Great-Grandfather Avraham Leib; from a 1960 edition of Canadian Jewish News.

Family Quest: Searching for my Biological Roots

By Paul Howard

The family surname used in this story has been changed to respect the privacy of all those involved.

Genealogy research has been a big part of my life since I was 15 years old. A desire to know where I came from, who my ancestors were, and what type of lives they lived. Having lost both my grandmothers a week apart at that time, I wanted to find out more about my family. My paternal grandfather passed away when I was almost four years old, but my maternal grandfather was still alive and well. After talking with numerous family members during the Shiva mourning period, I started my foray into family research, and JewishGen was a big part of that. From an initial family tree of around 100 people, now over 30 years later, I have close to 10,000 connections, including my wife’s family. Some branches go back to the 1700s.

Let me backtrack. The people mentioned above are my family. The only family I ever had or would want. But growing up wasn’t always easy for me. I knew from an early age that I was adopted. Did that bother me? I’m not sure. It’s just what it was. But that didn’t stop me thinking about my biological family from time to time. Who they were and why I was given up for adoption? It’s not that I wanted to go live with them, but it would have been nice to have some answers. I sometimes wondered if the strangers walking down the street or the person sitting next to me on the bus could have been them. And if I ever met them what would I say?

My parents never spoke about where I came from or the circumstances involving my adoption. I was their son and that was all that mattered. They had no records pertaining to my birth parents and didn’t really like discussing it at all. I think it hurt them if I asked questions, so I rarely did. From time to time I did bring it up but mostly when I was older and only to see if there were any medical records they might have had. They didn’t. I was told it was a private adoption and back then more detailed information wasn’t required for these types of cases, or so I was told.

As I grew up—later-teenage years and on—I didn’t think much about my biological parents. I didn’t hide the fact that I was adopted, but it wasn’t public knowledge.  When I started dating in my early-twenties I knew this was a topic that I would eventually have to broach. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, however, that I had to worry about it. I had been dating my future wife for a few weeks when I nervously discussed this with her, and to my amazement she didn’t care. To her, my adoptive parents were my family and she accepted me for who I was, medical issues (Crohn’s) and all.

When we finally had children of our own I confided to her that I finally felt like I had my own family—one that was part of me. I love my parents, but a small part of me always thought that I was different and not 100% part of their family. I guess knowing you’re adopted can have that effect.

Fast forward another 15 years or so and I read that the government in Toronto, Ontario, where I was born and raised, had opened up its adoption record archives allowing adoptees to request copies of original records. Boy, was I overwhelmed with a flood of conflicting emotions. Should I apply? Was I ready for this? At first I didn’t do anything, but my curiosity finally got the better of me. I still wanted to know where I came from.

I called the ministry handling these cases and was directed to the proper online forms I needed to fill out and submit. I wasn’t sure if this was the breakthrough I was looking for but I was certainly eager to try to find out what would turn up. After a few weeks of waiting I received my original birth certificate. It had been redacted and didn’t have much information, but my original name was there. Paul Howard. No parents were listed, and it wasn’t enough to do any further research on, but it did give me a name that belonged to me for all of three to four days before my adoption. I thought that this would be the end of it. I had gone as far as I could go. But the story goes on.

Since my parents told me my biological mother was Jewish, I turned to JewishGen and all the amazing resources offered there. I looked up the Howard name and my first “hit” was someone listed on the Family Tree of the Jewish People also researching that surname. I asked a cousin to see if he could contact her on my behalf, which he did. However, as I didn’t have my biological mother’s first name, the individual said she didn’t know anything about my connection to her family. (I later discovered that she was actually my biological aunt). I also contacted a person I found on JewishGen Family Finder but never heard back from him.

A few months later I called back the government archives to see if there was any additional information I could acquire. They told me that I could fill out another online document to request un-redacted documents of my adoption. Within a few weeks I was sent a copy of my original birth certificate and adoption order, documents that held more information and a clue to my past. They listed my birth mother’s name and address from when I was born. She was Jewish, single and 19. I now understood why she made the decision she did. Times were different back then for unmarried mothers and I can only imagine what her choices were. Although I’ll never be certain, I’m sure she was hoping for a better life for me—and for herself as well.

Meanwhile, my search went on. Being genealogically driven (as I like to think of myself) I still wanted to see what I could turn up on the family and how much of a family tree I could put together. I first Googled my biological mother’s name and address and came across references to the family in various Jewish newspapers from the 1950s to 1970s. Her parents, siblings and other family members were all there. They really existed and I now had enough information to help me put together a family tree, including an outline of other branches as well.

Going forward, I delved into the various JewishGen SIG distribution list archives and came across some online documents that referenced the family and filled in quite a lot of information on the more distant branches of the tree. I reached out to the authors of the articles and was put in touch with Howard cousins who were glad to talk with me. Seeing my picture on Facebook they also commented that I looked like a Howard.

Ancestral town of Staszów, Poland,
Krakowska Street, late 1920s.

With my newfound knowledge, as well as pictures of tombstones from various cemeteries (including ones where my biological family members are buried), I was able to go back as far as my maternal biological great-great-grandparents (and one set of great-great-great-grandparents) and their descendants, all of whom came from Poland and now live all over the world. It turns out that growing up I had a lot of biological relatives living all around me. Some interesting facts I found were that a biological great-grandfather was involved in Jewish philanthropy (a field I currently work in) and another great-grandmother helped start a Stashover shul in Toronto. Coincidently, Stashov (Staszów), Poland, is also where my wife’s family was from.

The clincher came when I did a Facebook search and came across my biological aunts and an uncle on Facebook. I believe my birth mother was listed there as well (without a picture) but I couldn’t be 100% sure. If it was her, she got married and had a family.

The end of my quest came when I Googled the uncle’s name and got a work telephone number. With trepidation and fear (but also hope) I made the call. I asked for Mr. Howard and explained I was looking for his sister regarding a matter that happened some 46 years ago. He was very reluctant to divulge anything without more details so I nervously told him I had just received a government document listing his sister as my birth mother. His immediate reply was shock and disbelief. He outright told me that it was false and his sister never gave a baby up for adoption. I was stunned and crestfallen, unsure of how to proceed. I thanked him for his time and hung up. I was totally devastated by the outcome—more than I thought I would be—and couldn’t concentrate on anything for the rest of the day or that evening. I wasn’t sure what I had expected from the call, but this certainly wasn’t it.

Determined not to give up, I decided to call back the next day and just leave my phone number with the hope that he would pass it along to his sister. Maybe something could still come from this. Even if I had the wrong person, she might have some knowledge as to why she was listed as my birth mother and who the real person was (although in the back of my mind I knew it was her). My wife, and one of my co-workers who knew the story, both said that it was possible that this brother just didn’t know the facts. He was older and maybe wasn’t living at home at the time. With that possibility to support me I called the business again and actually got the other (younger?) brother this time. Nervously, I told him the same thing—I was looking for his sister regarding a matter that happened 46 years ago. He immediately knew what I was referring to and even stated my birthday. I was instantly relieved, elated and extremely nervous. I went on to tell him that I didn’t want to bother anyone but was looking for a medical history. While he wasn’t extremely outgoing (but who could blame him given the circumstances,) he did give me a brief medical background of his family for which I was thankful. He also said he knew who my biological father was and was actually very friendly with him in the past. He didn’t know why his name wasn’t listed on the birth certificate but said he couldn’t divulge the person’s identity.

The call didn’t last more than 10 minutes, but before he hung up I gave him my phone number and asked him if he could pass it along to his sister in case she wanted to talk with me. Later that day he called back and said she declined and that they didn’t want me to make any further contact. I was disappointed, but will respect their wishes. I’m sure this has brought up a flood of painful memories for her that she doesn’t want to deal with at this (or possibly any other) time.

Although it would have been very interesting to speak with my birth mother, the truth of the matter is she’s a stranger to me. I “knew” her for a few days as a newborn but obviously have no memories of her at all. I tell myself that I’m not looking for another family, but is that true? I’m not sure. My family is more than enough for me, but if I was given the chance, I would like to speak with her—even to just briefly say hello and to get information about my birth father. For now, this chapter is over and I have closure. I finally know where I came from and have some knowledge of my biological family. I’m satisfied.

September 2017
Hewlett, New York, USA

[Photograph of Staszów courtesy of http://staszow.pl/en/]


Research Notes and Hints

Paul acquired a copy of his original birth certificate by applying to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services.

References to his biological family surname were found by accessing a number of JewishGen resources, including:

An uncle, some aunts, and cousins were identified on Facebook and a Google search yielded articles about his family, a photo of his great-grandfather, and the work phone number of an uncle.

The Staszów Yizkor Book can be found at: https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Staszow/Staszow.html