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Linda Gartz: Digging up family history through letters and photographs

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Originally Published on OpEdNews

My guest today is writer and television producer Linda Gartz. Welcome to OpEdNews, Linda.  Of late, you've gone in a different direction. Can you tell our readers what you've been up to? 

photo credit: Paul E. Gartz 

After lying dormant for years, my present project has just about taken over my life---as well as my office, a spare room, and fifty linear feet in my garage! 
When my mom died in 1994, my brothers and I sorted trash from treasure in her sprawling Victorian home. When we got to the attic, I felt like Howard Carter peering into King Tut's tomb, discovering "wonderful things." There in my mother's neat handwriting was a box labelled, "Lil and Fred's journals." Therein lay diaries from my parents' youth spanning more than six decades, the earliest being my mom's ten-year old entries in 1928. 
As we searched further, we found my mother had kept all the letters and cards she and my dad had ever written to each other. Who gets to hear their parents' voices as children, teens, falling in love, young parents, and on through the vicissitudes of Life? Their words brought them back to life.
Then there was the cedar chest filled with my paternal grandmother's treasures. After both grandparents had died, we had just taken their stuff and shoved it all into my parents' attic. My grandmother had also saved thousands of pages of letters, including 300 World War II letters to and from her youngest son, an Army Air Corps navigator, whom we kids had never met. 
We found passports, diplomas, citizenship papers, and all sorts of notes and photographs. The most mysterious were scores of letters from what is today Romania (my grandparents were ethnic Germans from Transylvania). I speak and read German, but these letters were written in an ancient German script virtually no one can read any more. We decided to keep them even though I figured I'd never know what secrets they held. 

My project began in earnest in 2002. I began reading the World War II letters. What a gift! I met the uncle I never knew through his letters. He came alive again--his eighteen-twenty-one year-old voice and personality were so distinctive--sweet, funny, kind, a bit rascally. I learned what my family's life on the home front had been like and even peered into the heart of a grandmother whom I had found distant and discovered her to be a loving, prayerful, and devoted mom. 
Then I tackled reading my mom's and dad's diaries, as I could fit it in, but I ignored those unreadable German letters. 
Enter Serendipty. 

My brothers and I made a "roots-finding" trip to my grandparents' home towns in Romania in 2007. We were visiting a genealogical repository when a professor, researching a book on the history of Transylvanian Germans, heard our American accents and introduced himself as Uli Wien. He asked if we might have any letters from my Transylvanian grandparents. Did we ever! 
When I returned home, I began sorting through the letters, making out a name here and there. I realized I had letters and postcards between my grandparents dating back to 1910, plus dozens of letters from my great grandfather, my grandmother's employer, and many relatives and friends from the old country. 
I sent a few to Professor Wien, who deciphered them, but I knew he would never have the time to decode them all.  So I placed an ad in a Transylvanian German newspaper and found a ninety-year old woman, Meta, who has been working with me for more than two years now and has deciphered about 70 letters, diaries, diplomas, resumes, and more. I call her my Rosetta Stone, and she's brilliant. A lot of my time during the last two years has been spent organizing and translating those deciphered letters. What I discovered in them spurred me on to start the blog. I wanted to share this treasure because within my family's story lies the basics of every American family's story. 

I started my blog, Family Archaeologist , on the 100th anniversary of the oldest missive I'd found: a vintage postcard from my grandfather to my grandmother to celebrate her Name Day in November, 1910. ( see Can Love Last 100 Years? I've posted at least once or more a week since then. 
Gartz's blog banner 

A treasure trove, indeed! How did you go about organizing this tremendous quantity of material? And what did you do with it once it was organized?

As we were in the process of clearing out my parents' house, we organized as we went along, a kind of first run-through. We sorted our finds into logical groups, like "Gartz Old Photos" or "Frank Gartz World War II letters" and placed them into numbered bankers' boxes. We ended up with twenty-five boxes and put them all in storage for several years. I was busy raising my kids, volunteering, and working part-time, and both my brothers live in Seattle, so nothing was done for six years. In 2000, I persuaded them to come back here to Chicago to make more sense of the collection. We brought the boxes to my house and began going through each methodically. 
My older brother, Paul, set up two Excel spreadsheets, one to document the contents; one to keep track of important dates as we found them. Then my younger brother, Bill, and I would pull out an item, describe it and any dates, and Paul would type it into the spreadsheet. We ended up with a seven-page spread sheet showing each box's contents and a multi-page spreadsheet that is ordered chronologically by date (e.g., birth dates; citizenship dates, arrival in America dates, etc).
These spreadsheets are a Godsend because I can just glance over the contents and find where something is located and then look at the item more closely for details. I can readily find a date, and have been adding to the timeline spreadsheet as I find additional details. 

To keep straight what I find in the letters and diaries, I type up quick summary notes of the most important contents as I read them----or sometimes I make a spreadsheet with columns that reflect ongoing themes, like: kids, travel, relationship, etc. Then I can scan a column and  to find in which letter an event was written.

Can you give us a few examples of your thrilling finds?

Those World War II letters, in which I get to meet the uncle I never knew, was a thrill. Reading the diaries of my parents in their youth and in particular my mom's entries of falling in love with my dad, was just so much fun (her fairy-tale take on their romance starts at this first post,   Falling in Love Seventy Years Ago , and continues weekly thereafter). My grandfather, Josef's, diary of his harrowing trip to get to America was amazing ( Terror Atop the Train ). He wrote a bittersweet description of boarding the ship to America ( Out to Sea ) , and his love letter from 1911, trying persuade his love, Lisi (my grandmother), to marry him in Chicago, is a show-stopper ( If you love me). On a sadder note, I discovered my mother's records on her mother's mental breakdown, just as Mom was planning her and my Dad's wedding ( More than I could stand ).

So how does the blog work, Linda? I can't tell just by reading some entries. Did you figure out the whole picture ahead of time or are you winging it and it'll take as long as it takes to tell your family's saga, bit by bit?   

I knew I wanted to have the blog up and running to commemorate the 100th anniversary of my grandfather leaving Transylvania for America on Christmas Eve, 1910. I decided to tell the story of my grandparents, Josef and Lisi, beginning with that Names' Day Postcard, the oldest dated missive in the collection, November 18, 1910. 
Those old letters Meta had deciphered held so many stories with universal themes: love, risk, boldness, hope----I wanted to share those stories, which I knew would resonate with others. 
I didn't have an exact plan, but wanted it to unfold somewhat chronologically. I also wanted to interweave historical background and the discoveries made on my brothers and my 2007 trip to Romania, when serendipity and research led to unexpected, exciting discoveries. 

Lisi Ebner, Gartz's paternal grandmother, in Grosspold (her home town) traditional clothing, June, 1910
After I got my grandparents married off (so to speak), I jumped ahead in time to share my mother's journal entries of dating and falling for my Dad.  My parents' first dates took place in 1941, so 2011 was my hook -- as the 70th anniversary of Mom's diary entries about falling for my dad--hard! My mom's writing is so vivid----expressing a level of love-struck joy you'd seldom find in today's more cynical era.
As far as a plan, I have an overall sense of where I'm headed at least a few weeks ahead of time, but I'm a little stuck right now as to what direction I want to take the story next. There's  no "five year plan." 
Did your work in television help you in this project in any way?

Hour-long documentaries require lots of research and the ability to first find the story within the mounds of information and then find the information one needs when it's time to put it all together. 

Organization is key in television. Keeping all the disparate elements in my family's archives straight, and finding connections among them, is one of the trickiest, and most gratifying elements of working with all this historical stuff.
I include all sorts of visuals in my blog, which is informed by my TV background.  Each post tells a short story, kind of like a television magazine program. Some posts take the structure of an on-going serial, or soap opera, enticing the reader to find out what will happen next. I keep most posts quite short, 
between 300-500 words, so they can be read in a few minutes. 

One big difference is----I know when a documentary is finished. It's "in the can." I don't have a clear idea when this project will end. One major milestone will be when I finish the memoir I'm working on. Rather than a full family history, I'm zeroing in on my parents. It's a memoir of a daughter discovering her parents' lives through their diaries and letters----their great love, bolstered by fun and commitment----buffeted by distance, madness, riots, and tragedy. My hope is that readers will be able to identify with their family's experiences in the story of this one family.

You've attracted a following to your ongoing blog. What kinds of responses are you getting and does that input affect how or what you write?

It's so rewarding when people I don't even know comment on a blog post. Some mention how a post spoke to them, or they might share a sentence or two of a similar experience in their families. Some comments express appreciation and anticipation for what will happen next. 

Many people have told me that my blog has inspired them to start looking into the family memorabilia their family has saved somewhere. I love all of that, but it doesn't affect what I'll post. It does make me want to keep writing, however. It's a wonderful feeling to think that others are enjoying the stories and history that I find so fascinating. 

Luise Woschkeruscha, Gartz's maternal grandmother, in her masterpiece to become dress designer

I imagine that "finishing" your family's saga will have a bittersweet quality to it, Linda. What would you like to add before we wrap this up?

I plan to continue sharing the best of this family saga at Family Archaeologist for the foreseeable future. Next year marks the 70th anniversary of my Uncle Frank's induction into World War II. I'm trying to decide if I want to share highlights from the War letters in a separate blog, perhaps posted 70 years to the date they were written. In the meantime, I'm plugging away on my memoir. 
It's been great fun sharing my passion with you! I hope your readers will be motivated to take the plunge and seek out into what treasures may be tucked away in their or their parents' attics and basements. It could be the start of a gratifying and exciting journey. 

Thanks so much for talking with me, Linda. I'm hooked. Gotta go see what your grandparents are up to now! 

Family Archaeologist
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure (more...)
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