Identity Crisis | Liam Rosenberg
Growing up, I had always known my ethnic identity as Jewish. More specifically, Ashkenazi Jewish, which refers to the community of Jews who were exiled to Central and later Eastern Europe. This is what I’d been told from the time I was born, albeit often through the fragmented stories that my grandparents passed down from previous generations. I knew that my family had been in the United States for a long time, and certainly much longer than seven or eight decades.
But there were questions that I couldn’t answer. In all truthfulness, I wasn’t sure if my family arrived during the Holocaust or during the American Civil War. In terms of my family’s culture, we seemed to have retained an immigrant character for many years. It’s not like I had much to base my research on anyway. I’d only met one of my great grandparents, my grandbubbi, or great grandmother, and she passed away just over a decade ago. I recalled vaguely learning about her background, and it was one of two things: she was either a native New Yorker or grew up in Bialystok, Poland — home of the bialy, a type of flat bagel that my dad always used to remind me about whenever we went to the deli. Either way, though, my parents and I were about equally uneducated on our family history.
It had troubled me for a while. How could someone know so little about where their ancestors came from? Several years back, my parents both took DNA tests, and they didn’t reveal a whole lot more about our background. Both results came back around 100% Ashkenazi Jewish. This was practically a given, but we weren’t even supplemented with the name of a country. So, after hearing about other success stories online, in January of this year I decided to embark on the journey to uncover my family’s origins.
Luckily, I was able to fill in many of the blanks by my grandparents’ word alone. I started with my maternal grandfather, who lives at my house for about half the year. He had the names of my great-great-grandparents and their descendants, but surprisingly had very little to offer aside from that.
“Once I started asking questions, it was already too late,” he told me. Both sets of my grandpa’s grandparents were incredibly unforthcoming about their pasts, or just couldn’t express it in English. This was a theme I saw repeated on both sides of the family. And once having immigrated to America or the United Kingdom, people like my great-great-grandparents changed their names altogether, which complicated things further. However, he did provide me with my great-great-grandfather’s immigration records from London to New York, which was crucial to identifying his alias in Europe.
He and my cousin tried their best to help me with my maternal grandma’s family, who all lived (and still mostly live) in the UK, but one branch was still completely missing. On the other end of the tree, my paternal grandmother briefed me on the information she could find, which included all of her family and my paternal grandfather’s family.
Once I input the information on Ancestry.com, the historical records attached to my ancestors began to flood in. Census records, naturalization papers, voter registration lists, and other documents all became available to me upon a few clicks. At first, the abundance of information seemed erroneous. But I soon found that the records matched up.
There were many things that I learned from this project. For one, I had no idea that my family immigrated to America before the First World War. Interestingly, my mom’s ancestors arrived in Britain parallel to my American family. My research didn’t stop at deceased relatives either: I found an entire branch of my family that ended up in South Africa instead of the U.S.. According to my grandma, she had been looking for these cousins for decades, and was told by her mother that they often came to visit when she was a young girl. In the end, though, it serves me all the better. Instead of naively proclaiming myself as “just American” when discussing my ancestry, I’ll now know exactly where to point on the map.