I have been immersed in tracing family roots the past few months and have felt the power of appreciating our inheritance, both collective and personal. By inheritance, I mean not money, but all the struggles and survival and joys our ancestors lived to allow us to be born.
Often we find disparate or contrasting pieces of our family tree. Social, religious or economic oppositions that come to live inside us.
One year ago, I gave myself the half century birthday present of a general ethnicity DNA test that left me with questions: 37% Scandinavian, 30% Jewish, 13% German “Europe West” including Midwestern US, 11% Iberian Peninsula – Spain, 7% Great Britain, 1% Irish.
I have learned I have centuries of Jewish merchant/banking family, prominent Hamburg Mennonite relations, countless preachers and rabbis, courageous soldiers, physicians, managers of hospitals, Danish ancestors, a celebrated Confederate soldier and leader in small town Ozarks, and most remarkable of all for me this year, I have been able to trace one line back to Leszno, Poland in 1750s and another British line back to Poznan, Poland. Before that from The Netherlands and before that as verified by my DNA and one of the surnames in my tree “Raphael,” but so far not by physical records I have obtained yet, Sephardic Jewish culture in Spain. I am only beginning to learn about that rich culture and vast exodus. They apparently were prominent contributors to Spain in both medicine and math.
I have learned a lot more about Polish history over the past year than I previously knew (almost nothing), because the one dearest to me is there.
One thing many may not know, as I did not, is the reason why nearly any Jewish ancestry in Europe can be traced back to Poland is because 3/4 of the world population of Jews lived inside Poland by 1700. By its third partition in 1795, Poland had become a safe haven of sorts to persecution in the rest of Europe. 140 years later (at least) 3 million Polish Jewish lives and nearly 2 million non-Jewish Poles were extinguished. Absolutely staggering. The surviving Polish people have persevered and rebuilt for decades in an incredible way.
A misperception some seem to have is that Germany is the site of the largest memorial to the holocaust at the largest camp out of hundreds of forced labor camps. Nope, Poland. I intend to uncover the names of any relations I can confirm whose lives ended in Auschwitz in order to honor them in a special way.
One thing I’ve learned about in the process of attempting to trace names of people is an issue of surname confusion. Just like Scandinavian tradition of naming someone “Ander’s son,” Jewish peoples were diverse and not in the tradition of using family surnames as we think of them. One way to attempt to control this was by formal decree in the 1770s. It reads like a 1700s Big Brother if you ask me.
Below is the first knitting pattern I designed myself, and I was thinking of trees, stars, roots, and midwinter cinnamon oats I love to prepare each morning. It felt like all those who have gone before me were slipping through my fingers with the natural, undyed wool from a local mill. Certainly, the rich knitting cultures of Europe feel like “home” to me even though I have only once briefly set foot there in this lifetime and never to Scandinavia.
Here are a few ancestors I have discovered or rediscovered.
Other than both sets of grandparents which I was fortunate to know well, this ancestor is the only in my tree I met in person, in Munich 20 years ago. He took one look at me, turned pale, and had to take a few moments to compose himself because I reminded him of his sister (my grandmother) when they were young. At the time, I did not know many of the details outlined in the article below, but it was hands down the single most powerful experience of my life to visit the Dachau museum after being dropped off there by the person whose unit not only liberated the camp, but who helped that museum come to fruition (to my understanding). Of note, I never got to meet this man’s brother, because he passed very young fighting with the US Army in 1944 on Normandy, shortly before WWII ended.
Here is a story about the Confederate soldier and Ozark preacher, judge and educator, my great-grandfather.
I read into an 1880s history collection of his family line from the Northern US (Massachusetts) which contains many fascinating stories about this family’s contributions to life in the first colonies and an apparent “missing link” about how my branch of that family came to be in the Carolinas and South when the rest of them were North. One story about Earles introducing the first mechanized wool carding machines to farmers in MA caught my eye.
Another about a supposed “family trait” of people being able to create things with precision included a man who purportedly built a gun from scratch that was so admired by General George Washington that he walked 40 miles to hand deliver it to him. He was reported to have been told by General Washington when his name engraved in it read “Earl,” that Earl is only for royalty, so to avoid any confusion an “E” should be added to the name. This is the kind of story I imagine gets passed down through families that may or may not have a kernel of truth. It was the first I’d come across it, so I don’t know what to think. Nonetheless, the first Earls/Earles arrived in the very beginnings of what we know as America.
Back in Europe, I was able to confirm a connection by marriage with the Warburgs who were interwoven with my lineage. If you are not familiar with them, check out this book by Pulitzer prize winning author. That same ancestor (by marriage) had children who married into the Goldschmidt and Oppenheimer families as well, so that one little family represented three of the most successful banking families of Europe.
Several of my ancestors were knighted by the monarchy for their leadership, one for setting up a child welfare system in the UK. A third cousin in the family of my great-grandmother x5 I found listed in a booklet of British Millionaires 1809-1945. He made his money at the beginning of mining gold and diamonds in South Africa and was linked “behind the scenes” to Rhodes of Rhodes Scholar fame. That was a learning curve ball. I had no idea the scholarship I had always looked up to as a pinnacle of academia was linked to blood diamonds. My ancestor’s nephew inherited his wealth and owned a home on Kensington Gardens followed by a palatial mansion in Ireland where he became one of the few Brits to be given honorary Irish citizenship. The mansion is a museum today.
I am speechless to learn what sort of wealth has been woven through parts of my family history I never knew about, much of it taken by the Nazis, and also fascinated by the interweaving of the more simplistic Mennonite lifestyle which produced one minister who lived to be 99-1/2 in the 1600s(!!!) and others with longevity in a time when few lived past their 40s. I am not a Mennonite expert, but my understanding is one basic difference between the Amish and the Mennonite is that Mennonites allow for more integration into technological advances in society, but in many ways adhere to strict guidelines of simplicity.
I also learned about the Waldenses of the Middle Ages who followed Peter Waldo, the reported precursor family faith of my first traceable Mennonite ancestor. This was a group who took vows of poverty, organized the poor, and believed spirituality was not linked to money.
Perhaps it is the latter with whom I feel most aligned in heart because ever since I can remember arriving on the planet, I have had the sense attaining lots more money than one needs for sustenance is linked to the suffering of others. In modern day law-of-attraction spiritual circles, that would be called “a limiting belief.” When I consider the scope of my ancestral spiritual inheritance (not speaking of money, as I inherited not a dime), as someone with Buddhist and Interfaith leanings who loves to live simply in small spaces close to the Earth, it is probably those ancestors who resonate loudest in my heart.
As a woman, I would love to search for written stories of the many strong women of my lineage, but other than the words left by my dear grandmother in her story of leaving Germany in 1937, there are few I can find. Women of the world, keep writing!