by Shelly Sanders
I had reams of information—dates, cities, and names—but knew nothing about the people on my Jewish family tree. What their lives were like in Russia. Family stories passed down for generations. The difficulties in coming to a new country. Why they kept it all inside, their experiences, the fates of relatives lost in the Holocaust, their faith and culture. Genealogy, I realised, was much more than tangible facts. It was words, memories, and photos that were left behind in Latvia, Siberia, and China. My grandmother died when I was 13 and more interested in boys than my heritage, and I was only able to salvage a few photos and recollections from her grouchy older sister before she was gone, 20 years later.
There would never be anyone to answer my countless questions, which is why I turn to Tracing Our Roots, Telling Our Stories, published in 2011 by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Canada. Compiled of essays written by Jewish immigrants to Canada, their children and grandchildren, this book opened a window to a mysterious world that I needed to see in order to understand where I came from, and how my great-grandmother and grandmother’s lives were shaped by trauma.
I find a kindred spirit in Ellen Shumak Monheit, who felt the need to become her family’s historian and archivist the night her uncle died. “I was afraid that if I did not write down important events, I would be partially responsible for my family’s eventual disappearance.” These were the same thoughts running through my mind, as I discovered a great-uncle’s family in Riga, murdered in the Rumbula Forest massacre in 1941. Nobody was left to remember them, and this bothered me, the sense that they’d never existed.
Peter Jassem’s story, ‘In Search of Mishpocha’, gives me a stark look at life in Poland after WWII, under the oppressive Soviet regime. Reading about his impoverished community, without a trace of its former vibrant Jewish life, makes me wonder if my great-grandmother, who came to Montreal after the war, knew what had happened to her sisters and brother, her nephews and nieces, in Latvia, also under Soviet rule at the time. Jassem’s tireless search for ancestors becomes a tutorial for me, providing valuable information about how to conduct searches, and he motivates me to keep going, even when it seems futile.
The resilience I see in Sharon Singer’s grandmother, Yetta, shows me what it took to survive the journey from Europe to Canada, as poor Jews, in steerage. When Yetta’s food was gone, her children grew weak. “She walked to the bottom of a staircase that connected to an upper deck and saw a well-dressed woman passing by. She called out to her and, in sign language, begged this woman to bring food for her children. The woman’s heart was touched by Yetta’s plight and each day she brought food to the stairwell where Yetta would be waiting.”
I learn about Moishe Faerman’s struggles in 1919, when the Bolsheviks occupied Ukraine. How three of his brothers were conscripted by the Red Army one day, and how families were arrested for not being able to provide wagons to transport the conscripts. Anna Bloom writes of the drudgery involved in running a boarding house in Edinburgh, Scotland, with her widowed mother, to make ends meet. The sacrifices her mother made when they emigrated to Canada.
Simcha Simchovitch describes, in a heart-breaking essay, what was lost after the war in Otwock, Poland: “Most of the Jewish houses had been taken apart and cleared, leaving just open spaces filled with rubble, grass already sprouting around the grounds.”
One of the most meaningful stories, for me, is Henry Blumberg’s, ‘Reconnecting with the Past’, because he’s from Riga, Latvia, where my roots lived and died. Specifically, he mentions the Fates Project at the University of Latvia, where I discovered more relatives, my great-grandparents’ wedding date, and the addresses of my great-grandfather and his brother, in Riga.
Divided into eight sections, with stories that follow the theme of each one, this book weaves history, research tools, and family sagas together, for an enlightening read. Biographies of the contributors are included, as well as family photos. Even for people with no roots in Canada, it’s worth reading for the stories and genealogy research methods. In the forward, Dr. Rolf Lederer touches on the challenge of attracting younger people to continue what has been started, a problem I imagine most Jewish genealogical societies face worldwide. Perhaps a book in the same vein as Tracing Our Roots, Telling Our Stories, with young writers recounting the challenges of coming of age as a Jew in turbulent times, would be a good first step.
Tracing Our Roots, Telling Our Stories can be acquired through various online book sellers.
Shelly Sanders resides in Ontario, Canada. She is the author of three novels and was a finalist for the prestigious Vine Award for Jewish Fiction in Canada. As a freelance journalist, she has published articles in both mainstream and Jewish periodicals and newspapers.