Nostos: An Inventory of a Long & Ongoing Journey

medium_5515495904It’s nearly impossible for me to have any allegiances. I’ve never felt any sort of drive or pull to be identified as someone from some place. Although I certainly can go on and on about what, where, and with whom I don’t want to be associated. I realize this sets me apart from many and most who desperately cling to their so-called heritage. I can’t seem to muster the concern or see the significant/benefit.

Perhaps it’s because that unlike many and most, I’ve never stayed in one place long enough to lay claim to it. As an adult, I’ve lived in six states over four regions of the country (Midwest, South, New England, and Great Plains). Why move so much? For work, for school, for love. Soon I’m going to live in a state that’s entirely new to me (Kentucky). Because of this, I’ve gotten a bit curious about my lineage. How did I get to here, to this place? First step to answering this is, I think, pondering family.

Wisconsin: The Northern Highland & Coulee Region

Danny-Koeller-Hixon-trails-jpgThe forgettable town where I was raised, Sparta, is nestled in what is honestly the only part of Wisconsin that has any character. The Coulee Region, or Driftless Area, is a beautiful swathe of rolling hills with thousands of tiny valleys. But being so very rural and provincial can drive a person mad. At least, it did to me. dc043eb6-1072-4e1a-94f7-86f8b99c18b3_l

I left Sparta after high school to Kenosha, Wisconsin for college. After graduation, I spent a summer in Madison and then a brief time back in Sparta before I moved to Minnesota. From Minnesota I moved to Indiana and when that was over back to Minnesota. Alongside the woman who would be my future wife, I moved to Virginia and then to Connecticut. We lived in Connecticut for about seven years and then moved to Ohio for a nearly a year. Departing Ohio, we returned to Minnesota before coming down to Kansas where we’ve been for nearly two years now.

So there I am. A man who’s crossed over the Mississippi River and Appalachian Mountains more times that I can count. Someone who has felt the water of every Great Lake. Someone who has heard just how horrible nearly every US accent is. But l don’t want to focus on my immediate history. I want to know more about who came before me and from where.

My grandfather was born in 1925 in Wausau, Wisconsin. He was the son of immigrants; his father was born somewhere in Germany, and his father (my great-great grandfather) was born in 1852 in Pomerania. What this means is that I’m trying to recreate a path that spans 163 years from north-central Europe to the North American Midwest. Simple task.

A Little Yappy-Type Dog

Baniks were German. Well, that’s both true and not quite true. My great-grandfather August married my great-grandmother Bertha Galwe in 1911 in Wausau. As far as I know, Bertha was born in the microscopic village of Wittenberg, Wisconsin in 1891. August was born in 1884 in Germany. Where in Germany? In order to flesh this out, I have to look back further to August’s father and my great-great-grandfather, Christian.

Christian Banik was born in 1852 in Pommerania, Germany. There is no German town called Pommerania, rather it looks as though what was meant was the region Pomerania. When I told my wife this, she couldn’t help but laugh. Most Americans only know of the region as the name of a breed of yappy, annoying toy dogs.

Pomeranian_orange-sable_CocoThis, of course, is distressing. Being Pomeranian. Pomerania doesn’t exist anymore. The historical region comprises the northeastern coast of Germany and the northwestern/north-central coast of Poland. This region can also be thought of as part of the long gone nation of Prussia.Administrative_division_of_pomerania

My great-great-grandfather Christian was married in 1875 to Louise Sommerfeld in the village of Obornik just outside of the city of Posen, Prussia. Posen, Prussia is the modern city of Poznan, Poland and Obornik is the Polish town of Oborniki, about thirty minutes north. What this suggests is that while my family was ethnically German they were living as a minority in a region of Prussia that was predominately Polish. Banik’s were Prussians.

Some Speculation

So. Prussian. Maybe that explains my enjoyment of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Most likely it explains nothing. 


Germany was still new when my great-great-grandparents married. Unification had occurred in 1871. Perhaps not as decisively or formally has we would like to think, but around 1871 the German Empire became more Germany and less Prussia. Making Germany was more of an organic process than many of us here in the United States realize. During this time wars between Prussia and France and Prussia and Austria had just ended, the area where my great-great-grandparents lived forced Germanization of the native Poles was causing ethnic strife, and then there’s the ever present religious gulf between Christians (Lutheran Germans on the one hand and Catholic Poles on the other). Quite simply, the area around Poznan was unpleasant for everybody.

You can see here just how unconfusing the whole political boundaries mess was:

My great-great-grandmother Louise had six children: Emilie (1878, Germany), Mary (1882, Pommerania, Germany), August (1884), Anna (1888 in the city of Posen), Emma (1890, Germany), and Elsie (1899, Marathon County, Wisconsin, United States). Her youngest, Elsie, was born in Marathon County, Wisconsin in 1899, which suggests that my great-great-grandparents immigrated sometime between 1890 and 1899. In 1899, Louise’s second child Mary wed Georg Reinhard, a German immigrant, in Wausau. So it seems that the Baniks were established in Wausau by 1899. If I knew if/when the eldest Emilie was married, then I might have a tighter time frame.

But I think it’s safe to say that ‘my people’ have been living in the United States for at least 116 years. That’s not a long time, when you think about it.

It’s strangely fascinating to see these names of the men that my great-grandaunts married. I don’t know much about my extended family but I have found some photos of the graves of the men that my great-grandfather would have called brothers-in-law.

georg reinhard
Great-Grandaunt Mary’s husband buried in Wausau
Great-Grandaunt Anna’s gravestone with her husband Alex Empey
Great-Grandaunt Emma’s husband Frank Ostrum buried in Illinois
What might be Great-Grandaunt Emma’s gravestone in Milwaukee. Did she remarry someone named Bornfleth?

Chances are that Christian and Louise were part of an Ostflucht (flight from East to West). But instead of settling into industrialized Germany, the Baniks got on a boat for America. Why America and not the Rhine Valley? Most migrants who moved to the Rhine and Ruhr provinces did so for work, to get industrial jobs. I think that Christian, being a serf/farmer, couldn’t really imagine himself as a factory worker. Plus, at this time the United States was still giving away land in its West for homesteading. I think the prospect of owning land trumped familiarity.

And it probably wasn’t that unfamiliar. I say that because a schism of Lutherans had immigrated to the United States years before from Prussia. These Lutherans refused the merging of their church with the Calvinist church deciding to immigrate. This was in the 1830s and 1840s, members of the schism were called “Old Lutherans.” The portion that settled in the United States formed the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. This Lutheran sect grew was very German, but ran its schools as bilingual suggesting that it would be an excellent entry point for immigrants looking to assimilate but still maintain their history.

The First Generation

So all this made my grandfather and his siblings (William born 1913-1974; Lydia 1915-2000; Ida born 1916-1999; Arnold born 1918-1985; Margaret born 1922-1996; my grandfather Herbert born 1925-1989; and Ruth born 1927) first generation Americans. Born during and immediately after World War I and the Roaring 20s, these first generation Americans grew up during the Great Depression and became adults during World War II.

My grandfather and grandmother were able to make it through all that. They had five daughters. Recently, my mother has brought me some wonderful old photos of my grandfather and grandmother. 

Herb & Fern out on a date
Herb & Fern out on a date
My great-grandmother Bertha, my grandfather Herbert, and my great-grandfather August on Herb’s wedding day.

My aunts and my mother are now grandmothers. My niece and nephew are fourth generation Prussian/Pomerian-American. I think that’s funny. And neat. I love seeing names crossed and cleaved together that I only half recognize: Sommerfeld, Galwe, Traeger, Duelger, Pagel, Schauss, Sahr, Kowalski, Stecker, Nelson, Strassburg, Koss, Sumrall, Schlie, Copeland, Thomas, McCall, Holzhaeuser, Withers, Flores, and Casey.

I love the fact that I can find a tiny town in Poland and say, “Here. This is as good of a beginning as any.” I also like the fact that now I have a Polish soccer club to support Sparta Oborniki.

I still don’t understand the urge that makes people fanatical about a place. I do understand the urge to keep moving, to keep looking for somewhere that fits. I suppose I just haven’t found a place I liked enough to call home.

Sparta Oborniki, what I think is a semi-pro soccer team playing at the fourth tier of Polish soccer

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