When you aim to dig up the past, you must confront that the past is never truly past.
Recently I’ve been grappling with the consequences of crashing headlong into other families’ painful pasts. This past summer when I was searching for the family of my Bankoff great-grandmother, I connected with third cousins whose (grand)mother had been raised in an orphanage because her mother, my great-grandmother’s sister, was mentally ill and couldn’t take care of her children. I struggled to balance the questions I had with sensitivity to their painful legacy. What was still traumatic for them was for me one of the more fascinating family stories I had ever dug up.
Around Xmas I found myself in the same position when I connected with the widower of a woman FamilyTreeDNA said was my 2nd or 3rd (but probably 2nd) cousin. His lovely, detailed email was entertaining to read. As an opera fanatic, I especially enjoyed this part:
B. had an Aunt Valya who sang with the Russian Imperial Opera and was quite famous, receiving gifts from royalty.
The Tsar’s daughter once threw a gorgeous white ermine coat onto the stage after one of Valya’s performances.
She was imprisoned and sang for the jailer who was so touched that he let her go.
She smuggled her jewelry out “on her person” and went to the US.
B. spotted Valya’s photo at the Russian Tea room (Countess Sonja’s?).
She told Countess Sonja, “That is my aunt.”
Sonja said, “Well, if she is your aunt, what is her nickname?”
B. told her that she always called her “Valya” and the Countess then believed her.
Poor Valya committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid after losing her boyfriend to her sister.
B. said it was not a good way to die; certainly not like in the operas.
B’s half-sister was [redacted], the famous opera singer who taught at [famous conservatory]. She died a few years ago.
Wait — I know that singer!
She was the grandmother of the friend who is the wife of one of my closest genealogical collaborators! If B. and I were second cousins, my friend and I would be fourth!
I quickly forwarded the exchange to my friends, who were as flabbergasted as I at the coincidence: “When [their grandmom] died, someone claiming to be her half sister contacted them, and they didn’t believe it. It must have been her. Minds are blown.” B’s widower confirmed B. had tried to reach out.
This was their connection. I began to wonder about mine…
I guessed that my relationship to B. went through her father, Misha, since he was from Kiev, and all of my mother’s family was from that immediate area. For B. and I to be second cousins, Misha’s mother would have had to have been the sister of one of my Benn, Skversky, Zeitzer, or Yaroker great-great-grandparents. Based on what I then believed about Misha’s life, I did not believe there would be American records with this information. Alas.
But thank goodness I had the wife of a genealogist by my side! My friend already had a lot of records and photographs to share. And I quickly discovered that there was a lot of fascinating information easily available online about Misha. We spent an exhilarating day trading records back-and-forth and marveling at one great find after another. It was one of those days when it seems like there is nothing easier or more fun in the world than genealogical discovery.
Then she produced the NYC marriage certificate of Misha and her grandmother — and it turned out that Misha’s mother’s last name didn’t fit. Drat. That meant that if FamilyTreeDNA were right*, B. and I were 3rd cousins, my friend and I were 5th cousins, and now I really was solidly in the territory where there are no readily available records. Back to the real world of genealogy!
But there was one last discovery before the brick wall truly ended our day of discovery. When my friend went to scan the one family photograph she had of Misha’s family in Russia, she noticed for the first time that there was writing on the back. Of all the improbable discoveries, she had found Aunt Valya! (B’s widower confirmed the ID.)
But this is a post about sorrow, and for as fun as this research expedition was, it had a painful subtext: Misha was not a good man.
Misha abandoned his first wife, my friend’s great-grandmother, and also his second, B’s mother. While my friends’s family was stunned to make this connection, it was painful because Misha’s disappearance destroyed the lives of his wife and three young children, including the girl who grew up to be a famous singer. Their mother had to take a factory job to support them and wasn’t able to be around for them. The pain carried through the generations to such an extent that they were even now reluctant to revisit this part of their history. The older generation asked my friend and her husband to stop their research entirely. In this post you’ll note that I’ve shared few names and no identifying details or photographs with you. That was the only way they would permit me to speak publicly about their family’s story.
B’s widower, too, confided painful family stories to me. Not only had he lost his beloved wife, but family relationships unraveled after her passing to make his life even more difficult.
I was, of course, a safe distance away. In the case of my friend’s family, something terrible happened to them almost a century ago, and in the case of B’s widower, something painful was happening to a stranger on the other side of an email. Neither situation had the sort of immediacy where social norms are clear on how to behave. I was excruciatingly aware that I had barged into rooms usually kept locked and had asserted my right to see their contents based on an extremely tenuous connection. In my real life I would apologize profusely and back away with extreme embarrassment. In my genealogy life I couldn’t help but continue to push — as carefully and sensitively as I could manage — but push all the same. And while my friend, B’s widower, and my Bankoff 3rd cousins excused my prying, the uncomfortable feeling lingers still as a slightly queasy subtext to these otherwise productive genealogical searches.
* “If FamilyTreeDNA is right” — an article in its own right! DNA expert Elise Friedman explains that with FamilyTreeDNA’s FamilyFinder test, “90% of 3rd cousins can be detected, and 99% of 2nd cousins can be detected.” However, “Ashkenazi Jews have a major challenge when it comes to autosomal DNA because we’re so intermarried that we typically share more DNA than the average for each relationship level, and end up looking like we’re more closely related than we really are. Family Tree DNA has tweaked their matching algorithm for Ashkenazi Jews (since many people were showing up as 2nd-3rd cousins to each other!), but there’s only so much that an algorithm can do to get around our crazy biology.” So, it’s quite possible that B. and I aren’t third cousins at all, but, say, 6th cousins in five different ways. Alas.
If you want to learn more about genetic genealogy, I highly recommend Elise’s webinars!