Friday, July 8, 2011

Melting Pots Old and New

Back in the (mercifully brief) Nazi days in Hungary, all people employed by the state—beginning, I suppose, with a certain rank—had to present proof-positive using birth registry extracts, three generations back, that they had no Jewish blood. That gave the country’s registrars a bit of a work-out. By happenstance all of the papers my family had to file (my father being an officer in the army) eventually ended up in my hands. They filled a rather large box and turned out to be a treasure showing the lineage of my family. Some of these records were carefully notarized extracts from church registries—and in the earliest of these records I recognized no name at all. My father, of course, had to account for his wife as well: an officer married to a Jewess could not be trusted to be reliable. Therefore more than forty birth certificates were in this archive. Twenty-eight would have satisfied the strict requirements, but some of the people (like my grandfather) had married twice, and under the rules subsequent spouses, even if their “blood” had not entered the stream, had to be accounted for—presumably because their ideas and influence could nevertheless corrupt the succeeding generations. Insanity is not something we’ve invented recently.

But my topic is melting pots, not collective aberrations. These record showed that a phenomenon we associate with America is and has been alive and well in Europe—and everywhere else, for that matter, as far back as memory can be traced. My family originated in the Duchy of Württemberg in the southwestern part of Germany. My forebears, called Dorner, were immigrants to the Austrian Empire, which then encompassed Hungary. This happened sometime in the nineteenth century. They were enticed by incentives. Austria was attempting to attract industry, and we were in the iron business (foundries and the like)—indeed, parts of my family still were, even in my day, although the rich part of the family had long since diversified into all kinds of other businesses as well.

Now what I found fascinating, studying the deposit of documents from the bad-old Nazi days, was how persistently my family, extending backwards, had always and only married into other German families. Every name was German until the twentieth century. The family was evidently too wealthy to mingle with the lower orders of the native population—but not rich enough to marry into the nobility. That finally happened when my great-grandfather married into a genuinely Hungarian family—not in trade, they, no! Landed aristocracy—to be sure of the lower sort. But they were the real thing: lots and lots of land and going back lots of generations too! And my father, in turn, married a woman who came from a Slavic line (Gluzek, they were called—but renamed themselves Gyulafia (“Son of Gyula”) to erase the Slavic traces as Nationalism rose but before it married Socialism). That line had reached prominence through the professions—and a great uncle of mine, the towering figure in that family, had had charge of all psychiatric hospitals in a country unapologetically operating a centralized, state-run medical system.

Melting pots all over the place—just less obviously visible. And here I hasten to note that Brigitte’s family has an identical history, different only in minor details. Her family had settled in Poland, attracted there by Poland’s own desire for industry. And the industry was textiles, not iron. Her family’s was a somewhat later exodus. Like Swedish Finns, they didn’t speak Polish much—whereas my family, longer in residence, spoke Hungarian. They too were all expanding by marrying into other German families, also all resident in Poland. But had mayhem and war not unpleasantly intruded, and thus caused some more bubbling in that pot, Brigitte might have ended up marrying a stalwart Polish duke rather than me.

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