Tag Archives: Ancestry

Finding Stefan the search for a Russian grandfather – 1

A few days ago, over a late afternoon rum and ginger (Appleton and Canada Dry of course!) , my friend Jeremy was telling me about his search for his Russian grandfather. Here’s the tale he told as the sun went down, and a full moon came up over Chateau de Lanquais.

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My mother was always quite tight-lipped about her father. She seemed to know, or pretended to know, very little about him. Talking to her brother or sister about him was even less informative, talking about him made them angry. I was warned never to broach the subject with my Breton grandmother, so I didn’t. Thus, what I know about him has been pieced together from scraps of information that have come my way from time to time over the last 70 years.

My mother said her father, Stefan, was Polish, born in Warsaw, she didn’t know when. He had been in the British Army in the first World War and was an interpreter during his service. After the war he worked on trans-Atlantic liners, until, one day he ran away to America, leaving my grandmother to bring up their four children unsupported, on her own in a foreign city, London, in a foreign country, England. He was never heard from again. My grandmother, Marguerite Kamellard, née Coudert, a single Mum, supported the family working as a dressmaker. That was what my mother knew. Punctum.

It will not surprise you that this was all my mother knew, or admitted to knowing, if I tell you that she was only five when Stefan did a flit, and as far as I know, she had few, if any memories of him.

There was one other thing I knew, or thought I knew, about him. This came from my father. Mum and Dad met in London in mid-1939, when my mother was 20. They married two weeks later, and almost immediately sailed for Jamaica to get away from the Second World War, which was expected to begin any day – it started the day the boat arrived in Jamaica. There, in Jamaica, my mother, explaining her background to my father’s family and friends, said that her father was a Polish Jewish chemist, but from a Christian, Roman Catholic family. She told my father that her parents had met when my grandmother was a young woman working in Paris.

When I was four, my parents had a messy divorce. My mother returned to England. I stayed in Jamaica. For the next 50 years or more, that’s all I knew about Stefan. Not much, but enough to know that he had behaved badly. He was at best inadequate and, at worst, pretty cruel. No wonder his abandoned wife and children were both tight-lipped and angry.

When I was about 30, in the early 1970s, talking to my mother about her childhood, I asked her, if she knew much about the Kamellards, Stefan’s parents. When had they converted from Judaism to Christianity?

“Oh”, she said, “he wasn’t Jewish, I only said that to wind up some people in Jamaica. I was a naïve young woman when I arrived in Kingston, and people patronised me. I thought they were very false and pretentious, so I told them things that I thought would offend them. If they were conservative, I said I was a communist. If they were anti-Semitic, I told them I was Jewish, and so on. None of it was true, although your father often believed it. No, no, my father was an ordinary Pole.”

My maternal aunt and uncle, deeply Catholic and deeply anti-Semitic in a very Catholic way, were only too happy to confirm that Stefan was not Jewish. They were quite annoyed that I could ever have believed such an idea. So, I made a small adjustment to my mental profile of grandfather Stefan.

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Now roll on some years, to the 1990s. One day my sister told me that our mum had decided that her father was not Polish. He was Russian.

“So, how does she work that out?” I asked. “He came from Warsaw.”

“No,” she said, “Mum says he was from a part of Russia that later became Poland”

“But there is no part of Russia that later became Poland! It’s actually the other way around. Bits of Poland became Russia.”

“Yes, I know” said my sister, “but now that Mum’s supporting UKIP, she doesn’t like the Poles, so her father must have been a Russian. Russians are dashing and romantic.”

“Oh well, so now we’re part Russian.”

“Yes,” my sister said, “we’re Russian, but we are not Jewish. UKIP doesn’t like them either!”

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Roll forward again to the early 2000s.

Now retired, we have all the time in the world for pointless pursuits. I find myself gardening, pottering about in canoes, playing with bits of Meccano. My beloved Mrs V takes up knitting a vast array of dolls (for use as presents and for sale) and genealogy: she wants to know a bit more about the story of her family, and whether her mother’s family from the English Western borderlands, the Angells, was really originally Welsh (turns out they are 16th century Italian immigrants, del Angelli.)

She needs my side of the family to complete the tree she is building. There is no problem on my father’s side – thanks to two cousins and an uncle sharing their research, we have almost full details back to 1750 on my Dad’s mother’s side, 1685 on his father’s. Later, Number 2 daughter gets the Ancestry bug and fills in the missing bits.

But we have almost nothing on my mother’s side. Obviously, we can work out her siblings and their children; we know her parent’s names but little else. Mum sends me a copy of her mum’s birth registration and from that we get her mother and father’s names, and that she was born in Rennes, in the Ille-et-Vilaine department, Upper Brittany. She has no idea who Stefan’s parents were.

I turn to the internet, and some ancestry discussion groups. Nothing much on Kamellard that I don’t already know. The I get an email from someone in the USA, Norbert Stevens, who has kindly done some digging for me and found several documents relating to Stefan. Norbert must have worked quite hard on finding them, for Stefan appears under a number of guises.

Here’s what he found:

  • There are multiple crew passage records for Stefan Kamellard on board the S.S. Majestic and Stephen Kammelard on the S.S. Leviathan, most for passages from Southampton to New York, and he is working as a kitchen clerk. They start on May 16, 1922 and end on May 19, 1924. He jumped ship in Boston on his last voyage and disappeared for all practical purposes until….
  • There is a 1930 U.S. census record for a Stephen Kamellar living in New York. His country of birth is given as France, but his date of birth is the same as Stefan’s. He is living with his wife (!) Elaine, born in England, who is 14 years younger than him. He works as a cashier in a restaurant, she as an attendant in a studio. They have no children.
  • In 1942 a WW II Draft Registration Card is issued to Stephen Kamelhard/Kamellar, born in Warsaw. At that time, he is living with his wife Elaine on West 140th Street in New York and is employed as a cashier at the Banker’s Club on Broadway. His telephone number is AU3-0699, but don’t call, it’s disconnected!
  • Finally, there are Social Security death indexes for both Stephen and Elaine Kamellar. Stephen died in July 1964, Elaine in December 1989, both in New York.

So, my grandfather was a bigamist – he never divorced my grandmother – and after he jumped ship, he seems to have found a settled life in New York. Between 1920 and 1964 he uses two different variants of his first name – Stefan and Stephen – and four different variants of his surname – Kamellard, Kamelhard, Kammelard and Kamellar. Of course, it is entirely possible that none of this is down to Stefan. Everything I found was in another’s hand, an official, list making, permit granting, fact recording hand. And we all know what mincemeat officials can make when transliterating names from one language to another, one naming system to another.

He does not appear to have had any more children and when I search on the internet, I find some people called Kamellard, but they’re all, like me, descended from Marguerite and Stefan. No one called Kamelhard or Kammelard turns up but I find some Kamellars but they have no connection with Stefan.

And there the matter rested … until Brexit!

[TO BE CONTINUED!]

A Nice Dilemma (Part 2)

In the first part of this post, I told you that my friend and sponsor, Jeremy, although Jamaican, a descendant of many national strands, felt a strong secondary attachment to his Scottish roots. That he was opposed to all forms of nationalism, which he felt were dangerous. That he felt conflicted about the Scottish Independence Referendum.

So now, at last, we come to the nature of his conflict.

Despite his feelings about nationalism, when it comes to Scotland, he finds himself deeply nationalistic.

“In the sixties,” he told me, “I was friendly with the Scottish journalist Bill Carrocher who claimed to have once edited the Rhum Muck & Eigg Times, but I doubt it ever existed. However, the BBC local radio in Gaelic for the Highland and Islands certainly did exist and Bill was its first manager. When I met him he worked for the Foreign Office and, would, after a few drams, most undiplomatically and loudly say ‘What I look forward to, is becoming Scotland’s first Ambassador to the Court of St James!'”

Bill was a very funny man and a great story teller, so at first Jeremy thought he was joking. Probing a little, however, revealed a serious thinker about the place of Scotland in the world and its need, as he saw it, to stand apart from the rest of the UK as an independent nation. Remember, this was before the arrival of oil wealth and the ravages of M. Thatcher on the Scottish social services and its industrial economy. Bill’s thinking was not a reaction to the devastation of Scotland wrought by London, but a thought through nationalism based on a long view of Scottish, and of English, history. “He made a very convincing case for Scottish nationalism.” Jeremy says. “My grandparents would have bought it. I nearly did, but in the end I held back, partly because of my mistrust of nationalist causes.”

Bill lived to see devolution and a resurgent Scottish Parliament, and was he alive today he would be out on the hustings pushing the Yes case with all his eloquence.

Part of Jeremy’s problem back then, and even now, was that, and still is that, other than the distrust of nationalism, any argument based on a long view of Scottish history, and it relationship to English history, is certain to be unreliable. Unreliable because that history itself is unreliable. The incompleteness of its sources; the partisan divisions of the peoples it records; the conflicts of ethnicity and language and culture and class and religion: all contribute to an absence of consensus even among Scots as to what happened and why it happened and what the true consequences were. “This worries me,” Jeremy has written, “for in my view a people who do not have a largely shared view of their history cannot have a largely shared identity.”

It is true that out of the devastation of the Thatcher years, a sort of Scottish identity seems to have emerged to which most Scots can subscribe. But Jeremy feels it is an identity based on a mythical Scottishness, one that papers over the cracks rather than repairing them. It is an identity born out of a reaction to English callousness, but does it have utility in a devolved or independent Scotland? He thinks not.

So, here is his conflict in a nutshell. His heart hopes for an independent Scotland. But his head tells him that there must be reasons stronger than just nationalism to occasion this constitutional rearrangement.

What could those be?

Well, firstly, a more reliable account of Scottishness than the kilts and haggis and peat fire mythology currently on offer. An account of Scotland and Scottishness which recognises the fault lines in the communities and offers a path to repairing them.

Secondly, a vision of what an Independent Scotland will be. It’s the same as the Polish Question at the start: Scotland, yes – but what sort of Scotland? Jeremy thinks that in the campaign so far, this question has not been addressed by the Yes campaign. It seems beyond the First Minister to rise above bully-boy posturing over the pound, or EU membership, or Anglo-bashing, to provide us with a comprehensive, solid vision of what an Independent Scotland will be like to live in, to be the neighbour of, and to encounter in the wider world.

Jeremy doesn’t have a vote in the Referendum. Even so, he is conflicted. While he wants Scotland to be independent, and would want to vote ‘Yes’; based on the uncertain prospectus the Scots Nats are promoting, his common sense would insist he vote ‘No’.

For Jeremy’s greatest fear is, that on the night of the referendum, when a resounding ‘Yes’ vote has rolled in, Alex Salmond, standing on the podium acknowledging the cheering crowds, will turn to his deputy, and echoing the words of the Robert Redford character in The Candidate, say: “What the f**k do we do now?”

A Nice Dilemma (Part 1)

The bus party, a dozen or so of us, writers and musicians, had decided not to urge one particular answer to the biggest question, the one on the referendum ballot for 18 September: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ We preferred the question-slogan of the Poles during their 123-year struggle to regain independence: ‘Poland yes – but what sort of Poland?’

(Neal Ascherson: ‘What sort of Scotland?’ London Review of Books, 21 August 2014)

Scotland votes in less than a month, and my friend Jeremy is conflicted.

“But what has it got to do with him?” you ask, “I thought he was Jamaican? What does he care about Scotland and how it votes?”

You are right to ask, of course, and it probably has nothing to do with him; but still he is conflicted. Let me explain.

It’s all about ancestry, his ancestry in particular, and that is  complicated. The least complicated is his mother’s side. Although she lived most of her life in London, she was fundamentally French. She had a Breton mother, ‘Granny Poulard’, and her father was born in Poland, Warsaw probably, but naturalised French before he was out of infancy, a Parisian. What Perigordian neighbours would call un étranger. His family may have been Christianised Jews, or maybe not. It is not important. One will never know anyway, for he abandoned Granny Poulard and jumped ship to New York and a bigamous second marriage when Jeremy’s mother was a baby.

His, Jeremy’s, Dad is where it gets complicated. On his Dad’s side is a long line of Franco-Scottish Calvinists – South-Western Huguenots, who fled to England. Silk producers and merchants, they moved further and further north, almost to the borders, where they could be in easy reach of other Calvinists, lowland Scots Presbyterians, for trade, and for marriage if an appropriate Huguenot lady wasn’t available. And they didn’t limit themselves to lowlanders. Jeremy’s Dad’s grandma was a Miss Jopp from Aberdeen.

Jeremy’s Dad’s mother, Mother Granny her grandchildren called her, was a creole from Belize. Wikipedia says of Belize Creoles that they are “Creole descendants of Black African slaves brought to Belize, and English and Scottish log cutters, who were known as the Baymen. Over the years there has also been intermarriage with Miskito from Nicaragua, Jamaicans, other West Indians, Mestizos, and East Indians, who were brought to Belize as indentured labourers. These varied peoples have all mixed to create this ethnic group.

Mother Granny, I know for certain, was descended from four Scottish Baymen (two McDonalds, an Erskine and an Armstrong), two black free-women, former slaves who arrived in St George’s Keye before 1750 from Jamaica, and a Miskito lady. Family legend has it that she was a princess from Honduras. But that’s a story for another day. Mother Granny’s real name was Lena Isabel McDonald and she was a pianist by trade.

Most people grow up with a single clear national identity. An Englishman feels proud of being English, a Frenchman is certain that there is no other identity worth having. But for Jamaicans, probably for all Caribbeans , there are almost always two national identities making up their character: one strong, the other weak. The strong is where they are born or grew up. In Jeremy’s case it is, naturally, Jamaican. The weak is one of the places their ancestors came from. Sometimes they can pinpoint the place – such and such a county in England, Hong Kong, Canton province, the Lebanon, Ghana, Uttar Pradesh. Sometimes it’s vague, as much as a whole continent or entire region – West Africa, Asia, The sub-Continent, Europe.

So Jeremy grew up strongly Jamaican – he describes it as “my first and essential identity.” He once said he would not give it up, even though its passport will only admit him visa-less to one country, Jamaica. And I believe him. “As a teenager,” he says, “I was a passionate nationalist, a staunch supporter of Jamaican independence and I danced a joyous jig as the new Jamaican flag rose above the National Stadium, wet and limp in the rain, on the first Independence Day in 1962.”

But his second, weaker, identity, selected from the rich pot purri of options available, is Scots. No, not French as you might expect. At home when growing up, both his greadparents talked about Scotland as home, although neither had spent as much as two weeks in the country. Their sense of an ancient loyalty was the inheritance they left him and with it a certain Scottish nationalism which spoke of an independent Scotland but without expecting it to come about.

As an adult, Jeremy rapidly outgrew nationalism, as he saw the harm it could, and most often did, do in the world. He came to distrust all forms of nationalism. “I embrace a sort of casual internationalism.” he told me the other day. “I believed, and still believe, that we need to see all countries and nations and communities for what they are, not for what they pretend to be. I believe this is as true for the nations or countries or communities we love as it is for the ones we fear or distrust. Nationalism blinds us to the faults in ourselves and to the virtues in the other.”

“Yes, yes,” you say tetchily, “but what has this got to do with him being conflicted about the Scottish referendum?” Well, I was coming to that, but I think you have had enough for today. I promise that I will explain all next time in A Nice Dilemma (Part 2).