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Sarah Ann Wilson: Album Quilt (1854)

"My Fambly would attempt to bring their history forward with them and largely succeed …"

Alsace, situated along the Rhine between France and Germany, historically never considered itself a country. Like its neighbors to the east, it considered itself more of a duchy. It never had its own king. The Romans occupied the parts west of the Rhine but perhaps wisely left the other shore to the tribes and hoards, of which there were several in succession. It fell under the protection of the Carolingian dynasties, peaking with Charlemagne, whose sons bickered among themselves, dividing up the formerly united property. After that began the centuries under the Holy Roman Empire, where Alsace, being a border country, was traded back and forth among emerging countries. The Thirty Years' War brought Swedish troops, who tried to enforce Protestantism within its borders, and this seemed to work for Strasburg but failed in the countryside. Its residents looked to the Hohenstaufen emperors like Frederick I for protection and remained staunchly Roman Catholic.

As The Black Death ravaged the region in the mid-seventeenth century, age-old jealousies and hatreds eroded civil order.
An uprising of the artisans overthrew the ruling masters and initiated a terrible pogrom on the Jewish citizens, formerly protected by papal order, the monarchies, and the cities. Jews, who had been forbidden from most professions except finance, were murdered, and the debts even the kings had owed them evaporated. Jewish property was confiscated and distributed among the murderers. A few Jews were allowed to become Catholics, but even these so-called reformed ones were still forbidden from engaging in most professions like farming. My son thinks that Schmaltzes might have once been Jewish and became coerced Catholics. This might have happened. Heaven knows that pretty much every Catholic in Western Europe had at some time been coerced into their faith. Still, I doubt this conversion would happen in my family's case if only because the Schmaltzes were farmers, a profession explicitly denied even "reformed" Jews.  After about 1650, Jews became history in Alsace.

Into the eighteenth century, a rough balance emerged. The Black Death abated, and the cities and the countryside found some semblance of prosperity again. France reclaimed most of Alsace by 1650, though some parts remained independent. The remarkable loess soils produced wine and grain, and the cities slowly repopulated. Then the French Revolution came. While most of Alsace had been ceded to France long before, much of it remained economically dependent upon Germany.

Further, their dialect remained distinct from either French or German. Alsatians retained their unique identity. The French Monarchy had quietly coerced Strasbourg cathedral back into the Catholic fold but had tolerated Protestant observance where preferred. The Revolutionists brought terror.

Over years, Catholics were expelled under threat of death. Plenty were guillotined anyway, and the people fled into neighboring Germany. When the Revolutionary Army invaded neighboring German areas, Aslasians fled further. My forebears spent several terribly uncomfortable years living in abject exile in The Black Forest, near starvation, while the Revolutionaries confiscated their property and ransacked their churches. They made several half-hearted overtures to lure the citizens back, for they'd left a productive region without farmers. Each attempt failed under revolutionary fervor. When Napoleon finally overthrew the revolutionary government around 1800, the Alsation social order had been destroyed. Those who'd owned homes and farms were forced to work as laborers to those who'd benefitted from the draconian forfeitures. Homes were gone. Churches destroyed.

A place that might have been easily recognized as an Eden had been reduced to a sad shadow of its former self. Further unrest offered little hope for any future there. The people were scared. When Catherine The Great offered free land for the taking so that she could populate newly captured Ukrainian Steppeland with friendlies, the offer must have seemed too good to be true. For several generations, the Schmaltz' had lived in the same town, Kapsweyer, in the Südliche Weinstraße district in Rhineland-Palatinate, western Germany. It could no longer serve as their home.

And so began the Diaspora that haunted my paternal grandfather's family. The trauma persisted through upcoming generations and might well still influence lifestyle decisions to this day. Diasporas do not just go away with time but seem to replace old patterns with new, understandably less stable-seeming ones. My Fambly would attempt to bring their history forward with them and largely succeed, but none would ever return to Kapsweyer once they had taken leave.

©2024 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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