Tag Archives: Joy Grude

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!

_  _  _  _  _

You can enjoy more of Joy’s writing by reading Scandals of the Coachman’s Son


photo by Joy


The Scent of Roses

  by Joy Grude, author of Scandals of the Coachman’s Son
 I can still hear my grandmother’s husky voice, with that very distinctive New York accent, as she would describe in vivid detail magical stories of the “olden days.”  Her collection of memories were both sad and happy, with some full of mystery and intrigue.  By the time I was ten years old, I had heard all the family stories numerous times, but never seemed to tire of them.  On weekend sleepovers, I would beg to hear them again and again, knowing that they were true family legends.  My grandmother Bella recited these stories from her youth, recalling some very interesting life experiences.  One of my favorites was a mysterious tale about “the scent of roses.”
Isabella (Bella) Mischke was the middle child born to German immigrant parents, Henry and Emma Mischke, in the fall of 1898.   The family had settled in the slums of Yorkville, a poor German neighborhood of New York City. Of the couple’s ten children, only six survived into adulthood, as four of the unfortunate infants and toddlers succumbed to deadly diseases such as diphtheria and typhus.  It seemed that the lack of birth control was balanced out by the lack of medical science in those days, as childhood mortality rates were at an all-time high.  The grieving parents could only turn to their faith for comfort in coping with their losses and deep sorrow.  Bella’s mother, Emma, was a devout Catholic and prayed daily, looking up to the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary that hung on the wall of their rundown apartment.

As the children grew up, the three girls and three boys relied on each other as playmates, best friends and confidants, as their close sibling relationship developed.  Times were tough, and they were very poor, but there were also many happy times together, including family picnics at Bronx Park, trips to the Botanical Gardens, and canoe races on the lake at Central Park.  The family always pulled together as a strong supportive unit, especially during the hard times.  When Henry had died suddenly in 1907 at the young age of 46, Emma again relied on her religion to carry her through, not knowing how she and the children would survive without their main breadwinner.  Her worries were somewhat eased when the community took up a collection and saved the family from starvation and destitution.  Never losing faith in God, Emma often spoke about life in the “hereafter.”  She truly believed that the soul lives on after death, and tried to reassure her family that they would all be together again in heaven. 
One day while sitting around the dinner table, Emma made a surprising statement to her adolescent and grown children.  “When I am dead and gone, I will send a signal to let you know that I am watching over you.”  With widened eyes, they inquired as to what her signal could possibly be.  Emma thought about it for a few moments, then remembered her favorite flower…  “I will come back in the scent of roses!”
Emma had died of natural causes in 1941, but her memory lived on.  Ten years later, the Mischke brothers and sisters, with their wives, husbands and children were gathered together on Christmas Eve at the home of the oldest daughter, Hilda, in Roselle Park, New Jersey.  It was bitterly cold on this December night of 1951, with snow falling lightly outside.  Everyone had arrived, and there was much laughter and lively conversation among the adults and children, some speaking in German if the subject was not suitable for young ears.  Suddenly there was a loud knock on the door.  They all looked at each other, trying to figure out who was missing from the party, but were bewildered.  Hilda, as the hostess, said she would answer the door, commenting as she walked away, “I wonder who it could be!”  She opened the heavy oak door that let in a gust of wind.  When Hilda returned to her guests, her face was as pale as a ghost and she kept mumbling the same words over and over.  “It was Mama… it was Mama.” With all eyes fixed on Hilda, each slowly turned their heads in amazement as a sweet smell drifted through the house.  Sniffing the aromatic air, not a sound could be heard… until someone called out softly: “The scent of roses!” – – – – – –
You can enjoy more of Joy’s writing by reading Scandals of the Coachman’s Son