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Long-lost German cousins visit Valencia for reunion

Tuesday, August 11, 1998

By Rachel Malamud, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sunday's family reunion on this farm in Valencia began with a trip to a small town in Germany.

That's where Jim Bardoner discovered his cousins by accident - or, as he says, by divine intervention.

In 1996, Bardoner and his son, James, an emergency room doctor in Chattanooga, Tenn., decided to go to Germany on the first anniversary of the elder Bardoner's wife's death. He knew his family had come from Longen Brombach, a town north of Heidelberg, so Bardoner and his son set out to trace his family's roots.

When they arrived in Heidelberg and rented their car, the agent told them that they should stop in the town of Michelstadt to visit the oldest wooden-faced building in Germany still in use.

"I didn't want to stop in Michelstadt - I wanted to get to Longen Brombach," Bardoner said.

"And while I was waiting in the car in the town square, I saw a museum and figured I'd make a pit stop and check the phone book to see if there were any Bardonners in the area."

There were four Bardonners listed, and when Bardoner had copied the last name, Rolf Bardonner, the museum's clerk told Bardoner the man's wife worked in the museum's archives department.

The clerk called Rosemarie Bardonner downstairs, and Bardoner produced his driver's license and told her that he was a long-lost relative.

"I literally get chills up and down my spine every time I think of this," Bardoner said. "Because I know that it didn't happen by chance. The good Lord and the spirit of my wife were with me that day and led me to that place."

The "long lost" branch of the family, Rolf Bardonner, his wife Rosemarie, their daughter Fabienne, 15, and son Nico, 11, arrived in America on Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday, the rest of the family came together at the farm, with its big white barn and horses in the paddock.

The reunion was a success despite a language barrier - Jim's family doesn't speak German, and the German family doesn't speak English.

"I'm just so tickled that they're here," Bardoner said. Family sentiment transcended language, and everyone tried their best to overcome the obstacle.

Bardoner took a 13-week introductory German language course this spring at Community College of Allegheny County, and Fabienne started English classes last year, so some rudimentary conversation was exchanged.

And like all family reunions, there seemed to be more camera flashes than at the Academy Awards.

While still at the Michelstadt museum, Bardoner had examined the records, which dated to 1671, and discovered that he was related to Rolf and Rosemarie six generations back.

He also learned the first Bardonner on record in Germany is Michael Bardonner.

He had a son, Simon, who had three sons in the early 1700s - Johannes, Johanne Heinrich and Johanne Jacob. Jim Bardoner is descended from Johanne Heinrich Bardonner, Rolf is descended from Johanne Jacob Bardonner, and a third branch of the family in Indiana is descended from Johannes Bardonner.

Bardoner still can't believe he found members of his family.

"What are the chances that after 156 years and two world wars, that there would be family in the same general area as they were when my great-grandparents left?" Bardoner said.

Bardoner's great-grandparents, Johan Peter and Eva Catherine Bardoner, came to America in 1804 and settled in Allegheny City, now the North Side.

During immigration, the family name was misspelled Bardoner, and it stuck. Jim Bardoner's great-uncle, John Henry, discovered the correct spelling of the name and changed it back, and much of the family followed suit. Only Jim Bardoner's branch of the family still bears the incorrect spelling of the name.

"At the age of 81, I'm too old to change my name - there are just too many papers to deal with," Bardoner said.

"I've told my son to change his name, because he's young enough, and his sons should have the correct spelling as well, but he hasn't done it yet either."

Bardoner's son wasn't able to attend the reunion, but the cousins will visit his family in Chattanooga during their holiday. The cousins will spend time with Bardoner's other children, too - Nina Carr, owner of the farm in Valencia, and Sandra Rodenbaugh, a schoolteacher from Medina, Ohio.

"It's a unique experience to realize that you don't live in this world alone," Rodenbaugh said. "It's a big world, but it's smaller than we think."

Rodenbaugh is writing her family's story. She has interviewed her father and her father's last surviving sibling, Viola, and other family members. Her mother's death spurred her to finish the project, and the visit from the German Bardonners has sparked the effort more.

The family history is 70 pages long, and Rodenbaugh estimated that it would be at least 100 pages before it was finished.

"If we don't sit them down now, we'll lose them. If we let the historians, the 80-year-olds go, then we lose the story," Rodenbaugh said. "Our kids deserve to know the stories. I want the stories."

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