‘Who Do You Think You Are’ Offers My Own History Lesson (Column)

Julie Bowen found out her ancestors were abolitionists. John Stamos learned his grandfather had been murdered. Jessica Biel discovered she has Jewish roots. That’s the irresistible hook of TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” which just earned an Emmy nomination for structured reality program. The producers work with Ancestry.com to research celebrities’ roots, often finding surprises in even the most famous of family trees.

The research experts who coach the stars through their journey offered to do the same for me — albeit on a cursory level, since their research usually takes them a year. They just had about two weeks to do the digging for me.

First, a personal note: My father died suddenly about four years ago. He was, simply put, my rock, and I miss him desperately every day. So given the opportunity, I asked the team to explore his side of the family as a way of honoring his memory. He was born in the U.S., but both of his parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather, David, died a few months before I was born — in Jewish tradition, I was named for him — and my paternal grandmother, Hilda, passed away when I was just 9. So I didn’t have many sharp memories for the researchers to work with. But on a recent trip back home, I happened to find one document that proved incredibly useful: Hilda and David’s wedding announcement from 1926, which gave them some key dates, as well as the name of the person who gave her away to be married.

The process began with an hour-long phone call with Stephanie Schwam, executive producer at Shed Media, and co-executive producer Aleta Rozanski (the team’s historian), who peppered me with questions about both sides of my family tree. What country did my grandparents emigrate from? What port did they arrive in? What did David do for a living? I was embarrassed at how little I knew. I jokingly call myself an “Eastern European mutt” — early 20th century Europe was a mess of shifting borders — so was it Hungary? Austria? Poland? Depends on which army was seizing the territory at any given time.

They warned me, though, that chances of finding much detail, if any, was a longshot. Schwam herself is Jewish, and said even her own roots were hard to trace because whatever records were kept were wiped out during the Holocaust. So ever cautious, she tried to manage my expectations.

But two weeks later, they returned with a pile of documents — more than I ever could have expected. They found censuses (“They’re a treasure trove of information,” said Rozanski), immigration records, naturalization papers that traced Hilda’s journey into this country. And yes, I was soon in tears. “In two weeks, I’m surprised at what we were able to find,” confessed Schwam.

There’s a story I’d often been told, one of those family yarns that probably has little truth to it. I remember my father telling me that Hilda’s family didn’t have many resources, but they wanted to send one of their daughters to the U.S. to escape the strife in their country, and Hilda’s twin sister, Yocheved (who my sister is named for), was the chosen one. But the day came, and she balked — and Hilda ended up emigrating in her place.

What I learned from “Who Do You Think You Are” team was that Hilda’s (then named Hudle) journey was anything but smooth. Because she was traveling as a single woman — she was in her early 20s at the time — she was held for two days in detention at Ellis Island upon her arrival. Her uncle, Abraham Wohl, a plumbing supplier, finally came to claim her — the one who would eventually give her away in marriage. Census records from 1925 show that five years later, she was living with the family as a “servant.” That broke my heart. Schwam pointed out she was likely helping with the Wohls’ four children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15. “She definitely worked for her place in that home,” said Schwam.

Somehow she met David, who she married in 1926, and I learned from their marriage license that her father’s name was Abraham and David’s father’s name was Moses — the names she would give their twin sons, my father, Morris (his Hebrew name was Moses), and my uncle Abraham, when they were born the following year. That’s when I really lost it. The Jewish tradition of honoring the dead by passing on their names had never seemed more poignant.

Schwam pointed out, too, that meant that by that time, both men had died. Which meant Hilda’s mother and sister were likely struggling to survive back in Poland without a male head of household. And as I suspected, the fate of Jews in that area doesn’t have a happy ending. World War I hit the area hard, recounted Rozanski. “The front was in her neighborhood,” she said. “That’s a really good reason to leave. America looks pretty good, if you can get there.” And as World War II approached, Jews in Bobrka were first resettled in a ghetto, then ultimately sent to the Belzec concentration camp. None survived.

Rozanski painstakingly retraced Hilda’s journey for me across Europe, from Poland through Rotterdam into Ellis Island, a weeks-long trek that must have been frightening and arduous for a single woman traveling alone, speaking only Yiddish. But as she pointed out, had she not made that journey, I wouldn’t be here. Hilda eventually became a naturalized citizen in her late 40s, informing the government that she had a mole on her left cheek, a bent index finger — and hazel eyes, just like mine.

They did offer some happier news on David’s side. He arrived in the U.S. as an infant with his parents before the turn of the century. His family ran a cigar-making business, but as one of several sons (do I have missing cousins?), David likely had to forge his own path and ended up as a junior clerk in the post office. “It was a secretarial job, but a good job,” assured Rozanski. “You’re not working with your hands.” (They even found David’s parents’ immigration records — and I learned my great-grandmother’s name was Devora. Cue the waterworks, once again.)

So “who do I think I am”? Exactly who I always aspired to be — another in a line of driven, determined women.

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