Upon the death of a solitary bachelor, his sister, in order to set out the inheritance, had to provide proof that the deceased had left no rightful heirs.
Knowing very little of her brother’s life, the sister could not say for sure that he had never had any children. The notary in charge of the inheritance, in a quandary, sought the help of a genealogist.
The genealogist would soon prove the notary right.
After exhausting every possible avenue in ascertaining whether or not the deceased had fathered any children, be it in or out of wedlock, by birth or by adoption, the genealogist verified whether or not the lady who had come to the notary was definitely the deceased’s only sister. The two children had been born in wedlock to their two parents, neither of whom had married previously, and neither of whom went on to remarry; nor did they ever divorce. However…
A little detail caught the genealogists’s attention: the deceased and his sister’s mother had been born out of wedlock, and had grown up in state childcare.
A perusal of her care file revealed that before attaining the legal age of 21, the lady had given birth to two children, that she at first acknowledged but later abandoned. In the eyes of the law, this made these children the deceased’s uterine siblings.
On the back of this discovery, the genealogist decided to check if the mother of these four children, living in Paris at the time of her marriage, had had any other children after reaching 21 but before marrying. As her surname was very common, the genealogist spent weeks checking hundreds of births one by one.
This determination paid off: the lady had given birth to a fifth child, also acknowledged then abandoned, also the deceased’s uterine sibling.
The mother had kept this grave family secret her whole life, but had given the same names to her legitimate children as she had to those born out of wedlock…
In the end, the inheritance was shared between the deceased’s four brothers and sisters, or their children if no longer living. A life turned upside down for the sister who thought she was the sole heir of her only brother.
A Family Reunion
One of our partner notaries was working on the inheritance of a Polish Jew who had died in France leaving only two cousins as his known relatives.
Our research thus began in France, where we interviewed all known neighbours and family members; but to no avail. The surname was rare, so we checked to see if anyone else in France had it; they didn’t. According to the known cousins, the whole family had been wiped out in World War Two concentration camps. As moving a story as this was, it was difficult to fully believe, as we knew that other family members had existed. So we had to ‘dig a little deeper’.
The family had for generations made its living from the cloth trade between Russia and England, and we wondered if there may have still been traces of their activities across the Channel.
Our preliminary online research revealed a family with the same name as the deceased living and working in London in the first half of the 20th century. So we went to London to peruse all documentation containing any mention of the family; this gave us their dates of birth. Bingo: they were all born in Poland or Ukraine! But how could we prove they were related to the deceased? Our only chance was to find a certificate in London. Unfortunately, however, there was no record of any wills and nothing in the company registers; so we had to dissect the civil registers year by year, with no assurance of finding what we were looking for. Luckily for us (please pardon the expression), we eventually happened upon the death certificate of the father of the family. The following day, we obtained a copy of the certificate, and this finally showed us that this was the same family as our deceased: the father of the family, living and working in England, had been the deceased’s uncle. He had two children, only one of whom survived; this child grew up to leave for the United States, and we managed to track him to California; sadly, though, he had died a few years earlier. The trail seemed to have gone cold again, until analysis of the latter child’s death certificate showed he had a son, also living in California. At this point, our work was made easier by various online sources: we managed to find a work address for the son, and used it to get in touch with him. During a telephone interview, he corroborated the information we had gathered from our diverse research, and was surprised to learn that other members of his family existed.
So there was now an additional heir, which changed everything. We needed to delve further: our research would now take us to Poland and Ukraine…
Here again, we did preliminary research online, consulting documents made available by various organisations. These enabled us to establish the existence of more aunts and uncles of the deceased; but they gave no further details. So only one option remained: go to Poland and Ukraine.
We travelled to the family’s town of origin, near to Poznan, and were given access to the town hall’s records and the local archives. We enjoyed truly astounding treatment from certain members of staff who overruled the orders of their superiors and allowed us to consult and make copies of many documents.
The family proved to be larger than we had expected, and we soon exhausted the information available from the civil registers and other available documentation. Knowing that our targets were Jewish, we tried the local synagogue, which gave us the name of a foundation in Warsaw. This was where we headed next, getting back on the train and leaving our translator in Poznan.
Though the person who greeted us understood perfectly what we were looking for, and gave us access to all available documentation, they stressed that they didn’t have much hope for us. We were similarly disheartened after three hours of fruitless searching through the diverse archives and registers, only managing to establish that most of the family had died. Next, however, we were given boxfuls of US army files giving the identities of World War Two concentration camp survivors. Out of dogged perseverance, we began methodically searching through every single box; and, lo and behold, against all our expectations, the family’s surname appeared. Better still, the file also gave the first name of a member of the family whose birth certificate we had found in their town of origin.
It was the same person. One of the members had lived on. We were immediately put in contact with American and London-based organizations, but this yielded no results.
The form found on the missing person, however, stated that she had been advised to contact an organization based in Germany. Our research in Poland had to stop there. After a brief trip to Ukraine where documents had been destroyed by the Third Reich army and then by the Red Army, we had to go back to Paris to write to the German organization.
After quite a few attempts, we were finally produced a document related to the person found in Poland. This is when a major piece of information surfaced – the man had been married and had had two children born in Germany before migrating to Canada. We opened Canadian directories but the family name never came up. After another week’s wait, the Canadian population services told us that our man had passed, but his children were still alive.
Only then were we able to get in touch with the deceased’s cousins who also thought their family was completely gone. They were so taken aback that some of them came to Paris to peruse the documents we had collected. They revived their ties with their origins and their cousins as the inventory was taking place at the deceased’s home.
The estate was substantial, so several inventories were made. The accumulation of letters, photographs, and various documents provoked strong emotions on the part of the heirs who felt slightly overwhelmed by such an unexpected resurgence of the past.
The settlement of the inheritance lasted for a few more months, as more time was need to go about the selling of the deceased’s numerous possessions. The year-long search gave us a double satisfaction: the notary was able to settle the inheritance in complete peace of mind and we had enabled a family to be reunited after the troubles of history had scattered it apart.