by Bruce Graham
The priest was not happy about the late afternoon visit by four strangers from a distant community. Father Josef Zahnschirm was long past the time when he curried favor with parishioners and visitors in hopes of gaining a monsignorship; his highest ambition was now to simply go through the routines of confessions, masses, weddings, baptisms and funerals, and endure with minimal resentment when he was called out for the last rites. His arthritis and chronic shortness of breath made even his simple presence at confirmations difficult.
He tottered ahead of them from the rectory front door to the room that served as the parish office and his living room, and vaguely indicated the two guest chairs while he shuffled to stand behind the desk. He stared at the lined face of the apparent leader of the group, whose gnarled hands bespoke an age even more advanced than his own.
“Father, I come from Spital. These are my son-in-law and two cousins who have knowledge of certain facts. We are interested in a baptism record from thirty-nine years past.”
Father Zahnschirm was glad the man mentioned that before he sat down, rising from his chair was difficult. “You say 1837? Do you have a definite date?”
“June, I believe,” said the leader.
The cleric hobbled to a bookshelf and fumbled among ledgers, removed one, and returned to the desk. He laid down the book and opened the pages. “The names?”
“The father would have not been named.”
The priest snickered. “That limits the possible cases to about one-third of the total population. Illegitimacy—it is a wonder that the Church can flourish at all.”
“The child was Alois, the mother Maria Anna—”
“Ah, by chance here it is.” He turned the book toward the visitor.
There was still hope that the meeting would not last long. “And your interest?”
“Your records will show a marriage about five years later between this boy’s mother and my brother. We are here to correct the record to show him as the boy’s legal father. Here—” the man drew from his coat a battered paper, “—is a statement by all of us before a notary in Weitra that my brother is the child’s father.”
The priest took the document. He needed time to think. He studied the names and crosses indicating the identities of the affiants, then noted the verification of the notary and the seal. He slowly read the words, affirming that the leader of the group was the brother of a man who before his death almost twenty years earlier had stated in the presence of the signers that he had begotten on the body of the woman, Maria Anna, a child, born in June, 1837, at Strones, named Alois, the same woman that he had married in 1842. The priest let the instrument fall onto the desk. He turned and slowly returned to the shelf full of books.
He’d never encountered anything close to this. In his several poor parishes he had been vague when it served the interests or convenience of this person or that. He had bent the diocesan rules, and stretched doctrinal points in presiding at the burial of a suicide or approving an annulment request that he sensed was based upon falsehoods. He had officiated at weddings that he knew were forced, and with subtlety twisted the arms of supplicants for parish contributions as consideration for sacramental service. But he had never faced a request to change an official record.
The priest located the marriage records for 1842.
There should be no problem denying the plea, since the chance of these men taking the matter to the diocese was remote. And suppose they did? How could Father Zahnschirm be faulted for refusing the request? And even if he was criticized, what difference would it make? He was at the bottom of the ecclesiastical ladder in this poverty stricken area, and too old to be worried about it affecting his career, which was probably not far from its natural end in any event.
The man was asking for action bordering on the unlawful. The mother was not corroborating the facts. And only proceedings in an Imperial court could establish paternity on someone who was dead.
The greater risk was purely practical: how long would these people drag out their visit to the priest’s discomfort and inconvenience?
“Here it is.” The priest pointed to the record in the spring of 1842, showing the marriage of the mother of Alois and the man named in the statement before the notary.
The man leaned, nodded. “That’s it.”
The priest closed the record book. He sank into his ancient chair.
Two of the men sat in the guest chairs, no doubt glad that the priest had finally taken his seat so that they could do the same. All of them were staring at the cleric. They had done enough, they no doubt were thinking, it was now up to the priest.
Father Zahnschirm held out his open hands. “I’ll keep the notarized statement in the book, for whatever it’s worth. That is all,” said Father Zahnschirm. “I wish you a pleasant journey home.”
“But the birth record? Will you change it?”
“I cannot change it. I cannot show a father’s name.”
“But the man wants to be legitimate.”
“After thirty-nine years? To what purpose?”
“My family would like to have him carry on the family name.”
The priest was incredulous on two counts. Among the peasants in this backwater section of the Empire illegitimacy was so rampant that there was little stigma to it. And, in or out of wedlock, these folks seemed so prolific that the likelihood of this man or his brother having no male children seemed incredible.
“There are no sons in the family?” He hardly said it when he realized he was heading into the trap of arguing with the man.
The man shook his head.
“Where is this Alois?”
“He is in the Imperial service.”
This was more serious. “What service?”
The priest sighed with relief. The customs service was hardly one with which the cleric should be concerned. The priest placed his open hands on the desk. “Who is this man’s real father?”
The man waved a hand vaguely over the desk. “My brother. You have the proof.”
“I cannot do it. I’m sorry. He’ll need to go through the legal system.”
The man frowned and pointed toward the baptismal record. “But his name. He, his children, saddled with such a name. In Vienna, even Linz, they’ll be looked down on as bumpkins.”
Father Zahnschirm flushed. “You make fun of complicated names? Do you know my name? And this is a matter that should have been considered when this woman’s parents gave her birth. What was her mother’s name, and why was she not born out of wedlock so she could have kept it. I cannot do it.” He struggled to his feet.
The two men in the chairs sprang up. The four of them milled about while the priest limped around the desk to herd them from the room.
The leader among the visitors paused. “I’ll take the paper. It won’t do any good here, I think.” He reached around the priest and took the document, that he plunged into a coat pocket. “I thank you for sparing us your valuable time.” The group worked its way to and out the front door.
Father Zahnschirm hobbled back to his desk. He returned the marriage record to the shelf and stared down at the baptismal record. He smiled slightly. He did something that he often did, he spoke out loud: “What difference would a name change make? Except for this Alois and his descendants being laughed at for their name, what difference will it make?”
The meeting was at its critical point. The former Bavarian corporal, who had been very active in the Party for not yet two years, was demanding leadership. Anton Drexler’s speech attacking the man’s grab for power was scattered with derision and sarcasm. Each time that he spoke his adversary’s name, it was slowly and with practiced stretched-out enunciation: Schick-el-gru-ber. “The final reason why this man would be a disaster for the Party is his very name. This monicker is the sign of a dirt digger, a peasant, a ne’er do well from the backcountry. Can you imagine our followers chanting for our leader with ‘Schick-el-gru-ber! Schick-el-gru-ber. Heil, Schick-el-gru-ber’? The other parties will laugh at us. Never!”
A smattering of chuckles ran through the hall. A vote was called for.
Adolf Schicklgruber, whose father’s family’s attempt to change his father’s name with the Döllersheim parish priest had failed, had no need to wait. He left the meeting, in obscurity.