Editor’s note: Sometimes that’s how these things work –Â Jerome Simpson liked something leipglo-related as his Facebook page, I clicked on his page name, read through it and his Web site, and became intrigued with his project. It’s described on his site asÂ Â “‘WandervĂ¶gel: A Prussian Familyâs Passage Through Leipzigâ… a historical study now being researched and written…Â on seven generations of migration. It [includes] a 22 page historic guide to the city and also reflects on mobility matters.” To discover the cast of characters, you’ll have to read at the source. But I wanted Jerome to tell us a bit about the backstory to his project here. What set him on his Leipzig-related historical and genealogical quest? Here’s our Q&A with the author and researcher…Â
Q: Jerome, thanks a lot for chatting! Could you tell us a little bit about your background (i.e. are you a historian?) and where you’re based?
A: Iâve been working in Hungary since 1994 as a project manager at an international non-profitÂ organisation called The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. I mostly workÂ on urban mobility issues. Iâm neither an environmentalist nor a historian by background but I trainedÂ as a knowledge manager, which back in the day was better known as a librarian/archivist. So theÂ difference between managing and presenting historical data is not that great from my perspective!
Q: Could you summarize your historical project?
A: I wanted to understand where I came from and what made me who I am. Actually, I was inspired byÂ Thomas Mellon, a 19th century Irish emigrant to the US who wrote: âIf you would know yourself,Â begin with the study of your forefathers.â So after grabbing my grandmotherâs attention for aÂ moment at her 80th birthday (I was only 16 at the time) once sheâd mentioned she was born inÂ Leipzig and that her father was from what today is Poland, I was hooked. We shouldnât forget, atÂ that time, 1987, both locations were behind the Iron Curtain while my grandmother then lived inÂ Holland and I grew up in England. Since many stories were subsequently passed on about herÂ grandfather and his five other grandchildren, I decided to write the family history from his birth inÂ 1852 in Schleswig-Holstein, right up to 1990, which is when my grandmother died, and of courseÂ when her partitioned homeland was reunified.
Q: What motivates you to do it?
A: I have four goals. The first Iâve mentioned above, but Iâm also nosey and Iâd like to know whatÂ challenges and fortunes my family endured. My grandmother and her sister, for instance, wereÂ packed off to America at the ages of 15 to work as acrobats in an all-girl vaudeville troupe during theÂ 1920s. We have loads of family photos and so the intent is to write a story that accompanies theÂ photos. I also find it really fascinating that each generation migrated from one country to anotherÂ (back in 1877 for instance when the Holsatian arrived in Leipzig they travelled from Prussia to theÂ Kingdom of Saxony); and so another key aim is to understand âwhy?â (hence the book is calledÂ WandervĂ¶gel: A Prussian Familyâs Passage Through Leipzig). That requires reading a lot of modernÂ history books, and so hopefully the result is not just a story book about my family, a kind ofÂ travelogue, but to an extent a history of Leipzig, Germany, Europe and North America too (myÂ grandmotherâs sister returned to the continent in 1957).
Q: How did you getÂ access to the material?
A: Fortunately the German archives are really well-maintained. Some were lost in the war, including oldÂ military materials from the Franco-Prussian war that had been filed in Berlin as well as residentialÂ records in Amsterdam. But usually itâs been a case of dropping a well-articulated note to town orÂ state archives, whether they be in San Francisco, Leeds, Leipzig or wherever. Even if the answer isÂ negative, that too tells me something.
Q: Is your workÂ purely historical or have you fictionalized some?
A: About 95 percent of it is fact. In some cases I have taken the facts as I have received them andÂ woven a story around them. It helps to bring the narrative to life. Occasionally I borrow quotes fromÂ writers â Thomas Mann or Christopher Isherwood for instance, because their stories have paralleledÂ my forefathers’. But I try to write in such a way that should a TV film producer (Ă la Edgar ReitzâsÂ Heimat) or publisher pick up on it, the basic script and necessary context are all there.
Q: Can you tell us about the nextÂ installment of the series?
A: Iâve just finished the fourteenth chapter of 20, which is entitled âThe Last Leave Leipzig.â It coversÂ the period 1935-1939 and sees my grandmotherâs sister and cousins follow her lead by leavingÂ Leipzig themselves. The story, however, doesnât end there because the daughter of one of thoseÂ cousins returns and so she becomes the link to the city, which enables me to continue writing aboutÂ it during the DDR era. Usually it takes me about six months to pull a chapter together. The next,Â covering the period of the Second World War, will be entitled âLives Less Ordinary.â Itâs rather aÂ coincidence but both my grandmother, who had settled in Holland by that time, and her cousin, whoÂ lived in Dresden, had daughters they named Irene. Both cities suffered frightfully during the war ofÂ course. I was going to title it âThe Tale of Two Irenesâ but both had few memories of their own toÂ share except from the tail-end of the war, so I will draw on their siblings and parentsâ recollectionsÂ mainly.
The entire bookâs contentsÂ are online, which is where Chapter XVÂ will be posted once complete, hopefully around June 2016.