detective of his own past
While still a youngster, Bob Behnen began a personal journey to
discover his roots.
Behnen, a state representative from Kirksville, has spent more than
20 years researching his family history.
"My love for
you and a longing to hear from you compels me to write. So begins
a poignant letter home from a young man undertaking an amazing journey.
The immigrants experiences, beginning in Prussia and ending in St.
Louis in 1847, included hunger, filth and disease, but finished amid the
powerful promise of America.
Since I am no
longer in the Old World, rather I find myself in the new, namely America
. . . I could not send word about myself sooner, wrote Ernst Gottlieb
This is fascinating,
says Bob Behnen, a distant relative of Leistritz, as he reads a copy of
the letter in the basement office of his Kirksville home. I look
back at these people and ask myself how could they leave the village where
their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years and where their family
and friends still lived and go to a whole new country. Amazing.
For Behnen, the letter
offers a glimpse into his familys rich history and is just one of
many pieces of evidence hes collected in his own personal journey
documenting his family genealogy. The
journey for Behnen may not have been as fraught with danger as that of
Ernst, but it has been exciting.
work. You hear all those family stories and you try to find the proof
in public records, church documents, obituaries, peoples memories.
Its being your own family detective, Behnen says.
Unlike many who become
interested in family history as they grow older, the genealogy bug bit
Behnen as a youngster growing up in Crestwood, in south St. Louis County.
The family was moving an aunt from her apartment when they came across
boxes of books and bundles of letters, all in German.
Behnen, around the
age of 10, was most fascinated with the letters even though he couldnt
I was dying to know what was in those letters, says Behnen,
now 36. I learned there was an alphabet that Germans used before
1920 called German script.
Using that alphabet
Behnen taught himself to read script and began translating the letters.
They were the exchange between brothers and sisters as they had
come to America in the 1870s. They wrote about their kids and tragedies
that happened to them and other everyday stuff.
Knowing both his mothers
and fathers families were German spurred Behnen to study the language
in high school and continue his research. He became fluent in German and
traveled to Germany on two student exchange trips, one the result of scoring
highest in a national German language proficiency test.
After high school,
Behnen joined the Army and was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany and traveled
widely. He visited Liechtenstein, the tiny nation nestled between Austria
and Switzerland and the ancestral home of his mothers family. Members
of the Gassner and Rypczynski families penned the letters that fired Behnens
curiosity as a youngster. Behnen also visited Wolfgang Emmerich, a cousin
living in southern Germany, who recalled the generosity of his St. Louis
The man said
that the St. Louis Gassners would send care packages to their relatives
in Germany after World War II, Behnen says. They had been
bombed out and some had their homes destroyed. They didnt smoke
but they traded the Lucky Strike cigarettes sent in the care packages
for food and other badly needed items on the black market.
Discharged from the
Army in 1987, Behnen attended Truman State University in Kirksville and
graduated with a business degree. He went to work as a fundraiser for
Truman State and later Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. While
living in Kirksville, Behnen became involved in the local Republican Party.
In 2000 he won a close race for state representative and was re-elected
in 2002. Despite the hectic life of a legislator, Behnen continues his
research, now aided by the Internet.
a letter written by ancestor Ernst Gottleib Leistritz who married
his brother's widow in 1857.
ancestors were German, hes found his lineage spread throughout northern
Europe. The Behnen family itself originated from Emsland, a region in
northwest Germany along the Dutch border. The Behnen family story is a
classic one of rags to riches. Behnen says the family were desperately
poor tenant farmers with little prospect for improving their difficult
lives in Germany.
This was marsh
land, swamp land and they barely eked out a living as hired farmers,
says Behnen, whose great-great grandfather, Johann Heinrich Behnen, came
to St. Louis in 1863 and was soon followed by a brother.
The two, who knew
how to handle horses, began hauling freight and coal in East St. Louis,
eventually forming a teamsters business which made them wealthy.The
Behnen brothers achieved something unimaginable in their native land.
In America they no longer toiled for the benefit of others.
They could work
very hard, every day, and keep the proceeds and not have to give it away
(to the landowner), Behnen says. I cant even imagine
the thrill they must have felt to own a piece of land, to own their own
Of course the journey
to America was never easy. In 1847 Ernst Gottlieb Leistritz wrote of the
four-month journey from Prussia, in present day Poland, to St. Louis.
The trip included a miserable winter trek across Germany and a two-month
sea voyage that left most of the 260 passengers aboard a sailing ship
The good wind
turned into a storm overnight. Our ship was soon carried to the heights
and again to the depths. . . It is a terrible sight to be mixed up on
a ship with so many people. . . During stormy weather, the children cry;
the women folk lament . . . Most people only have the wish to be on land
again. . . Five died and three children were born, two of which died.
Leistritz was followed
to America by his brother, Carl, who emigrated with his wife and two children.
Behnen is puzzled by a tragic mystery that befell Carl August Leistritz,
his great-great-great grandfather. Behnen learned that Carl left for America
with his family in 1855. But by 1857 his wife had married Carls
brother, Ernst. Apparently Carl died en route or shortly after arriving
in America. His widow and two young children traveled on to Missouri where
they joined Ernst. Behnen is unable to find any record of or learn the
cause of Carls death.
in his letter, For anyone who embarks on this trip you must consider
that you could die. Isnt that interesting.
For Behnen, genealogy
is far more than filling in lines on a family tree with names. It means
putting your familys experiences in the context of history.
The neat thing
is understanding what was happening in America at a particular time and
what was happening to your family, says Behnen. I wonder how
did Grandma meet Grandpa and why did they leave everything they knew in
Germany? What drove them to come to America?
public documents and old pictures makes family history real. Its
a passion that drives many to dig deeper and travel farther. And when
a gem of evidence is discovered, like a letter home from a German immigrant,
the excitement is hard to contain, says Behnen.
When you see
a genealogist at a microfim reader when they find something, you can see
their excitement. Its a great accomplishment.