Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? I love hearing the surprising, sometimes improbable, sometimes deeply moving stories that are hidden in people’s families and that seem to be discovered with such ease by the participants and the team of experts enlisted to help. Like a lot of people too I’ve had a go at tracing my own family tree, but it hasn’t been as easy or as fruitful as it looks on TV, for reasons that aren’t hard to understand.
During the lockdown I decided to take an ancestry DNA test. For those who haven’t done it, it involves spitting rather a lot of saliva through a small funnel into a plastic tube – taking care, of course, not to contaminate anything while you’re doing it. You then send it off and wait a long time for the result. I was hoping very much that my test would come up with a mind-blowing surprise – maybe an ancestor from Africa or perhaps some DNA from a country in Europe that I thought my family had no connection with. Not a bit of it. My test came back as ‘99.9% Ashkenazi Jewish’, which I didn’t wholly believe. (‘Ashkenazi’ refers to Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe.) I was, and still am, fairly sure that somewhere along the line at least one or two of those good Jewish ancestors must have married a Russian or a Pole – hence the fair hair and blue eyes in my mother’s family. However, it didn’t show in any obvious way, in this company’s test at least. Different tests often seem to come up with different results, and the reason I chose this particular test was that it had ‘Ashkenazi Jewish’ as a separate group among all those from Europe. My maternal haplogroup (a word I’ve now learnt, which means those who have a common ancestor) encompasses 5% of Ashkenazi Jews but also a smaller number of Eastern Europeans, so it is possible that some of the DNA may have come from a non-Jewish source. (Or, of course, that those Eastern Europeans have some Jewish ancestry.) However – again according to this test – it looks as though the amount was so small and/or hard to distinguish that it couldn’t be positively identified. Ah well. In that way at least I seem to be who I think I am.
What the DNA test has done is to rekindle my interest in genealogy. I’ve tried two or three times before to trace my family back beyond my grandparents but have never succeeded. As I’ve said above, there are some good reasons. Firstly, the records that you can find online may not be complete, so that even though I know for certain that my grandparents arrived in London by sea, I haven’t been able to find any record of their arrival. This is partly because I don’t know the exact years, but partly also because I don’t know how their names were written down when they arrived. Spelling isn’t always a strong point in these documents. In my maternal grandmother’s family, for instance, the surname was written at various times as, among other things, Rebetsky, Rebatsky, Robitsky, Rubitsky, Ribitsky and Robotsky, and perhaps also Ruvnitsky. My paternal grandfather’s name was anglicised to Taylor (he was a tailor), but whether it was originally Schneider – which means ‘tailor’ in Yiddish and is a pretty common surname – or whether it was, as my father’s sister claimed, something like ‘Telja’ (less likely, I think) I have no way of knowing. This means that tracing either family back to their origins in Poland is a lot harder. There is a Jewish genealogy website but I seem to have drawn a blank there. Another difficulty is that although I know or have identified the places in Poland where my father’s parents were born, I’m not absolutely sure which of them came from which place. One of them came from the same town, Płock, as my maternal grandmother, which is perhaps how the two families came to know each other when they arrived in England.
But that’s conjecture too. Failing any sort of lead into my grandparents’ families – though I know from my mother’s parents’ marriage certificate that my grandmother’s father was a wholesale draper and my grandfather’s father was said to be a farmer (for ‘farmer’ read ‘peasant’?), I’ve been looking up some of the lateral branches of both families. In fact I think it’s true to say I’ve succumbed wholeheartedly to the genealogy bug and have now obsessively been trying to build a family tree, or trees. I hadn’t seen before just how compulsive it can become, especially when many of the people I’m trying to place were known to me in my childhood: my mother’s aunts and uncles and their offspring, my father’s cousins, my own first cousins who were twenty or thirty years older than me.
And there are mysteries I’d like to unravel. Did one of my father’s sisters really die from threatening to drink jewellery polish, and then actually drinking it, when she found out her husband, who was a jeweller, was having an affair? Did my father’s brother’s first wife – who was said to be mad – commit suicide? Was it by accident or again suicide that the same brother was killed while apparently repairing a gas stove? I can find some of the answers from their death certificates, of course, and can identify the people in the family photographs that have been passed down to me, but there’s so much I can never know. I have one letter from my father’s brother to their surviving sister, dated 1936, which seems to have been written in a sanatorium in Vienna and alludes to the ‘terrible time’ he has been through. I have no idea what this refers to. He remarried in 1927 and from what I remember his second wife was a nice, ordinary woman who wouldn’t have caused any trouble to anyone. In the letter he warns his sister and my father, their much younger brother, not to have anything to do with their father. Again I have no idea why.
Then there are the intergenerational anomalies, notable but not so puzzling. My father’s surviving sister married one of my mother’s uncles. There wasn’t that much age difference: my grandmother was younger than her husband and she seems to have been older than most of her siblings. Another anomaly is that one of my grandmother’s brothers married his niece, my mother’s cousin – not forbidden in Jewish law but decidedly iffy in English law, I would have thought. She was deaf and he promised to look after her, which he did. They never had any children and I don’t know what kind of marriage it was. I met them a few times when I was a child and remember that she didn’t speak in a way I could understand.
Comparatively recently I discovered a brother of my grandmother’s whom I hadn’t known about before. I knew that three of her brothers had stayed in London and a fourth had emigrated to Israel – again I don’t know exactly when – but when I was going through the family photographs with my aunt, my mother’s sister, in the late 1990s, she pointed out someone who must have been another brother, whom I’d never heard of before. The photo is of him in what I’ve now identified as Polish army uniform, and as it’s beside one of my great-uncle/uncle by marriage in World War 1 British uniform I assume it was taken at much the same time. I’ve tried writing to the Polish army records office (having got an online translation into Polish) but unfortunately my email bounced back. I’m intrigued by him, though. I don’t know whether he ever came to England – I think he must have done as my aunt seemed to have known him – and, if so, why he was sent back to fight for Poland when his brothers were in the British army. I don’t know what happened to him or whether he was killed in the war. Note: After I’d written this piece I discovered that the uniform postdates the 1914-18 war. Poland didn’t become an independent country again until just after the end of the war. This raises yet more questions about him.
I could go on, and will probably continue researching if it doesn’t get too addictive. The fascination is in all that’s unknown, and in putting names and dates and places to people who until now were only vaguely there in the background. When did X marry Y? What was their name? When did they change it? (Quite a few did, from something that was obviously Jewish to something that sounded more English.) Did they have any children? If so, are the children still alive? And so on. Part of me says it’s a complete waste of time when I could be doing something more creative, but part of me is driven by the desire to know, even though there’s so much I can never know. In some way these people matter, even if I hardly knew them, and they are alive in me, aspects of who I am.