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Separated 99 Years, part 1

Finding Herbert Harschnek

a little saga of 99 years parted, part 1

starting with Alois Harschnek...

When a smart, ambitious lad from a backwoods, provincial village in Silesia (then a part of Germany in the 1890’s) wants to make it big and see the world, where does he go? Off to Berlin, then on to one of the German colonies of Africa, and how does he get there? Apparently, by way of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. It seems likely that it was in Berlin, not his sleepy village, that he became a flaming atheist and, his son later suspected, a socialist - actually a bit more than that.

Columbian Exposition of 1893: Chicago

We don’t know where in Africa Great-Grandfather Alois Harschnek was intending to go, nor what a skilled painter for the homes of the wealthy and later the extravagantly gilt-ornamented theaters planned to do once he arrived. We just know that he never got there. After working at the fabulous Chicago’s World Fair, the Columbian Exposition of 1893, he traveled west, often (according to his son) “riding the rails” - in other words, a hobo.

We only recently learned (thank you, Google!) that he got as far as San Francisco by 1896 (we believe), where he continued his correspondence with Josef Peukert, one of the top handful anarchists in America at the time. It wasn’t just a “fan letter” - they were on a familiar, first-name basis! The letter discussed anarchist activities in San Francisco and Chicago, including someone who had stored up enough dynamite to blow up a Chicago city block. We don’t know why he returned to Chicago by early 1897 and joined the Painters’ Union, but about this time he ceased writing to his family for seven years.

The St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 was the news of the day. Alois decided to try his luck there, probably particularly since a shipmate, Joseph Giewald (whom he may have known in Berlin), was living there. His fate was settled once he met Joseph’s sister-in-law, Anna Schneider. They soon moved to Chicago and had a few lovely portraits made with the two of them - which Alois then sent to his family with a letter. We have the ecstatic responses sent by his family, including a letter from his mother saying "oh good heavens son, we are so happy to hear from you again, we haven’t heard from you in seven years, and we are so very happy to hear that you are getting married, and that it’s to a good Catholic girl [with the original emphasis].” Alois and Anna stayed there the rest of their lives, raising a small family. Just imagine not hearing from a son or brother for seven years, and then to hear from him with such good news!

Unfortunately we have no other correspondence although we do have some formal portraits (1903 and 1910) of the family of one of his sisters.

Father Alois holding son Robert

(Alois holding Grampa- one of the very few pictures we have of Alois smiling)

So his son, Grampa to us, grew up with no other known family on his father’s side. There was no other Harschnek on the North American continent, and no ties to those left behind.

After his father had passed away, Grampa, as an adult, tried to find other Harschneks, and would go, in those decades before the internet, to the Chicago public library, and search all the phone books -all of them- looking for any, any other Harschnek. He went through every single German telephone book. He found a few widows of Harschneks, or Harschnecks, but none who knew of Alois. And all Harschneks/Harschnecks trace back to a single little village in rural Silesia. There is but the one family. But Grampa was only finding the "ck" Harschnecks, a branch that had moved to West Germany, not the branch Alois would have been from. He did find one Harschnek woman in Schleswig-Holstein who never wrote back. Grampa had grown up speaking German at home in Chicago, but it was a little stilted, as he’d spoken it rarely after the 1920’s. Perhaps she’d found his written German off-putting (though his was quite good)? When I wound up in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, I tried writing her as well. I didn’t hear back from that woman either. But I did received a brief note from her son some months later, who apologized that his mother was not interested in such things. Then nothing. And then came the phone call...

But that's for our next blog in part 2.


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