that. Unlike 20th century manifests there’s no birthplace or destination, or the relation of people they are traveling with, or if they are meeting a friend or relative in the US. And then the can of worms runneth over because if Henry came here in 1881, and my great-grandmother was born in 1890 in Newark, then how come I can’t find them in the blasted 1900 census?!

Such are the frustrations of researching the family tree. It’s really never finished. And there was so much history and information obliterated in World War II (on both my and JP's side), endings I can only guess at, names changed or mispronounced, blanks that will probably never be filled in. I feel it keenly that the origins of my own maiden name stop dead just two generations back, thanks to another great-grandfather who went out for the proverbial cigarettes one night and never came back. I feel it for me and for my brother’s two sons because the power of the name is so elemental. Who was that man? Where did he come from and where did he go? My great-grandmother forever passed herself off as a widow, but if she was, why did my great-uncle devote a lifetime to looking for his father?

I envision Heaven as the place where all questions are answered in a sort of cocktail-party atmosphere. Where an elderly Austrian gentleman will touch my elbow and offer a glass of champagne, and I’ll clink my glass with his say, “Ah….Mr. Bierman….we have a great many things to discuss….”


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