Remembering Our Ancestors: Margaretha von Reele

“Tante Rita” felt strongly about our family identity bound up with the house name Reelen.

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On 3 September 1935, Margaretha Krüger was born in Bochum, coal-miner city in western Germany and home to the family of Johannes Kappius since the late 19th century when the Reelen farm in Haaren was lost and Johannes moved his family to the nearby city to find work in the mines.  Margaretha was Johannes’ great-granddaughter, in other words, she was my cousin, second daughter of my father‘s sister Gertrud Kappius and her first husband Richard Krüger.  72 years later, in 2007. she died in Seattle, WA.  In between lies a long and interesting life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Margaretha Rita Krueger

Magraretha, or Rita, as she was called, grew up in Bochum with her sister Maria Theresia, and one can assume that not much of her first ten years were actually spent there because Bochum was heavily bombed during WWII, to the point where not much of it was left in the end.  But Rita survived, and so did her parents and her sister.

After the war, in the early 1950s, Rita married Raymond L. Brown of the American Air Force who had been stationed in Germany, and the two went to live in Arizona for the next 20 years.  In 1962, Rita became an American citizen.

Eventually, however, the marriage broke and Rita took the ship back home to Germany.  On the boat she met Christian Wätjen, a gentleman whose family was obviously of northern German extraction.  The two married, and they lived in the Bad Segeberg area in Schleswig-Holstein for the next 30 years.  But eventually, Rita returned to North America, living first in Canada and then in Seattle, where she died in 2007.

Between 2000 and 2007, Rita changed her name to Margaretha von Reele.  She had always been interested in genealogy, first to find out more about the little family riddles one inevitably encounters when talking about the past with your relatives, but eventually she was most intrigued by the loss of the house name of the Cappius/Kappius family.

The Cappius family had settled in Haaren latest around 1720, according to our oldest records, and around 1760 they acquired a farm that came with a name attached to it, like all farms and houses in Haaren did.  Those names were, quite logically, called “house names”, and to this day, the German term “Hausname” is used synonymous with family name or surname.  But back in the day, a house name was not the same as a family name:  There were many families by the name of Cappius in Haaren, and so they were distinguished from each other by the houses they occupied and the names that went with them.  Thus our branch of the family became known as Cappius Reelen.  Lots of land belonged to the farm eventually, and a second, smaller house in town as well, but times were hard in Haaren in the mid- to late 19th century, and by and by debt mounted and the land had to be sold off acre by acre, until in the end the farm could not be kept either.  The smaller house was then home to the remaining Kappius Reelen family, but most family members had already left town, like my great-grandfather, to settle where a living could be made, or to go to the military.  Since they were not connected with the house anymore, they dropped the name of Reelen from their last name, or took up other house names as they bought new houses.

By the time Rita started looking into all this, she had primarily her mother as a source to rely on, and Gertrud herself had already been born in Bochum and no relationship with the family that was still living in Haaren, although her father surely did until he died in 1955.  It is quite possible that Rita wasn’t yet interested in family history while her grandfather was still alive.  From her researches, probably conducted in the 1970s and onward, Rita concluded that it was a shame how the name had been lost, as with it some of the family identity was lost as well.  Therefore, she eventually changed her last name to “von Reele”, and sought to free the family from the stain on their reputation.  She even thought that some criminal act had possibly led to the Roman Catholic Church confiscating farm and land, but I have not been able to verify this suspicion.

While it is true that the family lost land and farm, they continued to be, and still are known by their house name Reele, although none of them actually called themselves by the house name only.  Rita’s great-uncle Anton, whose father had still lived on the Reelen farm and later in the small Reelen house in town before he built a new one for his growing family, was known throughout his life as “Reelens Anton”, and his children did not develop a similar sense of loss about the family name as it wasn’t really lost after all.  True, it wasn’t officially used anymore, but it surely was still part of their identity as it continued to distinguish them from other branches of the Kappius family.

There is one member of the family that shared Rita’s concern for the family name, down to the spelling of Cappius with a C, and that was my great-uncle Father Uncle William, who came to the United States in 1913 after his ordination and lived in various places in Nebraska until his death in 1945.  He, too, was quite interested in the Reelen part of the name but was unable to find out much about it, as we can gather from his letters to my father.  He refused to spell his own or his nephew’s last name with a K, which appears to have led to some confusion in the internment camp in Australia where my father received his letters in the early 1940s.  Maybe distance makes a (perceived) loss of identity be felt even more keenly.

Rest in Peace now, dear Rita von Reele.  It is indeed a shame that much of your research was lost after you passed on, and that we cannot read anymore all the facts and anecdotes you gathered.  But maybe that would have been too easy anyway, and we are meant to look again into the past ourselves and piece together the long and the short of it.

Tante Rita 70 Jahre alt
Rita when she was 70 years old

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