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Family Secrets

By Oletta Branstiter

I tell my students that books that have been written by strangers often reveal more about you than you ever thought you wanted to know. They may uncover family secrets. Then I tell them what I’ve learned about my own family history.

My ancestor may have started World War I. It’s complicated.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, declared war in retaliation for the assassination of his good friend Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Wilhelm and his allies lost the war and Germany took control of the kingdom after the Prussian king realized his failure, abdicated his throne and fled to the Netherlands. A sad story, really.

But it wouldn’t be a story worth telling without a bit of mystery! According to a meticulously researched book titled The Secret of the Sierra Madre, The Man Who Was B. Traven, by Will Wyatt, the Kaiser had an illegitimate son, Herman Albert Otto Maximilian Feige. After WWI, Feige began publishing a periodical in Germany finding fault with the new rulers. Talk about living dangerously!

When the government decided to arrest him, Feige changed his name, fled to Great Britain and, eventually to Mexico, living his entire life in fear that he would be extradited to Germany to face the consequences of his political crimes.

In Mexico, Feige, calling himself B. Traven, began writing popular books and movie scripts, including the very successful movie titled The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His widow finally revealed the secret of his true identity after his death in 1969. 

Traven may have been the distant cousin of my paternal grandmother, Mabel Amanda Feige.

My family story may also involve tragedy.

In 2011, I downloaded a free historical novel to my Kindle. It was Heidegger’s Glasses, by Thaisa Frank. I confess I don’t remember much about the plot except for a fictional character by the name of Engelhart. Frank invented Engelhart as the optometrist of German philosopher Martin Heidegger during the reign of Hitler. Dr. Engelhart died in a Nazi gas chamber.

Engelhart is my maiden name.

Although I’m a Christian, I spent six years volunteering at a Jewish Senior program in local synagogues. I’ve taken classes in Judaism. I’m familiar with Yad Vashem, the museum in Israel that keeps records of victims of the Holocaust. If the author did her homework, the name Engelhart wasn’t chosen randomly.

I accessed the link for the names of those murdered by the Nazi regime. I found the pages starting with E. After the fifth page of Engelharts I felt a tear running down my cheek and I stopped scrolling.

I asked my father if he knew if our family had any Jewish roots. He was unaware of any Jewish ancestry in our family, but it was not uncommon for Jews to convert or pretend to be Christians to escape persecution.

Engelhart became an uncommon name after WWII. I suspect it was because so many were incinerated.

The name Engelhart means Strong Angel.

So, I may be related to the King of Prussia and I may be Jewish. Life is a journey of discovery. Definitive answers are optional.

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1 Comment on Family Secrets

  1. Doug ( // March 9, 2017 at 2:52 am // Reply

    I read every word. A truly interesting story. I have to think one of your many feelings about being connected to WW1 and especially the Holocaust is the sudden immense weight placed upon you for being a descendant of so many with your name who were participants in history, victimized because of it. I hope you’ve been able to place that in an emotional balance through the years.

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