Family secrets uncovered in old trunks

22 Apr

Beth and Todd Roehlk of Walcott display some of the documents, including prisoner-of-war letters written by a great uncle, that he found in two old trunks full of family history. Photo by Phil Roberts.

A couple of old steamer trunks have yielded a treasure trove of family history for a Walcott, Iowa, man. That includes an intriguing story of two brothers, his great uncles, who fought on opposite sides in WWII.

Todd Roehlk, son of Donald and Sandy Roehlk, ended up with the trunks that were owned by his great uncle, the late Erwin Roehlk, who emigrated to Davenport from Germany. “They went from mom’s garage to my garage,” he says of the trunks.

The trunks are filled with documents, letters, naturalization papers, passports, newspaper clippings and photographs.

He’s always wanted to go through Erwin’s trunks, Todd Roehlk says, “because I knew there was a lot of history in there he kept.”

Roehlk finally accomplished that last fall on a day off from his job at ALCOA. “It was a nice fall day, and I spent 12 hours in my garage. I went through it all.”

The trunks were full. “I probably threw away more than I kept,” Roehlk says. That’s because his great uncle kept everything, including a receipt for a 25-cent bag of seed from 1930.

Roehlk explains that Erwin, his only ancestor of that era that he knew, and Erwin’s relatives were from Stein, Germany. Erwin was born in 1908 and came to the United States in 1925. Many other family members, including a brother named Ernst, stayed behind.

As was customary, Erwin received a visa to enter the U.S., and Roehlk found a medical form associated with his application for it. Topping a list of conditions the applicant had to be free of were idiocy and feeblemindedness.

“He worked for a farmer in Nebraska, who I guess he kind of got sponsored by,” Roehlk says of Erwin, “and became a U.S. citizen in 1934.”

The trunk also contained some information about another great uncle, Henry, who was born in 1868 in Schleswig-Holstein and, in 1888, had become his first ancestor to emigrate to the U.S. Henry became a citizen in 1894 and worked as a gardener for Davenport’s wealthy Putnam family.

In 1921, Henry spent $6,000, payable in three years, for 15 acres, which included a house and a couple of buildings, north of Davenport along what is now Division Street at Cheyenne Boulevard.

Henry apparently farmed the land for 20 years, Roehlk says, then leased it to his brother Erwin. Henry died in 1945, and Erwin inherited everything. Erwin, a bachelor, lived on the property, which Todd vaguely remembers visiting, into the 1970s. Then he sold the land and moved to a farm located northwest of Walcott.

Someone who knew Erwin back when he lived north of Davenport told Roehlk that Erwin’s house never had a toilet or heat. Erwin reportedly kept warm on winter nights with an electric blanket.

Adds Roehlk: “And he’d sit in his truck a lot with it running, the heater on, reading the paper.”

Erwin worked at John Deere for 30 years and died in 1989.

The most interesting part of Roehlk’s genealogy research, in which his wife Beth is assisting him, deals with World War II.

Erwin was drafted into the Army in 1942 and spent three years fighting for the U.S. in WWII, serving as a medical aide in England, France, Belgium and Germany. He won some awards including three bronze service stars, Roehlk says, “which I found in a little matchbox.”

Ironically, Erwin’s brother Ernst fought for the Germans in WWII and was captured and held in a U.S. prisoner-of-war camp.

“That was the biggest find of all this,” Roehlk says of his research.
Roehlk discovered letters from Ernst to Erwin written while Ernst was a prisoner of war. But they are written in German, a language Roehlk does not know.

So, he says, he contacted the American/Schleswig Holstein Heritage Society, based in Walcott, and Jack Schinckel and Glenn Sievers of the group stepped in to assist.

“Glen and Jack really helped me a lot,” he says.

A Muscatine woman, the sister of a man Beth’s brother works with, translated Ernst’s letters over the Christmas holidays.

Most of the sentences in the letters, Roehlk says, are “pretty generic. ‘How are you doing? I hope you’re doing fine. How did your discharge go? Write me. Come visit.’ That sort of thing.”

He says Ernst, despite being a prisoner, seemed well informed as to how family members in Germany were doing, and he passed that information along to his brother, Erwin.

It also appears, Roehlk says, that even though Erwin received a lot of letters from Ernst, he did not write back very often because Erwin would sometimes inquire, “Did you get my last letter?”

Roehlk notes he has some 40 additional letters from the trunks, some of which have been translated, that were sent to Erwin from Ernst and other family members. “It’s all in German,” he says, “and some of it is not even legible. Some of it is swirl marks. It’s amazing that even back then they could understand it.”

Some letters, Roehlk says, from his grandfather, Werner Roehlk, who was a brother to Erwin and Ernst. Werner had emigrated to the U.S. and was a farmer.

“My grandfather Werner died when he was 33 years old and my dad was only a year old, so obviously I never met him,” Roehlk says. He says he doesn’t yet know the details of his grandfather’s death. Werner’s wife, Wilma, remarried when his dad was 5, he adds.

Roehlk says he also has a letter dated 1932 addressed to Werner and Erwin from their parents. It expresses hope that Germany will improve under Hitler and have no unemployment. They say, “We don’t know what will happen if Hitler doesn’t make it.” The letters also discuss the weather and the family farm in Germany, lamenting low prices for apples and eggs.

Roehlk has met with Sievers, who can speak some German, a couple of times and provided him with the names of family members in Stein. Roehlk says Sievers has a German phone book, found some Roehlks in that area of Germany and phoned them. Those he spoke with, Roehlk says, were middle-aged people who were familiar with his ancestors.

Roehlk’s next project is writing those German folks in hopes they can provide more information about his roots.

“It’s a slow process,” he says of the research. “You try to devote as much time as you can here and there. I’m just taking baby steps, I guess.”

Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.


Posted by on April 22, 2010 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “Family secrets uncovered in old trunks

  1. Pauline Rowson

    June 7, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Just found this interesting article during the research for my latest police procedural crime novel, which involves steamer trunks. I promise I won’t steal the idea! But it’s a great story. I am a British crime writer (married to a former British fire-fighter) and my novels are also published in the States where they are also in libraries. Thanks for the article and good luck with the project.

  2. frontporchexpressions

    June 7, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for writing, Pauline. I am thrilled and I am sure the Roehlks will be, too. I can’t wait to read the book. Let me know when it has a title and is published!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: