Tracing a Legacy
Genealogy for me is more than just hunting up vital records and putting together a list of names and dates to show the passing generations of a family. It is something spiritual, a labor of love, often for people who came and went long before I existed. Eternal life to me is defined by how the world remembers you long after you are gone. That is our legacy.
Not everyone leaves a good legacy but we all leave a legacy. It is not dictated by wealth or power, both the poor and the emperors of the world leave a legacy. Genealogy is about discovering the forgotten legacy of people who can no longer tell their own story.
I am the storyteller. I breathe life back into names that exist only on records and cold stones in cemeteries. I give them eternal life by preserving those legacies no matter how simple. Sometimes it is a struggle to reconcile personal feelings with the obligation to tell the story of our ancestors as it is told by historic proof. That relative you liked as a child may later be revealed to be a convicted criminal in earlier life. The drunk uncle you disliked as a child may have once saved kids from a burning building when he was younger. As a genealogist, I feel it is my obligation to tell the story as the records tell it to me and when information conflicts with what I want to think of that person, I force myself to face that bias head on.
I write often about my Great Grandmother Lillie Mae Weatherspoon. She was probably my favorite female elder growing up and my house contains several items that she owned or made during her long lifetime. For me she was that rock. The person that I always felt I could run to for a safe place.
I was aware that not everyone thoughts she was as great as I did. She would often refuse to tell me too much about her early life with statements that “if anyone knew all the things she had done no one would like her.” We never had large family functions on my paternal side of the family and it was the world’s worst kept secret that my grandmother and my great grandmother did not like each other
In all my childhood years, I am not aware of one memory of both my grandmother and her mother in law in the same place at the same time. They both spent a lot of time with me growing up. Neither ever talked bad about the other in my presence. I was always aware of that quiet dislike between them lurking beneath the surface of my life. None of that mattered to me. I cannot fathom anything that would change the way I fell about the part she played in my life. The person she was to me as a child vanquished any skeletons that danced in her closet.
She has been gone a long time. I still miss her often and when I miss her, I delve into a world of records and work on preserving the legacy she left behind even the ugly parts. I started out with more missing links than I did concrete facts because of her hesitation to share information.
Grandma’s Skeleton in the Bottom of a Jewelry Box
Often the documents I do find confirm the scant facts she shared while expanding on a complicated life she tried to leave behind. Last year I discussed some of her early family life in my blog about the strange tale in Ripley County. Since that blog I have also managed to discover that when she married her second husband she used and alias…no doubt to hide the fact that she had failed to secure a divorce from her first husband. In her defense, her first husband was abusive and she did eventually get divorced. The details of her early life slowly reveal themselves over time and research and not one single thing has altered my perception of her legacy. However, she has presented me with my first heirloom conundrum.
When she died, she left her estate to the church and the church allowed family members to go through the house to collect sentimental items. I collected many items from her house that day. Plants, nick-knacks, old glassware, handmade afghans, and one old wooden jewelry box full of costume jewelry that looked like a pirate’s chest were all carefully selected not for monetary value but because they reminded me of her.
After the rawness of her loss passed, I finally went through some of those items in that old jewelry box. Buried under piles of beaded necklaces and clip-on earrings was an odd tarnished coin type medallion I had never seen before. The language was not in English but it was not hard to recognize the names on the medallion. Of all the things I have discovered in my research, of all the things I have learned about the history she wanted to forget that medallion has caused me the most distress.
I have no clue how my great grandmother came to be in possession of a piece of early Hitler memorabilia. Her husband at the time did not serve in WW2; he worked in the automobile factories in Flint, Michigan during that period. Her only child, a son, was not old enough for the military when the war ended.
Germany was on the other side of the world from Michigan. What did this medallion mean? She was never overtly racist from my recollection. I never heard anyone express anti Jewish sentiments in my family. Was my beloved Grandma Hon a closet Nazi sympathizer?
She has been gone for decades. I was a new Mom when she passed; today I am a grandmother in my own right. I have moved that medallion, buried in the bottom of a jewelry box out of sight but always in the back of my mind, from house to house and state to state. It felt wrong to get rid of it and buried in that box I could at least refrain from explaining it to others.
Still it haunted me. For all her flaws she may have had, this just did not ring true to her character. I have spent countless hours of my life wondering about that medallion.
Another Page out of History
Fast forward to today. I still have that medallion buried in a jewelry box. I came across it just the other day. While the pitter-patter of my own grandchild’s feet ring though my house. His father is from a Jewish family. I do not want him to wonder the same things I had to contemplate about my own beloved grandmother. More than that, it renewed my search for how my Grandmother came into possession of that dreaded heirloom.
In a moment of what some might call strange serendipity I discovered a blog about POW camps in Michigan during WWII. Indeed, it was a “gift basket from Michigan” as the url of the blog proclaimed. I grew up in Michigan. Michigan history is a major source of pride for locals and even small town communities get in on the local historic pride with annual festivals. Yet somehow, I had no clue the state once housed thousands of German POW’s during WWII.
It seemed more plausible that my Great Grandparents may have known someone who worked at a POW camp than it did that they were closet Nazi sympathizers. I decided to dig further to see if there may have been one located near where they lived. 30 miles from their home on Niagara Street in Flint to what is the present day Owosso Speedway was Camp Owosso. Camp Owosso housed hundreds of German POW’s.
I do not have definitive proof that my Great Grandmother was not a closet Nazi Sympathizer but it seems even less likely in the face of this new evidence. The proximity of the POW camp seems too much to dismiss. She was much closer to Owosso than she was to Germany…or even knowing German to understand what the medallion was commemorating. Discovering this odd chapter of local history added a new more rational reason behind the medallion.
I still do not know the story behind this medallion. I likely never will but now I have a story to put with it about how my home state, so far removed from the battlefields of Europe, served such a major role in the war effort.
By The Numbers:
- Michigan had 32 POW camps by the end of WW2
- An estimated 8000 German POWs were in Michigan by the end of 1945
- The last camp closed in June 1946.
- The POWs filled the shortages in local workforces while American men fought overseas.