Woman’s research begins with old photos
Originally published December 23, 2012
By Courtney Pomeroy
Sharon Crisafulli’s latest favorite photograph is of people she never met.
Taken at a 1936 wedding in Koblenz-Winningen, Germany, the picture shows just the bride and the groom. It was taken from below, as if the photographer was sitting in a chair. The couple face the lens arm in arm. The bride’s eyes are closed, but her mouth forms a wide, tooth-baring smile, and she clutches her bouquet. The groom’s eyes are fixed on the camera. With his hands in his pockets, he appears to be in the middle of uttering a sentence. A joke, maybe? His bride looks to be laughing, after all.
Crisafulli can’t know for sure. Part of the reason she likes the picture so much is that she never will.
“It’s not a great picture,” she said. “But it’s the one I keep coming back to time and time again.”
While the details of moments captured in antique photographs remain a mystery, Crisafulli gets a thrill from finding out what she can about the people in them. She is good at it, too. She just came across the wedding album containing this picture in November, but she already knows plenty about the couple, Harald Koethe and Anneliese Schwebel. She has even found a living relative of Schwebel’s, and she plans to return the book to the family.
Crisafulli did not come across the book by accident. She collects such treasures. She calls them items of “genealogical interest,” and her hobby is researching the people they belonged to and, if possible, returning her finds to their descendants.
The blue, leather-bound wedding book turned up at, of all places, the Feagaville Flea Market in Frederick.
In her day job at Long & Foster Real Estate, Crisafulli is a sales manager. She inherited her extracurricular activity from her father, who enjoyed doing research into family lines and local history, she said.
“He just instilled in me this love of genealogy,” she said.
Most of her research is on local families, including the Clarke, Gardiner, Sullivan and Fealy lines. She scours websites such as ances try.com and genealogy blogs similar to her own — trace myorigin.com. Sometimes, she researches names from random antique gravestones.
Earlier this year, her hobby gained new meaning. While researching her Clarke family ancestors (as in Clarke Place in downtown Frederick), she came across an old post on a message board from the year 2000. The writer mentioned that she had the death notice of Horace Clarke. Crisafulli, hoping she could connect more than a decade after the post was written, responded and asked the woman to send photos of the Clarkes, if she had them.
To her amazement, the woman replied, and she had pictures — including one of Crisafulli’s great-grandparents on their wedding day. The woman turned out to be distantly related to Crisafulli by marriage. She had inherited the decades-old family album and gladly turned it over when she realized it had belonged to Crisafulli’s great-great-grandmother.
“I have this incredible family treasure that I feel was just a gift out of nowhere,” she said. “I want someone else to get that satisfaction.”
So, she tracked down Anneliese Schwebel’s nephew.
A recent blog post is a plea for information about living relatives of Samuel Estill and Rosa Mills. Crisafulli has their marriage certificate, which dates back to 1872.
Her mother, Betty Gardiner, admires her daughter’s efforts.
“It’s just incredible how dedicated she is to it,” Gardiner said. “A lot of people have fun watching TV or something. Well, this is her fun.”
When Crisafulli gets lost in one of her projects, Gardiner is reminded of her late husband.
And, at their 2010 family reunion in Ireland, Crisafulli’s talents came in handy.
“She knew so much and enlightened all of the cousins,” Gardiner said.
Crisafulli knows plenty about her own ancestry. But she wishes she could find out more about Schwebel.
“She has become so real to me that I feel like she’s a heroine in my favorite novel,” she said.
Because Schwebel’s family included Nazi soldiers, Crisafulli has been unable to learn much through historical societies and other sources in Germany, she said.
What she does know, courtesy of an online database of World War II casualties, is that Harald Koethe died in the war in 1944, less than a decade after his wedding to Schwebel.
“I want to know what happened to her after Harald died,” Crisafulli said. According to her research, Schwebel lived until 2000.
While she may never piece together the rest of Schwebel’s story, Crisafulli has told her daughters, who are 21 and 19, that she hopes to someday have a grandchild named Anneliese, in honor of the beautiful German bride in the small, blue book.
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