October 26, 2005

Finks and other ancestors

October brings Oktoberfest, but it also brings German-American Day, “a great opportunity,” according to German Life magazine, “to take a moment and celebrate your German heritage."

I have English ancestors on my mother’s side, German on my dad’s, and there are some interesting cats on both. One of my British forebears was a young deckhand on the HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. His boss, Admiral Horatio Nelson, fell to a French sniper’s bullet on October 21, 1805, the battle’s first day, but my ancestor survived and went on to beget a line of Cornwall tin miners. They migrated to Pittsburgh, mined coal, and begat more Navy men, including my grandfather, Steele Pille. At 16, underage but eager to join the service, he assumed a new birthdate and a new name and served his country as Harry Doubleday.

We visited Germany recently (Wurzburg, above) to give the kids some perspective on their Bavarian roots, planted in the Black Forest, the Schwarzwald. My dad’s mother was born in the spa town of Baden-Baden. (“So good they named it twice,” says the city’s official website. “The place with the license to thrill.”) With its thermal baths and opulent casino, Baden-Baden has long been a magnet for the elite and privileged. European royals and nobles, Napoleon’s family, literary luminaries like Tolstoy, Twain and Hugo all played here.

My family, the Finks (a name that appears on the “Most Wanted Ancestors” list of the Black Forest Genealogy Site), weren’t members of the upper class. My great grandmother did go to the casino every day – to clean it. She was a maid.

The Finks emigrated to America, entering at Ellis Island and settling in Brooklyn. There, one of my great-aunts, Evelyn Fink, met and married George Fink. Can you imagine having the chance to use marriage to escape the name Fink only to have a Fink steal your heart?

One of my German ancestors was a real fink. During Hitler’s rise to power, he embraced National Socialism and wore his political and racist fervor on his sleeve and flew the party’s flag from a pole fixed to the front of his brick tenement house. His neighbors were not amused.

He worked in a Manhattan high-rise. One day, he fell down an elevator shaft and was killed. “Accident” was the official report. As far as we know, it’s the only murder in the family.