Dear Marlys Hesch,
You don't know me and we are unlikely ever to meet as I live across the pond in England but I owe you an enormous debt of gratitude for your wonderful Hesch History Website, which has given me hours of pleasure and a whole new insight into a branch of my family that I thought forever closed to me. It is even possible that we are very distantly related.
I will explain but it will take a little time so get yourself a cup of coffee, put your feet up and read on as I have a story to tell.
Thirty-five years ago this year I married my husband, taking a new surname, Wanek, that is a very unusual name in England. My own family had always been very interested in its origins and naturally I was keen to know more about my new family. I learned that my husband's grandfather (already dead) had originally come from Bohemia, later part of Czechoslovakia, but that he 'could not go back', that he had been interned on the Isle of Man as an 'enemy alien' in the First World War, that he'd worked variously as a waiter in the big hotels in London, on the trans-Atlantic liners and on the Island of Guernsey. I was puzzled that apart from his Mum and Dad and sibling my husband seemed to have no family at all. This outwardly very English family had a taste for Apple Strudel, Potato Noodles, Sauerkraut, served with Sunday roast dinner as well Frankfurters and a particularly thick Chicken soup, strongly enriched with that most un-English of flavours; garlic! No one seemed interested in their origins and direct enquiries were regarded with bafflement and suspicion and were discouraged. Books on researching your ancestors always exhort you to talk to your relatives and I was bursting with curiosity but it's bad manners to press too hard and not a good idea to upset your in-laws. The reason for the lack of relations seemed to be because my Mum-in-law had been orphaned at the tender age of three and there had been a serious falling-out between my Dad-in-law and his two brothers, the reasons for which are irretrievably buried in the past. So I just listened and mentally noted the little snippets of information that gradually leaked out but could do no more until their deaths, whereupon I was able to look among the family papers. The one great thing about family history is that you can't upset the dead!
Among the papers I found something worth more to me than a whole wheelbarrow full of garnet pectoral crosses: Granddad's baptismal certificate. Compared with English equivalents they are a treasure trove of family information. Curiously, it was printed in Latin and German and filled out in German. I was puzzled about this but grateful it wasn't Czech, as although I can't speak German the language is not totally unfamiliar to me. The biggest stumbling block was the handwriting and that I didn't understand how the addresses worked. So I did my best with the transcription and the translation and continued the hunt finding letters and photos and oddments but the more I found the more puzzled I became. Why, if he was Czech, were all the letters and postcards written in German? I had assumed that Granddad could not return to the place of his birth because in the time that he was alive Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain, yet after his death Gran did go back to see relatives who did not seem to be in Czechoslovakia yet no one seemed very sure exactly where they lived or what language they spoke. She is known to have gone to Vienna (that may just have been holiday excursions) and there is a photograph album of her with people who have very obvious family features and are in places around Mannheim in Germany but, frustratingly, there are no names noted. I began to suspect that things were not quite as straight-forward as they had initially seemed.
Time passed, the Internet arrived and I tried a bit of on-line research in the English records, gradually pieced together his life. He was baptized as Ludwig Waněk. He seems to have gone to Prague as a teenager and studied at a school for waiters, and then about 100 years ago he came to England and worked at the Waldorf Hotel in London. Next, using the forename Ludi, he married an English girl and had a son (actually it was the other way round but we'll brush over that - it was by no means uncommon). On the out-break of war in August 1914, along with hundreds of Germans, Hungarians, Russians and others, many of whom had been here for years, he would have been instantly dismissed from his job as a waiter. Bohemians were citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and therefore the enemy. Many of these people lived in the hotels in which they were employed and so lost their homes as well. The weather was warm and they lived in the London parks but autumn progressed and it was one of the wettest winters for years so they suffered badly. A Relief Committee was organized by the Quakers to help them and soup kitchens were set up. Shortly after that all enemy aliens were rounded up and shipped off to the Isle of Man, a beautiful but cold and windswept island between England and Ireland, where several camps were set up, one holding as many as 20,000 people by the end of the war. It was a hard life but presumably not quite as bad as having to serve in the trenches.
Granddad left a wife with a little son, a baby girl and another child on the way. This is hardly equivalent to the suffering of the Jews in Europe but what a worrying time it must have been. Gran did the only thing she could and went home to her Mum and Dad in Swindon in the west of England. The baby girl died and a new son was born and there she stayed, presumably until Granddad was released. She was still there in February 1919 when her Dad died. It is possible, but unproven, that she was able to get work to help support her children, in the huge railway manufactory that was turned over to war work, although if she did she would have been deprived of the pitifully small living allowance granted to her by the local Poor Law Guardians. That's a name to send shivers down the spine of anyone who was alive then and they were not usually disposed to be very generous to anyone, let alone a woman with a foreign name and an enemy husband.
Alas, things did not really improve at the end of the war as enemy aliens were deported and not allowed to return for 5 years even if they had British wives and children. At that time, when a woman married a foreigner she lost her British citizenship (but didn't necessarily acquire his nationality) unless she made a declaration to the contrary but this wasn't widely publicised. There were questions in Parliament about it, requesting that the police be obliged to disclose the information but the proposal was rejected. Granddad managed to obtain employment in a highly reputable hotel on the island of Guernsey. Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands that lie close to the French coast; Queen Elisabeth II is their queen too, but they have their own legislature and are largely independent of the UK. The climate is relatively warm and pleasant and a lot better than the Isle of Man. He was now known as Louis - which doesn't sound German. As an alien he was not allowed to change his surname so that the authorities could keep track of his movements. I should explain that in UK English Wanek is perilously close to a rather rude word - my children suffered a lot of teasing about it at school - but we've always stuck with it, although one of Granddad's sons made a small change to the spelling in later life. I think they were very happy in Guernsey; a third son was born there and Granddad was a very highly valued employee but he was restless. They went to Prague for a time; the youngest boy settled in well but the oldest son, then about 14, had already left school and couldn't cope with the language. They returned to England where Gran opened a boarding-house on the south coast of England close to the port of Southampton and for most of the rest of the 1930s Granddad worked as a steward on the liners doing the run to New York and back. Later, presumably when he'd attained some sort of right to remain, took a job at the Savoy Hotel on The Strand and the family moved to London.
In the Second World War, as a Czech, he was from an oppressed nation and no longer considered an enemy so was allowed to continue working, which he did, all through the Blitz. All three of Granddad's sons served in the Second World War. The oldest, already married by the outbreak of WWII, had a similar experience to your Dad -he was an artillery man in the North African campaign then landed at Salerno and fought his way doggedly up the length of Italy including the assault on Monte Cassino and just like him said nothing about it. He had a very tough time and returned physically whole but mentally scarred, a withdrawn and silent man who suffered from depression at a time when there was no effective medication. The second son went into the RAF and was a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber. He was in terrible crash where the aircraft broke in two and the half with the bomb load exploded and killed the rest of the crew. He survived but with head injuries that left him a little unstable. The youngest served in Greece in the dying days of the war and probably had a rather better time than his brothers. After all that was it any wonder that they were thankful to return to Blighty more or less whole and live a quiet safe life, becoming as English as possible and put all the tumult behind them? In August 1946, only a month before the birth of his grandson (my husband) Granddad became a naturalised citizen of the UK. Eventually Gran and Granddad bought a small piece of land about 30 miles west of London and had a little bungalow build among the pines and silver birches that must have reminded him somewhat of his long lost birth place. He died after falling off his bike and was buried in a quiet and pretty English country churchyard. This story is so quickly told but it has taken me 35 years to get this much information together.
Of his Czech family I learned nothing and I left the problem for some years, then earlier this year decided it was time to have another search. I put Granddad's mother's maiden name and the village where he was born into the search box and up popped your website. The names? Binder and Schamers!
I immediately had fellow feeling for you as someone who 'thought her family wasn't proud of their origins'. All your carefully added links and information have been so valuable and I have learned so much. Czech/Bohemian immigrants into this country have, until very recently, been so few in number that there is no cultural history to absorb in the same way that there is in the US. With the information from your site added to what I have gleaned I am now as certain as I can be that Granddad's family were ethnic Germans/Austrians who had lived in the Czech lands and were forcibly evicted from their land and home in the ethnic cleansing at the end of World War 2. I knew nothing of this and was shocked both at my ignorance and that such a dreadful thing had been allowed to happen. It also explains why, in a letter to Gran in hospital, in March 1946 he complains about the paperwork he has to do to get his naturalization papers and says that 'since Joseph and the old home in Schamers seem vamoosed I shall probably end my days somewhere in England after all. ' He would have been deprived of his Czech citizenship and so 'could not go back' and his family - Joseph -possibly a brother, would have been sent to Germany in the past year where they would have had a very hard time. Food and fuel were very short in Germany for some years after the end of the war and despite speaking the same language they would have had to live among people they had probably regarded as enemies. I hope they had a better life than they would have done under the Russians and I assume, and indeed hope, that his Dad and Mum were dead by then as it would be bad for anyone but a tragedy for the elderly to be torn from their roots.
And so it is because of you that I am up till the wee small hours poring over unreadable handwriting in the Czech archives until my eyes feel like red-hot organ stops. It is because of you that I that I nearly cried when I first saw the picture of the church where Granddad was baptised and that I know a lot more about European history. Unfortunately, since Granddad was born in 1892, the on-line records for Schamers don't cover that time period so I haven't been able to find out the names of any siblings and there don't seem to be Waneks in Schamers although there are Binders by the dozen. I am hot on the tracks of his older relatives although I may well be a very old woman by the time I've learned how to read them. The priest had a steel nibbed pen and used it to make the most impressive and unreadable flourishes in his handwriting. I went further back in time and to my relief found a change of incumbent but he used a goose quill - or was it a piece of burnt stick- and the writing is just as unreadable but in a different way and I'm going to have to learn to read all over again. Argghh! I take my hat off and bow low to your friend Larry who seems to pass with ease through these archives! It is because of you that I now understand how Czech addresses work and found that No 40, where Granddad was born, was home to his mother's family for at least 50 years before that and his father Karl was still living there in 1912. I've used Google earth to find the house but I haven't yet worked how to access those amazing Plat maps of the village -I'm not very computer savvy. There is more. I noticed on that wonderful baptismal certificate that Granddad's grandfather, one Mathias Waněk, lived at Niederschlagels (now Dolní Lhota) No 1 and that he was a Master Miller. I plugged this into Google Earth and it pinpointed a mill on the River Nezarka. Niederschlagels (Dolní Lhota) is only about 3 miles from Oberschlagles (Horní Lhota) and on the same river. What would our ancestors think that we are able to 'fly' above their homelands, read (or at least attempt to read!) books that recorded the important happenings in their lives and converse across the world, all from the comfort of our own homes?
So, Marlys Hesch, if you are still awake, I send you my heartfelt thanks and good wishes and say keep up the good work as there may be other people out there in the wide world who have benefited from your generosity.
Su (short for Susan) Wanek.
Su mentioned the Schamers church books don't include 1892--YET. They're projected to be online in 2012. Not to worry, we family historians absolutely ADORE waiting. Anticipation makes the payoff even better, and bestows points toward sainthood...lol
THANK YOU, SU!!