History, Fiction and Genealogy
by Hank Skirball
Genealogy – An account of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor; the study of family pedigrees
History – A chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes; a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events
Although, I assume, most of us have come to genealogy through an interest in learning about our own forbears and roots, we have already, long ago come in contact with this discipline through literature and history.
These disciplines overlap and, at times, it is difficult to determine when one begins and the other ends. For example, when one studies the history of England, he or she has to learn the list of royalty. We often speak of pretenders to a throne or fratricidal wars and intrigues.
In literature, including historical fiction, such as novels by Charles Dickens, James Michener’s The Source and librettos by W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), the denouement often involves pedigrees and family history. With regard to history, when we write our own family history, we can not ignore the setting and the contemporary events which shaped the lives of our predecessors.
Recently I read three books which utilized genealogy. One I would call horizontal, one vertical and the third an intriguing hybrid of “vertihorizontal”.
Reconstructing a Shtetl
The horizontal is entitled Konin: One Man’s Quest for a Vanished Jewish Community.1 The Konin Jewish community in central Poland was founded around 1300 CE and disappeared during the Nazi occupation. Theo Richmond, a descendant of Jewish inhabitants of that village, spent seven years traveling across the US, Europe and Israel, interviewing survivors of that Jewish community and their progeny. “In Manhattan he meets tailor Louis Lefkowitz, chairman of a Konin society, a survivor of 21 Nazi camps. In Florida he interviews Sarah Trybuch, who, carrying her baby daughter, fled into a forest and joined a Jewish partisan group fighting the Germans. Other survivors tell of Jewish prisoners’ doomed, courageous revolt in a Gestapo-run Konin slave labor camp.”2
He searched in a number of archives and ended up interviewing present day non-Jewish denizens of Communist Konin. From this he was able to reconstruct in detail the Jewish community – socially and geographically – of the prewar period. It was almost a time warp in reverse when he visited Konin decades after the destruction of its Jewish quarter.
Fletcher, William and Dorcas
The vertical is entitled The Grave Tatoo.3 The book opens with a five generation descendant family tree chart for one Dorcas Mason4 who, according to the story, was a loyal house servant to the British romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). This is a whodunit which takes the background from the historical conundrum of the true fate of Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny on the Bounty and of his indirect (friendship) and direct (distant relative) relationship with Wordsworth.5 I won’t be a spoiler and reveal the denouement, but merely point out that the plot unfolds as Dorcas’s current descendants are murdered one by one.
The Missing Denizen of Leopoldstadt6
The intriguing hybrid of vertical and horizonal is entitled The Little Book, 7 written by an educator, Seldin Edwards, of the southwest California area,8 This is his first book which he worked on for 33 years.
The protagonist of this time-travel adventure is Wheeler Burden9 born in 1942, a scion of a Boston Brahman family who is a handsome, successful athlete, rock singer, philosopher and all around personality. In prep school, he is mentored by Arnauld Esterhazy, a former Viennese intellect and inspired to love Vienna “as it was” in the late 1890′s. We learn a good deal of Wheeler’s parents and grandparents.
Wheeler’s paternal grandmother may have descended from Jewish stock and his mother, Flora Zimmerman Burden, was Jewish, making him halachicly Jewish, even if he did not practice Judaism.
In 1988, at age 47, he is injured in San Francisco and wakes up in Vienna 1897. He meets and befriends many of the greats of the mostly Jewish born Young Vienna group and the Secessionist painters.10 He supports himself in Vienna by telling the story of his life to a doctor named Sigmund Freud, who was then 41 years old.
He also meets his father who was a hero and martyr in the French Maquis (underground resistance group) during World War II, his paternal grandmother and grandfather and many others including Mahler, Churchill, Mark Twain and the seven year old Adolph Hitler. The recreation of Leopoldstadt II,11 the former Jewish Quarter, is thorough and competent.
One of the overall themes is the increasing Viennese anti-Semitism, fueled by the infamous mayor, Karl Lueger. The overall portrayal is brilliant, but I was left with a question. Where was Theodor Herzl, then 37 years old?
Having looked at Edwards’s background and pedigree for four generations, I do not think he is Jewish. There is a Talmudic expression, “If one embraces too much, one has embraced nothing.” or “If you take hold of too large a thing, you may lose your hold”.12 Certainly, he could not be all inclusive and had to make decisions where to stop. Perhaps I am parochial, but when one sees who was included, however, it is mystifying that with some of his main themes, he has omitted even a mention of Theodor Herzl.
Amos Elon has written, “Like Freud, Mahler and Schnitzler, [Herzl] epitomizes the very essence of the Viennese soul.”13
A major theme in Edwards’s book is the rise of anti-Semitism. In 1881 Herzl, at University of Vienna, joined the Albia fraternity (Germanophiles). He quit two years later due to their anti-Semitism. As is well known, Herzl covered the infamous Dreyfus trial and considered political Zionism an answer to anti-Semitism.
On the internet, I found maps of Vienna’s inner city from the years 1895 and 189814 and a city directory from the year 1898. By cross checking, I could find out who were neighbors of whom and, perhaps most likely to go to Cafes Griensteidl and Central as their “watering holes”.15
From 1896 to 1898, Freud and Herzl lived on the same small street. Freud had his home and clinic at 19 Berggasse16 and Herzl lived at 6 Berggasse.17 Herzl’s wife Julie suffered from severe depression.18 Could he have sent her to Freud’s clinic?
We know that Freud did visit Max Nordau in Paris and we are told that Freud, not a nationalist, nevertheless sympathized with Herzl whom he felt was a soul mate in that, like himself, Herzl was berated and derided for his ideas.
Herzl published The Jewish State in 1896, wrote many sketches and was a successful playwright, having written 15 plays, several of which played at some of Vienna’a most prestigious theaters, including the Burgtheater Wein. Freud entered in his diary that after seeing Herzl’s play The New Ghetto in 1894, he twice dreamt of him.19
More than once, Edwards mentions the major influential liberal European newspaper which Freud read almost daily, (including news about the First Zionist Congress in 1897) Neue Freie Presse of which Herzl was feuilleton writer, Paris correspondent and finally, literary editor. Freud wrote to him, asking him to review his book The Meaning of Dreams.
Both men were close to Arnold Schnitzler, but Freud’s friendship did not commence until after Herzl’s death.
Freud’s daughter, Anna said that she did not think her father ever met Herzl. It is said that they both frequented the same coffee house Cafe – Restaurant Griensteidl20 and later Cafe Central, often at the same time, but that they never met nor spoke.
Freud spoke of mysticism and prophecy. Herzl wrote in his diary on September 3, 1897, a few days after the First Zionist Congress in Basel, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word — which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly — it would be this: At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” In fifty years plus three months, (November 29, 1947) the United Nations passed a resolution giving international recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Winston Churchill, addressing Parliament in 1949, said: “The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.” If Herzl was the father of political Zionism, certainly in this day and age, his influence – through the State of Israel – rivals that of Freud and overshadows many others featured by Edwards.
Perhaps I am being petty or oversensitive, but while it is true that a Hungarian family named Esterhazy was prominent in Vienna and its surroundings, (we know that Josef Haydn was one of the count’s musicians), still, I wonder, with all of the myriad names he could give his sub-hero, why did he pick Esterhazy when the man who framed Alfred Dreyfus was Major Ferdinand-Walsa Esterhazy?
In sum: Genealogy is ubiquitous in studies of the past and present. It deals with nature and often nurture. When people enter this fascinating field, they will meet it in history and mythology, sociology and literature. It is more than collecting names of relatives. One learns of new tools and sources to solve puzzles and conundrums and, hopefully, will discover and meet new relatives.
1. Richmond, Theo. Konin: One Man’s Quest for a Vanished Jewish Community (New York: Pantheon, 1995)
2. Publishers Weekly
3. McDermid ,Val. The Grave Tatoo (New York: St. Martin’s Minatour, 2007)
4. I find it interesting at how many Dorcas Masons turn up on Google from England and the US. Several of them are in the right time span and are parts of noted family trees. McDermid probably created the character as a montage from the Westmoreland Church notes in Grasmere parish in the Cumbria Lake District in Northern England. http://www.northofthesands.org.uk/westmoreland/parish/43/grasmere, under Carr, Carter, Dixon, William Mason and William Waters of Thornhow.
5. Also some claim that he was in touch with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is the “Ancient Mariner” of Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
6. I wish to acknowledge help I received in this research from Michael Livni and Joseph Hoffman (no relation to the renowned architect of the same name in fin de siecle Vienna).
7. Edwards , Selden. The Little Book (New York: Dutton, 2008)
8. A fourth generation Californian, born in 1940, he graduated Princeton, earned a masters in education at Stanford and a doctorate at Pacifica Graduate Institute, he taught English and was headmaster of a number of private schools in Illinois and California. At last sighting, he lives in Carpinteria, CA.
9. He resonates with me, in addition via Viennese visits, since we are both native Bostonians who attended prep schools in the Boston area and graduated Harvard. (Edwards attended Nobles and Greenough prep school in Boston, I attended Browne and Nichols in the same athletic league).
10. A few of the prominent Jewish members of the Jung Wein and the Wiener Sezession were Raoul Auernheimer, Hermann Bahr, Reichard Beer-Hoffman, William Hechler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Oscar Kokoschka. Karl Kraus, Fritz Mautner, Felix Salten (author of Bambi), Arnold Schnitzler and Otto Weininger.
11. Now known as Die Bermudadreieck (Bermuda Triangle)
12. .b.Rosh Hashannah 4b; b.Yoma 80a, etc.
13. Elon, Amos. Herzl (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975)
14. Among others, http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/WM/1119/Vienna/;
15. http://www.digital.wienbibliothek.at/periodical/titleinfo/5311 Choose 1891 – 1900. From that you choose 1897 and 1898. There are two volumes: Namenverzeichnis [names] Volume 2 and Strassenverzeichnis [streets] in Volume 1).
16. Today a Freud museum
17. After marrying, (1889) he lived in Mark Aurelstrasse -east of the Altes Rathaus. Today near that site is the Theodor Herzl Stiege (staircase) on Sterngasse. At the time of his death, (1904) he was domiciled on Haizingergasse A-1180 Vienna 5.
18. Julie was a “severely disturbed young woman … she was hysterical, given to temper tantrums and to childish moods, impulsive and spoilt. She suffered from a very serious borderline personality disorder.” – Avner Falk, Herzl, King of the Jews, A Psychoanalytic Biography of Theodor Herzl (New York: Lanham, University Press of America, 1993) pp104, 108. “From the psychiatric point of view, there is no doubt that the psycho-pathology of Julie Herzl, her excessive irritability and instability of character, as well as the elements of degeneration of the Naschauer family, have contributed to the heritage of disease and to the decadence of the Herzl children.” – Arthur Stern, The Genetic Tragedy of the Family of Theodor Herzl (Israel Annals of Psychiatry and Related Disciplines 1965) 3:110-111. For a while Herzl considered sending her to Freud’s teacher, but was afraid that if he did, she might become suicidal. It is ironic that Herzl’s son Hans went to Freud for help in London a few days before he committed suicide.
19. http://www.pep-web.org/document.php?id=cps.014.0357a; Leo Goldhammer, Herzl and Freud (New York: Herzl Year Book, Volume I, 1958) pp 194-196
20. 1010 Wien, Michaelerplatz 2
This post is also available in: Hebrew