Friday, March 26, 2021

Review: A False Dawn by Ilona Lacková

An article in this week's Slovak Spectator alerted me to the fact that I had missed not only the 100th anniversary of the birth of writer Ilona (aka Elena) Lacková on March 22nd but also the charming Google Doodle that honored the occasion. I read Lacková's autobiography several years ago and was fascinated. I'm a few days late, but I thought I'd honor her birth and her work by posting my 2008 review of her book here.


In A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia, Ilona Lacková and translator/researcher Milena Hubschmannová give us a unique view into a Romani (“Gypsy”) community of Slovakia and how it has changed in the past several decades. Ilona Lacková (1921-2003), a Romani woman, was born in a Romani settlement near Prešov to a Romani musician father and a Polish non-Romani mother. Milena Hubschmannová was a student at Charles University in Prague when in 1954 she decided to research Romani language and met Lacková. She began audio-taping Lacková’s story in 1976 and continued taping for several years, later selecting, transcribing, and arranging Lacková’s stories until she had a biography of a woman and within it a story of a culture. 

Although Lacková had an upbringing fairly typical for her community, she was not a typical Romani child in that she remained in school where she developed a love of reading and writing stories and became fluent in Slovak. By the time of World War II she was a young woman, a wife and mother. She describes how after the war she had hopes that Communism would improve the conditions of the Romani communities, recalling her father’s insistence, “Remember, it’s only in the Communist Party that you won’t find people saying: I’m a gentleman and you’re a Gypsy! In the Communist Party you’re a comrade just like me!” Disappointed to find that the Party considered Romani issues to be among the lowest priorities, Lacková became obsessed with writing a play that would depict the experiences of the Roma. Cast with Lacková’s Romani friends and relatives, the play became popular and well-known in Czechoslovakia. By the time the play had completed a run of over 100 performances, Lacková and her husband were considered by Communist officials to be “advanced, socially-aware Gypsy citizens ... and they should be used in political and cultural work.” This led to Lacková being “trained and ideologically armed” and appointed as a cultural inspector, “the first Gypsy woman functionary.” Later, in her 40s, she became the first Romani woman to attend Charles University, studying and obtaining her degree in the Faculty of Culture and Journalism there. 

Lacková unofficially added advocacy for Roma to her duties in the Communist Party, visiting settlements whenever possible as she traveled. She describes their wretched impoverishment, most poignantly in the story of a woman sending her children out on little errands as she boiled water in a lidded kettle while praying for a miracle of food to put into the kettle. We readers get a further peek into the issues of the community during a time of change when Lacková narrates the disagreements that she and her husband had over the issues of Roma assimilating into the larger culture. 

Though she attained an undreamed-of status for a “Gypsy woman,” Lacková’s adult life was in many ways still typical for a member of a Romani community. Even her degree from Charles University could not prevent a downturn in the family’s economic situation and she found herself, post-graduation, making and hawking trinkets like any other stereotypical “Gypsy.” She struggled to find housing for her family and describes the thrill of their first apartment: a single basement room with a window at ceiling level, a cement floor, and running water because it had been a laundry room until the hour that she moved her family in. She details the conflicts of holding a full-time job while simultaneously meeting the expectations of being a full-time wife and mother. Through it all she constantly wrestled with her self-image as “black,” “Gypsy,” and “backward,” even after becoming educated and “enlightened.” 

Lacková’s themes are love, music, community, deprivation, and marginalization. She gives us clear descriptions of the Romani peoples’ descent from poverty and disenfranchisement into abject misery during the decades of her life: of her visits to settlements during her years as a cultural inspector, she says, “... it all reminded me of my childhood and youth in the settlement, which I had cursed countless times for its squalor and poverty, and which I loved above all else for the love and respect for one another that our people shared, for the art of taking life as it came, and for the art of joyousness.” Of the wretched post-war life of the Roma, she describes “... worse than the material poverty was the fact that after five years of constant fear, uncertainty, chicanery, and maltreatment, those hungry, dirty, sick, lice-infested, illiterate people had stopped taking care of themselves, and nothing mattered to them, because they had come to know that not a single one of their wishes would be listened to, and that their every effort was in vain. The girls didn’t care if their hair looked like feathers and straw—and the greatest pride of Romani girls used to be their hair! The boys didn’t care that they didn’t know how to take up a violin in their hands—and the violin used to be the greatest aspiration of every young Rom.” We as readers are left wishing for a more thorough discussion of the reasons and events behind this terrible decline, but that is not the purpose of this book, and we are left to glean causes from Lacková’s story. 

Hubschmannová wisely refrained from editing Lacková’s story into a smoothly flowing narrative biography, instead preserving Lacková’s own words (albeit translated) and story-telling prowess. A False Dawn is arranged in sections roughly by periods of Lacková’s life, and within those sections often by topic. The first sections describe her family’s background and personalities, and her childhood in the context of the Romani settlement: occupations, holidays, schooling, marriage customs, relationship to the outside Slovak community, and so on. The next section describes the war years and her time as a young wife and mother, a time of appalling economic and social hardship, and the birth of and loss of children. Her post-war pre-Communist career in theater takes up the next section, followed by her work within the Communist Party and her advocacy for Roma, and then a small section about her university studies and life immediately afterwards. The book ends with a section titled “Postscript,” describing her past fifteen years in retirement. Tantalizingly, she then talks about the “Vlach Roma” in a small essay of three pages at the very end of the book. The Vlach Roma are those Roma who lived and traveled in caravans, different and exotic even to other Roma and fascinating to Lacková herself. We are left with a sense that after 200-plus intriguing pages, we have in fact only begun to learn about the “Gypsies” of Slovakia. 

A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia by Ilona Lacková, translated and edited by Milena Hubschmannová. Interface collection, 16. Paris: Centre de recherches tsiganes, 2000. ISBN-13: 9781902806006

My review originally appeared in Slovakia (Spring 2008 issue), the quarterly publication of The Slovak Heritage and Folklore Society International.


Saturday, January 2, 2021

Identifying the Parents of Jacob Knieper




In the early-mid 1880s immigrants Jacob Knieper and his wife Katherine Laven settled in Maple Grove Township, Saginaw County, Michigan, where they bought farmland and spent the rest of their lives. [1] Some of their six children remained in Saginaw County (sons Anthony, William, Henry); son Nicholas settled in the Traverse City area; daughter Catherine in Lorain County, Ohio; and daughter Gertrude in Ionia County, Michigan. [2]


Jacob and Katherine’s descendants are numerous and there is a long tradition of interest in the family history and in listing descendants. Sometime during the mid or late 1970s an eighteen-page Knieper family history and compiled genealogy was typed onto ditto masters and distributed to relatives. Sister Wilhelmina Knieper OP, daughter of Nicholas, wrote the two pages of family history; the compiled genealogy was probably the joint work of her and her cousin Sister Frederica (née Louisa) Knieper OP, daughter of Henry. [3]


In her discussion of the immigrant couple Sister Wilhelmina acknowledged, “We know very little about the early history of this [Jacob and Katherine (Laven) Knieper] family,” but, “We know that all the children [of Jacob and Katherine] were born in Germany, the youngest being about three or four years old when they came to America in 1882 [sic].” She made no mention of Jacob’s parents or of any siblings he might have had.


Jacob’s American records provide little or no information about his origins beyond “Prussia” or “Germany.” [4] Sister Wilhelmina named her grandparents’ village of origin as “… Illerick, a village south of Koblenz on the Rhine River in Germany. The village, Illerick, which is now extinct, was probably a group of houses clustered around the church.” There are small errors of geography here but enough information to confidently identify the place. Illerich (not Illerick) is not extinct although it is now incorporated into the Verbandsgemeinde of Kaisersesch; and it is not on the Rhine River but it is in Rhineland. [5]  The village lies a few miles north of the Moselle River and about 24 miles southwest of the city of Koblenz, which is on the Rhine River where the Moselle flows into it. [6]


Jacob’s death certificate records two additional details critical to placing him in his birth family and identifying his parents: a birthdate of 31 August 1837 and his father’s name Anton. [7]


Many of the public member trees on genealogy sites such as Ancestry and MyHeritage name no parents for either Jacob or Katherine; of those which do name parents, nearly all name Jacob’s parents as Franciscus (or Franz) Knieper and Margareta Sesterhenn. [8] I propose a different couple as Jacob Knieper’s parents.





The imaged parish records of Illerich and neighboring Landkern do not include the years 1832–1847 and so we cannot identify Jacob’s parents from a birth or baptismal record. [9] The parish record of his 1865 marriage with Catharina Lawen names him the son of Antonius Knieper and the late [defuncta] Anna Margaretha Kremer and gives his age as 28. Additionally, the two named witnesses to the marriage include “Antonius Knieper pater [his father].” [10]



Furthermore, the godfather of Jacob and Katherine’s first child Anton [infans primogenitus] is specifically identified as “Antonius Knieper avus [his grandfather].” [11]


Although the parish baptismal records for that critical (to us!) period are not available or are no longer extant, the Familienbuch (family register) for Illerich is and is imaged on FamilySearch. The family of “Jakob Knieper” and “Katharina Lawen” appears on page 391. [12] The entry records Jakob’s birth date as 1 September 1837 and his parents as Anton Knieper and A[nna] Marg[areta] Kremer. Jakob and Katharina’s marriage date of 12 October 1865 is noted. Seven children are listed with their dates of birth:

1.     Anton, 8 August 1866

2.     Peter, 5 March 1868

3.     Wilhelm, 20 October 1869

4.     Nikolaus, 29 March 1872

5.     Heinrich, 1 May 1874

6.     Katharina, 27 July 1877

7.     Gertrud, 18 January 1880


There is no post-1880 information in the family’s entry, consistent with a family that emigrated in the early 1880s.


See my earlier post here for an explanation of this register's columns


Jakob also appears with his birth family in a separate entry of the family register. Anton Knieper and Anna Margaretha Kremer had five children, of whom son Jakob was born 1 September 1837 and on 12 October 1865 married “Kath. Lawen.” Each entry, that of Jakob in his parent’s family and that of Jakob with his wife and children, references the page number of the other. [13]





The Illerich family’s names and ages are consistent with a Knieper family that sailed in early 1883 from Antwerp to New York on the Nederland.



Date of birth in Illerich family register

Age of Illerich family member in March 1883 / age of passenger on March 1883 manifest

Date of birth of Maple Grove family member in American record


1 Sept. 1837

45 / 45

31 Aug. 1837 [14]


btwn Oct. 1838 and Oct. 1839 [15]

44 /43

btwn May 1838 and May 1839 [16]


8 Aug. 1866

16 / [age 16 in May 1882 [17]]

Aug. 1866 [18]


5 Mar. 1868

15 / 15

5 Mar 1870 [19]


20 Oct. 1869

13 / 11

20 Oct 1871 [20]


29 Mar. 1872

11 / 8

29 Mar. 1872 [21]


1 May 1874

8 / [difficult to read, maybe 7]

1 May 1873 [sic]; 1 May 1874 [22]


27 July 1877

5 / 4

27 July 1877


18 Jan. 1880

3 / 3

1880 [24]





The identities of Jacob’s parents seem clear, and they are not Franz Knieper and Margareta Sesterhenn.

·     The Maple Grove Township family of Jacob Knieper and Katherine Laven and their children (Anthony, Peter, William, Nicholas, Henry, Catherine, and Gertrude), the family which arrived on the Nederland at the port of New York at the end of March 1883, and the family outlined in the Illerich familienbuch headed by a Jakob Knieper born in late summer 1837, are all the same family.

·     The parish marriage record and the two family register entries for the Jakob Knieper of Illerich name his parents Antonius Knieper and Anna Margaretha Kremer, and his first child’s baptismal record names Antonius Knieper as the baby’s grandfather.

·     The death certificate of Jacob of Maple Grove names his father Anton.


Jacob Knieper of Maple Grove Township was the son of Anton Knieper and Anna Margaretha Kremer of Illerich.


Next post: so why is that other couple often named as Jacob’s parents?


All URLs cited were current as of December 2020.

[1]  Jacob Knieper owned a 40-acre parcel in section 21 of Maple Grove Township in the 1890s; see the reproduction of plat maps from The County of Saginaw Michigan: Topography, History, Art Folio, compiled and published in 1896 by the Imperial Publishing, Saginaw, in Atlases of Saginaw County, Michigan: 1877, 1896, 1916 (Saginaw County Genealogical Society, 1990s?). Jacob’s and Katherine’s death records place both of them in Maple Grove Township at the ends of their lives. See State of Michigan Division of Vital Statistics, Certificate of Death, 1910, registered no. [illegible], Jacob Knieper of Saginaw County; database and images, Michigan History Center, Michiganology ( Also, FamilySearch (, “Michigan Deaths, 1867-1897,” digital film 00420671, images 733–34, Return of Deaths in the County of Saginaw for the Year Ending December 31st, A. D. 1886, register page 68 [stamped], entry 151 for Kate Knipper.

[2]  Sister Wilhelmina Knieper, “Original Knieper Family History in America (1882–1976),” two mimeographed typed pages distributed to relatives. Its accompanying five-generation genealogy “Knieper Family Tree” was probably compiled and typed by Sister Wilhelmina and her cousin Sister Frederica (née Louisa) Knieper. Both women were granddaughters of Jacob and Katherine (Laven) Knieper.

[3]  “Original Knieper Family History in America (1882–1976).” Also, Sr. Frederica Knieper (St. Michael Convent, New Lothrup, MI) to Julie Michutka (Ann Arbor, MI), letter dated 16 March 1979; family files of Julie Michutka, Burlington, MA. Sister Frederica discussed the work on the various family lines.

[4]  For “Prussia” as his place of origin, see Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897, NARA microfilm publication M237, roll 463, 31 March 1883, SS Nederland, for Jacob Knieper family group on page 7, lines 313–320; image at FamilySearch ( For “Germany” see Jacob’s death certificate, cited in footnote 2. Also, 1900 US census, Saginaw Co., Mich. population schedule, Maple Grove Township, ED 40, sheet 12A, dwelling 202, family 205, Jacob Knieper; NARA microfilm T623, roll 739; image at FamilySearch. Also, 1910 US census, Saginaw Co., Mich. pop. sched., Maple Grove Twp., ED 45, sheet 10B, dw. 205, fam. 208, Jacob Knieper “Father” in household of Antone Knieper; NARA microfilm T624, roll 671; image at FamilySearch.

[5]  Verbandsgemeinde: “typically composed of a small group of villages or towns … the individual municipalities still maintain a limited degree of local autonomy” (

[6]  For a present-day map of the area, see  For a 19th century map, see

[7]  State of Michigan Division of Vital Statistics, Certificate of Death, 1910, registered no. [illegible], Jacob Knieper of Saginaw County; database and images, Michigan History Center, Michiganology ( : 11 November 2020), search by name. Jacob died 11 November 1910.

[8]  For several dozen examples, search collection “Public Member Trees” with exact name Jacob Knieper and place of death “Michigan, USA”.

[9]  Illerich was part of the Landkern parish until 1848. For the years covered by the parish records, search by town names at

[10]  Pfarrkirche St. Vinzenz (Saint Vincent Catholic Parish, Illerich, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany), marriage register 1848–1926, entries in chronological order on unnumbered pages, entry 7 in 1865 for Jacobus Knieper and Catharina Lawen; FHL microfilm 583680; images viewed on FamilySearch (, access via Search > Catalog, search by microfilm number; image 279. Note: the imaged parish records for these villages can be accessed on only by logging into the website at a Family History Center or a FamilySearch affiliate library. See for a list of those locations.

[11]  Pfarrkirche St. Vinzenz, baptismal register 1848–1915, p. 99 entry 26 for Antonius Knieper; FHL microfilm 584938; images viewed on FamilySearch, access via Search > Catalog, search by microfilm number; image 55.

[12]  Pfarrkirche St. Vinzenz, “Familien-Buch der Pfarrei Illerich beginnend mit dem Jahre 1613,” 494 pages; FHL microfilm 583680; images viewed on FamilySearch, access via Search > Catalog, search by microfilm number 583680; images 2–254. The familienbuch entries were compiled from a variety of other sources including the parish registers of Illerich and Landkern; see imaged notes at the beginning. Some annotations to entries (e.g., went to America) might have been added independently of the register extracts. For Jakob and Katharina’s family entry, see the familienbuch’s p. 391 at image 202.

[13]  Pfarrkirche St. Vinzenz, “Familien-Buch,” p. 273, Anton Knieper–Anna Margaretha Kremer family; image 143. 

[14]  From Jacob’s death certificate, cited in footnote 1.

[15]  Calculated from Katherine’s age (26) in her marriage record of October 1865, cited in footnote 10.

[16].  Calculated from Katherine’s age (47) in her death record of May 1886, cited in footnote 1.

[17]  “Original Knieper Family History in America (1882–1976)”: “The oldest son, Anthony, when he was about sixteen years old, came to America a year earlier than the rest of the family.” This 1882 passenger list entry is very likely Anthony’s: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897, NARA microfilm publication M237, roll 452, 27 May 1882, SS Pennland, 12th page (unnumbered), line 584, Anton Knieper age 16; image at FamilySearch (

[18]  Find A Grave (, memorial 61298278 for Anthony Knieper, created 8 November 2010 by “richokeefe.” Unsourced obituary-like text names his parents as well as his date of birth.

[19]  FamilySearch, “Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007,” digital film 004714933, Jay [County], 1905-1907 Volume 1, image 243, Marriage License Record, p. 426 for Peter Knieper and Mary Minnick.

[20]  State of Michigan Division of Vital Statistics, Certificate of Death, 1938, no. 17317062, William Knieper; database and images, Michigan History Center, Michiganology (

[21]  Find A Grave, memorial 130933293 with gravestone image for Nicholas Knieper, created 5 June 2014 by Julie Umlor. Full date of birth provided in memorial text; year of birth appears on gravestone.

[22]  For the 1873 date, see: FamilySearch, “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” digital film 005251430, Michigan, Saginaw County A–Moore William D, image 3514 for Henry Knieper, serial no. 3667, Local Board for the County. For the 1874 date, see: Find A Grave, memorial 82864203 for Henry Knieper, created 2 January 2012 by Helen (Prieur) Gengler. Unsourced obituary text “Services for Henry Knieper” names his parents and provides his date of birth.

[23]  “Original Knieper Family History in America (1882–1976)”: “Catherine married Joe Gilles from Amherst, Ohio. She raised her family and lived there until her death.” See Find A Grave, memorial 70868030 for Katherine Gilles, created 4 June 2011 by “KeepsakeQuilter,” with gravestone image added by “LindaB” showing year of birth.

[24]  Find A Grave, memorial 83423523 for Gertrude Margaret Kneiper [sic] Pfeifer, created 14 January 2012 by N. Sharlene (Rice) Kent. The brief biographical sketch includes her year of birth and names her parents; some sources are included. Year of birth also appears on gravestone images added by “Meauwataka” and “Helen Radtke.”