It's a funny thing: I always thought that my mother's side of the family was 100% German. In a way, they were, but as I've dug a little deeper into my family genealogy, it's a little more – and really quite fascinating.
Hans and Thomas were twins from a tiny village near Flensburg in northern Germany. Hans was my mother’s maternal grandfather, one of nine children of Jurgen and Helene Bruhn. Like many families in those days, the couple had a large family, nine kids, although two died young. The kids started moving to the United States in the 1890s, and eventually they all moved (although Thomas actually used papers from one of his cousins to enter).
My great-great-grandmother, Helene had long wanted to move to the United States. After his horse tragically trampled Jurgen as he was trying to cut ice from the inlet for his sister's tavern, Helene decided to sell the family farm and come with her remaining children, including my great-grandfather Hans, to the US in 1901.
Here's the funny part: Hans always said he was German. His twin Thomas always said he was Danish (even though both had since become American!). When I first learned about Thomas calling himself Danish, I had to pause. My grandfather spoke German to his father, Hans while Thomas spoke Danish to his family. What? They're twins. They grew up together...one is German and the other Danish?
You see, Americans always read about the borders changing in Europe. It was happening in northern Germany/Southern Denmark when my great-grand-father was young. Many, if not most, people spoke multiple languages, including Danish and German. As political winds and boundaries changed, people adapted. Nothing in my high school European history class helped me grasp this fluidity until I learned about my great-grandfather and his twin. That’s one of the fascinating things about learning about your family’s past; you also better understand the larger historical context.
Do you have any German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish or Norwegian documents you can't read? We can help. Find out more here.
Click below for a printer-friendly version of this blog.