One hundred years ago tomorrow, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo.
The pictures of Franz Ferdinand always make him look like the unbeatable combination of ludicrous and pompous. That stiffly twirled mustache, those medals for nothing, the shiny height-enhancing cap. He’s often shown wearing a plumed hat, which makes him look even sillier. Films of that era – which used a different number of frames – make all motion appear jerky, which doesn’t enhance the serious factor any.
But there was plenty of serious factor around what happened in the aftermath of young Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip pulling the trigger on Franz Ferdinand.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Germany (in the Austro-Hungarian camp) and Great Britain and France (and eventually us) on the Allied side.
And since one good war inevitably begets another, the War to End All Wars (which was how World War I was initially branded) led inexorably to World War II, yet another war that didn’t put an end to all wars.
As it happened, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had a pretty profound impact on my life.
My mother’s parents – Magdalena (Folker) and Jacob Wolf – were ethnic Germans, living in a backwater town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
They were of pioneer stock, their ancestors having emigrated in the 1700’s – in the 18th century equivalent of the Conestoga Wagon – from the Stuttgart region of Germany to the back arse of nowhere.
The Folkers and the Wolfs were farmers, living in one of many all-German pokey farming towns that dotted the Empire.
Their town was Neue Banat (New Banat).
My grandfather was a young man when the war started, little more than a teenager. But along with his brothers – there were seven or eight of them – he became part of the Austro-Hungarian Army. (I don’t know for a fact, but I’m guessing that my grandmother would have had brothers in the army, as well.)
Jake, Nick, Michael, Tony… I don’t know who they all were (other than Jake, my grandfather), but some of those Wolf brothers didn’t make it back.
Somewhere, I have a copy of a poster that was produced in Neue Banat after the war, showing portraits of all the town’s soldier boys. Tote und Lebende Soldaten. The dead and living soldiers, with the dead soldiers shown in the middle, surrounded by a wreath, and those who made it out alive on the poster’s periphery. I looked for it just now and couldn’t find it, but I know there were Wolf brothers within the wreath and others, like my grandfather, on that golden periphery among the lebende.
In 1918, when Jake Wolf made it back to Neue Banat, he married Lena Folker. She was eighteen. He was twenty-two.
They were no longer living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, however.
Neue Banat was now part of Romania, and Neue Banat was now Panatul-Nou where my mother, Elisabeth Wolf, was born in 1919, three days before the first anniversary of The Armistice. (She was part of the World War I baby boom.)
Fast forward a couple of years, and my grandparents were reading the handwriting on the wall, and it didn’t matter if it was in German or Romanian. They wanted out, so they joined some of the Wolfs who were already making their way in the brave new world that was America.
In 1923, with their family passport – issued in the name of his majesty Ferdinand the First, King of Romania – the Wolfs made their way to Chicago. Their passport is stamped along the way in Romania, the Czech Republic, and Germany – but not in the U.S., where they entered via Ellis Island.
On the passport, my grandfather is no longer a farmer, he’s a businessman, which proved true in Chicago. (He prospered as a butcher/grocer.) My mother’s name on the passport appears to be – it’s in script – Laveta. Which is kind of odd, given that Elisabeth in German is Elisabeth in Romanian. Oh, well.
My father’s family was pretty much exempt from World War I. His father and uncles were too old, his brother and cousins too young. He was just five when our boys headed Over There.
The Rogers family did, of course, support the troops.
My aunt embroidered a pillow that read “Come back safely, Moxie Winn” and sent it off to a soldier presumably named Moxie Winn. (Is that a great doughboy name or what?)
The war to end all wars turned out not to be that, but just plain old World War I, making the world “safe” for World War II, which was my father’s war.
He didn’t see action like Jake Wolf did in the rat-infested trenches of the first world war.
As he often said, you went where Uncle Sam sent you.
One of the places that Uncle Sam sent Al Rogers was downtown Chicago, where he was stationed for a couple of years at Navy Pier.
And where he met the daughter of Jake Wolf, who’d been prescient and lucky enough to get the hell out of the old country before it exploded once again.
And that’s how the real shot heard round world helped usher me into being.
Quite a cost though…