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The Search for the Real Forst

--- Where Did the Franz Family Really Come From? ---

by Allan Edmands
(originally written in 1990,
and only slightly adapted and excerpted)

There are at least two Forsts in Germany:
  • one at latitude 51°44'N and longitude 14°38'E on the Neisse(1) The proper pronunciation of Neisse is "NICE-ssa." Actually, the real German spelling of the river is Neiße, where the letter ß (the "ess-tset") is pronounced and usually transliterated as "ss."
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    River, which is the current border between East Germany and Poland(2); The Polish name for the city is Baršć.
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  • the other a much smaller place in West Germany, in the State of Rheinland-Pfalz (that is, Rhineland-Palitinate), not far from the Mannheim and Worms (where Luther's famous "Diet" was).
Let's call the first Forst "the eastern Forst" and the second "the western Forst."

There may be other Forsts in Germany as well, but they are too small to make it into any map or atlas available to me. The word Forst, after all, means "forest," and Germany still has quite a few of those. (As our Grandma Hawes, née Anna Martha Franz, used to tell her recursive, never-ending story to us: "Once upon a time in the wild, wild woods of Germany . . .") And as the modern age continues to ripen and the acid rain wipes out more trees, the name Forst doesn't have to disappear. After all, places like Forest Hills in New York City's borough of Queens, though quite a jungle in an urban crime and blight sense, is no longer noted for its trees. But let's assume that these other Forsts are about the size of Forest, Washington (south of Chehalis), where you can turn toward the north fork of the Newaukum River. That is, any one of these other Forsts would be the German equivalent of a "wide spot in the road."

Forst should not be confused with Fürth (more or less pronounced "feeurt"), of which there are at least three in Germany, the largest a respectable Bavarian city near Munich. When my Grandma Hawes said "Forst," she meant Forst, not Fürth. The question is: Is it the eastern Forst or the western Forst?

The western Forst, I have to add, is apparently about the size of--say--Oakville, Washington, or maybe Bucoda, Washington. This is why it doesn't appear in two of our fairly detailed roadmaps. I found it only in Ina's Diercke Weltatlas, a detailed atlas published in Germany. It is on the Deutsche Weinstrasse (pronounced "doitscha vine-shtrahssa"), or the German wine road. It's a town, among many others of the Rhineland-Palitinate, of makers of famous Rhine wines.

[ Allan standing by the Forst sign in 1989 ]

The eastern Forst is quite a bit larger; it makes it into all the maps, including some historical maps.(3)

The population of this Forst in 2000 was 23,000. There is a lot of information on Forst at the official Forst site.
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This Forst had the misfortune in 1945 of being right in the path of one of the main Red Army tank thrusts. And it's still there today in spite of it. It's not far from a city considerably larger: Cottbus. And a very famous Dresden is only a little further away, in Saxony. Here I am in 1989, standing by the sign for entering Forst (you can enlarge the picture by clicking on it, and you can also see a 2006 of the same scene).

[ The Forst watertower ]

The eastern Forst is a little east of the River Spree (pronounced "shpray"); downstream a bit on the Spree is the Spreewald (pronounced "shprayvahlt"), which, Ina tells me, is a famous marshland where the local folks pole around in boats all the time (maybe sort of like Pogo Possum and all his friends in Okefenokee). The name Spreewald means "forest of the Spree"; note that Wald is another name for "forest," and a much more common one: Schwartzwald ("shwartsvahlt"--the Black Forest), Thüringerwald ("teeuringervahlt"--the Thuringian Forest), and Kurt Waldheim (the beleaguered Austrian President who makes his home (heim) in the woods (and hasn't come out of the woods yet).(4)

Kurt Waldheim was Secretary General of the United Nations during the 1970s. In the late 1980s, he was President of Austria, despite a scandal (according to encyclopedia.com) caused by the revelation that he had been an officer in a German army unit that committed atrocities in Yugoslavia during World War II. Though he denied any knowledge of the atrocities, and an international investigation cleared him of complicity, many felt he must have known more than he revealed.
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The eastern Forst is in a district called Niederlausitz ("neederLOWZits"), or Lower Lausatia. (Oberlausitz, or Upper Lausatia, is further south, at a higher elevation.)(5)

The same is true of Saxony: Niedersachsen ("neederZAHXen") is north of Sachsen ("ZAHXen") proper. Generally in Germany, the "upper" (and less clement) regions are south (lower on the map) from the "lower" regions.
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Here is a picture of the Forst water tower.

For those who may be concerned that this eastern Forst is now barely in Germany at all, since it's way back of the boundary of heartbreak--that is, the Iron Curtain (eisener Vorhang, "eye-zener forhahng")--and just across a small river from Poland, take another look at its position in history, in particular in the following map.

[ The German Empire in the 1880s ]
The German Empire in the 1880s
[Click the picture to enlarge it.]

Traditionally Forst (the eastern one) has been right in the German heartland. And, whatever the political boundaries or ideologies, you can be assured that Germans live there, as well as a good deal east of there.

[ The Forst Rathaus ]

Here is a picture of the "Rathaus" (pronounced "rat house," the municipal government building, not a house for rats) in the eastern Forst's downtown. Its actual title, according to the sign, is "Rat der Stadt Forst/L"--that is, the government building for the city of Forst in Lausitz. If you enlarge the picture by clicking it, you can also see the vertical sign on the builiding's corner: "Kreissparkasse," which was a bank for the well-off in this Communist country. Parked in front of the building are a few of the famous East German so-called "cars." It was in this building that Ina and I attempted to get information about the Franz and Kulisch families, but the bureaucrats there couldn't be bothered. Well, maybe "rat house" is an appropriate translation.

So did the Franz family come from the western Forst in the wineland (oops, I mean, Rhineland), or from the eastern Forst near the Spreewald swamps? In the absence of firm documentary evidence, my contention is the latter--for several reasons, some of them circumstantial, and one of them linguistic.

First, the circumstantial reasons. Imagine that in the 1920s the oppressive regime of Kaiser Wilhelm I and his chancellor Otto von Bismarck was running the show in the USA and that the German depression of the 1880s was happening in America, also in the 1920s. There's a good chance that a good many families--perhaps Anna's Hawes family among them--might have emigrated to a land of greater promise--say, to Australia. Now, imagine that the Hawes family had originally lived closer to Bucoda, Washington (population 400), than they had to Centralia, Washington (population nearly 10,000). When their new Australian friends and neighbors asked about where they had come from, they would probably have said "Centralia" rather than "Bucoda"--because Bucoda would not have shown up on very many maps. After all, they had done most of their shopping in Centralia.

Now, since the western Forst is comparable (in map representation) to Bucoda, if the Franzes had come from that village, they would probably have said that they had come from "the Rhineland" or from "Mannheim," rather than from little Bucoda. In that they said they came from Forst, they probably meant the larger, eastern Forst. Of course, even Bucoda, as Bucoda, would get famous if a U.S. Air Force F-16 had crashed into it, as actually happened in the 1980s in the western Forst.(6)

My mother, who first noticed the news story of the F-16 crashing into this tiny town, was attached to the western Forst version. I suspect her resistance to the eastern Forst version was due to an antipathy to the idea of a Communist town on the Polish border. We have to remember, however, that in the 1880s the eastern Forst was in the middle of Germany, not on the border, and that it was certainly not Communist.
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There is also the fact that my Grandma Hawes was a Protestant, not a Catholic. The western Forst is in a region predominantly Catholic, the eastern one in a region predominantly Protestant.

Also, the favorite beverage of the western Forst region is wine, whereas that of the eastern Forst region is beer. Grandma Hawes did not drink very much beer, but--as far as I am aware--she never drank wine.(7)

Even the communion "wine" in our church was grape juice served in tiny individual glasses.
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The circumstantial reasons, though, are not as persuasive as the linguistic reason. I remember the smattering of German I picked up from Grandma Hawes; for example, she taught me to count in her German, and she sang the "Du, du liegst mir am Herzen" lullaby, But her German did not coincide (in pronunciation) with the German I learned in college. What I learned there was Hochdeutsch ("ho#doitsch," the "#" pronounced like you are softly trying to clear some phlegm from your throat), or "High German"--the equivalent in our mother tongue to BBC English or "the King's English." What Grandma (and the rest of the Franz family) spoke was one of the many dialects of "Low German." (German has dialects that are more different from one another than Cockney English is from Oklahoma or Bronx English.) Here are a table of differences:

German Words High German Pronunciation Franz Family Pronunciation English Meaning
ich bin i bin [see Note] ik bin I am
danke schön donka shøn [see Note] donka shane thank you very much
neun noin nine nine
Note: "" is between "s" and "sh," kind of like the sound of air leaking from an inflated ball. "ø" is close to the sound of "oo" in the word book.

The Franz family dialect is spoken in southern Prussia, in the Lower Lausatia region, around the eastern Forst. The dialect around the western Forst is much closer to High German. In fact, the Franz family dialect is much closer to English than is High German--which is interesting, because we inherited the basis of our mother tongue English mostly from the Saxons, who migrated to Britain from Lower Saxony some 1,500 years ago.

I realize that these assertions do not prove that the eastern Forst is the ancestral home of the Franzes and the Kulisches (Ernestine's ancestors), but you have to admit that it's somewhat persuasive.

[ Forst in the 1880s ]

Oh, yes--one more important fact I hadn't realized in 1990: The eastern Forst was in the late 1800s an important textile-manufacturing city, one that rivaled Manchester, England, in its harnessing of steam power for working looms, as you can see from this picture from Brandenburgischer Informations--Dienst Umwelt. Forst was Otto von Bismarck's pride and joy in effectively competing with the British textile industry. It was probably the best place for our ancestor Louis Franz to learn his trade as a power loom machinist. In fact, in 2006, Ina and I visited the eastern Forst once again, and spent a couple of hours in a textile museum there (you can see a picture of me with the looms in that museum by clicking here).

[ A Forst street ]

Here is a picture of a Forst street in December 1989, with Ina holding toddler Max, who is one of the younger descendants of Louis and Ernestine. (To enlarge the picture, click it.) Ina has recently written in her excellent German to the officials of Forst for information about Louis and Ernestine and their respective backgrounds there. I am hopeful that we will finally receive not only confirmation that the eastern Forst is the real one but also considerable information about more remote Franz ancestors.

And here is a 2006 update: In April 2006, Ina and I traveled once again to Forst and went to offices that contained records going back to 1874. There we saw each actual "Geburtsurkunde" (birth certificate) for Grandma and for her two brothers born in Forst. Can you imagine my feelings on seeing a record of my Grandma--in my memories always a gadabout lady in her seventies and eighties--as a newborn baby? (Unfortunately, older sister Emma--the grandmother of Harry Dicks--was born a year before the records began.) You can see photocopies of these certificates, documentary evidence of Franz births in the eastern Forst, by clicking here.

At the Forst textile museum, we looked at an 1875 address book of Forst that included four individuals named Franz--unfortunately, none of them with the given name Louis. Gottlieb Franz was an "Arbeiter" (worker), living on Josefstrasse (Joseph Street) in property number 836. (Each of the households were in property numbers, not necessarily associated with streets, but properties close to each other on the same street had numbers close to each other.) Johann Franz was a Maschinenfuehrer (machinist forman) living on Sprembergrafstrasse at property 640. Karl Franz was a Musikus (music publisher) living on Grenadierstrasse at property number 127. And a second Karl Franz was a Tuchmaschiner (loom machinist) living on Gubenerstrasse (Gubin Street) at property number 405. The Geburtsurkunde for Grandma and for her younger brother Adolph indicate that Louis Franz and his family lived at property number 403 (and Grandma was born at home), which I assume would be close to the property of this second Karl Franz--perhaps Louis's brother? Maybe the researcher that Ina and I have hired can help with this question. Anyway, Ina and I drove on Gubenerstrasse on our way for a short jaunt into Poland, but I don't know where property 403 was (or if the building still stands).

Perhaps the researcher can uncover some other things as well. Why did German-speaking Louis have a French name (rather than Ludwig)? And the "Franz" surname has a French ring to it as well--perhaps originally (several generations back) "Franzmann" which would mean "Frenchman"? Here's a theory of mine: In 1689, King Louis XIV of France revoked the century-old Edict of Nantes, which had granted religious toleration to French Protestants (called Huguenots). Then the Huguenots were persecuted openly and savagely, and thousands upon thousands of them fled France--to places like the American colonies, Great Britain, Russia, and Germany. The Huguenots were France's industrial class, many of them in the textile trade. The folks at the Forst textile museum confirmed that many Huguenots had settled in Forst and had worked in textiles. Perhaps the name Louis had been used for several generations in the Franz family, now thoroughly German, to commemorate ancestors who might ultimately have been French? Louis and his family were definitely Protestants ("Evangelisch," or Lutheran, on the Geburtsurkunde), and Grandma Hawes was a Protestant. Stay tuned on this information as well.

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