Second generation Americans Margaret Crowley and Jim Wegerbauer made many conference calls to organize this year’s picnic after attending a 2007 reunion in Austria. They sent “save the date” notices to Wegerbauers scattered from California and Oregon to Illinois, Texas, Arkansas and throughout parts of Wisconsin. A picnic was a must. As planning continued, they added a 20-member section of the UW marching band for entertainment, while filming of the weekend events was done by ORF, Austrian National Broadcasting.
“To me, this was an event that captures so much of the best of America, a place that has benefited greatly from all the immigrant groups that have added to it its robust flavor,” said Jim Wegerbauer. “Yet, immigration was just as controversial back in my ancestors’ day as it is today…. Perhaps this reunion is a venue to explore this story. Or perhaps the angle is more lighthearted and celebratory.”
The American part of the story began with two Wegerbauer brothers, Eugen and Leo, who took their father’s advice and, in 1910, left Austria for the promise of America. The strength of their faith and family ties enabled them to prosper in their adopted home. Although these original immigrants would later return to Austria, they would sponsor three more brothers and their new wives who would join them in Cudahy and St. Francis, according to Jim Wegerbauer.
Joseph and Catherine, Hubert and Anna, and Siegfried and Hedwig Wegerbauer arrived in 1924 shortly after their triple wedding (known in the family as the ‘triple special day’) in their native Putzleinsdorf, near Linz, in the northwest part of Austria. The three couples raised nine children. Now, their children and grandchildren spread across southeastern Wisconsin and beyond. Siegfried, Jr. is deceased but the other eight attended the reunion.
Ann Kremel, daughter of Seigfreid, Sr., recalled her parents’ and brother’s early ties to Saint Francis Seminary. Siegfried, Sr., was the main caretaker, a sweet, gentle but strong man, proud of planting the canopy of elm trees that have lined the seminary drive for more than 75 years. Kremel remembered running and playing on the grounds, cleaning the vigil lights and playing at the chapel in the woods. The family watched Fourth of July fireworks from the glass-enclosed cupola of the main seminary building.
Kremel said her hard working, family-oriented and faith-filled parents studied English in night school but the family spoke German at home until the children went to school. Then English became their main language.
Most mail from Austria was welcomed, but Kremel said, “A letter bordered in black meant a death in the family. My mother would tuck such a letter in her pocket and wait for my father to come home when they could read it together and cry.”
During World War II, when the families in Austria were struggling, they sent packages containing knit caps and clothing with cigarettes in the pockets.
“People of my generation still thank us for helping with hard times. What little they had they shared,” said Kremel.
One of the Austrian visitors, Wolfgang Wögerbauer, (spelled the Austrian way) established the lost Austrian connection to this country in 1994 after compiling a family tree. His grandfather, Alois, who died in 1971, had been the last to keep in contact with the immigrants. Those letters weren’t saved and contact was lost.
By doing a comprehensive search of an Internet database with a phone directory, Wögerbauer found 17 family name entries in the United States. He sent letters to all and a week later had a reply from Kremel’s brother Karl who invited him to the 1995 American Wegerbauer family reunion.
“…not only were the American Wegerbauers surprised, they were overjoyed to be reconnected to the land of their forefathers,” said Jim Wegerbauer, grandson of Joseph and Catherine.
Wögerbauer and his high school age daughter spent five weeks in the Milwaukee area on that first trip and he has returned every year or two to visit with the American Wegerbauers.
Wögerbauer noted the similarities in the two branches of the family.
“All work with their hands in fine craftsmanship. But the kindness and opening hearts of the Americans are not that usual in Europe,” he said.
Another first generation reunion attendee, Max Wegerbauer, looked back on his families’ struggles in their early years in this country.
“We never knew we were ‘poor’ until in college. We were never hungry or had a lack of clothes. All know the story. It’s an excuse to connect. You know, anytime you get three Austrians together, it’s a party,” he said.
Leo Wegerbauer, the youngest of the “triple wedding day” immigrants, talked of his parents Joseph and Catherine. The original three couples never returned to Austria. It was difficult for those first wives who were friends but had none of their birth families in this country.
“The overriding factor in our parents’ and our lives was family and church. We would spend religious holidays at different family houses and often spent summer holidays at Holy Hill where we would climb the church tower.”
Ben Wegner, Kremel’s grandson and one of the third generation born in this country, recently returned from a semester of study in Bonn, Germany, where he studied the history of the Catholic Church and also learned German. He visited relatives in Vienna and Putzleinsdorf, where he noted that the “family” was rather stiff and formal at first, but opened up and became more friendly after a few days.
“I found (Austria) so beautiful with sustainable organic farms and rolling hills. In these smaller communities four generations often lived in one house. There is a strong sense of family there,” said Wegner. “One of my cousins read the same type books as I but in German. That is just what the reunion also provided – an intimate sense of who we’re related to. It explains behaviors and values, a sense of identity.”
For Jim Wegerbauer, the faith-family link was evident.
“Thanks to the spark Wolfgang ignited, the two branches of the Wegerbauer family tree have come together, much like the seminary trees that Siegfried planted all those years ago.”