Friday, February 17, 2012

Life is a census record, old chum

Genealogy research is a passing hobby of mine. A fruitless passing hobby.

I've spent full days of my life searching through Ellis Island records and censuses of the past century. But I wasn't blessed with a family of participants in the American Revolution or immigrants from places that keep accessible census records. I am a mutt of weird origins, of a familial past that can't be found because any trace of them is difficult to find if not entirely destroyed.

I started with my paternal great-grandmother (my dad's father's mother). Knowing her birth name and her general location in Europe prior to coming to the United States in the early 1900's, I had a good basis for locating her.

Ellis Island ship records (Great Grandma, are you there?)
Searching through the Ellis Island records, I found the listing - the ship record and basic information - of who I believe was my great-grandmother. While the names of many immigrants may have been at least slightly similar, I believed I'd found her - and that satisfaction kept me searching.

My next goal was to search for my paternal great-grandfather (my dad's dad's father). His story is somewhat shrouded in mystery within our family. My dad has told me a bit about him over the years - though he also only knows the bare minimum - and with the information I had I went on a wild search for some trace of the guy.

I didn't find much.

I must have spent at least three days' time one summer looking through online records to see if I could find my great-grandfather's ship record. Though he is quite infamous within my family (having had a history of abandoning and abusing relatives), I thought maybe if I could find him I would feel like I'd completed the picture of my genealogical tree.

But after days of searching, I found not even an ounce of satisfaction. It didn't help that my name is some weird alteration of the original Polish name that my great-grandfather likely had, making the search even more of a shot in the dark.

I even went so far as to search for him through US census records. While I never located the man himself, I did find relatives in history who share my last name (a name which only immediate members of my family possess and is therefore incredibly rare). In my head I painted stories about those relatives that were no longer living, and were also completely unbeknownst to my family. I thought about my great-grandfather leaving my great-grandmother and his three sons (including my grandfather). Maybe he'd started afresh, but retained his American immigration officer-given name. Despite being cut-off from the New York side of our clan, my great-grandfather retained the mark that designated him as the head of it.

I began to hate him. While I'd already harbored great anger toward him for treating the family I love with such disloyalty over half a century ago, the added difficulty of locating his history made me even more upset. He'd made himself virtually untraceable, stopping me in the path towards a general self-understanding that I believed I'd obtain through extensive genealogical research.

Sometimes I wonder what I thought I'd actually gain from looking through all these records. Did I think that I would have some amazing revelation like that woman in the commercial who discovers that her grandfather was the only doctor in town (gasp)?

The fact is, I don't think I had expectations exactly. Being from an Eastern European Jewish family on my dad's side, there was little hope that any trace of ancestry would have survived to this day in Austria, Poland, Germany or elsewhere. Whatever genealogy my European family had died along with the rest of our people in concentration camps in World War II.

But living so far outside of that era, I convinced myself that anything was possible. It was possible that my family might not have been wiped out. It was possible that they'd gone into hiding or been saved right before they could be interned by the Nazis. It was possible that they'd survived and thrived and produced distant cousins for me to visit and learn from in modern day Europe.

Yet with all records lost or burned, and the few records that may actually exist like my great-grandfather's ship boarding information, this kind of revelation isn't likely to happen for me.

Somehow I still value the time I've spent searching. In more recent years, though I've neglected to look up much on my maternal side (because most of it would be in Japanese and my understanding of the language as well as my awareness of Japanese genealogical databases is minimal) I even decided to look up my mom's records just for curiosity's sake.

Once you've lost family, even if they never truly existed for you in your lifetime, it makes you treasure any trace of existence you find of them. It's like if they still exist on paper that they have grown an extra dimension: a dimension of presence that transcends time.

While I was sitting in my school's slightly overheated student center watching a performance of Cabaret tonight, I was reminded of quite how much family means to me. Even those relatives whom I never met, who are basically figments of my imagination with barely a face or a name or a history placed to them, mean something to me.

In a terrible yet powerful reveal at the end of the musical, we find that our narrator is destined to be interned himself as a German-labeled "Jude." For a moment, I just had to close my eyes. As I sat in the theater - surrounded by the luxuries of 21st century life and by people who, even if they could tell I am half-Jewish (which they can't because, like I mentioned earlier, I'm a very unidentifiable mutt), would never judge me harshly for that - I couldn't help but feel thousands of emotions well up inside of me.

I felt anger at never getting a chance to have a fully-realized familial history. I felt cheated at not having European relatives. I felt isolated for my family being so singular within the country and the world, identified through our distinct surname. I felt hate for the sources of intolerance and blindness, toward fascists and those that turned away from the Jewish people in their time of need. I felt fear for myself and my family had we ever faced a fate like our relatives'. I felt sadness at not being able to share life and love and compassion not only with those unborn relatives that would have existed if not for the Holocaust, but also at not being able to feel a kinship with the family I lost in the 1940's. I felt the unrelenting need to be fulfilled, to learn about my past and to find closure in my own genealogical history.

But most of all I felt proud because without the tragedy of my family history and the histories of families like mine, perhaps I never would have had the appreciation that I do for my own past and for preserving that past.

It's hard dealing with the unknown sometimes, and even harder dealing with the fact that the only reason there is an unknown is because you were the victim of hate and cruelty. But out of the dust comes some hope for the future: that we will live by new standards of equality and acceptance, an eye on the past and the other looking toward the future.

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