Chasing Chickens in Oeftinghausen

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.



My cousin Matt died this morning.

His life was full of struggle and pain, but he fought to make the best of it.  Matt was born about six months before me.  I feel fortunate to have been Matt’s friend during our childhood.  We were very close, having lived in the same house for a while and having gone to the same schools most of our lives.

Over the years we grew apart but this morning when I heard the news, a flood of memories came back to me.  So this evening I decided to take a ride down to our old neighborhood.  I first drove past Sherman Park Lutheran where we roller skated, then Washington Park where we practiced football in the fall and ice skated in the winter.  Then I drove past our old house on 37th and Lloyd and sat there thinking about more memories.  Memories of us hiding from our Grandpa Dodge under his work bench.  I thought about Matt, Robert Bergner and I hitting each other over the heads like Barbarians with 4 foot long icicles.  I turned the corner and looked down the alley remembering how we used to climb up on the cinder box trying to push each other off.  I remembered all the games of football and kick the can we played in the alley.

I drove past the “corner store” where we could buy a fist full of candy for a dime.  Later on Matt could by a pack of cigarettes with a forged note from his “mom”.  Across the street at Bethany Lutheran Church, we once found an open door, ran up into the balcony and tried playing Black Sabbath’s Iron Man on the organ.  After that we went into the storage room on the side of the alter and wolfed down a package of communion wafers…not because we were hungry, but because they were there.

I drove past the house with the huge chestnut tree and thought about the hundreds of times we walked by, picked up chestnuts and whipped them at each other.  If we were lucky, the prickers on the outside of the chestnut would hit bare skin inflicting “severe pain”.  My last stop was Bethany Lutheran School.  Matt went to Bethany for all of grade school, and I into 6th grade.  It’s hard to imagine now, but Matt was a tremendous athlete in grade school.  He set the standard for all of us.

These are the memories of Matt I choose to hold on to.  While we may have drifted apart, Mathew Ryan Patten was the brother I always wished I had.


A Day With Herr Britannica

I met Friedhelm Wessels via email about three years ago while I was trying to locate my Rathkamp ancestors.  I’m glad I did.  At that time, I knew my ancestors came to Milwaukee in 1868 and I had a very rough idea of the location they may have been from in Germany, but that was it.  I was at a dead end.

Friedhelm has not only helped me find my ancestors, but has also given me a real understanding of the world they lived in.  Korey and I were very lucky to be able to stay with Friedhelm for two nights and tap into his vast knowledge during our day with him.  Later in the week, we would meet some other people who knew Herr Wessels and everybody seemed to have the same great respect for him.  Thank you Friedhelm for all your help and friendship.

Our morning started out in the church at Bassum.  Coming from Wisconsin where “old” is maybe 150 years, it’s hard to imagine this church’s origins began over 1150 years ago.  There are about 50 of my ancestors (that I know of) who were baptized or married in this church.

Friedhelm told us that during one of Napoleon’s conquests, he used the adjacent Abbey as temporary housing for his officers.  Napoleon also tore the pews out of the church and used the church as stables for his horses.  My third great grandfather, Dietrich Heinrich Hülsemann was baptized in this church in 1808, during the time of Napoleon’s reign.  That kind of thing can really get your imagination going.


Later in the day, we visited the church in Neukirchen where my great great grandparents were married in 1861.  The church was locked, but that didn’t stop Friedhelm.  He asked some locals where the caretaker lived and we drove over there to get the keys.  This church was much smaller and simpler, but still very old.  Most of the artwork was probably done in the 1500’s, but one panel in particular was definitely of Saxon origin.  Before leaving the church, we climbed up into the steeple…where we got to see first hand what happens when you have bats in your belfry.