So the whole reason I wanted to come to Germany was to visit Alflen, where our Irmen great grandparents immigrated from in 1891. I had been able to locate a 3rd cousin named Walter through an internet search. He and his family are now the only Irmens left in Alflen, a town of only 600 people. I sent Walter a snail mail letter last spring and his son Tim responded that his dad, Walter, did not speak English, but he said Walter would welcome a visit from me anytime. I explained to Tim that I wanted to meet their family and to learn anything I could about the history of Alflen and the immigration story of Mathias and Maria Anna Irmen. And he said to come on over. My biggest worry: that this might be really awkward and weird. But what a fantastic welcome I received!
After I got to Cochem and checked into my Airbnb, I headed straight up to Alflen. (Stayed in Cochem because Alflen has no hotels—or stores, or schools for that matter. All they have is a church, a bakery and, naturally, a bierstub (bar)). Cochem is located on the Moselle River, at the bottom of a steep valley where they grow grapes on almost vertical slopes. To get to Alflen, I drove up to the top of the valley and about 10 minutes through the fields and orchards. Up there, it is all rolling farmland as far as the eye can see, with periodic little clumps of trees from each of which a tall church spire rises. Those are the villages. So it’s not like our farmland, where each farm has its own house and barn. All the houses are clumped together, most of them situated right on top of their animal barns and maybe having another barn attached to the house for crop storage. I suppose that was like circling the wagons for joint defense. Or maybe it was left over from feudal days when there was a single landowner and then a bunch of tenant farmers.
When I arrived at Walter’s very nice house, I was met with hugs and exclamations from Walter, his wife Heidi, and their son Tim. We sat down and played 20 Questions, with Tim doing the translating while Heidi bustled around serving cheesecake, an amazing Kuchen and tea. Walter (pronounced Valter), 62, is a communications manager for a regional utility company. Heidi does child care in her home. And Tim, 25, is in the Air Force, stationed at a base only 5 minutes from Alflen. Walter’s gorgeous blond, blue-eyed daughter Eva is 30, married to Tom Nilles and living in Luxembourg with their twins Max and Mathilda.
As I was talking with Walter, I kept thinking I had met him before. Then I realized how much he looks like my cousin Joe Irmen. He has such a warm smile. And he’s a woodworker, too. He has added onto the house where he was raised, building a really pretty family room and dining room with an beautiful stairway. He added one of those amazing tile heating ovens like I saw in Koenigsburg Castle, too, although burning wood for heat is now against the law there (for carbon footprint reasons)
Walter and Tim invited the local historian/genealogist over to meet me while I was there. Amazingly, she had taken the family tree that I’d sent by email and done a few days of research in local records to verify/correct my info. I was able to photograph pages from her source books. But the great thing is that she actually knew the immigration story! Here goes:
The Irmens were not tenant farmers, as we had thought. But in the 1800s, the German primogeniture laws (that allowed only the oldest son to inherit land) were abolished. This meant that in each generation after that, the farms were divided into smaller and smaller farms, especially in the case of big Catholic families like the Irmens. By the time Johann Peter Irmen’s 10 children inherited the land, the farms were so small that they could not even sustain each owner’s family, let alone generate cash crops for the market. To eke out as much food as possible, the people had cleared every inch of their land, so they were not only starving but also freezing in the winter because of lack of firewood. Relatives and neighbors tried to help each other, but it became clear that the town could no longer sustain itself. So the town fathers decided that some people just had to move out. Many Germans had already immigrated to America, but these folks did not have enough money to do so. So the town fathers actually provided money for the passage and chose which families had to go. Mathias Irmen and 5 of his 9 siblings were chosen to go to America. All of them were married and most had children by then. Mathias, Nikolaus, Anton, and Catherine (Kiefer) decided to go to Maumee, Ohio, while Peter went to Oregon and Anna Maria (Schneiders) went to Wisconsin.
So why Maumee, Ohio? This is where it gets really interesting to me. Turns out that Mathias’s uncle and godfather, Matthias Pauken, had emigrated to Maumee in 1853. Those of you who live in Maumee all know Paukens. There are a lot of them! One was mayor of Maumee at one time and all of us went to Catholic school with Paukens. Matthias Pauken had married Mathias Irmen’s aunt Anna Maria before emigrating. So that means that my generation of Irmens would be 5th cousins to my generation of Paukens. So here’s something cool to think about. You may also remember that my grandfather Steve Irmen’s best friend in Maumee was Leo Pauken. I don’t know if they realized that they were actually 3rd cousins. But Leo and his wife Hazel were the ones who introduced Grandpa Steve to Hazel’s childhood friend Katie from Findlay. So Grandma Kate and Grandpa Steve’s story really started a couple centuries ago in Alflen. I mean...whoa, right?
Well, this was more than I could ever have hoped to learn on this trip. But then, Walter and Tim took me on a walking tour of the town, showing me where the old homestead had been. It’s gone now, but the house next door, built in the same style, is still there. And you can see how they kept their animals on the first floor hoping to take advantage of the rising heat from the animals’ bodies. We went to the church where many generations of Irmens were baptized and married, and to the graveyard where they are all buried. Walter even arranged for the town museum to be opened just for me for an hour. There, the director showed me photos of the WW II war dead from the town, including a few Nazi officers named Irmen who also looked a little familiar. We later went to a small chapel for war dead where their names were engraved on the altar.
I had been advised not to bring up the subject of the Nazis when in Germany, but since it was right in front of us, we talked a little about how much the German people suffered under and after the Nazis. There’s an deep national German sense of guilt about that period. They wanted to know what Americans think of the Germans, so I told them that my generation grew up watching movies and TV shows where Germans were always the bad guys. But now, we are all counting on the Germans, because their educational system is so great and they are so technologically and ecologically advanced, to lead Europe out off the mess that is being created by all the white nationalists and isolationists. They seemed to be pleased with that. And they wished America luck with the same. (Germany is the only country in the world where displaying an Nazi swastika is outlawed, by the way.)
We had a very fun dinner of sausages, cheese, good German bread from the Alflen bakery, pickles and wine. I left feeling so happy to have made the trip and to know these cousins. I think we’ll be seeing Tim in the U.S for a visit. He comes to the U.S. for joint training exercises with the U.S. Air Force occasionally. They all send their best wishes to the Ohio Irmens!