Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - J. K. Rowling

It is so easy to fall behind.  After Comcast took so long to fix the problem with my On Demand services, I'm still playing catch-up.  I finally was able to watch the J. K. Rowling episode of Who Do You Think You Are? again yesterday, on Saturday.  Now, of course, I need to rewatch Alfre Woodard and Bryan Cranston before I can write about them, plus there's the new episode with Tom Bergeron tonight, and I haven't seen the "highlights" episode from last season yet . . . .

The opening teaser for J. K. Rowling says that she is searching for a family hero and finds a mystery.  She also finds drama and discovers a surprising connection to her own life.  Almost everyone, including me (who has never read one of the books), knows of J. K. Rowling because of her immensely successful Harry Potter series of books.  The books have sold more than 400 million copies and have grown into a movie franchise also.  Rowling was once a struggling writer but has become a celebrity.  In 2009 France awarded her the Légion d'Honneur for her contributions to world literature.  Rowling, who goes by Jo, is a also philanthropist who particularly focuses on social causes relating to children and single-parent families.

Rowling, who was born in England, now lives in Scotland with her husband and children.  She can't share her success with one family member, however.  Her mother died when she had just started writing the first Harry Potter book.  She regrets that she never told her mother about the book she was working on.

Rowling's mother's maiden name was Volant.  She was one quarter French and was very interested in her French roots but didn't have the opportunity to explore them.  Rowling's motivation for looking into her French background is really because of the loss of her mother.

Rowling knows her mother's paternal grandfather was Louis Volant, who married an Englishwoman.  He served during World War I and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur.  Rowling gave her acceptance speech for her own Légion d'Honneur in French and mentioned Volant.  She doesn't know much about him, though, and wants to learn about his family, where he was from, and the generations before him.

Rowling begins her search in Edinburgh, where she speaks with her mother's sister, Marian (Volant) Fox.  Marian has a photo of "Lou" in his uniform and his good conduct certificate from his national service in France, which shows his birthday as July 31, 1877; Rowling's birthday is also July 31.  The certificate also says that Volant was born in Paris in the 10th arrondissement.  In addition, Marian has a photo of Louis' mother, Salomé Schuch.  Schuch grew up in the country.

results from
Volant immigrated to England in the 1890's and then moved to London, where he worked as a waiter.  There he met Lizzy, his future wife, while she was working as a nursery maid.  Marian has love letters that Volant wrote to Lizzy while he was back in France for his national service.  The two women read one of the letters, which was very sweet.  Volant was very much in love.  There's also a wedding photo, which Marian thinks was from about 1898 (but from looking at the FreeBMD site, I think I found the marriage, for Eliza Mary Smith and Louis Volant, which was registered in the first quarter of 1900, so it could have taken place in 1899).  The marriage did not last, as Volant wanted to return to France but Lizzy wouldn't go with him.  They didn't divorce, however, and they continued to correspond for 50 years.  Marian regrets that they only have half of the letters (the ones from Volant).

Lastly Rowling and Marian look at Volant's World War I identification card and something that Marian calls his Légion d'Honneur badge, which is in a case with "L. V." on the lid.  She says that they don't have the medal, and there is no citation to go with it.  I could read "Étoile d'Honneur" on the badge, which is not the same as "Légion d'Honneur."  Aunt Marian gives everything to Rowling so that she can take it with her as she does her "research."

Since Paris was the only French location mentioned, that's where Rowling heads next.  On the train she reads a postcard Volant wrote to his family in England on June 23, 1915.  He was 37 years old and at war.  She comments that he was "quite old" for war.  She also looks at Volant's military ID card, which is dated February 19, 1916, has his service number (#782), and says that he was an interpreter.

Rowling first goes to the Archives Nationales, which we are told is where the government holds the most important documents of France, and the records of every awardee of the Légion d'Honneur.  There she meets with Claire Béchu, the deputy director of the archives.  (I'm sure if you went, you would be able to meet with her also . . . .)  Béchu has already pulled the dossier of Louis Volant.  He was injured at Fort de Vaux, near Verdun.  His file indicates that he lost a limb and that he was born July 16, 1878 in Ordonnaz.  Rowling starts to figure out that maybe this isn't her ancestor.  She finally tells Béchu, "This is not my Louis."  He was certainly a brave soldier, but he has the wrong birth date and birth place and different handwriting.  (Plus we haven't heard any story about her great-grandfather having lost a limb.)  Rowling asks whether there could be another Louis Volant, but Béchu tells her this is the only one in the database.

So where did the family story come from that Volant had earned the Légion d'Honneur?  Was it a deliberate deception or an innocent mistake?  And what happened to Rowling's Louis Volant during the war?  Rowling thinks her mother would want to know the truth.

From the Archives Nationales Rowling now goes to the Château de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris, which has records for all the French armed forces, dating back more than 400 years (pretty impressive!).  Captain Ivan Cadeau, a French military historian (whose specialties are actually the French army in World War II, the war in French Indochina, and the Korean War), is there to greet her.  Rowling shows him the "Légion d'Honneur" badge in the case and says that she isn't sure if that's what it is, because she doesn't have anything that looks like it.  He tells her that the badge is not military at all, but is a Society of Trade Unions award.  He's very apologetic, but Rowling takes it in stride.

Cadeau then explains that there were in fact two Louis Volants who served in World War I.  One was a lieutenant; he earned the Légion d'Honneur.  The second had a file number of 782, which matches what Rowling has, so it's the right person.  The final confirmation is that his birthday was July 31, 1877.  Rowling tells Cadeau that July 31 is her birthday also, but he doesn't seem to notice.

Rowling's Louis Volant was a corporal in the 16th Territorial Regiment.  Territorial regiments were composed of soldiers who were 35–40 years old (although the French Wikipedia page says they were 34–49).  They were not fighting units but were intended to guard highways, roads, and bridges.  The men had only fifteen days of training before they were sent out.  Volant's unit was in Courcelles-le-Comte in October 1914, where a large battle took place.

The narrator steps in at this point to explain that at the outbreak of World War I, the Germans launched a surprise attack on France in the hope of being able to capture Paris and have a fast victory in the war.  They faced fierce opposition, however, and were pushed back to the northeast.  On October 3, 1914, they attempted to outmaneuver the French at Courcelles-le-Comte, which was guarded by the 16th Territorials, including 37-year-old Corporal Louis Volant.

Cadeau has the regimental diary of the 16th Territorials.  (This is an OCR-scanned history of the 16th Territorials during World War I, but Volant's name does not appear in it.)  Rowling appears very comfortable reading directly from the French.  Bombing began at 4:30 a.m.  Territorial regiments had no artillery, only rifles, so they had no defense against the shelling.  At 9:00 a.m. the cannon fire became more intense.  Most of the officers were killed or injured.  After five days of bombardment, the constant gunfire and heavy damage had demoralized the men in the unit, but the 16th courageously held on until October 25.  Volant's service record has more details:  He took command after the officers were gone and himself killed many Germans.  He was seriously wounded in the arm and side by a shell.  This was his only battle; after he recovered from his injury he worked as an interpreter (ergo the ID card from 1916).

Croix de guerre
While before the war Volant was a waiter and an ordinary man, during the war he was a good soldier and became a hero.  For his bravery, he was awarded the Croix de guerre.  Cadeau explains that the Légion d'Honneur is for officers, but the Croix de guerre is for enlisted men, the fighters.  Rowling tells him that the family doesn't have Volant's Croix de guerre, so from a nearby drawer he takes out one that also has a Bronze Star and asks Rowling if she will accept it.  Mais oui! ("Of course!")

Rowling is very impressed by her grandfather's bravery in the bloody battle.  There's still a lot she doesn't know about him, though, such as his early life and information about his parents.  She knows his mother was Salomé Schuch, but that's all.

She goes next to the Assistance Publique Hôpitaux de Paris Service des Archives (roughly translated as the Paris Hospital Archives), which the narrator tells us has all the birth records for the city.  She says she has asked genealogist Carène Tardy to help her with her search.  Tardy immediately sits her down to search on a computer (but they don't use Ancestry!).  She finds the record for Louis, born July 31, 1877, but the only parent listed is his mother, Salomé Schuch, who was a 23-year-old servant.  (The exact same database they use is available for free online.  Louis' birth registration is here, on page 17; it is the middle one on the left page.)  No father's name appears in the record, so Louis Schuch was illegitimate.  Tardy asks if Rowling wants to look for the legitimization of Louis' birth.  The narrator pops in to say that under 19th-century French law, the mother had to acknowledge an illegitimate child in order to keep him.  And yes, Salomé did say that she recognized Louis as her natural (i.e., illegimate) son, but still did not list a father.  (Louis' birth registration at the link above includes a notation about Salome's acknowledgement, at the top left of his record, just under the name "Schuch"; the fact that Louis was made legitimate by his mother's marriage to Pierre Volant in 1883, in the middle left; and a notation about Louis' death on September 17, 1949, at the bottom left.)  The record includes Salomé's signature, which catches Rowling's attention.  It is not stated, but Salomé must have been literate.  Salomé's address was 19 rue Clauzel (which on Google Maps currently appears to be undergoing some sort of construction work).  Tardy suggests that Rowling look for the house to know where she used to live.

19, rue Clauzel
Of course Rowling goes to the building, hoping to learn more about Salome's life as a servant, and the narrator says that she has arranged to meet author and French historian Marlo Johnston (who is British and specializes in Guy de Maupassant) there.  Johnston greets her outside and they enter the building.  As the two women climb the stairs higher and higher, Johnston tells Rowling that Salome's duties as a maid would have been cooking, cleaning, and fetching and carrying coal and water, all hard physical work.  Salomé would have come down in the morning to work and gone back upstairs at night to sleep, and that would have been her entire day.  (Well, she obviously found time for something else, because she became pregnant.  Maybe the father worked in the house also?)  They reach the top floor (I believe it was the fifth), where the servants lived.  Their rooms were tiny, each having only a cot and possibly a wash basin (though they didn't actually open any of the doors).

The conversation next turns to Salome's pregnancy, which she would have had to conceal.  If it had been discovered, she probably would have been dismissed before the baby was born.  No public assistance existed at the time, so she had no place to turn.  After leaving the hospital with the baby, she would have had no support.  Her only option would have been to ask the church for help.  We have to assume that researchers did not find anything about how she survived after Louis' birth, or it would have been mentioned.

After walking back down all those flights of stairs (I thought I saw some people a couple of floors below them), Rowling and Johnston sit somewhere (possibly a café?) and discuss the additional information Johnson found during her research.  She says that eighteen (not really, only seventeen) months after Louis' birth, Salomé had moved from rue Clauzel to rue Milton and had another son, Gabriel Jean Volant, born in December 1878.  The birth record does list a father this time, Pierre Volant, but says that the parents were not married.  They were living together, and Volant acknowledged that Gabriel was his son.  This time Salomé was a dressmaker (cotourière), so things were improving:  better job, living with her chid's father, and his acknowledgement of the birth.

Notation from Louis Schuch's birth
record about Salomé's 1883 marriage
The next document shows the marriage of Pierre Volant and Salomé Schuch in 1883 (March 17, per Louis' birth record, but the actual marriage record was barely seen on screen).  Nothing is mentioned about why they would have taken so long to marry.  The marriage legitimized all four sons, but only three were Volants (Adolph and Gaston were the additional children); Louis was still listed as Schuch.  A primary benefit of being legitimized is that the children could now inherit.  The marriage record says that Salomé was from Brumath, in Alsace, near the German border.  Rowling is surprised at the Germanic surname.  (I'm surprised at the name Salomé.)  Johnston explains that the Alsace-Lorraine region has a mix of German and French because it has gone back and forth between the two countries many times.  (I had been expecting Salomé to be from Alsace or Lorraine.  In my research, when I have found people with German names who consider themselves French, or with French names who consider themselves German, that's almost always where they're from.)  It looks as though Pierre Volant was willing to accept responsibility for a child that was not his.  They say they still can't tell if Pierre Volant was Louis' father, but it seems clear that he likely wasn't.  (Genetic genealogy might actually be useful here.)

As she leaves, Rowling talks about her fascinating day.  Her great-great-grandmother had been in dire straits as a penniless single mother, but it was clear she had been a survivor.  She sees parallels with her own life, because 20 years ago, she was teaching and just starting to write and was very poor, and then became a single mother herself.

As the next step, the narrator says that "Jo has decided to travel" to Brumath (I'm still waiting for a celebrity to say no), a mere 10 miles from the German border.  She goes to the town hall (Hotel de Ville) and speaks with Stéphanie Fischer (there's another German name for you), the "Company Secretary" (administrator) of the mayor's office (or at least she was when this was shot, apparently no later than November 2013, because that's the month she started working in Lauterbourg).  They go back and forth about the pronunciation of the name Schuch.  After having been in Paris, Rowling is saying it as "shoosh", the French way, while Fischer corrects her with the German pronunciation, close to "shookh."  Fischer has Salomé's March 10, 1854 birth "certificate" (really a registration), listing her parents as Jacques Schuch and Christine Bergthold.  Rowling is surprised at another German surname, and Fischer explains that many people in Brumath have ancestors from Germany and even Switzerland.

Fischer brings out copies of pages from the 1861 census that show the Schuch family.  We don't get to see Jacques and Christine's ages, but the family has five daughters:  Catherine, 13; Salomé, 8; Marguerite, 6; Dorothée, 3; and Christine, 1.  Rowling doesn't understand what Jacques' occupation is, and Fischer tells her he was a tailleur de pierre, or a stone cutter, not a well paying job.  As an afterthought, Fischer mentions sandstone.  (Jacques is indeed listed as a tailleur de pierre on Salomé's 1954 birth registration, but on the census it says piqueur de grès de ménage, indicating specifically that he worked with sandstone.)  The family was poor.  They had another daughter later in 1861, Madelene.

Jacques Schuch 1865 death record
The next discovery is a sad one:  Jacques died on September 13, 1865 at the age of 39.  (His death record also lists his profession as a piqueur de grès.)  Rowling comments that "Salomé lost her father when she was 12" (but by my arithmetic, since Salomé was born in 1854, she was only 11).  To compound Christine's problems, she then had a son, Jacques, born a month after his father had died, on October 27.  Rowling comments that Christine was "a widow presumably in her 30's" (but I don't understand why she says "presumably", when she should have been able to see Christine's age on the 1861 census, even if we couldn't), without a job.  Then we learn that Christine died on September 13, 1886 (coincidentally, the same day on which Jacques died twenty-one years earlier); Rowling says that this at least was "not a premature death" (but if Christine was in her 30's in 1865, then she would have been in her 50's in 1886, which sounds a little young to me, and she is indeed listed as 57 years old in the death record).  On a practical level, I'm wondering how a woman without a job who was widowed in 1865 managed to keep everything going another 20+ years.  The informant on her death certificate was her son-in-law, so maybe his income was what actually ensured the family's survival.

Christine Bergtold
1886 death record
Rowling notices that Christine's death record is in German, while the previous records were in French.  Fischer tells her that in 1870 this area went to Germany after it won the Franco-Prussian War.  Rowling wants to know more, but Fischer says that she only has birth and death records (so where did that 1861 census come from?).  Rowling then says, "I need to find a local historian."  (That's funny, I would have thought of looking for a library or an archive.  Maybe she doesn't like doing her own research.)

As she leaves Fischer, Rowling is struck by the growing theme of women holding their families together.  She is now up to four:  herself, Lizzy, Salomé, and Christine, who was a widow in her 30's with seven children.  She also wants to learn more about the sudden change from French to German control in Brumath and wonders what happened to her family during that time.

The narrator tells us that Rowling has arranged to meet military historian Benoit Sigrist, whom she meets on the sidewalk in Brumath.  He tells her that Brumath was a normal town of about 3,000 people before the war.  He points across the street to two houses and says that they are typical houses of the city, then adds that the second house was where Rowling's family lived.  (They only looked at the house from across the street and didn't go in, so I guess the current owner is not a fan of Harry Potter.)  Rowland is amazed that the house is still standing.  (I tried to read the street sign on the building, but it was too out of focus.)

This normal town life ended in July 1870, when France declared war on Prussia.  The narrator pops in to tell us that Alsace had been part of France for 300 years, but the Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, had decided he wanted it back.  On August 6 he launched the Battle of Woerth (Wörth in German), only one day's march from Brumath.  Sigrist tells Rowling that 80,000 German and 45,000 French soldiers fought in the battle, one of the bloodiest battles in the war.  He adds that 20,000 "people" (does he really mean men, as in the soldiers?) died.  The French army was divided in two, with one part going south to Brumath on its way to Strasbourg.

Sigrist has a copy of Geschichtliche Notizen über die Stadt Brumath ("Historical Notes on the Town of Brumath"), which includes a description of the battle written by the mayor of Brumath.  He has a translated section for Rowling which details the arrival of soldiers into the town.  First infantry and cavalry troops fleeing the French army came into the town.  Salomé's family would have seen these men pasing under their house windows.  On Monday, August 8, several German regiments arrived, and on Tuesday 18,000 German soldiers essentially invaded.

At this point, normal life stopped for Salomé and her family.  She would no longer have gone to school, and the family couldn't go out of the house.  They would have had no choice but to give anything they had to the soldiers.

Rowling is struck by how Salomé has suffered trauma after trauma.  Her father died, and then after a "brief period of security" (heaven knows when that was, with a widowed mother and six other siblings) the town was taken over by Germans.  (It sounds like Rowling is overdramatizing things, but perhaps she was told more information that was cut in editing.)  No one knew what would happen after the war.

Sigrist relates more about the war.  The fate of Brumath depending on the defense of Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, which was held by the remaining French army.  Using Brumath as their base, however, the German forces besieged Strasbourg for six weeks.  Almost 200,000 artillery shells were fired, which killed thousands of men, women, and children.  Many German soldiers who died during the siege were buried in Brumath.  The end of the siege came on September 27, 1870, with the Germans victorious, and the French citizens wondering what would happen.  On October 8, the announcement was made that "Strasburg ist und bleibt deutsch" ("Strasbourg is and will remain German").

So on October 8 did the Schuch family effectively become German?  Sigrist says he is not sure; the Treaty of Frankfurt (which officially ended the Franco-Prussian War) allowed people to choose between remaining French citizens or becoming German.  (Per the Wikipedia page, they had until October 1, 1872 to decide.)  The catch was that those who chose to remain French had to leave and go to what was then France.  The only way to learn whether Rowling's family members opted to remain French is to look for their names in the lists.

Now Rowling is a little flummoxed.  She started out looking for her French roots, but maybe her family became German.  She hopes they stayed French, but it might have been too much to hope for, as they were on the verge of poverty (and where did that information come from?).  Of course, she is going to try to find documents that will let her know.

Rowling now visits the Protestant (Lutheran) church in Brumath, where genealogist Prof. Guy Dirheimer greets her (I guess he does genealogy as a sideline from his professional career in pharmacy).  He tells her that this is the church where her family members were married and baptized.  He looked for names of Brumath residents who left but did not find Christine Schuch.  Rowling says she can understand why Christine would not have uprooted herself at that point and that it would have been almost foolish for her to do so, but wonders about Salomé.  Dirheimer explains that Salomé couldn't opt to remain a French citizen because she was underage at only 17 years old; the age of majority was 21.  Dirheimer did find another family member, however.  Salomé's great-aunt, Catherine Bergtold (the widow of Lobstein, according to the page we see on screen), officially chose to remain French on September 9, 1872 in Paris.  Because it's known that Salomé ended up in Paris, it's likely that she went with her aunt.

But then it occurs to Rowling to ask if Salomé was still technically German, even though she was living in Paris (a very good question).  Dirheimer tells her that it depends and asks if she married.  When Rowling says that she married Pierre Volant, a Frenchman, Dirheimer explains that she would have become French by marrying Volant, by French law.  So Salomé was born French, was German for about 10 years (at bayonet point, so it didn't really count), then became French (again) via her marriage.

As a storyteller, Rowling finds Salomé to be the person who stands out in the family history she has learned.  She lived through difficult times, held her family together, and built a stable life (again, where did that come from?).  Rowling is glad that she found the truth and believes that her mother would have adored every minute of the journey.


  1. Great synopsis. My thinking the whole time they were in Brumath, was to research the family further back. At some point, they must have been German, with that surname? An ancestor's nationality can really be fluid, what with many border changes and conquering forces over the years. I have Irish ancestors who lived in Canada before coming to the U.S. I wouldn't necessarily call them Canadian.

    1. Thank you! Regarding whether they were German originally, yes, as Stéphanie Fischer said, many people in that area have ancestors from Germany and some came from Switzerland. But Alsace had been French for more than 300 years, so people considered themselves French, not German. That's quite a bit longer than your Irish ancestors who lived in Canada, I suspect, who were probably there for one or two generations at the most?


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