We, as genealogists, have the chance to travel through time. We discover different destinies, different stories, and sometimes, different countries. We dig through history to understand these paths. At times we come upon more than we expect. We realise that an ancestor did not only live in a past-time, he/she was in fact part of it.
Like many other genealogists, my ancestors were humble people, living their life throughout history. But, as a professional genealogist, I have the chance to work with clients all over the world! Clients who are researching French people that are linked to history. Clients whose ancestors left France for an interesting reason. Some have a family story which matches the emigration records. In these cases, I already know which records to check. In other cases, we carry out some simple research and become caught in an incredible timeline!
A Connection to a violent period in France’s history
An Australian client contacts me. Her great-grandmother was French. She left France to move to London. She has some information about her, a picture, an approximate year of birth and her birthplace according to the UK census record. I was asked to help discover her parents and uncover her ancestry.
I quickly find out when and where her grandmother was born, and the name of her mother. There was nothing about her father. However, with the third given name and information the client given me, I had an idea of who the father might be…
Researching further into this case, I discover the marriage of the parents, and her recognition by her father. The records indicated that the father was a high-ranking military personnel!
I begin to look through different sources, including military records, pension files, Légion d’honneur files to learn more about him. This is when Family History meets History.
This military man, my client’s great-great-grandfather, fought in 1870 against the Prussians. His regiment took part in the defence of Paris. Shortly after this battle, a popular uprising called the Commune occurred in Paris. This was one of the most violent and bloodthirsty repressions. During my research, I had the chance to go through those historical archives. It was like real time travel !
Shifting one hundred years in just one email
We can move from the period of the Commune to World War Two in the same day. Being a professional genealogist also means being able to navigate through different files, and different historical periods. My next email took me on this exact path.
When a client based in Seattle asked me to help him to know more about his grandmother’s past as a ‘Resistant’, I knew this would be an emotional ride for the both of us.
His grandmother was arrested in 1944, and deported, being put on the last train to Buchenwald. She worked in a command centre in Leipzig, before being forced to go on a death march. I traced her journey from archives and from testimonies of concentration camp survivors and other supporting documents. Reading a book about it is one thing. But, it is a whole different experience from reading testimonies of survivors, to having the actual historical papers in your hands!
When you work on historical events, you become excited to learn that your ancestor was a part of it. Although, as it happened a long time ago, it seems surreal, like you are a member of an audience. For events that happened recently, when there are still living witnesses, it is a different experience.
This is the beauty of genealogy and being a professional genealogist. You are a privileged witness when Family Histories meet History.