APOLLONIA FILLBRUNN – The Story of a Hardy Survivor  

By Phyllis Filbrun McNelly  

How did she do it? Before her time, only one wife appears on the long Fillbrunn family tree. She is known just as "Cathrina", nothing more. There must have been other wives, or at least mates, the proof being in us, the Filbrun family descendants. Yet there she is in full splendor, complete with maiden name, birth and death dates -- Apollonia Angler Fillbrunn (1607 - 1668). How indeed?

More puzzling still is who bothered to record a mother's identity and change tradition at that very difficult time in Germany? The Reformation was under way and there was great upheaval. An uneasy peace had existed between the Catholic and Protestant rulers of the German principalities since 1550. That peace allowed each ruler to choose the religion for his own area, but the rivalry and disunity continued to grow.

With no central authority to put down anarchy, small domestic wars broke out in many places. Germany became a threat to itself and to the balance of power in Europe. When France and Austria joined the conflict in 1618, the Thirty Years War was begun. Some historians believe the resulting destruction was greater than any generation in any land had ever experienced, leaving 1/3 to 1/2 of the population dead. In the path of many armies, the Palatinate area of southern Germany was especially hard hit. This was the home and the time in which Apollonia survived.

Records in the village of Schriesheim show Apollonia’s father to have been one Hans Angler, owner of a farm there. As was usual, nothing was recorded of her mother. Apollonia was 11 when the war began in earnest. It continued through much of her life. She married a widower of the same town, Adam Friedrich. His household included a stepson, Hans Philip Ortlepp. Adam fell victim to war or disease and died when Apollonia was 28.

She married again quickly to another widower, Hans Valentin Fillbrunn. He was from the nearby town of Neckarhausen and a member of one of it's earliest and best established families. Perhaps Apollonia herself was from a family of some influence or maybe she was very attractive -- or both. For a widow with a small stepson in tow, and in wartime with men in short supply, she married quickly and well.

Valentin was Imperial Postmaster of Neckarhausen. It was a position of prominence, first appointed by the ruler and thereafter handed down to the eldest son of each generation. Valentin's district covered a large area from Mannheim on the west to Heidelberg on the northeast and south to the Austrian border. The Fillbrunn family was also the ancestral owner of the ferry crossing the Neckar River at Neckarhausen.

Apollonia and Valentin had several children. As the long war dragged on year after year, hunger, cold, plagues and death accompanied the moving armies. Diseases spread and only one of their children, a daughter, Anna, survived. Valentin himself fell victim and died five years after their marriage. At age 33, Apollonia was again alone, this time with several small children.

As was then the Old Testament custom, an unmarried brother of the deceased was supposed to marry the widow. One wonders what Apollonia thought of this rule, but she did marry her younger brother-in-law, Hans Jakob Fillbrunn. Jakob thus inherited a wife, children and a good job. He was prepared for the latter as Postmasters' sons were required to learn to read and write, not a common skill in those times. For that reason the Postmaster often held the office of Mayor too, as did Jakob beginning in 1651.
Apollonia’s stepson, Hans Philip Ortlepp, was also schooled in the Fillbrunn household and later became the Zentgraf (judge) who presided over the court in about thirty of the area's villages. It would appear that Apollonia must have been doing quite well by then at the top of the local social order. Also this widow of two aging men now had a young, healthy husband. Two children were born.

But the times were not suited for a comfortable, contented life. Though the war had wound down following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, little had been accomplished. Devastation and poverty occurred as foreign armies trampled back and forth across Germany. After ten years of marriage to Jakob, disease swept across the family. Jakob and several children died. Two survived, Anna Christina and Alexander. Apollonia, in her early 40s now, was once again alone.

She moved back to her childhood homestead in Schriesheim. (That sturdy, stone farmhouse still stands at Schmale Seite 6.) Women were not permitted to own property, so her father had willed it to her husband, Jacob Fillbrunn. Her daughter, Christina Fillbrunn, and her husband, Johann Mack, with their four sons lived with her. Probably Apollonia helped a great deal with their care, as was the custom for widowed grandmothers.

Her fourth grandson, Alexander Mack, born in 1679, was named for his mother’s brother, Alexander Fillbrunn. He was to make religious history. Calvinism was now legal in Germany, along with Catholicism and Lutheranism. The prince of the Palatinate chose Calvinism for his subjects. Having seen their sons taken from their farms to be killed in foreign wars that had come to naught, new groups were forming to protest and refuse military service.

Alexander Mack was drawn to these beliefs and began holding meetings at his father's water mill (still standing in 1984). He also preached along the Rhine and in Switzerland and is credited with founding the German Baptist Brethren Church (now the Church of the Brethren) in 1708. As time went by, it's beliefs in pacifism and simplicity posed a threat to the authorities. It's members suffered severe persecution. In 1729, many (including Alexander) escaped to America. They settled first in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and then moved on to farms in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Later generations went westward. Today there are over 130,000 members of the church Alexander Mack founded in the United States, plus more in Canada, South America and other countries.

What Apollonia thought of her grandson's beliefs isn't known. No doubt she worried about his dangerous work. But having lived through so many disastrous decades of war and the deaths of three husbands and several children, she may well have also urged him on. We're grateful to whoever recorded her existence. Apollonia was a hardy survivor and good provider, as must have been so many of the forgotten wives, mothers and grandmothers missing from our early family trees.


"Apollonia Fillbrunn - The Story of a Hardy Survivor" - Phyllis Filbrun McNelly - all rights reserved.  Permission to reproduce it or any part thereof must be obtained from the filbrun.com webmaster.

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