I can never forget the moment when I knocked at the door of a home in a small French village, a copy of my family tree chart in my hands as I stammered the phrase, “Bonjour. L’histoire de ma famille!“ to the startled teenage girl who answered. Thankfully, before long, with our fathers by our side—her father just so happened to be the mayor of Sondersdorf, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France—we managed to reach a mutual understanding of the fact that my father and I had ancestral roots in this village and would love to take a peek at the old records.
This was ten years ago, when I first traveled to Europe. Along with a few days spent in Paris and the ancestral village of my mother’s German grandfather, we also paid a visit to the charming Alsace region of northeastern France where my father’s great-great-grandfather had lived and served in the Franco-Prussian War.
Joseph Lutz, the son of Francois Joseph Lutz and Switzerland-native Marguerite Meister, was born 31 May 1844 in Sondersdorf, Haut Rhin, Alsace, France.1 In his mid-twenties when the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 broke out, family lore states that Joseph served and was injured.2 Following the war and its German victory, the residents of the newly annexed region of Alsace were informed that they could remain French citizens by removing to France by the fall of 1872, or they could stay in their homes and default to German citizenship.3 Joseph’s parents, who were over seventy by this time, apparently opted to stay in Sondersdorf; a move to French territory may well have proven to have been a great hardship, no matter if they would have preferred to remain French.4 In any case, it was said that Joseph did not wish to live under German rule.5 Thus, at the age of twenty-eight, he left Sondersdorf for America, where he settled in Faribault County, Minnesota, near other relatives.6
It was a treat to see Sondersdorf, although it was not quite the rugged and rocky village that my father had long envisioned. Although in a mountainous area with the snow-capped Alps within view, Sondersdorf boasted a tidy village situated among rolling green fields. We enjoyed exploring a beautiful old cemetery, where the Lutz surname was prominent, and paid a visit to the village church. If I recall correctly, it was a local who called down an inquisitive greeting from a shutter-framed window who directed us to the mayor’s home for our genealogical questions. After becoming acquainted with the mayor and his daughter in a mix of broken English, French, and German, we made plans to meet the next day to see the old vital records held in the local school building.
We were treated equally well by the people of Ferrette, a larger village nearby, where we stayed the night. Hearty Alsatian meals and investigating the crumbling castle ruins on its picturesque hillside kept us well entertained until it was time to return to Sondersdorf. There, we met again with the mayor, who allowed us to page through the centuries-old record books, brown ink faded on the pages. Although we didn’t conduct in-depth research, not wanting to take advantage of the mayor’s time, it was incredible to see so many family names recorded in their original form. Upon our departure, the mayor kindly presented me with a book about the history of the churches of the region, in which he inscribed the date and the place—much as Joseph Lutz had inscribed his prayerbook upon his departure from Sondersdorf, long ago.
Copyright © 2016 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
1 Archives Départementales du Haut-Rhin, “Sondersdorf, Naissances, 1787-1852,” digital images, Actes d’État Civil (http://www.archives.cg68.fr/Services_Actes_Civils.aspx : accessed 28 April 2014), entry for birth of Joseph Lutz, 31 May 1844.
2 William “Bill” Catlin, conversation with the author, September 2002; notes in author’s files. The late Mr. Catlin was the grandson of Hedwig (Cichos) Lutz Rindfleisch and was acquainted with her until her death, at which time he was thirty years old, and Gerald and Fern (Thoma) Adam, conversation with Brian Adam, ca. 1985; notes in author’s files. Gerald Adam was the grandson of Joseph Lutz.
3 “Les Optants of Alsace Lorraine,” The French Genealogy Blog (http://french-genealogy.typepad.com/genealogie/2009/06/les-optants-of-alsacelorraine.html : accessed 12 April 2016).
4 Negative search, “Alsace-Lorraine, Germany, French Citizenship Declarations (Optants), 1872” (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 April 2016). A search was made for both the Lutz surname and the village of Sondersdorf; the names of Joseph Lutz, Francois Joseph Lutz, and Marguerite (Meister) Lutz of Sondersdorf were not located.
5 William “Bill” Catlin, conversation with the author, 2002.
6 Joseph Lutz prayer book, Adam Family Collection; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2016. The untitled German text prayer book is bound in embossed black leather. It is inscribed in French, “Le livre apartient A moi, Lutz Joseph de Sondersdorff [This book belongs to me, Joseph Lutz of Sondersdorf].” Included with the prayer book is a handwritten note in English, “‘Prayer Book’ from Switzerland, 1872, Anna Catlin.” Anna was a daughter of Joseph Lutz.