I always knew that my Grandpa George* had two younger sisters— actually, they were his half-sisters, but we never considered anyone to be “half” anything. There was my Tante Grete, who was, I am convinced, an angel who walked among us on this earth, and Tante Angela, who lived back in Germany (and I’m not sure if I ever even met). Angela was born shortly before my grandpa immigrated to America, and my great grandmother was pregnant with Margarethe when he left.
When I began researching my dad’s side of the family, I learned that my grandpa had a third sister named Regina. Tante Rini was six years younger than my grandfather. I never knew Tante Rini because she died a long time before I was born—even before my dad was born—and if I’ve learned anything about my father’s family, it’s that they don’t talk much about people after they’re gone.
My great grandparents, Gerhard and Regina Dierkes, owned a farm in Burlage—or Borlaga, as it’s pronounced in German. I’m not sure what they farmed, just that they had a farm.
Burlage is the southernmost village in the state of Ostfriesland , also known as East Frisia. Ostfriesland is located in the northwest corner of Germany, near the Netherlands and the North Sea. Today, Ostfriesland is part of the state of Niedersachsen—aka Lower Saxony. (Are you confused? I am.)
Once upon a time, Ostfrisland was its own independent land. Then the Holy Roman Empire got involved, after which a bunch of Saxon dukes wanted to rule it and started squabbling. Then Ostfriesland became part of the Kingdom of Prussia… then a part of the Netherlands… then part of the French Empire… and then Prussia again… and then the Russians occupied Ostfriesland… and then the Kingdom of Hannover moved in… then Prussia again. I mean honestly, EVERYONE who was ANYONE wanted to claim my people and my ancestral land (or, as those of you familiar with my blog have heard me call it, the “mothership”). Don’t go behind my back and waste time checking my history here because I’ve probably made a lot of mistakes. But, in all fairness, this is really confusing stuff, especially since I don’t speak or read German or Sütterlin or Fraktur. I have learned how to type an umlaut on my keyboard though. Baby steps.
But I digress… Burlage’s motto is “Burlage! Dorf mit pfiff!” which means “Burlage! Village with fishing!” (Exclamation marks are theirs, not mine.) Since it’s not actually on the coast, it sounds weird, but there are these canals dug into the moors that, at one time, were used to transport the ships out to the coast that were built in and around the area. From pictures I’ve seen, the canals don’t look big enough to transport ships, but I read that little factoid online somewhere, and we all know that if you read it online, it must be true.
People from Burlage were traditionally shipbuilders, sailors, and farmers. My great grandparents owned a farm in Burlage, and my grandfather, Gerhard Dierkes, was also in the Kaiserlicht Marine. So, that makes him both a farmer and a sailor. I’m not really sure how my family came to live in Burlage, but I’m sure there’s a story there since we’re Catholic, and apparently there was some brouhaha over allowing Catholics to settle there in the 1600’s. There were a few different Dierkes landholders in Burlage in the late 19th Century, butI have no idea how they fit together or what land belonged to which Dierkes. I’m not even sure all the Dierkeses I found are even related. Once I figure out all of this stuff—like after I learn the German alphabet, for starters, I’ll get right on it and solve the mystery. In the meantime, let’s just say my great grandparents settled there because of the pretty windmills.
Back to Gerhard and Regina. I don’t know a lot about them (yet) but I do know that Gerhard owned that farm in Burlage and that he was also in the Kaiserliche Marine (the German Imperial Navy). As a sailor, he spent lots of time at sea, away from the farm, his wife, and their children. He spent at least two three-year tours in the Kaiserliche Marine—probably more. The first evidence we have of his navy service was c.1899-1903 in a photograph of him with his reserve unit. He was quite a handsome guy.
In 1888, Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert was crowned as (the last) Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia. To say the least, Willy was a bit of a disaster. To quote Otto Von Bismarck, the German Chancellor Willy sacked two years after his coronation, “…he wanted every day to be his birthday…” And Willy hated his cousin. Like, REALLY hated his cousin, which, if they’d been part of ANY other family in the whole world probably wouldn’t have mattered much, but, when your grandmother is Queen Victoria, your cousin is King George V, and you are Kaiser Wilhelm II, family infighting can sometimes have disastrous consequences. And to say that Kaiser Wilhelm’s tantrums were simply disastrous is a grand understatement.
From his early childhood, Kaiser Willy was enamored—obsessed, even— with the navy, and he was determined to make his navy better than his cousin’s navy. Rather than just ruining Thanksgiving like most immature family members do, Willy instigated a fierce arms race with his cousin and the British Empire. Had the Kaiser been a rational person and not so dangerous and aggressive, George V could have just brushed off his cousin’s bravado as peacocking. But the stakes were too high. The Kaiser vowed to his Empire that he would conquer for them “a place in the sun.” He and his cabinet of yes-men began amassing a massive flotilla at breakneck speed. The German and British Empires aggressively expanded their navies and enlarged their fleets. As the number of ships multiplied, so did the need for sailors to man them. But unlike Great Britain, Germany didn’t have the extensive nautical history and naval training culture. Regardless of cost, Willy was determined to out-navy the British Empire.
My great grandfather, Gerhard Dierkes, was one of the men conscripted to the Kaiserliche Marine (the German Imperial Navy) during the years leading up to WWI. He served in a reserve unit beginning in (at least) 1899. He must’ve returned home to the farm in Burlage by 1906 because Gerhard and Regina welcomed their first child, a blond haired, blue eyed, son they named Gerhard, in April of 1907.
Again, I have no idea how long Gerhard stayed home on the farm with Regina and baby Gerhard, but we have photographic evidence that was recalled to a torpedo boat crew sometime between 1910-1913. He was definitely on the farm in 1912 since Regina gave birth to their second child, a daughter named Regina sometime during 1913 (the exact date wasn’t recorded). Sadly, baby Regina would never know her father, because before little Rini’s first birthday, her father was ordered back to his ship. By the end of 1914, the family was informed that Gerhard had been killed at sea and his body was never recovered. His death was recorded in the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg as “Jm feldzuge 1914 starb den ehrenvollen Tod fürs vaterland. (In the year 1914 died the honorable death for the fatherland.) From the date, it appears he may have been killed aboard a torpedo boat in Blankenberghe, Belgium.
By the end of World War I in 1918, Regina was a single mother of two children on a farm near a pretty windmill. The war had lasting effects on all of Germany, and the suffering and hard times they’d endured during the war years weren’t over. Throughout the next decade, reparations, hyperinflation, and political turmoil were a constant struggle for nearly everyone in all parts of the country. There was little food, very few jobs, and the value of their money declined before their eyes.
During this time, Regina remarried. Her new husband, Theodor Lüken, took over operation of the family farm, and his name appears on the Fire Insurance records in place of Gerhard’s beginning in 1925 (probably when the insurance was renewed). In the summer of 1924, their first child together, Angela, was born. Almost three years later, Regina was again expecting. (I couldn’t find any vintage pictures of crop farming in Burlage during this time, but I did find this cool picture of a sheep farmer. Ahhhh….those of you who know this generation of American Dirkeses, the thought of us farming sheep…. I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing at us.)
Back to my story. This part of German history is known as the Interwar Period or the Weimar Republic. Times were pretty tough, and Theodor was unable to support his growing family in an economy where it was impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel. There wasn’t enough work or money to support two adult men and a growing family on the farm. It was decided that 19-year old Gerhard would take his chances and go to America. In 1927, when his mother was six months pregnant, he left for New York. Three months after his departure, another sister, Margaretha, was born.
Gerhard was doing well in America—He had found employment as a painter, his job was profitable, and he was enjoying his new life in the city. Things in Germany weren’t getting any better, and Rini realized that she didn’t have much of a future in Burlage. So when she turned 16 and was old enough to immigrate to America without a guardian, she made the decision to go and her big brother helped her out.
In the summer of 1929, Gerhard purchased two third-class tickets from Bremen to New York for Regina and their cousin Margaretha. (Not their little sister Margaretha, but their cousin Margaretha. Confusing, I know, especially since I have no idea who this Margaretha Dierkes’ parents were. I also have no idea what happened to her once she got off the boat in New York.) The girls boarded the Karlsruhe in Bremen on July 2nd, 1929, made a stop in Boston, and finally disembarked in New York City on July 14. Both girls declared that they each carried $25 in cash, and that Gerhard had paid for their tickets. They also stated that they’d both be seeking employment in the service industry.
Once they were settled, I assume that Rini found a job and began working, but I haven’t been able to figure out where, and I can’t locate records of her residence in 1930. Since I can’t find her on any census records or directory listings, it’s likely that she found live-in employment with a wealthy family in the city who didn’t list her among their servants. Or, if she lived on her own or with a roommate she may not have been home the day the census taker came by her apartment. From photographs, she appears to have friendly eyes and a mischievous smile—just like her brother, so she probably had a very active social life. I’m guessing that she just wasn’t home when the census taker knocked on her door.
Since Germans were one of the biggest ethnic immigrant groups in America, social organizations formed everywhere to play German folk music and dance the traditional folk dances of their homeland— and, of course, to enjoy their delicious food and drink together. A few years before Gerhard and Regina came to America, one of these groups in New York City began congregating regularly. This group of German immigrants in New York City called themselves the Schuhplattler Vergnuegungs Verein Original Enzians, and they had a great time together. It was a fun way to meet new people and relax after long days of work. Both Gerhard and Regina joined this social club, became active members, and made lots of new friends. Among Gerhard and Rini’s new friends were a beautiful brunette seamstress from southern Germany named Pauline Lechler, and a window washer living in the Bronx named August Brinkman.
The two couples got on well together, and before long, wedding bells were ringing. On Sunday, October 18, 1931, Gerhard and Pauline were married in Brooklyn. Six days later, Regina and Augus tied the knot in the Bronx. At a time when the country was mired in the depths of the Great Depression, Gerhard and Pauline, and Rini and Gus seemed to be living the American Dream. They’d been through hard times in Germany, and they weren’t strangers to hard work. When they weren’t working, they socialized with each other and with their friends, and their futures seemed as bright as they could’ve imagined.
But sadly, Tante Rini’s happily ever after didn’t last very long. Within two years of their 1931 wedding, Regina passed away at her Bronx apartment on Wales Ave. Only 18 months and 27 days after their wedding day, Rini was gone. She was only 20 years old. My dad said that she died of meningitis, but I couldn’t find a death certificate to confirm a cause of death, and the New York City Department of Vital Records takes about 12 weeks to process records requests (and a fee, regardless of whether or not they still have the requested record archived).
On May 23, 1933, Regina Dirkes Brinkman was buried on the left side of a double plot in the Bronx’s historic Wood Lawn Cemetery. Presumably, August planned to be buried at her side after his eventual death. The right side of the headstone was left blank, and the plot was available for him for when his time came.
Gerhard and Pauline moved on with their lives. They didn’t talk much about the sister and friend they’d lost. They moved out of the city, out to Long Island, bought a house in Bellmore, and had a couple of kids. Gus moved on too. He remarried about two years later, and eventually had a child with his second wife.
After I knew where Tante Rini was, I created a Find a Grave memorial page and put in a photo request with the volunteer membership. I crossed my fingers and hoped a fellow cemetery lover would eventually see my plea and snap a quick picture for me. Within three days (incredible, right?) the request was fulfilled (you could’ve knocked me over with a feather!) and a perfect photograph was posted on the memorial page I’d just completed for her.
In an interesting twist, the Find a Grave member who awesomely posted the photos for me also let me know that an infant child was buried in the still unmarked adjoining plot. According to the dates on file at the cemetery, the child could not belong to Regina. However, the dates do correlate to Gus’ second marriage. Their baby was buried in this plot, but no memorial information was etched on the headstone. Out of respect to Gus’ second wife and her family, I chose not to create a memorial page for the deceased infant.
After digging through online archives, I attempted to follow Gus’s life after his remarriage and naturalization (indexed only). I just wanted to know what became of him. But after a lot of running around in circles and fruitless research, his trail went cold. Other than the index that lists his Naturalization in 1948, there were absolutely zero records available. None of the shenanigans from my nifty bag of magic tricks worked on August Brinkman. I did manage to speak with the nephew of his second wife—who is awesome— but I’ve been short on time and haven’t been able to dig much further. The clues the nephew gave me sparked my interest, but every lead took me to someplace in the Bronx who needed my credit card number to pull files. I was curious about Gus, but not that curious.
What started this whole journey to find Rini was that I had a couple of pictures of her, but I didn’t know who she was. My dad didn’t know her married name. My uncle didn’t know her married name. Both my grandparents have been gone for a long time, so there was no one to ask. It was a challenge, to say the least because initially, no one even knew her husband’s name. I was literally starting from nothing. So I started digging. After several days of tediously mind-numbing research, I followed a lead and called the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. All I needed was a confirmation of a burial. After three phone calls over a two-week period, I finally reached someone who could confirm my findings. Sadly, Woodlawn can only confirm burials and give the plot location. Any more information requires submission of a form and a $57 fee.*
My ultimate goal throughout this particular project was to find out who Tante Rini— Regina Dirkes Brinkman was, and what happened to her. I wanted her to be more than “my father’s sister,” as both my dad and my uncle call her. While I didn’t learn very much about who she was as a person, at least I know who she was, what she looked like, and where she’s buried. I’m sad that she wasn’t around longer—I know my grandparents would’ve loved having her around for much longer than they did. And it’s such a shame that she was taken from this earth at such a young age.
© Julie Dirkes Phelps; Photographer, Author, Researcher, Archivist, designated “Keeper of Stuff,” and Storyteller. © Copyright 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, reposting, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without prior written permission. Be cool, don’t plagiarize. If you want to use something, just ask me. I try to make sure to attribute all images to the appropriate sources, but sometimes I get mixed up or inadvertently leave something out. Please contact me with any corrections or concerns. Thanks.
Special thanks to my Uncle Barbara for generously sending me some amazing pictures from their cache of family goodies. (Uncle Barbara is my Uncle Philip’s wife. She’s my uncle because, um, my FATHER’S side of the family. Duh.) Uncle Barb and Uncle Phil sent me a ton of old pics and we’re creating a shared collection of digital images so we can identify everyone and make sure future generations can see them.
• Tante Rini Studio Image: From my dad’s childhood photo album
• Germany Map with Burlage pinned: GoogleMaps
• Burlage Windmill: Burlage Website (in German)
• Kaiser Wilhelm II: Once Upon a Town
• German Flotilla: From this page with pics from WWI
• Great-looking Grandfather Gerhard Dierkes: Philip and Barbara Dirkes photo archive
• The vintage picture of sheep in Burlage came from here. It’s in German.
• Grandpa George Studio Image: From a photo album given to me by my father’s cousin
• Ship Manifest: Ancestry.com
• Group Snapshot: L-R: Gerhard, Pauline, Unidentified Couple, Regina, August c. 1932, New York; From Philip Dirkes’ photo collection
• Group Studio Photograph: August, Regina, Pauline, Gerhard c.1932, New York; there’s a copy in Robert Dirkes’ photo collection and one in Philip Dirkes’ photo collection
• Regina’s Headstone: Find a Grave, courtesy of volunteer member Bronx Aquarian
• Regina’s Memorial Page Screenshot: Find a Grave
Tante is the German word for Aunt. Since I don’t speak German, I think I was in my teens before I knew that my Tante Grete’s name wasn’t “Tantagreta.” I’ll be writing about Tante Grete at a later date, but y’all need to know, she was an angel. So much of an angel that I named my first child Margaret, after her.
*My grandpa’s name was Gerhard, but he was also called George after he immigrated to America. Family members use both George and Gerhard interchangeably when we talk about him, and when we’re talking about him and his father, it’s easier to call him George rather than Gerhard since they both had the same name. So. Many. Repeating. Names. In. My. Family. (Oh, and as I said in the preceding paragraph, I named my daughter Margaret, so I’m just doing my share to perpetuate this problem into the future.)
**Conversely, Woodland Cemetery in Xenia, Ohio answers their phone immediately, pulls records, and gives you any information you need—all in one phone call. The volunteer I spoke to even sent me a picture of the gravesite in question (from a separate ongoing piece). Without a credit card number. And with a smile. I’m sure it’s simply a difference in size and scope, but it’s a vastly different experience when you’re dealing with individuals with whom you may have an emotional connection.