Thursday, October 25, 2012


My apologies to those of you who understand German and know what the meaning of the title of this post.  But nothing else seems to fit.

Why, oh why, wasn't the German language kept in my family?!  Why wasn't it spoken in the home throughout the generations so that it could've been spoken while I was growing up?  The only 2 Germans words I ever knew were Gesundheit! and Schnickelfritz!  And I didn't even know that Schnickelfritz wasn't a "real" German word until a German woman I worked with said to me, "Oh Schnookie, that's not a word.  What does it mean?"  So I found myself explaining to this 50ish something German woman what "Schnickelfritz" meant.


The question of the loss of the German language in my family has been something I've asked my parents about, and they actually know the answer.

Dad told me that his grandpa, Anthony Kerkhoff, was a very proud German immigrant and naturalized US citizen.  He did not allow any of his children to speak German and/or Plattdeutsch except when speaking to their grandparents.  And only then, if no one else was around.  There's the family story of Anthony picking up his 2 eldest children, Frank and Florence, after they spent a weekend with their grandparents (I don't know if this would've been Casper and Lisette Kerkhoff or Joseph and Elisabeth Vodde).  As they were on the trolley car home, Uncle Frank saw something and pointed it out to his father.  Because Frank had been speaking German all weekend, he said it in German.  Anthony, who emigrated from Haselünne with his family when he was 14, immediately reprimanded his son and said, "We're American!  We speak English!"

I love that passion of his.  I admire it.  I love that he committed himself fully to his new country.  He became a US citizen just 2 weeks after his 21st birthday.

Anthony Kerkhoff's Second Set of Naturalization Papers.  The first set was lost in the burning of courthouse in Cincinnati in March, 1884.

But as proud as he was to be an American, he was also proud of his hometown.  Haselünne is the one town's name that has been handed down through my Kerkhoff generations.  My dad was told by his dad who was told by his dad (Anthony) where we come from.  And my Grandpa Joe's middle name, Vincent, is taken from the Catholic church in that town.

Anthony lived the American dream.  He worked hard, he learned a trade (he was a machinist), owned his own business a couple of times (as a matter of fact, he went bankrupt in 1899), and then finished out his life working as the foreman for a large and well known machine shop, John H. McGowan Pump Co.  I assume that if he was the foreman of such a well respected machinist business (upright drills) after his company went bankrupt, he was still highly respected and trusted.

Then there's my great grandmother, Amelia Heger Meyer, born in Covington, KY.  This one is a bit fuzzy, but I think it gives a good window into my ancestors' views on language.  Dad told me that his grandma left St. Aloysius Catholic church in Covington because she had a "disagreement" with the priest over English vs. German being spoken.  Dad wasn't sure of the details except that Grandma Millie marched herself up to the priest to voice her opposition to German being spoken (we don't know if this referred to homilies, the school, etc.).  The priest at the time apparently told her that St. Al's was a German parish.  And she said, "We're American!"

St. Aloysius

From the sacramental records, I know that Millie packed up her little family and left St. Al's between 1895 and 1897.  My Grandma Ada Meyer was baptized at St. Patrick's in Covington, KY, and went to that church throughout her childhood.  She and Grandpa Joe Kerkhoff were married there in 1919.  I can't tell you how funny it is to look through St. Patrick's sacramental records and see things for Bridget O'Shaughnessy and Patrick Kelly (I'm kind of making these up, but you get the idea).  Then I came across my grandma's First Communion class.  All of these Irish names and then I read "ADA MEYER."  Couldn't they have at least written it as "Ada O'Meyer?"  LOL!

But I guess that Millie had her opinions and wouldn't budge.  And that brings a smile to my face.

My mom's maternal grandpa, Gerhard Henry Geisen (the son of 2 emigrants from Klüsserath), was bilingual.  I don't know how well his parents spoke English (if they spoke it at all), but Grandpa Gerhard was fluent in both languages.  He owned some butcher shops in Covington and also owned rental properties throughout the city.  He easily went between the languages depending upon the needs of his customer(s).  His wife, my great grandma Maggie Pistner Geisen, was also the daughter of German immigrants, but I don't know how fluent she was in German.  I assume she was, but I don't have stories to back that up.  I also don't know how fluent their daughter, my Grandma Elsie, was.  Did Grandma speak German at all?  If she did, I never heard it.  However, I do know that her brother, Bill Geisen, was bilingual.  He was the successor to the butcher business, so I'm sure he also had to speak to the German immigrants who came into the shop.

Gerhard Henry Geisen

However, the buildup to WWI changed all that.  There was, unfortunately, a strong anti German feeling among Americans during this time.  And Uncle Bill finally told his dad that they couldn't speak German anymore.  Not to their clients and not privately.  So they stopped.

I admire them for their commitment to their country.  I love that they were so passionate in their love for their country.  But as someone living in the 21st century, I am so sad that the language was lost.  I am struggling with trying to learn even a little bit of the German language.  This 46 year old brain just is not getting it.  But I'll keep plugging away.  If my immigrants can struggle to learn some English, I can struggle to learn some German.


  1. Viel Erfolg mit Ihrem Versuche die Sprache zu lernen!
    I hope the above still makes sense as my lessons in German go back some 55 years.