In elementary school, I used to tell people that Schwartau was the shortened version of my real last name, the Ellis Island version given to my ancestors when they immigrated to America. My real last name was Schwartauburgerhifinfiner. My friends believed me, for years. But it’s not true.
My real last name is Schwartau.
Growing up, I knew that it was
(b) hard for people to say
(c) harder for people to spell
and (e) also the name of a jam and jelly company in Europe
Every year for Christmas, my dad would order hundreds of jars of Schwartau jams, from the mini to full size, and we’d give them to everyone: teachers, neighbors, friends, the accountant, their lawyer. (Try the wildberry, so tasty!)
Never once, as a kid, did I think I’d get the opportunity to visit the town that birthed Schwartau jam and, maybe, my family: Bad Schwartau. But in 2009, my dad made that happen. Let me share with you our Bad Schwartau adventure, in pictures.
The trip was 3 weeks long. 14 days in Paris, our mutually favorite city and a several nights in Amsterdam (where I got to meet his high school BFF). In between those two, we would spend a couple nights in Bad Schwartau.
Europeans don’t road-trip the way Americans do, but I’ve driven around Europe with my dad four times – in 1996 (when I defaced our rental car), in 1999 (when driving on the other side of the road nearly led my parents to divorce), in 2005 (when he and I drove around France for a week), and this one, in 2009 (when we nearly died on the way out of Paris).
(Click on any of the photos in this post to see a larger, captioned version.)
Bad Schwartau is a SMALL town. We’re talking one street light, cobble-stone roads, and a population that does not speak a word of English. My dad speaks keiner German, and I was armed with exactly one semester of college German five years earlier (most of which was spent learning dirty words).
In other words, we were prepared to do a lot of miming. (I did get a chance to exercise my out-of-shape language skills. It was a LOT colder than I had packed for, so when I spot a shop with a sign that says “Jeder €1” I don’t know how but I remembered that “jeder” meant each or all or every…. I found a dollar store! I bought a scarf and some gloves and said Danke a lot.) All in all, we found the people of Schwartau to be friendly in a distant way, helpful and curious about why two Americans were vacationing in their town. (Hier? Warum?)
Bad Schwartau is known for its baths/spas, specifically its iodide saline waters. (Bad means bath or pool.) It’s a beautiful, cute town.
We drove up to the factory and my dad tried to convince them that we were the owners of the factory by showing them our drivers’ licenses with our last name. It didn’t work. But they did give us some free snacks!
We’ve never known much about our family history. (For example, we’ve always thought my dad’s side of the family was German and my mom’s side was English, but my Family Tree DNA test says I’m mostly Nordic….)
The Schwartau side is small and no one ever did any ancestry research, unlike on my mom’s side of the family. My dad was mostly an only child, with two half-sisters after his dad remarried. His dad was an only child. And now it’s just me and my brother. The small number of known Schwartaus and uniqueness of our last name were just two of the many reasons I didn’t change it after getting married. I am the only Ashley Schwartau.
But there must be other Schwartaus, and we hoped that by visiting what might be our starting point as a family, we could learn something, anything about our past. The city hall turned out to be no help but they suggested we visit the Bad Schwartau museum – yes, this tiny town has a museum! – and the man in charge, Victor, just happened to speak English and was very nice, friendly, into history. He was THRILLED to meet us. So he told us to come back a little later. When we did, he had this small, older man – Kurler, or Kuhler, something like that – who was SO excited that we were there. He was really into history and had never had anyone interested in the town as much as we were. We spent over 2 hours talking to them about the city, our family (what little we knew), this guy Meyer Schwartau who was an architect who ended up in Poland, the origins of the town, the name and what it means, and just all kinds of stuff.
They even called a journalist from the local paper who joined us for most of the conversation, asked us some questions, laughed and joked with us.
And then took this picture for the front page of the paper!
Either before or after the trip (I can’t remember anymore), I joined the Bad Schwartau Facebook group and befriended an American girl my age who lives in Minnesota. In the last 7 years, we’ve interacted a lot on Facebook (realizing we have other things in common besides a last name including anxiety, cats, and musicals), discussed the family ‘curse’, and invited one another to our weddings.
At the end of this week, I’ll be flying solo to Minneapolis to finally meet her in person(!) and attend her family’s annual Schwartau reunion. I have no idea if I’m related to these people or not but I can’t wait to meet other people called Schwartau and find out!
Have YOU ever visited the origin country/town of your family? What do you know about your family history?