I originally started this blog thinking it would be about our family history, as we had just started trying to trace it again. It would also mean I could write it down for my kids. I thought I would write the story, the sisters would add comments, and it would be on the web for anyone who could fill in the gaps, to find. However, one of my sisters was not so keen to have some of the past available on the internet, so I had to stop. Now we have come to an agreement about what can be written and what not. This is my version of how I understand/remember it.
My father's history is really what we are talking about, since my mother was half English and half Welsh and had a coherent story to tell us, with real relatives we actually met. The short story is that my father probably came from Czernowicz in the Bukovina which was in Austria before the First World War, became Cernauti in Romania between the wars, and is now called Chernovtsi and has been in Ukraine since the Second World War.
My father never talked much about his past, his relatives, his childhood, the time before the war or what happened to him during the war. My mother always said that what she had heard was never the same each time, so she didn't know what to believe, and getting on with life after the war was more important. Anyway, we grew up thinking he was Polish, and we knew that he had lived in Brussels during the interwar period. After the war he came back to Brussels where he met my mother and soon they were married and I appeared (or perhaps it was the other way round). After a spell in Brazil, he came to England where he lived happily ever after (this is the short version!) with my mother and us three daughters, till he died in 1986. Then we could look at his papers, which he always hoarded, and try to make some sense of them, according to what he had also told us. My mother died five years later, so there wasn't much we could check with her afterwards.
It was clear that he had some Jewish background, but the story shifted as to whether it was his mother or father that was Jewish. In the 1960s, he decided he was German and claimed German nationality. This seemed a bit contradictory, as one version of the wartime story said that he had been in Belsen. One sister claimed he told her that he had been in the Resistance. Certainly General de Gaulle was his hero. However by then we regarded all these versions as a bit like the Good Soldier Schweik's stories. Nevertheless, the German nationality seems to be correct as the document proving it has been checked by one of our friends who was the German Consul. But to claim German nationality you have to have documentation for two generations back, so we always wondered how he had managed to prove this.
A further source of information was a long time friend in Brussels, who most of us had met, (my mother from the days of their courtship, my sisters from visits with my father). He confirmed some parts of the story and confused others. The confusion could have come from translations from French or his confusion through old age.
At this point I rather gave up, being busy with my own first child. I just assumed that we would never get to the bottom of this story, and what did it really matter? The person who was my father was well-known to me, and what did it matter about his past. If there were problems in the war, who was I to judge, having had a much easier life? Obscure parts of Eastern Europe were inaccessible, and what could you learn when you had no names of relatives, and not a lot of certainty about where he came from?
But when I started working in Ukraine in the 90s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, I was at least able to go to Chernovtsi (photos on Flickr here) and see that where he was supposed to come from was not some shtetl, but had been a big flourishing cultural city with a large university, a Yiddish theatre and cemeteries indicating a multicultural world of Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Jews, Romanians and Austrians as well as some Germans. The previously Polish town of Lviv (Austrian Lemberg) was not far from the previously Hungarian town of Mukachevo (Austrian Munkatsch), itself not far from the previously Romanian town of Chernovtsi (Austrian Czernowicz). All of them were large multicultural towns in the border country of the Carpathians.
No wonder his nationality was not so clear. And no wonder he could apparently speak Polish, Romanian, Hungarian and Ukrainian when he arrived in Brussels. We decided that his mother tongue was German as it was apparent that he counted under his breath in German, though my parents first talked together in French.
His papers got split up between the sisters and until recently no one had made much effort to assemble a coherent story (if there was one to be had). As the internet grows, more and more history is available and so from time to time we have all searched his name on genealogy websites, Jewish or German/Austrian, to see what had become available. But always nothing, even trying different spellings.
And then suddenly ...
... to be continued as developments progress.