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Dirlammen: A Journey to Find Roots in Germany

August 30, 1987|SHARON DIRLAM | Times Staff Writer

DIRLAMMEN, West Germany — From here they set out, the Dirlams, on their way to a new life in a new land.

They left their home in central Germany in 1854, and made their way northward to Bremen on the Weser River. From there they sailed aboard the ship Ellen upriver to the cold North Sea and beyond that to the Atlantic Ocean to make the crossing to the United States.

According to the ship's manifest, they were Jacob Dirlam, 42, farmer, of the region of Hesse, from land that is now a stone's throw west of the line that divides Germany into East and West. Next on the list: Marianne Dirlam, 32, and Heinrich Dirlam, whose age is not listed.

In steerage, or "Between Decks," according to the manifest, were more of the family: Joseph, 17; Philipp, 16; Hannes, 10; George, 9; Andreas, 7; Heinrich, 6; Christian, 3; Ferdinand, 1, and Susanna, 36, all Dirlams.

They arrived in New York on Sept. 2, 1854. They passed inspection at Ellis Island and were processed into the United States. They were immigrants, one family among the thousands that flooded into the Eastern United States from Europe in the 19th Century.

New Family Farm

They moved on and established a new family farm in Honesdale, a tiny town not unlike Dirlammen, in northern Pennsylvania, with similar hills and valleys, cold winds and snow in the winter, muggy summers and a bountiful harvest season.

Other than the personalities of the relatives who've been alive during my own life, I know little of the history of the Dirlam family. A few years ago someone mentioned that there was this town in Germany from which they had probably come.

Hans Baumann of the German National Tourist Office confirmed the existence of Dirlammen.

"I discovered a tiny village by that name about 55 miles northeast of Frankfurt," Baumann wrote. "It's in a very pretty area called the Schwalm, where the farmers even today still wear their traditional costumes. Close by is the town of Schlitz, home of the founders of the brewery by that name, and also not far away, you'll find one of Germany's top car and motorcycle race tracks, the Schottenring. Not a bad neighborhood after all!"

I was curious about the people left behind in Germany, the ones who live there now in Dirlammen and the life they have there. I wondered why my grandfather's grandparents packed up and left.

The Autobahn goes in several directions out of Frankfurt, but there are only small roads to Dirlammen. They curl past pretty farms and well-tended fields and wind through villages such as Dorfelden and Oberau, Gedern, Herbstein and Hopfmannsfeld. The villages all slam shut at noon and stay that way until 2 p.m., so travelers planning a picnic lunch must gather their provisions before then.

We had scarcely left one town before another appeared on the horizon or over the next hill; none would be more than a couple of hours apart by slow horse or ox cart. Their closeness, along with their slate-roofed buildings and old stone churches, are reminders of how long these villages ( dorfs ) have existed.

Dirlammen turned out to be not only the last town on our route, but the least. It contained one store, an inn, a burgomaster's house, a steepled stone church and maybe a dozen other houses.

The townspeople, all five of them who were around, were quite friendly and amused as I showed my passport around, asking about other Dirlams. But they assured me that there were no Dirlams left in Dirlammen or on any of the surrounding farms. Apparently the entire contingent emigrated to the United States in 1854.

None of the people who were around town that afternoon spoke English, and their German dialect was difficult to decipher. They smiled and pointed out various houses that had been standing for a hundred years or longer. We bought salami and cheese for our picnic lunch. Soon there was nothing more to say.

The only lesson available seemed to be one about the limitations of peering down the dark passages of time. I don't know why my ancestors left their homeland to make the long and difficult journey to America, but I suspect it had to do with hope and promise and opportunity.

Had they stayed, their lives would be similar to those I saw in Dirlammen generations later: slow conversations and careful shopping at the general store, a small farm to tend, a child to send to school, a twice-weekly trip to the post office at Lauterbach, church bells ringing on Sunday mornings.

Left Family Farm

Early in the 20th Century, my grandfather left the family farm in Pennsylvania to look for work. He headed north to Corning, N.Y., and became a glass blower for Corning Glassworks. My grandmother, for all of her life, kept a paycheck envelope from his young career, from the year my father was born. My grandfather's pay for a week's work in 1911 was three dollars.

During the Great Depression, from 1929 through the mid-'30s, there were no jobs for people entering the work force, so they sent my father to college. His generation, the third in America, became the first to collect college degrees. They became engineers, architects, nurses and teachers.

There is a pull back to the homeland, a curiosity, a circle that wants to be closed for the record, a family history. I stood on the ancestral soil and chatted with the kind but incurious descendants of their neighbors, and left with a feeling of good cheer, congratulating my great-great-grandparents for their sense of adventure.

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