My Uncle Frank: German or French?

supr8

1958 St-Eustache, Quebec. Super 8 film ‘capture.’

I never thought I would write about my Uncle Frank Walter, my Aunt Flo’s husband and my mother’s brother-in law.  He is, perhaps, the least controversial figure in our family. One might even call him boring. I never heard a word uttered for or against him – and, believe me, that’s saying a lot .

Frank married Flo her late in life, in 1955, when she was 50 and he was 63. He was a tile painter by trade. He was French from France, my mother told me, but in Quebec that’s hardly exotic.  My mother also told me his last name “Walter” was really pronounced “Valter,” but that didn’t seem important.

Frank and Flo, the giddy ‘newlyweds’ would visit us occasionally, in St. Eustache, north of Montreal, where we lived in the mid 1950’s. They had a big black Buick and they took it everywhere on day trips. They also had a Super 8 movie camera and I have a few seconds of faded film of Aunt Flo and me by the swing set. On another visit, they brought me a giant stuffed panda bear. I was enraptured. My brothers later beat the stuffing out of it, out of jealously, I imagine.

My family visited them at Christmas at their apartment in the city on West Hill Avenue in 1964.  I have a colour photo with my Dad and us kids sitting on their fancy pink French Provincial style couch that I would inherit much later in the 1980’s and put in our basement.

Frank was very old (in my eyes). He was the closest I came to having a grandfather around.  He had grey hair on the thin side and sported a debonair pencil moustach. He was always smoking a pipe.  I could sense, even as a child, that he was a bit on the vain side.  He had a twinkle in his eye and he still flirted with my Aunt Flo who happily flirted back. They made quite a pair.

Frank died in 1977 and I clearly recall the scene at the grave on a hill with trees in Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery on the mountain, as Aunt Flo wept uncontrollably and the tears rolled down my cheeks in empathy. She was crushed at the loss of her “Ptoutsi.”

I thought of Uncle Frank again, in 1990, when Aunt Flo went into a retirement home.  Helping her clear out her apartment, I found a photo album from his WWII service. The album contained many pictures of younger female servicewoman. His girlfriends?  He was a ladies man, after all!  The album creeped me out, so I tossed it in the garbage.

At the same time, my aunt gave us her ‘junk’ to sell in a garage sale in our suburban garden. One piece was Frank’s foot locker from WWI. (Yes, he participated in two world wars.) A collector came around before the start of the sale, gave the tables in the yard a quick scan and immediately pointed to the foot locker.

“I guess French Infantry foot lockers from WWI are worth something,” I said to my husband, suddenly wishing I’d held on to it.

 

uncleffrank2 unlcef1

Intimate ‘captures’ of Frank and Flo from a Super 8 film taken in the mid to late 1950’s in their home.

flo1 flo3

Left: Domestic life on West Hill, in NDG. Right: A visit to a war memorial in Montreal.

 

Aunt Flo died in 1999.

The other day, checking up on Aunt Flo in Notre Dame des Neiges cemetery1 where she was laid to rest, I realized she wasn’t in the family plot but buried with Frank and his family.

So, I took a closer look.  To my surprise, I saw that Uncle Frank’s full name, at least as listed at the cemetery, was Ferdinand Francois Walter and that he was named after his father, who was buried beside him.

Frank’s Mom, Octavie Turgeon, was there, too. A Quebecois name, that’s for sure. So Frank had a German-sounding father and a French Canadian mother.  He wasn’t even from France. He was Canadian-born.

I checked on Drouin and sure enough, Frank’s father, Ferdinand married his mother Octavie in Quebec, in 1890.2  Ferdinand, an engineer, was from Willers, Alsace Lorraine, the son of Francois, and Octavie was from Levis, Quebec.

(Willers, by the way, is one of those achingly picturesque towns in the Haut Rhine.) Ferdinand’s mother was a Berkertz, also German sounding.

Ferdinand’s signature on the marriage document was remarkable in that it was executed in a meticulous ornamental font. I can see where Uncle Frank got his artistic talent. Octavie’s brother signed for her indicating she was illiterate.

The couple sounds like a mismatch. Maybe she was beautiful or rich.

Other Drouin records reveal that Ferdinand Francois, my Uncle Frank, was born in Montreal in 1893.3  WWI military records at LAC reveal Frank enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1916.

“Frank Fern” is how he is registered. So, that prized foot-locker was Canadian Army issue. Fern? Is that a typo, or, back in 1916, did Ferdinand sound too German?

Was Uncle Frank, French or German?  Actually, he was something in-between.

I checked the 1891 census to see that Frank’s father, Ferdinand Walter, emigrated to Canada in 1878, a few years after the Franco Prussian war, when Alsace was turned over to the Germans in the Treaty of Frankfurt, 1871. He is listed as “French” and “Catholic.”

I further learned that in 1872 residents of Alsace who wanted to remain French citizens had to make French Citizenship Declarations or automatically become German citizens. These declarations have been digitized and are available on Ancestry with an explanation. Apparently, there were 124 Walters from Alsace who were determined to keep their French citizenship. Five are listed under Francois.

I wonder if most in the Walters clan wanted to remain French.  That would take a lot more research.

In the end, I picked up some interesting European history while I learned a rather boring truth about my still very uncontroversial “French” Uncle Frank Walter – the “W” pronounced like a V.

Sorry if I led you to believe otherwise.

Still, I wonder how my young uncle felt in 1916 going  back ‘home’ to shoot at his cousins. Perhaps it was just business-as-usual. Alsace-Lorraine was been the site of a vicious tug-of-war between Germany and France for generations.

Ferdinand

Ferdinand’s pretty signature on his wedding certificate.

  1. Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery: Locate a deceased person. https://www.cimetierenotredamedesneiges.ca/en/recherche-defunt
  2. Ancestry.ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
  3. Ancestry.ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
  4. Ancestry. ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.

About Dorothy Nixon

I am a Montreal based writer with a new book about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Canada in 1912/13 Furies Cross the Mersey on Amazon Kindle.

Posted on May 9, 2018, in France, Genealogy, Germany, Quebec and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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