I’ve never been diligent or dedicated enough to research my family tree. The other day, though, I was tidying out my old desk when I came across some papers my grandfather sent to me 20 years ago. He had done all the hard work and there it was, my grandfather’s family traced right back to 1502! All of them lived and died in the same area of northern Bavaria; respectable, solid citizens who were leatherworkers or made fine woolen cloth and became small-town mayors. There are tantalizing glimpses of the real people behind the dates and names. Johann and Salome Scharff donated a beautifully inlaid and carved pulpit to their local church in 1613. It is still there, a tangible link to the past. There is even a coat of arms for the family name, granted in 1596 to Hanns and his brothers Simon and Adam by the local duke.
There is also an intriguing gap in the neat family succession. My grandfather’s grandmother Johanna had a son, my great-grandfather Max. Her surname was Scharff, but the father is listed as Theodor Constantin Körner. They were never married. Family legend has it that Theodor was part of a regiment stationed in Johanna’s home town in the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian war. He was a 31 year old clerk-turned-soldier, and Johanna was 27. They found each other in the warm sunshine of that German summer in 1870. Her child was born on the 19th of March, 1871, long after Theodor left. It can’t have been easy for her to be a single mother and I wonder what she was like. Did she resemble my grandfather, clever and small, with a ready laugh but a fiery temper when roused enough? It’s all lost in the darkness of the past. There are no photos, diaries or letters, just the bare facts. We know even less about Theodor, only his date of birth and that he is listed as “missing in France 1870/71” on the family tree. One thing is clear – he never returned from the war.
My mother tells me that Johanna did not remain single. She married someone else and had more children. Her son Max grew up to become a senior public servant, so he was no neglected step-child. I was intrigued by the story of his elusive father Theodor, so I searched online and found an archive of casualties – the dead, wounded and missing – of the Franco-Prussian war. The German records, with typical efficiency, are said to be “very nearly complete”. There was no trace of him anywhere. He has disappeared into the grey fog of history. Perhaps he does not wish to be found? Our whole family tree would look different had they married, but his name isn’t ours and we know almost nothing about him. He isn’t completely lost, though. There is a small part of him in all of us, linking him to us through two centuries. Vale Theodor.
Also published on ABC Open