On tracing my Swiss roots

Have I ever mentioned that I am Swiss? Not in the passport carrying way, but in the way that Americans brag about their heritage–“I’m Irish,” “I’m French”–since we all seem to find being simply “American” so un-exotic.

At any rate, my great-great grandfather Henry Rüedi immigrated from Switzerland to California in the 1890s. He was 14 years old when he left his family’s farm with eight dollars in his pocket and boarded a ship for New York. He worked his way across the U.S. as a blacksmith, finally settling in Oakland as a hotel dishwasher. A few years later, he owned the hotel.

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I was always proud of his story and enjoyed bragging about my Swiss roots growing up. I had every intention of tracing my family once I arrived in Grandfather Rüedi’s homeland… and then…two years passed without me ever doing so.

That is, until last October.

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Two things happened last October: I felt our baby kicking for the first time and my grandfather suffered a stroke.

In the months since, he has recovered beautifully and those first, tiny kicks have become less magical, but at the time I was in crisis mode. I was flooded with emotions ranging from helplessness and homesickness to joy, but the one that surprised me the most was guilt.

I suddenly felt as though I had squandered two years in Switzerland visiting every place besides the one my family is from: Gächlingen. Here I had a living link to my relatives and my grandfather’s stories about growing up as a Swiss kid in Oakland, but I had failed to really take advantage of this gift.

I resolved to not let another week pass without finding “my people.”

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So off we went one Saturday on a three-hour train ride to the northernmost Swiss canton, Schaffhausen, where Gächlingen is located. Gächlingen is a tiny farming village outside the canton’s capital city with a population of 700 residents and one cafe.

Armed only with a photo of my great-great-grandfather’s home, we caught the bus to Gächlingen unsure of what we would find.

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This is the photo of the family home–ours is the one with the eaves jutting out over the entrance. When the bus dropped us off in Gächlingen, this is what we saw.

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Minus the modern cars, paved roads and a few renovations, the silhouette matched perfectly with the one my great-great-grandfather had left us.

Could this really be it? The family home? Did people who looked like me live here?

Around the side of the house was the entrance to the stables. The Rüedis, like most Swiss families, kept their animals on the ground floor of the home to help heat the upper floors where the family resided. A manure pile outside of a home’s entrance indicated a family’s prosperity: More animals equal a bigger manure pile. My grandfather proudly told me that when he visited our family in the 1960s, we had the biggest manure pile in town. I’m happy to report that the manure pile trend is no longer in fashion!

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We walked around town to see if we could find any other clues about what life was like for the Rüedis. From what I gathered, not much had changed since the 1890s. Gächlingen still appeared to be heavily agrarian, charming and quiet. We had run into almost no residents (besides livestock) and still had hours to go until our bus returned.

Then we spotted a major clue: Rüedi’s Market.

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We had to see if these Rüedis were my Rüedis.

Inside we met two older women, who quickly called in their English-speaking niece when they realized how poor our German-speaking skills were (very poor). Through translation we discovered that all three of the women were Rüedis. My cousins! In fact, about half of Gächlingen was populated by Rüedis. They also confirmed that the house we’d seen was Henry Rüedi’s home and that my cousin Jakob had sold it in the 1990s to move to Zürich.

Before the shop closed, we bought some local wine and honey. I was given the family rate, so I think I’m “in” with the Rüedis.

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Before catching our bus, we snooped around the graveyard behind the town’s only church. At least one-half of the graves were for Rüedis, which was strangely exiting. Obviously, my background comes from many places. My Swiss line represents maybe 20% of who I am, but finding such a great concentration of people I share blood with in Gächlingen was like finding my clan. And my future son’s. I can’t wait to share my Swiss stories with him in the years to come.

Where are you from? What is your family’s immigration story? It is especially important to keep these stories alive right now. Meanwhile, I’m wishing you a good weekend from Geneva…

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There are California girls and there are Bakersfield girls. I am the latter.

8 thoughts on “On tracing my Swiss roots

  1. This is such a wonderful story! Great detective work. Amazing that the first thing you saw after getting off the bus was the buildings shown in the old photo.

    One of the things I love about Switzerland is that so many people in a village share the same family name, like in this village. My husband’s family name is very prevalent in his own village, although he says there are three lines of families.

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