Famed Harry Potter author and philanthropist JK Rowling is eager to trace the French roots of her maternal side, having always been very close with her mother who’s passed away. She knows that her great-grandfather, Louis Volant, received the Legion d’honneur for his WWI efforts, and she has the medal, but she doesn’t know why.
At the National Archives of Paris, Jo pours over Louis Volant’s Legion d’honneur records. She finds a fascinating tale of bravery, but is surprised and confused to realize the man in this account is actually not her ancestor. Since there are no other “Louis Volant”s in the National Archives database, Jo travels to the Military Archives outside of Paris to see if her great-grandfather did, in fact, win a Legion d’honneur award.
At the Military Archives, Jo finds the correct war records for her Louis Volant. She learns that in WWI he found himself caught unexpectedly, and with barely any training, in a battle when Germans attacked his regiment in France. Louis Volant heroically took command of his troop and killed several German soldiers to save his regiment. Jo is overcome with tears and receives a very special gift.
Enthusiastic to continue tracing Louis’s line even farther back, Jo heads to the Paris Hospital Archives to learn about Louis’ early years and his mother, Jo’s 2x great-grandmother, Salome Schuch.
At the Paris Hospital Archives, Jo discovers that when Louis was born, Salome was an unwed servant working nearby in Paris. As an illegitimate son, Louis’ given last name was “Schuch,” making Jo wonder how he became a “Volant.” Jo sets off to meet with a historian at Salome’s former home where she worked as domestic help to see what else she can uncover about both of her ancestors.
It’s amazing to watch Jo climb all those sets of circular stairs and realize that her ancestor, Salome, did as well, as a pregnant servant, likely carrying heavy loads, and trying to hide her pregnancy.
A historian shows Salome’s workplace to Jo, and reveals that Salome would have been out of employment upon having a child. But documents reveal that some years later, Salome moved up in the world, becoming a dress maker and marrying Pierre Volant, who took on Louis as his own son. It’s unclear whether or not Louis is his biological child. Y DNA testing could resolve that question, if there were male Volant descendants of both Louis and one of his “brothers” available to test.
Next, Jo travels from Paris to the village of Brumath by the German border in France, to learn more about Salome and where she grew up.
At the Brumath Town Hall, a census reveals that Salome had five other siblings and that the family was rather poor.
Salome’s mother’s death certificate creates new questions for Jo as she sees it is written in German and not French; a result of the area changing hands from France to Germany during wartime. To learn more about the German occupation of Brumath, Jo meets with a historian to uncover new information.
Jo visits the house where Salome grew up in the small village of Brumath, and learns that during the Franco-Prussian war, Salome and her family endured an invasion of thousands of German soldiers, and found their lives in upheaval as the land, once French territory, became German. Jo learns that townsfolk were given the choice to remain in their homes and become German citizens or move to France to retain their citizenship.
What did Jo’s family do? You’ll have to watch to find out. Sunday, August 2 at 9/8c on TLC, The Learning Channel.
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