Long-lost relatives get in touch through Web sites and other Internet tools.
Seven years ago, Donald Aldinger didn't really know who he was. He didn't know who his parents were. He didn't know where his name came from or where his ancestors were born.
Aldinger knew only this: He was abandoned at birth and raised by Mennonite foster parents, Elmer and Mildred Mumbauer, on a farm in Quakertown.
For the first 47 years of Aldinger's life, he dragged around questions about his identity like an anchor buried in his side. Insecurity tugged at him from the left. Inferiority pulled at him from the right.
On April 16, 1993, he decided he needed to find the answers. And he did.
He discovered that his parents, Charles and Evelyn Aldinger, had been homeless and living on Hamilton Street in Allentown with his six brothers and sisters when Evelyn was pregnant with him. He learned that his parents had been arrested for vagrancy, and that his siblings were scattered all over the Northeast.
He doesn't know what happened to his mother, but, by searching through records, he discovered that his father was beaten and hanged in an Easton Prison in 1949. Charles Aldinger had suffered from polio and battled alcoholism after he fought in World War II and returned from the war to find he had no job.
"I never met the man," Don Aldinger says. "I never saw a picture of him."
His search gave him answers but still left him without a family, so he pressed on. He traveled to Fellbach, Germany, where he discovered the origins of the Aldinger family. He teamed up with Joerg Aldinger, a 20-year-old German computer whiz, who launched a Web site, http://family.aldinger.com, devoted to the Aldinger family and to gathering together its members.
With the help of the Internet, Don Aldinger has found three brothers and one sister. He has met relatives in California, Iowa and even York County, which is home to one-third of the 1,200 Aldingers in the United States. Last September, York was the home of Aldinger family reunion, which 38 people from Fellbach, Germany, visited.
"I couldn't even find my father's name until a couple of years ago. Now, I know almost every Aldinger in this country," Aldinger says. "All because of the Web. That has been the tool that has kept this whole family together. All my life I didn't have a family. Now, every Aldinger in the world is my family."
The family Web
Family Web sites, like the Aldinger page, have been around since the birth of the Internet. But their popularity has bloomed only in recent years, says Kim Baugrud, a retired professor of genealogy at the University of Wisonsin.
Baugrud, who still teaches a few graduate courses at the university, estimates that the number of Web pages devoted to individual families, their origins and their members have tripled in the last three years.
"I think it's just catching on like wildfire," Baugrud says.
Baugrud says evidence of this explosion is all around him. The Mormon faith is huge both in and around his hometown of Racine, Wis. Members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints are required to trace their faith back at least four generations, he says, which means Mormons are tuned in to the best genealogy software and Web sites.
The church even has its own high-powered genealogy Web site, www.familysearch.org, which offers an ancestor search engine, a family history library and downloadable software.
In Baugrud's genealogy classes of about 100 students, about three or four people will jump on the Internet to find long-lost relatives, he says.
The Aldinger page is just one of several family Web pages linked to York County families or residents.
Go to www.google.com, www.yahoo.com or another search engine and type in "York County" and "family Web page." You'll find the Aldinger page as well as a page for the Crouse family, the Rinehart family and others.
John Rinehart launched his family Web page about five years ago when he opened a CompuServe Internet account. Although he hasn't recently updated the page, which is at http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/rinehart, it has linked him with a few relatives over the years.
However, most of the e-mails pour in from unsolicited people who he's never even heard of, says Rinehart, who lives near Dover with his wife and two children.
"People saying, 'Hey, are we related to you?'" he says. Unfortunately, they weren't.
Eventually, Rinehart will get back into the Web site and update the pictures of his two sons.
"I can see where it will be of value to us," he says.
To Baugrud and Aldinger, that value is priceless. Baugrud dove headfirst into cyber family searches years ago, and he says looking for relatives can be fascinating.
The Internet and its capabilities make it both thrilling and sweetly addictive.
"I'm into it up to my ears. I love it. You get greedy. Finding an old relative ... that's as exciting as it can get," Baugrud says. "It's like 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire.' The more you go, the more you know, the more you want to go back."
From 1995 to 1999, Donald Aldinger leaped into his family's ancestry with that kind of innocent greed and excitement. He traveled all over the country and the world in search of more and more relatives.
In addition to the bittersweet discovery of his parents and their story, he also uncovered other gems regarding lost relatives. He found out that, in 1881, his great-grandfather moved from Fellbach, Germany, to the eastern Pennsylvania area because locusts had halted wine production. He came to work for Bethlehem Steel that year, and Aldinger actually visited his house near the plant.
Finding a brother in Reading was particularly exhilarating, he says. A tip on the Internet led to a phone number and a name there, so he made the call.
"I said, 'Is this Charles Aldinger?' And he goes 'Yes, sir,'" Aldinger says. "I said, 'I think you're my brother.'"
Aldinger says York County is home to more members of his family than even Fellbach, Germany. The Aldingers settled here in the early 1800s. Christopher Aldinger, a farmer who was the first to come to America, lived in Windsor Township, Dover Township and eventually Heidelberg Township.
One of the current York County Aldingers is Barbara Aldinger, who attended the reunion last year. Barbara Aldinger says her great uncle owned a printing shop on South George Street, where he printed a book about the family in 1934.
Donald Aldinger is just glad he could share the joy of tracing his family's roots with others like Barbara. He says that, when he met her at the reunion, tears streamed down her face because she thought it would be wonderful if her late father could see the gathering. Donald Aldinger also has found brothers and sisters for other people. Aldinger says: "There's so many remarkable stories I could tell you if I had 10 hours."
By: Peter Bothum in: York Daily Record, January 1, 2001
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