DNA, family memory, and how we tell our stories

We’re home and processing so much from the trip: memories, photos, laundry.

We’re also continuing to work through some ongoing family history investigations. Before we left, we connected with a few family members, looking for family history documents and records, some of which we’re continuing to work through.

One of the most interesting is a record, written and annotated by my Grandpa Weaver, of his family line. Grandpa was quite an historian. He and David would have gotten along very well. My earliest and most enduring memories of him involve long and detailed stories about Anabaptist forebears, told in a distinct Pennsylvania Dutch accent that didn’t seem to have faded much after decades of life in the American South. During one family Christmas he insisted that all of the cousins watch The Radicals, a dramatized retelling, produced in 1989, of the story of early Anabaptists Michael and Margaretha Sattler. This was quite an endeavor since I have a lot of cousins, and I don’t think many of us were particularly interested, at that point, in watching a movie about religious persecution. I know I wasn’t. But decades later, I still remember it. Well played, Grandpa.

Here’s what Grandpa Weaver recounted remembered about one of the oldest family connections to the Anabaptist movement (special thanks to Aunt Lois for sending this my way just before we left):

“Our Weber ancestors were involved in the early Anabaptist movement which began in 1525. The earliest record we have now of a direct ancestor is Georg Weber who was arrested and sentenced to prison in the dungeon Otenbach, in Zurich, Switzerland for being an Anabaptist preacher in the 1630s. He already was an old man when he was arrested and was in prison for 72 weeks and nearly died because he was confined in a dark cell. A fellow prisoner who apparently helped serve in prison felt so sorry for him that he told Georg that he would leave his cell door unlocked. Georg escaped that night and returned to his family. This account is given in the Martyr’s Mirror (a later account states he was beheaded). . . . . . . At different times when the persecution raged severe, they would flee to Schaffenhausen, a city on the border with Germany where they were more lenient.

Apparently they eventually decided it was time to get out of dodge. The family made their way to Germantown, Pennsylvania, where they leased farmland from a wealthy English landowner and later purchased land of their own near Blue Ball where my grandmother was born.

Ben in Zurich where this, and a lot of other Anabaptist drama, went down

David also ordered a DNA test just before we left. Initially he planned to take it himself, but Jon stepped in and pointed out that we could get both sides of the family from his sample. That logic won out and we sent his little vial of spit away before flying to Amsterdam.

At the very end of our trip, we got an email saying his results are in!

Given the records we have from all of our families, we expected Jon’s results to be heavily Swiss, with a strong thread of German (my mom did some digging after my Switzerland post and found another family line that definitely has Bavarian roots).

So we were a little surprised when, along with the Germanic heritage we expected, the largest portion of Jon’s results (from both maternal and paternal sides) indicated British ancestry. After a little digging, we realized that this is likely indicating what we’re thinking of as Swiss roots–because the DNA points back farther in time than we were. The Swiss, in other words, must be more closely connected genetically to the British than to their German neighbors.

As amazing as DNA testing is, it’s still a developing science. I hope we’ll learn more in the future, both from family documents and from the science of human genetics, but in the end what matters the most is the stories we construct out of these data points. What parts of early Christian history will we choose to highlight when we tell friends about our travels? Which of our ancestors’ choices will we reference in conversation about what it means to be Anabaptist in 2022? Which photos will end up as canvases on our walls and which will be discarded in the editing process?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories as I get ready to release my book in the fall. One of its most important arguments is that we don’t pay enough attention to the stories that surround us. Not everyone has the extensive web of family stories that we’ve explored during our pilgrimage trip, of course, but we are all products of stories. Religious stories shape our faith, political stories drive our understandings of citizenship and social responsibility, and cultural stories determine how we think about food, beauty, and even ethics.

As I continue to contemplate these things, our pilgrimage trip has been a humbling reminder that real stories are never simple.

On one hand, I marvel at the amount of detail we have access to (one branch of my family goes back to the 1500s! My DNA is 2% Swedish!). On the other hand, there’s so much that we don’t know. There’s no way for any of us to fully understand the motivations, actions, and contexts of others. And there’s a lot to understand. People are complicated, and so is the history that their lives weave. Recognizing this is important reminder to resist both uncritical celebration and uncharitable criticism in the stories that I contribute to.

So our travels leave us with much to think about.

More to come as the book launch nears, but for now we’re going to lean into summer in Kentucky for awhile.

waiting to view his DNA results

Final Stop: Rotterdam

It was going to work out great: two days in the Amsterdam area to see windmills, eat cheese, and shop for souvenirs before a grand-finale boat cruise around the port of Rotterdam.

We knew it wasn’t great when a cnn.com headline announced, “Mayhem predicted for travel this summer“ and included Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport as a case study.

I’ll skip the details, but the upshot was that we got very late notice that the airline moved us to a (much) earlier flight, which made it nearly impossible to get the Covid tests that are still necessary to return to the US.

We got the news as we were exploring Rotterdam:

It was a cold and rainy and miserable day, which didn’t help our attitudes about the last-minute switch.

We finally found a testing site that could fit us in.

Hoping they will let us in a little before our appointment time (they did):

As promised, we got our tests (thankfully, all negative) in 15 minutes, leaving time for some celebratory donor kabobs before a very-short night of sleep.

We did have to miss our Rotterdam harbor tour, which was a bummer, but we saw some of the harbor from the river taxi we were on when we got the message about our flight. I snapped a few pictures as David used the very last of his phone battery on a call with the airline:

So that’s it. This is where the ancestors departed from the European continent after being kicked around Switzerland, Germany, France, and Ukraine. I imagine that these farmers, millers, and weavers who loved the Swiss countryside so much that they struggled to leave even in the face of severe persecution felt a little stressed and out-of-place in the Rotterdam harbor too. David has written more about the Dutch Mennonites and our trip’s finale here.

The kids were good sports about having to cancel their final shopping plans in Amsterdam. We did have time for a stop at a grocery store to stock up on Milka chocolate bars.

And, most important, we made our flight to Chicago. By chance, we ended up sharing an airline row with a Hesston College student, just completing a Bel Canto singers tour. We had a great time comparing notes on the Anabaptist sites we visited and playing the Mennonite Game.

Our new friend, Bethany

Travel logistics

Travel with a group this size is much more complicated than moving around with one or two (or even three or four) people. Here are some things we did, and learned:

We used Eurail passes for much of our trip–especially for trains that took us long distances between countries. They worked on some regional railways too, as well as some of the city transit systems (this was especially helpful in Amsterdam, for example, but didn’t work in Rome). Some trains recommended additional seat reservations. We mostly dodged this (largely because we didn’t have a way of printing the seat reservations—which seems like the only way to do it) by learning to read the digital seat reservation codes. We did learn, though, that having a ticket/Eurail pass does not guarantee you a seat. We got stuck on one stretch standing together with our luggage by the door. It wasn’t great, but we got where we needed to go. Next time, we might consider paying the few extra Euros for reservations on the more popular trains—at least during holiday season (which begins June 1).

We opted for electronic ticketing, using the Eurail app. This seemed like the simplest route, but next time I would definitely go old-school and take the paper option. Even with a European SIM card, we had so much trouble and stress with the app. I’d rather keep track of paper and pencils, even if it gets us strange looks!

Amsterdam Central station
A regional train headed for Dordrecht
Most of the nicer ICE trains had WiFi and charging stations

Mask protocol varied pretty dramatically between countries. In Italy masks were expected and compliance was enforced on most public transit (“Maschere per favore!”). In other public places, it was more of a mixed bag. Germany was similar, with less enforcement. The Swiss and the Dutch seemed almost entirely unconcerned with masks. We only spotted a few on public transit and in stores—probably other tourists. On our last long train, almost everyone dutifully masked up through Germany and then unmasked when we crossed the border into the Netherlands. No one seemed concerned or frustrated about any of this.

On an ICE (intercity express) train through Germany

In the Netherlands we’ve ended up on a couple of boats, part of the regular public transport system. On these, and the city buses, it seems easiest to just buy tickets as we board, but it’s always a bit of a guessing game.

We also wanted to drive ourselves for parts of the trip in Germany and Switzerland. Because we had such a big group on those stretches (8 people) we had to find large vans. This is not easy (or inexpensive) in Europe. But it worked out and we’re glad we did it. The extra flexibility allowed us to see family history spots and other places off the beaten path. It also let us stop for pictures, snacks, and exploring , which I missed on the trains. A US drivers license and our regular credit card’s insurance was all we needed.

The German Connection

Next stop: Rural Germany (Hessen) where some of the Swiss Anabaptists, including lines from both of our families, came when they finally gave up on Switzerland.

When my Swartzentruber family left Trub, they ended up here, in Mengerinhausen.

Notice the crooked church steeple. I’m sure there’s a story to go with it:

The Swartzendruber family lived at Luisen Muhle, then a working mill, now a ritzy restaurant:

We stayed at a fantastic AirBnB in a small farming community little ways away. There were cows right outside our window, and when I took a walk through town, I saw twice as many tractors than cars driving down the road.

Ping pong in the barn: