As I’ve been thinking about Berlin as we plan our upcoming trip, I began again to think of family history, and specifically the saga of my Esau grandfather, Robert Jacob Esau (1884-1955). Now that the internet contains SO MUCH information, it’s easy to spend hours and get lost in tracing a geneaological path. And that’s what I did the other day! I thought it might be useful, instead of letting all these bits and pieces disappear into fragments of memory in my brain, to write down what I’ve found. I’m even fantasizing that we can go visit the little West Prussian (now Polish) village where he was born.
The family story–mostly learned from my mother, who asked “Pop” questions before he died–says that Robert came from a Mennonite family that settled outside Danzig in the 16th century, coming originally from Holland to build dikes. Because of their religion, or so the story came to my mother, they were not allowed to settle in the Hanseatic city of Danzig, but were given large plots of good farmland around the city. That’s all we knew of my grandfather’s origins–and that he had been a Kaiser’s guard! We have a photo of him in his Germanic regalia (he’s the one in the middle) and with his beer-drinking regiment.
The records online seem to indicate that he was for a time in Florida, but by the 1920s he was in Los Angeles. He worked as a chauffeur and met my grandmother while working for one of the Hollywood families where she was a cook. They lived in Thousand Oaks when there was nothing but scrub (the photo shows him with my grandmother and uncle Robert at their homestead in Thousand Oaks), then in the 1930s moved to Santa Barbara.
By the 1940s, still a German citizen, he was infirm, and when my mother got into the family, he spent most of his time sitting in the living room or out in the back yard, almost always formally dressed. I remember him vaguely; I was 5 when he died, and I remember I refused to go to the funeral. My mother said he was ecstatic when I was born and she named me Erika; his brother was named Erich. When he got a pension when I was a baby, he bought my father a rifle and for me, a silver cup. I still have the cup.
We had very little information about Pop’s past, and of course, none of us thought to document anything at the time, but I have now been able to reconstruct some of his background. First I found the ship’s manifest for his arrival at Ellis Island, aboard the S.S. President Grant, leaving Cuxhaven (the Hamburg port) in February 1910, arriving in New York on March 11, 1910. He listed a relative named Max Engelmann as his local contact. It was on the manifest that I first found the name of his birthplace: Bröske, Neukirch, Germany. This information has led to a fascinating, if at times frustrating, search for the exact location of this village in what was then West Prussia, but is now deeply into Poland. I had to find websites that translated the old German names of places into their current Polish names. There are, thankfully, several good sites online that have helped, and then there is the indispensable presence of Google Maps and Wikimapia, which has helped me sort through several different villages with the same name. Several places once known as Neukirch are now called Nowa Cerkiew, for instance, and I had to find which one was closest to the village of present-day Brzózky. Pop’s naturalization papers–found by Colleen Paggi, my sister’s husband’s ex, who does great geneaological research (thanks, Colleen!)–gave further indication of his place of birth, listing in his application both places: Neukirch, Bröske. And with this, I did uncover a wealth of information about the Mennonite communities of West Prussia:
On a map of West Prussia, 1880, I found Bröske next to Ladekopp (today Lubieszewo). Listed as among the prominent Mennonite families of the region were the Esaus. This region was discussed in many of the articles about the Mennonites of West Prussia, many of whom left Germany for America starting in the 1880s and on into the early 20th century. The stricter Mennonites left because the Prussian government did away with the military exemption for Mennonites, who by religious conscience were pacifists. Most of these groups settled in Kansas and Nebraska, and many went to Canada as well. When I was in college I had a dorm mate who was named Regehr and who came from Kansas. She knew many Esau families there, and knew that her family was from this part of Prussia, too (A very good article about the Mennonite split over conscription is http://ml.bethelks.edu/issue/vol-58-no-3/article/whoever-will-not-defend-his-homeland-should-leave/). My grandfather’s congregation must have been the less observant of the Mennonites by this time, many of whom allowed their sons to be conscripted, but for non-combatant roles. This may be why my grandfather ended up as a Kaiser’s guard rather than a soldier.
Amazing that it still exists, and looks pretty much the same as it did on the map of 1880! And for the sake of the record, so I can find it again, this map is located at 54.17, 19.02.
I am sorely tempted to go visit this part of Poland when we’re in Berlin. It’s only a few miles now from Gdansk proper, so we could either drive there in 6 or 7 hours, which might be fun, or we could fly to Gdansk, and then drive to visit. I find it interesting that I have always had more of an affinity for this side of my genes than for my grandmother’s Norwegian side, for example. I would also like to figure out what happened to that branch of the Esaus, once all the Germans were forced to leave West Prussia after World War II. I know from the one photo we have of Pop’s family that a portion of them were already in Berlin by the 1920s. Here is a photo from some Esau’s confirmation day, dated on the back as in Berlin, 1925. I have no idea who any of these people are, but assume some of them are relations.
What fun this has all been! I suppose I should post this to the geneaological sites, too.