By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 9/11/97 in The Madera Tribune
The Friends of Madera County Library have been wondering what you’re doing here. Some friends they are, eh?
In case you haven’t heard, the Friends plan on self-publishing a book titled, “Why We’re Here,” on the origins of Madera County residents. They’re asking locals to submit a story of 250 words or less on where they came from, either personally or as a family.
A local fast food clerk once asked my dad where he was from. My dad replied, “Germany.”
She persisted, “No, what country do you come from?”
My dad repeated himself, “Germany.”
“Oh,” she said with obvious disappointment, “I thought you were from someplace in Europe.”
In elementary school I would have dreaded having to write a 250-word essay, but now I cringe for the opposite reason. This column, for example, usually runs more than 750 words. How do you compress an oak tree back into an acorn?
My family dates back to at least the 12th century at Vorhelm in western Germany. At that time, records reveal that one of my forebears sold himself to the local bishop to avoid being drafted for war duty. After the war ended he bought his freedom.
In A.D. 1812, the Rieping homestead had to quarter French troops since it happened to be on the supply route during Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia.
About 1929 my grandfather Heinrich asked for his inheritance early and moved his young family of four to Klein Karlshoeh in Silesia, now western Poland. Despite this my family suffered again from war when Adolf Hitler followed in France’s footsteps by invading Russia. My uncle Hugo had been drafted into service, and his horse stepped on a mine during the attack on Stalingrad in Nov. 1942. My uncle had turned 19 only days before he died.
My father Josef, the eighth of 11 children, had a mischievous streak, like myself. At age 6, he found a naturally hollowed tree in the woods near his home. Discovering that the inside looked like a chimney, he decided to light a fire in it. Nazi soldiers spied the smoke and suspecting an enemy plot soon arrived on the scene. Josef fled and evaded the soldiers in the woods for hours before finally escaping home late that night.
When Josef returned home, he expected to be punished for his extreme lateness. But after hearing the truth my grandfather praised him proudly, and made sure he ate before going to bed. At the time my dad was confused at this leniency. He later realized my grandparents feared to openly criticize the Nazi government, or they would have.
Nonetheless, in 1945 Russian soldiers came to the door of the farmhouse asking for Heinrich Rieping. My grandmother Helene used the excuse that she was washing dishes to send my father, then age 8, to lead the soldiers to her husband, who was in the fields raking hay. My dad obeyed, and the soldiers took Heinrich away to a prison camp.
That July a Roman Catholic priest warned Helene that authorities intended to put her family into a prison camp as well. At his urging, she fled west with her eight children — the youngest was only 3. Josef turned 9 during the long trek. After bribing a border guard not to shoot for five minutes, the family safely made it across the kilometer-wide border, known as “no man’s land.” The story of my family would continue, and Josef’s would lead across the ocean to the U.S.A.
How do you compress an oak tree into an acorn? God does it every autumn, and in the same way the sum of a family’s history is written in you and I. All of us are a product of the past, and that is why history is important.