I’ve been ridiculously delinquent in writing about our last two days in Germany, but sometimes life throws a couple curve balls and you just have to react. Actually, I can handle the curve balls, it’s those inside pitches that tend to sting a little.
I can’t speak for Korey, but I think Friday was the day I was most looking forward to- our trip to the Rathkamp ancestral home in Oeftinghausen. Thursday night we drove to Sulingen where we stayed with Marion Rathkamp (my 4th cousin) and her husband Stefan. Besides being awed by Marion & Stefan’s house, we felt an immediate bond with them and stayed up fairly late just laughing and talking about “stuff”. After a couple beers Stefan became fluent in English and I was thinking I probably could have taught a German class. Truthfully, by this point in our trip I certainly wasn’t fluent, but I really enjoyed just getting in there and doing my best to speak the language.
Friday morning Korey and I decided that we’d like to spend a little time together so we took in the sights of downtown Sulingen, a very charming town of almost 13,000 just south of Oeftinghausen. We felt like we were on the set of “Willy Wonka” at the Fischer Fine Sweets factory and laughed when a little later we tried to eat 100% pure dark chocolate. We put our sword to good use on Schmiede Strasse.
Finally we drove with Marion to her parents’ house in Oeftinghausen. Not only were we greeted by Walter and Mariechen Rathkamp, but also by two of Walter’s cousins, Heinrich Rathkamp and Adolf Schupp, Adolf’s wife Antje, and the Mayor of Ehrenberg. The Mayor presented us with some aerial photographs of Oeftinghausen and some local organic cheese. We visited for a while, had coffee and desserts, and walked across the street to see the Schmiede (blacksmith shop) my ancestors worked in along with their home. Marion recalled many of her childhood memories and told me her grandmother lived in the large home until fairly recently.
It was a bit of a surreal experience made even more surreal after Antje Schupp, sensing my introspection, asked me, “are you imagining your great great great grandfather as a boy laughing and chasing those chickens around the house?”
We said our goodbyes to Heinrich, Adolf & Antje and then drove to the cemetery and visited the church in Schmalfoerden where my Rathkamp ancestors were baptized and married. The inside of the church was closed, as it was being restored, but behind the church I found a couple decaying pieces of the tile roof lying on the ground which I took for souvenirs. There was a memorial on the grounds of the church honoring those from Schmalfoerden who had given their lives during WWI and WWII. We noted about 4 or 5 Rathkamps listed.
We then went for dinner just down the road where Korey and I both decided on Jaeger Schnitzel. Dinner was excellent and we got to hear some great stories from Walter. The most memorable to me was his story about the days following the collapse of the German army in WWII. Apparently the German troops who were stationed in Schmalfoerden, hearing about the surrender, simply left their posts along with whatever provisions they may have had. Walter and his friends decided to find out if there was anything of value left behind, thinking maybe they would find a loaf of bread or some cigarettes. It turns out the Allies had been watching them from a distance and thinking Walter’s crew was possibly recovering weapons, began firing at them. Walter told us that day they made record time back to the relative safety of Oeftinghausen.
For the third time during our trip, I learned a valuable life lesson: I came to Germany excited to see great architecture, historically significant places, and to discover my ancestral roots. What I hadn’t planned on was making a connection with people I am proud to call family. Friday wouldn’t be the last time we experienced this, and Saturday was maybe even more of a surprise.