Thursday, September 29, 2022

off to Australia

Every picture tells a story, season 2, picture 4.

Like Grete who emigrated to Canada in 1948, our next migrants also descend from the families that moved from East Prussia to the Rhineland to find work there. We're revisiting the East Prussian patchwork family now, and talking about descendants of patchwork mum Wilhelmine Justine Domscheit (1863-1942) from her first marriage to somebody called Wittke who must have died before 1896. Confusingly, her daughter Anna married Karl Witt (whom we have seen in the WW1 postcard), and I have a feeling that some of the notes and indications on photos we have may have mixed up the Wittkes and the Witts.

In any case, two children or grandchildren of Wilhelmine Domscheit, called Erna and Hilde Witt(ke) emigrated to Australia and disappeared from the radar. On this photo, taken in 1955 on the occasion of a baptism in the family of Grete Witt(ke) who must have been a granddaughter of Wilhelmine Domscheit and married Heinz Schönbeck (they appear on the right at the back), Australian migrant Hilde is at the front in the middle, also looking like she must be a granddaughter of patchwork mum:

Karl Witt appears at the back, left, and next to him is "Lina Witt" according to the notes on the back of the photo. This doesn't match my records, I'm guessing it could be either his sister-in-law Lina Wittke, or his wife, Anna Witt, nee Wittke. Very confusing business, any hints appreciated.

Navigation tools:

Season 2 so far:

  1. could be a cousin
  2. two weddings in Silesia
  3. off to Canada
  4. off to Australia

The new twitter thread for the new season is here.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries.

Monday, September 26, 2022

a record-breaking summer

This northern summer has broken many records in absolute temperatures and drought severity, including the UK's very first temperatures above 40 C. There is no doubt that this is both a symptom of climate change and a portent of even more extreme weather conditions to come. A more interesting spin, however, is the climate justice one. Most of the excess CO2 so far has been emitted in the northern hemisphere, while most of the impacts so far have been suffered by the global south. This summer has marked a significant turning point insofar as emission chickens from the north are coming home to roost. I've discussed this angle in my latest feature which is out now:

Global north feels the heat

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 18, 26 September 2022, Pages R935-R937

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

Heatwaves and droughts have affected nature and residents across Europe in the summer of 2022. The photo shows trees suffering from the drought in Ravilloles, France, at the end of July. (Photo: CDLTim 2/Wikicommons (CC BY-SA 4.0).)

Thursday, September 22, 2022

revisiting lost cities

My #lostcities series on this blog has influenced my thinking about various things and indeed my travel plans, as I have (re)visited a few of the cities where my ancestors used to live in the last two years and really enjoyed discovering those I didn't know. I'm only missing Königsberg now, but I'm getting the impression that this city doesn't exist any more in any meaningful way, and given the current situation, I have no plans to travel to Kaliningrad.

I have compiled a B-list however of cities that are also relevant in this context, even if the case may be less clear and/or information harder to find. For instance, some of my direct ancestors lived in Breslau (today's Wrocław) for something like 40 years in the 19th century, but I can't pin down start and end dates, nor an address where they lived or worked, so it's all a bit hazy and virtually impossible to get a sense of place to attach to their lives. Information is slightly better for Krefeld, but I don't have a start date either. In any case, I'll see what I can do about these and a few others, so watch out for #lostcities season 2 at some point.

In the meantime, let's reshuffle the 10 cities of the first series to do some rankings.

First, ranked by longest stay of direct ancestors:

  1. Minden 1903 - 1952 = 49 years
  2. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961 = 42 years
  3. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916 = 28 years
  4. Bad Nauheim 1945 - 1972 = 27 years
  5. Idar-Oberstein 1940 - 1962 = 22 years
  6. Rheydt 1923 - 1935 = 12 years
  7. Königsberg 1935 - 1945 = 10 years
  8. Würzburg 1961 - 1968 = 7 years
  9. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908 = 7 years
  10. Aachen 1936 - 1940 = 4 years

Have a postcard from Minden, winner of the longevity ranking:


Second, cities ranked by most recent stay of direct ancestors

  1. Bad Nauheim 1945 - 1972
  2. Würzburg 1961 - 1968
  3. Idar-Oberstein 1940 - 1962
  4. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  5. Minden 1903 - 1952
  6. Königsberg 1935 - 1945
  7. Aachen 1936 - 1940
  8. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  9. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  10. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908

third, cities ranked by my personal/emotional attachment:

  1. Würzburg 1961 - 1968 - well, you only have to look at my Würzburg photos on flickr to figure that one out.
  2. Minden 1903 - 1952 - railway memories, mostly, and a lovely river.
  3. Bad Nauheim 1945 - 1972 - missing the art nouveau villa, mostly, but the town is ok too even though it lacks a river and a university
  4. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908 - an obsession with Strasbourg has travelled down the generations ...
  5. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961 - whereas Wuppertal was obliterated in the collective memory, but I really like the place
  6. Idar-Oberstein 1940 - 1962 - I can't forgive what they did to the river Nahe, otherwise it might be a nice place. memories of the school and the gemstone museum.
  7. Aachen 1936 - 1940 -visited a few times, but it still feels slightly foreign
  8. Königsberg 1935 - 1945 - as a fairytale place of times gone by, the lakeside is really lovely.
  9. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916 - looks lovely but feels foreign
  10. Rheydt 1923 - 1935 - some nice buildings but not much of a spark ...

Thursday, September 15, 2022

off to Canada

Every picture tells a story, season 2, picture 3.

Let's have some migration stories from the folks that had already migrated from East Prussia to the Rhein-Ruhr area in the early 20th century. Some kids of the next generation then moved on to overseas, including Grete Kalippke, a niece of Ernst Leopold the steel worker. Grete's mother, Anna Kosmowsky (Ernst Leopold's sister), married Gustav Kalippke and settled at Mülheim. (Gustav Kalippke was born in Gerdauen, East Prussia, close to where the Kosmowsky migrants came from. As with the Hamborn couple of Auguste Faust and Ernst Leopold Kosmowsky, we aren't sure whether the westwards migration was a joint project or whether upon arrival the associated with fellow East Prussian and thus were likely to marry them too.) They also had two sons who both died in World War II.

In 1948, Grete married a guy called Heinrich Diewert, and the pair of them immediately emigrated to Canada. Actually, there were Diewert people in Canada before that time, such as young Erwin Diewert and his parents, so I am not sure whether Heinrich really emigrated or just returned home? I am having trouble finding any Diewert people in Germany. It's all a bit weird, and multiple traces lead to Ukraine.

Anyhow, here she is at Würzburg (not sure whether anybody in her family had any connection to the city or whether they were just passing through as tourists, in any case it is a very touristy thing to have your photo taken at this precise spot on the old bridge, with the Festung in the background!):

then at Bremen, with her new husband, en route to the New World:

and at a later point I assume she took up flying to visit the relatives back home, because here she is at Düsseldorf airport with a plane to catch:

It just occurred to me, as she died aged 40, that the appalling lack of air traffic safety in the 1960s may have been why, so I checked, and no it wasn't.

Navigation tools:

Season 2 so far:

  1. could be a cousin
  2. two weddings in Silesia
  3. off to Canada

The new twitter thread for the new season starts here.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries.

Monday, September 12, 2022

town bat vs country bat

I have very strong feelings on the old town mouse vs country mouse dichotomy,* and I love a bit of urban ecology and evolution, so when I spotted a new paper on town bats and country bats, it was a good enough excuse to revisit this field, which I last covered in 2018. Along with the bats I also covered other recent highlights of urban biology including those dustbin-opening cockatoos in Sydney and the global study of urbanisation in white clover.

The resulting feature is out now:

Tales from the urban jungle

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 17, 12 September 2022, Pages R897-R900

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

Sydney’s sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) like to scavenge waste. Some of them have recently learned to open hinged lids of wheelie bins and the knowledge spreads locally by social learning. (Photo: B.C. Klump.)

* Just after I sent off this feature, there was this yougov poll suggesting that a majority (44%:32%, with 24% don't know) of people in the UK believe it is better to bring up kids in the countryside than in towns or cities. Intriguingly, the country-mouse constituency grew with age. Those who still remembered being kids were against, those in the age group of typical young parents were already in favour, and those my generation and older were just going crazy. I by contrast have moved in the opposite direction. I didn't think much about it as a youngster as I was heading to university and city life, but the more life experience I've accrued in cities, including the experience of bringing up my own children in a city, the angrier I get about the many opportunities that I missed growing up in the sticks.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

jeder einmal in Berlin

Jeder einmal in Berlin
Offizieller Führer
Berlin und Umgebung
Potsdam und seine Schlösser
ca. 1928

This century-old guidebook to Berlin (title roughly translates as: everybody has to visit Berlin at least once) came in handy when I looked up the addresses where my grandmother-in-law's re-discovered cousin Lotti Geppert lived. It might also serve as a companion to Babylon Berlin, it certainly has all the addresses of the venues seen there, and also conveys a bit of that roaring 20s spirit, in moderation, "mondän doch dezent" as one of the nightclub ads puts it.

I struggled to pin down the publication date though. It contains traffic data from 1927, so could be 1928 as the earliest. As the upper limit I can put 1934, because it contains a portrait of President Paul von Hindenburg, who died that year. It also contains a portait of the mayor, Gustav Böß, which narrows it down a bit, he was mayor from 1921 to November 1929. So let's call it 1928.

photo of my edition.

I inherited this from my great-aunt Esther Düsselmann who may have used it visiting Berlin as a teenager or as a student. Come to think of it, her brother married a woman from Berlin and settled there, so that would explain it. There aren't any marks from her, however.

There's a copy (lacking the rather lovely map) on sale here for just 13 euros which I find a bit disappointing. Given the interest in 1920s Berlin, I would have put a higher price on it (did I mention it's a first edition?).

I did some scans of nightclub ads and such like:

PS for some reason I don't understand, this entry seems to have reverted to unpublished draft status and wasn't accessible for a few days. Sorry about that, hope I fixed it now.

Thursday, September 08, 2022

two weddings in Silesia

Every picture tells a story, season 2, picture 2.

The picture of Lotti, who may or may not be a cousin of Hedwig Geppert, made me realise we have no info on any cousins of either Hedwig or her husband Paul Gellrich jr. Judging by contemporaries for whom I have the complete data, I would expect each of them to have between 10 and 20 cousins. I trust that quite a few of Paul Gellrich's cousins appear in these photos of two weddings involving his extended family, first that of his sister Maria Gellrich:

(high resolution scan, so you can zoom in and look at individual faces more closely)

which took place on 28.10.1939 at Protzan, Silesia (note that Paul Gellrich wasn't there, presumably on war duty). Maria's mother, Hedwig Scholz, sits on the other side of the groom and looks as grumpy as she does in all photos we have of her. Also in the front row, first from left we have her father, Paul Gellrich sr. and in the back row second from left her brother Josef. I believe the young woman standing directly behind the groom is Maria's younger sister Hedwig (not to be confused with her mother or her soon to be sister-in-law, both of whom were also called Hedwig Gellrich after getting married).

One of the guests at this wedding, back row, in front of the narrow window, is getting married in the second picture, which may actually date from a bit earlier, as a wider range of males including a few of service age are present:

Sadly we don't know bride, groom, date or location of this wedding but we recognise Paul Gellrich jr, second row from top, second from right. The young woman in third row directly behind the bride looks like his sister Hedwig Gellrich to me, but their mother isn't there. We also recognise a couple of other guests from the first picture, including the older woman and man left from the bride, but don't know anybody else's name.

Note that the characteristic combination of head shape and protruding ears of the groom are also in evidence in half a dozen of the other males, so I am tempted to speculate that the big-eared clan could be the relatives of Hedwig Scholz (I'm assuming the women successfully disguise this phenotype with their hairstyles, also, we rarely see Hedwig Scholz without a hat). From legal documents relating to an inheritance dispute, we know that she had two sisters and one brother, then all resident at Olbersdorf (later became Groß-Olbersdorf), Kreis Frankenstein, but we don't know anything about their offspring. At the time of the legal dispute (1907) these siblings were young adults, Anna Scholz had married a Mr Martin, while no spouses are mentioned for Maria and Josef Scholz. Between them they could have produced any number of nieces and nephews for Hedwig Scholz, and thus cousins for Paul Gellrich.

The legal document also names four cousins of Hedwig Scholz on her father's side. Her aunt Theresia Scholz married somebody called Köhler and had four daughters, Auguste, Anna (married Delock), Johanna and Hedwig Köhler. The deceased was also an aunt of Hedwig's but didn't have any children

As always, all hints appreciated.

I'll hotlink a map of the relevant county, Kreis Frankenstein here, where all these things happened:


The Gellrich family owned a farm (inherited by Hedwig nee Scholz) at Gross-Olbersdorf, just northwest of the county capital Frankenstein. Paul Gellrich senior hailed from Tarnau, a bit to the south. Protzan, where Maria Gellrich's wedding took place, is just north of Frankenstein.

Navigation tools:

The new twitter thread for the new season starts here.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

could be a cousin

Every picture tells a story, season 2, first picture.

For the second season I may widen the scope a little bit, also allowing photos from the 1960s and early 70s, let's say at least 50 years old, ie my parents' generation can appear as adults, and my generation as children. Sticking with b/w though as I hate the early colour photography.

First up, though, some older photos which get priority because they throw up questions that we would like answered. Starting with a mysterious suspected cousin of Hedwig the milk maid:

The writing on the back, from the subject of the portrait says:

Lotti Geppert vom 25.5.1940
Berlin O17
Frankfurterstraße 1.20

(NB Berlin O17 is now known as Friedrichshain, northeast of Kreuzberg. Although Google maps doesn't find this Frankfurterstraße, my 100-year-old travel guide Berlin tells me that it was a continuation of the Frankfurter Allee, which still exists today. It runs in the direction of Frankfurt/Oder rather than the more distant Frankfurt/Main.)

So we learn that Lotti (presumably Charlotte on her birth certificate?) shares the surname of Hedwig and her father the baker Wilhelm Geppert, and that she sends or gives them a photo from her address in Berlin, to remember her by. The date is a few months before Hedwig's wedding - I checked because I wondered if Lotti visited the relatives on that occasion. (Sadly we don't have a group photo of the guests at this wedding.)

My guess would be that the baker must have had a brother whose daughter ended up in Berlin for reasons unknown. The only trouble is we don't know of any siblings of either of Hedwig's parents, although at the time it would have been very weird if she didn't have a dozen aunts and uncles. So we don't know any cousins and we haven't heard of anybody moving to Berlin either. This is the first clue we have of any such relations, so if anybody knows more about Lotti we would be very grateful for any hint. There are Geppert people in Berlin listed on GedBase, including some hailing from Silesia, but there's no obvious answer to this riddle. Part of the problem is that Geppert / Göppert, being the Silesian version of the ancient first name Gebhardt, was a fairly common name in Silesia.

Just to throw a few more names into the mix, if Lotti is Hedwig's first cousin, the shared grandparents are Joseph Göppert, Riemermeister at Reichenstein (Riemer being an extinct type of artisan making all kinds of belts, straps etc from leather), and Ottilie Büttner (or Scheidthauer, not sure why her maiden name changes between different documents relating to her son). Both died before their son Wilhelm the baker got married in October 1912. There is no further information about either of them.

Stop Press, after writing this entry I discovered a postcard from WW I proving that Wilhelm Geppert the baker had a brother called Alfred. At least in April 1917 he still had. As Alfred has never been heard of again, I would suspect he may not have returned. May launch a search call later in the series.

UPDATE 8.9.2022. Just discovered a list of addresses from WW2, including a different address, also in Berlin, for Lotti. Now she is in Dahlem, I'm struggling to decipher the name of the street but it could be Bitterstraße (which at least today exists in Dahlem) 21, first floor. Bitterstraße 21, if correct, has the advantage of being a listed monument, as an example of a 1920s combined office and residential building designed by Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, so you can see a picture and read all about it here (in German). A modern photo is here. Oh, and as the page doesn't mention a change of address, I assume it was already called Bitterstraße 21 when it was built, so this is reassuring.

Navigation tools:

The new twitter thread for the new season starts here.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

molecules and microbes

In the round-up of German pieces April to August 2022 we have microbes in cold geysers and on plants, as well as molecules from space, from early Earth, in suncream and on surfaces:

Diels-Alder Reaktion: Tanz der Elektronen
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 56, Issue 2, April 2022, Page 85
Restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: Diels-Alder reaction directly observed under the microscope

Ausgeforscht: Arachäen im kalten Sprudel
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 70, Issue 4, April 2022, Page 98
restricted access via Wiley Online Library

This tongue-in-cheek piece is about archaea found in the cold water geyser at Andernach:

Image source: Wikipedia / Bungert55

I must have passed the site a hundred times going up and down the river Rhine on trains, but have never seen the geyser in action.

Das Mikrobiom der Pflanzen
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 70, Issue 5, May 2022, Pages 79-80
restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: How plants grow their microbiome

Astrochemie: Moleküle aus dem Weltraum
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 56, Issue 3, June 2022, Page 153
Restricted access via Wiley Online Library
related content in English: Chemical ecosystem of Murchison meteorite molecules revealed in snapshots

(Blau)3 blüht der Ozean
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 70, Issue 6, June 2022, Page 92
restricted access via Wiley Online Library

Paläobiologie: Lebensspuren oder chemischer Garten?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie Volume 70, Issue , 2022, Page 106
restricted access via Wiley Online Library

Monday, August 22, 2022

from plague to covid

I noticed recently that the ancient DNA researchers are finding out lots of fascinating things about historic plague pandemics and other diseases, and it occurred to me that we are catching up with those pandemics of the past, while also still handling our present pandemic. And how lucky we are that at least we can very quickly figure out what our problem is and what to do to fix it, whereas people hit by the Black Death had no clue and could do nothing. Now we only have to find a cure for misinformation ...

So anyhow, out of these thoughts grew my latest feature which is out now:

Pandemics past and present

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 16, 22 August 2022, Pages R855-R857

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

The National COVID-19 memorial in London commemorates the 200,000 who died with the disease in the UK. (Photo: Geoff Henso/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).)

Friday, August 19, 2022

this is lycanthropy


Peter and the Wolff

My Krefeld Clan is very well documented, but the prehistory of the families before they arrived at the booming silk-weaving town of Krefeld is quickly lost in obscurity. The earliest date we have from Krefeld is the marriage of Christophel Wilsberg from Hamm and Anna Sybille Wolff from Mülheim on Aug 5, 1764. Wilsberg is also a place name in the district of Neuwied, where the name is still common today, so no worries there. But Wolff is a name too widespread to be useful, and the trace goes cold with Anna Sybille’s grandfather Peter Wolf (as in the children’s opera).

Now I had a chat with somebody who also has Wolff ancestry elsewhere in Germany and afterwards I felt inspired to google the details of my Wolffs again, and got lucky. In a very detailed family history of the Vorster family of paper mill owners, I found the origin of my Wolff lineage.

It turns out Peter Wolf’s father was called Hermann Hofstadt, the second son of a farmer from Unna. In 1652, he bought the Wolffskotten farm at Styrum (today divided between Mülheim and Oberhausen), and was known as Wolff ever since. Although some descendants may have reverted to the Hofstadt name, I do get search results for Hofstadt people born in Styrum. Sadly the Wolffskotten farm seems to have disappeared, the only search results I get are to the Vorster family source.

After turning into a Wolff, Hermann married Trine von der neuen Mühle (I suspect that is a description rather than a proper family name, it just says, from the new mill, and as the name of the town Mülheim suggests, there must have been plenty of mills around). Their son Peter married Elsgen, about whom I knew nothing but the first name before, but the Vorster chronicles reveal an interesting story.

Adolf Vorster, the first of the clan to arrive at Mülheim from Olpe (Sauerland) where the reformed protestants from the Netherlands had found refuge a few generations earlier, was widowed twice. After his second wife died, he took on a maid, Catharina aus dem Bieg, to help with the kids and the household, but ended up marrying her as well. He died after only ten months of marriage, but Catharina gave birth to their child Elsgen after he died. The Vorster clan rejected Catharina and Elsgen though and they went back to Catharina’s home farm, the Biegerhof (a medieval site today part of Duisburg). By 1680, Catharina found a second husband, Thiel Weinhaus, and had another child. Elsgen got to marry Peter Wolff.

Canis lupus. Photo: Bernard Landgraf, CC BY-SA 3.0

PSA Now introducing the tag #düsselmann for the ancestry (and extended family) of my great-grandfather Julius Düsselmann from Krefeld. I'm doing this rather belatedly, so there are now a lucky 13 entries with the new tag. Julius's maternal family is the Imig clan from Simmern.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

reinventing Alice

Some thoughts on

The looking-glass house
by Vanessa Tait
Corvus paperback 2016

Alice Day in Oxford is normally celebrated with an events programme that not only includes entertainment for kids but also some thoughtful lectures for adults which I usually attend. Although the topics may sometimes look eclectic on paper, I’ve always learned something interesting.

This year, one of the presentations was by Vanessa Tait, who has the USP of being Alice Liddell’s only great-granddaughter – being the only daughter of her only grandchild. So the whole Carrollian heritage came down heavy on her, and she made light of it by writing it up as a novel informed by the unique insights gained from family tradition and the memorabilia inherited by her mother but eventually sold at auction.

This was all so intriguing that I bought her book on the spot – I was also a bit embarrassed that I missed the memo when it was published. It did not disappoint. Mixing the well-documented information about the historic characters (Alice, her parents, her governess, Lewis Carroll, Queen Victoria and her sons) with a few invented ones to provide colour and plot, she does paint a convincing tableau of how the events that led to the telling of the Alice stories on that famous boat trip may have unfolded.

While I personally wouldn’t go as far as inventing dialogues to put into my dead ancestors’ mouths, I fully understand that this is a reasonable thing to do here, as the factual backbone has been established by a legion of researchers and every single stone has been turned over by committed fans. To add anything new to that, I suppose you have to rely on well-informed invention. The author does add a helpful afterword to help readers with the separation of facts and fiction.

I was particularly intrigued by the reminder that Lewis Carroll’s main interest in these contacts was that of a pioneering photographer. He told the children stories in order to get them in a better mood for posing for his photos. And of course it’s fun to catch the atmosphere of Victorian Oxford with places like Christ Church and the department store Elliston and Cavell taken over by Debenhams a century later. In some ways one could say it hasn’t changed a bit, and culturally speaking, Alice still is very much alive around here.

See also my twitter thread listing books I read in 2022.

PS Just one tiny little moan: I am fairly sure the Victorians didn't know the horribly agrammatical phrasing "just because ... doesn't mean", which occurs at least twice in the book, including once as allegedly spoken by one of the characters. I believe I haven't heard this before the year 2000. Am I wrong?

NB I am tagging this "memoir" although it isn't one, because it demonstrates one of the options we have in processing family history, so it helps me thinking even if novelisation is not a path I'm likely to take.

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