Posted tagged ‘Prondzynski’

A question of names

March 14, 2009

I have never lived in a place where people knew how to pronounce my name. In fact I have to admit that even I am not absolutely certain how it should be pronounced. The only country where it should be easier would be Poland; but even there most people would find the spelling disconcerting, because at one stage in my family’s history one of my ancestors, in an attempt to make the name look more Germanic, changed the spelling from Pradzynski to Prondzynski. In fact that doesn’t make it much easier for Germans, but it really confuses the Poles. A very distant relative who moved to the United States changed the spelling to Pronshinske, but his great grandson told me that everyone still stumbles over it. I think that we Prondzynskis cannot win here, we have to accept that we are something unpronounceable.

I suppose that to most people the name must suggest something Eastern European. At any rate it did to Captain Armstrong. Captain Armstrong was for a little while my right-hand man in a free legal advice centre in England. I was a postgraduate law student, and every Saturday I gave up my morning to offer free legal advice in the centre. This particular centre had the practice of allocating a volunteer to support the lawyer offering the advice. Their job would be to act as receptionist and take down the client’s details, and then bring them into the consulting room with a few words of introduction. My volunteer was a retired army officer and World War 2 veteran, Captain Armstrong. And back in 1979 one morning, Captain Armstrong brought in my next client with the following words of introduction:

‘This is Mr Bauer, and he has an employment problem. And you [and here he was addressing me] will appreciate that, if I had met Mr Bauer 35 years ago I would almost certainly have shot him.’

This sounds crude and cruel, but if you had known Captain Armstrong you would have known he was really a kind man, and this was his way of breaking the ice, even if it was just a little strange. But there was a bit of irony in all this of which Captain Armstrong was totally unaware. Mr Bauer (as I discovered as soon as I began to talk to him) was, despite his Germanic name, a Pole; whereas Captain Armstrong had somehow never come to realise that I, with my Polish name, was German; or German-turned-Irish, but if the good Captain had been aware of that combination it might well have sent him over the edge.

Names really do tell a story, but not always the one we expect to hear. They contain cultural and historical lessons, and can be bridges between what we are now and what we once were. More than once in my life I wondered whether ‘von Prondzynski’ was just a bit much, wherever I might be living, and whether I should change my name. I never did, and now I never will. It has something to say, and it is right that it should be said. And as Ireland has become much more multi-ethnic, the colourful tapestry of names and the stories they tell will enrich our culture and society.

Meeting my ancestor

February 24, 2009

It’s a very small world, in a sometimes strange sort of way. A year or two ago I was standing at a check-in counter in an American airport. Because the woman behind the counter had some difficulty saying my name (not an unusual occurrence for me), I said it for her. And as I did so, I noticed that the man in line behind me got very agitated. When I had finished, and as it was his turn, he asked me could I just wait a moment until he had also checked in.

I waited, and when he was finished he asked me whether I was related to the 19th century Prussian general, Ferdinand von Prondzynski. I am not a huge expert in my family history (though I am learning), but I did know the answer to this one. Yes, I said, he was my great great great grandfather. My new friend was now beside himself with excitement, and told me: ‘I played him!’

It turns out that this gentleman was a member of a war games society, who regularly re-enacted famous historical battles. One they had recently tackled was the battle of Königgrätz, fought in 1866, in which my ancestor had played a decisive role. My American friend had ‘been’ Ferdinand von Prondzynski in this re-enactment, and had taken a significant interest in the life, times and views of my great great great grandfather.

The battle brought about some decisive political changes in Europe, and entrenched the growing power of Prussia as a political and military power, and ultimately through Prussia of the soon to be united Germany. It is of course a matter of debate as to how we should evaluate that in the light of events in the 20th century, but it was an important battle. And it was a most unlikely, one-in-a-million chance encounter in an American airport. 

I have done a little more research on my ancestor – but maybe that is for another time.

A little family history

September 5, 2008

My father died ten years ago, after a long and debilitating illness that stripped him of most of his dignity in the two or three years before he finally passed away. When he died, it might have been that the link between my family and its history would have been cut, perhaps for ever. He was an enthusiastic researcher into family roots, and during his retirement he spent an increasing amount of time on it, amassing boxes of documents and papers and memorabilia. I watched this with some bemusement, but not really with any interest; I did not consider myself to be a ‘roots’ person.

Some time after my father had died, my two sons expressed an interest in seeing his home village in Silesia. I need to explain that just a little. The Prondzynski family (or rather, I should say Pradzynski) had its origins in the Kasubian region of Poland, and my father’s branch of it eventually migrated to the Opole region of Silesia (or as my father would have called it, Oppeln). There they developed a strong profile as landowners, soldiers and industrialists, in what became a Prussian or German province. In the Second World War my father was a German army officer, and at the end of the war he was unable to return home (which hadbecome part of Poland), and re-started his life in what became West Germany. Later he and the family moved to Ireland.

Although he had lost his home and the property located there, he never lost a sense of belonging there, and later when the political situation became easier he was a frequent visitor to his home town. I think he regretted that his family home had been lost, but I never heard him complain, and he was full of praise at what Poland had made of it. It was his wish that one day I would visit it, too. I probably wouldn’t have, but on the urging of my sons we did, during a family holiday when we were based not too far away across the German border.

When we actually made it there – the town where he was born and raised is called Groszowice, or Groschowitz in German – my sons almost immediately lost interest (partly because we got there in foul weather), but totally unexpectedly I found myself emotionally engaged. Seeing his old family home (still intact but with new owners who kindly let me in), and suddenly recognising places and scenes from his descriptions that I had, after all, stored away in my memory had a profound effect on me. This was reinforced even further when some local people, who had heard I was there, stopped me in the street and assured me how important my family connection was with the town. And finally, in the pouring rain an elderly lady who remembered my father as a boy showed me the small square which, until the 1950s, had been named after my great grandfather, an association the town council was hoping to re-establish (but a petition for which I gently declined to sign). The lady told me, as I left, that they considered me as the town’s most celebrated living son, which while absurd at one level left me speechless.

So I returned home with just a little bit of a different perspective on where I am from. We are all from somewhere. Sometimes that is a place we know about, sometimes it is more intangible, but somewhere in our past or the past before us there is some association that helps to define us. I am still not quite sure what that is in my case, but I am working on it. I now know more about my very varied family history than I did before, and am learning new things as I begin to look through my father’s archives. And some chance encounters – which I shall write about separately in the future – have given me unexpected insights into who I am. None of us should ever wilfully ignore history.