Episode 71 – A Needle In A Haystack On A Farm In Poland

The stories I heard about my mother’s family all came from a single cohesive source: the 3 generations of women that I actually got to know personally. My mother was an only child, so there were no siblings to contradict her. My maternal grandmother was also an only child, so what I knew about her life was seen through her lens. My great-grandmother was a presence in my life until I was almost 8. Although she told very few stories of her own, she was the kind of strong personality who would chime in if a story told in her hearing did not match with her memories; she had no patience for fiction.

Trying to put together father’s story was a much different experience.

Dad was “the baby” of the family. He had a specific repertoire of stories that he would tell about himself, which my brother and I always assumed were heavily embellished for dramatic effect, but he knew very little about his own family history. I guess that’s not surprising considering that more than half of his siblings were old enough to be his parents, and were off living lives of their own by the time he came on the scene.

My father always told us that he was the youngest of 22 children, although the family bible, which I first saw in 2015 in my Aunt Lidia’s kitchen in Holtum Geest, Germany, only contained 16 names, written in my grandfather’s handwriting.

My grandfather, named Wilhelm Mandau, exactly like my dad, was born in what was then Prussia and is now Poland in 1873, the 5th of 11 children of Michael Mandau and Juliana Albrecht. He married his first wife, Maria Hartstock, in 1892. He was just 19 years old, and she was only 18. As was the custom at that time, upon his marriage he received his inheritance: 1/5 of his father’s land holdings. From stories I’ve been told, that was enough to make him one of the biggest – and hence wealthiest – farmers in the area. (My Aunt Martha recalls the family having 2 on-site families of servants in the 1930’s). Wilhelm and Maria immediately began having children, 9 in 16 years that lived long enough to be christened: Robert in 1893, Irina in 1898, Ottilia in 1899, Bertha in 1900, Hulda in 1903, Augusta in 1905, Oskar in 1907, and Amalia in 1909. Maria died on August 22, 1911, and my grandfather married my grandmother, Emilie Brokopp, before the end of that year. I have no idea whether love factored into the equation at all, but clearly he needed a mother for his children immediately. Emilie was born in 1889, so she was 16 years his junior, and just 4 years older than her eldest step-child. At 22, she became mother to 9 children ranging in age from 2 to 18. It must have come as no surprise to anyone that Irina, the eldest daughter at 13 years old, was not impressed with a 22-year-old stepmother. Life is not like the movie version of The Sound of Music.

True to form, my grandfather continued to sire more children: Karl in 1912, Irma in 1913, Reinhold in 1916 (born and died in Russia), Ridja in 1920, Lidia in 1924, Martha in 1927, and my dad Wilhelm in 1929. By that time my grandfather was 55 years old, and my grandmother was 39. There was one unnamed stillborn child after my father, and possibly 2 more during the family’s period of evacuation to Russia from 1914 to 1919. The only reference to those earlier siblings, not listed in the bible, come from Dad’s half-sister Augusta’s memories of that time in Russia, as recounted by her daughter Alice in Augusta’s obituary in 2002.

When you have so many children that you run out of room on the bible’s front pages, you have to improvise. The 2 youngest children were written into margins: my Aunt Martha’s birth on Christmas Day 1927 was noted at the bottom of a prayer page; Dad’s birth on May 16 1929 below the notation for a hymn. The names vertically on the right side of that page are grandchildren.

Dad’s eldest half-brother, Robert, had left for the United States in 1911, so Dad never met him. I have no details about why Robert left, but his mother’s death and father’s remarriage may well have factored into his decision. It was Robert who was able in 1918/1919 to send U.S. dollars to Russia to pay the train fare to get his father and family back to the farm in Poland. (EDIT: New information suggests that the money may not have cone from Robert himself, but from funds the United States government was making available as some kind of compensation for people removed from their homes and taken to work in Russia). Robert registered for the draft in 1917, while living in Cleveland Ohio, but did not end up fighting. Instead, he married in 1918 and fathered 8 of his own children (are you picturing the size of the Mandau family tree yet?). Had Robert served in the U.S. army, he might have ended up fighting on the opposite side to his family still in Poland. Robert’s son Leslie, American-born, enlisted during WW2, around the same as his half-uncle Karl died fighting in Russia in 1942.

You’d think with all those brothers and sisters, and their descendants, there would be a ton of genealogical information, and there is….. about my grandfather and his first wife. Robert’s granddaughter, who is my age, has done lots of work on their family tree, but knows almost nothing about my branch, all of which came into being after her grandfather left Poland. Interestingly, though, it is from her that I got the only photos I have of my grandparents as they looked around the time of their marriage.

My Grandfather, Wilhelm, at 38 years old, and his new bride, my grandmother Emilie, 22 years old. Photo taken in 1911, the year they married.

Trying to glean details about my dad’s childhood really is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Dad did not talk about his life before his flight from Poland in 1944, except to mention in passing that he had to pretty much fend for himself, that his older sisters were the ones who looked out for him, that he left school after just grade 3 (which would have been around 1937) to help out on the farm, and that his father was a brute. When Ted and I spent time with my Aunt Lidia in 2015, she described their father as stern and proud – the kind of man who enjoyed dressing in his best clothes each Sunday, driving his highly polished carriage and team of horses to church, and expecting that the crowd would part to allow him to pass. At home, he expected obedience and that his children stay out of his way. Aunt Lydia’s impression was that that my father emigrated to Canada as a young man in large part to get away from my grandfather, but my Aunt Martha (still alive and vibrant at 92 years old) remembers a happy (if mischievous) childhood, and has vivid memories of my grandparents’ stallions, who may have been a big part of the reason crowds parted. Not just anyone was wealthy enough to have stallions, and theirs were used as stud for mares all around the area.

Dad at 10 years old, 1939, with orchards in the background.
Dad at 12 years old, 1941.
Dad, again at around 12 years old, holding the reins for the “everyday” carriage used as transportation on the farm. My grandfather is at the back of the wagon, sporting a moustache not unlike the one my Dad grew in his 60’s.The baby on the wagon would be one of the next generation, likely Dad’s nephew Richard.
Dad at 13 years old, 1942. Seated in the background are neighbour children. The Mandau farm was a busy place, especially during the war years when soldiers would arrive to buy milk and provisions.

Before Dad’s emigration to Canada in 1951, there is the story of his journey out of Poland during the relocation/eviction of ethnic Germans in the winter of 1944/45. That’s the story I remember hearing most often as a child, and right through until Dad’s death in 2006. Stay tuned while I try to separate fact from fiction and build a picture of that time.

2 comments

  1. Wow !!! What a prolific family!! Most kids left because of economics. Sad when personalities are the cause. Well, maybe not! Fate takes … Love your stories! I noticed the clothes your dad wore and remembered that quality was important. Štof!!

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