Monday, May 30, 2016

My last name is Brandkamp.

On this Memorial Day I can't help but wonder about the etymology of my ancestral surname. My father and I used to joke about what our family name meant, jesting that it might have meant that our long lost ancestors were pirates on the North Sea (our ancestors were indeed sailors along the coast of northwest Germany for many generations), even to the point of me saying that my last name meant "the pillagers of the villagers" since the first part of our name is "Brand" and could mean either a burning torch or a sword, and the last part "Kamp" which could mean either a military encampment or, more notoriously, a struggle.

Now maybe all this surname guessing is all nonsense. I admit that's a real possibility. But I do know enough about the German side of my family history to know about our religious history, and that's where it gets interesting. My grandmother's maiden name was Noormann and she was from Lehr, Germany in Ost Friesland (East Friesland in English) just next to the Dutch border. She could walk to the Netherlands in a few minutes from her B&B house where she grew up. She apparently fell in love or maybe lust with a boy my great grandparents didn't approve of, so they sent her off to America in the late 1800's to makes sure she didn't get into a relationship with him. She always bragged that she didn't arrive in America at Ellis Island like the rest of the "immigrants". She arrived on Long Island and simply overstayed her tourist visa! She was such a proud woman!

Sadly, my only memories of her are from my earliest childhood and were of her dark home in Old Town, Staten Island and how she wasn't a very nice person. My mom only half jokingly said that she always knew when it was time to leave grandma Brandkamp's house when she'd start talking about pure Aryan blood. It's still heartbreaking to me that she bought into the Nazi ideology of her earlier years. She did have a very cool lava lamp though that I always thought was super cool! Talk about a strange juxtaposition!

My German grandfather, on the other hand, died several decades before my birth. I own his Plymouth Brethren hymnal which my father, Herbert, gave me many years ago. It has his signature in it. He had the most perfect penmanship and his first name was Fred, the short American version of his German first name of Friedrich. I also have a picture of him sitting on a stoop somewhere in New Jersey (I believe at an aunt's house). He has a short stogie cigar in his hand and has the most beautifully gentle eyes and definitely had the typical Brandkamp furrowed brow. I wish I could have known him in person. My father had only good things to say about him. He was a very godly man who even preached on occasion. Strangely enough, I'm glad he died before Hitler's rise saw its awful fruit come to its deadly genocidal conclusion. I'm grateful he was spared that awful spectacle.

My German grandfather Fred was also born in the same part of Germany as my German grandmother Marie, in a similar sounding town nearby, but they only met years later in NYC at a German Lutheran church in Brooklyn, NY. after his first wife had died. I don't know anything about his first wife, or much about my aunt from that wife, except that she was much older than my father and his other siblings. But I believe they all got on quite well. My father joked about how my grandfather carried his Scofield Study Bible tightly and thought that Scofield's notes were only "slightly" less inspired than the original text! Bless his heart (if you're Southern, you'll see what I just did there)!

Anyway, he was a good man from everything I know of him. What I find especially interesting about his past in coming to America is that he came over as a child and was raised by German Mennonites in Kansas (I have no idea which port he came in through) and only later came to NYC and fell in love with the big city and the bright lights (most likely gas lamps back then!). Here was this German country boy, mostly familiar with farm life both in Germany and Kansas, speaking Plattdeutsch/Low German and halting English in NYC!

In fact, my favorite story from my father is of him meeting a West African man, skin black as coal, who emigrated from a German owned part of Africa, who he happened to meet in the Lower West Side of Manhattan. He asked my grandfather for directions in his language, and my grandfather understood everything he said! They had a wonderful conversation as two expats in a truly strange and wonderful land! Their common Plattdeutsch dialect united them!

But I digress...

I meant to speak about Memorial Day.

It seems my last name is strange. Brandkamp is a strangely militaristic name, bespeaking a familial history of military exploits. And yet my grandfather's family was thoroughly Mennonite and Anabaptist, thoroughly pacifist traditions. How could a name so associated with such a militaristic history be pacifist? I do know that my great grandfather and his elders all signed the "nonconformist papers" in Lutheran Germany in the 19th century. This allowed them to avoid paying the state tax for the Lutheran church, but it also barred them from any public service. This had real world consequences for these signers. They were shunned and seen as enemies of the state and state church. I'm not sure, but I think a long distant relative had a "come to Jesus" moment a few centuries ago and decided to leave his life of warfare for the state and decided to engage in warfare of a more spiritual sort with different kinds of swords.

This is the part of my spiritual heritage I'm most interested in investigating.

Soldier on friends, soldier on.