The village of Oberholz, Switzerland, stands at 855 meters above sea level about 40 minutes by train from Zurich. The village rests almost exactly on the border between the Zurich canton and the canton of St. Gallen. The closest railroad connection is the village of Wald, which is situated below Oberholz and is reachable with a 15 minute bus ride. Oberholz consists of a few beautiful old farmhouses, a small chapel, a ski lift, and a restaurant. The landscape is that of beautiful rolling hills and forests, and on a clear day Lake Zurich is visible from the highest points. Far more alluring than the picturesque Swiss landscape and the friendly inhabitants, there is another fact that draws me to write about Oberholz- it is my ancient family home and the land of my ancestors. My name is Charles Overholt, and had my family line elected to remain in their homeland, I would have been born Karl Oberholzer.
The first recorded settlers of this area, which is known in German as the “Grenzbereich”, or “border area”, were the Alemanni tribe. Archaeological records suggest that Oberholz and the entire border area were sparsely populated until at least the 7th century, but the Alemanni were living in the area from the 200s on. The Alemanni were a Germanic people who migrated south during the “Voelkerwanderung” (wandering of the peoples). These people, who moved south from northern Germany (and likely first moved south from Scandinavia before that), appear in recorded history around 213, when they first bumped into the Romans. When I say “bumped”, I really mean “clashed swords”. The impact of the Alemanni was so strongly felt in the Latin speaking world that the name continues to be used to this day in many countries when referring to Germany (Allemagne: French word for Germany). This “wandering of the peoples”, which is overlooked by nearly all but ancient historians, marks one of the most turbulent periods of European history. As Rome’s hold on power was already tottering, dozens of powerful Germanic tribes began pressing on her borders. The Vandals, Goths, Alemanni, etc. began a general migration south in search of new land, a better climate, and greater wealth. The incredible thing to consider about this time is that the Romans had little to no idea that these people groups even existed before they showed up on their borders in the hundreds of thousands. I could write on for ages about how the Romans fought and negotiated with these people, but that would only serve to derail the true purpose of this blog entry. Suffice it to say, the drama that ensued would be comparable to the entire population of Canada suddenly showing up out of nowhere and forcibly settling in New England- then you can understand a degree of the problem the Romans were trying to deal with. Talk about border control!
An increase in settlers came in the 11th and 12th centuries, when Oberholz was more or less established as a permanent settlement. The name “Oberholz” means “overwood” or “upperwood” when translated. Indeed, there is also a nearby village named “Niederholz” (lowerwood). As the names suggest, these two villages were still heavily forested when they were founded. Both of these areas were cleared of trees for settling and to provide wood for building in the nearby town of Wald, whose name ironically also means “Forest” in German. Located in a valley below Oberholz and Niederholz, Wald grew to be a relatively large settlement while Oberholz and Niederholz remained sparsely populated farming and woodcutting communities. Official mention of Oberholz is first seen in the 1300 and 1400s. In particular, a deed from 1390 located in the archive of Uznach contains an interest agreement between an Arnold Wissling and several farmers in Oberholz for 8 pounds per year on their farming debts (unsure of how this money translates, as it is not a British pound but rather Swiss). Other documents show that the family name “Oberholzer” was already in use by residents of Oberholz by the 1400s.
The 1400 and 1500s saw an unstable period in the history of Oberholz. First came the “Old Zurich War” and then the Protestant Reformation. In the past, just as it is currently, Oberholz was always located on the border between competing factions. When the ruler of the area, Friedrich VII Count of Toggenburg, died in 1436 without a will or heir, both Zurich (a powerful, rich city) and Schwyz-Glarus (two Swiss cantons) claimed his lands. Among these lands were Oberholz, Wald, and the border area. Oberholz was claimed by both the Count of Grueningen and the Count of Uznach. A citizen meeting in Oberholz decided to back the claim of Schwyz-Glarus and the Count of Uznach, which was seen as less aristocratic and more likely to bestow freedom than Zurich. Zurich did not let this stand, however, and sent men to capture and imprison the leader of Oberholz. He was released only after the citizens had paid a heavy fine of 200 pounds (consider the 8 pounds per year paid earlier). In a non-partisan attempt to resolve the land dispute, the city of Bern offered to act as a mediator between Zurich and Schwyz-Glarus. Zurich refused the summons and instead mobilized troops and began raiding across the borders of Schwyz and Glarus. Areas under the rule of the Count of Uznach, with whom Oberholz had allied itself, were raided and burned by troops from Zurich. Already on Zurich’s black list, the farmers of Oberholz armed themselves in expectation of a raid. To retaliate against Zurich for raids into their lands, the Count of Uznach sent troops from Uznaberg to raid lands allied to Zurich. Hitteberg, a small village neighboring Oberholz and a supporter of Zurich’s claim to the disputed lands, was attacked on November 5th, 1440. A farmhouse and a barn were burned and 110 cattle were taken. The troops withdrew on the same night. Eventually, Zurich formed an alliance with France and the Holy Roman Empire (the European super-powers of the time). Despite having friends in high places, the war went badly for Zurich as her allies were unwilling to commit large numbers of troops quickly. Rapperswill and Greifensee were captured by the Swiss Confederation (supporting Schwyz and Glarus). In Greifensee, all but two defenders were beheaded after the battle. Zurich was besieged but managed to fend off the attacks. In 1450, a peace agreement was worked out in favor of Schwyz-Glarus and the Swiss Confederation. Oberholz fell under the control of the Count of Uznach. Zurich was allowed back into the confederation (of which it had been a member before attacking its neighbors during the land disputes), but was forced to dissolve her alliances with France and the Holy Roman Empire.
The Protestant Reformation hit Switzerland with full, bloody force between 1523 and 1526. In particular, the years of 1525-26 were the most brutal. When the violent clash of religion was over, the Protestant cause had come out on top in the area around the canton of Zurich. Wald converted to Protestantism in 1530, but Oberholz retained the Catholic faith. The ruling Count of Uznach, who was Catholic, expected his subjects to share his beliefs. The citizens of Oberholz had traditionally worshipped in Wald, which was now Protestant- yet again they were caught between rival factions. Catholics were banned from worshiping in Protestant Wald, and having no church in Oberholz forced the citizens to go elsewhere. Uznach was too far away to go on foot for church services, so the citizens of Oberholz formed a union with the Parish of Eschenbach. This union was never written down, but church records show citizens of Oberholz regularly attending services in Eschenbach from 1532 until 1802. Furthermore, the Catholics of Oberholz refused to carry their dead across Protestant ground on the way to the cemetery in Eschenbach, which greatly lengthened their trip. In 1706/7, the citizens of Oberholz built a small chapel “Dreifaltigkeitskapelle” (Trinity Chapel) in the middle of the village. On the 15th of March, 1707, the first services were held in the chapel. Never having more than 21 households during this period, it was difficult for the parishioners of Oberholz to afford a priest. As a result of this, mass was largely held in Eschenbach while the chapel in Oberholz was used for prayer.
The after effects of the Protestant Reformation were far reaching. Entire dissertations and volumes have been published on this period that fail to adequately portray all of the conflicting sides, so here I will only do a short overview as it relates to family history. My family line was neither Protestant (in the sense of the term used at the time) nor Catholic. They were reformed and embraced the Protestant teachings, but they carried them a step farther- a radical step for the time. Early Protestants still believed in infant baptism as salvation from sin. My family and the other “Anabaptists” believed that a spoken confession and a second baptism was necessary. Since the child being baptized had no idea (realistically speaking) what was going on, they could not possibly have the free will required for a dedication to the Lord. Therefore, a second baptism, in the tradition of John the Baptist and Jesus, was deemed necessary for salvation in the eyes of the Anabaptists. I know this may not seem like a major point of contention now, especially to a modern-day Baptist, but at the time this thinking was heresy. Everyone hated the Anabaptists. The Protestants and Catholics would literally quit fighting each other to hunt down Anabaptist congregations together whenever they sprung up. Rulers who tolerated Anabaptists were few and far between. Despite Oberholz being officially Catholic, Anabaptist beliefs were tolerated for a time there, with believers traveling to Wald or other nearby towns to worship in secret. In the aftermath of the Thirty-Years War and a change in the ruler, this toleration evaporated and my family line moved north to Immelhaeuser Hof, Germany (near Sinsheim, which is in turn about 30 mins by train from Heidelberg). Before a complete generation had lived here, the ruler once again changed and the toleration evaporated once more. From here, they moved to the American colonies in 1709 to escape further religious persecution in Europe. Promises of religious toleration in William Penn’s colony (Pennsylvania) were quite alluring, and colonization agents (for lack of a better word) frequented areas of religious unrest hawking flyers and deeds for land in the New World. The family moved north, eventually departing from the Netherlands and arriving in America the same year. My line in America traces itself to Martin Oberholzer, who was born aboard ship on the way to America. Upon arrival in the colony, the family name was changed from Oberholzer to Overholt- possibly an anglicization of the German name or perhaps a mere spelling error or English interpretation of German pronunciation. From Martin, I am the 11th generation Overholt in America, the 12th from Germany, and the 13th or 14th from Switzerland.
When my father and I arrived in Oberholz in late February, 2013, the sensation was difficult to describe. In my heart it felt like I was coming home, yet realistically speaking I was arriving at a place that I had never visited- that no one in my line had lived in since the early 1600s. I had been in Zurich the day before, which is a large, bustling, but still beautiful city. Stepping off the train in Wald, I immediately knew that this area had a slower, more rural pace of life. It was cold there, very cold, and everything was snow bound. I had never seen more snow in my life, and darkness was just a few hours away. We briefly considered finding a place to spend the night in Wald and searching for Oberholz the following day, but we both decided against that. The bus system in Switzerland is the best I have seen in Europe. It took me about 20 seconds to figure out that a bus ran to a place called “Oberholz Abzweigung” (Oberholz Fork in the Road). We bought our bus passes and hopped on. We really had no idea where we were going or how to get there other than by following signs. We got off the bus at the stop and started taking pictures of everything, only later to discover that this was an intersection and that Oberholz was about a 15 minute walk away. Along this walk, we had to stop and take pictures of every sign that said “Oberholz” on it. My dad and I were both giddy from the excitement!
I had no idea what Oberholz looked like, nor did my father aside from that he knew there was a small chapel in the middle, so we trudged through the snow following signs that said “Oberholz” until finally we came upon the village. We found the chapel and knew we were in the right place. I saw a small Gasthaus and heard people inside talking, but we decided to walk around and see the village first before I came back and started firing off questions to whoever was inside eating. There is a small ski lift in Oberholz, and it sounded like there was a party going on inside upstairs in the ski rental building. I briefly considered going up the steps and finding a long-lost cousin to introduce myself, but we wandered around a little longer. Eventually we came back to the Gasthaus. Something drew us there, of that I am now sure. We entered. On the right was a door with a sign that said “Oberholzstube” (Oberholz pub). Past this door was a family crest hanging on the wall- OUR family crest.
We took lots of pictures! There was a song about Oberholz written in the Swiss dialect hanging on the wall. There were old pictures of Oberholz and old advertisements featuring the ski lift and a textile mill in Wald. We were inside for a good five minutes taking pictures of things, still unsure if this was a public building or a restaurant or what, when finally a lady came out of the kitchen and saw us standing there. My father had been pressuring me to introduce ourselves to strangers since we arrived, but having lived in the German speaking world for 7 months already, I understood the social differences and feared how aloof a random person could be when confronting Americans on a crusade to find their long lost ancestors. My fears were unfounded. The woman was Johanna Oberholzer. A relative. Then we met Jutta Oberholzer, another relative who was born in Hessen, where I am currently studying in Germany. Then we met Rosa Oberholzer, who is an amazing 94 year old lady and the oldest family member alive that I am aware of. We told them who we were and they were thrilled, but their surprise could not have been any greater than ours! They broke out their photo albums, showed us pictures of reunions, compared family history notes with dad, and invited us to eat dinner with them that very night. My father and I were both on the verge of tears. I know that for him, this was a dream come true. Here we were, in the middle of Europe with no idea what to expect. I had hoped merely to find Oberholz and get a few pictures. At the most I was hoping to run across someone with the same last name. Now, we were sitting down to dinner with family that was at least 13 generations separated, comparing notes and tracing the lines back to where they separated. And they were family. They were as kind and open as my grandparents or aunts and uncles. Even now it is difficult to recollect that day without evoking a spring of emotions. The kindness was overwhelming and I feel indebted to them for it. They booked and drove us to a hotel after dinner and picked us up the next morning to spend more time together. Never in my life had I felt more welcomed! I can only hope that one day they will come visit us in Maryland and I will be able to return the honor.
My trip to Oberholz with my father was the most rewarding point of my Fulbright Grant in Germany. I recognize full well that without this scholarship, this trip would never have been a reality. The language skills and travel opportunities that I gained here enabled it to take place. In February 2012, I was just an average college student at an average University doing normal everyday things. In February 2013, I was touring Europe with my father checking off life goals and reconnecting with our ancestors by bridging a 400 year gap in history. I am grateful beyond words that I received this opportunity and can say with absolute certainty that I will remember my time in Oberholz and the love and kindness we received there until the day that I die.
Gott mit euch bis wir uns wiedersehen! Wiedersehen! Wiedersehen! Wiedersehen!
Einst vor Gottes Thron wir stehen! Wiedersehen! Wiedersehen! Wiedersehen!