I’m always curious about why people choose to trace their ancestry. Sometimes a family has strong connections with other family members and an accompanying oral history that is simply calling to be recorded with, of course, verification of facts and further research to stretch the tree backwards in time. But I often talk to people for whom, like myself, there are more tenuous or unknown connections to relatives and recent ancestors but yet there is a desire to discover their roots and add to their own sense of identity. In these cases there is often no rich fabric of family stories but a few half-remembered snippets and fragments and these form the starting point for their travels back in time.
This is the case for a current client: an 80 year old man whose father was a Lithuanian Jew who migrated to Britain shortly before WWI. Bernard has very few memories of his father as he was evacuated from Birmingham at the outbreak of WWII at the age of six and didn’t return until he was eighteen (“No-one told me the war was over!” he quipped) in 1950, the same year his father died. His father was one of six siblings, he believes, all of whom gradually left Lithuania and settled initially in Cardiff before two migrated further to the US and three of the others moved to Birmingham and the West Midlands. But Bernard had very little connection with his uncles, aunts and cousins because his father had married out of the Jewish faith, and Bernard and his siblings were brought up as Anglicans. His mother’s family also cut them off because she had married “a foreigner”. He recalls that his Jewish aunt, who hadn’t spoken to the family for several years, came into their lives again briefly following his father’s death – to insist that he was exhumed and reburied in a Jewish grave within the same cemetery.
Roll on another few decades and Bernard is wanting to trace his family’s heritage at the same time as he’s worrying about the connections in the younger generations of his family. His son, who lives in the US, is in a same-sex marriage to a Filipino and they have adopted daughter. His daughter disapproves of this relationship and although they do still have limited contact he is concerned that this may diminish further once he’s gone. Having experienced a sense of loss of identity through the schisms in his own family due to religious intolerance he now sees the prospect of other prejudices leading to further rifts within the next generation.
I’m not in a position to help with the relationship between his offspring but I will hopefully be able to find some answers regarding his Lithuanian ancestry and maybe trace the branches that moved to the US in the early years of the 20th Century. Name changes and movements across continents make it a challenging piece of research but I’ve made a start and already ordered a couple of marriage certificates for an aunt and uncle of Bernard’s in Cardiff which should help establish his grandfather’s name (he wasn’t named on his own father’s marriage certificate) and found the record of another aunt’s entry into the US via Ellis Island. I’m meeting my client again this week to update him of findings and to attempt to jog his memory for any other clues in the hope that some odd snippets of long-remembered conversations may yet assist with the search into his family’s past.