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Monday, 27 July 2020

On My Mother's Side

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

This quote from David Eagleman chilled me when I first read it. It implies a time when everyone I will ever know, including my son, have ceased to be. I’ve thought about it a lot since then as I do my genealogy research. So many names of so many people who are long gone from the Earth.

In our attic are several boxes of photos and documents left me by my mother, Renate Lilly (née Pniower). Much of it was in turn left to her by her own mother, Ruth Blume (née Hartmann), and some of that came from her mother, Else Sapatka-Hartmann. I won’t go on with this progression, but at least two documents date back to the 17th Century. It's a rich trove for an amateur genealogist, particularly as at least one ancestor did a lot of research themselves and wrote it all down.

I spent a fair few weeks going through everything, pulling it into some sort of order, and cataloguing it for my son for when he inherits it. When I’m gone, there may be nobody left who remembers what my grandmother looked like, and maybe also my mother. So I’ve been writing names and dates on the back of photos, labelling albums, grouping related photos into folders.

So many names came back to me from conversations my mother had with me. If only I’d paid more attention though. I remember her talking about her friend Inge Juchnowycz, but I don’t remember how the two of them were friends in the first place. Still, I found two photos of her, sent from Canada in the 1950s, and I’ve duly annotated them. Not that my son will have any interest in a friend of his grandmother, and perhaps I could safely just discard them, but once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.

Among my mother’s early photos was a card from 1939:

In February 1939 my mother was a pupil at Stoatley Rough School near Haslemere, so possibly she received this card on a school visit to Coultershaw Mill in Petworth. I made some enquiries, but if anyone now knows what these cards were for or why Gordon Gwillim was handing them out, I can’t find them.

My grandmother prepared two photo albums for my mother as mementos of their family. In these I found photos of her uncles, aunts, cousins, and also a baby sister who died aged just one, and whom I had never heard about. With a bit of work I was able to reconstruct the family tree enough to place these people, and then upload their photos into It may be a bit silly, but it feels to me that in some way they are not forgotten and so still live on.

Among my grandmother’s ancestors was a branch from East Prussia. Prussia was erased from the maps after WW2, and the place names I found in the papers are now in Poland. I was surprised and pleased to find that one of our ancestors has their own Wikipedia page, one Heinrich Friedrich Ernst von Corvin-Wiersbitzki, a major-general in the Prussian Army, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

My grandmother’s father was Alfred Georg Hartmann,

who was an arts reviewer for various publications. He used to clip out his reviews and paste them into scrapbooks, and these too have been handed down. There are dozens of them, all printed in Gothic German, none of which will probably ever be read again. Nevertheless I will hold onto them, for once they’re gone, they’re gone. A handwritten journal of his business trips, complete with records of all his illnesses, is of slightly more interest. I wondered why he would bother recording his temperature whenever he felt unwell, until I realised that he lived in an age before antibiotics, so dying from a fever was much more of a risk.

I had known that his wife, Else Sapatka-Hartmann (full name Minna Albertine Elisabeth Sapatka), 

was a painter. I hadn’t, though, realised that she was also an author, writing as Else Alberts. She kept a collection of acceptance notes from her publishers; more interestingly I found three different drafts of a children’s book called Hudi. It doesn’t look as if it ever made it into print. I wondered why she had bothered to keep all the drafts, but in a journal I realised that Hudi had been her pet name for her daughter, Ruth. She still used that name in a letter to her daughter written just a few months before she died.

The photos and papers are all boxed up again, safe in the attic. My Ancestry tree has one of its branches much extended, and the faces of long gone ancestors now look out at me. I know so little of their stories, by contrast, my descendants will potentially have reams of information about me, through my digital footprint. Including this blog.

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