“Ich Bin Ein Metzinger”
by John J. St. John
I’ve never been particularly interested in genealogy. Digging through documents bores me to tears. And yet, when a particularly industrious cousin traced my maternal ancestry back four generations several years ago, I found the results fascinating. So much so that Elsa and I turned part of a European vacation into a search through the cemeteries of central Germany, looking for evidence of my great-great-grandfather.
Beginning with my mother and aunt, Particularly Industrious Cousin documented our maternal line back to great-great-granddad Benedict Boniface Metzinger, who was born in 1820 somewhere in Germany, and emigrated to the United States in 1854, along with his wife and four children. Here the trail went cold, as they like to say in mystery novels. None of the documents found – not birth, marriage, citizenship, immigration or census records, not even the passenger manifest of the ship in which they arrived – gave definitive evidence of their town or city of origin. And Germany is a big country.
That’s where the project languished until the Spring of 1980, when my National War College class capped its school year with a trip to various sites of military significance in Europe. Among these were Bonn, at that time Germany’s capital, and both Düsseldorf and Stuttgart, two of its industrial powerhouses. Each of these cities were new to me, and deeply interesting. But Stuttgart, our final stop, showed me something extra.
I had long known that a significant portion of Philadelphia’s German immigrants had come from the Stuttgart environs. But as I left the hotel and strolled casually down the street, I was startled to note several sharp and unexpected differences from our earlier stops. For one, people nodded and greeted me as they passed, giving no indication that I was immediately identifiable as a foreigner. Secondly, many of their faces seemed somehow familiar. That last passer-by who greeted me looked quite a lot like a cousin. That blonde woman across the street could almost be my sister. And that man entering the store just ahead – me!
I left Stuttgart convinced there was some familial connection.
A bit later that year, after a complicated – but ultimately very favorable – tussle with the vagaries of the Foreign Service personnel assignments system, Elsa and I and our three high-schoolers found ourselves assigned to Geneva, a city within fairly easy driving distance of most of Western Europe. Genealogy was still not in the forefront of my mind, but it had unquestionably moved up a few notches. Certainly during this four-year tour of duty I would find time to advance what my cousin had started.
Sure I would! Somehow, the opportunity never presented itself. (Or, to be more accurate, I never accorded Benedict Boniface Metzinger the priority necessary to take advantage of the opportunities that did arise.) In 1986, however, two years after leaving Geneva, Elsa and I managed to carve out a couple of weeks to go back and visit old friends. This time, we decided to check out the Stuttgart area. More than that, we refined our search area even further.
I had read that, back in the 1800’s, many immigrant families had had their names changed – de facto, if not de jure – when U.S. Immigration officials, unable to communicate bilingually, had filled out the “name” space on documents with whatever they thought they had heard. “Metzinger” might well be a family name in Germany, but in the German language the “-er” ending, when applied to a place name, means simply that the person concerned is a resident or citizen of that place. What if my great-great-grandfather had been asked (or thought he had been asked) “where in Germany are you from?” And had answered “Ich bin ein Metzinger”, meaning “I am from Metzingen”? His actual name could have been Schmidt, or Schultz, or whatever.
Notwithstanding the obvious unlikelihood that, in such a case, a visit to the Stuttgart suburb of Metzingen would clarify anything, we decided to make the effort.
Arriving in the early afternoon of a dreary, drizzly Saturday, we first took the precaution of reserving a room at the attractive and centrally located Die Schwanen Hotel. While checking in, we looked through the town’s telephone directory. As residents of Metzingen, every person in the book was a metzinger, but not a single one was named Metzinger. Not one.
Next, we obtained driving directions to every cemetery in Metzingen. Both of them. Easily found, and blessedly small, we examined all of the headstones in not much more than an hour. Once again, no luck. It being a weekend, and thus no civil registries open for us to query, we hung up our Sherlock Holmes caps and magnifying glasses, and headed back to the hotel for a drink, silently congratulating ourselves on having chosen a weekend for the visit.
In back of Die Schwanen Hotel is a small but green and tree-lined platz, dominated by the historic medieval Martinskirche. Our Michelin guidebook informed us that this was one of the two days in the week that a late afternoon organ concert would take place there, featuring music by J.S. Bach and conveniently timed so we could finish a cocktail, catch the concert, and be ready for dinner in the hotel’s highly-rated dining room.
I was beginning to enjoy genealogy.
After giving the waiter our order, I asked for the wine list, and started to look for a reasonably priced white. A name jumped out at me – METZINGER! Well, of course; what else would a locally produced wine in this town be called? The waiter assured me that it was a good wine. Its price was neither cheap nor unreasonably expensive. We ordered it. He brought the bottle, uncorked it with due ceremony, and poured a bit into my glass. I reminded myself not to expect too much, lifted the glass, sipped, and … yes! It was good. We had found our Metzinger, even if not quite in the form we sought.
Over dinner, Elsa and I quickly agreed that we had to buy at least three additional bottles, one each for our closest relatives in the Metzinger line – my sister, brother and cousin. But how? Stores had already closed, none would be open tomorrow (Sunday), and restaurants could legally sell alcohol only for consumption on the premises. I explained my problem to the waiter, and then to the manager. After a long conference, a solution was found, and we took our three prized Metzingers home to Philadelphia, where they were eagerly received.
But that’s not the end. This story has an epilogue.
Fifteen years later, in March 2001, Elsa and I were at the Grand Canyon, unwinding after giving away in marriage our daughter, Terry, in Phoenix a few days earlier. As we sipped our cocktails on the back porch of the El Tovar Lodge and watched the sun going down over the canyon, we decided to move down to the rim to get a better view of the spectacular sunset colors inside the canyon.
As we stood there engrossed in that incredible view, two young men in their early twenties, grad students at the University of California, struck up a conversation with us. I noticed one of them had a Germanic accent, and asked where he was from.
“Germany”, he replied.
“Yes, but where in Germany?” I persisted.
He shrugged, laughed a bit, and said “A small town near Stuttgart, but I’m sure you’ve never heard of it”.
“You’re not going to tell me it’s Metzingen, are you?” I said.
His jaw dropped and eyes widened in amazement. “How did you ever hear of Metzingen?” he stammered. “No one outside Germany knows Metzingen exists.”
After we recovered from our mutual surprise, I quizzed him about Metzingers in Metzingen, and he said he had never heard of one. Noticing that, facially, he would not appear out of place in our family, I asked if he knew whether any of his own forebears had left Metzingen for the United States in the mid-1800’s. He shrugged again, said he had no idea, while giving me a look that questioned my sanity. I guess genealogy can be carried too far.
As the sun disappeared beyond the canyon rim, and night rapidly enveloped all, I said goodnight to the grad students and goodbye to Great-Great-Grandpa as well, deciding that the Bach concert and the three bottles of good white wine had made our one detour into genealogy well worth the effort.
© 2008 John J. St. John