COVER STORY:Time traveling

On a sweltering Sunday in southern Bavaria, I amble down the hill from the medieval fair at Harburg Castle and jump over a massive wall into the wooded graveyard of my ancestors.

“Oh, my God!” I exclaim, scanning the fading inscriptions, some Hebrew, some Roman, trying to spot the headstones of my great-great-grandparents and great-great-great-grandparents.

There’s a Guggenheimer, a Weinbach, a Blumgart with hands symbolizing a Kohen. And there, with faded inscriptions, are the graves of the Altmayers, my great-grandmother’s forebears, the butchers and dairymen of Ederheim.

On that day, as thousands of Germans bedecked as wenches and knights cavort in the castle courtyard, my genealogical search takes me to a Jewish country graveyard. It is one of many cemeteries I’ve visited since beginning a voyage that started on the Internet, pushed me through labyrinths and into blind alleys, and culminated in a visit to the land where Jews once lived as cattle traders, leather workers, butchers and wine merchants.

A couple of months later, I walk up a hill in Colma. There, in clearly marked graves, not far from the resting place of Wyatt Earp, lie Abram and Aaron Altmayer, my great-grandmother’s brothers, along with their sons and daughters.

Born and raised in New York, the birthplace of my parents and grandparents, I grew up knowing little of Judaism and even less about my Old Country forebears. The only grandparents I knew had all but discarded their connection to Judaism long before I came on the scene, rooting themselves firmly in the culture of Manhattan.

When I left the East Coast for the Bay Area 30 years ago, I thought I was a pioneer. Who knew relatives had preceded me a century and a half earlier?

I’m not ghoulish, but for the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time in cemeteries, trying to decipher inscriptions in my limited Hebrew and reconnect with a lost Jewish past.

Mostly, I hit roadblocks — like the Brooklyn cemetery pocked with infant graves that look like broken baby teeth. My German great-grandparents are there, but 120 years of New York winters have eroded the inscriptions. I walk away in frustration.

“You’re nothing if not persistent,” my mother says.

Persistent? More like meshuggah. When I’m not traipsing through distant cemeteries or checking out microfilm archives, I’m cooped up in our office loft, where genealogical records spill out of drawers and family trees need constant updating. Off to the side are the photos of grandchildren that I keep meaning to put into albums. The albums sit there, pristine, while I neglect the present and future for the past.

Meanwhile, I slog on, discovering an odd trace that keeps me up till 2 a.m. and turns me into an insufferable bore at parties.

Once in a while, I find someone who’s interested.

“Why are you checking out the Mormon Web site?” I’m asked, and I explain that since the Mormons want to baptize all their dead relatives, the Church of Latter-day Saints keeps the best records in the world.

“What about Ellis Island?”

Alas, there was no emigre central for those who arrived in the mid-19th century. Instead, I wade through censuses, citizenship records and ship manifests on Ancestry.com. Sometimes I take “field trips” — to a branch of the National Archives and Records Administration or the Manhattan Bureau of Vital Records, where I pore through eye-straining microfilm. The intermittent reinforcement — think B.F. Skinner — keeps me running through the maze, hoping for an occasional bite of cheese.

Blame it all on a distant cousin who discovered me on her genealogy search. One thing led to another, and two years ago I began my own search. Mostly, I was determined to find out about my mother’s paternal grandparents, Benjamin Hirsch (1832-1883), a tailor from Wurttemberg who reportedly fought in the Civil War, and his wife, Caroline Altmayer Hirsch (1842-1898), a caterer and my mother’s namesake. She was born in Ederheim, according to my grandfather’s records.

And, family members whispered, she wasn’t Jewish.

But who was Caroline? The process of uncovering her past leads to correspondence with newly discovered relatives and genealogy buffs from Georgia to Germany.

Whooshing through the genealogy vortex, I call out new discoveries about dead relatives to live ones who aren’t interested — like the fact that great-grandfather Harry Levy, a rich womanizer who was into ladies shirtwaists, so to speak, changed his first name from Heiman to Herman to Harry, and his father’s first name was Boblewski. Boblewski?

“Wow,” I shout another night to my husband. “I found my paternal-paternal great-grandmother’s maiden name. Dorothea Redlich married Henry Silver in St. Louis in April 1864. I discovered they lived in Missouri because their oldest son, Harry, was born there, according to the 1870 census. And in 1880, they had a child named Harry Redlich living with them in Hoboken, where my grandfather was born, and he must have been her nephew, so it all fits together and …”

“Uh huh,” he says, calling up from downstairs, where no doubt he’s concentrating over some electrical engineering equations that resemble just so many squiggles. “It’s late. Come to bed.”

But one day, I hit the big time. I punch “Altmayer” into the Latter-day Saints site (www.familysearch.org). There I find Abram and Aaron Altmayer, boot dealers and manufacturers, living in San Francisco in 1880.

They were born in Bavaria, like a number of the early Jews of San Francisco, but were they Jewish? On a hunch, I log on to JewishGen (jewishgen.org), go to Family Finder and punch in “Altmayer” and “Germany.” There are three genealogical searchers listed. One intrigues me, because it mentions the town of Ederheim. His name is Rolf Hofmann. I dash off an e-mail.

Early the next morning, I open my e-mail at work and nearly fall off my chair. In an attachment is a family tree dating back to the early 1700s. And there is Caroline, née Gietel, daughter of Emanuel Altmayer, the butcher of Ederheim, and Siel Lippschuetz, from nearby Huerben.

“Oh my God!” I shout.

“Are you OK?” a co-worker says.

“Not only am I OK,” I respond. “I’m all Jewish.”

I e-mail my brother, whose office is on the ground level of my mother’s apartment building in New York. He prints out the Altmayer tree, and rings my mother’s doorbell.

“Mom, you can get rid of the hot cross buns,” he jokes. “You’re Jewish.”

I begin an e-mail correspondence with Rolf, a retired Stuttgart architect, who is neither a relative nor Jewish, and who became interested in the history of Bavaria’s Jews quite by accident.

A few weeks later, I phone Magnus Samson “Bud” Altmayer, who is also listed on JewishGen. Needless to say, he is surprised to hear from me. He’s a retired Pontiac dealer, World War II Air Force major and Appalachian historian from North Carolina. He’s also, we discover, my fourth cousin. With help from Bud and myself, Rolf fills in the branches of the family tree.

My journey culminates this past summer in southern Germany, where I meet with Rolf in Stuttgart and find the weathered graves of so many Altmayers and others in the shadow of Harburg Castle. Curiously, the castle and cemetery were spared the ravages of Nazism.

In our rented car, we drive over dusty backroads to Ederheim, a one-pub hamlet about 12 miles from Harburg. It could be Pleasanton, minus the malls. No artifacts. Just single-family homes with cars in the driveways and dwarves on the lawns.

My eyes move over the bowl-like valley to the surrounding hills, wondering what life was like for the 20 or so Jewish peasant families who lived in that tiny Bavarian enclave.

I think of Caroline, who immigrated alone at age 17 in 1859, became a servant in Iowa and later a caterer and proprietress of an employment agency in New York. Married late in life, she was widowed when my grandfather was a baby and put her two sons in the Hebrew orphanage so she could work. Caroline, her death certificate says, died of exhaustion in Westport, Conn., a month or so shy of her 56th birthday.

I think of her husband, Benjamin, a tailor, who emigrated from Wurttemburg in the early 1850s and died at 51 of cirrhosis of the liver and marasmus (starvation, or the inability to absorb nutrients). Was he an alcoholic?

I think of Bud Altmayer in North Carolina, who writes that he is happy to have me as a cousin.

And I think of the big mess in my office — reams of genealogical records and even larger piles of grandkid photos — begging to be sorted. Someday, hopefully before my unfinished novel is published, I’m going to put it all together.

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Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a retired former senior editor at J. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.