Once upon a time there lived two German brothers named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm who gained fame with their books of fairy tales. Much later there lived an American travel writer by the same family name who hoped to claim them as kin.
This is a tale of Tom Grimm. Was it possible that some of the creative genes of the literary Grimm Brothers had passed through the generations to me? My initial search in the summer of 1962 wasn't encouraging. Fresh from college with a journalism degree, I was vagabonding around the world and arrived in Heidelberg, reported to be the birthplace of my great-grandfather in 1848.
But neither the town hall nor any church registry had reference to Karl Heinrich Grimm or his father, Jacob. A Jesuit priest who was scanning some old German ledgers for me turned up a Kathryn Grimm born in 1848--to an unwed milkmaid. I declined any relationship to her or her mother, and gave up the search.
200th Birthday Celebration
Even the post-"Roots" rush to trace long-lost ancestors hadn't drawn me back to Germany for another try. But I couldn't resist this year's 200th birthday celebration for the Bruders Grimm. Surely the special bicentennial would include genealogical information about the brothers' descendants, and I could easily learn if any of them were also on a branch of our family tree.
Besides, what a wonderful excuse to explore one of the lesser-known tourist routes of Germany, the Fairy Tale Road. It was established a decade ago to entice more visitors to the regions of Hesse, Lower Saxony and Rhine-Westphalia.
The 36O-mile route begins in Hanau, the Grimm Brothers' birthplace just east of Frankfurt in central Germany, and stretches north to Bremen. Along the way are towns that were landmarks in the brothers' lives and sights in the countryside that are supposed to bring to mind the tales they told.
Joining my springtime sojourn and search was a fellow writer, Michele, who has been sharing a Grimm byline through marriage for 15 years. On our flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, more than a few passengers were surprised to see us passing the time with copies of "Grimms' Fairy Tales" instead of the latest best sellers.
Now They Seem Ghoulish
Rereading the stories for the first time since childhood, we'd forgotten how ghoulish some of them seem, Little Red Riding Hood being eaten alive by the wolf, then saved by a hunter who slices open the animal's belly. Or Snow White poisoned by an apple and lying in a dark coffin for years, and later her wicked stepmother forced to dance in red-hot iron slippers until she fell dead.
But someone we met on the flight brought us to the reality that the fairy tales are hardly scarier than real life. Sitting across the aisle was Dr. Robert Gale, the bone marrow specialist from UCLA who was en route to Russia to help victims of the nuclear plant explosion at Chernobyl.
Our self-styled mission to trail the brothers and uncover a family connection began at the airport in a rented car, a five-speed sports model that could hold its own on Germany's no-speed-limit Autobahn. We headed east to see the grandest monument to the Grimm Brothers, a bronze statue of Jacob and Wilhelm in the market square in Hanau.
Jacob, the elder, was born in that now-industrialized city in 1785, and Wilhelm arrived the following year. Bombs obliterated the Grimm family residence during World War II, but their second childhood home still stands. We found it a few miles east at Steinau an der Strasse, a small farm village to which the boys moved at the ages of 5 and 6.
Their father had been appointed a judiciary official and the family lived in the stately district administrative building. Erected in 1562, it's been renovated as a museum and visitor information office.
We were directed down the street to an even older and more imposing structure, a Renaissance castle of the Counts of Hanau where memorabilia of the Grimms is exhibited.
That's where we discovered a family tree with some good news and some bad news. Happily, there were nine children in the Grimm family, increasing the odds that I might be an offshoot. Sadly, three sons had died a few months after birth and three others had remained lifelong bachelors. To my great dismay, one of the unmarried was Jacob.
As for the three others who married, the Grimm name was not passed on by Ludwig Emil, who became a well-known artist and fathered only a daughter. Nor by the brothers' sole sister, Charlotte, who wedded a Hassenpflug. However, Wilhelm still offered me hope. He married Dorothea Wild and they had four children. Unfortunately, the genealogical chart ended there and gave no clue to their offspring.
I'd have to wait until we got to Kassel where we'd prearranged an interview with the press officer of the Grimm Brothers' Bicentennial Committee and had requested to see an up-to-date family tree. Meanwhile, we toasted my ancestral search with a bottle of bubbly Grimmsekt, specially labeled champagne sold at the castle in honor of the boys' 200th birthday.
We also enjoyed a year-round attraction in Steinau, the puppet theater where the Grimms' fairy tales are enacted on a miniature stage. Even with the dialogue in German, we knew the handsome prince would eventually discover that the lost slipper only fit on the foot of Aschenputtel (Cinderella).
Our journey along the Fairy Tale Road also led to the storybook village of Alsfeld, known for its picturesque market square and half-timbered town hall from medieval times. Nearby is a fountain crowned by a statue of a girl in the local costume that features a small round hat. In real life, her cap is red and the young maiden is called Rotkappchen, the German name for a popular Grimm Brothers' tale known in English as Little Red Riding Hood.
They Collected Tales
While some tourist-minded places like to lay claim to being the setting for certain fairy tales, it's just their imagination. In fact, we learned that many of the Brothers' tales, including Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, came via France from Italy. A book of fairy tales was published in Venice as long ago as 1551.
What the Grimms did was collect and popularize the age-old tales; they never authored any themselves. After attending the university at Marburg and becoming fascinated by language and literature, the scholarly brothers settled in Kassel and began writing down often-told folk stories.
Eighty-six of them appeared in their first book of "Children and House Tales" that was published in 1812. A few years later they published a second volume with 72 more stories.
Book sales were slow until an illustrated edition was printed with drawings by their artistic brother, Emil Ludwig. In the meantime, Dutch and English translations were also published and the popularity of Grimms' Fairy Tales began to spread. Today they can be read in 170 languages. Walt Disney brought Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to life on movie screens around the world.
Favorite Forest, Castle
Along Germany's Fairy Tale Road, we found a few scenic places where characters from the Grimm Brothers' books would seem at home. Deep in the ancient Reinhard Forest is our favorite, the 650-year-old castle at Sababurg that has been named for Sleeping Beauty and welcomes overnight guests. At the Dornroschen Schloss, it's easy to imagine a dashing young prince kissing a beautiful princess to awaken her from 100 years of slumber.
Eventually we got to Kassel, an attractive city that's a cradle of German culture and a longtime residence of the Grimm Brothers. The Bellevue Castle where they once lived is a museum honoring their work in language and linguistics.
Far more important to them than the fairy tales was Jacob's book on the history of the German language and their compilation of a German dictionary. By the time both men died, they had only reached the Fs, and it took other scholars until 1960 to finish that monumental work begun by the Grimms.
Meeting an Official
I would be proud to be one of their relatives and eagerly awaited my meeting with an official of the Brothers' bicentennial. Klaus Becker brought with him the Grimms' complete genealogy, which traced 37 generations back to the year 708. I anxiously looked at the chart for the four children of Wilhelm Grimm in the hope of finding my link to the family.
Three of the prospective connections were quickly eliminated: a daughter who couldn't carry on the name, a son who died in infancy and another son who remained a bachelor. My last chance was a third son, Herman, who was listed as marrying a Giesla von Arnim. But there were no other entries. The couple had been childless and the family tree of the Grimm Brothers died with Herman in 1901.
Even if I can't claim the famous writers as relatives, my story has a happy ending, thanks to the medieval castles, half-timbered towns, country scenery and other enjoyments my wife and I shared along Germany's Fairy-Tale Road.
For further information, contact the German National Tourist Office, 444 S. Flower St., Suite 2230, Los Angeles 90071; phone (213) 688-7332.