The Moment I Knew - Linda's Story | The Armchair Genealogist
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The Moment I Knew - Linda's Story

Fred and Lil Gartz 11-8-42
My brothers and I scoured the corners and cobwebs of my parents’ attic shortly after my mother died in 1994. We had one week, before my brothers had to return to their jobs in Seattle, to clear out the Victorian home my parents had lived in for the previous thirty years.

After my uncle died in 1990, our job had been to clear out his house as well. He had lived with my grandparents his entire life, so when we found my grandmother’s cedar chest in their basement, full of old letters and photographs, we had simply moved it to my parents’ attic. We were all young adults at that time, devoted to our emerging careers, and had no time to mess around pondering the relics they’d left behind. Still, we had been raised to value our family’s history, so we never considered throwing it out.

Now the day of reckoning had come. All the older generations were gone, and we had both my grandparents’ and my parents’ stuff to contend with. We simply hadn’t known how much they had saved.

We came across a large box labelled in my mother’s smooth, even handwriting: “Lil’s and Fred’s journals and letters.” They had kept journals? In the box we found my mother’s child-like, but still impeccable script penning her thoughts and opinions starting at the age of ten. She wrote regularly for the next sixty plus years. Dad kept diaries from 1933-1935, from ages of eighteen to twenty-one. Then again from 1950-1956. After that he kept quick notes on a calendar, the highlights or interests of his day.

My parents had saved all the letters they had received from friends, dating back to the 1920s, as well as the letters they wrote to each other from 1949-1962, when my Dad traveled extensively. These letters recreated our lives and the history of our emerging rooming house from a time when we were too young to form memories or know the hidden world of man and wife.

In my grandmother’s cedar chest we discovered a trove of nearly 300 World War II letters between my Uncle Frank, Dad’s younger brother, and his friends and family. Taken together they comprised a history of the War Years. The letters revealed the lives of my parents, grandparents, and their neighbors from 1943-1945, as well as the evolution of a young eighteen year old from a neighborhood kid into a seasoned navigator, charged, along with his peers, of saving the world.

Woschkeruscha Family 1901
We found birth certificates and report cards, diplomas and class pictures; century-old resumes and my mother’s stories published in the Chicago Daily News; photographs from Romania as far back as the 1890s and piles of letters from the Old Country, now Romania, then Austro-Hungary, written in an unreadable ancient German script.

I felt like Howard Carter, peering through a chink in King Tut’s tomb. When asked if he could see anything, he responded, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

I knew then that I had to pursue learning about the lives of my family, to discover what lay hidden in their words, but I couldn’t do it just then. I had little children to raise--helping with homework, volunteering to make our schools a better place, taking on the occasional freelance job. But someday.I swore I would.

That someday came in 2002, when both my boys were older and more independent. I wanted to get to know the uncle whom I’d never met, so I first hauled out the box of World War II letters. Uncle Frank’s letters revealed a sweet, rascally, funny, and generous fellow. The biggest surprise was my grandmother’s letters to him. Instead of the distant and aloof grandmother I had known, her letters revealed a devoted, prayerful mother, desperate for her son’s safety.

Since that day, I’ve pored over thousands of pages of letters and diaries, learning first- hand about my parents’ and grandparents’ struggles and triumphs, my parents’ courtship through Mom’s ebullient, emotional journal entries of falling in love with my Dad.

In 2009 I found my Rosetta Stone, ninety-year old Meta, through an ad my cousin placed for me in a newspaper for ethnic Germans from Romania. I sent Meta copies of the old, unreadable letters and documents my grandmother had saved since 1910, and she deciphered them into readable German, which I could then translate to English. Maybe this was the fateful reason I had chosen German as a major in college, although I had no clue at the time.

Meta’s decoding opened a shuttered window, and the past came blowing in: love letters between my grandparents; my grandfather and grandmother’s diaries of their journeys to America, after two devastating wars, the fate of their homeland and relatives they had left behind.

Josef and Lisi Gartz Oct 13,1911 
The insights I discovered into our family members’ lives and the universal nature of their stories led me to start my blog, Family Archaeologist. I wanted to share not only what I had discovered, but to relate it to the thrill so many of us share when we learn the details of our family’s past. This summer, my blog is revisiting the earliest posts, from the oldest missive I found (a 1910 love letter) to the story of my grandparents’ bold and, at times, harrowing journey to America.

I heard their call when I first laid eyes on those old letters and diaries back in 1994. It’s been ten years now since I was able to answer that call. With a century’s worth of treasures, I feel I’ll never run out of discoveries. The payoff is getting to know my parents and grandparents in their youth, as if restored from dusty death. 

Meet The Storyteller Linda Gartz

Linda cut her journalistic teeth in the television business—researching, producing, and writing documentaries that have aired nationally on CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS and have been syndicated on cable nation-wide.
Linda has published article in magazines, literary journals, and newspapers nationwide.
Linda is the Family Archaeologist, digging deep into twentieth century history as unearthed through her family’s letters, diaries, photos, and artifacts spanning more than a hundred years.  Join her on a quest to uncover the joy, struggle, loss, and resilience her ancestors experienced—and the secrets revealed along the way. You may recognize some of your own family’s past in hers and learn techniques for investigating, organizing, preserving, and enjoying a genealogical treasure trove. 
Linda's experience clearly displays she understands the power of storytelling. You can find her at her webpage Linda Gartz and her blog, Family Archaeologist.

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