I interrupted them to ask if they were Arzbergers, residents of my ancestral village on the far eastern edge of Germany. We were all standing beside a high wall next to a Lutheran church overlooking that town some 200 feet below.
Yes, they answered in German, Arzbergers. They went on to explain that he was her son, she was the mother and they lived south of Munich, but had come to Arzberg, her home as a young woman, for a last visit. She was getting a bit old to make the trip again, she said, so it was a time to remember her younger years.
So, I asked a simple question: Did you know of anyone named Sack? She answered quickly that had been her maiden name. She looked a bit surprised. So was I. So was her son.
We traded stares.
I explained to her, Sabina Sack Müssel, that in 1855 my great-grandfather and his three brothers had left Arzberg in a time of German economic and political turmoil and sailed for America. They had first settled in Cincinnati and then made their way to South Bend, now Arzberg's sister city, where there was already a thriving community of fellow Arzbergers.
Later, that great-grandfather, Georg Sack, and his wife, Wilhelmina, also an Arzberger, had moved to Ligonier and started a family. Grandfather William was born. He married Hazel McDonald and started a grocery. My father was born in 1913, and I came some 45 years later.
She then explained her story to me. She was born in Arzberg, but raised a few miles away in the ancient German city of Eger, renamed Cheb by the Czechs in 1919.
The region, called the Sudetenland, with an overwhelming 2.5-million German majority, had been given to the newly formed Czechoslovakia after World War I as a gift by American President Woodrow Wilson. No matter that it had been German for 600 years or so.
From 1918 until 1938, the Czech government persecuted the indigenous Germans, including her family. At the end of World War II, the victorious Czech government gave her family and the other 2.5 million Germans a few minutes to bundle up all they had and leave for a shattered Germany.
Ethnic cleansing on a giant scale. Some were shot along the way, some brutally assaulted or robbed. Women suffered the normal fate.
After months in a refugee camp, she resettled with her surviving family in Arzberg, married a prominent local man and raised a family. Years later, the family moved south to be closer to their son, who had taken work near Munich.
We talked. I told them of reading in the Arzberg city history that the Sack family had settled in 1389 on a farm near the town. She knew of the farmstead and added a bit of information. It is still there, she said, still a working farm, still secluded.
A few minutes later, we stopped at the Lutheran church. On its exterior wall was a chiseled monument that showed the high points of the city's history: The year of the first charter, how the village was sold from one duke to another, the years when plague had wiped out half the population, when fire had destroyed the town, when the Hussites had attacked, of Arzberg's struggles during the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation and when the “Auswanderung,” the emigration in droves from Germany to America, began.
Somber references were there, too, to the catastrophic losses in World War I and the disaster of World War II.
Our last stop was the war memorial to the young men of Arzberg who had died in World War I. In France, somewhere, Ludwig Sack had fallen on the 12th of July 1915, probably a warm summer day, perhaps in a trench. He, like the other 140 young men from the village who had died in the Great War — over 6 percent of the total population, and nearly every young man in Arzberg — proudly believed in the German cause, felt they had been dragged into a war of French revenge and Russian expansionism, and believed in Gott Mit Uns (God With Us).
In fact, nearly every young man in the village had died in France. The equivalent losses for Fort Wayne today would be around 20,000 dead. And that was the way it was all over Germany — villages and towns, cities and dorfs missing an entire generation of men.
Her son and I exchanged cards, took down phone numbers and email addresses, and smiled goodbye.
Some families search the Internet and dig in our beloved Allen County Public Library's genealogical collection for years to find traces of the family stem.
Years ago, my grandmother, the former clerk-treasurer of Ligonier, had given me a letter from Great-Grandmother Wilhelmina that mentioned her birthplace as Arzberg, and now I am the first in my family to return some 157 years later.
And, through sheer coincidence, I have met my distant cousins and heard their poignant story, something I had read about in history books and studied in college, but never taken as personal. History is the story of people, usually written in sweeping overviews, seldom in the first person.
But now, I have a direct link to those Sudeten Germans who were so badly persecuted, to the Hussite Rebellion, to a battlefield in France.
For me, these slices of history are now very personal.