Sat Dec 29th, 2012 at 07:25:24 PM EST
I always took an interest in collecting the stories of my ancestors and relatives which survived in the family. This year, as Christmas present for family members on one side, I decided to condense all my hand-written records and memorised info on that side into block-diagram family trees (drawn with a spreadsheet), and do some new research in the process.
It was a lot more work than I expected, it took up most of my free time over the past three weeks. The delivered (but not final :-) ) result took the form of eight sheets, each with up to 8 contiguous generations and up to 25 siblings/cousins up to 4th grade in the same generation, altogether some five hundred separate individuals, with key personal data and (for the better-known) one-liner summaries of what they are remembered for.
Below the fold, I pick out some random stories of interest, which provide reflections of general history in family history.
The two longest lineages I know of (albeit not in their completeness) are those of two minor noble families, which go back to the same time and place: royal land grants immediately after the Mongol invasion (in 1242) just a few km apart. The two families must have intermarried several times in the following generations, but the known intermarriage in my direct ancestry was 350 years later.
Shorter lineages end in an immigrant, peasant or servant, of course. The shortest is to a great-great-grandfather who came from Bohemia.
The second oldest lineage goes back to a family of goldsmiths executed by the local commander of the Ottoman Empire for conspiracy in support of the Habsburg Empire in the 1500s. The son who continued the line studied theology in Germany at the time. The origin of the surname of this family was something of a mystery and the subject of letter exchanges among distant relatives some 50 years ago. But I made a discovery that was done easily in the internet age: the birth- or dwelling-places of 18th/19th-century family members all clustered around a village with an original (later changed) name that was the root of the surname (in the form "of X-place").
Successive members of the above lineage from the 1500s were first Germanised, then, holding public offices in villages, became trilingual (German, Hungarian, Slovak). After WWI, they had to choose a single identity to keep their jobs. Already back during the rise of nationalism in the first half of the 19th century, on two more distant branches of my family tree also in what is now Slovakia, relatives as close as cousin-cousin or uncle-nephew made opposed choices. Both of those choosing a Hungarian identity even participated in the repression of rebelling Slovakian nationalists in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution. Yet another pair of more distant relatives, this time brothers, fought on opposed sides in the main conflict (the Habsburg imperial army vs. the Hungarian republican army). At least three other families of distant relatives fled the country after the Austrian victory and ended up in the USA, with two men going on to fight on the Union side in the American Civil War. One of them left extensive records which show that he opposed slavery upon his arrival, but changed his views during his ten years in the South, and opposed abolition even while serving in the Union army...
In yet another lineage, both parents in a family of serfs died in a cholera epidemic (brought by the invading armies of 1848-9) and their 12 children were taken in by the estate of an aristocrat. Two of the daughters had multiple children, all of whom retained their mother's surname: obviously, bastards. But whose? In two unrelated lineages, there are bastards whose mother or father was a bastard too, and all four of them were dirt-poor and disrespected. The out-of-wedlock offspring of the two orphan girls, however, all had families and the men good jobs for village people, as if someone supported their mothers – as if they were mistresses.
There are at least four examples in my family tree of another class of out-of-wedlock children: children born before marriage to a (usually poor) couple.
- One of these cases led to a nasty legal dispute: when there was a joint inheritance from a distant relative, the "legal" younger siblings wanted to disinherit the descendants of the out-of-wedlock oldest sibling (including my ancestor, who ultimately won that fight).
- In another, more recent case, the father had a first wife whom he left for the servant because the wife was sterile, but she long refused to divorce. However, the father was a notary, and until the divorce, he created a semblance of 'legality' by having his whole 'illegal' family adopt the same Hungarian name (this happened at a time of part voluntary, part forced assimilation).
- The most recent case, around 1950, ended ugly: the father didn't divorce his first wife, and the cheated wife committed suicide with gas.
Another trend I noticed was for males (whether widowed early or childless) to re-marry
within the family; that is, marry a younger sister or even niece of their first wife. Among Protestant ancestors, divorce and re-marriage (even with children) was not at all uncommon [complicating my family tree drawing]. On the other hand, I found not a single example of a marriage of cousins, only one of a marriage of cousins second grade (which ended after a miscarriage).
The late 19th, early 20th century was also a time of rapid urbanisation in Hungary, previously an overwhelmingly agrarian/feudal economy and society. Two direct ancestors and at least one of their close relatives arrived in the capital Budapest at this time, looking for a brighter future than what they could hope for in their ancestral villages as peasants, starting from zero and building a home and family from what they earned. What's interesting is that two of them were women, and both of them sought their own luck as working women (rather than following a husband or just waiting to catch a rich one) – well before feminism and hardly on the inspiration of urbanite suffragettes. Both of them had to struggle on as heads of their household after the birth of their children because both of them were widowed early.
I used to believe that my direct ancestors and their close relatives made it through the two world wars relatively unharmed, being too old or too young or otherwise unfit for military service at the time. But now I collected several casualties for WWI at least.
- One of them, being 42 years old, was tasked with supplies behind the Russian front, but he fell victim to a robbery-murder in early 1915 when he transported the soldiers' pay.
- Another lost his eyesight (there are conflicting recollections regarding whether it was due to shrapnel or mustard gas) and lived until old age alone.
- Yet another fought in the mountain-top battles along the eastern end of the Italian front (today in westernmost Slovenia), and was heavily wounded by a shrapnel in the last days of the war. What killed him however was catching a pneumonic disease, possibly Spanish flu, during later treatment in hospital. (One of his orphans was temporarily given to foster parents in the Netherlands via a Christian charity.)
- Spanish flu certainly did kill a female ancestor on another lineage.
I have lots and lots of stories about my close relatives in WWII
and its immediate aftermath, but I think I already told those on ET, so here I tell some stories about more distant relatives.
- One was one of the self-reliant women mentioned earlier, who was in Budapest throughout the war. When the rounding-up of Jews started, she decided on the spot to hide the entire family of a Jewish classmate of one of her daughters. They huddled up in her flat until the last days of the Siege of Budapest, when both the hiders and the hiding ventured outside for food. That day an air bomb fell on the house and destroyed the flat on the top level entirely, so the Jewish family had to hide elsewhere and the single mom had to start again from zero. The woman never spoke about the whole story until the Jewish family (who survived and emigrated to the USA) came looking for her decades later (she is now listed by Israel among the Righteous among the Nations).
- Another family lived in a village far from cities and industry, and only saw bomber groups flying high above. However, one day, a damaged American bomber left its group and emptied its cargo on the village before crash-landing.
- One day a few months after the end of the war, the university freshman son of a woman was to return home by train, but never arrived. Years later, a short letter came from Siberia, but then that was it. He must have been among the tens of thousands taken by Soviet troops for "malenkiy robot" (a little work), that is, collected off the street for reconstruction work in the Soviet Union, many of whom never returned.
- The months after the end of WWII were also the time of massive ethnic cleansing. Some relatives lived in a village of ethnic Germans whose ancestors came from the Fulda area in the second half of the 18th century, and most of whom spoke no Hungarian even at that time. (However, national identity was apparently as complex for them as for Alsatian Germans: old women told me stories about proudly singing the Hungarian national anthem without understanding a word, and of male family members who refused to join the Nazi-supported ethnic German organisation. There were ones who did join, though, but I didn't hear stories about them.) These people were deported to Germany, while their homes were given to ethnic Hungarians deported from Romania and Yugoslavia. Hungary wasn't as consequent about ethnic cleansing as some of its neighbours, and the ethnic Germans were eventually allowed to return home, but they had to share their homes with the newcomers. (Still they apparently got along, there were intermarriages.)
In my series on the 1956
Hungarian Revolution six years ago, I filled a whole diary
with the memories of family members. Here are two stories that I learned about in the years since:
- One distant relative was a conscript at the time. Upon the second Soviet invasion, everyone in his unit was given five rounds and told to go where they wanted. He went to an aunt second grade to change into civilian clothes and then disappeared.
- Another distant relative and his wife were certainly among the tens of thousands emigrating in the winter following the Revolution. They walked across the marshes of a large lake into Austria. They left their daughter with the grandmother, she was allowed to emigrate and join her parents years later.