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Separated 99 Years, part 2

Finding Herbert Harschnek

a little saga of 99 years parted, part 2

Recall that in our last blog on Herbert Harschnek, the US family had been searching for any German relatives for decades with no success. While in Germany for a couple years, I decided to pick up where my grandfather had left off and to try again but had little luck until a tantalizing phone message was left for me.

Alois with siblings 1880's

I came home from the Universität in Kiel, and found a message from a Herrn Harschnek from a German phone number- Grampa didn’t have a German phone number. It could only be the long-lost German branch of the family. I immediately returned the call. It was our cousins, and a day later, I stepped off the train in the little town of Annaburg in Sachsen-Anhalt in former East Germany, the first time in 99 years that the two sides of the family had laid eyes on each other, and some 88 years since the last contact.

(far right: Alois, with his siblings in the 1880’s)

Jovial Herbert Harschnek was so excited! His father Albert had always told them, “Kinder! One day we’ll be rich! I have ... an uncle in America!” That was clearly Alois. Albert had died in the ’50’s, and Herbert never did know who the uncle was, or indeed, whether it was an actual uncle or an older cousin called an uncle. We quickly established that we had cousins in common... but the generation that knew how the various Harschneks were related had all died. And when the Red Army swept through Silesia, the Harschneks had had 12 hours warning to throw what they could on the wagon, hitch the horse, and flee for their lives.

All the old family photos, all the letters were lost, access to now Polish churches was lost to the East Germans. All the connecting lore was lost. So, we know our two sides of the family are related, but now a quarter-century on, we still don’t know how we’re related. When Grampa had written that widow of a Harschnek in Schleswig-Holstein, she’d thrown the letter away. And then mentioned to the East German in-laws, casually, that the Amis, the Americans, were looking for them. But she’d thrown the letter away. So Herbert figured it must be an American G.I. at a U.S. base, and tried contacting the U.S. military for a soldier named Harschnek, of which there were none.

When I wrote the widow, she ignored it, but her son did get to pass my letter along to the Annaburg Harschneks. Herbert at once whooped let’s write back! But his son-in-law said, ah, why write! For we have telephones now!

(Stefan visiting long-lost relative Herbert in Annaburg)

Their town of 4,000 had not had phones when Grampa had been looking in all the phone books in the Chicago library all those many years ago. Herbert and family had no way to be in a telephone book. Annaburg had in fact had telephones for businesses and members of the Communist party, but not for factory workers who hadn’t joined the party (only a fraction of the population ever did).

Herbert Harschnek with Accordian

So when the two Germanies reunited, West Germany paid to lay phone lines across East Germany, and other infrastructure, including water mains- it turns out the Communist officials in Annaburg had found the original hollowed-out oaken log water pipes from the 1700’s and simply plugged additional metal ones into them. All that was replaced. And suddenly- Herbert could call. So you never know how you might wind up reconnecting with family long lost. Keep at it!


Postlog- Herbert and his wife Lisbet made it to America to visit us and his cousin my grandfather while they were all yet alive-

(Herbert and Robert Harschnek, 1995)

(Lisbet and Herbert Harschnek and American cousin Robert Harschnek)

(Lisbet and Robert's wife Helen - guests would sign her guest tablecloth, and she'd stitch their names in)

I think they were having fun.

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