Some years ago, I read the book ‘The Lost’ by Daniel Mendelssohn, and I finally thought that it might not be impossible to learn about my family history. When you’ve descended from eastern European Jews, this is not uncommon to hear.
After a lifetime of hearing that we did not know origins of my maternal family prior to my great grandfather, I was intrigued to know that it might actually be possible to track them down. I started researching names of villages and found a few clues.
Fast forward several years later, and a DNA test that my wife purchased for us awoke my curiosity again and got me into pulling in resources from both sides of my family. Luckily on my father’s side, there had been a tremendous amount of research done by two of my cousins and on my mother’s side, a distant cousin had already started pulling together quite a bit of detail about her wing.
After several weeks of obsessive researching, I can say that I haven’t necessarily gone that much further back, however, the richness of the information I’ve found is incredible.
I’m still untying a few interesting things that I’ve found, but in the meantime, I thought that I would share a few interesting lessons from the journey so far.
What’s in a name?
We take so much pride in our names and what they mean. I’m beginning to think we shouldn’t take so much stake in them.
Unless you were extremely wealthy, it’s likely that you may not have even had a “last name” until the mid 1800’s. Even then, traditions vary by country. In the case of of the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the leadership there forced them to start taking surnames in the mid-19th century. In Italy, where my father’s family hails from, names were very complex as some regions saw children carrying both a maternal and paternal element in their name whereas others included a descriptor of their village. And those are just surnames.
Given names (or first names) can be even worse. If your great-grandparents were native Yiddish speakers, I can tell you their names were probably not originally spelled anything like what you remembered them to be. It’s likely that they either made up something so that it was easier to relay to customs, or it was written down wrong. I just learned a great-aunt Carrie was originally named “Kreince”.
Skeletons in the closet
Do you have skeleton’s in your closet? Probably. It might not even be that anyone tried to hide it from you. It’s more likely that you just don’t remember clues they dropped when you were younger. It’s been pretty exciting to be digging through old records and finding out that certain relatives were married multiple times or had kids incredibly early. It was a bit more shocking to me when I learned my great grandfather after becoming a widower, remarried only to have his new wife try and kill him! My favorite yet was a great uncle who was apprehended as a stow-away on a freighter in one of multiple attempts to emigrate to America.
Nationality is a pretty ephemeral concept
Most of my mother’s family comes from a region that was tossed between oligarchs and landlords during medieval times, later possessed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then passed back and forth between Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Many of my relatives lived through some of those very transitions.
In my father’s family, they came from Italy in a time when it was barely a single country. In fact, my Grandmother’s family was so far north in Italy that it was practically Switzerland. A bit of my most recent research suggests that the generation prior was actually from the Zurich region of Switzerland. This doesn’t shock me given my complexion, but I never would have known without some deep sleuthing of shipping manifests.
Technology made quite a bit possible, but networks have truly enabled genealogy for the average person
I am completely in shock at how good the automated character recognition software has become to allow so many historic documents to be read, cataloged and indexed. That said, you still can’t rely on it entirely as software makes large numbers of mistakes. Especially when trying to decipher handwriting of people writing down spoken word answers from immigrants speaking a different language.
It’s the power of the network that allowed me to identify a strange notation appearing on a great-great-uncle’s ship manifest that indicated his hometown was in a specific region of Switzerland. That annotation was so commonly used that I was able to find websites dedicated to these shorthand markings used by immigration officials.
Similarly, it’s the power of the network that has allowed grassroots organizations like JewishGen to fundraise to secure, preserve, translate and index massive collections of records from the historic regions of Poland and Austria from which my family came.
I think I’ll end up with more questions than answers
I’ve certainly found that I know so little about the people who decided to upend their lives to travel to America. Presumably it was to escape what history suggests were some terrible times in their home countries.
That said, when I look at their arrival documents, I see they came with frequently zero dollars in their pocket (sometimes as high as twenty). Many times they were coming ahead of a spouse. Sometimes they were completely alone, maybe meeting a friend or a cousin. Often they were detained for multiple days at Ellis Island only to then head out into the world to have to make sense of this country.
They worked hard. They had hard jobs, lived in small apartments, often with extended family. Their existence is so far from the comfort I have come to know.
I wonder if they felt they achieved a better life. I suppose above all else, I’m thankful that they let me have one.
Stay tuned as I’ll be sharing more specific stories as I solidify some of my research.