By now it was night, and the full moon was high, bathing Lanquais in a silvery glow. I poured another Appleton and Canada Dry Ginger, and my friend Jeremy continued with the story of his search for his Russian grandfather.
“So, where was I? Oh yes.”
In May 1924, Stefan, my grandfather, runs away to America, leaving Marguerite, my grandmother, a French immigrant in London, to bring up four children on her own. He settles down in New York, bigamously marries a younger woman, to whom he stays married until he dies in 1964. He is registered for the draft in 1942, although, at this point, he is 57 years old. He seems to work in catering establishments up to the year of his death. And that’s as much as I can discover about his life after Marguerite.
But what about the first 40 years or so. Other than the scraps I picked up from my mother and her tight-lipped brothers and sister, precious little. A name and a birthplace; some vague hints of a connection with France, particularly with Paris, involvement with the British Army in the 1914-18 War; raw records of his brief life at sea, abscondment. Oh, and he was definitely not Jewish, my mother made that up! And that’s about it.
And it remained ‘just about it’, until that particularly English (with some help from the Welsh) masochistic, self-destructive, insanity: Brexit.
Brexit: an ugly word for an ugly reality! An act of stupidity so patently not in the interest of anyone except perhaps a wealthy hedge fund operator, that even now, nearly three years after the referendum that approved it, it takes your breath away. It sucks the life out of its victims, the sense out of informed debate, the joy out of life.
But, not even Brexit has no upside. For thanks to Brexit, I have found a treasure trove that takes me tantalisingly close to filling in many of the missing bits of the story of my Polish, or maybe Russian, grandfather, Stefan Kamellard. Here’s how it happened.
As the British Government negotiated its divorce agreement with the EU, and as time went by, it became clearer each day that the UK was using its citizens who had made their lives in the other EU countries as bargaining chips. With no input from us – we had no vote in the referendum – we were pawns in the great game. But all would be well. Hadn’t David Davis, the UK negotiator-in-chief, assured us before the referendum that this would be the easiest negotiation in history, that we held all the cards, that we would ‘have our cake and eat it’? Or was it Boris? or Nigel? or Michael? or Liam? – doesn’t matter, whoever it was, they knew what they were talking about, don’t they. Mrs V and I’d be OK, we’d even come out of this with our rights enhanced!
Turns out this wasn’t quite 100% true. In fact, it wasn’t even 10% true. As the weeks went by, one by one our rights as British residents of the EU after Brexit, became less than they were before: restricted and constrained; dependent on the kindness and goodwill of our neighbours, something we have little reason to doubt; heavily dependent on the willingness of our own government to protect our interests, something it would be stupid to rely on.
Of course, we were not without a Plan B. As it happens, unlike Mrs May and her happy band of ‘No Plan B’ Brexiteers, we had more than one, some more attractive than others. One of them, favoured by Mrs V, involved having a foot in both camps, living part of the time in the EU, part of the time in the UK. We started to make this happen.
Then I found myself alone. I have enjoyed my life in France, and, all things being equal, am happy to stay here forever. There was a Plan B that allowed me to achieve this: I have many French ancestors on both sides of my family, so just become a French citizen by naturalisation, and retain most of the rights the UK was happy to give away.
So, I began the process. And what a process! Mountains of paper are needed. Certificates of all sorts, officially verified, and, if not originally in French, officially translated into French by an official French translator. Proof of good character, from our local Maire, also the Gendarmerie, maybe even le Brigade nationale de répression de la délinquance fiscalel (the police fiscale, tax police to you and me!).
Add to that a minimum of 5 years’ worth of tax returns, tax assessments, tax receipts; 5 years’ worth of monthly, bi-monthly and quarterly utility bills to prove continuous residence in France; proof of regular monthly income; and more. You see, a mountain of paper.
Also, I must not forget two passport-sized photographs, my passport, my birth certificate, the birth certificates of my mother and of my father, and, “where applicable”, their marriage certificate. And it’s in getting hold of this last object that I discovered Stefan!
I wasn’t certain where my mother was born, we’d always thought Paris. But I knew she was married in London, in 1939. I went online to the UK National Archive and searched for her marriage paper. Sure enough, up it popped – Jacqueline Andrée Kamellard married Robert Godwin Verity on 4th August 1939 at the Registry Office, Willesden. I ordered a copy.
Then I did a search for her among the births but didn’t find her. I found nothing at all for Kamellard between 1900 and 1920. Must have been born outside the UK then. I contacted my sister, who found a copy of Mum’s birth certificate in her attic. She sent me a rather fuzzy scan of it, and, surprisingly it was a UK birth certificate, date of birth: November 1918, place of birth: Queen Charlotte Hospital, London. So why didn’t it turn up when I searched the National Archive? I got out the magnifying glass and had a closer look at the fuzzy scan. After quite some minutes study I found it: my mother’s name at birth was Jacqueline Andrée KAMELHARD, not KAMELLARD!
Back to the National Archive, and now a search for Kamelhard between 1900 and 1920 yielded a treasure trove of Kamelhard documents:
- Mum’s birth certificate
- Her sister Maud and brother Jacques’ birth certificate
- The War Office record card for Corporal Stefan Kamelhard (1916-1920)
- The naturalisation dossier for Stefan Kamelhard and his son, Gustav Paul (1918)
I ordered the lot and waited impatiently for the National Archive copying service to do their work and get them to me. And, in the middle of March, the package arrived. I opened and read it all, and got to know so much more about, Stefan, my Russian Grandfather.
And now if you’ll fix me another Appelton and Canada Dry, I’ll let you see the dossier!
[TO BE CONCLUDED!]