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Old Stories

by DoDo 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.

There must be years of work behind you on this (not just the spreadsheet formalising). How many family stories have you been able to find corroboration for in the records?

You have an (apparently) large extended family with a strong sense of itself, hence the recollections and stories of the past. That must fascinate you, or you wouldn't have put in so much work. But are there no times when it feels like a weight?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Dec 30th, 2012 at 03:22:55 AM EST
I worked from a large variety of sources with varying reliability. Beyond oral histories, these included:

  • Some original official documents (chiefly death certificates).
  • Official copies of birth and marriage certificates made at the time of the anti-Semitic laws (when everyone had to "prove" their "non-Jewishness" three generations up) – it's difficult to find and access older parish records since the post-WWI border changes.
  • A few written documents preserved in public archives.
  • Some family members left diaries or collections of letters and photos, which were stored away until we found them in the last 15 years or so. These included contemporary accounts of stories previously known orally. (The most striking is a first-person account my grandmother wrote two days after a sister and a sister-in-law of her died next to her upon a grenade impact on Christmas Day 1944, with the intent to give it to the orphans of the first once they are grown up. She made half a dozen copies but never handed over any of those, the diaries were discovered in a box two decades after her death.)
  • Several people among the roughly 500 were relatively famous, and turn up in books (see the American Civil War story, which I found just weeks ago) and on (now) on-line public records, and scanned newspapers. For example, there was a relative of who, according to a letter written by someone related closer to us than him in the sixties, founded a football club in Slovakia half a century earlier. I identified that (renamed but still existing) club and indeed they now have a history page on their homepage which names him as first President.

About knowing the extended family. The oral stories are mostly told at family get-togethers like Christmas or cemetery visits around All Souls' Day, if one cares to listen. But the relatives I meet with a frequency of at least once a year aren't further than cousins and grandparents, I collected stories from the wider family from chance meetings or read them in old documents.

One reason for alive connections in a wider circle was that, in times of hardships, people relied on anyone they could find. For example, parents losing their job during the Stalinist period would send their children to a cousin second grade for the summer, a relationship much later leading to the purchase of the lot neighbouring the aunt's. Or, a childless orphaned cousin was taken in and became a nurse for the children and grandchildren. Or, a conscript doing service far away from home stayed with an aunt third grade on his leaves.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Dec 30th, 2012 at 05:43:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sometimes the records bring surprises. The same grandmother died at 62 of a bowel knot, and it was always assumed that this was formed as a result of bad eating habits. However, from another never delivered diary (this time written jointly with her husband to their own children), it transpired that she was the victim of a medical malpractice during the delivery of her last child, and she was told she could die at any time (hence the want to leave a record). Her eating habits were actually her path to survival for so long.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Dec 30th, 2012 at 06:29:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Thanks for this. I always enjoy your posts--no matter the subject. This was particularly interesting.

Paul Gipe

by pgipe (pgipe(at)igc.org) on Mon Dec 31st, 2012 at 09:50:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What a delight to read, thanks for the peek! I'm envious of your results, and also rather envious of your perseverance - even when it driving your own interests! It really shows that you put time, effort and dedication into a project like this.

My family is relatively small and particularly the elder generation was rather (too) modest to tell much about their origins or about World War II, even when I pressed a bit when I was growing older. Many of them have passed away the past years - this is a strong reminder that I should take my notebook and recorder to my grandmother of almost 93.

by Nomad on Sun Dec 30th, 2012 at 05:58:27 AM EST
Definitely do so! I hope I'm not crude but I am reminded of an ancestor who searched in wain for the history of his own grandfather for two decades. His letters show than once, he identified a great-aunt in her nineties and sent her a letter, but got a reply from the local government declaring that she just passed away.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Dec 30th, 2012 at 06:13:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's how it works - and the older one gets, the clearer it comes into view.

In my father's family runs a tantalising tale, passed on from father to father: that our forebears come from the south of Europe. And in Normandy there live many who, nearly but not quite, bear the same surname. Plus, there has been a curious  gene adrift in my father's line, which infrequently gifted his forebears with raven black hair and dark blue eyes.

Now those are the kind of romantic elements that just beg to be researched / debunked. :)

by Nomad on Mon Dec 31st, 2012 at 07:29:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If anyone can get Arte, this "Blogger" programme I have just watched (in FR) is interesting, with reports on genealogy-searching in several European countries, and (added bonus for DoDo) the use of railway archives for genealogy purposes:

Alles Käse! - Der Blogger | Der Blogger | Europa erkunden | de - ARTE

Schauen Sie ab Montag, den 31. Dezember: "Meinen Vorfahren auf der Spur"
Im Dienste der Genealogie reist der Blogger nach Island, wo jeder mit jedem verwandt ist und Ahnenforschung zu den beliebtesten Hobbys gehört, nach Frankreich, wo jeder Berufsstand sein eigenes Familientreffen organisiert, und nach Spanien, wo die Nachkommen lateinamerikanischer Einwanderer für ihre Bürgerrechte kämpfen.

Sendung auf ARTE in der Nacht auf Montag, den 31. Dezember um 1.15 Uhr und im Anschluss hier auf dieser Seite.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Dec 30th, 2012 at 02:50:14 PM EST
I had arte but sadly the cable company took it down a month ago...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Dec 30th, 2012 at 06:33:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by epochepoque on Sun Dec 30th, 2012 at 07:42:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Fascinating stuff, so much more interesting than a lot of fiction, thanks. I wish I'd taken more interest in the family when young, when we used to visit my father's three sisters and his nieces, and were in contact with my mother's two older step-sisters, one with three boys and a girl, the other with a boy and a girl, and with her twin brother, who married a very attractive woman from Glasgow, one of whose daughters became a dancer in Paris ! But the family dispersed and I lost all contact and have only a few memories from my mother, and some letters from an aunt who looked after my sister and me while my younger brother was born.

I wonder what stories there are of a similar nature to yours - but it's all a bit late.  

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Jan 1st, 2013 at 05:41:18 PM EST

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