When Past and Present Unite

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


8 Responses to When Past and Present Unite

  1. I read this story with great interest. As one who is involved in my nieces very sucessful persuit of our geneology, I love the mystery. This is the core of a good book in my estimation.
    Thanks for the glimpse into your family history.

    • Bobbi, thanks so much for the kind words about my story! I think of genealogy as a long-term treasure hunt, and it’s very exciting as new discoveries are made. Since my original book was based on Henry’s version of the family story, I may need to do an update. But… first I must solve the mystery!
      Best regards,

  2. Last night I had dinner with a friend who has just started looking into her family history. She has found info all the way back to the 1600s. I think it’s great to know about the lives that contributed to us before we were born. Thank you for highlighting this. ~ s

  3. Yes, sometimes we get lucky with family research and find other published trees with the same ancestry. After a while it seems that everyone is related to each other! I am finding it much easier to trace the baron’s family since prominent families of the ruling class were well-documented in Germany. However, the biggest highlight for me was in finding the baron’s living descendant, and actually communicating with him. I had thought the line was extinct, so it was such a surprise! He was not aware of his great-great grandfather’s publication on the history of the von Johnston line, so what a thrill it was for me to send him a copy of that book dated 1891. I’m so amazed, and will cherish the connection between our families even more.

    Thanks so much for your comments!

  4. Loved your story. I have only begun to delve into the land of my family’s genealogy and I find it fascinating although, at times, frustrating. You started with a great story and I’m glad it led you somehow to connect and share information. So far, my path has led to France c1700 and Canada c1600. My husband hopes I will find his people in Wales. I guess this is a new hobby for me. Thanks for the timely inspiration.

  5. Thank you Susan! It is so rewarding to hear that my story inspired others, and I wish you much success in your family research. It sounds like you’ve made great progress already! However, it can be frustrating at times, and you will hit a brick wall… but don’t give up! Information is constantly being added to the internet, especially on ancestry.com. I had just about given up when I finally had a breakthrough with the baron’s published family history that suddenly appeared in “google books.”
    Enjoy the journey….

  6. Joy- Your story made me smile. Our family too has stories passed down from one generation to the next … I’ve always thought of them as family lore. It never occurred to me to consider the veracity of the stories. They are just enjoyable to tell and even more delightful to hear. I can still hear the sound of my own children’s screams when I told them the gory ones. lol – ms

    • Thank you for the wonderful compliment! If I brought a few smiles to others, than I’ve done my job… I had hoped the content would be taken as an interesting piece of history, and not too distasteful – and so it seems to be so! I would love to hear about other family myths, as it sounds like you must have some interesting ones!! LOL – Joy