Saturday, January 29, 2011

Madeleine's Album

A couple of weeks ago a received a surprise package from a cousin in France. She sent me a souvenir album that was said to have belonged to Germaine de Büren (1863-1931), a daughter of Henri de Büren (1825-1909). While I turned its many pages I came to realize that the album may have ended up with Germaine but as it was started many years before she was born, it was surely the keepsake of someone else. I repeatedly came across the name Sillem and images of Hamburg. Why would Germaine have had this album? It didn’t seem to be a de Büren heirloom.

Germaine de Büren

Upon reflection it dawned on me that this could be the album of Madeleine Sillem, Henri de Büren’s first wife who died tragically six weeks into their marriage of typhoid fever. Madeleine was not only Henri’s wife but also his first cousin – Henri and Madeleine mothers were both sisters from the de Senarclens family. Her death was an incredibly tragic event not only for Henri but for the whole family. Henri would marry again only five years later, and as with his first marriage, he would wed another first cousin, Natalie de Freudenreich who gave Henri nine children. It seems plausible that Henri kept Madeleine’s album as a memento and passed it down to his daughter Germaine when she was older.

The Sillem family history is quite impressive and theirs has been intertwined over the ages with that of Hamburg. After a good deal of business hardship in the late 1840s, Madeline’s father moved the family from Hamburg to Geneva and spent the remainder of his life in Switzerland. Even after Madeleine’s death, the de Büren family and their Sillem cousins in Geneva remained close. In fact Auguste Gustave de Büren’s boyhood journal mentions many visits of his “Uncle and Aunt Sillem” to the castle of Vaumarcus.

As this album concerned in great part the Sillem family I contacted Martin Sillem in Hamburg who has taken over stewardship of the Sillem family history. I sent him some of the drawings and etchings of Hamburg and asked if he could help me translate some of the notes in German. He agreed and was gracious enough to get the notes transcribed from Sütterling and translated in English.

The notes in fact turned out to be poems most likely written to Madeleine from her family in Germany. I find them touching and am indebtted to Martin to helping bring them back to life after such a slumber. I am including two poems from Louise and Dolores Sillem below:

Dich führe durch das wildbewegte Leben
Ein gnädiges Geschick
Ein reines Herz hat dir Natur gegeben
O ! bring es rein zurück !
Louise Sillem

May a blessed destiny guide you
On the wild river of life
Nature has given you a pure heart
Oh! please bring it back just as pure!
Louise Sillem

Blau ist des Himmels lichter Bogen
Wenn ihn kein Nachtgewölk umzogen
Blau ist das Blümchen, welches spricht
Ich bitte dich: Vergiß mein nicht.
Dolores Sillem

Blue is the dome of the sky
When no clouds are drawn across it
Blue is the little flower that says
I ask you to forget-me-not
Dolores Sillem

As to the visuals in the Album I am including a selection of etchings of Hamburg, as well as artwork done by her family and friends.

Drawing by Marie Sillem, 1848

Drawing by Jerome Sillem

St Petri Kirche in Hamburg

Ansicht von Hamburg

Die Börse in Hamburg, 1847


The one drawing that caught my imagination was that of a warship guns ablaze flying the stars and stripes.

Could this drawing have been made by Henri de Büren as he travelled the Americas before he and Madeleine got married? The possibility is certainly intriguing.

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