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The Story

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The narrative left to us by Heinrich Wilhelm Hayn, (brother of my husband’s great- great-grandmother Caroline Hayn Hellfeld), tells a fascinating story of life in upper middle class Europe in the 19th century. It has all the earmarks of a good historical novel – a rags to riches story line, humorous anecdotes, a family dynasty, successful careers, exciting travels, wars and pestilence, cultural and technological achievements, joys and heartbreak.

Born into a prominent coffee import family based in Frankfurt, Onkel Hayn’s career took him to Rotterdam, Antwerp, London, and Le Havre, before WWI robbed him of house and fortune.  Although his wife died young, he never remarried, and filled his leisure time with social activities, cultural pursuits, and travels, including several to the Swiss mountains.  His narrative begins with his grandfather’s youth, and ends around 1918, with countless events described and more than 100 people named in the course of the 276 pages. His elegant writing style, keen sense of observation, and attention to detail makes it a worthwhile read for anyone interested in learning about how past generations lived.

German handwriting in the 19th century

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Had it not been for my husband’s maternal grandmother, who arduously typed Onkel Hayn’s written manuscript shortly before her death, his words would most likely have forever remained locked in a dusty book on a shelf. I can assure you that no one else in the family would have tackled the task of deciphering 300+ pages of “Kurrent” without knowing in advance if it was worth the effort involved. And in fact, even though I spent many hours unraveling the mysteries of incorrectly transcribed words and names, I still feel like I am hardly any better at it than I was when I started.

Kurrent or Old German Script

So what exactly is this handwriting style, and why is it so difficult? For an answer to the first question, I would suggest a look at the excellent post, “Kurrent – 500 years of German handwriting” by Ralph Hermann. He explains that Kurrent is essentially the handwritten counterpart to the typeface Blackletter (think Gothic script), which gives it an “edgy” look, as opposed to the more curvaceous Roman cursive, which has Roman block letters as its typeface relative. He also includes examples showing how the script evolved over the centuries.

As for the second question, the short answer is simply that the letters do not correspond to what we have programmed into our brains. It’s amazing how long it takes to link a second image to a concept we expect to look completely differently. I find it almost harder than learning foreign words. But independent of this fact, I think the main stumbling block is the rather up and down nature of particular letters, which make them all look the same. To make matters worse, the most notorious culprits are also letters that typically follow one another, that is, lower-case c,e, m, n, r. The lower-case and upper-case v, w, x and y are also a bit of a challenge, as are upper-case B, C (I swear they can’t be anything but an L).  This is not to mention the letters h (which still looks like an f to me) and s, which has three forms, the first looking frustratingly like h and f, and the other two taking prizes for weirdness. The problem is of course compounded by the idiosyncrasies of each person’s handwriting. It doesn’t always look as neat as in the following table:

By Deutsche_Kurrentschrift.jpg: AndreasPraefcke derivative work: Martin Kozák (Deutsche_Kurrentschrift.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Deutsche_Kurrentschrift.jpg: AndreasPraefcke derivative work: Martin Kozák (Deutsche_Kurrentschrift.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Resources for learning Kurrent

So how should one tackle this whole process? I would say it is a matter of how “fluent” one wants to become. In my case, I simply needed to decipher individual words and phrases, and so I developed my own set of “tricks,” many of which are similar to those described in this highly recommended post by SK Translations, “Ten tips for deciphering German handwriting.”

If you really want to delve into the process, maybe even learn to write as well as read Kurrent, then I would suggest the three free interactive courses offered by the Family History Learning Center. In fact, maybe it’s time I knuckled down and spent more time at it myself…

Following in Onkel Hayn’s footsteps – Antwerp

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Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 6.54.45 AMOn my husband’s most recent business trip to Brussels we devoted our Sunday to a walk around Antwerp, the city that represented the second rung of the corporate ladder in Onkel Hayn’s career. He was just 21 years old when he arrived, but had already spent almost three years in Rotterdam working for his cousin Ludwig Wilhelm Schoeffer, son of one of his father’s sisters. His employer in Antwerp was the son of another sister, Heinrich Eysenbach, who had started his business in 1853 and by January 1866 owned it outright. Unfortunately, he was not bound to enjoy his success for very long, as an unnamed illness (possibly tuberculosis) put an end to his life at age 39, only a year after Onkel Hayn’s arrival.

Although his time in Antwerp was short, Onkel Hayn seemed to be favorably impressed with the city and its residents, especially in comparison to Rotterdam:

Antwerpen war schon durch seine glorreichen geschichtlichen Erinnerungen an und für sich ein viel interessanterer Aufenthalt als Rotterdam. Auch das Äußere bot mit seinen stattlichen und vornehmen Gebäuden einen schöneren Anblick, als die einfachen und eintönigen Backsteinbauten von Rotterdam.  Das bemerkenswerteste Gebäude ist die Kathedrale mit dem schönen spät gotischen Turm. Aus der spanischen Zeit stammen noch viele interessante Gebäude, wie der „Stehen“, ein Teil der alten Burg und Sitz der spanischen Inquisition, das Rathaus etc.
Ebenso verschieden wie die beiden Städte im Äußeren, sind deren Bewohner in ihrer Lebensweise, Sitten und Gewohnheiten. Der Holländer hat einen ernsten, zurückhaltenden, sparsamen Charakter, der Flamländer ist ungebunden, lebenslustiger, freigebiger und oberflächlich. Das öffentliche Leben ist in Belgien freier und ungebundener; man hält da nicht so streng auf die Etiquette.

Antwerp Stock Exchange Building

One of the buildings he didn’t mention in detail was the Commodities Exchange, where he spent every working day. This surprised me on first read, because the (unfortunately now condemned and barricaded) building is a magnificent structure, and its predecessor presumably also famed for its architecture, with a roof which resembled the Crystal Palace in London.

What I failed to take note of, is that the building burned down in 1853 and was not rebuilt until 1872, meaning this was not the building that Onkel Hayn would have conducted business in. No wonder he was so silent on the subject!

Still, it seemed like a visit to the building was in order, so armed with an address taken from someone’s blog post we set out. Little did we realize how difficult it would be to find. I knew it set was back from the main streets, so would not have an easily recognizable facade. But the directions from the blog proved to be completely misleading and our international smart phones refused to open any further web pages. So round and round we went. In hindsight I realize I should have looked it up on an old map, like this one:


Here it is marked clearly with the word “Bourse”, (trivia tidbit – Van der Beurse was the surname of an influential family from Bruges. You can read more about them and the history of the stock market  here).  As you can see on the map, the building is indeed hidden away, almost like a roofed atrium. Luckily, we did finally stumble upon it:



Alas, one can’t even peek inside since all doors and windows are boarded up. However, professional photographers have been allowed access and their photos are magnificent.


There has been talk of renovating the building and turning it into a hotel, but unfortunately the project does not seem to be moving forward at this point.

Antwerp today

In closing, I think if Onkel Hayn were to visit Antwerp today, he would find it in many ways similar to what he knew. The historic district looks much the same, the street and most likely the house where his employer lived still exist, and the people are still open, friendly, and “lebenslustig.” In fact, I always get the impression that the locals are on permanent holiday in their own city. In any case, we had no problem spending three hours at an outside table of a 300-year-old restaurant, enjoying the “ambience” of the city, and feasting on mussels and frites (of course washing it down with some very fine “grape juice” as my husband likes to call it). Cheers to you, Onkel Hayn!


Finding Alfred

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ALFRED HAYNChristoph Alfred Hayn was Onkel Hayn’s only child. He was named after Onkel Hayn’s older brother Christoph, and his wife’s brother Alfred. Left motherless at age 5, Alfred spent his early years with his father (first in England, then France), and later went to live with his aunt Caroline (the same sister Onkel Hayn lived with at the end of his life ) so he could complete his education at a German school.  We also know from the memoirs that made a trip to the US in 1907, that he was interred at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man during WWI, and that after the war he and a partner were in charge of the Hamburg branch of the family business. But here the narrative stops. Stories circulating within the family are oddly pejorative, and/or completely misinformed – that Alfred had died in WWI, that he was probably mentally retarded, was sickly, and possibly gay. Many of the family photos with his name on the back are clearly of different people, as if no one really knew who he was.

So, I made it my task to “find Alfred.” Every so often I would start a new online search with different keywords, and joined various genealogy sites to gain access to their databases. I found references to the business in Hamburg with his name attached to them, so assumed that his activities in Hamburg are what prevented him from taking care of his aging father. I found no references to a wife. But when did he die? I tried finding his name in cemetery databases, in Google books, you name it, but nothing. Then, last week, after making a few updates to the online family tree, his death certificate popped up. Eureka, I found Alfred! It was like a belated Christmas present. Unfortunately no cause of death was listed, but he died at home in Hamburg in January 1931, shortly after his 51st birthday, and 8 years before the death of Onkel Hayn. So maybe that is him on the photo from October 1930, where he is identified as one of the guests at a family wedding in Switzerland? If so, he certainly did not look sickly, or mentally retarded, in fact he looked happy and congenial. I certainly hope he was, may he rest in peace.

Following in Onkel Hayn’s Footsteps – Gelnhausen, Part II

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A silk worm farm, the leaning tower of Gelnhausen, and Barbarossa’s palace

As recounted in my previous post about our trip to Gelnhausen this summer, the first half day of our whirlwind 24-hour tour was spent visiting the homes once owned by the family of Onkel Hayn’s Aunt Schöffer (one of his father’s sisters), attending a concert in one of the homes, and meeting two of her descendants. Our second half day started out with an early morning stroll around town, admiring the half-timbered houses, the cathedral, and the two picturesque town squares (Obermarkt and Untermarkt).

Langgasse Gelnhausen


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It just happened to be the day of the annual flea market, so all cars were banned from their usual parking spots to make way for the vendors and their stands (in fact we got a call from the hotel reception at 6am telling us to move our car – luckily we had read the signs and taken care of that the previous day!).






The silk worm factory

After breakfast we became more goal-oriented, and headed out to attempt to find the house in the Schmidtgasse where Onkel Hayn’s father had grown up, and which had been passed on to another of his sisters, Susanna Maria Eysenbach. Onkel Hayn didn’t give us a house number, but enough of a description that we think we may have found the site, but our guess is that the house no longer exists and has been replaced by a more modern one.


Historische Bilddokumente

Schmidtgasse 1881, Historische Bilddokumente











We were particularly interested in this house because of the very unique home businesses that Aunt Eysenbach’s husband had operated.

“In the adjacent garden he kept bee hives for honey, and in the back of the house, which exited onto the side street, he operated a small chocolate factory.  Instead of steam power he had a cow, which, by turning a large wooden disc on slate ground, set the whole mechanism in motion. On the third floor of the house, a large bright room was dedicated to silkworm breeding. Open boxes were placed in long rows on narrow tables, each of which contained countless silkworms industriously consuming chopped mulberry leaves. Entering the room, one could hear the crackling sound created by the gnawing jaws of thousands of caterpillars. Their care was extremely tedious; the room had to stay evenly heated day and night and the leaves kept dry, otherwise the sensitive little worms would die off by the thousands. The Kurhessen government had granted Uncle permission to plant white mulberry trees on the roadside, and it was his hope that silkworm breeding would become a popular activity in Hessen. On market days he dragged the landsmen upstairs to show them his installation, and explained to them how, with patience and time, a mulberry leaf could become a silk dress. Downstairs the more practical aunt was waiting, and advised the farmers against engaging in this far too risky experiment.”

Unfortunately we will never know if Uncle Eysenbach’s silk worm project would have succeeded; he died at an early age and his wife had no interest in continuing the experiment. She did however keep the chocolate factory going, which we know from letters written by her sister’s grandchildren, who were there for visits. She herself had no grandchildren. She outlived all nine of her children, losing the last when he died at age 40, making her a rich woman. She became a patroness of the city’s first kindergarten, which was built in 1873 to give the children of lower-income families a place to go while the mothers were working in the factories. The interest from her endowment sufficed to pay for the upkeep of the kindergarten for many years, until the money was lost in the two World Wars. The kindergarten is now supported by the town of Gelnhausen.

The “leaning” tower of Gelnhausen

Another example of money earned abroad flowing back to Gelnhausen was the restoration of the Marienkirche between 1877 -79. One of the four spires had become twisted over the centuries and by the middle of the 19th century was in danger of collapsing. A large part of the funds raised for the renovation came from the Schöffer/Becker family.

Ansicht von Gelnhausen von Süden, um 1865

Blick auf Gelnhausen, undatiert. Historische Bilddokumente

However, necessary as the renovation was, many of the townspeople were loathe to see their unique tower disappear, including Onkel Hayn:

“One of the two larger towers with its slim, lofty slate roof was the landmark of the town, and dubbed the Leaning Tower of Gelnhausen. It was hailed by the inhabitants of the city as a miracle of architecture and compared to the leaning towers of Pisa and Bologna. Unfortunately, it turned out that the high, twisted spire was not intentional, and owed its strange form to faulty construction or the poor quality of the materials used. Several decades ago the original straight shape of the tower—as it appears in the works by Merian published shortly after the Thirty Years’ War—was restored; and so, an interesting landmark of Gelnhausen has disappeared.”

Barbarossa’s palace

The leaning tower may gone, but the ruins of the “Barbarossaburg” are still there and well worth a visit. We had just enough time before getting back on the highway to take a tour of the museum and climb what is left of the tower. Built between 1170 -1180 for Frederick the First (Holy Roman Emperor from 1155-1190), the palace lies just south of the city gates on what was once an island in the Kinzig river. I don’t usually find castles and palaces very interesting, and ruins even less so, but I suppose my interest in Gelnhausen spilled over and gave me an appreciation I might not otherwise have had. Apparently Barbarossa (so named because of his red beard) also liked this particular palace, as is proven by the number of times he stayed here (more often than not he was either on a crusade or checking up on the rest of his kingdom).  Since there is a lot written elsewhere about both the emperor and the palace (for those with a real interest in art history, check this out), I will not go into detail, but simply share a few photos.

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Grabungs- und Sicherungsarbeiten an der Kaiserpfalz zu Gelnhause

Grabungs- und Sicherungsarbeiten an der Kaiserpfalz zu Gelnhausen, um 1930“, in: Historische Bilddokumente



Entrance; the chapel is directly above.

So that completes the recap of our first visit to Gelnhausen, following in Onkel Hayn’s footsteps. We are already planning our second trip!

Will the real Heinrich please stand up?

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Anyone who has dabbled in genealogy knows that naming conventions in the early 19th century were rather complicated. Multiple first names were the norm, favorite names were often bestowed upon several children in the same family, and the likelihood that a child went by the first of their many names was actually quite slim. Take “Heinrich” in Onkel Hayn’s family for example – it was given three times, to Johann Heinrich, Heinrich Wilhelm, and Georg Heinrich Hermann. So which one actually went by the name of Heinrich? Not Heinrich Wilhelm but his older brother Johann Heinrich. Heinrich Wilhelm was of course the author of the memoirs and went by the name of Wilhelm, and his younger brother, the one with the three middle names, was Hermann (logically, as his other two names were already taken by his older brothers!)  The confusion continues with all the other siblings – for example, Caspar Carl August Hayn was Carl, but Caroline Dorothea Elisabetha was Caroline (well, in the family she was known as Lina, in fact all the women seemed to go by nicknames). But the prize goes to Onkel Hayn’s  father’s sisters Elisabeth Susanna and Susanna Maria, both of whom went by the name Susanna. Luckily they came up with a solution  –  the former was known as “Sannchen” and the latter “Suschen.” I wonder if there was any cat-fighting before they worked that one out?