Friday, June 03, 2011

A visit to Paris to meet our French cousin

Cindy, Laurent and me. 

Seven or eight years ago, I got an email from one Laurent Brener, who lives in Paris and said he was a distant cousin.

He sent me an elaborate spreadsheet -- he’s a financial controller for Nissan Europe, so he knows his way around spreadsheets -- that tracks our family roots back more than 10 generations. He found me online through an expert on the genealogy of southwestern Germany, where my great-grandfather came from.

We corresponded by email, and he even invited me to his wedding, so I figured we had to visit him when we passed through France on our way from Spain to Amsterdam.

 Laurent is in his early 40s and is a great guy. He and his wife took us to dinner at a fancy bistro on the Left Bank. Laurent traveled to distant corners of the world before finally settling down. His English is excellent. He has to use it in his work every day to communicate with colleagues all over Europe. 

The yellow marker at the bottom is Dambach, France, where our common ancestor was born. The jagged white line is the border between France and Germany; France is to the left and below the line. Bundenthal, the green marker in Germany, is where my great-grandfather was born. Border disputes in this area were common over the centuries. The blue marker is Stuttgart, Germany, where our daughter lives. The yellow € marker is for the European Union parliament in Strasbourg, France.

How we’re connected

Our common relation is Hans Friedrich Breiner, who was born in 1595 in Dambach, Alsace, which is now France. His son, Hans Wendell Breiner, was born in 1635 in Bundenthal, Germany, where my great-grandfather, Mathew Breiner was born two centuries later.

Our ancestors are from Alsace Lorraine, which straddles what is today the border between France and Germany. The area changed hands many times through history. In the 1870s, when the Germans occupied Alsace Lorraine, they made a formal proposal to the residents: you can stay or leave. Laurent´s people decided to leave.

"In fact, looking back at the history of my ancestors’ branch, they progressively moved from Germany (Fischbach area) to Lorraine (France), then to Toulouse," Laurent said in an email. In France, they changed the spelling of the name to something more French -- Brener.

Laurent said his research showed that the Breiners were millers for generation after generation. In essence, they were small business owners. They ground the grain for farmers. The name Breiner is related to the word for grain.

Our own great-grandfather, who immigrated to New York in 1885, was a farrier (hufschmied in German), meaning he shoed horses.

When my brother Tim and I visited this area in 2001, we were struck by how German things were on the French side of the border. In a cafe in Lembach, France, we heard people speaking a dialect that was not quite French and not quite German.

In the town hall in Bundenthal where we looked for genealogical records, they were mostly in German, but for some periods they were in French, notably during Napoleon’s time.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:43 PM

    Hello Jim,

    my name is Benedikt and living in Germany. Based on my present research I am also related to Hans Wendell Breiner. Unfortunally I am missing information for his birthdates and the connection to his father. So if possible for you, I would like to exchange some information about him an his offspring. You can contact me best by email Thanks Benedikt