Sunday, December 30, 2012

Der Vogt auf Muehlstein

As I am just coming back from Germany, I can't deny that a book, given by my good friend Ulli Nagel has made a very profound impact on me. No wonder... The book was written by Heinrich Hansjakob, a fellow who lived over 100 years ago in the same area of the Black Forest where I was growing up. And 'Der Vogt auf Muehlstein' takes place just uphill from the house I was born; some 200 years removed.

The Muehlstein is a farmer's house overseeing the valleys of Nordrach and Harmersbach and looks all the way out to Strasbourg in France on a good day. It houses a Wirtsstube where many hikers and locals visit and have delicious Speck, sausages and Schnaps in the old 'Stub' (the living room) of the last inhabitant Josef Erdrich. Sadly the "Erdrich Sepp" died two month ago.
the Vogtsbauernhof 'Muehlstein' today

a typical Bauernvesper including Schnaps and Most

Everybody in my hometown and the surrounding villages was shaken by the news. What will happen to one of the most traditional estates the Black Forest ever had? Its history is long and rich and author Heinrich Hansjakob (a pastor in the days of the late 19th century) captured its essence beautifully by retelling the true story of Anna Maria Magdalena Muser, the only daughter of the Bailiff of Muehlstein.

All characters had actually lived and as tragic and sad the story is, as beautifully Heinrich Hansjakob stays true to giving us a wonderful insight into the characters and lives of my ancestors in the last three decades of the 18th century.
Heinrich Hansjakob around 1900

For those of you who speak German,  I urge you to order the book on It's a story that will move you. To those who don't understand us, you will have to be content with my recap... but only until I find someone in New York who will make a movie out of this!

And here the story (very short version) goes as much as I can retell it in English...

Magdalene is the fifth child and only daughter of the bailiff of Muehlstein and grows up happy and protected in the 1770s and '80s. She is the most beautiful girl of all the valleys and hills around. Singing was as common in those days in the Black Forest as watching television is today. And Magdalene could sing like a nightingale. Every Sunday the folk would come down to the valley for mass and during spring, summer and fall there were fairs, weddings and festivities all around. In Nordrach, Zell and Entersbach there were many occasions where young folk would meet and sing together. And Magdalene was the best. Especially with the Oelerjok's Hans. When the two performed together, it was like heaven came to earth.

As it turned out the two were also developing a liking for each other but because Hans was the 'middle' son and therefore would never inherit a property, it was clear that there was no future for the two. In those days in the Black Forest you would not marry for love but for protection and support. And every father wanted to marry his daughter into a protected livelihood.

And so it turned out that the 'Hermesbur' Faisst lost his second wife and was on the lookout for another. 53 years of age (Magdalene was 19) and the wealthiest farmer around, he asked the bailiff for the hand of his daughter. Everybody knew of Magdalenes love to Hans but the rules were also very clear: you don't marry for attraction and you do what your father considers best for you..

So it was a no brainer for the Muser Toni to promise his daughter to the old, fat man. But Magdalene refused at first. She just could not give herself up to someone she did not like. Her struggle, however, was impossible to succeed and on January 17, 1785 she was married to the Hermesbur. The wedding celebrations were a last, desperate but hopeless attempt, as Hans showed up singing an ode to his beloved Magdalene. The sad bride herself returned the treat with her own love song to Hans, which she had sung to herself over the past 6 months in despair and desperation. Even her cold hear-ted father and the somewhat simple Hermesbur couldn't hide their emotions. But that night, Magdalene moved in with her new husband and Hans packed his few possessions and left his hometown to never return.
After a few days of stoic reluctance by Magdalene, the Hermesbur threatened to take his wife by force. But Magdalene stood up to the overbearing figure and told him that... "I will be your working mate for the rest of my life, but I will never be your wife." Her willpower was countered with a beating, first by her new husband and later, by her father. Only two months after the wedding, on March 18th 1785, Magdalene died and was buried in Zell under the watch of her remorseful father and an indifferent husband who got remarried only 6 weeks after his third wife's death. He subsequently had another 11 children.

Hans, meanwhile was fighting as a mercenary in France and Austria, unaware of the tragedy that happened to the only woman he ever loved. Years later his younger brother met him by chance at a battle in the Alsace and told him what happened. Hans asked for an 18 hour leave, rode to Zell and visited Magdalene's grave. Without visiting his family, he immediately returned to the fighting front and died in battle the next day.

Magdalenes father, the bailiff of Muehlstein, fell in the winter of 1780 - exactly five years after Magdalenes death - and froze to a miserable death overnight.  (My retelling here does absolutely no justice to Heinrich Hansjakob. If you get a chance, read the book and you will be taken by the rich character descriptions and you can gain a glimpse of the interesting lives of the people of the late 18th century Black Forest)

Today, Magdalenes grave is still maintained by the city of Zell, my hometown. And the Muehlstein house still stands. However, since we now miss the Erdrich Sepp, no one knows if we can ever walk up the mountain again, to relive our past with a traditional meal (Vesper) and Most and Schnaps in the Stube on the Muehlstein.

Time will tell, but until then, I will put that book into my shelf in New York City and know for sure that it helps me to never forget where I am coming from.