Monday, August 30, 2010

Amenuensis Monday

I've been steadily working on Lodewijk Wesselo's letters. Currently I'm working on the letters he wrote during World War 2. In the beginning of the war he's still writing letters to his brother and sister-in-law in the Dutch East Indies, but later on the letters are to his brother in Voorschoten, Zuid-Holland, the Netherlands.

The most impressive letter is the one in which he details the bombardment of Rotterdam in 1940. It's like being there. Amazing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

When an Archive Is Nothing More Than a Pile of Boxes

Archives are wonderful. The people there are (almost) always helpful, willing to point you in the right direction, asnwering questions and searching endlessly for something you know has to be there, but can't find. So, like I said, archives are wonderful.

Except when they aren't. Except when an archive is just a fancy name for a pile of boxes with papers in them, where even the people working there have no clue what's in the archives. When the answer to every question you ask is: ask someone else. When they don't even have an archivist, just a bunch of people behind computers dealing with modern day generated paperwork who just happen to answer the phone if you call the archive.

Can you tell I'm frustrated? To go to this archive, I need to make an appointment and I need to know what to look for, as searching 128 meters of archive is simply undoable without a clue, yet they can't tell me what they have, even globally!

Sigh. I guess I'll go to the town historicus, who thankfully lives two houses down from me. After all, he's the one the people at the archive go to if they need to find something!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Another Piece of the Migration Puzzle

I’ve been working on the Knura family migration for awhile. They migrated from Germany to the Netherlands. My grandfather came over in the 1930’s and I speculated on his reasons in my post Immigration Speculation. I also reconstructed the migration of the entire Knura family. My grandfather’s brothers came and went, their reasons were simple, they came here for a long or a short while to work then returned home.

But what surprised me was that it weren’t the Knura men who came here first. It were two Knura sisters, Anna and Maria, who arrived here sometime before 1925. I couldn’t figure out why two young, unmarried women came to a foreign country. Until I discovered a new website devoted to migration to and from the Netherlands.

Between 1920 and 1940 thousands of German women came to the Netherlands to work as servants in Dutch homes. Some of them eventually went back to Germany, like Maria. Others fell in love and married Dutch men and stayed for the rest of their lives, like Anna.

This site has given me another piece of the migration puzzle that is presented to me by the Knura family. It even gives lists of resources about the subject. There’s a whole book devoted to this subject and I got it through Interlibrary Loan. Hopefully it will give me some ideas as to where to search for Anna and Maria’s entry into the country. For now, I am glad I have at least a partial answer as to what brought these two women to this country.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Limits of Online Research – A Case File

For the 97th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, the assignment was to put 3-5 hours of online genealogy research into a family line of a friend or co-worker. Something nobody had ever worked on before. I’ve always found it fun to just see where online databases take me, so I was excited about this theme!

However, very quickly into my journey I realized that I wasn’t so much discovering the ancestors of my friend, I was seeing in practice the limits that exist when one does their genealogy research online. Come join me on my journey and I’ll show you what walls I bumped into!

The Beginning


My research started with the bare minimum of facts. I had the name of my starting person, let’s call him ‘Jan’ and when he’d died. I also knew his wife ‘Nelie’ had died after him, date unknown. I planned to see how far back I could fill in the family tree with the basic facts: birth, marriage and death.

My research started off pretty well. On the site of the Regional Archive Leiden I found the birth certificate, marriage certificate and death certificate of Jan. There were no scanned images for me to look at, but the index of the marriage certificate mentioned their ages and birth place, as well as the names of their parents.

Wall Number One

Hoping to find something on Jan’s parents, I searched for them in the database. I found their marriage certificate, but the index didn’t mention anything besides the place and date of the marriage, and of course their names. No image was available. I’d hit a dead end on Jan’s father. With no further data, as I couldn’t find his birth or his death certificate, I couldn’t go any further back. I had no way to find his parents.

This was the first wall I encountered. Had I ordered the copy of the marriage certificate, I would have found more data. His age and birthplace would’ve been listed, and most likely his parent’s names. But since it wasn’t in the index on the site and I couldn’t access the images online, I was stuck.

For Jan’s mother I was a little more lucky. I did find her birth and death certificate, but once again the index didn’t say anything about her parents and the images weren’t available online. I couldn’t go any further back unless I ordered a copy of the certificates I had found.

More Luck With Nelie?

From the marriage certificate of Jan and Nelie, I had found out Nelie’s age and birthplace, so I decided to see if I would have more luck tracing her ancestors. For this I had to go to a different online archive, the Green Hart Archives. This archive does not have any digital images, but it has a different index, so I was hopeful.

I quickly located Nelie’s birth certificate, which mentioned her parent’s names and the age of her father. With this information I found the marriage certificate of her parent’s Klaas and Antje, and the birth certificate of Klaas. No death certificates were located for either of them. I couldn’t find Antje’s birth certificate, but from the information on her marriage certificate I do know her approximate birth year, her birthplace and her parent’s name.

Wall Number Two

I decided to research the parents of Klaas first. I found their marriage certificate, which gave me their birthplaces, approximate birth years, names of their parents and birthplaces of their parents. This is where the trail ends for this line. No more certificates were to be found.

For Antje’s parents, it was almost the same. I did find their birth certificates, along with their marriage certificate. But the information on their parents was the same.

The problem? The certificates I needed had not yet been indexed on the site! All of the missing certificates were ones that hadn’t been indexed yet. So while the index was superb, it couldn’t tell me about certificates that hadn’t been indexed yet!

To find this information, I would have to take a physical trip to the archive that holds these certificates. There I would have to locate the microfiches and search them for the certificates I want.

The Lesson I Learned

All in all, this was a very practical lesson in the limitations of online genealogy. The two walls I encountered are the ones that are exactly why a lot of genealogists don’t put much stock in online research except as a nice starting point.

One: no online images means you get are totally reliant on what the index on the site says, which is woefully little most times!

Two: you cannot find online what hasn’t been indexed yet!


A lot of pro-internet genealogists admit that secondary sources are often not found online. But this enlightening trip through the online indexes has left me with one thing in mind. There are a lot, and I do mean a lot, of primary sources not yet online as well. Not to mention that from the sources that are online, a lot of information is missed out on if you just take what the index on the site says instead of looking at the actual certificate.

As for me? I love spending the whole day in an archive. Internet is wonderful for contacts and sharing with the world, but for my research the old way is truly best.

Amenuensis Monday - Lodewijk's Jewelry Store During World War One

Besides a lot of letters, Lodewijk Wesselo also wrote a brief autobiogrpahy (2 pages). In it, he describes his career, among other things. He tells briefly about the time he was the manager of a store in Middelburg during the period 1912-1920. He sold jewelry and objects made of precious metals like gold and silver. He wrote about this store: "thanks to the First World War, the business florished."

I found this to be a rather strange statement. To my knowledge, the Dutch economy took a heavy hit during the First World War. The Netherlands were neutral, which made all countries that were at war hesitant to trade with the Netherlands, afraid as they were that the goods they exported to the Netherlands would fall into enemy hands. Since the Dutch economy is heavily dependant on import and export, it took a heavy blow. Even later on, when trading with the countries like England resumed, it was under heavy restrictions to prevent anything valuable from falling into German hands.

So how could a high ends good store do so well? Base materials to make the products were almost impossible to get during World War Two, and I expected it to be the same during the First World War. Not to mention that many people wouldn't have had the money to buy anything on offer in the store.

I asked for clarification on this issue on a Dutch forum devoted to the First World War.

The first part of the answer came from one reply. During the First World War, there were a lot of Belgian refugees that came to the Netherlands. This person suggested that the Belgian refugees were perhaps selling their valuables to get some form of income. Since Middelburg is close to the Belgian border, it's very possible this was happening.

The second part of the answer came from someone else, and was in hindsight so obvious I should've thought of it myself. His reply to my query was that in times of crisis, people invested in valuables like gold because the value of that is much more stable than the value of money. So there we had the sales part.

Lastly, one of the moderators gave me the link to a book with several essays about the economy in the Netherlands during the First World War, which was an interesting and enlightening read.

So my thanks go out to the lovely people who responded so very quickly to my question. I learned a lot!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Number Mystery - Not Solved Yet...

In my last Amenuensis Monday post, I wrote about the letter/number code Lodewijk Wesselo used in his letters. I asked on some genealogy forums for help, since I couldn't figure out what the code was.

I recieved some helpful answers. Someone suggested that it was the Medieval Roman numerals system. It nearly fit, but not completely. Some of the numbers don't add up and Lodewijk used a letter that's not in that system. So no luck there. Unles of course I used the system wrong, which is entirely possible.

Someone else though, provided me with some historical background information that might shed some light on why he was using a code. Here's what she said:

Many history-making events took place in the Netherlands around this time in both financial and illicit trade areas. Maybe your ancestor wished to separate himself from all the scandal by not making his figures available to just anyone?

He did use the code during the 20's, and also in letters sent during World War 2, where discretion also had its place. And besides that, from what I've been able to glean from his character by reading his letters, he was a very discreet and conservative man when it came to money matters.

I might not ever crack his code, but at least I have a reasonable explanation as to why he used one in the first place!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rewarding Myself

On Thursday I spent half a day at the CBG Archive, transcribing the last of the letters written by Lodewijk Wesselo. I now have to type them out on my computer and input the information contained in them into my genealogy program. It's a sometimes tedious job and very labour intensive. What starts out as fun quickly grows less fun as you work hour after hour, with only three or four letters to show for it at the end.

The situation seems even more daunting when you realize that out of the 12 children there are, Lodewijk is only the first one you've done this for. That means there are 11 more children to go!

But I've found a way of rewarding myself. I've given myself permission to write Lodewijk's biography after I've transcribed and inputted all of the data about him. Yes, it's probably better to wait until after I've gone through the whole Wesselo archive, but seeing as there are 6 boxes, that could take a while.

I've got most of the information, and I don't think there are any surprises waiting for me about Lodewijk when I go through the information on his siblings and parents. Maybe some clarifications, yes, but no real surprises.

So, tomorrow I'll do the last of the letters. And then I am free to write, which I love to do. Turning his life into a story that can be read by my family, combining my love for writing and genealogy. That's my ultimate goal. And I've put the entire Monday aside for that. Lucky me!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Amenuensis Monday: Letters From Lodewijk Wesselo - Part I

I have been busy these past few days with transcribing seven letters written by Lodewijk Wesselo to his brother Willem Lodewijk Wesselo and his wife Wilhelmina Kwak. There's also a telegram which is part of this correspondence, giving the message that their mother, Alida Petronella van Grasstek, had died. They were written while Willem and his wife were in the Dutch East-Indies, where Willem was working as a manager for the same firm as Lodewijk himself was.

All of the letters, save one, was handwritten and as such sometimes there were indecipherable words. Not even so much because of the handwriting, I've gotten to be quite proficient at reading that, but because the ink is sometimes so faded it's just not legible anymore. But then again, the letters are all from 1925, which is 85 years ago.

Most of the letters follow a general pattern, there's some family news, news about business and some general gossip of friends and acquintances. But there are three exceptions. They are the last three letters and detail the death and funeral of Alida Petronella van Grasstek. It's a blow-by-blow account of this time and I could see everything in my mind. It was as if I were there. It's an invaluable account and I am very, very happy to have it.

Number code mystery, please help!

There is, however, one mystery. In almost every letter he writes about his business. But he doesn't write out the numbers of the profits he makes, instead he uses some sort of code. It's not Roman numbers and it's not just a letter for number substitution (like a=1, b=2). I am hoping some of you might have an idea?

Some background: Lodewijk is manager of a store for jewelry, and objects of gold, silver and other precious metals. The profits are quite high, one number he does write out in normal numbers is in his letter from 15 March 1925, where he says: "No business news, today I've already passed 25 thousand." The only other time is in the piece below.

The bit where he's written his profits in code is in a letter dated 7 March 1925:

"Nevertheless, sales are good. Februari ƒ iij,- and in total these first two months ƒ ijnhh,- higher than in '24. This week is especially good. I sold stuff for 6 thousand over the counter and on order 3 necklaces and 5 tie pins, total ƒ ihnhh,-."

A little later, he says:

"This afternoon, I was in Den Haag for business, where I had the last laugh. Their turnover last week was ƒ ouhh,- and mine was ƒ zehh,-."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Talking With My Grandmother

When I started my genealogy research, there were several surprises waiting for me. One of them was the fact that my grandmother had three brothers. I knew of one brother, Great-Uncle J., but not of the other two. Further research showed me they both died during World War II.

My grandmother never talked about them and since I had no idea what exactly had happened, I was hesitant to ask about it. But a few weeks back, I was walking her home from the restaurant we’d eaten dinner at and we came upon an antique shop. There were several silver photograph frames in the window and my grandmother pointed to one of them that held an old photo of a group of children. She said that the boy dressed in a sailor suit looked a bit like her brother. I grabbed the opportunity and asked her: “you had three, didn’t you?”

She not only answered affirmatively, but the story of their deaths came forth. Her sister’s M.’s husband (then just boyfriend, if I understood my grandmother correctly) had contracted tuberculosis and infected the family. Her sister M., her sister J. and her three brothers all came down with the disease. And while her sisters and brother J. recovered, the other two succumbed to it, one dying a few years before the other, but both dying of this disease.

Another mystery solved, another story uncovered.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Unscheduled Hiatus

As you have probably noticed, there was an unscheduled hiatus in my posting here. I was pretty ill, so my research had to be put on hold for the moment. I am feeling better now, even though my health isn't where it's supposed to be yet. However, I am taking a holiday first, to the beautiful city Rome. Regular posting will begin again next week when I'll be back!