A Storyn by Joy Grude
“Tell me the story about Henry and the castle… please, one more time?” My grandmother would snuggle next to me and begin the familiar tale, one that I had heard many times before… but still reveled in its wonder!
The opening line was always the same: “My father was born in a castle in Germany…. His father was the coachman to the Baron. “While listening intently, my imagination grew, and I quickly envisioned scenes from Cinderella, with noble ladies in flowing gowns and sparkling crowns upon their heads. I could see stately gentlemen wearing top hats and tuxedos. Then the enchanting bedtime story would turn dark, but this was also mesmerizing, even though I was too young to understand all the implications.
“The baron needed an heir to carry on the family name… but was unable to sire his own offspring.” As an eight or nine year-old kid, I had no idea what she was talking about, but understood that the baron wanted a child, but nature was not cooperating. “He asked your great-great-grandfather, the coachman, to impregnate the Baroness…”
My grandmother made this statement as though it was a common occurrence, with no sense of shame or cause for embarrassment. No… the family myth of my ancestor’s role as a “surrogate father” – to stand in for the impotent nobleman – was proudly passed down through the generations. We were somehow related to European royalty!
As the story goes: “the job was quickly accomplished by the virile coachman, Johann Mischke,” and thus, the young baron was born. The coachman’s own legitimate son, Henry, was to be raised and educated alongside the young heir. As far as anyone in the family knew, this was accepted as a true story. Henry Mischke grew up as though he was part of royalty, and his best friend was the “young baron.” The two boys were inseparable companions until a time came when their secret brotherhood was disclosed, resulting from gossip amongst the peasants in the community. So the baron needed to get rid of the evidence of his impropriety… he paid for Henry’s ticket to America!
Forty years would pass before technology would make it possible to prove or disprove this wild story about a secret agreement between the baron and his coachman. Was it really true? And who was this baron? No one in the family could even remember his name. But I had to try to solve the mystery, and maybe find my long-lost relatives!
The Internet has been like a magic wand for genealogists, providing resources at our fingertips! But the only detail I knew for sure was that the castle was called “Schloss Niederrathen” and it was located near the “Table Mountains” in Germany. My first surprise came in 2005 when I found a photo of the castle on the Internet… and then discovered that it was actually located in POLAND!
“Am I Polish or German?” I wondered. No, it had been part of Lower Silesia in Germany, but the borders changed after losing the war. All the ethnic Germans had been forcibly evicted from their Silesian homes and sent “West” as displaced persons. Then I wondered what had happened to the baron’s family – and did they survive the war?
It would take too long to describe all the twists and turns during my research and obsession with this noble family. But I had finally found their name! The baron who held reign of the area during the mid-1800s was “Woldemar von Johnston,” a wealthy landowner of Scottish origin. Hurray! I could now put a name into the story! Unfortunately, the family myth began to fall apart soon after that discovery.
It turned out that the baron who secretly contracted stud services of his coachman had died two years before the supposed date of the agreement. Furthermore, he already HAD a son, Max von Johnston, who was a teenager at the time of his father’s death. The story, as told, could not be true! There was no need to provide an heir… a son had already existed!
I was in shock. Was this family story a total lie, a fanciful fairytale that my great-grandfather concocted for amusement? I wondered why he would make up such a thing, but then thought about his reasons. After I traveled to Poland in August 2011, I acquired a sense of the culture of the old Prussian days, and this led to the formation of a new theory.
Further research will be necessary, however, to uncover the truth, and possible false identity of my great-grandfather. Was he a noble bastard born under secrecy, or just a big liar?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what happened 150 years ago! The family myth has provided a lifetime of entertaining stories. It has also led me to the living descendants of Baron Max von Johnston. I recently found his great-great grandson who resides in the Hannover area of Germany, and he is a successful, hardworking CEO of a wildlife foundation.
“Hilmar von M.” (name withheld for privacy) and I have corresponded by email, and we hope to meet in person next summer. At that time, I will present him with an artifact from his ancestry. A few months ago, I had found a 1903 bookplate with Max von Johnston’s name and family crest imprinted upon it. Right now it is framed and displayed in my family room… but it will soon be returned to its rightful owner in Germany.
What a momentous day it will be when I hand over this token gift to the Baron’s closest living relative – perhaps a time to feel one’s history… when the past and present unite!
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You can enjoy more of Joy’s writing by reading Scandals of the Coachman’s Son
photo by Joy