Old suitcase held clues for woman’s family history
Family stories are powerful motivators. For Judy Breiter, of Long Prairie, the stories were accompanied by a mysterious suitcase full of letters and photographs. And they took her all the way to France.
Judy grew up in Alexandria. The old suitcase came with what had been her great-grandparents’ house in Lake Henry. It was then owned by her grandfather, Ovide Fischbach, and his wife, Othilda. Next in line for the house was her uncle. He died young, and after his death, the family decided it was time to clean out the old house. Judy’s mother, Alzira, was told she could have the suitcase.
Alzira was interested in family history. She worked at Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Young, single and carefree, she and a couple of friends traveled to Europe in 1954. They spent three months breathing in the sights and sounds of post-war countries, including Israel and France. She had the address of relatives in Paris, and when she wrote them a letter, they responded the same day. Mail was still delivered multiple times a day in some parts of the world.
Alzira’s newly found cousins, including Olga Poulhes, spoke French, which she didn’t. She did speak German, and in a round-about of translations, they were able to communicate. She learned that Olga was her grandfather’s cousin. Olga had a chance to come to the United States with her brothers, but their father said she was too young.
After Alzira returned from her European travels, she kept in contact with Olga and other cousins. She took the letters to a French teacher in Alexandria for translation. Eventually the letters stopped. Alzira married, and when her daughter, Judy, was little, the stories and slide shows of her French connection filled the time off on snow days. They also sparked Judy’s dream of traveling to France, too.
Judy became the keeper of the suitcase when her mother died in 1993. She was more than a little curious about the contents of the letters. She knew the letters preceded her mother’s travels to Europe so they couldn’t be from the cousins she’d met while in Paris. Judy also discovered they were written in “old” French and saw dates between 1889 and 1919. Judy’s friend Bobbi Schroeder offered to have her son, who could read a little French, read them. The “old” French, with variations in letter formation and connection as well as accent marks, proved difficult. Bobbi’s sister, Cheryl, who taught French in Duluth was the next to take a look.
The translations slowly revealed a writer suffering in the trenches of war-torn France. He described the military action as a “disaster, not a war.” He and others were “like a bunch of rabbits in a hole.” He described enduring eight months of cannon fire, day and night. He said 800 bombs had been dropped, and at times, the people would go into caves to escape. His story was that of the destruction of Verzenay during World War I.
Many of the letters were addressed to Ovide Fishbach’s parents. What Judy wanted to learn was who had written the letters. She visited the ancestry center at the Stearns County Museum where they had files of people who lived in the county. She found information on her great-grandparents and learned that her great-grandfather had immigrated in 1863, when he was three years old. Everyone in the family had thought he’d come as an adult.
Judy knew the Internet might reveal something. She signed on for a six-month membership at the web site Ancestry.com. “I started my tree by putting in the names and dates of my mother’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.” She had entered her great-grandmother’s maiden name: Angelique Perot. She couldn’t find anything connected to her, but in looking the letters over again, she saw the name Constance Perot. When she typed her name into the web site’s search tool, she found that Constance was her great-grandmother’s sister and she almost immediately discovered a connection in France.
In France, Andre Martin, a 68-year-old General Electric employee, had made a similar effort to find family. He was looking for his grandfather’s two brothers who had come to America. Judy learned that it was Andre’s grandfather, Charles, who wrote the letters from the trenches in Champagne, France. He also fought in the war in Belgium. His brothers, Isadore and Ferdinand, who were 15 and 16, had come to the U.S. (Lake Henry, Minnesota). These brothers were Judy’s great-grandfather’s nephews who had come to join him in Minnesota, later working on farms in North and South Dakota. The men’s niece was Olga, who Judy’s mother had met in Paris in 1954.
As Judy gradually connected the family dots, she scanned the letters from the suitcase, and one by one, emailed them to Andre. There were also photos, posters and business cards that Andre was delighted to share with his sister, Catherine, and daughter, Sophie.
Judy began to plan a trip to France. When she emailed Andre to see if they would be able to meet, she didn’t even know where he lived. Some information on Ancestry.com is “private” and not available for general viewing. Sophie provided the address, and on May 21, 2018, Judy took that international flight that she had dreamed of for so many years. Her friend Karen Kirckof, Cheryl Petterson (who had initially translated some of the letters), and Cheryl’s friend Dorie Kress traveled with her. Cheryl and Dorie are seasoned travelers who go to France a couple of times a year.
The year 2018 was the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Judy and her traveling companions found commemorations and displays as they traveled through the areas from which her family had emigrated. Stories from the letters became real to her as she saw fenced-in areas where there are still live bombs, and reconstructed churches and other structures in the once nearly destroyed town of Souain. She remembered Andre’s grandfather writing about the river in Souain changing course because of the war. He’d told how the women moved to Paris while the men were fighting. He wrote of having to hide in bunkers. There were requests for money and news. He said it was a sad life for the soldiers in the trenches, and he didn’t know how long it would last. A few years before the war started, the Army had come around looking for Isadore and Ferdinand who were in America.
Judy realized that, though the war has been over for 100 years, there still exist sensitivities to events that happened back then. She also recalled the letter from Isadore’s mother in which she expressed dismay that Isadore had married a German woman. Though they were worlds apart, “she just couldn’t be trusted.”
Judy has added her own mementos to those of her mother from their trips to France 64 years apart. She put the French letters in a binder and gave them to Andre and his family. “We walked miles and miles in Paris. Everyone was so nice, and we felt very safe,” she said. She thinks it helped that they used the little bit of French that they knew and made the effort to communicate.
Her French family members own vineyards in the Champagne region, and she enjoyed sampling the bubbly wines. Some are also equestrians and are part of President Macron’s military shows for dignitaries from other countries.
Judy plans to go back to France and hopes to take her brother. Her husband, Duane, and sons, Matthew and Michael, have their own passions but don’t discourage her from pursuing her genealogy.