In the summer of 2014, Luke and I went on a month-long backpacking trip around Europe. One major goal of that trip was to visit Germany and meet Luke’s distant relatives. There was only one more living relative bearing the Schenk name in Germany (at least from our lineage); however, there are still other relatives who live there but no longer have the Schenk name.
Luke’s great grandpa immigrated to Canada in 1908. Initially there was a lot of correspondence that bridged the North American Schenks with the German ones, but as the years went on, the letters eventually became few and far between. Thankfully, one of grandpa’s sisters in Canada, Aunt Helen, had been a champion in maintaining what remained of the German connection. She was able to provide the contact information for the relatives in Germany so we decided to reach out to them and see if they would be interested in meeting us.
We didn’t know what to expect. The last time a Schenk from our family visited Germany was back in the 80’s when Luke’s grandparents visited the motherland. We decided that it was worth messaging our relatives anyway, and if they didn't respond, we could always visit the currently existing Schenk store as curious tourists.
It took a few weeks to hear back, but surprisingly, the relative we emailed wrote us back telling us that it would be wonderful to meet up! We were so excited; we knew full well that this little “reunion” would be such a unique opportunity to re-open the connection between Schenks. We tried to prepare the best we could: pouring over family trees and going through as many stories and details as Luke’s grandparents were able to remember.
We drove to Kircheim unter Teck, a small town near Stuttgart, on a beautiful September evening. We were a bit embarrassed to be arriving so late at night, but the Engele family -- the current proprietors of the Schenk Haus/Store -- were such a lovely and welcoming bunch. After helping us park our little VW rental, they ushered us into the über cool 350-year-old building that bears our last name. The first level of this five-floor quintessential Bavarian home is the Schenk store: a high-end housewares retailer that sells everything from Kircheim souvenir mugs to Le Creuset skillets. Back in the 1800s, it would have been a hardware store that was run by Luke’s great great grandfather, Georg, and his wife Amalie. The next floor previously served as the main living space, but at the time of our visit it was functioning as a warehouse and storage space. The third level had a suite that had a little kitchenette and some bedrooms where Luke and I stayed during our visit. This level was renovated into an updated living space with a spacious dining area (we were privileged to share a Christmas Day meal with the family here a year after our first visit -- a story for another time!). At the time of our our first visit, the fourth and fifth levels were the home of the Engele family.
Hans Christoph is the son of Edith Schenk, the last person bearing the Schenk name to live in the house. Unfortunately, she passed a few months before our trip so we were sad not to be able to meet her. When Hans Christoph was clearing out her belongings, he found an old beer stein that King Freidrich presented to “Musketeer Schenk” in 1905. Hans Christoph graciously set the stein aside for us, knowing that we were coming to visit, because he thought we would appreciate a memento that etched our family name in history. We were just floored. What a precious family heirloom! Luke and I each only had a backpack for our month-long trip, so finding a way to squeeze the large stein protected by layers of bubble wrap was a challenge -- it took up half of Luke’s pack! We had to do some creative shuffling around of stuff for the next two weeks in Europe. It was well worth it though; it continues to be one of the most prized possessions displayed in our home.
To state that the Schenk store/haus is beautiful would be an understatement. The vaulted ceiling with exposed original wooden beams and the magnificent hardwood floors were stunning. The modern kitchen juxtaposes the centuries-old structure so magnificently. On our first evening together, we stayed up with the Engele family till way past midnight sharing tea, homemade pretzels, and cheese while looking over pictures of family members from various generations dating back to the early 1800s. As Hans Christoph pulled one photo after another from a well-documented file, he also showed us a photo album with photos they’ve received of Canadian Schenks. True enough, a photo of a little Luke was staring back at us. What a surreal experience.
The next morning, we met a few more relatives: Hans Christoph’s brother, Frieder, and his lovely family. Together, we all walked around the small town of Kircheim, stopping at important locations like the Lutheran church where generations of Schenks were baptized and the family grave site where Luke’s ancestors now rest. We learned that in Germany you need to pay an expensive renewal fee for a plot, so deceased family members are commonly stacked on top of each other. It was pretty crazy to see several generations of Schenks, dating back to the early 1800s, all in 6x6 square. Later we hiked to the nearby castle called “Teck”. Kircheim unter Teck literally means Kircheim under the Teck castle. From the top of the hill, they pointed out the two little towns where Luke’s great grandmother and great grandfather were from.
We so enjoyed getting to meet and chat with these family members. We were eager to learn more about German culture and our ancestry, and they asked about our families and about Canadian moose and bears (or “beeeeers”, lol). Chatting with them felt natural. Them with their near-perfect English and us with our pitiful German (our vocab consisted of three words: ausgang, ausfart, and schnitzel). They took us to the local Italian restaurant where we feasted on delicious pizza and pasta while exchanging social media handles with the kids. After lunch, we took a few family photos, walked around the Schenk store (it was already closed the night before) and then said our goodbyes. As if backpacking around Europe for a month wasn’t enough of a dream come true, getting to meet the Schenk family in Germany just made this trip that much more meaningful. I remember texting my father-in-law that night, saying: “Being a Schenk is just the coooooooolest!!!!” -- it felt like such an honour to now bear the name.
We were blessed to be able to visit Kircheim again, this time with the rest of Luke’s immediate family members, just 1.5 years after the first visit. More on that later!