Celebrity genealogy series. In a rare television appearance, best-selling Harry Potter author JK Rowling sets out to investigate her French roots.
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Over the past 14 years, JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels
have sold almost 450 million copies,
transforming her from struggling writer into the most successful author in the world.
But Jo has been unable to share her success with one of the people she cared about most.
Mum died when I had just started writing Harry Potter.
It's a real regret actually that I never even mentioned it to her,
that she died without knowing anything about something so huge.
She knew I had literary ambitions
but she never knew that I'd had the idea of my life to date.
My mother's maiden name was Anne Volant,
she was a quarter French and she was very interested in her French roots
but never had a chance to explore them.
So the huge motivation in looking into my family history is my mother.
It's very much bound up in, in that loss.
Jo Rowling lives and works in Scotland
but can trace her French roots back three generations.
My mother's father's father, Louis Volant married an English woman
and I know the marriage failed.
I know something about his war record.
He was very brave in the First World War.
I don't know all the details but he was awarded the Legion d'honneur.
In 2009, Jo herself won the Legion d'honneur,
France's highest honour, for her services to world literature.
I made my speech in French and it was an opportunity to speak about Louis.
It was one of the most meaningful awards that I've ever received, because of that family connection.
But I don't really know where he came from,
I don't know what kind of family he came from
and I don't know anything at all about the generations behind him.
Jo has decided to start her search into Louis Volant
and her French roots in the Scottish capital.
I'm going into Edinburgh to see my Aunty Marian,
who's staying with friends here and she's my mum's big sister,
and she's the last link to the French family.
She was born a Volant, that's her maiden name.
-Hello, my darling!
-How are you?
Lovely to see you.
Marian Fox is Jo's maternal aunt, and the daughter of Stanley Volant,
the youngest of four children born to Jo's great grandfather,
Louis Volant and his wife, Lizzie.
Marian has brought the family's collection of letters and photos to show Jo.
-I'm very excited.
-This is the famous wedding album.
So this is your wedding to Les.
My wedding to Les, me with my 18-inch waist.
Your 18-inch waist. Tiny.
We had that dress for dressing up, it was pale blue.
-That's right, yeah.
This is Lizzie, your great grandmother.
-She was lovely.
-She taught me my prayers, cuddled me, she was a natural grandma.
She was really gorgeous.
So Lizzie married Louis.
Have you found Louis at all?
Yes, there's some here.
I have a photo.
-Oh, I've never seen that before.
-He's handsome, isn't he? He's gorgeous, isn't he?
This is Louis' good conduct certificate.
Right. This is from National Service, is it?
-Yes, and look at this, Jo.
-Was he born on your birthday?
-He was born on 31st July.
Exactly the same day, yeah.
Oh, my God.
How bizarre. Same date as me and Harry Potter.
And he was born in Paris in the 10th arrondissement. Wow.
I think this is a photo of his mother.
-Oh, my goodness.
-And her name, would you believe is Salome Schuch.
-Very strong-featured lady.
What do you know about her?
-Very little. Just that she grew up in the countryside in France.
So when did Louis arrive in England
and why did he come to England?
We know he came over in the 1890s
and he worked over here as a waiter
in places like the Savoy.
Oh, classy joints, classy joints.
And that's where he met Lizzie
-who was working as a nursery maid for a family off Marble Arch.
Have a look at these.
They're all letters that Louis wrote Lizzie, over the years,
right from when they first met.
-They made me cry, they are so lovely.
-Everything is, my dearest Lizzie.
This was written about 1896.
-And he was having to go back to Paris to do his National Service.
"Now, darling, just have a little more patience.
"I think this shall be one of the last letters I am writing to you,
"so with all my fondest love and kisses to my dearest Lizzie, from your own forever Louis.
"PS Write soon, Liz, time will fly now. Ta-ta, my love."
Oh, it's lovely, isn't it? It's so sweet.
And that is Lizzie and Louis' wedding photo.
-Well, you can see what they saw in each other.
-Oh, yes, yeah.
She was 25, he was 22. So he was very young, wasn't he?
Now this one is the first family baby photo taken,
when Marcel was born, in 1901 I think it was.
Right. It's actually very touching
-cos you know the marriage didn't work out.
-That's right, yeah.
So when did Louis leave the family?
I don't know. It was always a bit of mystery.
Louis had gone back to France for some reason or other
and Lizzie wouldn't go over and join him,
-she wouldn't pack up and go to French.
-So they split.
-After that we haven't got any family photos.
-We've got this, from the First World War.
-Oh, my goodness.
-Yeah, this is...
-His identity card.
Wow. Wasn't there a photograph of him wearing his Legion d'honneur?
-No, this was the only thing from his effects that we found.
The button ball badge of the Legion of Honour, but not the medal.
Isn't that wonderful?
I would love to know what the citation was for him being awarded that medal,
because I feel he did something very brave and sadly we don't know what it was.
-And I'm proud of him.
-Yeah, me too.
And where is he buried?
-I don't know where he's buried.
-We don't know?
I don't know anything else cos there was no funeral service anybody attended that I heard of.
And there's nobody to ask any more.
-I'll put these back, Jo.
-I want you to take them with you.
-Look after Louis and Lizzie for me.
-I will really. Thank you so much.
-I'll look after them.
I feel this weird pull towards Louis.
He left France to go to London,
a massive city
that's also a foreign city, so he's an immigrant.
That's very gutsy.
And then I found the letters so moving,
this very young man writing to his English girlfriend.
And Marian's told me he was a waiter and he worked at the Savoy
so I'm going to London.
Jo's great grandfather, Louis Volant, arrived in London in the 1890s
and worked in the city as a waiter both before and after the First World War.
Jo has come to the famous Savoy Hotel on the Strand
where Louis worked in the 1920s.
She's come to meet social historian Constance Bantman,
who's been researching Louis' life in London.
-So we are here.
-At the River Restaurant.
-At the Savoy,
which is where Louis worked between 1919 and 1927
and this is the restaurant in action.
Wow, I love this, it's so 1920s, it's so glamorous.
It was one of the best, if not THE best restaurant in the whole world.
-And Louis was head wine waiter.
-He was head wine waiter?
And he actually got an award for it, a French award,
called Chevalier du Merite Agricole.
-No, not at all. It's a very prestigious distinction.
-And this was given to him in 1922.
-And here's his title in French.
"Chef du service des vins au Savoy Hotel."
Fair play to him, for a working class Frenchman who's come to London,
-he's certainly risen in his profession.
We are extremely lucky in that the Savoy keep an archive of their former employees
and this is his card.
Oh, my goodness. Louis' card.
And the card contains previous employment history.
Louis' employment card reveals that to get to the Savoy
he had worked his way up
through the ranks of his professional since his arrival in London in the 1890s.
Political instability in France and cheaper cross channel transport
encouraged many young French men and women to seek work in the English capital.
By the turn of the century, there were tens of thousands of poor French immigrants
crammed into a part of Soho known as La Petite France.
Many sought work in the city's flourishing restaurants.
Louis' card records that he was taken on as a junior waiter
by the fashionable Princes' Restaurant in 1899.
This is the Princes' Restaurant. You can see very, very rich, very opulent surroundings.
Wow. Where is this?
-This is just off Piccadilly.
It was a very nice place run by French people.
Would he have made more money here than he would have done in Paris?
Yes, here a French waiter had this immense cache.
-So these places were looking for Frenchmen.
The Princes' Restaurant was catering to the theatre crowd so it closed
at impossible hours and this would have been a demanding job.
Yeah. I've got this letter and this is from,
it's headed the Princes' Restaurant.
He's writing to his wife, Lizzie,
she's gone back to her parents' house in Norfolk
and he says, "You asked me to try and come over next Sunday, indeed I believe you struck it unlucky
"for we have a dinner of 60 Frenchmen and they have got a licence,
"so it's no use thinking about it for a moment."
-So he couldn't see his wife, because he had to work late.
Yes. And that's obviously one of the striking features,
-it was a hard life.
Louis would have been working until two or three, six days a week.
Oh, my goodness, right.
Yes, very, very difficult lifestyle
and he earned probably about 40 shillings a month,
which works out to be about £80 in contemporary terms.
And by the time that letter was written, he was supporting a wife and child on that as well.
Exactly, and we can imagine the strain.
There was not much time for married life.
-If we look at the following census in 1911.
-You see there.
So we've got, Lizzie is listed first as wife
and then that's been crossed out and put head, as in head of the family.
So the marriage had already broken up in 1911.
And Stanley, my grandfather, was only one.
Oh, that makes me feel really tearful.
And so he'd gone.
And here he is. Louis Volant.
He's 33, he's still married but they've separated.
He's now living in 6 Upper James Street in one room. That's so sad.
I find what he did, coming across from France as a very young man
and then working his way up to pretty much the head of his profession,
admirable, just so admirable.
But when I saw the census where they were living apart,
I felt like it was happening now
and I think the most poignant moment of all
was her writing in "I'm a wife" and someone else crossing that out,
no, you are now the head of the family.
And then shortly after that, 1914, Louis was off to war.
Three years after the break-up of his marriage,
and 20 years after his arrival in England,
Louis Volant was called up to serve in the French Army
at the outbreak of World War One.
I know that he received the Legion d'honneur
for his actions in the First World War,
but I don't really know what happened to him.
Jo has decided to travel to Paris
to discover how her great grandfather became a war hero.
Among the letters Marian gave her are some that Louis wrote
to his estranged family during the war.
"Dear Lizzie and children, hope you're all getting on well.
"No change here for me, still it's all a case of luck.
"Love and kisses to all,
"from Papa. 1915."
Which makes him 37 which is quite, quite old to be going off to war.
Actually in that photograph I think he looks older than 37.
It says he was an interpreter and there's various stamps
but really nothing else really tells me much more about him or what he got up to.
To see if she can find out why her great grandfather was awarded
the Legion d'honneur, Jo has come to the national archives in Paris.
The archives were established in 1808
and store the most important documents of the French state,
including a record of every recipient of the Legion d'honneur,
France's highest decoration.
Claire Bechu is the deputy director of the archives.
This is incredible.
It's actually the Hogwarts Library, to me.
This is the dossier de Legion d'honneur.
-Of Louis Volant.
You have inside some documents, this one is handwritten by Volant.
Louis himself wrote that?
Reading in this letter,
we see he has been injured.
Injured at the Fort of...
-Fort de Vaux near Verdun.
-..in the night of the 5th June.
He takes grenades to the Fort.
Oh, OK, so he was bringing them armaments.
He was bringing grenades to the Fort.
-On the other side they mentioned the injuries.
-Oh, my goodness.
He lost half of the sight in his right eye.
-Right, and he's lost also seven teeth.
-Oh, my goodness me.
"Perte du membre."
-Is that the loss of a limb?
So hugely disabled.
Well, on the cover you have birth date,
16 Juillet, 1878, the place,
I don't think this is my great grandfather.
there are a lot of discrepancies here.
My great grandfather was Louis Volant, it's the same name,
but he was born... at a different time.
The date's different. You see, here it's 31st July.
This gives a different date of birth. 16th July.
16th July, 1878.
Is there a possibility there's another file for a Louis Volant,
or is this the only one that you..?
-In our databases...
-This is the only one.
-..it's the only one.
This is not my Louis.
This is, this is, this is a phenomenally brave man,
but, you know, even when you put this in front of me
I thought that's not his handwriting
because I have countless examples of his handwriting
that the family have kept and that's a different hand.
It's very different. So yes.
It's really inspiring to hear what this man did but this is not my great grandfather.
This is not my great grandfather!
I have discovered the man who won the Legion d'honneur
was not the same man as my great grandfather,
so this family story,
where did this come from?
Was there at some point a deliberate deception,
or is there, was an innocent mistake made
at some point with someone looking through records,
and I still don't know what really happened in Louis' war.
I know what happened in another Louis' war, a very, very brave Louis,
but I don't really know what happened in my Louis' war. So I want to keep looking, I want to find out.
It's a strange feeling because I do keep thinking about my mum.
I think she would have been fascinated by this, just fascinated.
I think she would have even been fascinated to know it wasn't true,
the story she believed wasn't true. She would have so wanted to know.
The Chateau de Vincennes is a 14th century fortress on the outskirts of Paris,
which holds all the historical records of the French armed forces,
stretching back over 400 years.
Jo has arranged to meet military historian Captain Ivan Cadeau
to find out what really happened to her great grandfather during the First World War.
-Yes, I'm Captain Cadeau, nice to meet you.
-Hello, Captain Cadeau.
ENTRY SYSTEM BEEPS
DOOR LOCKING SYSTEM BUZZES
Thank you very much, thank you.
-My great grandfather was a man called Louis Volant.
And I was told that he received the Legion d'honneur
-and my aunt gave me this.
Now, she seemed to think that this confirmed
the story of the Legion d'honneur.
I wasn't sure because I have been given the Legion d'honneur and I have nothing like this.
I know this sort of award. It is the Society of Trade Union award.
So it's a trade union badge.
Yes. That's not a military award.
-All right. That makes...
It makes perfect sense, that makes perfect sense.
This is definitely my great grandfather.
OK, look at the number.
-782... 782... Uh huh.
-And look at this.
-You've got him.
-This is your great grandfather.
-My birthday, you see.
Louis Volant was in the 16th Territorial Regiment
and territorials were soldier aged between 35 and 40 years.
-Their jobs was absolutely not to fight, OK?
-Right, OK, yeah.
-But to guard highways, roads or bridges.
-Right, I understand.
-They had only 15 days' training.
-So very, very few.
We know that your great grandfather
-was in this very small village called Courcelles-le-Comte.
-In October, 1914...
-..there was a great battle there.
At the outbreak of World War One,
the German Army launched a surprise attack on France through Belgium.
Their aim was to capture Paris and claim a swift victory.
They were stopped at the Marne river, only 30 miles from the capital,
at the cost of 250,000 French casualties.
The Germans were pushed back to the northeast,
but on 3rd October 1914 they attempted to outflank the French
through the village of Courcelles-le-Comte.
The village was guarded by the 16th Territorial Regiment,
which had never been intended for front-line action.
Amongst its unprepared soldiers was 37-year-old Corporal Louis Volant.
This is the regimental diary of the 16th Territorial Infantry.
4.30am the German infantry attack begins and at the same time
the outskirts of the village are bombed with melanite shell.
What did the Territorial Army have to fight with?
The territorial soldiers didn't have any artillery.
-They've just got rifles?
Against these shells. Oh, my God.
At 9am the cannon fire becomes more intense and it's no longer possible to leave the trenches.
This is so ominous, this is horrible.
The opposing infantry has advanced quickly and are approaching the outskirts.
During this action, Major Denoux is shot through the neck
and Captain Goubet is injured by a piece of shrapnel to his head.
-At this point of the battle, most officers are killed or injured.
The enemy's constant gunfire causes heavy damages to our lines,
which has a demoralising effect on all the soldiers
who have already endured five consecutive nights and days of bombardment.
Nevertheless, the 16th Regiment courageously resists until 10.25.
-Oh, my God.
After seven hours of German attack and having suffered 800 casualties, almost a third of its strength,
the 16th Territorial Regiment fell back from Courcelles,
leaving a small platoon to cover their retreat.
One of these men is your great grandfather, Louis Volant.
This is his service record.
In the October battle he took command of a section
and held his men under violent fire.
With the greatest calm he...
Oh, my God. He killed...
-..several German soldiers.
-For protecting his position and defending his comrades.
-Oh, my God.
-He was seriously injured in the arm and the side...
OK, oh, my goodness me.
So, Louis Volant, your great grandfather
who was, before the First World War an ordinary man, a waiter.
-He was a waiter.
-And a good soldier when he was a conscript.
-15 days' training for this.
Yes, became in Courcelles an hero.
When his officials were killed, he was still there, fighting.
For his bravery, your great grandfather won
La Croix de Guerre.
The Legion d'honneur is an award for officer class.
So Croix de Guerre, it's an award for the fighter.
It's better. The Croix de Guerre is much better than the Legion d'honneur.
That's the fighter medal.
That's amazing. That's absolutely amazing.
In your family have you the Croix de Guerre?
-Not that I'm aware of, no.
You are joking.
..I have the Croix de Guerre with the bronze star,
exactly the same as your great grandfather won
and I will be very, very honoured if you accept it...
-Thank you so much.
-..in memory of your great grandfather.
Thank you very much indeed.
Please, please. You're welcome.
Oh, my God.
I now understand how this happened.
We have two men with the same name,
who really were war heroes.
My great grandfather's gone back to defend bridges and roads
and then he finds himself in the middle of this incredibly bloody battle.
And my Louis, who was a waiter,
and a very ordinary, but to me not an ordinary man at all,
he leaps into action.
I've always been most impressed with bravery against the odds.
You know, bravery when it looks like you're beaten.
Bravery when, OK, we're all going to die but let's go down fighting.
And that's what he did.
The 16th Territorial Regiment's heroic resistance at Courcelles,
helped to stop the German Army breaking through French lines
and Paris remained in French control for the rest of the war.
Louis recovered from his injuries
and went on to serve as an army interpreter.
He continued to write regularly to Lizzie and his children.
So it's just incredible to look at all these letters
from Louis to the family in England.
There's a letter here from 1918.
That must be getting towards the end of his service.
He's maybe about to be demobbed.
And then he went back to London, I know that,
and he worked at the Savoy for all those years.
And then he reappears in France.
The address is an area called Maisons-Laffitte,
I've no idea where that is, but this is where he seems to have lived,
in this later part of his life,
so I would love, love to go there,
love to find out where Louis is buried.
In the early 1930s, Louis left England and his family for good,
retiring to the quiet town of Maisons-Laffitte,
just outside Paris.
He died there on 17th September 1949 at the age of 72.
Jo has contacted the local cemetery in Maisons-Laffitte,
who have a record of her great grandfather's burial there.
Cemetery attendant Max has agreed to show her Louis' resting place.
Jo is the first member of her family
to visit Louis' grave.
Louis was put in a communal grave.
Which is a horrible shock.
THEY SPEAK IN FRENCH
I asked him how many people are in this grave,
because immediately I think, well fine, you know, I want him out of there,
I will make sure he's buried properly.
But they don't know how many people
have been put into this communal grave so...
..finding Louis' remains could be very difficult.
Louis was originally buried in a single plot,
but as the cemetery became overcrowded
and none of his relatives could be traced,
his remains were moved in 1968.
I must be honest, part of me's very angry.
Because he had family.
And until relatively recently he had quite close family
in that the last of his children didn't die very long ago.
And certainly my mother,
who was so keen to know where he was buried,
can have had no idea what had happened.
It's such an unfitting end for a really extraordinary man.
Yesterday was traumatic.
I expected to walk into that cemetery
and have, I suppose, a neat, satisfying full stop
and it wasn't neat and satisfying at all.
It was quite disturbing to me.
So I don't want this story to end there.
I want to find out more.
Jo knows that Louis was born in Paris' 10th arrondissement in 1877,
and that his mother was called Salome Schuch.
To see if she can find out more about Salome,
she's come to the Paris hospital archives
where the birth records for the city are held.
Genealogist Karen has agreed to help Jo with her search.
-Hello, are you Karen?
Hi, how do you do? I'm Jo.
-Pleased to meet you.
-Pleased to meet you too.
-All the birth certificates are organised by date.
Enter the number of arrondissement.
-And the date.
July, 07, 1877, yes, perfect.
So we're looking for Volant.
-You can zoom with this.
We're in July. 31 Juillet.
-Yes. But there is no Louis Volant in this page.
Schuch. Salome Schuch, that's him.
That's his mother's name.
-His mother, there.
-So this must be him.
-male child, born yesterday.
At seven o'clock in the morning.
Son of Salome Schuch, who is aged 23 years, domestique servant.
She was a servant.
But it's not Louis Volant, it's Louis Schuch.
He was not born Louis Volant?
Yes, there is no named father.
There's no father? Oh, my goodness.
We have a pregnant servant. A pregnant unmarried servant.
Under 19th century French law,
unmarried mothers like Salome had to legally acknowledge
their illegitimate children if they intended to keep them.
-Oh, I see a Louis.
-Louis, yes. Salome Schuch.
-23-year-old servant recognises her natural son, Louis.
I had high hopes of Salome, I didn't think she would abandon her son.
-And we have not the name of the father.
-And no name of the father.
-She signed there.
-Oh, she signed, that's her signature.
Yes, this is the signature.
Karen has found more information about Salome in the hospital's admissions register.
Oh, my goodness.
Schuch. Salome Schuch, aged 23, servant.
She's single, as are all these women and they're all single.
Lots and lots of entries like that.
Yes, it was very common in Paris at this period,
30% of Parisian babies are illegitimate.
-Really? Wow. So she was in hospital for eight days.
And as a servant
-she probably lived with the family she was working for.
-So she's living in Rue Clauzel, 19.
-In the 9th arrondissement.
9th arrondissement, is that quite near here?
Yes, it's not so far from here.
I'm very intrigued about Salome Schuch. She was a servant,
probably a maid I'm assuming,
and we've got an address for where
she was living and working when Louis was born,
so I'm interested to see that house
and know where she was at this time.
Jo has discovered that as a young woman, her great, great grandmother,
Salome Schuch, worked as a maid in the north of Paris.
To find out more, she has arranged to meet historian and writer
Hello. Are you Marlowe?
-I am Marlowe.
-I'm Jo. How do you do?
This is 19 Rue Clauzel,
where your great great grandmother lived.
-Shall we go in?
-I'd love to go in.
This is the first floor and this document
shows everyone who rents in the building.
Each floor had several flats. The biggest would be that one.
-Facing the street?
People who lived there would be more prosperous.
There was a lady on this floor
called Demoiselle Raymond.
She had two flats on this floor, which is unusual.
Now, she would need a maid.
The people in the tiny flats wouldn't need a maid.
The concierge downstairs would do any bits that they needed.
So, if Salome was the maid, what sort of duties
would you expect her to have performed?
If she was the only maid, she would be doing cooking and cleaning.
She would have to fetch and carry coal.
Fetch and carry water.
The hard, physical work?
It would certainly be hard work.
-It's the strangest feeling, that she walked these stairs.
This is where she would live.
Oh, my God.
One, two, three, four.
This is incredibly cramped.
There were tiny, these rooms.
They would hold a bed, and perhaps a little washstand, and no more.
She would come down in the morning to do her work,
and she would go up at night to bed, that would be it.
It was just a bed to sleep in, it was nothing else.
Domestic maids like Salome
were near the bottom of the economic and social scale
in late 19th century Paris.
As well as earning less than other working women,
they were often forced to work longer hours
and had little protection from abusive employers.
By 1880, domestiques also accounted for more illegitimate births
in the city than any other profession.
If a maid fell pregnant,
I assume that wouldn't be something she'd want her employer to know.
No, she would conceal it.
If she felt she had to say, or if it was particularly obvious,
the chances are she would be dismissed.
But in this building she was pregnant, going up and down stairs,
and she obviously kept it up as long as she possibly could.
Oh, Salome, what a life.
Marlowe has been researching what happened to Salome
after she gave birth to Louis in 1877.
She has uncovered some documents she wants to show Jo.
18 months later,
she's moved along the road from Rue Clauzel to Rue Milton,
and she has another baby.
Gabriel, another son.
Gabriel Jean, in December of 1878.
Right. Oh, the name Volant has appeared for the first time...
-..because this is the son of Pierre Volant.
-They weren't married.
-But they were living together.
He acknowledges the child as his own because he's...
-Because he's said he's the father.
-He's said he's the father.
So I'm liking Pierre quite a lot at this point.
Oh, Salome isn't a maid any more. She is a couturiere.
She is. She's a dressmaker.
So, she's gained a man and a profession...
-..within 18 months.
-Yes, it's not bad, is it?
-Good for Salome!
Yes. And, in 1883...
This is the marriage certificate. If you read down,
this is the crucial sentence.
"By the fact of their marriage,
"they recognise and legitimise four children..."
"..of the masculine sex.".
Four sons she had, at this point.
Yes, but when you legitimise them,
then they can inherit.
They couldn't otherwise. No illegitimate child could inherit.
But I do also notice that Louis alone is listed as Louis Schuch,
-and the others all have the name Volant, presumably from birth.
So, I'm just wondering whether this Pierre wasn't a very decent man,
who fell in love with Salome and said,
"I will assume responsibility for a pre-existing child."
It is possible.
I like Pierre Volant very much.
Decent man, did the right thing, I'm quite fond of him now.
And so, Salome came from Brumath. Where is Brumath?
It's in Alsace, close to the German border.
And Schuch isn't a typically French name.
No, it's a Germanic name.
Alsace-Lorraine was always a mixture
because it moved constantly between France and Germany.
So, she was born on the border with Germany.
I've found out that my great, great grandmother
was, at one point, in really, really dire straits.
And, if there's one thing that's quite clear,
this was a woman who was a survivor. She wasn't going to go under.
There is a definite parallel here.
20 years ago, I was teaching and writing in my spare time,
and was very skint.
Not long after that, because my daughter's nearly 18,
I became a single mum.
So I feel a connection there.
Jo has decided to travel 250 miles from Paris
to the region of Alsace, where Salome was born.
It's a rich agricultural area,
which forms part of France's border with Germany,
and has been the cause of many brutal conflicts,
stretching back 1,000 years.
The village of Brumath lies only ten miles from the German border.
To look for information about Salome and her family,
Jo has come to the town hall.
Bonjour, you're Stephanie.
-Yeah, it's me.
-How do you do?
I'm fine, thank you.
Stephanie Fisher, from the Mayor's office, has agreed to help her.
So you know that I'm looking for my great, great grandmother.
-Salome... I say Schuch, but it's "Schoosh".
-It is Schuch. OK.
I have her marriage certificate here,
and this has got the details of her birth.
She was born in...cinquante quatre.
So, that's 1854.
What's this book?
This is the birth certificates, so this is Salome Schuch.
Oh, we've got her. Oh, fantastic.
OK, Salome Schuch,
born on 10th March, 1854,
to Jacques Schuch, who was 28,
and he was a... I can't real this very well.
Tailleur de pierres. It means stone cutter.
-Stone cutter. OK. And Christine...Bergtold.
These are very Germanic names.
Yes, a lot people in Alsace have ancestors in Germany,
maybe in Switzerland - it's really common here.
And they lived here, in Brumath.
-Yeah. Here we've got a census.
So, here we can see the whole family, in 1861.
Jacques Schuch and Christine Bergtold,
-and here are all the children.
We have Catherine, Salome, Marguerite...
OK, five daughters and no sons.
So Salome was the second daughter.
She was eight years old.
And Jacques Schoosh...Schuch.
-Jacques Schuch is a... Oh, my God, what is he there?
That's not a stone cutter.
It's also a kind of stone cutter
-but of sandstone.
-That doesn't sound like
that would be a very lucrative profession.
No, they weren't so wealthy.
So, quite poor and they've got five daughters.
Jo has learnt that her great, great grandmother, Salome,
was the second daughter of Jacques Schuch and Christine Bergtold.
The couple went on to have a sixth daughter, Madeleine, in 1861,
but four years later tragedy struck the family.
This is the death certificate of the father.
Jacques Schuch died in 1865.
-Oh, no. He was only 39.
So Salome lost her father when she was 12.
Oh, God, how sad. That's awful.
And there was also another baby.
Jacques Schuch. He was born after his father died.
After his father died?
Just one month after. So the mother was pregnant when her husband died.
Oh, that's awful.
So she's left a widow, presumably in her 30s, with seven children.
And she had no job, so it would have been really hard.
She had no job. Oh, that's so sad.
This is the death certificate of the mother, in 1896.
-That's not a premature death.
Hang on, what's happened to the language? We're suddenly into German.
The whole book is in German because this area in France was German.
When did that change because we've been in France all this time?
When did Germany take over?
Since 1870 because of the Franco-Prussian War.
Have you any documents to show what happened to the family while the Germans...
Here we only have birth or death certificates.
-Only birth or death.
I'm very struck by how many single mothers I'm descended from
in this line of the family.
We had Lizzie, firstly. Then we have Salome.
And now we've got Christine, who's widowed in her 30s,
and has got seven children.
So, a lot of women holding the families together here.
The other striking thing is this sudden change from French into German,
so I'm very keen to find out what happened to my family
at the time when the Prussians were here.
Jo has discovered that Salome was living in Brumath in 1870,
at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.
To find out more,
she's meeting local military historian, Benoit.
Hello, I'm Jo.
-Nice to meet you.
-Nice to meet you too.
-Brumath was a normal town before the war.
3,000 people were living here in such houses like this, typical Alsatian.
-Or like this one.
-That's your family house.
-Oh! You're joking?!
-In this house, Salome lived.
I can't believe it. Really?
Let's go and see the house.
I can't believe it.
It's incredible. I never dreamed we'd see the house.
Benoit has found a residency agreement
for the house, which Salome's mother, Christine Bergtold,
signed three years after the death of her husband.
The owner granted use of the house to Christine Bergtold and her children.
-To use, she didn't own it.
-She didn't own it.
This is very touching... "Jacques, posthumous child.".
He was born after...
-After his father's death.
So, Jacques at this point is...
He's now three.
-Yes, and he lived in this house till he died.
-Oh, did he?
In 1943, he died?
So this was Jacques' house.
And here's Salome. She was 12 when her father died.
Two and a half years later, the Franco-Prussian War broke out,
40 kilometres away north, away from Brumath.
My family had a talent for being wherever there was trouble.
Everywhere I go, someone starts dropping bombs or firing shells.
So, at this time, did people in this area consider themselves French?
-They were very, very patriotic.
-Their allegiance was to France?
In July 1870, when Salome was only 16 years old,
simmering tensions between France and Prussia erupted into war.
Although Alsace had been part of France for 300 years,
the Prussian Prime Minister, Otto von Bismarck,
wanted the province back, as part of a new German empire.
On 6th August, the French Army confronted Prussia and its allies
at the Battle of Woerth in Northern Alsace,
only a day's march from Brumath.
There were 80,000 German soldiers on one side,
and 45,000 French soldiers.
It's one of the bloodiest battles of the Franco-Prussia War.
In ten hours 20,000 people died.
In ten hours.
The French Army was cut in two,
and one part go south through Brumath to go to Strasbourg.
The Mayor from Brumath wrote exactly what happens.
Here you have translation.
"In the evening, the first troops, which had fled from the French Army arrived in Brumath,
"saying everything is lost. Infantry on horses, cavalry on foot,
"and soldiers of all types made up a motley group.
"These poor wretches were treated as cowards by some of the people in Brumath."
It's very possible that Salome and her family
were seeing these troops pass under their window.
More than possible, for sure.
-I'm guessing the Prussians were close on these people's tails.
-They're coming to Brumath now.
"On Monday 8th August, several German regiments arrived in Brumath
Oh, my goodness! "..Tuesday, 18,000 soldiers arrived and camped nearby."
18,000 soldiers descend.
-On this tiny little town.
Yes, 3,000 inhabitants.
This is an invasion to them.
For them it's purely an invasion.
My great, great grandmother.
What do you think it would have been like for her?
I think everything stopped. The normal life she had stopped.
You can't go to school any more,
you can't go outside of your house like you did before.
You have to give everything you can to the soldiers.
-There's no choice.
-Yeah, of course.
Yeah, under pain of death, presumably.
So, coming into the house and saying, "We take eggs, milk, everything you have."
It was very difficult.
-She had trauma upon trauma.
-She loses her father at 12,
they have a very brief period of security.
And then the town's invaded.
Yes, and the people here, and Salome also, I think, and her mother,
absolutely don't know what will happen at the end of the war.
The fate of Salome and her family
rested on the defence of the Alsatian capital, Strasbourg,
where the remains of the French Army had taken refuge.
Using Brumath as their base,
German forces besieged the city for six weeks.
They fired almost 200,000 artillery shells into Strasbourg,
destroying much of it,
and killing thousands of men, women and children.
Many of the German soldiers who died in the siege were buried in Brumath.
At the end of the siege,
everybody here in the area are in expectation of what will happen.
On 8th October, a real announcement came -
"Strassburg ist und bleibt Deutsch."
-Strasbourg is and will remain German.
Would it be true to say then, that on 8th October,
-my family effectively became German?
-Not for sure.
Because, months later at the Treaty of Frankfurt,
between France and Germany,
there was an article, which said people can choose
whether they want to remain French or if they want to become German.
But, Bismarck said, "You can choose,
"but if you remain French, goodbye. Leave your place and go."
-Go to France?
-Oh, that choice!
-Exactly. That was a choice(!)
That's great, isn't it?
-They were called the Optants.
They had to sign a paper.
If you want to know if your family became German or remained French...
-I've got to find the opting paper.
Under the harsh terms of Bismarck's choice,
125,000 people, almost 10% of the population of Alsace,
and the neighbouring province of Lorraine,
gave up their homes and livelihoods to remain French and left.
The rest, mostly poor peasant farmers dependant on their land,
became citizens of the new Germany.
I started this thinking I was going to look for my French roots
and now I discover there's a possibility those French roots
might have turned German at some point.
I'd love to think they made the decision to remain French.
I think it would have been very brave,
but that might be a step too far,
for a family that was living on the very verge of extreme poverty.
So, maybe we are more German than I thought.
To discover what happened to Salome and her family after the war,
Jo has come to the Protestant church in Brumath to meet a genealogist.
-You are Guy?
-Yes, I am.
-I'm Jo. How do you do?
-How do you do?
-Please come in.
In this church your family was married, baptised.
In this church, yeah.
Guy has been looking at the names of Brumath residents
who opted to leave Alsace.
-We looked for the opting document for Christine Bergtold.
-But we didn't find anything.
Showing that she opted.
I completely understand why Christine didn't opt to remain French.
I think in her situation that would be a very...
Almost a foolish thing to do.
But I'm interested in Salome because I know she decided to go to Paris,
so I'm wondering why she decided to leave.
She could not opt because she was not 21.
-She was too young.
-She was underage.
-She was 17.
-But we have a document here. Somebody of her family...
..opted in Paris.
-Oh, yes! Oh, yes!
-Who was a great aunt of Salome.
And Catherine Bergtold opted, you see here,
on 9th September 1872.
-So, I think Salome went to Paris with her great aunt.
So she still... She's technically German.
Exactly, she's technically German but living in Paris.
Are you saying that my great, great grandmother was actually German?
-Did she marry?
She did marry. She did. She married Pierre Volant, who was French.
Ah, so according to the French law, she became French when she married.
So, she's born French, she becomes German
and then she becomes French again.
She was German let's say, ten years.
At bayonet-point, though, I don't think it counts.
Whilst Salome started a new life in Paris,
her mother, Christine, remained in Brumath as a German citizen
until her death in 1886.
Salome's younger brother, Jacques, stayed with his mother
and was forced to serve in the German Army.
He and his descendants are buried in the church's graveyard,
and Guy has brought Jo to see the Schuch family graves.
-Bonjour. Ca va?
-Ca va bien.
C'est le fils... It is the son of Guillaume Schuch.
Guillaume Schuch was the son of Jacques.
-Jacques Schuch, the brother of Salome.
Yes, absolutely. You are cousins.
He's saying Brumath draws everyone back.
Ca c'est le grand-pere et la grand-mere.
That's Jacques, my great, great, great uncle.
So, I've got Salome's little brother, sitting
as an elderly gentleman outside the house that we visited.
-Are you sure?
-A big gift.
That's beautiful, I will treasure it. Thank you.
Merci. C'est tres bon. C'est tres gentile.
-Wow, I've got a photo.
Mr Schuch knows about Harry Potter.
He has seen the film on the television.
Salome Schuch spent the rest of her life in Paris,
and lived to see Alsace and her home town of Brumath
return to French control at the end of the First World War,
a war in which her son Louis was awarded the Croix de Guerre
for his actions at the Battle of Courcelles.
As a storyteller,
the person, I suppose, for me, who sings out from the whole family story is Salome.
She went through very difficult times,
and I feel that we are what we are really because of her bravery.
She held the family together and built, actually, a very strong, stable family.
So we've really done what I set out to do.
I wanted to find out the truth about my French roots, and I have.
And my mother would have adored every minute of this.
She'd have loved the whole thing. It's been wonderful.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
In a rare television appearance, best-selling Harry Potter author JK Rowling sets out to investigate her French roots. Jo has always been intrigued by her late mother's French ancestry, but knows very little about it. Beginning her journey in Edinburgh, Jo's search takes her from The Savoy in London, to once-bloody battlefields and the back streets of urban Paris.
Jo is especially keen to find out more about her great grandfather, Louis Volant. She knows that he was awarded one of France's most prestigious medals, the Legion d'honneur, for his actions during World War One. Jo wants to find out exactly what he did to win the honour. The trail leads to a surprising and shocking discovery.
Pushing back further into her family tree, Jo discovers an ancestor who triumphed against the odds, despite her inauspicious beginnings, and discovers how a war almost transformed her family's identity forever.