Tales of the Frisian Caribbean:
A rare glimpse of family life and heritage on a little-known German Island from the perspective of one’s childhood memories
My parents, Inge and John Frudden, are from Insel Föhr, a small island off the coast of Germany nestled in the North Sea between Amrum and Sylt. This island is the second largest of the Frisian Islands and has plenty of rich history and beauty – childhood memories of which I hold vividly from visiting there with my family and from the nostalgic stories my father would tell when I was a boy.
The people of Föhr can trace their ancestries back a few hundred years. This is a close-knit community where everyone knows your name and what’s going on even before you make it back to your house!
The major occupation on this charming, old-world island is either seamen (whalers) or farmer. My family has been both.
Whaling was prominent from the 17-19th centuries and was primarily what put Föhr’s heritage on the proverbial historic map. Breathtakingly quaint thatched-roof captains’ homes scattered throughout the island’s 11 sugar-sanded villages were telling of the whalers’ wealth.
Growing up, I was always interested about my parents’ upbringing and where I get my traits. So when I was young, every Saturday night after my dad had a few generous sips of his Manhattan, I would listen to his childhood tales of Föhr.
Coming from an island, isolated from the big cities, one has to be creative when it comes to entertainment. One of Dad’s favorite stories was about the adventure of walking – yes, walking – between islands. When the tide of the sea goes out, the people of Föhr would walk to their neighboring island, Amrum. One would have to know the right path, as there were times when unaware people got trapped (and drowned) as the tide came back in.
I especially remember one year when we were visiting Föhr with my family. My dad took my brother, Lorenz, and I spearfishing. We walked out to meet the tide and had our spears ready for action. We were so engrossed in catching fish that we never noticed the water steadily rising higher and higher. But my dad knew what to expect and he kept telling us, “Fall back!” We were so far out from the shore that I could hardly see my mom and sister, Eleanor. Interestingly, I was never afraid. I always felt secure knowing that my dad knew what he was doing all along.
Another of my father’s favorite stories took place when he was a young boy growing up on this island. As he told it, he would, at times, be accused of borrowing fruits from other farmers. He always seemed to be blamed, but never caught. This did not encourage me to go down the wrong path; it just gave me a better insight of my dad and I loved his stories of mischievousness.
My parents grew up on farms on Föhr. Their day started before the sun peeked over the dike. The dike surrounds the island to protect residents from the elements of the sea.
Every year, the islanders celebrate the festival of Himmelfahrt – the 40th day of Easter – with a traditional stroll around the island. This is not an easy task, as I have done this with my cousin, Heidi, and it took us about 12 hours. You cannot get lost, just follow the dike around, enjoy the beauty of the island, and splendor in the endless scenery of the sea and vast horizon.
At one time, Föhr Island had more horses than habitants. The people of Föhr celebrate one’s skill of riding with Ringreiten. This is when, while holding a pole in one’s hand and riding the horse at a gallop, you aim to get the pole to go through a ring suspended overhead on a string.
The islanders are strong with tradition and value. The best mode of transportation is by bicycle. Now you can always drive a car, but as soon as you get the car up to speed, you would have reached the other side of the island. Riding a bike, you enjoy the beauty and the heritage that has made this island unique.
One story that my dad never tired of telling me was about my great grandfather, Captain Johannes Frudden. He was the captain of Pisagua. He took this ship from Germany to Chile in 1893 and was awarded a beautiful grandfather clock. This clock, now located with my mom in New Jersey, continues to be in my family. The heirloom is cherished by my family and all who come to see it and appreciate Great Grandfather’s accomplishment.
Historians say that in 1842, tourism to Föhr flourished. The reason humors the generations on the island. You see, it was then when King Christian VIII of Denmark spent the summer at a health resort on the island – which was renown for its clean air. Good tidings of the King’s experience spread throughout the land, making Föhr a much sought-after vacation destination. It has been said that in 1844, author Hans Christian Andersen followed the King’s advice, traveled to the Föhr town of Wyk, and remarked, “I bathed every day, and I must say it was the most remarkable water I have ever been in.”
If you should visit Föhr Island, just drop my name, Ernst Johann Frudden. After all, everyone there knows your name.