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Swiss Family Holdener

Relatives halfway around the world make Americans feel right at home

By Suzanne Boyle Belleville News-Democrat Sunday Magazine

Tony and Doris Holdener flank Catherine Thouvenot as they raise a Swiss flag on the Holdeners' farm south of Smithton. When the American Holdeners set out to find their Swiss relatives, no one expected a moonlight trek up a mountainside, mistaken identity and the kindness of strangers.

For Tony and Doris Holdener, who raise beef cattle and crops on a farm south of Smithton, the adventure began in 1988 during the tail end of a trip to Europe.

The couple was staying in Lucerne, a beautiful lakeside city in Switzerland. With only one day left before their tour group winged back to flatter ground, the two asked their English-speaking, hotel desk clerk if he knew any Holdeners in the area. Tony had grown up knowing his family had roots in the area.

The young clerk not only checked the phone book, but made a phone call and located Walter Holdener, the town clerk in nearby Oberiberg. Walter, who spoke no English, said he was Tony's cousin.

Catherine, Tony and Doris hold souvenirs they brought back from their most recent trip to visit new-found family in Schwyz, Switzerland. To the Holdeners' amazement, the young man then located his girlfriend, a map, a car and they all struck out to find Walter and his family's chalet. It was 9:30 p.m.

"It was a one-hour drive up in the mountains," said Doris, who still chuckles over the night's events. "The full moon was shining and you could see the brown Swiss cows with their big bells. We thought we'd died and gone to heaven."

Oh yes, Walter didn't know they were coming.

Catherine Thouvenot's family stayed in this home, belonging to Martin and Clare Ott.  Martin's sister is married to a Holdener. "We were surprised (they took us in)," said Doris. "They could have said, 'What do we care, they're Americans,' but they didn't."

The visit lasted until 1:30 a.m. A link that stretched thousands of miles had been established.

In 1990, Doris and Tony and a Belleville couple came back to Oberiberg to spend the day with Walter and his wife.

They were treated as family, even though they weren't.

"Walter told us there are 40 families of Holdeners around there, and we were not related," Tony explained. "But he found them for us. He used records that were from the beginning of time, I think."

The view of the valley from second cousin Paul Holdener's home near Schwyz.  The family stays there in the summer when dairy cattle graze on the mountainside. The next day, they headed down the mountain to the town of Schwyz, and met their second cousins, Paul Holdener and his wife, Marie, and Anton Holdener and his wife, Reggie. The two brothers farmed for a living, raising dairy cattle, making cheese and brewing schnapps. Between the two families they had 22 children.

Tony, Paul and Anton shared the same great-grandfather, Wendelin Holdener, who produced 18 children. It was one of his sons, Melchior, who came to the United States, settled in Belleville and began a brick business.

Paul and Marie Holdener show off some of the huge wheels of cheese they sell to campers in the summer and skiers in the winter. Doris and Tony spent the day and promised to return.

Instead, the Swiss Holdeners came to America in 1994 for a visit, even venturing to Highland for its annual Swiss Festival.

When the Americans made a third trip back this summer, they brought along reinforcements: 36 Holdeners, 25 from the metro-east, handmade quilts and other gifts.

This time they came prepared to soak up their history, as well as the warmth of a courteous people who live in a country where there is no litter or stop signs.

Marie Holdener turns cream into whipping cream with a homemade whisk during the family reunion. The group stayed for eight days in the houses of relatives. Some of the hosts were farmers, chocolate factory workers and Swiss Army knife makers. Many didn't speak English well, but they knew a lot about hospitality and feeding guests. Breakfast might include freshly molded butter, strong-flavored cheese, whole milk, pine nut jelly, rolls, sausages and polenta.

They went to a different restaurant each night, where potatoes, veal and pork were plentiful, but beef was rare. Salads and cakes were wonderful, Doris said.

The group noticed that no one user paper plates or napkins.

"We ate off glass and china," said Doris. There was no litter and "Every town, village and home was clean."

They also took day trips, and did a lot of walking, all of which seemed uphill.

"Oh boy, they'd say, 'it's just a 20 minute walk.' But it was straight up!" said Doris, laughing again. "They're used to it. We got winded. They never said how far anything was in miles or kilometers."

Some relatives, like Tony's sister, Catherine Thouvenot, and her family, stayed in the mountain valley chalets, while others, like Doris and Tony, stayed in town.

"You'd roll out of bed and roll down the mountains," Catherine said, laughing.

Some homes, like Anton and Reggie's, were remarkable for their link to the past.

"Their house is so old that it survived a plague," said Catherine. "Downstairs you can still see an area where they fed the sick through a small opening."

The Americans had planned their arrival so they'd be with their newfound relatives for Swiss Independence Day on August 1. To celebrate, there was singing, parties, fireworks and bonfires on all the mountaintops.

"We sat on the mountainside. We'd see one bonfire light up, then another," said Doris. "Then we'd hear the Swiss horns."

The Swiss Holdeners held a family reunion at Paul and Marie's on August 4. About 250 attended.

Such a large crowd of relatives didn't surprise the Americans. They held their own 29th reunion in mid-August at Longacre Park in Fairview Heights. About 300 relatives attended from four states.

Tony, Doris and Catherine still laugh about how common the name Holdener is in Switzerland. On a side trip one day to Oberiberg, they discovered the family crest on the baptismal font in the Catholic church.

Then their newfound friend Walter Holdener took them to a corner pub and said he'd buy them all a drink.

He never got the chance.

"The bartender was the owner - and he was a Holdener," said Catherine. "The bar maid was one too. They bought drinks for all 36 of us!"

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