One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part VI (Final thoughts)

Rereading Kurth’s book, over 22 years later, in tandem with rereading King and Wilson’s book, was such a study in contrasts. I wanted to see if I’d interpret all these things much differently, now knowing the truth. So many things uncritically presented as factual by Kurth are reported far differently, and more damningly, by King and Wilson.

King and Wilson make it clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the claimant was one and the same as Franziska Schanzkowska. Not only that, they show how she seemingly pulled off this charade for so many decades and fooled so many people who supposedly knew the real Anastasiya very well.

She relied on her incredible memory (which was never as shattered as she pretended it was), taking advantage of all the books, magazine articles, captioned photos, and personal stories that were offered up to her in good faith. To avoid blowing her cover, she carefully controlled whom she interacted with and what she said.

After such a dark, bleak life, Franziska saw in the Romanovs the kind of ideal, loving family she’d been denied. She wanted, needed to identify so strongly with their happiness, privilege, close-knit bonds. Taking on this pretended identity, even with the dark cloud of Yekaterinburg, was preferable to her own real life.

People who quickly, unthinkingly dismiss her, without knowing much else about her, fail to understand how complex her story really was. Franziska was more than just another pretender. Once she realised the enormity of what she’d set in motion, she knew she could never back out of it and return to being Franziska.

Not only was she guilty of fraud, but so many good people had become personally involved. They’d opened their homes, paid for her medical care and legal bills, given her priceless mementos, publicly and prominently defended her. She wasn’t like any of the other countless Romanov pretenders, whose claims quickly fizzled out and who never became international celebrities.

Countless DNA tests, from multiple labs, genetic samples, and countries, have proven over and over again she wasn’t a Romanova, nor a maternal descendent of Queen Victoria. Instead, her mtDNA has always matched Franziska’s sister’s grandson.

Though U.S. and Russian forensic scientists disagree on which daughter was missing from the mass grave and finally found in 2007, DNA tests have proved all seven members of the Imperial Family are now accounted for.

Taken together with all the unarchived documents disproving so much of what the world was led to believe for decades, the truth is obvious. However, there remains a small, committed band of Anastasians, still clinging to wild conspiracy theories and refusing to accept new evidence.

The most bizarre conspiracy I’ve heard is that she was a chimera. A. Freaking. Chimera.

People in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution wanted, needed to believe someone survived. Even today, people without any monarchist leanings or Russian blood are struck by the heartbreaking tragedy. This gave them hope to cling to, however delusional.

Thus, they were able to overlook troubling things like her refusal to speak Russian, blatantly false memories, obvious mistakes, strikingly different physical appearance, lack of response to things the real Anastasiya would’ve been deeply affected by or at least recognised, all the holes in her rescue story.

Of course it’s wrong to steal the identity of a girl who was murdered when she was barely seventeen, and to take advantage of so many good people for decades. But given the harsh life Franziska came from, this role of a lifetime was a golden ticket to go from a nobody to a somebody.

She probably didn’t think it would ever go so far, but once she was so firmly ensconced in it, with so many other people involved, it was impossible to end things. Admitting her fraud would’ve made her life even worse.

At the time of the Revolution, Tatyana (left) was the most famous and popular of the Tsar’s daughters, because of her prominent nursing work and exotic, regal beauty. Thanks to Franziska’s decades-long pretending act, Anastasiya is now the most famous by far.

If Franziska hadn’t claimed her identity, it’s very likely Anastasiya would’ve remained a footnote in history. Had she lived, she would’ve married a foreign prince and led an ordinary royal life, even if she’d married a prince from a country that fell under Nazi occupation or fascist rule.

Franziska had a much more interesting life than Anastasiya seemed destined for, precisely because of her pretending act.

There’s a Jewish teaching that parents have a moment of prophecy when they name a baby. It’s indeed eerily prophetic how Anastasiya means “resurrection.”

One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part V (Who really was she?)

Peter Kurth made such a strong case for establishing this most famous of all pretenders as Grand Duchess Anastasiya, denied by her family and rejected by the courts, I couldn’t believe she was anyone else. I dismissed her real identity as ardently as he did. It was a ridiculous conspiracy or bizarre case of mistaken identity.

Many years later, I very reluctantly began to concede perhaps she really wasn’t Anastasiya after all. But surely she couldn’t have been a supposed Polish peasant, since she knew too much about the Imperial Family.

And then I discovered the mountains of newly-unarchived evidence dashing any lingering false beliefs. This new evidence goes far beyond DNA in proving, without a shadow of a doubt, this person was one and the same as Franziska Schanzkowska.

FS was the only other identity ever ascribed to her, besides the one she lay claim to for almost 64 years. Her positive identification as FS was first reported in 1927, yet her supporters have always framed it as a cruel conspiracy by Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine to rob her of her inheritance.

Many people considered the matter settled, despite the fact that Franziska’s brother Felix quickly reneged on his positive identification of her. But thanks to the powerful, carefully-presented voices of her supporters, and the public’s preference for a fairytale story about a lost princess rejected by her family and fighting to reclaim her identity, falsehoods carried the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her supporters are loath to compare the only known pre-1920 photo of FS with any of her later photos, because the similarities are so obvious. Comparing any of her photos with those of her birth family reveals great similarities too, whereas she doesn’t have much of any family resemblance with the Romanovs.

I won’t spoil all the stunning new revelations reported by King and Wilson, but suffice it to say, FS was no Polish peasant. She was Kashubian (a West Slavic group in Poland), and descended from minor nobility. Franziska got a rather good education, and was very intelligent.

Franziska had a rather bleak, dark childhood, and didn’t fit in with most of the people in her hometown. They resented how she wanted to “get above her raising” instead of matter-of-factly accepting her station in life.

Franziska’s life in Germany wasn’t any better. After she went missing in 1920, her hosts, the Wingenders, didn’t immediately alert the police. She came back to them in 1922, when she ran away from the von Kleists, but the Wingenders never attempted to look for her in all that time.

When she was pulled out of the canal, she had nothing to live for. In a way, FS really did die, since she never lived as Franziska again, apart from those four days in 1922. Once the idea of impersonating Anastasiya was planted in her head, and heavily encouraged by the émigrés she met, she ran with it.

Pretending to be Anastasiya meant she never had to work again, and was able to live rather comfortably, even after her height of popularity. She always had a place to live, friends in high places, money, her needs taken care of.

Her brother Felix recognised as much, and thus reneged on his earlier identification. He wanted to leave her to her new friends and “career.” When a meeting with all four of her siblings was arranged in 1937 (demanded by Hitler), they ultimately had to deny her to protect both her and Felix from serious legal consequences. Franziska was guilty of fraud, while Felix had lied on a legal document.

Doris Wingender, middle daughter of Franziska’s former hostess, was virulently attacked just as much as Pierre Gilliard, for daring to accept money and an exclusive newspaper contract for this story.

Kurth describes Dr. Wilhelm Völler, the attorney of major supporter Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann, taking Doris to dinner by a hotel and stealing her newspaper contract from her purse while she was in the powder room.

Kurth doesn’t mention how Franziska very much recognised Felix when he came to see her by Castle Seeon, nor does he give any credence to the Wingenders’ account of Franziska coming to visit them, wearing clothes the von Kleists themselves recognised.

Decades later, during the trials, Doris submitted a photo of herself in those very clothes. It was discovered she’d drawn in buttons and a belt, and erased a figure. Kurth is horrorstruck the court ruled she didn’t do that maliciously or knowingly submit falsified evidence.

By summer 1927, eleven people had identified her as Franziska, yet her supporters continued to dismiss the evidence. Some spun conspiracy theories about what had happened to the “real” Franziska.

But no matter how much people wanted to believe this romantic fairytale and riveting conspiracy theories, DNA had the final say.

To be continued.