18 February 2011


     Many times after my presentations, fellow family historians relate stories of how they became interested in genealogy. Quite a few researchers have told me that they turned to the family history because they never felt as if they "fit in" with their nuclear or extended families. Many have told me that they felt odd and out of place in the family tree until they discovered their ancestors' stories.
     Very often, people seek to find an ancestor with whom they can feel a sense of kinship. From the conversations I have had, many people have found that they share a trait or occupation in common with an ancestor--traveling around the world, painting, killing people for a living.
     No, I am not testing to see if you are paying close attenion! I just finshed a novel written by a man whose family tree includes a long line of official executioners. The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch is a murder mystery set in Bavaria in the 1600's. The protagonist is a village executioner, who also functions as official torturer. This character is drawn with great empathy by the author, who draws the reader into the hangman's world without being off-putting (the blood and gore factor is handled delicately).The plot is intriguing and entertaining (take note, fellow lovers of historical murder mysteries), but what surprised me at the end was the author's motivation for writing the book. Potzsch hails from a line of Bavarian hangmen, the Kuisl family. He wrote the book because the history of his family intrigued him. He states in his postscript that learning about his family's history imparted "a feeling of belonging, as if a large community had taken me under its wing." This sense of belonging pervades the novel.
     What I admire about Potzsch is that he loves his family stories, however macabre. He is not afraid to acknowledge that his family traits include clawlike fingernails and "tear-jerking sentimentality and sometimes brutality."
      "Altogether not exactly a sympathetic picture" he writes, "but then you can't choose your family..."
     Potzsch, in his postscript, also muses about our reasons for pursuing genealogy::
     "In the past few years, genealogical research has become increasingly popular. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that we are trying, in a world of increasing complexity, to create a simpler and more understandable place for ourselves. No longer do we grow up in large families. We feel increasingly estranged, replaceable, and ephemeral. Genealogy gives us a feeling of immortality. The individual dies; the family lives on."
     Agree? Disagree? Why are you "hooked" on genealogy?
P.S. Irish researchers, don't forget to check my posting dated 17th February for an update on the future release of the 1926 census.