The power of genealogy

There was a lot of internal debate about how to start this text. It took me almost a month to decide, and you will never know how many times I changed it before publishing it. But life can’t be led by theory, it demands action, so here it is, published for your entertainment and my self-pleasure. Before anything else, though, I want you to read what I wrote during the minutes that preceded the discoveries that would later lead me to the writing of this text. Here it is:

I am about to read military archives dating back to the First World War. I am not sure yet why I am here. Not sure what I will find and why the research is so important. But it is. It must be – it has been at the back of my mind for a month now. What is it that I hope to find here? I am as confused as you probably are, dear reader.

Everything is so silent here. Thirteen tables arranged geometrically – almost military (ha-ha). Old people; probably trying to find out more about known ones long gone. The records available at the Museum of Military History go from 1989 backwards, you see.

I never met the person I am researching about – not in this life, anyway. Henri Joseph Victor Winandy died during the First World War. I am here to understand in which circumstances.

Let me take this moment of quiet solitude to confess to you something that might sound odd: I came here because I am curious, that much is true, but also due to a Hollywoodian sense of adventure. I have never done this before, and the situation reminds me vaguely of some of Nicholas Cage’s searches for treasures.

It doesn’t feel like such an adventure now, though. I filled a lot of paperwork, paid four euros and now have to wait for God knows how long. But it’s ok: I’ll use the idle time to tell you about the process. There are four reasons that justify a request to see any of the files available: professional, personal, for academic reasons or genealogical curiosity. The fee varies according to how much access you want, and for how long. It can range from nothing to 77 euros. It was four for me because I wanted to see one file for one day (which was exceptionally lucky for me, because they don’t accept credit card and I had only 4,36 euros in my wallet).

Oh, here it is! They brought me the file.

Then my world shifted a little.

I thought that reading the files would be difficult and confusing, but they were very clear and, for a storyteller like me, seemed like an amazing  (albeit short) book. The file contained all relevant information about the soldier that shared my last name.

Henry Winandy enlisted in the Belgian army at the age of 22. The year was 1914, and the First World War had just started. He had no children and was not married. After a few months working as an auxiliary infantry officer, he was promoted to second lieutenant, remaining in this position for the rest of his short life. He worked a total of 47 months. On September 28th 1918, less than two months before the end of the war, he went missing in action, presumed dead.

His cousin, Armand, couldn’t accept the unknown character of his brother’s death, so using his position at the time in the Foreign Affairs Department, he asked for the Defense Department to conduct an inquiry. They did, but no body was found. The only thing they knew was that Henry had last been seen alive by the battalion chief about 45 minutes after the start of a battle against the Germans in the region of Flanders (north of Belgium) on September 28th.

Not having a body to mourn must have affected Armand very much, because he never gave up in his efforts to locate it. He was so persistent that the Defense Department said that while there was nothing that they could do regarding the missing body, they would gladly name Henry Winandy as a war hero and put his name amongst dozens of others in a monument that was being built.

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Quick interruption to highlight a curious fact: in each commune of Brussels, as well as in every city in Belgium, there were placed beautiful monuments a few decades ago honoring war heroes that were born in that specific neighborhood or town. In August 2015 I came across one of these monuments unexpectedly and, for some mystic reason beyond my comprehension, I decided to read the names written on it. And there it was, Henry’s name. Of course, the inscription actually read “Winandy, H. J. V” and I had to research on internet to discover his full name. But there was no info other than that (his name), that’s why I ended up going to the Museum of Military History in Brussels a month later. If I hadn’t decided to read the names on the monument, I would probably never know about Henry. But, returning the narrative:

The documents make Armand’s quest throughout the years quite explicit. In 1925 (seven years after Henry’s disappearance), the director of Military Graves (can you believe there is such a department?) received a notice that the body of a second lieutenant had been buried in a cemetery near the place where the battle had occurred and, knowing about the persistent Armand, called him to check if that was his cousin’s body. Armand went, of course.

He learned that his cousin and that mysterious body shared the same height and almost the same number of dental gold foils (the body had one more than Henry had, as far as Armand knew). That body had died due to a trauma in the head, caused by the explosion of a bombshell. Not certain that he had found his cousin, Armand asked the family dentist to look at the body’s teeth and say if the body and his cousin were the same person. The last document on the file was from a friend of Armand, requesting authorization from the Military Graves for the dentist to check the body’s teeth, so I don’t know if it really was Henry or not.

But I like to think it was. I like the idea that after so many years searching, never giving up, Armand got the answers he so badly needed. I have plans to continue my research, find out more about what happened to Armand, if he ever married and had children, but for now I am content with the facts I gathered.

As I left the Museum of Military History, I felt my head hurt and my heart break. In my head I conjured up a Henry that was young and unafraid, and died to make sure that we -the generations to come- were safe. It’s not just the last name that we share – it’s, in a very diluted, faint and feeble way, the blood. He is a part of me as much as Armand, who, for me, acquired this aura of love and determination. He didn’t accept his cousin’s death meekly. He fought for it to be honored, to be cherished, to be respected.

I will never know them. I will never understand completely what happened, and how, and yet I feel as if I already know everything I needed to. And the knowledge that the story is real, that the fact on those yellowed old papers were real, made me feel strangely connected to them. It was a very strong experience for me, one that I won’t forget soon.

I will never truly know if Henry deserved the title of war hero. Who knows? Maybe there were dark parts in him that didn’t show in the papers. There probably were. But, for me, he always was and always will be a kind of genealogical hero. Him and Armand.

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