Today I welcome Mary Ann Van Sickle to History…the Interesting Bits to talk about her journey of discovery of her family history and her relationship with the Ducal Tower of Siedlecin:
Tell me a tale of majestic castles with beautiful princesses and gleaming knights of the round table, and I will always be enchanted. It’s not any wonder. I’m a California girl who grew up with regular visits to Disneyland and an overdose of every animated fairytale produced by Walt Disney from Cinderella to Frozen. I have yet to outgrow my affinity for all things magically medieval. Happily, I’ve watched that legacy pass from my daughter to her own daughter, Sarah. It was never more evident than just this week when our entire family spent a delightful day at the “Happiest Place on Earth.” My heart still skipped a beat as we walked through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and heard Jiminy Cricket softly singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” over the delighted squeals of children and the calliope of King Arthur’s Carousel. It was on the drawbridge that my daughter snapped a photo of four-year-old Sarah who had just been transformed into a princess at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. Despite the drizzling rain, she was clearly spellbound under the shadow of the beautiful castle. I smiled recalling that I had experienced the very same enchantment some 5,000 miles away in a tiny village in Poland last summer. You see, I have a love affair with my own fairytale “castle.”
First a little history… Once upon a time there lived a Duke named Henryk I of Jawor. Early in the 14th century, he inherited his a “dukedom” (the country, territory, fief, or domain ruled by a duke or duchess) from his father Duke Bolko I Surwowy the Strict (Why he was “strict” is not quite clear to me…) The land he inherited is in Siedlęcin near Jelenia Góra in Lower Silesia, Poland which was one of the richest regions in Central Europe. In 1313, the Duke commissioned the construction of his Ducal Tower which more than likely was built as a hunting lodge. Overlooking a primeval forest on the Bober River, the Duke and his Duchess, Agnes of Bohemia, created one of the largest and best-preserved medieval tower-houses in Central Europe which remains virtually unchanged since the 14th century. It is one of more than fifty castles built by Bolko I and his descendants.
From the very beginning the tower was surrounded by a moat and a perimeter stone wall with the approach from a wooden drawbridge. Research has determined that in its initial design, the tower had slit windows and window seats with Gothic trefoil framings. These early medieval windows were filled with round crown glasses while the spaces between them were filled with tiny triangular pieces of glass. The original tower contained a Great Hall, a full cellar, a “warm chamber” (a room with a fireplace), a large oven and even a primitive privy.
The most impressive level of the Keep is the second floor called The Great Hall. Designed for ceremonial purposes, it had rich interior decoration including a beautiful wall of mural paintings of Lancelot du Lac from Arthurian legend. Commissioned in 1345 by the Duke and his Duchess, the mural on the south wall of the Great Hall occupied more than thirty-two square meters. According Dr. Przemyslaw Nocun, an archaeologist of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, Duke Henryk was not only the first to commission Arthurian paintings in one of his castles, but he might well have founded an order of chivalry based on the legend of the Knights of the Round Table. The main subject of the murals is the romantic story of Sir Lancelot of the Lake, one of the most famous legendary knights of the Middle Ages. And it’s incredibly beautiful and mysterious and romantic. When climbing to the Great Hall on the creaky wooden stairs, you are suddenly overcome by the beautiful pastel shades of the mural. The colors seem ephemeral and dreamlike. Frozen in time, the knights on their horses and Sir Lancelot kneeling over his Guinevere appear as a momentary memory.
How could one not fall in love with this magical castle? I know I did, but it was quite by accident. In the summer of 2015 I traveled 5,000 miles in search of my grandfather, Heinrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Emmett, Idaho. But along the way, it was my chance meeting of the quaint Ducal Tower that opened up an entirely new world of discovery.
I’ve been on the trail of my family history since 1981. The pursuit of genealogy might seem cumbersome to some, but to me it is a patchwork of people, places and stories that form the fabric of myself. Madeleine L’Engle, author of the children’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time” summed it up the best. “If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories. The tales may not seem important, but they are what binds families together and makes each of us who we are.”
My family is not all that remarkable but I am fortunate to have come from a family of record keepers and storytellers. Ancestry was important on both sides of my family. Since Kodak introduced it’s first Brownie camera, my family has been recording traditions and celebrations, births and marriages. Letters, journals, certificates and diplomas have also found their way into boxes marked “Keepsakes.” I cherish these magical boxes which have given me countless hours of pleasure as I’ve assembled the pieces of my family history like an intricate puzzle. When my father passed away in 2009, I was made the “Keeper of Keepsakes.” I soon realized that he kept every piece of paper and photograph that would connect me to the secrets of my tree. It was my job to put them all together.
My interest has been piqued for years with my father’s humble beginnings. Born in Emmett, Idaho in 1923, he was the youngest of three sons born to Henry William (née Wilhelm Heinrich) Ludwig and Lottie Nida Belle. My grandmother was born in the Appalachian community of Salt Rock, West Virginia. My grandfather, however, was born in Germany and immigrated to America as a toddler. Despite having Ludwig as my maiden name, I never knew too much more about my German heritage. But I knew the name of the village he was from – Boberröhrsdorf of Lower Silesia.
Everything I knew about the Ludwig family in Germany is from the actual words of Wilhelm Heinrich Ludwig, my grandfather’s father. (My grandfather, Heinrich Wilhelm, was his father’s namesake with the names reversed.) Remarkably, Wilhelm, a Master Blacksmith kept a journal in which he wrote down his daily activities, financial transactions, gifts received from family on the birth of my grandfather Heinrich, recipes and even his favorite hymns and poetry about his love for the Prussian empire.
From 1845 to 1883, Wilhelm kept a record and the key to his life. Had he not done so, I doubt I would ever have discovered his beautiful homeland or it’s magnificent Ducal Tower. Written entirely in German, the English translation had been done long before I was born. There is no reference to who provided the translation, but it had to have been a tedious job. My Aunt Helen (the wife of the middle Ludwig son and my Dad’s older brother, Ernest) was also a determined family genealogist. She kept meticulous notes and eventually expanded the translation to include a chronological list of financial transactions, names of cities and towns mentioned with maps, detailed summaries of what was happening in Germany at that time and an alphabetized list of names mentioned in the Journal.
Since there is not an existing photograph of Wilhelm, the contents of the Journal has become all the more precious. I was finally able to hold Wilhelm’s Journal in my very own hands for the first time last year in October. For such a priceless record of his life, I was surprised at how significantly insignificant it was. The Journal is no more than a two-by-five inch notebook with a thin cardboard cover. I thought of how easily it could have been lost or thrown away as it changed hands over the course of 170 years. The keeper of the journal is my cousin Forrest Ludwig, the son of my Uncle Marion who was the oldest of the three sons of Heinrich (later Henry and Lottie). He and his wife live beautifully secluded in the mountains near Boise, Idaho. As my cousins and I sat in his living room passing the journal from hand to hand, we all commented on the exquisite handwritten script. I attempted to photograph the pages, but because of its size and the brittle pages, it was difficult to do so adequately. Still it is a wonder to behold. I’ve had dozens of similar little notebooks I have scribbled in during my lifetime. How could Wilhelm have ever had known that 168 years later his great-granddaughter would have followed his notes and fallen so completely in love with the village he had called home. Unfortunately no photo exists of Wilhelm, so this tiny journal becomes all the more precious. And it was the translation that pointed me in the direction Germany.
As I said, the little village of my Grandfather’s birth was Boberröhrsdorf. Indeed a mouthful, I eventually even learned to spell it! But knowing the German name won’t necessarily lead you directly to it. In fact, it took me years of searching to find it. The border between Germany and Poland changed dramatically at the end of the World War II. In 1945, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Poland’s borders were redrawn and areas which had been for many centuries been populated by ethnic Germans became part of a newly enlarged Poland. In short, tiny Boberröhrsdorf was wiped off the map and became the Polish city of Siedlęcin. In July of 2015, I took an extensive tour through Central Europe as part of a Holocaust Memorial Tour. Almost as an afterthought, I decided to extend my trip for an extra four days to try to find my Grandfather’s village.
On July 23, I made the following entry on Facebook:
“As this tour ends, a new journey begins early tomorrow. I am flying to Wrocław, Poland, renting a car (!!!!), then driving (carefully) 90 minutes to my Grandpa Ludwig’s village in Boberröhrsdorf – now Siedlecin. I will be romping through cemeteries, meeting with a museum curator, knocking on church doors – and maybe knocking on some Ludwig/Schiller cousin doors as I look for a house owned by Grandpa’s half-brother, Hermann. Asked if I was nervous to travel alone, I replied, “No. I have a lot of angels traveling with me and many hearts I carry as I make my way there. Especially my Dad. He will be my co-pilot!”
With the warmth of my Dad’s spiritual encouragement, I turned off the Autostrada (Poland’s sleek version of our freeways) and drove through the breathtaking back roads of Lower Silesia. Riding shotgun in my tiny red car were my paternal grandfather Henry William Ludwig, and his parents Ernestine Schiller and Wilhelm Heinrich Ludwig. And we were all heading toward a tiny fairy tale village they had left behind more than 130 years ago….
Somehow I knew it would be beautiful. My grandfather was an artist with a God-given gift. There seems is no other explanation why a poor sawmill worker of Emmett, Idaho with no formal art training could create such majestic American Southwest landscapes in oils. His work is extraordinary with incredible detail and technique.
Beautiful desert scenes of his beloved American Southwest were his signature. But as the rolling hills of the lush Polish countryside blinded me with greens I had never seen before,I was reminded of some of his other oil paintings. One was of an inviting woodland cottage which proudly hangs in our living room.
These woodland paintings had always been my favorite. They were somehow more inviting and familiar to me than his other works. I was forever grateful when this was the painting my father gave to me. I wondered what Grandpa’s inspiration had been. It certainly did not look like Idaho where he had lived since immigrating to America as a toddler. Was it from a postcard or a book? Or was there some distant lingering memory of his distant homeland?
Within ten short miles of my destination, there seemed to be clues as the church steeples began to change form. And as I rounded the corner, I pulled over to the side of the road. My heart stopped when I saw a picturesque church spire I knew I had seen before.
I had seen it in one of Grandpa’s paintings predominantly displayed with love in the living room of my cousin Karen Ludwig Scott of Boise, Idaho. Could this familiar little Polish church more than 5,000 miles from Emmett, Idaho be the same as the one in this painting? I stood at the gates of this little church for a long time just gazing up at the steeple. I took photo after photo trying in vain to hold on to this extraordinary moment.
After thirty years of collecting and logging photos, letters, taped interviews, home movies and countless ancestral charts, my journey had actually led me to this moment of complete connection. My family history was not about the countless notebooks I had filled with facts, but rather about the very real people who lived and laughed and loved. And I was only a few miles from another door of discovery about them and myself. I took one last photo from my little red car within a tunnel trees. Then along with my undeniable angels of family past surrounding me, we headed towards Boberöhrsdorf….
Then I saw it! I knew I had arrived home before I was even there. It was the sloping roof of the Ducal Tower through the trees.
I was absolutely in awe of the stately medieval castle keep and while looking up, I drove through the old gate that looked like the entrance but was actually the ancient remains of the moat. Unaware, my little red car got stuck when I tried to make a U-turn. I had to flag down two British visitors (one with a baby in a Snugli) and the shopkeeper of the gift shop, Monika Filipiñska. Together, we were able to free my car as I became a legendary moment in the life of the Siedleçin Ducal Tower. I became forever more “that American lady who drove on the moat.”
Relieved that I had not lost life and limb, Monika Filipińska became the gracious angel who guided me toward the discovery of the Ludwig family from Boberröhrsdorf. She first directed me to the two cemeteries just up the hill from the Tower so I could look for any headstones with familiar names. As serene as their final resting places were, the absence of German names was overwhelming. There were only long Polish names with elaborately decorated gravestones. And oddly, none were prior to 1945. Around the periphery of the Roman Catholic cemetery, there appeared a scattering of very old headstones with German surnames, but these seemed to be either broken or illegible. I returned to the Tower and said to Monika, “There are no German names….” She asked me to sit down while she printed out several pages from her computer.
As I was about to learn, arriving in Poland and announcing your German lineage might not endear you to the locals. Following the atrocities to the Polish people during World War II, Boberröhrsdorf became a province of the Polish state. The village was “ethnically cleansed” of all Germans meaning all people of Germanic heritage were forcefully removed from their homes. Houses, property and land were immediately occupied by Polish speakers from the east of Poland and the Soviet Union, who had in many cases been displaced themselves from places their families had lived in for many generations.The language was changed from German to Polish.
What Monika had printed out for me were several pages with the names of German men and a rendering of a World War I monument which once stood in front of the Roman Catholic Church I had just visited. In halting English, Monika was able to explain that the monument had commemorated the fallen men of the village who had died during The Great War. It had originally stood in front of the very churchyard I had had just been to but in 1945, it was an Evangelical Protestant church. Sometime that year, the monument and the adjoining cemeteries had been desecrated by the new Polish villagers. Headstones and pieces of the monument were smashed and thrown into the waters of the Ducal Tower’s moat. In the summer of 2015, only two of the tablets from the base of the monument had been recovered. They were retrieved from the bottom of the moat, meticulously cleaned and placed under the Linden tree in front of the entrance to the Tower’s entrance. The rest of the names Monika had given me were the names from the tablets still yet to be found.
Monika’s story of the lost WWI Memorial, was sobering. But she looked at me with her beautiful blue eyes and said, “Do you blame them?” Only days before had I completed an emotionally draining Holocaust Memorial Tour. Beginning in Munich where the Nazi Party was born in the 1930’s, I had been immersed in the rise of the National Socialist Party from the rally grounds in Nuremberg and observed the devastation as Hitler demolished and demoralized the Jewish people through the streets of Prague and Warsaw. I saw the tragic horror of the fiery genocide of the men, women and children of Lidice. I toured the atrocities of Dachau, Thereisenstadt, Gross Rosen and Auschwitz. Germany still remains an emotionally scarred country from the tragic vision of one mad man.
“No,” I said quietly to Monika. “I do not blame them…”
But I was saddened that this tiny village I had dreamed of visiting my entire life had erased its once proud German heritage. Though my family had left long before World War II, there lives had too been erased.
Almost forgotten was the slip of paper I had prepared earlier that morning. I had pasted some photos of my grandfather and translated a “Polish script” so I could somehow communicate my questions about the Ludwig family. I handed it to Monika as I noticed two names listed with the names of the forgotten heroes of World War I. OSWALT LUDWIG and HERMANN LUDWIG. Though I would not discover the thread to my own clan for another year, my eyes filled with tears. I had found my family, my family name, my grandfather’s home. Monika blessed me by directly linking me to this beautiful Polish village. I went there in search of the Ludwig family and discovered a portal into my own identity. There were no words…
The following day I needed to return my rental car and catch a plane for home. But there was one more thing I needed to do before I left this beautiful land. I drove back to the Tower one last time but not before I found a tiny florist shop in Jelenia Góra which was once old Hirschberg where my great-grandmother, Ernestine Schiller Ludwig had been born. Of course, her ties to this magical land are another story….
I purchased a beautiful bouquet of sunflowers which made me think of my sunny California home. This is what I wrote that last day I spent in Poland in the summer of 2015:
“As I begin my journey home, the skies remain glorious over this lovely land. There is a beauty here I cannot describe. So I found my family – Our family – after all. Before I left I wanted to stand in the shadow of the beautiful medieval tower one last time. I left a bouquet of flowers on the newly discovered tablets. I said a quiet prayer for the Ludwig boys and the other lost boys from Boberröhrsdorf. And finally, I said a prayer for all victims of wars. I realized that no one has done that for more than 72 years. I feel quite blessed to have such a solid connection to the ‘ties that bind.’ This Tower cast a spell on me like no other place in the world. I’m hoping 2016 brings another visit or more ways to stay connected. I only scratched the surface. Thank you Monika, the first person I met who gifted me with more history and tales to share with my family and Przemysław who dug into the Polish archives to place me and my family in the heart of this beautiful land. The connection is strong with this one.”
Mary Ann Van Sickle has been on the trail of her family history for more than 30 years. In the dark ages, that meant long hours in dusty libraries whirling through microfilm and sending for records from the National Archives in Washington D.C. She has made two tours to Poland to discover her family roots in Siedlecin and to visit her beloved fairytale Ducal Tower. She is the mother of four extraordinary children and five awesome grandchildren who have patiently listened to her stories their entire lives. She lives with her husband John, her greatest supporter, in North County San Diego, California. You can find more stories about her genealogical travels and family tree on her website at www.Timestepping.net.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.