A Tribute to Heini Wolfensberger
Heini Wolfensberger, a lifetime member of the WFA Board of Directors and student of the family’s Swiss origins in and around Bauma, died March 7, 2007, in the Swiss mountains of his beloved Zurcher Oberland. He was 79 and had been a board member since the origins of the Wolfensberger Family Association, less than a decade ago.
His wife, Irene, and four children survive him.
Few students of the family’s history knew of his long and devoted stewardship to the family’s origins. Former WFA President Bob Wolfenbarger met Heini and his family in 1962. They had had searched unsuccessfully for the foundations of the original family castle somewhere on the OberWolfsberg, the three-peak hill depicted on the family’s flag.
“I traveled to Bauma from the German city where I was based in the U.S. Army, in the weeks before I was to redeploy to the states I went to see if there was any connection between our American family and the Swiss family.”
“At that time, my American family strongly believed we were German – not Swiss – and had conducted several searches for the Wolfenbarger family along the Rhine,” said Wolfenbarger.
In Germany, he met a genealogist on the staff of the Rhineland-Pfaltz state government – a Dr. Fritz Braun – and visited Heini in the weeks before he was scheduled to return to the U.S. Earlier, Braun had written a German-language history of passengers aboard The Thistle of Glasgow, the 1730 vessel that brought our original ancestors to this country.
Braun told me that he didn’t believe the family was German, and showed me a brief pamphlet history listing a family of Wolfensbergers from the Alsace-Lorraine who migrated from what was then Germany (actually the Palatinate, an historic former part of the old nation.
“I explored church books at several sites and found an entry for an Anna Wolfensberger of Kohlbrunn, Switzerland, who had married a local farmer in the late 1600s.”
“I immediately called Dr. Braun and told him of the find, a churchbook entry for Anna, who hailed from a village in Switzerland.”
Braun told me our finding was strong evidence that at least part of the family may have come from Switzerland. He told me he would call some Swiss genealogists in coming days to see if there were Wolfensberger descendents somewhere in the vicinity of Zurich. It was a million-to-one chance at this late date.
Of course, there were many Wolfensbergers in Switzerland. But the Swiss genealogist had already contacted Heini’s father and Heini to ask if they wanted to meet an American relative.
The answer, of course, was yes.
So I climbed aboard a German Bundesbahn train out of Kaiserslautern a late night in March 1962, with a German language translator working for the U.S. Army. That night we were due in Zurich. But what did Heini look like? And what would I look like to him?
Believe it or not, it was less of a problem than I could imagine.
Luckily, the station was almost deserted. And a couple was waiting in the station for that train to arrive. I walked over and introduced myself. The couple responded, saying “Hi Bob, welcome to Switzerland.” It was Heini and his wife, Irene.
Heini’s wife Irene later told me she spotted me when she saw my ears, which she said, surprisingly resembled Heini’s ears.
We went off into the snowy night for a little belated dinner, while we both chatted about our trip and the plans Heini and his father had set for us back in Bauma. I still remember a small hotel where they put me up. The snow was pouring down and I was able to go to sleep early.
I still remember the next morning when I open pushed the shutters to discover that some boy shepherds across the valley were walking their cattle up the mountain. As their bells clanged, the cattle slowly climbing the hill looked and sounded for all the world like a scene from the classic movie, “Heidi”.
So that was my introduction to Heini. The next morning, I met his father and began a two-day discussion of our common – and uncommon – family ancestry.
I told Heini and his father what I knew already about our family – that the original immigrant was named John (or Johann) and that he and his family emigrated from Ludwigshafen to Philadelphia in 1730, then gradually moved west with the opening of the frontier.
And they told me about the Swiss family history, which began in the 14th Century, a time of turmoil in the Alps as the country separated from the Austrian Empire. They told me of 14th Century knights who held sway in the region for the Austrians, and of other distinguished Wolfensbergers – Swiss leaders – who lived in later centuries.
Long before there was a Wolfensberger Family Association, I helped to share some of my recollections with history-minded members of the family, such as the late Mrs. Myrtle Braun, of Guthrie, Oklahoma, who had originally asked me to research the family’s history in Europe.
When Larry Jones toured the country, meeting with people who had a knowledge of family history, he came to see me as well as my father in Florida. So when he asked about Swiss personalities who might join in establishing a WFA Board of Directors, I couldn’t forget advising him to invite Heini to serve with us.
Heini agreed, becoming the first lifetime member of WFA Board of Directors
As his death notice puts it, “Early this morning, Heini was recalled from our earthly living circle into the eternal light.
“We are mourning our beloved, eternally constant husband, our strong, far-seeing father and father-in-law and our amicable, adored grandfather. His bounty, his direct thinking and his entrepreneurial spirit guided his actions and our common life.”