Timişoara and Sânmihaiu German: Finding family history on the way home
I arrived in western Romania with a clear purpose, to visit the place my great grandparents left in the early 1900s, and hopefully to learn some family history. Previously all I had were hearsay stories from relatives and some online research I had done on my own. I knew this trip would be a unique experience, and I was curious to see if the ancestral element would help me connect with the destination.
This is the family information I knew before: My great grandparents left the city of Timişoara before World War I and moved to Chicago, bringing with them our family’s uncommon surname, “Kapche.” Before they left, the region was part of Hungary, but it became part of Romania after the Great War. Despite Timişoara’s location near the borders of Romania, Serbia, and Hungary, my family was actually part of a German-speaking ethnic group referred to as the Danube Swabians, a regional remnant of the Habsburg Empire, and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Understanding the full story might end up being complicated, but I was hoping to at least leave Romania with more answers than questions.
Gathering family information prior to arrival
Not wanting to miss anything, I decided to hire a local guide, and began searching online about six weeks before my flight to Bucharest. To my surprise, Alexandra, a highly rated guide in Timişoara, also happens to be a specialist in genealogy research. Given the opportunity, I was curious to see what family information she could find.
I sent a request to my father in Illinois for some clear reference information about our family (names, dates, locations). He and his cousin, Lorraine, provided me with an package that was more comprehensive than I had expected, including information that our family was actually from a small farming village near Timişoara called “Sânmihaiu German” (“German Saint Michael”). I also learned that my great grandfather moved to the United States in 1905, earlier than I had thought. It was good information, but it took a while to compile, and it arrived in my inbox while I was traveling with minimal access to the internet. Before I knew it, I was sending my request to the genealogist in Timişoara only a week before my trip to Romania, not allowing much time for archival research.
Thankfully, Alexandra has a can-do attitude about her work. She told me she would see what she could find in a week. We agreed to stick with basic research, and to do a private tour of Sânmihaiu German including some other nearby Danube Swabian locations.
Visiting Sânmihaiu German
The morning of our tour, Alexandra stopped her car at a street corner in Timişoara, where I was waiting with two hot coffees to keep us moving. We left the city, driving past the Calvinist church where the Romanian revolution started in 1989, and we soon arrived at the German church in Freidorf to get the priest’s help accessing the old church in Sânmihaiu German. He told us to follow the custodian’s speedy car, and we soon arrived at St. Michael Catholic Church, in the small farming village of about 700.
Built in 1845, the church had been attended by both of my great grandparents’ families, it is also where they were baptized. The Romanian Orthodox in the village now use the church through a cooperative agreement between the two denominations, as there are only a few German-speaking Catholic families left in the area.
Upon our arrival, Toma, the Romanian Orthodox priest, smiling and dressed in plain clothes, greeted us and opened the old fashioned lock of the church door with a huge key. Toma and the custodian showed us everything, including the altar relic, labeled in Latin, which none of us could decipher. We climbed the stairs to the choir balcony, then up to the attic and bell tower. We saw the old geared mechanism that used to operate the outdoor clock. In one of the extra rooms near the front door, there is a memorial list of World War I fallen soldiers from the village, including a “Franz Kapche.” Our family’s surname is extremely uncommon, so despite not having any records of a “Franz,” he was likely an indirect relative.
During the visit, an older gentleman came to join us, without so much as a greeting. He’s from one of the few remaining German-speaking households in town. I asked if he ever knew any Kapche families, he told me yes, the last of them moved to Germany in the nineties following the Romanian revolution. I also asked if I could record his pronunciation of my family name. It sounded more like “KAP-kyuh,” Alexandra then had me pronounce the American version for comparison (“KAP-chee”)
After thanking Toma for welcoming us, and for his efforts to maintain the church, Alexandra and I went to the local cemetery, where we quickly found some Kapche gravestones. None of the graves we saw were from direct ancestors, which is not surprising since my great grandfather brought his own parents to the US in the 1920s, and his brothers and sisters followed around the same time. As a result, any Kapche relatives who died in Sânmihaiu German would have died in the 1800s, making their grave markers hard to find and difficult to read (if they are still standing at all).
Exploring nearby Danube Swabian communities
After leaving Sânmihaiu German, we drove to nearby Săcălaz (“Sackelhausen” in German), where my great great grandmother was born. At the cemetery, we had a chance encounter with Christine, who greeted us in German. She told us her family had left the area when she was twenty, but she has since returned, and is now helping preserve the cemetery and other cultural remnants in the area. She also lent us a catalogue of the cemetery gravestones. We found the listing for Peter Bittner, my great great great grandfather, and the plot where his grave should be. But despite having a photo of the gravestone, the marker is no longer there. It’s not clear what happened to the grave marker, nor if the coffin is still there underground.
After lunch at Schwabenhaus, a local restaurant in a traditional building from 1924, we drove to the German senior center in Billed where they have a Danube Swabian museum. We were greeted by a German-speaking gentleman named Adam. He asked if my German was good enough for explanations, but instead I had to rely on Alexandra’s translations from Romanian for what turned out to be a detailed history lesson.
I was already somewhat familiar with the difficult history of the Danube Swabians, but the museum provided a more comprehensive explanation. To summarize, the Danube Swabians migrated to the area during the 1700s from southwestern Germany, yet disease from the unfamiliar swampland killed large portions of the population shortly after arrival. The survivors, along with later waves of immigrants, eventually cultivated farmland using western European farming techniques, building communities that they called home throughout the 1800s. In the early 1900s, some of the population began to migrate to the United States (including my great grandparents). After the region became part of Romania following World War I, the 1920s were a period of prosperity. Unfortunately, the 1930s were the beginning of a difficult era, including the arrival of the Nazi regime, followed by World War II and its aftermath, Cold War deportations to Siberia and eastern Romania, and finally the oppressive Ceaușescu dictatorship. The museum has this history well-organized into a chronological timeline, and while much of it is unpleasant, it is important to understand. I was reminded of how lucky my family was to leave when they did.
I’m glad that the museum does not disproportionately dwell on the dark and challenging parts of history, nor does it overlook them. Good times and bad, everything is factually included for educational purposes.
The upstairs portion of the museum is more relaxed and welcoming, it’s a humble recreation of the interior of a Danube Swabian residence. It was so convincing as a home, that a part of me wanted to sit down and stay for dinner. There are also a few displays of traditional clothing, which seems to make ample use of conservative black cloth.
Before we left, Adam showed us the senior center, including the large communal dining hall that was originally a barn decades ago (they even left a trough on one of the walls when they renovated the room). It’s nice to see that they have a comfortable and welcoming facility for the elders in the community.
Leaving Billed in the late afternoon, Alexandra drove us back through Sânmihaiu German, where we explored the cemetery once more before heading back to Timişoara. I learned more about my family’s old-world history in one day than I had ever previously known.
Walking through the streets of Timişoara
Alexandra invited me to join her Timişoara walking tour the next day, which was attended by an international group of swing dancers and one coffee-drinking American. We learned the history of Timişoara, and how it changed hands amongst various regional powers throughout the centuries. Due to the fluctuating sovereignty, Timişoara was a multi-ethnic city where residents spoke Romanian, Hungarian, Serbian, German, and even Yiddish. The diverse places of worship are still standing within walking distance of one another. Previously a walled-in city, only one of the fortress sections remains from the nine-sided star that the walls used to enclose. At the turn of the 20th century, almost all of these walls were taken down to expand the city to the surrounding lands. The tour was only a few hours, but Alexandra covered a lot of information.
I happened to be in Timişoara for the “Poetry in the Streets” weekend, including art events, outdoor concerts, and recreational activities in the plazas for children. A good amount of people attended the events, but there were no oversized crowds. At night, towards the end of the musical set performed by the Romanian band “Zimbru,” a woman opened her second floor window and waited until the crowd’s applause died down, then began shouting at both the audience and performers, saying she was trying to sleep. Everyone seemed to find it hilarious rather than disruptive.
Return to Sânmihaiu German
On my last day in Timişoara, I returned to Sânmihaiu German. An Uber drove me out to the small village, where I knew I could walk all of the streets within a few hours. I photographed the traditional houses that still have names on the front walls, hopeful that I might see an old house with my family’s last name. There were names like “Trendler,” “Holz,” “Horner,” but not “Kapche.” I met some kids playing soccer, and briefly spoke with a shepherd whose flock of dozens had one black sheep.
When I walked past the church, Toma, the Romanian Orthodox priest, came out of the church residence to greet me. He invited me inside for some Romanian food, which was prepared for the workers fixing the church’s roof. I met Toma’s wife and daughter (Adina and Alina), the latter speaks perfect English and studies at the university in Timişoara. The family is from a different part of Romania near the mountains, so it was interesting to hear Alina’s perspective about the village.
After walking the final and least populated street at sunset, I found the bus station for the eight o’clock bus back to Timişoara, leaving me with one more hour in the village. I entered a local store where some guys were sitting on crates drinking beers next to the vegetables, they had waved to me earlier as I walked past. One of them asked me a question in Romanian, and I answered, “United States of America.” He responded, “No, what are you doing here?” I told him my family had left the village one hundred years ago. While I waited with them until my bus was ready to leave, another older gentleman joined us, he told me he remembered the Kapche family that left in the 90s.
After arriving back in Timişoara, I got a much needed night of sleep before my early morning train out of town. I’m lucky that I was able to find what I was looking for, with help from some knowledgeable and friendly locals. It’s also nice to finally know the full answer to a question my family gets asked a lot, “Kapche? Where does that name come from?”