History in the blood

RELIGION & CULTURE

22 October 2005


CHRISTOPHER KREMMER catches up with his extended family for a special anniversary (Spectrum Sydney Morning Herald)

Genealogy is more contagious - and possibly more dangerous - than bird flu. You need only to visit the burgeoning family history section in your local library to see the victims of runaway past-itis. The elderly are especially vulnerable.

When my family caught the bug more than a decade ago I braced myself for the worst. Family trees full of blanks began turning up in the mail. Strangers would telephone claiming to be related. It was only a matter of time before we had to endure a fate worse than death - the family reunion.

It began with a phone call from my father's brother, Uncle Jim, a few months ago. He'd been trawling the archives and had found a significant date - the 150th anniversary of our German ancestors' arrival in Tasmania was approaching.

Next thing we knew, we were downing pints at Knopwood's Retreat on Hobart's Salamanca Place, staring at one another like doppelgangers, amazed that genealogy could be such fun. Aunties and uncles, cousins and spouses had come from all over Australia, drawn by the strange allure of the ancestry trail, or any excuse for a weekend in Tassie.

Everyone there shared a common ancestor, Joseph Kraemer, a thatcher, basket maker and farm labourer from Altheim in Baden, who, with his late wife's sister and five children, left Europe for Van Diemen's Land in 1855.

Now the wheel had turned full circle and we were back in Hobart Town, where on July 23, 1855, the Hobarton Mercury had reported the arrival of the America with its valuable cargo of German workers after a 99-day passage. Nineteen travellers had died en route and five children were born. There were horse breakers and shepherds, clerks and gardeners on board.

Most German settlers in the 19th century steered clear of the penal colonies, preferring South Australia. But central Europe at the time was in the grip of political and economic ferment. The Kraemers must have been desperate.

With Saturday morning rapidly becoming Saturday afternoon, Uncle Jim was getting toey. Clutching his genealogical dossier with an air of purpose, he frogmarched us out of Knopwood's and into our hire cars for the half-hour drive to New Norfolk, the settlers' Promised Land.

Having found a new country, the Kraemers soon found a new name. They were now Kremmers, probably due to a clerical error by an immigration officer. After spending time in Hobart, they headed north-west on the colony's only made road between rolling hills and green pastures. They'd ventured to the limits of the known world, only to find the landscape uncannily like home.

Yet it was also very different. The unfamiliar language, and convicts in their coarse woollen uniforms and shackles being transported around the gulag; the curious absence of the indigenous people, almost exterminated within 50 years of the European settlement.

At an old toll house north of Hobart the hills closed in on the road and river for the tight passage up the Derwent Valley to New Norfolk. I drove past oast houses and industrial graveyards in the winter half-light, shadowing the ancestors, guessing their thoughts. It all seemed rather gloomy.

A motorboat dragging a water skier on the dark, sluggish Derwent broke the spell, announcing New Norfolk and the Devil Boat wharf and sports field that was our muster point. We parked the cars and checked the batteries in our video cameras, while the children chased their new-found cousins.

My father, Ted, was becoming increasingly excited and I wished my mother - who'd been unable to travel due to poor health - could have been with us. But then it occurred to me that she wasn't a Kremmer and the idea that was the whole basis for gathering - and perhaps, even for genealogy itself - began to unravel.

According to family myth, my great-great-grandfather, Learpold, married a granddaughter of Napoleon. Are we not French? My paternal grandmother's family included O'Sheas. Are we not Irish? My wife comes from a family of Indian Hindus. None of us gathered at New Norfolk spoke German.

Joseph Kremmer had worked hard, bought land and was buried in the grave of a man of means in New Norfolk. But because the Kremmers were Roman Catholics, not Lutherans, they worshipped in the same churches as Irish Catholics, intermarrying and merging into the broader community.

Not only that, but Joseph's wandering gene was passed on to his great grandson, Patrick, who left Tasmania and joined the Royal Australian Navy. He ended up pursuing German cruisers with lethal intent off the coast of Burma during World War II.

His son - my father - rode in a Melbourne Cup and another son - Uncle Jim - served as mayor of Campbelltown in Sydney's south-west. Jim's daughter - my cousin Jennifer - wrote an award-winning novel. Other cousins became lawyers, journalists, peacekeepers in East Timor and publicans. The Germans had done gut, but they'd also become Australians.

It had taken 150 years to organise the graveside ceremony, but no one had remembered to bring flowers. Rushing back to a florist, I returned in time to hear Uncle Jim's speech, as cameras whirred and the next generation played among the broken headstones. Unable to locate Joseph's grave, we'd settled for his son Learpold's.

Thanks to Uncle Jim, we'd broken down the barriers that separate past from present, and the scattered remnants of an extended family. And except perhaps for the spouses, we all ended up feeling a little more German, a lot more Tasmanian and, I'd like to think, happy to be Australian.