A Myth About Ellis Island And Name Changes

“Interpreter and recorder interviewing newcomers, Ellis Island, New York”. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine in 1908. Image Courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.

“Interpreter and recorder interviewing newcomers, Ellis Island, New York”. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine in 1908. Image Courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Raise your hand if you were told that your immigrant ancestors’ names were changed at Ellis Island (or whichever port they arrived through?)

::Both My Hands Are Raised::

I’ve been told this both by my clients, my own family, and just talking about geneology to anyone that wants to talk about it!

The truth is, this is a VERY common MYTH.

So what DID happen?

Long story short, it was your relative who changed it, either before leaving port or after arrival.

Before arriving:

There were usually no IDs, so when your ancestor bought the ticket in the “old country,” he would give the ticket agent his/her name. It’s a possibility that your ancestor(s) may have wanted to change their name (either first name, family name, or both), knowing that it may be difficult to pronounce, wanting to sound more American or knowing that their original name may cause issues once they came to the US.

These names that were found on the tickets were the names recorded on the passenger manifests at the port where they initially boarded.

So, when they first arrived, they were questioned by immigrant clerks (and often had translators or interpreters doing the work or working with the clerks). Neither your ancestor nor the clerk wrote down any names. They used the names that was on the manifest.

The only person that changed their name was your ancestor.

After Arrival:

After arrival, if your ancestors’ name(s) were not changed, they may have tried different surnames to see what they liked, and then during the naturalization process, your ancestor may have decided to change their name. Other times, they may do the name change after the naturalization process.

Again, the only person that changed their name was your ancestor, no clerk or ticket officer.

A Personal Name Change Story

Usametski Family Passenger Manifest, Arrival Through The Port of New York on the 16 May 1893. Welwel (aka Louis) is the name on the bottom. He arrived with his mother Etta (later Yetta) and siblings Meir (later Samuel Mayer) and Freide (later Fanny).

Usametski Family Passenger Manifest, Arrival Through The Port of New York on the 16 May 1893. Welwel (aka Louis) is the name on the bottom. He arrived with his mother Etta (later Yetta) and siblings Meir (later Samuel Mayer) and Freide (later Fanny).

Louis Kaplan on his wedding day in June 1912. His father changed the family name about 10 years before. Photo courtesy of Dave Kaplan.

Louis Kaplan on his wedding day in June 1912. His father changed the family name about 10 years before. Photo courtesy of Dave Kaplan.

My maternal great-grandfather eventually became Louis Kaplan. Before and when he arrived, his name was Welwel (pronounced: VEL-vuhl) Usemetsky (try to say that 3x fast). He arrived to New York from present day Lithuania when he was about 4 or 5 years old. After he arrived, his father and his siblings all decided to take on different last names. When Louis first went to school, he told his teacher he was Louis Rabinowitz (no one else took this name). Having a different last name got him into trouble with the law at 8 years of age (that’s a story for another day). Louis’ uncle convinced Louis’ father to change the family’s name to Kaplan because it’s easier to pronounce than Usemetsky. Baddabing, Baddaboom- Welwel Usemetske became Louis Kaplan between 1900 and 1905 through a legal name change procedure by his father.

Did your family change their names before or after arriving to Ellis Island? I’d love to hear the story you were told. Post in the comments below!

2,084,450

2,084,450

I’m just going to start with that number in this week’s short & sweet post.

There are times we don’t feel it’s necessary to learn about where we come from.

But I’m here to remind you that where you come from is kind of a big deal!

It took MILLIONS of people for you to even be here reading this email, doing what you’re doing.

Without those people, your experiences, your personality, your purpose, your love, your lessons, your talents, YOU wouldn’t be able to express themselves in the world today. They all had a wide variety of experiences from the joyful to the traumatic. But it led to you to either continue their legacies of love or break their cycles of harm.

When I feel I’m in doubt or like I’m alone, I close my eyes and imagine my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my great-great grandparents, my great-great-great grandparents (which by the way is already 62 individuals who had to exist standing behind me having my back!) and the almost infinite numbers who came before them. And that’s just the BIOLOGICAL DIRECT ANCESTORS! Think about all the cousins, uncles, aunts, adoptive families that also came before you.

We may feel like we are alone in this physical world, but the spirits of our ancestors are with us actually all the time through their energies and their stories. Some living through the words of stories, others living within us (see my podcast with The Daring Kind where I speak about epigentics).

I found this really cool pictograph on Instagram originally from @coolgirlgenealogy. It’s almost funny when people ask me if I found all of my ancestors (although I definitely want to). But there i something very powerful about this.

 
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You have over 1 million 18x great grandparents (that’s 20 generations back) and TOTAL going back JUST 20 generations (yes I did the math just for you!) you have

2,084,450

direct biological

ancestors

going back 20 generations!!

EACH ONE OF THEM WITH A NAME AND A STORY.

AND IT ALL LED TO YOU BEING RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW.

Put it this way, most baseball stadiums hold only between 45,000 to 50,000 people.

What I’m saying is this

Your story matters…. more than anything.

Because YOU are part of the tapestry of the history of the world.

YOU are supposed to be here.

Gather 'Round my "Virtual Hearth" for Some Family Stories

Today for many of you, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, is a day many will spend time gathered with family. And, for many of you who are reading this, it could also be a very difficult time of year or perhaps you are far away from family. Please know you are NOT alone.

Sometimes, simply imagining or knowing that there are those who came before you, knowing that there are generations and hundreds of people who are out there who came before you, can help you to not feel so alone. Sometimes this image and feeling gives me comfort in tough times, too. It’s also a beautiful reminder in joyous times.

As I had mentioned the other week, one of the ways in which you can learn about your family story is through family autobiographies or audio/videos (you’d be surprised as to who has what!)

Last year, when I was learning some family stories from my aunt, she showed me a copy of the 1983 Levine Cousin’s Club newsletter. My great-grandfather, Samuel Israel Levine, was one of NINE children! So you can imagine the need for the cousins to come together every year to see each other. I remember going to a few when I was younger, but today the tradition seems to have continued in a private Facebook group!

Uncle Joe Levine

Uncle Joe Levine

The newsletter was honoring one of Sam Israel Levine’s younger brothers Joseph Levine aka “Uncle Joe” on his 75th birthday and he shares “The History of the Levine Family”. Uncle Joe died after I was born, but I honestly don’t remember if I met him, but I feel like I know him just by reading his words. It was dictated and someone in the family typed it out.

In it he describes the town where he came from, most of the names of the people in the family including some of my 3x great grandparents, their children and their spouses and their children. He describes what his siblings and their spouses were like. He describes his journey over to the United States and so much more!

I’ll only share a small excerpt as it’s very long (about 6 minutes on audio).

But matter what, I’d love for you to join me as I share an excerpt from my great-great-uncle’s telling of one of the branches of my story. Gather ‘round the virtual hearth, and perhaps imagine that this story is also part of your story because we are all part of the tapestry of the history of the world. This story IS part of your story.

Click play and/or read his words below :)


If you prefer to listen than read click below.

Excerpt from “The History of the Levine Family” as dictated by Joseph Levine, 1983

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The story begins in a small Russian town, Molodechna. This was a small market town, about 37 miles northwest of Minsk in Russia [today both are in Belarus]. Molodechna is of equal distance from the large city of Vilna. It is interesting to note that it was in Molodechna where, in December of 1812, Napoleon issued his orders for the retreat of his army, which had attempted to conquer Russia.

Molodechna was a town which had a central square where the large Russian church stood. Fanning out from this square were four streets, each of them named after a city located farther away in the direction in which the street ran. One was Minsk Street; another, Vileka Street; the third was Horadok Street; and the fourth was Vilna Street.

When I grew up in Molodechna, where I was born July 20, 1907, there could not have been more than approximately 1,000 people living in the town, with perhaps 90 percent of them Jews.

It was in Molodechna where Grandfather Mendel Brown [Jaclyn’s 3x great grandfather] (in Russian itw as Bruin) was married to Shifra Swartz. They were the parents of six children. The oldest was my mother, Chivya (Sylvia)…

Now I want to record the story of how my mother and her four [remaining] children left Molodechna and came to America after a journey of almost two years.

World War I started in 1914. At about the same time, Mother received passports to come to the United States with her children. Because of the war, we could not leave Molodechna, where we remained for one year. During this time, the Russians apparently lost many battles, and late in 1914, we began to see retreating troops marching through the town, as well as hundreds of heads of cattle, which the Russians were driving away from the battlefields.

One day, when I was in the chedar (like a Jewish boys’ elementary school), our rabbi suddenly ordered all of the children to run to their homes as quickly as possible. I was then about seven years old. We had a house in the center of town. As I ran toward my home, I saw people running toward the railroad station, carrying what few belongings they could. When I came home, Mother and we four children left the house, and we too ran to the railroad station.

A train with small freight cars was parked at the station, and people crowded into the train. Mother later told me how she threw what few belongings she carried into the freight car. Interestingly, one of the first things Mother took with her was a package with some of the fine bookbinding tools which Father had left for her to bring to America. Mother told me how, as the train filled up, she suddenly realized that she was leaving with four children, not knowing where they were going. She felt that she did not have enough food, or even clothing, for the children. She then talked to one of the men, and the two families decided to take a chance of leaving on a later train.

Leaving the children of the two families in a house near the railroad station, Mother told me how she and this other man began to look for a Russian with a wagon. Fortunately, they found a Russian with a large wagon which he was supposed to pick up a load of barbed wire. They gave him a substantial sum of money, and arranged for the Russian to drive them- during the night- to their respective homes, where they planned to pick up some food and clothing which they left behind. In order to get to the houses, the Russians had to drive around the outskirts. Mother described to me how, when she came to our house, it was already filled with Russians. With some difficulty, they got into the house, and Mother picked up a bag of bread and some articles of clothing. They then drove around the other part of town and came to her friend’s house, where they were able to get what they needed.

I remember that it was early morning, as the sun was rising, when we children and the children of the other family and the man’s wife, stood near the railroad station as we saw a wagon coming our way. Mother waved to us, and when the wagon came to the railroad station, we were all reunited.

Fortunately, a train pulled up to the station, and it was composed of what looked like open coal cars. After a wait of some time, the train began to pull out. We, of course, did not know where we were going.

I remember, as the train was leaving Molodechna, we saw smoke coming from one or more buildings which were on fire in the center of town. For all I know, our house could have been one of those buildings on fire.

It began to rain shortly after we left Molodechna. Between stops at every station enroute, we picked up more passengers. The train finally came to what I later learned was the city of Minsk. All of us were marched from the railroad station, and we came to what I later learned was the synagogue square in Minsk. On this square stood three large synagogues. We were directed to one of the buildings, which was filled with men, women and children. All of the benches in the synagogue were covered with the belongings of the refugees. Fortunately, after a day or two, my mother located one of the brothers of my father who lived in Minsk. We then moved to his small, crowded apartment, and we remained there until we started a journey which took us across Russia and Siberia, into the city of Harbin in Manchuria. From Manchuria, as I will describe later, we started another journey, which took us to Korean, Japan, across the Pacific Ocean, and finally to the United States, where we landed February 12, 1917.

How to Find the Warmth & Light of Your Ancestors' Stories

In many cultures across the world, our ancestors did the actual OPPOSITE of what much of the Western World does this time of year. Instead of trying to do more than ever, at this time of year actually slowed down, spent more time inside and connected more with themselves, spent more time in “dream space” and told stories about their ancestors.

I’ve noticed that lately I’ve been returning to doing more research and wanting to learn stories about my family as I spend less time outdoors and more time with my family between holidays and birthday parties. I’ve also been able to share more about my findings with my family. There’s this sense of commonality and give and take in this arena. And there’s something about these stories and these new findings that actually brings some LIGHT and WARMTH into my life.

You may have heard me say it before, but genealogy and family history is SO MUCH MORE than just names and dates. It’s something that I have found to resonate and live within us. Even just someone’s NAME can trigger something deep within you.

Maybe you’re curiosity during this time of year is piqued to learn more about this part of yourself.

But, if you don’t know where to start or you think all the stories of your ancestors are gone, think again. Here are some of the places and the ways you can learn more about your ancestry and your story:

(1) Ask your living relatives to share some of their story.

You may have heard me talk about this before, but this is such a powerful place to connect to family. What we all have in common is ancestry. You don’t have to go to anyone you don’t feel comfortable going to, but start with someone you know. If you can, try to go to the oldest generation first.

If you’re not sure where to start, grab a free copy of my CONNECTING CONVERSATIONS GUIDE. I know these conversations can feel weird to even start, so that’s why I created this for it. You’ll also receive some great tips on how to PRESERVE these stories for yourself and for future generations.

(2) Family member’s or ancestor’s autobiography.

Whether it was written or recorded, these stories are a incredible. You get to hear the voice of someone you may have never met, or someone you miss dearly. In my family, on all different sides of the family, as I went deeper into my genealogical research, family members happened to “remember” that an ancestor wrote a story or recorded their life’s story.

I have a copy of my great-grandfather’s autobiography, a “Cousins Club” newsletter that featured newspaper articles and 20 pages of a transcribed interview with a great-great Uncle. Some distant relatives of recordings of my great-grandparents and I have a few of my own late-grandparents.

(3) Do Some Research.

Maybe you’re like me and you love getting your hands dirty and finding your history on your own time! There are so many online resources out there like FamilySearch, Ancestry, Find My Past, DNA testing. But also local archives and historical societies that could greatly help you!

Plus, as you do your research, you can find new family members. I’ve learned so much more about my family simply because I’ve met “new” relatives.

Note: When it comes to uncovering a possible ancestor in your research, MAKE SURE YOU’RE NOT JUST FINDING SOMEONE WHO SEEMS TO HAVE YOUR ANCESTORS NAME! I can’t tell you how many family trees I see with incorrect information because it’s assumed this is the right person.

(4) Join or go to meetings of a local genealogical society

There have been stories where people have actually found distant relatives at genealogical society meetings. Not yet myself, but I do know several others who have! They’re also incredible resources for learning new tips on how to learn more about your family history.

Historical societies are amazing! First of all, not everything is online. Let me repeat this, not everything is online! Many local historical societies have documents and records that could be incredible clues and stories to your ancestral past. You may have deep roots in an area or a state, or perhaps your family immigrated to your current country within the last century, you’d be surprised that there are many museums and historical societies for most cultures and countries.

Do some research on what’s around!

(5) Hire a genealogist

Hiring a genealogist can be such an incredible investment to learn your family stories or family history. This doesn’t just stop with you, it can impact so many people in your family and for generations to come. Even when I’ve worked with other genealogists, it creates such a world of difference in my own research. Maybe you’ve hit a brick wall or you just want a partner to help you to extend the branches of a line in your tree. Maybe you want to do some deep research or someone on your line. Or perhaps you want to find a biological relative.

If this is something you’ve been thinking about doing or are curious about, please, DO get curious. You can go to the Association of Professional Genealogist website or you can reach out to me with ANY questions you may have. I have 3 spaces available starting January for any one who wants to Discover {Y}our Story. Please don’t hesitate to email me.

My wish for you is you take the time to learn about your ancestry and your own history.

There is such a powerful time to do this. If you have any questions about anything I shared about, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

In 2 weeks, after next week’s {Y}our Stories: The Series episode, I’ll share part of a story my great-great Uncle told about his family in a 1983 Cousins Club Newsletter. See you then!

The Power & Basic Lowdown of DNA Genealogy

More often than not, when I tell people that I’m a genealogist and storyteller, the first thing most people think of is that I work for companies like AncestryDNA or 23andMe and process people’s DNA.

That’s fair, considering the number of genetic testing commercials we see on television and online ads these days. This is one of the first introductions many of us have to anything remotely related to genealogy.

Canva - Dna, String, Biology, 3D, Biotechnology, Chemistry.jpg

Well, I definitely DO NOT do that. I am more of a paper-trail and storyteller researcher. Finding someone’s family history, their story, using documents and family storytelling. However, DNA testing results have been incredibly useful and sometimes pivotal in my research, helping people to see that they are indeed supposed to be here (#YoureSupposedToBeHere). And, I do know a bit about the basics of genetic testing when it comes to using it for my research.

The Power In The DNA

I remember when I received my first DNA kit, my stomach started to flutter. This was only early 2018, I had been researching in other ways for a while now. But this was different. Stories and papers were one thing, but the body doesn’t lie. What was I going to find out. It took more than a month for me to finally open the packet, spit into the tube and ship back to the company.

My friend was doing it to find out about her ancestral make-up (as she puts it in her own words she is a “mutt”), and I thought, why not. I also didn’t realize that I could also potentially be finding out about more cousins or family members.

DNA testing has come a long way. For starters, it used to be very expensive to get DNA testing done- going to a special lab and getting your blood tested. Today, it’s a simple as spitting into a tube.

I knew that it could take up to 8 weeks, but I still impatiently checked the company’s app daily to get the updates.

In about 5 weeks, I got my results back. Safe to say I wasn’t entirely surprised by the results of my ancestral make up (until the most recent update of the database. See what I mean below in the subsection called “DNA Databases”). But I was shocked to see how many people I was genetically related to all over the world. I don’t recognize many of them. I still have yet to integrate them into my family tree!

But as I see how many people I am related to, I realize truly how interconnected we ALL truly are, and yet share a unique lineage at the same time. How we each really are a piece of Tapestry of History. I was just looking at some of my Ancestry DNA matches, and even myself, I’m stunned to even see that I have not-so-distant relatives still in my own ancestors’ homelands.

Other people I have worked with, this has helped them to find long lost family. It has helped them to connect with a part of themselves that they felt like was lost. For some, it has unleashed unknown (and sometimes unwanted) stories about the family. It has allowed people to find each other and connect to one another. It has unleashed ancestral wounds and caused new bonds to form.

Results tap into something almost vibrational in our bodies when we see the results and the people we’re related to.

How DNA Works

Types of DNA

The 3 main types of DNA that are often tested in the bigger named companies are mtDNA, Y DNA and autosomal DNA.

mtDNA- Known as mitochondrial DNA, this type of DNA only gets passed down from the mother, however, it gets passed down to BOTH daughters and sons (but since only the mother passes it down, the daughter would be the only one to pass it on to her own children).

This type of DNA very rarely mutates or changes between generations, so testing this type of DNA can actually help researchers to recognize the relationship between different populations (such as between Northern Africa and Asia and Europe).

This type of DNA can also help you to see your ANCIENT maternal ancestors known as maternal haplogroups. If you share a maternal haplogroup, you would share the same ancient ancestors.

Y-DNA- This is passed down from the biological father to the biological son ONLY, so biological daughters do not get this from their fathers.

This type of testing can also explore ANCIENT paternal ancestors, but because Y-DNA also mutates more frequently than mtDNA, it can also help in finding genetic matches and how long ago two people shared a paternal ancestor, and testing proposed relationships on the paternal line.

For women doing this testing, if you want to know more about your Y-DNA, have a biological brother (someone who was born with a Y chromosome), a brother’s son, your father or your paternal grandfather tested to learn more about this line of the family. You can learn more about your paternal line this way by adding it to your own DNA results online.

AUTOSOMAL DNA- This type of DNA gets inherited from both parents. You receive 50% from your biological father and 50% from your biological mother. Since you don’t share the exact same 50% with your siblings, this is why you don’t look exactly the same as your brothers or sisters (unless you are identical twins). This is where 22 out of the 23 pairs of chromosomes come from (23 is the general xx or xy chromosome pair which generally determines the sex someone is assigned to at birth).

How Autosomal DNA gets passed down

I’m going to make this as simple as possible!

While Y-DNA and mtDNA are passed down pretty much unchanged between each generation as explained above, autosomal DNA is constantly changing. It undergoes a process called recombination. The DNA each parent inherited from the previous generation literally gets mix and jumbled up. Half of the mixed up DNA gets randomly “chosen” to be passed down to the next generation- either as is or and possibly recombine with the other parent’s DNA and gets passed down to the next generation.

You would share about:

50% of your DNA with your parents and full siblings/your own children

25% with grandparents/grandchildren, aunt/uncle/niece/nephew/half-sibling

12.5% with great-grandparents/children, first cousins, great-aunt/uncle/niece/nephew, half-aunt/uncle/niece/nephew

6.25% with first cousins once removed or half-first cousins

3.125% with second cousins or first cousins twice removed

1.563% with second cousins once removed or half-second cousins

.0781% with third cousins or second cousins twice removed

DNA Databases

For most DNA databases, the results pertaining to the relationship between people, especially with today’s technology is very accurate. But, as genealogists, we’re often urged to use caution when using DNA results for ethnicity estimates for specific countries and regions since these are much less accurate.

They also can often change dramatically from company to company. The ethnicity estimates are based generally on people self-reporting, the human genome and the number of people in the database to compare certain genetic markers with. The results don’t mean they are totally wrong, it just means there is less accuracy with ethnicity estimates. However, a DNA company might have updates in results over time. What I first submitted is now slightly different than when I first submitted.

Many websites (not all) will allow you to take your DNA results from one database and upload it to another database. One person shared that one company had a very different ethnicity results than the other, even when using the exact same DNA result. It’s just something to be mindful of.

EPIGENETICS

While I am not an expert of epigenetics, I didn’t wanted to finish off this blog without discussing this. Epigentics is a study of cellular memory that basically talks about how memories and experiences don’t just live in our minds, but also within the cells throughout our entire body. This can be something that happened to us many, many, many years ago AND it’s also believed that this can be passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes it manifests in emotional or psychological dis-ease, or even physical (like cancer or disease).

Twice in my life I had major abdominal surgery- once for cancer of the kidney and once for a twisted colon. And something internally told me that this was a physical manifestation of something that had happened many generations ago. I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t mine. I felt like I was letting go of a burden someone in my family tree had been carrying for many generations.

DNA really is like an incredible code of unlocking ourselves. It is definitely a part of the puzzle to understanding who we are. Not just as physically, but relationally, emotionally and, do I even daresay, spiritually.


If this is something you’re interested in doing, here are some resources and companies for ancestral DNA testing. Each company has something different to offer so make sure you do some research of your own. And there are also sales throughout the year as well.



First Cousins Once Removed or Second Cousins? How To Figure Out How You're Related

As Thanksgiving in the United States rolls around again next Thursday, I think about a photograph of my mother actively trying to explain the relationships of our family.

Are we first cousins? Seconds cousins? First cousins once removed? Eighth cousins thirty times removed?

OK. So NOT that last one.

Without knowing it, growing up I was getting some genealogy 101 lessons: how are we all related?

As Thanksgiving is coming up for those of us in the United States, people will be circling around the table and swapping stories and, perhaps, even asking questions about those who came before. Today I want to share with you how to figure out how you may be related to someone.

First, I thought I’d share this handy-dandy chart designed by Alice J. Ramsey in 1987 explaining how you can figure out relationships so you have a visual. It’s at the bottom here :)

So, what does a “cousin once removed” or “cousin twice removed” mean?

Well, no matter what age, whether you are a first cousin, second cousin, third cousin, etc. this means you are within the same generation. The “removed” bit has to do with how many generations apart you are to that individual.

Using the chart below, I can see that my dad’s first cousin’s children are my second cousins. Their children would be my second cousins once removed. And their children? Well, they would be my second cousins twice removed!

Here’s a few more examples (use the chart if you need to follow along):

  1. I would spend Thanksgiving with my dad’s first cousin, D, and her family. D is my first cousin, once removed. Why “once removed”? This is because this one generational difference equals “once removed.” D’s children then become my second cousins. Why second cousin? This is because we are considered to be in the next, but same generation, sharing the same great-grandparents.

  2. We also have to remember that the “cousins x times removed” doesn’t have anything to do with age, but only with your generational relationship.

    So, for example, doing my own genealogical work, I met my third cousin, Laurie. While she is almost 30 years older than me, we are considered the same generation, sharing the same great-great grandparents (see the chart above). Her children, while they are close to my age, are my third cousins once removed. Why? Because her children and I have a one generational difference between us. And my third cousin once removed, what about their children in relationship to me? They would be my third cousins twice removed. Why? Because there is a two generation difference between us.

I love explaining how people are related to one another. Because while we may not be all directly related, we are all connected in some way :)

If you have any questions or you have any ah-ha’s, comment below! I can help you to figure out how you are related or celebrate with you.

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When Genealogy & Family History Matters in Current Events

I’m keeping this week’s post shorter.

I wasn’t sure if this is something to be writing about or posting. It’s vulnerable for me. But, the muses of this work in this world as a genealogist, storyteller and human being are telling me to write.

So much hate has been leading up to now in so many communities it hurts every part of me.

This past weekend in Pittsburgh has struck a triggered chord. Yes, “chord” like a musical note. You know when you hear music and the notes don’t sit right within you. It almost hurts your ears.

Right now, it’s that time the notes don’t sit right. It’s a painful dissonance.

I know people from that community. And even if I didn’t, I’d still feel like I’d know people from that community.

I was afraid for many years to say this. But I say this now. Most of my ancestry comes from Eastern European Jews. My ancestors- both collectively and down through my direct lineage- experienced millenia of waves of peace and inclusion and then waves of violent hatred & blame for their communities’ sufferings.

I have felt these traumas throughout my life without knowing that I felt them.

As I wrote in a previous blog post about a pivotal moment in Poland this summer, before going there, I couldn’t even watch 2 minutes of a preview Schindler’s List. I’d run out of Holocaust memorials and museums bawling.

It was in Poland that I realized one of the reasons why I practice genealogy for others and especially for myself. I felt SHAME for who I was without even knowing it. In other words, I didn’t like a piece of who I was. I felt FEAR for being found out about who I was. Because the truth is the stories of many generations are always in the back of your mind and anti-Semitism never goes away: both in passing comments like “I thought she jewed me” or completely false social media posts going around about how it’s “The Jews fault” to white supremacist rallies (which targets anyone who’s not like them with the basis of it all is anti-Semitism) to extreme instances like this past Saturday.

But when I did and do genealogy, when I learned and continue to learn family stories, when I faced my fears in Poland, something in me shifted and continues to shift. I see I am not alone. I see the depth of the community of my ancestors. I see their strength. I feel their light. I feel interconnected and PLUGGED IN to something that wasn’t there before. A shame that I was carrying, perhaps that was carried by even those before be (even without realizing it), came to the light.

Tragedy like this past weekend that rocked many of us would probably have sent me over the edge several years ago. But when I look through my family tree. When I look to my family stories. When I look to my family. When I look to my community. When I see and feel the coming together of people of all ages, genders, beliefs, nationalities, races coming together to support the community, I see the strength in all the lineages and all lines. I feel strength and love now through the fear and the anger.

And because of this, I get to help others through my work as a genealogist & storyteller, no matter their lineage, family history or ancestry, to look to their family, their lineage their past, and to find strength in that in the present.

It shows me that each one of is TRULY is supposed to be here and that we are each TRULY a piece of the tapestry of the history of the world.

There is a gift in genealogy and family stories. It seems like it’s not relevant today. But I think it’s more relevant today than ever.

Right now the notes that are resonating are painful, and yet, as most songs do for me, I can feel a beautiful resolution of the chord that is waiting to be plaid.

#YoureSupposedToBeHere #PartOfTheTapestryOfTheWorld

SEPARATIONS & SCANDALS (Part 2): Are The Rumors True?

This is part 2 of 2 of the story. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you may want to as it gives background to part 2. You can read it HERE.


In the wake of the genealogy conference, I was buzzing with a surge of energy. Laurie sent me one of David’s passport applications from 1922 to examine. My eyes fell upon the multi-page tome of documents, alternating between Yiddish and English. full of information on his origins his family in the region of Galicia, his travel plans and stern photograph glaring at me.

What happened to you? My mind whispered to the ghost of David, silently.

The wheels were beginning to spin. An internal pull from my heart led my fingertips to press the “tab” button on my computer. What was revealed over the course of several days blew my mind.

*******

“What happened to Rose and David?” This question laid looming after my grandmother revealed the horror of Rose’s reality. The question echoed like eerie voices from the past; like a mystery that was meant to be uncovered from beyond.

My third cousin, Laurie, and I discussed the possibilities for almost a year, dredging up possible theories both out of the air and based on some of the stories my grandmother shared with us.

Maybe David returned to Europe, left Rose and his children behind and never came back.

Maybe he died between 1925 and 1930 and everything my grandmother and Laurie’s family shared with her was actually hearsay.

Maybe he ran away with another woman and completely changed his name.

My heart at times ached for Rose, my great-great aunt, Laurie’s great-grandmother, my grandmother’s aunt.

I had to find out. I had to know.

With each document unearthed, the scarcely filled binding of the book of Rose began filling up her stories. Page after page; layer after layer. I felt like as I was researching, as we were researching, Rose was able to tell her story. She had the chance to let go of the pain she carried on her back and in her heart, even in generations passed. I felt the anvil of her life being lifted off.

Part of David’s file for his passport application in 1922*

Multiple Passport Applications and Ship Manifests for David: I could picture Rose, heart heavy waiting at home in absence for her husband who went and returned Europe for months at a time, at times visiting his mother and family, at other times travelling.

Census Records, Draft Registrations, Naturalization Documents, and Passport Applications: Bustling from house to house at least 8 times with David and her children between 1905 and 1925. No real foundation of a home. Again, in 1930 with her children the floors of her home were dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, but without David in sight.

Family Stories: My mind reeled as I thought about the stories of abuse and neglect added to the mix.

Census Records & Vital Record: By 1930 she was listed as a widow and even on her death certificate in 1948, her own son, Herman, declared on her death certificate that she was a widow to David. But David was nowhere to be found- no more census records, no U.S. Passport, and certainly no death certificate.

For years, there were so many unanswered questions. Where was he? Why did Rose say she was a widow? What did she tell her children about the disappearance of her husband? Did he actually die or did something else happen?

Then, it occured to me, sometimes “widow” in the census records at that time in history did not mean widowed at all.

With the stigma of divorce so rampant during that time, “widow”, for many women, was better than listing divorce.

***

My eyes couldn’t believe what I found about David. My heart ached for Rose, for her children.

The last time I was able to see David with his children and Rose was 1925 in the census records. It was the first indication that the family rumors were more than rumors.

The rumors were true. The speculation and the story the family had be telling for decades revealed itself.

While Rose was raising 3 of her children alone in Brooklyn, in 1930, David was married to and living with a woman, Anna and their son Joseph, age 4- the four brothers’ half brother.

The only photograph I have of Rose Field née Polay.**

The only photograph I have of Rose Field née Polay.**

And then, by 1940 (and probably by 1935), David, Anna and Joseph packed their belongings and moved over 3,000 miles to Los Angeles while his other four children remained in New York. He disappeared from his first family without a trace.

How did this happen? How did they meet?

After some more research and more digging, I discovered Anna arrived to the United States for the first time on the same boat and on the same day as David when he returned back from Europe in 1922. I discovered her final destination was Los Angeles. While it’s speculatory, David may have met her on the boat over or may have known her from back in Europe (although their hometowns aren’t very close), and they planned to get married upon arrival in the United States. How they met is not clear, but the fact they were on the same boat made me, and still makes me, wonder.

The tragedy of the man who left his family came to a sudden end. David’s lifeless body was found in his Los Angeles home on 3 June 1949, only two years before his Joseph was to marry. His family finding out he killed himself with barbiturates. I can imagine the feeling and look of horror, the shadow that crept into the room, as Anna and their son Joseph discovered the fate of their husband and father.

Why did David leave? Why did he kill himself? What pain must he have been experiencing?

For now we can only speculate. Perhaps down the read we can learn more about the elusive man named David.

Genealogical research, research for the documents isn’t always so dry and boring.

It gives voice to the stories that were not able to be told.

My great-great aunt Rose’s story now has a voice.

NOTE: David is not biologically related to me, he was married to Rose who is my great-grandfather’s sister. 


*”US Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 September 2018), Passport Application, application 164279, 8 May 1922, David Field; citing NARA Microfilm publications M140, roll 1954.

**Rose Field née Polay photograph, ca. 1905; digital image 2018, privately held by Laurie Liberty née Field [Address Held for Privacy]; Laurie shared a digital copy with, genealogist, Jaclyn Wallach. The photograph depicts Rose standing in a black dress and is cropped from the original photograph which includes David Field and her first-born son George (less than 1 year old).

Why Family History Is Healthy For You (And Children)

Myself with my third cousin, Laurie.

Myself with my third cousin, Laurie.

Cherie Bush giving a presentation at the NYG&B Conference about FamilySearch and the “Do You Know..” study.

Cherie Bush giving a presentation at the NYG&B Conference about FamilySearch and the “Do You Know..” study.

You may or may not know, but the other weekend, I went to the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society's biannual conference in Tarrytown, NY. Not only did I meet some wonderful people, but I also went with a THIRD COUSIN that I met doing my own genealogical research. It was a great way to get to know each other and learn more about our family from our own perspectives. 

I met some wonderful family historians, genealogists, archivists, authors, reps for genetic genealogy companies and some people that I highly look up to. I got to browse old books and newspapers and meet artists. We went to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (I mean as a genealogist, you gotta love a good cemetery, let alone where the Headless Horseman legend took place!) We spent 3 days going to back to back lectures on such a diverse variety of topics, and while for you this may seem boring, I felt like the 3 days went by too quickly. 

But as you know, I see genealogy and storytelling, oh so much more than just names and dates. It can go DEEP. 

One of the things that really touched me during the 3 days was something that was brought up in one of the lectures. FamilySearch International presenter, Cherie Bush, shared an incredible study done by Drs. Marshall and Sara Duke:

They used something called the "Do You Know..." scale in their study with children with disabilities. This scale asks children 20 questions that taps into different kinds of family stories, but also where the children learned these pieces of family history. 

Using the "Do You Know..." scale, their studies showed that when children know more about their family history, the more self-control & sense of self they have, and the higher-self esteem they have. The "Do You Know..." scale was one of the best predictors of children's emotional health and happiness!

Of course, as the researcher I am, I wanted to learn more. :) 

There are many reasons for this. One that really stuck out to me was that when a child knows more about their family, they have a sense of being part of a larger family. They have a "strong intergenerational self," as Dr. Duke says in the New York Times article "The Stories that Bind Us." 

And it's not just the "feel good stories" that bind these generations. It's the narratives that also show a sense of family descension (such as, "we used to have it all, but then we lost everything) or the narrative of both the ups and downs (although this last one is seen is the the most healthful). 

According to this same article, there are other studies done in other fields that show similar results to intergenerational family narratives correlating to a higher sense of self-worth, pride, happiness, etc.

(If you want to learn more, I thought I'd share the article by Bruce Feiler from the New York Time and another article by Dr. Marshall Duke from the HuffingtonPost).

For me, doing genealogical work for myself, asking my family questions, even as an adult, has had some really profound healing for me. It's helped me to let go of collective shame. It's helped me to see I am part of a bigger network of people. Learning stories from my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins has been surprisingly incredible.

To me, this study is another reason why genealogy and storytelling isn't just about names and dates. It's also about deep intergenerational healing at a profoundly deep level. 

If you haven't grabbed my own version of 20-Questions called {Y}our Connecting Conversations to learn about your own family history, you can grab them here!

Keep learning about your ancestors.

Find out why You're SUPPOSED to be here!


PS- Starting Tuesday, October 9, I will be rolling out {Y}our Stories: The Series. Think Humans of NY, but for stories of family, ancestry, lineage and genealogy. If you want to contribute and record your story with me, CLICK HERE.

Breaking Down & The Healing Power of My Genealogy and Ancestry

Written by: Jaclyn Wallach Photos: Josh Schneider Video: Danielle Miller

NOTE: Please read the full story before watching the video. I won't lie, this was a very vulnerable moment for me. 

Many times in doing our genealogy and family history, it can bring up a lot of unpleasant (sometimes really unpleasant) things. But when facing them, it can mean SO. MUCH. HEALING. And a new found desire to know your roots.

Sometimes these familial wounds are directly passed down in the form of behavior or at the cellular level (sometimes manifesting into dis-ease) from one generation to the next. Other times it's something that is in the collective consciousness of ancestors that is passed from generation to generation.

As many of you know, about a month ago I returned from a trip to Poland. Honestly, my biggest motivating factor was I had the chance to see what life was like in Poland for nearly a thousand years before World War II and the Holocaust, and to hopefully have the chance to see my great-grandmother's hometown (which I did!)

But my biggest fear was facing ghettos, concentration camps, death camps, mass graves secretly hidden in the middle of forests. Anything to do with the Holocaust. I could barely watch the 2 minute preview of Schindler's List before I came. I would go into memorial museums and run out of there crying, not able to face the discomfort.

None of the family that I have yet uncovered were even in Europe during this time, and yet that deep-seeded fear was so strong.

Outside the Rote Haus (The Red House) where the Kripo & Jewish police worked/lived + the dungeons below. 

Outside the Rote Haus (The Red House) where the Kripo & Jewish police worked/lived + the dungeons below. 

The Holocaust throughout Europe and parts of Middle East + North Africa, the Pogroms, the Inquisition in Spain, the scape-goating, abuse and anti-semitism that continuously befell my ancestors for thousands of years (and even today) lives within my body. And it scared the crap out of me to face any of this. I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to face it.

Then, on the second day of Poland, we traveled to Łódź, where one of the bigger ghettos of the 1930s and 1940s rested. This is all before the concentration camps and the death camps. I won't get too much into the details of the town or ghetto, but part of the Łódź ghetto was a red building where the Kripo (German criminal police) and Jewish police (who assumed they might get some sort of asylum if they worked this way) would sleep or work.

In the basement, were basically dungeons. People were hung in these dark cramped basements for things like harboring more food than they should have had (they were basically on a diet of 120 calories per day if they were lucky) or sneaking in their personal belongings that were forbidden (basically more expensive items + items of Jewry).

We were "lucky" to be able to get into the building (which is now a rectory fora church) and go into the dark, dank dungeons where the hooks for hanging still hung from the ceiling and nail scratches still in the wall. Most people aren't able to get in to this place even today.

The hooks for a man, woman and/or child's hanging in the Łódź ghetto still dangle from the ceiling in one of the dungeons in the Rote Haus basement (now part of the Assumption Church).

The hooks for a man, woman and/or child's hanging in the Łódź ghetto still dangle from the ceiling in one of the dungeons in the Rote Haus basement (now part of the Assumption Church).

Our tour guide, Tzvi, told us the story of one man who was so desperate for food that he had been using his dead baby's rations for his own food (he hadn't even buried the baby because if he did, everyone would know his baby had died and he wouldn't be able to eat the baby's rations). Instead of taking pity on him, they hung him.

Tzvi told us many died in these dungeons with the rope hanging around their neck SINGING psalms with every piece of courage they had left. He told us that while there were millions who died, we cannot forget the one, the individual's stories.

Everything happens for a reason. Tzvi looked at me and asked me to read the translation of Hebrew to English of the psalm.

And I broke in that moment.

As I read the words I pictured the man's face singing these words, he, knowing exactly what the Hebrew meant. I couldn't finish it. I asked for someone else to read it, but everyone gave me the space to feel what I was feeling and to continue to read through to the end.

Entrance into one of the dungeons in the basement where many people spent their last days. 

Entrance into one of the dungeons in the basement where many people spent their last days. 

And then we sang it loudly- with pride and life- together.

But I realize now that I broke down in that moment so that I could be rebuilt again. So that I could face the trauma of those who came before me and so that I could release the fear and shame I had hidden so deep within me. It was the first moment I was able to acknowledge this. The first moment I was allowed to feel all of this. I was able to face the rest of the week long trip with more pride and shed the shame that lived so deeply within me (shame that I didn't even know existed). I feel so much more pride for my lineage and my people. For the spiritual practices of my people. For the bravery of my ancestors.

Danielle, one of the many incredible people on my trip and new my friend, incredibly captured this moment in the video above. This moment is so vulnerable for me. But I want to share with you the power of facing your family history, your genealogy and your roots. It has the power to change you and generations to come.

"A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots."- Marcus Garvey