Her last name means little pepper in German. It couldn?t be more appropriate. Lori Pfefferle?s first impressions of Germany involved food. And it was her nose for family history that led her to discover a German village full of unknown relatives?and the home of her great-grandfather, who immigrated to the US around 1920.
Growing up in Sandusky, Ohio, Lori, who is now 19, knew very little about her German-American heritage. She did, however, have a dream of teaching young children, and it was that goal that ultimately led her to do an exchange year in southern Germany.
A high school teacher suggested that she apply for an Open Door exchange scholarship, a program that would allow her to combine study with an internship in her area of interest. Although she had no idea what awaited her, Lori was persuaded. »I had not been interested in Germany, but they needed people who could represent our community.« Then, about a week before she left for her exchange, Lori learned from an aunt who visited Germany years before that her family had German ancestors. The aunt had even found the place where Lori?s great-grandfather was born. She thought Lori should try to find it too. But there was a problem: Lori?s aunt didn?t speak German and couldn?t remember the town?s name.
Nevertheless, Lori was excited. Her exchange program directors were also intrigued. »They said, ?It's a real Schwäbisch name,?« Lori recalls, referring to the Schwaben region of southwestern Germany. So the program placed Lori with a host family in Böblingen, a small town on the edge of the region, near Stuttgart?to give her a better chance of tracing her family history. But first, Lori had other things to worry about?like getting used to Germany. Her year began in Bonn, where she took intensive German?and discovered the cuisine. Unaccustomed to German eating habits, she used the many bakeries to tide her over between meals. »I ate a lot of those pastries,« she says. She also took classes at a local high school.
»The math was totally above me,« she admits. »But even the English was different, because they use British, not American English.« Once she arrived in Böblingen and moved in with the Wolkings, however, she found her stride. Starting a teaching internship at the kindergarten, Lori was able to take a stab at her career dream?in German. At first, she says, »I was using my hands to communicate.« But she made rapid progress, and could soon run the class on her own.
Aided by her host father and his computer, Lori also began to search for her German relatives. They found many Pfefferles?360, it turned out? in Münstertal, a village on the edge of the Black Forest. Lori's program director placed a notice in a local paper about the search, and right away a Münstertal man invited her to visit. Lori limited her trip to two days. But it was enough time to find what she was looking for. »I walked into the Rathaus«?the town hall?»and a man said he knew exactly who I was because of my eyebrows!« she says. »Great- Grandfather had bushy eyebrows, just like me.« Lori felt immediately at home. What really surprised her, though, was how everywhere she went?to the church, the butcher, the Rathaus?she met more Pfefferles. Her host showed her the graveyard where her ancestors were buried.
He also took her to the house where her great-grandfather had grown up. And he introducted her to its current resident?her great-grandfather's brother's son, now in his 80s. »He was so excited he started to cry,« says Lori. He told her about her great-grandfather?s childhood, and how he moved to the US in search of a new life. A month after her initial trip, another Münstertal relative invited Lori to help him on his family tree. She returned and visited him and his family for four days. They showed her nearby Freiburg, and she met more relatives. »When I travel back to Germany, I'll have to spend a month just visiting friends in Münstertal,« says Lori, who since her return has been able to teach her parents about their heritage?and introduce her father to his new favorite food, a special sauerkraut dish.
Now studying for an education degree, Lori hopes to teach her future students the German stories and songs she?s learned. She also looks forward to telling her own children the Pfefferle?s German history. »Since I know where my family comes from,« she says, »it's my responsiblity to pass it on.«