“I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Laurence, as we drove from the train station in Horb toward Sulzau, Germany, the tiny village where my great-great-great grandfather Franz Kotz first learned his trade as a schreiner (cabinetmaker) and which he left in 1848 to find a new life in America. I never imagined that I might be back in Sulzau so soon, in search of the Sulzau-Kotz connection – and I certainly never imagined I would meet a distant cousin, today. Read on!
As I’ve noted in this blog before, my great-great-great grandfather Franz Kotz settled in Wardensville, West Virginia, building a home and starting a family. We only discovered that branch of the family about five years ago; as a result we were able to trace our family name back to Franz. The Kotz family still lives in the house Franz built, and still has all his papers – papers that indicate his origins were in Sulzau, Germany.
So when my parents visited us in December, we drove from Zürich up to Sulzau to explore for the day. It was a sunny but frosty-cold morning, and the village residents were all tucked inside their homes – and though we saw few people, we enjoyed our brief exploration and snapped many photos. I wrote about the visit on 30 December 2019, including the photo below. When I had a chance to visit the WV Kotz home a mere six days later, I posted again.
Nearly six months passed; then, out of the blue, Laurence commented on that December post: “I just stumbled on to this page of your website about Sulzau – my adopted village for the past 15 years – I am an English artist & live here with my German wife. We live only a few yards from where you had the group photograph taken. You may find me on my website…. You are welcome to get in touch if you should ever return.” It was a very kind note, and I responded with a promise to keep in touch.
Last week, Laurence wrote again. He had mentioned my post to his neighbor Hubert, a lifelong resident, and asked whether he knew of any “Kotz” who had lived in Sulzau. Indeed, Hubert’s grandmother Martha Kotz (1899-1977) built the very house whose orange gate can be seen on the left side of the family photo above. That house, built in the 1950s, replaces the prior home, which was torn down and is now the site of their front garden. Hubert grew up in that house (and his father was a schreiner!). Little did we know in December, when we posed for that family photo, but we were just steps away from a likely Kotz relative.
While I was in Bremen this weekend – visiting Pam’s German relatives – Laurence introduced me to Hubert via email, and we agreed to meet today, on my way home – indeed, Sulzau is directly in line from Bremen to Zürich. Laurence very kindly picked me up from the station in Horb and we were soon making the sunny drive along the Neckar valley from Horb to Sulzau.
Over tea and biscuits the five of us (Hubert and his wife, and Laurence and his wife), spent an hour trying to decipher the old Franz Kotz documents (actually, photos of those documents). For example:
It was difficult, because the documents are worn, handwritten in elaborate script, and are using an older form of German. Still we made some progress, recognizing Franz’s commitment as an apprentice shreiner, and noting his travels through the Wanderbuch. We also looked through two impressive genealogy books put together by some of Hubert’s relatives, hoping to connect the dots between his grandmother’s parents and Franz. We did not quite make the connection – we are likely missing two generations. We hope to find some more information in the town records. Stay tuned!
Laurence gave me a brief walking tour of the village and of his wife’s lovely garden, remarking on the coincidence that brought us together on this sunny summer afternoon. Indeed, it is more than a coincidence: it is the kindness of strangers like Laurence and his wife Heinke, and of the hospitality of Hubert and Andrea, that truly brings the world together. For that I am deeply grateful, and it gives me hope in these challenging times.
I put a few more photos in the gallery.