Editor's note: The Deseret News asked for experiences of those whose trips have helped them connect with their family roots and how families have incorporated their history into summer vacations. Here is one of the experiences. It has been edited for length and clarity.
My father was Walter Jenkinson Poelman, born in 1898 of a Scottish mother and a Swiss father. His inheritance from his birth father was the given name Walter, a photograph of Walter Roggen, and a postcard mailed in 1901 from St. Petersburg, Russia, where Walter Roggen was working in a hotel, to Utrecht, Holland, where my father’s mother, “Mrs. J(ane) Poelman” was then residing. (She had married Hermanus Poelman in 1899.)
After years searching, digging into the Roggens of Switzerland, I learned of Oscar Roggen and found his email address. He is an interesting man, born in Murten, Switzerland, who moved to New Zealand in 1977 where he went into business as a dental technician. He returns to Switzerland periodically to visit family and to compete in yodeling competitions with his Swiss Kiwi Yodel Group. Oscar Roggen’s sister resides in a convent in Switzerland under the name Sister Benedicta. His brother Hans was for 20 years a member of the Pope’s Swiss Guard, the first member of the Swiss Guard to marry an American. Retired, Hans lives with his wife in a Zurich suburb.
Oscar Roggen was the man who knew the beginnings of an answer to the question: Who was the Walter Roggen who was my father’s father, and how did he fit into the Roggen family?
Murten is the ancestral home of the Roggens of Switzerland. Described as a mini-Bern, the old town is surrounded on three sides by a medieval wall, on the fourth by a lake of the same name as the town. Roggen descendents were invited to a reunion held at Murten in September 1987, where copies of a Roggen family tree were presented to those in attendance. It was a copy of that 1987 family tree plus a copy of an older tree specific to his family that Oscar Roggen mailed to us in May 2013.
There were two men from Murten named Walter Roggen on that 1987 family tree, one born in 1872, the other born in 1873. At first Oscar and Hans and I thought it was the one born in 1872, died in 1909, no children listed, close cousin to the brothers.
On that same Roggen family tree from 1987, the wife of the Walter Roggen born in 1873 was listed as Fanny Rosenberg with a child named René and a grandson Béat Roggen. At BYU's Harold B. Lee Library's website at net.lib.byu.edu, I found a copy of a journal article transcribing marriage banns from St. Catherine’s Swedish Church at St. Petersburg, Russia. In April 1906, banns were proclaimed for Walter Heinrich Gottlieb Roggen, värdhusvärd (host at an inn), and Fanny Rosenberger.
One day in October 2013 at his home in Baden, Switzerland, Béat Roggen opened a package sent a few weeks earlier from Salt Lake City. He emailed this reply: “Dear Blair Poelman, Thank you for your mail which reached my home during my absence last week. I just opened your envelope one hour ago. I was astonished to recognize my grandfather on the photo and the St. Petersburg hotel (pictured) on the postcard. And I was even more astonished to learn that my father had a half-brother. The attached photograph of your father shows an interesting resemblance to my father in young years. I shall try to give you a short summary of my family’s history within two or three weeks. I would feel glad to get more information about you, your life and your family. For the moment I attached great importance to give you a soon answer to confirm that you got onto the right trail. Kind regards, Béat René Roggen.”
Béat Roggen greeted us at the Zurich airport when my wife, Bernice, my daughter Janae, my son-in-law Scott Preece, and I arrived there in May 2014. He showed us a bit of the older section of Zurich, then invited us to his home to meet his family and to share a meal. He found some family photos of his parents and grandparents and made copies for us. Most poignant was a picture of a bedroom in St. Petersburg with grandfather Walter Roggen, beaming with pride and love, holding and smiling at his infant son René. After a very pleasant visit in Baden, we bade goodbye to Béat and his family and drove on to Murten.
We made good use of the Switzerland guidebook we had brought with us to find our way around Murten and see the sights in that picturesque, historic town: the walkway on top of the “Ramparts” or city wall, the castle, the German Church. We were particularly interested in visiting the French Church with its stained glass window depicting the Roggen family crest. One day while the other three were touring some of the Swiss countryside, I spent seven hours at the Archives de l’Etat de Fribourg in Fribourg viewing microfilm of the Murten church registers and making copies of my great-grandparents' marriage record and their children’s christening records, including the one for grandfather Walter Roggen.
One morning Béat met us in Bern, took us on a walking tour of that city, then drove with us the few kilometers to Murten. In Murten, Béat showed us the home located near the Bern Gate where he grew up and where his grandparents Walter and Fanny spent their final years. He also walked with us to the beautifully landscaped town cemetery. No gravestone there for grandparents as markers must be removed after 25 years.
Beat had arranged a meeting with Murten town historian Markus F. Rubli. Herr Rubli presented Béat and me with copies of several documents from his Roggen file, including a brief report on the time Walter and his brothers spent in St. Petersburg and the hotel they had owned and operated there in the early 1900s before they began trading in commodities. Walter’s obituary from the Murten newspaper dated February 1953 noted that the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1918 “led to a rupture in diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Soviet Russia. The large, formerly respected Swiss colony was notified to leave and leave behind all their possessions. Thus in June 1920 came Herr Walter Roggen with wife and son to Murten. Here in Switzerland was he, who had lived the splendid Petersburg years, forced to find a way to make a living. … With Herr Walter Roggen has passed a plain, good, and always friendly townsman who maintained a splendid consistent character as he endured whatever fate dealt him. All who knew the beloved deceased will keep him in fond memory.”
Another treasure from Herr Rubli’s Roggen file is a family tree prepared in the 1930s, obviously by the same person who prepared one of the trees Oscar Roggen had forwarded a year earlier. It extends Walter Roggen’s pedigree another four generations beyond the three depicted on the 1987 chart, making nine generations in all from Béat René Roggen back to Niclaus Roggen of Murten who married Anna Barb. Mottet about 1723. The chart has more than 150 of Béat’s and my ancestors and cousins.
After finding family treasure in Murten, visits to other tourist sites in Switzerland were interesting but something of an anticlimax.
We keep in touch via email, considering our Roggen cousins cherished friends as well as relatives. On a sightseeing tour of the western U.S., Oscar and a friend stayed with us for a couple of nights in September 2017. We were delighted to share time with them at This Is The Place Heritage Park and on Temple Square. Oscar agreed to a rather impromptu Roggen-Poelman family reunion at a local stake center. He entertained those in attendance by teaching us the correct pronunciation of the Roggen name and a bit about how to yodel in the Swiss way1 comment on this story
We are grateful to be lead to warm, caring, delightful people who have put their arms around us, shared documents, and welcomed us into the Roggen family. Just as we were finding our way onto the right trail, censuses for Canton Fribourg including Murten began appearing online at the FamilySearch.org, 11 every-name censuses for select years between 1811 and 1880. We have been richly blessed to find family names in those censuses as well as in digitized Swiss newspapers, in addition to the many names on the Roggen family trees.