Sometime after November of 1923, my Grandfather Henry William Ludwig in Emmett, Idaho, received this note written on the back of a photo from his half-brother, Hermann Ludwig of Grunau, Germany….
Dear Brother Henry, with tears in my eyes I reach for the pen, to write to you. I have been completely delayed by my people, because they want to get rid of me. Since November 1923 I have not had any more meals with meat because I only receive 2 Marks per week to live on, and that is not enough for meat. I am afflicted with “Fönne,” which is devouring me, I have it in all my joints. You cannot imagine the pain, the itching and stabbing which is in my body.
Therefore I want to get these people out of my house, help me, go and borrow 1000 Marks and bring it to me in person, and the house shall be yours. This should be done through the American courts, so it will be in writing, that you are the heir and owner. It is a matter of doing everything possible on earth, it needs to be in black or white. These people have to get out of here, whatever they gave me I shall not return it to them, as punishment for the way they have treated me. I have been so badly cheated…
A photo of the house Hermann was so desperately trying to sell to my grandfather was on the front of this postcard… There is no date of when this note was sent. There is only a reference to the fact that because of money problems, Hermann had not been able to have a meal with meat since November of 1923. The Reichsmark [ℛℳ] had been the currency in Germany since 1924. His asking price of 1000 ℛℳ indicates the severe poverty he was experiencing from the German inflation which had reached its peak in 1923. At that time, 1000 ℛℳ would have been valued at approximately $4,200.00 – I believe this figure could have even been less – a mere pittance for Hermann’s home. He did have plans for the future though, hoping to repair the “Merry-go-Round” [Karrusel] shown on the side of the house. (I only noticed the frame of it this morning while enlarging the photo.) He wrote along the borders of the photo that if he had a wife, the Merry-go-Round would be working. Great Uncle Hermann was indeed impoverished and his handwritten note was a cry for help. We have no indication of who Hermann’s “people” were that had been so unkind to him, but we do know that our grandparents, Henry and Lottie Belle Ludwig, did not have that kind of money on their farm in Emmett, Idaho, and so they were unable to help him. As far as I know, there was never another correspondence from Hermann again.
And so as I write this sitting in the Bookshop in the Tower, the precious remaining photo from Henry’s distant half-brother was sent out through the internet to various people in the village. Within 30 minutes, we have a reply and this little house of Hermann’s (which we believe was left to him by my Great-Grandfather Wilhelm Heinrrich Ludwig when he immigrated to America) has been identified. I am filled with a new emotion I cannot explain. Somehow answers are coming too easily. I want to make the suspense last a little longer.
Premek sits down with his computer laptop next to my Mac and in a dueling computer tango, and we try to match the given address with the original photo. We are counting window panes, doors and the angles the houses sit on a gently sloping hillside. Oh, what an age we live in.
The address of the identified house is Długa 109, which means “long” street, but the windows do not quite match up to the photo. So Przemek tries to identify the large houses above Hermann’s home. He plots the coordinates and then the search goes into overdrive. (It really helps to have a professional archaeologist plot an old German house against a vintage photo almost 100 years old!)
Then I am introduced to Szymon (Simon) Walkowski who has been designated as my “Assistant” for the rest of the time that I have in Poland. That seemed to be a bit of a stretch for my needs, but I was soon to discover how invaluable it was to have a Polish speaker riding along shotgun with me.) Przemek explains what we have discovered so far as Szymon puts the new address into his cell phone and we are off to find Hermann’s house.
I have to say that when Szymon chose to get in the car with me, he was taking his life into his own hands. I was, of course, with that American lady who drove on the Moat. But when we ran out of road, he graciously helped me back up my little Toyota and get turned back around.
By judging the angles of the windows on the houses in the background of the photo, we knew were close, so we decided to park the car and proceed on foot. We carried with us a hard copy of the little photo I had been sent by cousin Karen in Idaho. The original rests safely with my cousin Forrest in Eagle, Idaho who nicknamed me Sherlock last summer. I thought of all my cousins up in Idaho as we trekked up the hill. Szymon saw someone before I did and off he went to introduce us in Polish. A gregarious auto mechanic and his wife live on the property where we think the original photograph had to have been taken.
I felt absolutely helpless standing mute silently wishing I had taken Polish instead of German last year. I watched as the three of them engaged in a lively conversation with much pointing and gesturing. I knew it was positive because Szymon kept saying “Super! Super!” (Or as it sounded to me, “Sooop-per! Sooop-per!” A full ten minutes went by before Szymon turned to me and pointed out a bare tree in the foregound of the old photo.
“This is a cherry tree. The man said that he cut the cherry tree down in 1991 to put in the garage that is standing there…” And so I looked in the direction of an old tin garage and tried to imagine what it would look like as a bare cherry tree
And then I saw it. Hermann’s house. The windows had been changed over time as you still see the ghost of the old windows on the side of the house. The trees and bushes were, of course, much larger. But it was definitely Hermann’s little house that he so desperately wanted to sell to my grandfather. Ninety-two years later Hermann’s great niece had flown halfway across the world to behold his little house on the hill with an old Merry-go-round waiting to be fixed in the yard.
With the help of some amazing new friends, we unlocked one tiny clue into the mysterious Great Uncle Hermann Ludwig. But this was just the beginning. As Szymon and I decide where to take our questions next, I am overwhelmed by the sheer force of a solid family connection to a land that is at once distant but all too familiar.
Almost 100 years apart, two photos taken at almost the exact vantage point.
Great Uncle Hermann’s house today…