On the eve of the return of my grandmother’s DNA results, I can’t help but think of her mother, Erna Georgi. Twenty-five years ago nothing much was known about her, except that she had departed from Stolp, Germany in 1907, at the age of 14. I knew her parents’ names had been Julius Georgi and Marie Haeger, but otherwise, she didn’t seem to have any family. They had been looked for after WWII, but according to my grandmother, “they were all gone.”
Given my grandmother’s reticence in speaking of her mother, I always felt there was a mystery surrounding Erna. She had died when I was small so there wasn’t time to know her, but her photo always seemed to hint at a certain sadness in her pale blue eyes.
When I began delving into Erna’s history, I pushed for information from those closest to her while also searching traditional records. I confirmed her parents’ names and birthplaces with the 1925 Iowa State Census but learned little else. No immigration record was found despite knowing her arrival year. There was no new information in her Social Security application, at the local historical society, in her obituary or her funeral record. Knowing she had married my great-grandfather, George Kern in 1918, I hoped to locate her in the 1910 Federal or 1915 Iowa State Census, but there was seemingly no entry. It was as though she had washed ashore the day she married George.
I enlisted the help of my grandmother’s cousin Mary Jane, who had known Erna well. Unlike my grandmother, she had no hesitation in talking about Erna, even remembering that she had at one point stayed with her family in Council Bluffs, and for a time worked as a maid in General Dodge’s house. That filled in part of the gap between her arrival in 1907 and her marriage in 1918. Mary Jane brought to life the great-grandmother I had never known with her stories, telling me, “Your great grandmother Erna was one of my favorite aunts. At one time she was in a car wreck and had a brain concussion. I was there visiting and wanted to learn to walk on stilts. I was such a klutz, and kept falling down. She laughed so much at me she got a headache.”
As the decades went by, and my grandmother’s mouth remained clamped shut, I came to suspect that Erna might have been Jewish. Scarred by her family’s WWII disappearance, maybe my grandmother preferred old wounds not be reopened.
Twenty years after I began investigating my great grandmother, I discovered that the sadness in Erna’s eyes wasn’t entirely imagined. The breakthrough came when Pomeranian records became freely available online at Pommerndatenbank. There, in black and white were not only Erna’s parents Julius and Marie, but their occupations, addresses and relatives, including Marie’s father, ship’s captain Albert Haeger. I learned that two years before Erna had immigrated, her father Julius had died. All of the Haegers and Georgis were indeed gone from the city following WWII. Saddest of all, a Google search of her grandfather Albert’s name and home port led to the story that three years before Erna’s birth, her grandmother Christina had been lost at sea.
On 12 March 1889 the Glasgow Herald reported the sinking of the Arthur and the loss of 17 lives: The message of the total loss of the German bark Arthur 505 tons (Captain Haeger) reached Queenstown yesterday morning. During a tour between Doboy, Georgia to Amsterdam, the ship was wrecked in the middle of Atlantic. 16 crew and the wife of the Captain perished with the ship.
With WWI looming, and the difficult realities of single parenthood, I could see Marie’s reasons for getting young Erna out of Stolp. What I couldn’t see was how Erna had managed alone, at the age of 14, in a foreign country.
At long last, the pieces fell into place when a vital piece of information, a simple marriage license, appeared at Ancestry.com.
Erna hadn’t been alone, after all! She had been sent to live with her mother’s brother, Herman Haeger, who had been naturalized in Bremer County, Iowa in 1887. In 1910, 17 year old Erna was listed in the Federal Census for Buchanan County, Iowa as the wife of 29 year old William Haeger, her cousin. By May 1911 their son Arthur was born, and by July he had slipped through their fingers. The marriage that had begun in Bremer County in 1909 ended in divorce by 1915 and William moved to Minnesota. Her uncle Herman was still in Buchanan County in 1925 and the Iowa State Census confirmed his parents were Albert Haeger and Christina Redmann.
It was inconceivable that my grandmother Leona, born in 1920, didn’t know this history, yet not a whisper of Erna’s early years in Iowa had reached my ears.
With the paper genealogy finally sorted for Erna, I decided to look into her genetics. Mitochondrial or mtDNA is handed down from mother to daughter, virtually unchanged, through the millennia. When my, and by proxy Erna’s mitochondrial DNA results returned I was thrilled to discover our direct maternal line carried the unusual haplogroup W3.
Haplogroup W website provided some background:
“W3 were descendants of a woman born in northwest India around 14,000 years ago. W3’s seem to have diversified into subgroups among the nomadic cultures of the Asian steppes south of the Aral Sea after the last glacial maximum. From there they spread via Russia into Eastern Europe, perhaps with the peoples that brought the horse to Europe.”
My paper trail and DNA were dovetailing beautifully. Once I had access to Erna’s family in Stolp, I was able to find German cousins who had already scoured the onsite Pomeranian church records. We traced our direct matrilineal line to Sophia Friederike Schultz, who was born about 1780 on Wollin Island, in the Baltic Sea between Poland and Finland. Sophia’s husband, Johann Potratz had been a commissioned officer in the Ruitschen Regiment in Warsaw and a school teacher in Dresow. For hundreds of years the family had been in the Belgard area, and there were indications that Sophia’s mother had ties to Russia and the Ukraine.
Much like W3’s described journey, it seemed my maternal, or mtDNA line had moved north, generation by generation, traveling through the Caucasus Mountains and eventually stopping in Stolp, where Captain Haeger and Christina had taken to life at sea. The Eupedia website further corroborated what I had learned of my family from the Baltic shore:
“Haplogroup W is particularly common in the eastern half of Europe, in the North Caucasus, in Central Asia, in Iran and in the north-west of the Indian subcontinent. In Europe, the maximum frequencies of W are observed in Finland (9.5%), Hungary (5%), Latvia (4%).”
My family had made almost that entire historic journey, stopping just short of Finland. Today, my closest mtDNA matches live in Russia or trace their maternal lines to Russia and Poland. We are still hoping to discover the fate of Erna’s siblings following WWII, and DNA testing may make that possible.
My mother’s generation didn’t know these stories, or of the epic journey our people made across the mountains to reach the sea. What my grandmother knew, she has kept to herself, and I finally understand why she shielded her mother’s hurts. Given that she chose the memorial passage for Erna’s funeral, I believe she also hoped that the sadness would finally be lifted from her mother’s eyes.
“Oh deem not they are blessed alone whose lives a peaceful tenor keep; The Power who pities man has shown a blessing for eyes that weep. The light of smiles shall fill again The lids that overflow with tears; And weary hours of woe and pain Are promises of happier years. For God has marked each sorrowing day, and numbered every secret tear, And heaven’s long age of bliss shall pay for all his children suffer here.”
As appeared in Mar/Apr 2015 issue of Your Genealogy Today