Once upon a time there lived two German brothers named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm who gained fame with their books of fairy tales. Much later there lived an American travel writer by the same family name who hoped to claim them as kin.
This is a tale of Tom Grimm. Was it possible that some of the creative genes of the literary Grimm Brothers had passed through the generations to me? My initial search in the summer of 1962 wasn't encouraging. Fresh from college with a journalism degree, I was vagabonding around the world and arrived in Heidelberg, reported to be the birthplace of my great-grandfather in 1848.
But neither the town hall nor any church registry had reference to Karl Heinrich Grimm or his father, Jacob. A Jesuit priest who was scanning some old German ledgers for me turned up a Kathryn Grimm born in 1848--to an unwed milkmaid. I declined any relationship to her or her mother, and gave up the search.
200th Birthday Celebration
Even the post-"Roots" rush to trace long-lost ancestors hadn't drawn me back to Germany for another try. But I couldn't resist this year's 200th birthday celebration for the Bruders Grimm. Surely the special bicentennial would include genealogical information about the brothers' descendants, and I could easily learn if any of them were also on a branch of our family tree.
Besides, what a wonderful excuse to explore one of the lesser-known tourist routes of Germany, the Fairy Tale Road. It was established a decade ago to entice more visitors to the regions of Hesse, Lower Saxony and Rhine-Westphalia.
The 36O-mile route begins in Hanau, the Grimm Brothers' birthplace just east of Frankfurt in central Germany, and stretches north to Bremen. Along the way are towns that were landmarks in the brothers' lives and sights in the countryside that are supposed to bring to mind the tales they told.
Joining my springtime sojourn and search was a fellow writer, Michele, who has been sharing a Grimm byline through marriage for 15 years. On our flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, more than a few passengers were surprised to see us passing the time with copies of "Grimms' Fairy Tales" instead of the latest best sellers.
Now They Seem Ghoulish
Rereading the stories for the first time since childhood, we'd forgotten how ghoulish some of them seem, Little Red Riding Hood being eaten alive by the wolf, then saved by a hunter who slices open the animal's belly. Or Snow White poisoned by an apple and lying in a dark coffin for years, and later her wicked stepmother forced to dance in red-hot iron slippers until she fell dead.
But someone we met on the flight brought us to the reality that the fairy tales are hardly scarier than real life. Sitting across the aisle was Dr. Robert Gale, the bone marrow specialist from UCLA who was en route to Russia to help victims of the nuclear plant explosion at Chernobyl.
Our self-styled mission to trail the brothers and uncover a family connection began at the airport in a rented car, a five-speed sports model that could hold its own on Germany's no-speed-limit Autobahn. We headed east to see the grandest monument to the Grimm Brothers, a bronze statue of Jacob and Wilhelm in the market square in Hanau.
Jacob, the elder, was born in that now-industrialized city in 1785, and Wilhelm arrived the following year. Bombs obliterated the Grimm family residence during World War II, but their second childhood home still stands. We found it a few miles east at Steinau an der Strasse, a small farm village to which the boys moved at the ages of 5 and 6.
Their father had been appointed a judiciary official and the family lived in the stately district administrative building. Erected in 1562, it's been renovated as a museum and visitor information office.
We were directed down the street to an even older and more imposing structure, a Renaissance castle of the Counts of Hanau where memorabilia of the Grimms is exhibited.
That's where we discovered a family tree with some good news and some bad news. Happily, there were nine children in the Grimm family, increasing the odds that I might be an offshoot. Sadly, three sons had died a few months after birth and three others had remained lifelong bachelors. To my great dismay, one of the unmarried was Jacob.
As for the three others who married, the Grimm name was not passed on by Ludwig Emil, who became a well-known artist and fathered only a daughter. Nor by the brothers' sole sister, Charlotte, who wedded a Hassenpflug. However, Wilhelm still offered me hope. He married Dorothea Wild and they had four children. Unfortunately, the genealogical chart ended there and gave no clue to their offspring.