Archive for the ‘family history’ Tag

Family Tree

My engagement with the Family Tree began when I started to sketch it out based on a conversation with my paternal grandmother. Here is a picture of her that came to light just this weekend – being a rainy one, I spent much of it working on the online version of the Tree.

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Dora

Originally I drew it out on an A1 piece of graph paper with a pencil. I went on to interview my maternal grandmother and grandfather, adding to the annotated freehand Tree. In time I added my wife’s Irish family, the backbone of that bit coming from a wander around an old Co. Louth cemetery with a notebook in hand.

In 2013, to enable me to share it with an older relative abroad I copied the handwritten diagram into a piece of easily accessible software. When I started the analogue Tree I expected to get back at best 3 or 4 generations based on living memory. As my family (to the best of my knowledge) were from – besides England – Germany, Poland, USA, Netherlands and possibly other bits of Eastern Europe, a peripatetic lot, I pictured lost and destroyed records where there even were records. These stones rolled and bureaucracy would probably not have been able to keep pace. However the advantage of the digital Tree is that it connects to other digital Trees. You can work your way back like a logic puzzle. I made my way back, obsessively working till the early hours, to 1730 …to 1544 …to 1499! 1499 in Prague.

I now have a Tree with 651 leaves (346 representing deceased family members). Exactly 50/50 male/female. The most common names: Patrick and Sarah. Birthplaces from Australia to Italy. Places of death from Kazakhstan to Israel. The highlights include finding…

  • 5 Sirs
  • 2 MPs
  • 1 privy councillor
  • a link to the Faroe Isles
  • the founders of University College Hospital, London – where both my kids were born
  • the co-founders of University College London – where I have been hanging out this very day
  • the first Jew to become an English barrister
  • the first Jew to become an English Baronet
  • the founder of JFS (the Jewish Free School)
  • a mysterious family branch in the USA
  • and at the end of this weekend’s activities an international Communist leader…

Karl Radek , who crossed paths with the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Walter Rathenau, travelled on the famous sealed train from Switzerland to Russia with Lenin (1917), and did time in Moabit prison in Berlin after the Spartacist Uprising in Germany (1919). An honest to goodness 100% bona fide revolutionary. He totally looks the part too…

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Karl

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A & M

I’ve been spending the weekend at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland. While I was in the hood I thought I’d have a go at finding my great-grandparents’ house which is somewhere in a town about 50km East of Krakow. My grand-mother died a few years ago in London and with her went the address. So all I had to go on, beside the name of the town, was a description, based on memories of 75 years ago, of how my distant cousin (of my father’s generation) used to get to the house from the train station with all the timings in horse and cart terms; a rough memory of a street name from the Communist era incorporating the glorious name of papa Stalin; and A&M – the letters of my great-grandparents’ first names which (the one concrete fact) were on a shield or crest high on the house.

So I set off, with my older son, at 10 this morning in some wheels organised by Adam, one of the friendly admins of the Dragonforum documentary workshop. You’re into rural Poland within minutes of leaving the city centre. I was nervous for some reason – I knew we had very little to go on and my phone research of the previous day had drawn blanks and stonewalling, I didn’t want to disappoint or be disappointed or lose the link with the family home where eggs were kept in sinks in the basement and from which my grandmother set off on rides on the first bicycle in the town. Scraps of stories, not quite accurate, Chinese whispered through the family, filtered by old age and post-war reticence.

I started with my Hamburg cousin’s three quarters of a century old description of the 15 minute cart ride from the nearest station (which bore another name than the town). We got out where my best guess was, combining the description (sent via Facebook, fairplay to Anni for being so wired at her age) and Googlemaps. I’d been told the crest was near a balcony and the building on a corner. The first corner looked promising but no initials. The diagonally opposite corner looked equally possible. More or less every balconied building felt warm – the right age of building, crying out for a crest. After 40 minutes of searching the confidence was ebbing. I rang my dad’s cousin who had found and visited the house in the mid 80s but didn’t know the address. Nor whether the house was in fact on a corner. And doubted there was a balcony as the owner had spotted him and called down from a window. So all I had left was the initialed crest. And the owner in the 80s’ name – which was not in the phonebook. And the Stalin street scrap.

We trawled every main street (three) of the sleepy Sunday town whilst the inhabitants stood around the church listening to the amplified service playing I imagine to a packed house of God-fearing Catholics inside. I know my great-grandmother was killed in this town in the view of others and I pictured it in the under-reconstruction main square with its piles of cobbles, mass drifting over and my strapping half Irish-Catholic son standing with unconscious strength on its new stones in his Leinster top, blue as the sky.

No joy. So we hit the back streets. Not a crest, shield or initialled plaque in the place. It was getting hotter. 26 degrees the day we arrived, 12 the next day, back over 20 today, fluctuating like my confidence in finding this link. We passed a corner shop. Junior needed a Coke (why do they mainly sell Pepsi in this country being one of his preoccupations of the weekend). My other half had given one piece of advice at the outset of the day by text – talk to people. I talked to the middle-aged female shop keeper, she had a bit of English (unlike the old lady on the corner I’d just tried). Do you know where there used to be a video sklep? (I’d heard that sometime in or after the 80s the ground floor had been turned into a video store). Or do you know where Stalingradska was in the Commiedays? She asked a local fella hanging out by her doorway. A contrary barman from the opposite corner approached. The shopkeeper urged them to help. They went off into Andrej’s bar to find an old map. We waited expectantly. A break? They failed to reappear, the shopkeeper chased, they reluctantly got their shit together, had a quick somewhat heated debate and eventually, again at the helpful shopkeeper’s urging, the hanging-in-the-shop fella started to lead us off to where they’d concluded the Stalin street used to be. We followed in silence, he spoke little English, we spoke less Polish (like not a single word except Sklep, Alkohole and Computery – this last and first turned out to be on the money). Down one of the three bigger streets we’d already tried then off to the left, pulling up on a three way junction, he indicated a not particularly old corner house. I asked him which of the three joining streets was the Stalin one, gave him a few zloty which he was reluctant to take, then walked the length of that street as well as exploring the junction. Nada. We found ourselves back behind the now deserted church. Mission failed. I’d sent some vibes to my grandmother looking for help (I was her favourite first-born after all) but to no avail. So, cut along the side of the church back to the rendez-vous with Machek our taxiguy? Or one last look at that Stalin junction? I dragged us back to the junction, then retraced our steps earlier with the shop-hanger guide… Then out the corner of my eye I spot the only crest in town. A. M. A swirly L for Laub conjoining them. What a moment of pure soaring joy. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a prayer answered” says A and L’s great-great-grandson.

We contemplate the letters. Look at the door (beside the Computery Sklep) but there’s no bell and it looks pretty unihabited. I spot something in the red brick beside the door – some scratched graffti dated June 1922. My grandmother’s childhood era. Any more? No, but high up, not easily noticed, a bell. I ring. Nothing. Then some movement. A boy the age of my son comes to the door. After a bit of explanation (and he had heard tell of the strange Englishman Marcel’s 1980s visit) he cautiously let us in, his parents weren’t around, and allowed us to get a feel for the place with its high but shallow rooms. I didn’t push to see the egg basement.

We headed back up the hill to the square. I now knew for sure Dora’s feet had pounded this trail. And I felt she’d be pleased we’d made the effort to see the place she spoke of with affection til her last days despite what had happened there. I was glad to have brought their great-great-grandson to be seen by A & M and to have joined that link.

Back to the Fatherland 2

…so I headed down to the city museum – nothing from the 20th century covered, they pointed me to the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig (Forum of Contemporary History) – that covers from 1945 onwards focusing on the GDR. So by any standards a big gap in their city history, the 30s and 40s an official blank. But I had a break through. In the back of the museum shop I found a facsimile map of the city from 1938 – the year my grand-parents got the helloutta here and arrived in London. Promenadenstrasse wasn’t renamed after a Soviet leader but after an artist socialist by nature, Käthe Kollwitz, her inherent empathy for the less fortunate evident throughout her life’s work. As soon as I’d figured out how the old map mapped onto the new I headed over. The route took me from the old town hall past the famous Thomaskirche, last resting place of JS Bach, and then past the site of the Community Synagogue of Leipzig, burnt down on Kristallnacht in November 1938. They burnt the place down and then charged the Jews for the demolition costs. The lost 14,000 (not including never-to-be descendants) are commemorated by the empty chairs of the congregation in dull bronze set out on a flat blank concrete base. When I got to 16 Promenadenstrasse where my paternal grandparents lived from (I think) 1935 to 1938 that too was flat, blank, empty. A carpark, albeit a tranquil one shaded by trees and bathed in dappled autumnal light on my special visit. I can see from no. 14 the kind of building it probably was, a typically elegant Leipziger apartment in a tasteful neighbourhood. My grandfather was always a snappy dresser – like my youngest brother and my older son (that gene skipped me for better or worse) – so I can picture him easily in these streets.

The view from No. 1 Nordplatz

Next stop was Nordplatz, slightly further out from the centre, where he lived as a bachelor with his older sister’s family. No. 1 proved to be all present and correct, with a beautiful view over St. Michaelis church, a Gothicky affair built between 1901 and 1905, and the green beside it. Another smart apartment building where I stood on the threshold trodden by Nat Gewurtz (later Gee, 1938 was a good year for dumping German surnames) and his sister Else Wolf, peering in to the interior which has evidently been revamped in recent times. I was glad to see he’d enjoyed such a beautiful and calm home. From there to Promenadenstrasse – then next stop 5 Highbury Grove.

My next stop was the address on the Nazi birth certificate, 84 Biedermannstrasse, Sankt Elisabeth Krankenhaus, the Catholic hospital where my father was born. It was only a few blocks south of MDR (Mittel Deutsch Rundfunk), the main broadcaster in the region where I spoke yesterday on Crossmedia and Broadcaster Online Strategy to an audience primarily of factual film-makers which also included a State Minister of Saxony and the President of German/French broadcaster Arte. I spoke among other things about Surgery Live, which I reckon many of them thought had come from another planet. Seven Days was from another galaxy. From the feedback I received afterward it seems my passion for the possibilities of interactive, networked media and the boldness of our ambition at the very least landed home even if the out-thereness of Channel 4’s approach and the freedoms of British culture were somewhat alien to some of the Euros. I should have mentioned another of my projects which I also spoke about in my presentation, One Born Every Minute, because that would have given me an easier segue back to the maternity unit at Sankt Elisabeth Hospital. On arrival it was clear it has been recently refurbished so fear of disappearance returned. I found the maternity unit now in a clean modern block. A chat with the receptionist soon established that the original maternity block still stood and as I roamed the corridors of the art deco building I stumbled across the original foundation stone dated 1930. That meant when my father was born there it was an equally state of the art set-up. An irony of course was that he never got to see the place himself again after his blurry-eyed first days. He died a few years after the uprising that started in Leipzig and ended with the Fall of the Wall, never getting/taking the opportunity to come back.

I’ve enjoyed a couple of days with the presence of my grand-father and father around me. I see a tiny sticker on the wall of the hospital saying “I will wait for you” (in English). I spot a sparrow (my favourite bird, rather thin on the ground these days in England) hanging around. A warm autumn sunshine shines down from a perfect azure sky the whole weekend, contrary to the usually reliable information on my WeatherPro iPhone app, created by German-based MeteoGroup with a Teutonic regard for precision.

{2nd photo courtesy of Leipzigpost}

Back to the Fatherland

I’ve just arrived for the first time in Leipzig in Saxony in East Germany in Europe in the World in the Solar System (I remember doing those very long addresses looking up out of my bedroom window aged six or seven at 2A Selvage Lane, Mill Hill, London, England, UK, Europe, etc.) for Dok Leipzig, the 53rd of this documentary film festival making it (one of?) the oldest film fest(s) in Deutschland. I’m speaking tomorrow about multiplatform factual TV with some folk from Arte (one of the few Eurobroadcasters consistently exploring the space) and Finland’s YLE, as well as hooking up with various documentary-makers with eyes on the interactive and networked. There’s a few fellow Brits around like Andy Glynne of DFG and Mark Atkin of Documentary Campus. But that’s getting towards the point of my post. These memories of childhood, the home I shared with my father before The Big Split, reflections on Germany and especially Leipzig. Because in some ways I’m not a fellow Brit. My dad was born in this city. In 1937. His birth certificate says Biedermanstrasse 84 – thought that was his home, Google-mapped it last night, turned out to be the Catholic hospital where he was born. The certificate which I have at the back of my filing cabinet in a file called Odds & Sods has a little swastika on it. So I’m back in the Vaterland.

My plan – I’ve managed to track down the address where my grandparents lived until they hightailed it outta here in ’38. Got it from a cousin in Hamburg who was 13 at the time. Also got the address where my grandfather lived before he was married, with his older sister. The former doesn’t show up on Google maps – hoping the Commies changed the name to Leninstrasse or something, then it got changed back to a different name after the Fall of the Wall. Will investigate tomorrow at the city museum or find someone old enough to remember where Promenadenstrasse was. The latter I haven’t had a chance to check out yet online – I’m saving it up for later, delayed gratification of the old school.

So I’ll report back and continue later/tomorrow with how I’ve gotten on…

Good ol' Facebook

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