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Rural Missouri Magazine
A detective of his own past
While still a youngster, Bob Behnen began a personal journey to discover his roots.

by Jeff Joiner

Bob Behnen, a state representative from Kirksville, has spent more than 20 years researching his family history.

"My love for you and a longing to hear from you compels me to write.” So begins a poignant letter home from a young man undertaking an amazing journey. The immigrant’s experiences, beginning in Prussia and ending in St. Louis in 1847, included hunger, filth and disease, but finished amid the powerful promise of America.

“Since I am no longer in the Old World, rather I find myself in the new, namely America . . . I could not send word about myself sooner,” wrote Ernst Gottlieb Leistritz.

“This is fascinating,” says Bob Behnen, a distant relative of Leistritz, as he reads a copy of the letter in the basement office of his Kirksville home. “I look back at these people and ask myself how could they leave the village where their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years and where their family and friends still lived and go to a whole new country. Amazing.”

For Behnen, the letter offers a glimpse into his family’s rich history and is just one of many pieces of evidence he’s collected in his own personal journey documenting his family genealogy. The journey for Behnen may not have been as fraught with danger as that of Ernst, but it has been exciting.

“It’s detective work. You hear all those family stories and you try to find the proof in public records, church documents, obituaries, people’s memories. It’s being your own family detective,” Behnen says.

Unlike many who become interested in family history as they grow older, the genealogy bug bit Behnen as a youngster growing up in Crestwood, in south St. Louis County. The family was moving an aunt from her apartment when they came across boxes of books and bundles of letters, all in German.

Behnen, around the age of 10, was most fascinated with the letters even though he couldn’t read them
“I was dying to know what was in those letters,” says Behnen, now 36. “I learned there was an alphabet that Germans used before 1920 called German script.”

Using that alphabet Behnen taught himself to read script and began translating the letters.
“They were the exchange between brothers and sisters as they had come to America in the 1870s. They wrote about their kids and tragedies that happened to them and other everyday stuff.”

Knowing both his mother’s and father’s families were German spurred Behnen to study the language in high school and continue his research. He became fluent in German and traveled to Germany on two student exchange trips, one the result of scoring highest in a national German language proficiency test.

After high school, Behnen joined the Army and was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany and traveled widely. He visited Liechtenstein, the tiny nation nestled between Austria and Switzerland and the ancestral home of his mother’s family. Members of the Gassner and Rypczynski families penned the letters that fired Behnen’s curiosity as a youngster. Behnen also visited Wolfgang Emmerich, a cousin living in southern Germany, who recalled the generosity of his St. Louis kin.

“The man said that the St. Louis Gassners would send care packages to their relatives in Germany after World War II,” Behnen says. “They had been bombed out and some had their homes destroyed. They didn’t smoke but they traded the Lucky Strike cigarettes sent in the care packages for food and other badly needed items on the black market.”

Discharged from the Army in 1987, Behnen attended Truman State University in Kirksville and graduated with a business degree. He went to work as a fundraiser for Truman State and later Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine. While living in Kirksville, Behnen became involved in the local Republican Party. In 2000 he won a close race for state representative and was re-elected in 2002. Despite the hectic life of a legislator, Behnen continues his research, now aided by the Internet.

Behnen relishes a letter written by ancestor Ernst Gottleib Leistritz who married his brother's widow in 1857.

Though Behnen’s ancestors were German, he’s found his lineage spread throughout northern Europe. The Behnen family itself originated from Emsland, a region in northwest Germany along the Dutch border. The Behnen family story is a classic one of rags to riches. Behnen says the family were desperately poor tenant farmers with little prospect for improving their difficult lives in Germany.

“This was marsh land, swamp land and they barely eked out a living as hired farmers,” says Behnen, whose great-great grandfather, Johann Heinrich Behnen, came to St. Louis in 1863 and was soon followed by a brother.

The two, who knew how to handle horses, began hauling freight and coal in East St. Louis, eventually forming a teamster’s business which made them wealthy.The Behnen brothers achieved something unimaginable in their native land. In America they no longer toiled for the benefit of others.

“They could work very hard, every day, and keep the proceeds and not have to give it away (to the landowner),” Behnen says. “I can’t even imagine the thrill they must have felt to own a piece of land, to own their own business.”

Of course the journey to America was never easy. In 1847 Ernst Gottlieb Leistritz wrote of the four-month journey from Prussia, in present day Poland, to St. Louis. The trip included a miserable winter trek across Germany and a two-month sea voyage that left most of the 260 passengers aboard a sailing ship sick.

“The good wind turned into a storm overnight. Our ship was soon carried to the heights and again to the depths. . . It is a terrible sight to be mixed up on a ship with so many people. . . During stormy weather, the children cry; the women folk lament . . . Most people only have the wish to be on land again. . . Five died and three children were born, two of which died.”

Leistritz was followed to America by his brother, Carl, who emigrated with his wife and two children. Behnen is puzzled by a tragic mystery that befell Carl August Leistritz, his great-great-great grandfather. Behnen learned that Carl left for America with his family in 1855. But by 1857 his wife had married Carl’s brother, Ernst. Apparently Carl died en route or shortly after arriving in America. His widow and two young children traveled on to Missouri where they joined Ernst. Behnen is unable to find any record of or learn the cause of Carl’s death.

“Ernst wrote in his letter, ‘For anyone who embarks on this trip you must consider that you could die.’ Isn’t that interesting.”

For Behnen, genealogy is far more than filling in lines on a family tree with names. It means putting your family’s experiences in the context of history.

“The neat thing is understanding what was happening in America at a particular time and what was happening to your family,” says Behnen. “I wonder how did Grandma meet Grandpa and why did they leave everything they knew in Germany? What drove them to come to America?”

Collecting letters, public documents and old pictures makes family history real. It’s a passion that drives many to dig deeper and travel farther. And when a gem of evidence is discovered, like a letter home from a German immigrant, the excitement is hard to contain, says Behnen.

“When you see a genealogist at a microfim reader when they find something, you can see their excitement. It’s a great accomplishment.”

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