Mother of invention

It was a winter's night in Berlin, February 17th, 1920, when a young woman leapt from a bridge into the Landwehr Canal, intent…

It was a winter's night in Berlin, February 17th, 1920, when a young woman leapt from a bridge into the Landwehr Canal, intent on suicide. She was saved from drowning, however, by a passer-by and taken to one of the city's asylums. She refused to speak or to give any account of herself but nurses at the asylum noticed that her body was covered in scars. For almost two years she remained mute, apparently not knowing who she was and owning no name. The hospital staff referred to her as Fraulein Unbekannt, the unknown woman.

When she finally opened up, the halting and often incoherent narrative that she offered up over the course of seven years, was an extraordinary one. She told the astounded staff at the Dalldorf Asylum that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the slain Tsar of Russia.

The mysterious young woman claimed she had survived the execution of the Russian imperial family (the Tsar, Nicholas II, his wife, Empress Alexandra, their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia and their son, the Tsarevich Alexei) reportedly carried out by the Bolsheviks in July 1918 in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg.

She claimed that one of the guards at the Ipatiev House, where the Romanov family and three of their servants had been held in captivity for 78 days, had discovered that she was still alive after the Bolshevik executioners had opened fire on the imperial family in the small confines of the cellar of the house. (The firing squad apparently had to resort to bayonets on the female members of the family because their bullets bounced off jewels hidden in the women's corsets.)

The guard, whom she said was a Pole by the name of Alexander Tchaikowksy, had smuggled her out of Yekaterinburg, and with his family they had fled to Romania. She and Tchaikowsky had become intimate, married and she bore him a child, while in hiding in Bucharest. She was persistently vague as to what had happened to the child, a son. Then, she said, Tchaikowksy was killed in a street fight. Despairing, she made her way to Berlin in the hope of finding her mother's sister, Irene (the Empress Alexandra was the daughter of Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse). But she failed to make contact and instead, she tried to kill herself by throwing herself into the canal.

This was to be the start of a lifetime's struggle for Fraulein Unbekannt (who subsequently adopted the alias Anna Anderson) to prove her astonishing claim. It was to be the subject of a prolonged court battle, which started in 1933 and continued sporadically through several decades before the Supreme Court in Karlsruhe returned a verdict of "not proven" in 1970 on Anderson's claim that she was Anastasia. It was during this marathon legal process that testimony was given that Anderson was, in fact, a Polish factory worker, Franziska Schanzkowksa.

Schanzkowska, who came from the Polish provinces of what was then the German Reich, had been born in impoverished circumstances in 1896. She had come to Berlin at the start of the first World War and found work in a munitions factory. She had become engaged but her fiance was killed on the Western Front in 1916. Shortly afterwards, Schanzkowska was seriously injured - in an explosion at the munitions plant. She was severely scarred, both physically and mentally, and spent time in a number of asylums in Berlin before disappearing in February 1920, at exactly the time the unknown woman was dragged from the canal.

Meanwhile Anna Anderson, supported by various minor German royals, doggedly pursued her claim. In 1968, she moved to the US where she married a retired university professor, Jack Manahan, almost 20 years her junior. He was her most fervent defender until her death in a nursing home in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1984.

One of the factors which had hampered any definitive disproval of pretenders' claims to the Romanov throne - and there were several; Anna Anderson was not alone - was that the bodies of the slain family had never been found. It was well after Anna Anderson's death, in July 1991, that nine skeletons were exhumed from a grave in Siberia a few miles away from the infamous cellar in the Ipatiev House, or as it was chillingly named by the Bolsheviks, the House of Special Purpose.

Comparing DNA tests on the bones with blood samples provided by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, who was related to the Empress Alexandra (his grandmother was Alexandra's sister), established that the remains were indeed those of the Romanovs. However, two skeletons were missing, that of the Tsarevich Alexei and one of the grand duchesses, most likely, Anastasia.

It was the same genetic testing which was used to compare tissue of Anna Anderson's with Prince Philip's DNA. The tests concluded that Anna Anderson could not have been related to the Romanovs. A grandnephew of Franziska Schanzkowksa's had been traced and when his DNA profile was compared with Anna Anderson's, the results "supported the hypothesis that Anna Anderson and Franziska Schanzkowksa were the same person", according to the scientists.

This was the starting point for my novel. I had long been fascinated with the story of the Romanovs. It had started with a film in the early 1970s - Nicholas and Alexandra, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, a tender and sympathetic portrayal of Tsar Nicholas II, dwelling on his weakness and humanity, and charting the terrible end he and his family met at Yekaterinburg. I was 15 and, not surprisingly, identified with the predicament of the teenage grand duchesses, and in particular Anastasia, the youngest, who, at 17, would have been the closest in age to me.

The Schaffner film set me on a trail of forensic reading around the subject of the Romanovs. The book which had inspired the film was written by Robert K. Massie.

Massie had chosen to write about the last monarch of Russia for a very personal reason. Massie's son suffered from haemophilia, a disease which could be said to have played a major part in the downfall of the Russian monarchy. He was keen to learn how other families had dealt with the problems associated with haemophilia. "In time," writes Massie, "this led to a curiosity about the response of the parents of the boy who was the most famous haemophiliac of all, the Tsarevich Alexei."

For myself, I cannot say why the story of the Romanov grand duchesses should have excited my interest. Blame it on a mixture of historical morbidity and a zealous and adolescent over-identification with the princess myth. I am not alone. I have discovered in the course of writing The Pretender many closet Anastasians. But, whereas as a teenager it was Anastasia, the doomed princess, who fascinated me, my interest now was in the shadowy figure of Franziska Schanzkowska.

Here was a woman who had successfully shucked off her own identity and taken on an entirely different persona which she maintained for more than 60 years. Not only that, but she convinced hundreds of people - including many of the Empress Alexandra's German relatives, and a number of the Romanov household staff who would have known the grand duchess as a child - that she was indeed Anastasia.

There are numerous instances of her surprising knowledge of court life in St Petersburg and the small domestic details of the Romanov family, which it is hard to explain, even in the light of the compelling scientific evidence as to her real identity.

It is an interesting paradox that the more research and reading I did into the case of Franziska Schanzkowska, the less sure I was that she was an impostor. The less sure, indeed, I became, of who she was at all. But I grew to admire the absolute conviction of her pretence - if that's what it was - and the creative energy that fuelled her delusion.

It seemed to me she inhabited the myth of Anastasia so completely, so willingly, that she fulfilled a communal, if unconscious, need prevalent at the time, to believe that someone had survived the terrible slaughter of that summer's night in Yekaterinburg. In that sense her becoming Anastasia could be seen as a collaborative act, a joint decision to embody, and to believe in, a myth.

So complete was Franziska Schanzkowska's makeover that the details of her own history were almost completely obliterated. The protracted legal process concentrated on trying to prove that she was not Anastasia - i.e. on whom she was not. Her own identity was a lesser concern for the courts.

But as a novelist it was her former life, her life before Anastasia, that interested me. I wanted to explore why she would have wanted to suppress that other life so entirely that only the merest traces of it now remain.

So I invented a history for her. In a strange way, I felt it a kind of homage to her. She had created a fictional life for herself. I created a fictional life for her from the meagre details of her life that have survived. I made up a childhood for her in Kashubia, the Polish region where she grew up. I tried to recreate the city of Berlin as it might have been during the first World War, a time of terrible privation for the citizens of that city whose plight was exacerbated by the humiliation of the German defeat. I read a great deal of fiction and non-fiction about the period. I visited both Berlin and Poland to get a feel of the landscapes Franziska Schanzkowska might have known. Members of the Polish community in Dublin provided invaluable help in avoiding the major pitfalls of writing outside one's own culture.

In the end, though, I am a novelist, not a social historian. The predominant nature of my research, such as it was, was haphazard, random and impressionistic, rather than scholarly. A novel must stand or fall by the demands of the form, whether it makes sense, emotionally, on its own terms. In the end, the "real" Franziska Schanzkowska hovers unrealised somewhere in the ether. Her prevailing legacy is a deep and perplexing ambiguity. Fraulein Unbekannt, the unknown woman, remains, in the final analysis, entirely unknowable.

The Pretender by Mary Morrissy is published by Jonathan Cape, £10 in UK

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