In the early 1960s I made my first steps in the English language at school in Mannheim, Germany. My first name Ruediger turned into Roger among friends I had met there.
We were young and wanted to discover the world by just writing to other young people all over the world. And since we did not have the money to go to all these places - why not go there in our dreams by sharing the world through pen pals?
I dreamed of Canada - the land of First Nations, prairies and Rocky Mountains.
I took a closer look into the map and found the province of Saskatchewan in the centre of Canada and along the Saskatchewan River I discovered a town with the adventurous name Battleford.
I wrote a letter to the mayor of Battleford, who at that time was N. V. Huculak, who also happened to be a teacher in the Battleford Collegiate Institute. He gave my letter to his class, who were the same age as myself. Among the letters I received in return, I picked out the one of Patricia Degenstien. And from there a friendship developed that is still lasting today, even after an interruption of 20 years. We met two times here in Germany and 240 years ago Patricia's ancestors left tracks in Germany.
Here is our story from it's beginning.
From 1965 on we were pen pals and wrote the things teenagers would write to each other. Our friendship was supported by sympathy and with the years passing by, we saw each other growing older in the photos we enclosed in our letters.
Five years after we began writing each other, Pat came over to visit my family and I. She was working with Canadian Airways then and had one flight free a year. We had two beautiful weeks together and Pat visited Heidelberg, Rothenburg and many other places in southwest Germany. A couple of years later, she married a young Czech who had left his country after the Prague Spring in 1968.
In the seventies our friendship fell asleep and in one of her last letters Pat included a photo of her small children, a boy and a girl.
Nearly 20 years passed without any sign of life from Pat. But one day at work with Asea Brown Boveri, the company I was working for, I received a call - asking if I were Ruediger Schneider and if I knew someone in Battleford, Canada?
Pat had sent a Fax to the mayor of Mannheim in order to possibly contact her German pen pal after all these years. His secretary read the message and asked her husband, who was working for ABB to check if this women's German pen pal was still working for the company. Indeed, Pat found me.
The reason searching for me was her little girl Daisy. Meanwhile Daisy had become a young woman and wanted to visit her grandparents in Prague. This was an opportunity to visit mama's German pen pal as well. For a long weekend I walked with Pat`s daughter on the paths of her mother and later Daisy continued her journey to Prague.
Now the old friendship to Pat revived with a new quality and her brother Barry revealing an interesting detail of the Degenstien family's past. He wrote me a letter and asked for my help by contacting German Degenstiens whose addresses he had found on the internet. He mentioned one of the ancestors was born around 1765 in Wald-Michelbach. Barry had no idea I was living just a bow shot from this place.
The priest of the Catholic Church in Wald-Michelbach helped me to get in touch with the archives in Mayence where the bishop's residence is. In the old church's book number two of Wald-Michelbach on page 57 the following was written down:
13th December 1765: Christening of Sebastian Peter Degenstein,
Parents: Johann Georg and Margaretha Degenstein
Godfathers: teacher Sebastian Hellner and Johann Peter Mueller.
No other events about the name Degenstein, like marriage, christening and decease were registered .
Barry told me that the Degenstein Family came from the south west of Germany and followed an offer of the Russian czarina Katharina the Great who invited German craftsmen to come to the sparsely settled Ukraine. Around 1880, some of the Degenstein Family shipped to North America. A reunion of the family counted about 400 members living in North America.
In the summer of 2002, Pat and her sister visited me in Moerlenbach. Though 32 years had passed since we first met, a familiarity was present that can only grow if you have communalities over decades with a person's life.
Pat read all her letters again that she had written to me since she was a teenager. Afterwards she told me that some of the passages had made her cry since there were forgotten persons and events from long ago coming up again.
Of course we visited the church in Wald-Michelbach and read the font from 240 years ago where Sebastian Peter Degenstein was christened.