Visiting European Cousins in the Countryside of Alsace and Slovenia

by James R. Dangel

I am the not rich uncle from America, despite everyplace having tales of a rich uncle in America, even if they are not truly an uncle. I am the strange cousin that is interested in his ancestors and finding the many cousins that are descended from those ancestors. When visiting I am often treated as special like royalty. Almost everyone is extremely friendly and interested in meeting me -- I have almost never found a cousin that did not want to see me and know more about me and the rest of the family. I seem to be accepted as family everywhere. I try not to be in the way or a burden on anyone. I like it best when I am not getting something special that would not be provided for anyone else in the family. It is almost a let down to return home and be just like everyone else!

I travel to Europe because I am drawn there. I feel at home and comfortable there. I have roots there in the small places in the countryside of Alsace and Slovenia for the families of each of the parents of my father. Each place is similar in that they are small communities based on agriculture, but not far from cities. In both places my ancestors were farmers and millers who ground grain. Some of my cousins still have cows and grow grain. In both places I can visit the remains of the mills and see some of the same houses where the ancestors lived.

I find it fascinating to visit my cousins in each place. The only bad thing is my inability to communicate in their languages. I am disappointed in myself that I have no ability to retain or hear properly the sounds of the names of places and cousins, or words in their languages. My feeble brain passes on the sounds so fast that I can not remember in five minutes how to say my own name correctly. Yet I can remember most everyone I meet and research to find, and can tell everyone exactly how they are related through which uncle or aunt. I know more cousins than anyone in the families. I enjoy finding them and meeting them.

I am including a section about each of the two countries and groups of cousins I visit most. Since I have retired I have made almost an annual trip each year, and traveled back and forth between the two places. It seems something always is going on in one place or the other that requires me to return later. It is nice to be in demand and it is not too pressing to travel between these places in Europe and not far by American standards of travel. I would enjoy visiting cousins of my mother’s family in Europe, but it has been too long since the ancestors came to America. The last one to come was almost 200 years ago and most came 400 years ago; I have not been able to find anyone related remaining in Scotland, Ireland, or England.
 
 

Alsace in France

My paternal grandfather’s family came from the Sundgau region of Alsace very near Switzerland in the foothills of the Jura Mountains. The region has changed hands with most recent wars between Germany and France. The people there are different  from their neighbors as they combine the attitude and culture of both places. They are friendly and enjoy their food. The cuisine of the area combines German quantities and food preferences with French flair. The populace seems quite satisfied with their location in the center of the European Union, and being able to communicate in both French and German is very good for them.

I should have stayed home in the year 2000. I should have given the cousins a rest and not pestered them so often. But the year before in 1999, when I was just about to leave France and could not remain longer, I found a lead on what had happened with the second family from the Moulin de Bendorf. All at once I had help and information from three cousins all pointing to a Dangel who lived nearby that I did not know. I had to pursue it and gather information and meet this new part of my family.

I will explain the relationship. Our Dangel ancestors were millers and ground grain to make flour. I am most interesting in finding more about old documents concerning the mill of Moos (now Mooslargue). I have learned that a Simon Dangel was the miller there in 1567. This is a hundred years before the parish registers start for the area. This is also before the Thirty Years War when all of Alsace and most of Europe was devastated. So our Dangel family has been in this area for 500 years. There are still Dangel cousins remaining in Mooslargue; they are my 7th cousins. That means it takes 7 generations of ancestors back until we have common grandparents. There were many Dangel families in Moos all having children at the same time; as many as six. Sometimes they married their cousins and often they used the same names for their children. When the parish registers did not record the names of the parents of the couple wed, it is not possible to always be certain which Dangel was getting married. The genealogist has to be a detective to see which person with the same name could be the correct age to be having children and how they fit with more than one marriage.

This is important to my story: Child bearing and rearing was not easy. Many children died very young; the mothers frequently died when their children were infants. This necessitated another quick marriage to take care of the first children. With all the Dangel families located in Moos, there were too many millers. So in 1732 one of the ancestors, one of many John Dangels, moved to the Moulin de Bendorf as miller. There were a number of generations there when the ancestor Sebastien Ferdinand Dangel had three sons, François Antoine (ancestor of Antoine, the present baker in Bendorf), Ferdinand (my ancestor who moved to Durlinsdorf to be a cultivator), and Hubert (ancestor of Pierre of Bendorf). Sebastien’s wife, Marie Hirtzlin, died when Hubert was a baby. So he married again to Thérèse Froehy of Winkel and had five more children. One died young and the rest disappeared after Sebastien Ferdinand died. This is the family that I just recently have been finding. They went to Altkirch and two of the four children had descendants that I have found presently. Perhaps I will find more!

The sister of Sebastien Ferdinand was Marie Anne who married a Juen. She was born at the Moulin de Bendorf and was the grandmother of our cousin Emile Ruetsch. He is now a historian and fellow family genealogist. French cousins could ask him about the history of our family here at the Moulin de Bendorf!

In my own family Alexis Dangel moved to America from Durlinsdorf in 1895. My grandfather was born the next year in Dayton, Ohio. Just after he was married to my grandmother the family moved to California. When my father was in the army he was sent to Alaska where he met and married my mother.

The brother of Alexis, Pierre Achille Dangel, a tailor, left Germany to live in Audincourt, France, at about the same time. So I have been pursuing meeting those cousins, also. I was invited to stay with Raymond Martin, a grandson of Pierre, and have done so on both of my last two visits. It is much more satisfying to stay with cousins and be able to see how they live.

There is a Willig family connection to the Moulin de Bendorf. My great grandfather Alexis Dangel married Josephine Willig from Durlinsdorf (but born in Koestlach) in Dayton, Ohio. Her youngest sister, Marie was five years old when Josephine emigrated to America. Marie Willig married the miller Albert Alphonse Alfred Dangel of the mill. Her mother Josephine, born Caspar of Koestlach, died at the mill in 1921. This family of Antoine, the baker, sold the mill property in 1955. I just learned from François Dangel that his grandmother Marie had a license to operate a restaurant at the site of the Moulin de Bendorf!

The end of the story except we keep coming back to this place. With the present restaurant on the location of the Moulin de Bendorf, it is the perfect place for family reunions! Besides I have always loved duck since I was a very small child. I still have my stuffed duck toy. And the menu from a trip by steamship when I was three years old. I apparently chose duck when presented with the choices from the menu which in English is a list of items to be ordered. After I chose duck and the waiter left, my father tells me often, I asked him “What is duck, Daddy.” So I still love the canard (a specialty of the restaurant), which is not common in America except as a whole frozen bird in supermarkets.
[It has been suggested I leave out this paragraph, but I think it makes the article more personal and interesting.]


Photo of the Dangel family at the Moulin de Bendorf;
Jim, the author, is kneeling at the front -- October 2000

Well, we had the separate dinners for Dangel and Willig families as planned in October of 2000. After, we discussed what we would do when I returned to Europe in the spring of 2002. Those that were cousins both as Dangel and Willig preferred one reunion. Everyone was of the opinion that it was a time for a change of place but that they definitely wanted to get together. So we chose to have a potluck or picnic reunion in Bendorf inside at the grange. It will be in late April 2002 when the weather should be moderate. We had discussed having the first reunion there but the cousins at that time had decided on the Moulin de Bendorf. Now it will be interesting to see what kind of specialties the cousins will bring, I can hardly wait! I think instead of frozen salmon from Alaska, I will bring smoked salmon. Not the European lightly smoked salmon, but typical hard smoked salmon of my area. Perhaps I will pickle some salmon as well, it can be stored in the wine cellar in Slovenia.
 
 

Slovenia

Slovenia is the place where the family of my father’s mother originated. I have written about it previously and will just mention that it was Austrian Styria when they emigrated to America in the 1890’s. *

People in Slovenia in general are very polite and considerate of others. The cousins are like my French cousins in that they genuinely enjoy meeting and visiting their cousins, but most of them would never take the time to visit distant relations without me there to initiate it. I enjoy being there and watching the cousins enjoy visiting each other even when there is no one to translate for me. Some cousins know about my genealogy and photographs and volunteer to explain them to new cousins. They could see their cousins without my visit, but most of them tell me they do not take the time to do so despite enjoying seeing and talking with their cousins, it is the same in Alsace. The same goes for reunions; it seems when I come to visit we frequently have some sort of a get together. Anyone else could organize one or suggest one, but it takes someone to facilitate or suggest it; I guess I have decided that is part of my role as visitor!

My trip in the fall of 1999 to Ptuj resulted in the family reunion picnic we had been talking about since my first trip. I have been quite taken with the old family home in Ptuj since my first visit and discovering that the family home was located on an ancient wine cellar. The small castle is gone, but surrounding the home remains a moat that had been flooded by the small Rogoznica stream. The moat is now grassy and the dairy herd keeps the grass clipped. (I will be writing separately about the details found in the archives on the castle site.) I returned in October during grape harvest for the reunion picnic. Since I enjoyed the wine so much, I had to experience how it was made and to be a little help. I am sure I was not much help, but I learned a lot about the harvest and sampled a lot more wine, enough so that I returned in 2000 for the same season, while I was in Alsace in September. I had to come earlier than expected since the drought made the grapes ripen sooner. The grapes in 2000 were very sweet -- sladkost -- and good.


Photo of the group at the picnic at Rogoznica 2 by Vito Tofaj from Jana; Jim, the author, is bottom center between Anica and Angela -- October 1999

When I had visited previously, my genealogical charts with photographs of cousins were always shown; many cousins did not know their other cousins. I knew more cousins than they did, even if I could not speak their language! That is the reason I was asked to send invitations (in Slovene, translated by a cousin) for the reunion picnic in 1999. We had a very good turnout of 240 relatives for the event! I had made name labels for the 450 known cousins that could have come. The invitation stated that they were to invite all their family -- not just the ones known to me. The most recent tally is that 650 cousins were in Europe and could have come had they wished and been personally informed. We had coverage of the event on the local radio, in the local newspaper, and in a national magazine from Ljubljana. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves. The salmon I brought from Alaska was a big hit. Everyone was surprised to find so many acquaintances that were their cousins. The next time in October of 2000, we had a smaller gathering for Krambergers where we had music and dancing and a smaller family group where all were related to everyone present. We had special guests, Peter and Loanne Slapar of California; other cousins from Slovenia living near my grandmother for many years without knowing each other.

On my trip to Europe in 2000, one of my third cousins and her husband, living in Cologne, Germany, drove to Slovenia for the Kramberger reunion. On my return to France a little later, I took the train to Cologne and visited for several days with their family. It was fun to see a favorite city and cathedral with cousins.

Another Kramberger third cousin was not able to stay for the reunion in Slovenia and had to return to Switzerland for work. When I mentioned I would be having similar dinners for Dangel family in Alsace very near Basel in Switzerland, she said she might come. So I was pleasantly surprised when she actually came. Her husband, their son, and her brother who is living in Germany all came to the Moulin de Bendorf. They were able to communicate with my French cousins better than I since they all could speak German! On my return to Slovenia for Remembrance Day, November 1, in Europe, (I had been in Alsace for Remembrance Day in 1999) I returned my rental car in St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland and rode back to Slovenia with my cousins. Next trip I need more time to visit them in Switzerland, but I did get to meet their daughter and family.

My next plans to return to Europe are for spring of 2002 for kurent or carnival in Ptuj, Slovenia, in mid February. Later when the weather is better in early May, at the old home of Ursula and Blas Tement (now occupied by Janez Tement), there will be a Tement & Ver‰iã reunion of perhaps 500 people. We will also  have another Kramberger picnic at the Rogoznica 2 site in Ptuj whenever we can fit it in with the farming schedule. Perhaps even another Kramberger reunion for those related farther back that found us on my last visit; a Ver‰iã mother-in-law saw my pictures and said “Miha Kramberger is my grandfather’s cousin”. So previous to our Kramberger living in Rogoznica, we have other Kramberger cousins! And Îan Munda is another cousin both as Ver‰iã and Kramberger!
 
 

In Closing

I would appreciate it if cousins would see me when convenient, or write me a note in French or Slovene, to correct me when the information I have is wrong or incomplete. There are so many new cousins and sometimes our losses of older cousins, I need help with being current! If I let the language barrier stop me, nothing would ever happen.

I enjoy the chance to stay with cousins. I had the opportunity to know my cousin Bernard Dangel and his wife Marie Rose in Durlinsdorf, in September of 2000. I only hope I did not wear them out with the lack of proper communication. But I learn from my cousins, and I prefer to be treated as family in the kitchen and not as a formal guest in the reception room. I would be pleased to return the hospitality when any of my cousins would like to come to Alaska to visit me!

I think it is an important point for all visiting, that in  order to communicate more easily, I have learned to speak very slowly and clearly -- at half or third speed -- which also allows me time to think of the more easily understood words (choice of French or English origin). They often tell me that I speak slowly and clearly and that it is a big help in understanding me. Also, familiarity brings understanding. Some cousins really have some forgotten English from school in years past, or more recently from the TV. With strangers most are unwilling to try to speak English. Additional visits bring more understanding and meaningful exchanges. I have also learned to read faces a bit to know when they did not understand but would not tell me; then I can rephrase the statement to try to make it clear.

When I am visiting and watching them visit I sometimes surprise them when I can guess who someone is they are talking about from the names and places I do recognize. My Slovene cousins are good at guessing who or where I am talking about even when I mispronounce a name, not like in France where they never can guess till I am exasperated at myself, or write it down, or spell it aloud, even to the ones who know English. Our vowel sounds are not the same as anywhere in Europe, and my lack of any ability to remember or pronounce anything correctly is very frustrating for me. The words I remember best are for food!

I once wrote about England and the Hundred Year’s War with France; if England had won my French cousins would be speaking English today. But the reverse could have been true: William the Conqueror and his descendants could have done a better job of teaching French to the English! I have been reading a history of the English language. During the Middle English period the total number of French words adopted into English was over 10,000 words, and 75 per cent are still in current use. Some of the words adopted were from Norman French and have evolved differently into modern French. William and his Normans and their descendants just did not do a very good job of helping us pronounce them correctly! I feel I have a right to criticize my ancestor William, even if my line is certainly not royal.

I am occasionally asked if I would relocate to Slovenia or Alsace. The answer is no, I am happy to call Alaska home. Soon after getting settled in at home, I remember my experiences and start thinking about my next trip to visit and learn more about the places my family originated. Food and wine and friendship are a great part of the wonderful experiences I have had in Slovenia and in Alsace!
 

* My account of finding relatives appeared as “Jim's Search for Roots” in the Summer 1997 issue of Slovenia magazine, 2/97, Vol. XI, pages 47-50. It was revised and republished as “Jim odkriva vedno vec korenin v Sloveniji” in Rodna gruda, vol. 47, no. 6, Junij 2000, pages 27-29.



James R. Dangel
1504 Sawmill Creek Road
Sitka, Alaska 99835 USA

Phone:    907-747-3348

Email:

Hiding my address underneath to avoid getting spam and unsolicited viruses has not worked very well. You will have to type in my email address from the picture file above. Perhaps you will also have to verify that you are a real person and not a robot if you are not in my mailing list. I apologize, but I know of no other good way to limit the junk mail.


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