“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage — to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.” Alex Haley
Everyone knows, with the exception of the only child, that what we remember about a particular family story is never the way our siblings recall the incident. Each child has their own perspective on that story, and seen through the eyes of their sibling, that story can be wildly different. Is that bias? Selective memory? Or is truth simply determined by how we see it?
Recently I’ve been plunged head-long into the retelling of my husband’s family history. The family matriarch – his mother – turns ninety-nine this spring, and about ten years ago, in contemplation of her own final chapters – she declared to us, “how much longer am I going to live?” The importance of Family has been THE primary focus of her entire life. There is no doubt that she endorses what Lee Iacocca once said: “The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works is the family.”
With that thought, she has written the family history – both sides – incorporating it into her autobiography. To say she’s had an extraordinary and unconventional life would be an understatement, but the prevailing thread has always been Family. Her incredible recall has now been committed to paper – or, I should say, the computer. Yep, at 98 she not only uses it to tell her stories, she also sends copious political e-mails (to the dismay of all recipients,) and manages her own finances. How lucky are we to have such an example of aging with grace, panache, and piss and vinegar! My daunting task is to edit and ready this tome for print in anticipation of her hundredth-year celebration and the gathering of this far flung and unwieldy family.
As a history teacher, she begins her story appropriately in the mid-19th century with a historical explanation:
“During the Napoleonic era, the Jews were forced to take family names. Rather than being called Solomon ben David (meaning Solomon, son of David,) a family name was assumed. Sometimes it represented their trade, as in Silverschmidt for the silversmith, or a local landmark such as Schwartz, meaning Black Forest.”
The matriarchal family name of Moldovan undoubtedly comes from the tiny country of Moldavia, (now Moldava) which was sometimes part of Romania and other times part of the Hungarian-Austrian Empire. Here we are introduced to great-great-great-grand-father, Naftula Hersh Moldovan, his son Ferenz Moldovan (and his seven siblings) his wife Rose, their daughter Freya, and her four siblings. Freya, Mom’s mother, was a tailors’ apprentice who came to America ALONE, when she was eleven, sometime around 1900. Would you believe there are 978 immigration entries for a Freya or Fany Moldovan immigrating to New York City between 1899 and 1905. None are hers, so I’ve got the date wrong. More sleuthing ahead,
Unraveling the mysteries that are inherently part of any family history is fascinating, but therein lies the conundrum – what to do when the stories don’t add up. How, or even IF, to determine if a name was changed at the time of immigration. By corroborating information from Ancestry.com and the website Jewish Genealogy.com, I’ve been able to support many of these stories with documents, such as Mom’s father’s WWI draft registration card, which boldly shows in his own handwriting, that he comes from a village in Hungary called Ignatz. Who knew that? No one had that piece of information.
That tiny piece of the puzzle took hours of Internet sorting, through maps of Hungary and lists of towns, villages and burgs during the 1870’s, before I chanced upon what we would now call a ‘suburb’ of Budapest, which in Hungarian is spelled Iguatz. Each time I insert these clues – these bits of information into the websites, little green leaves magically appear, signaling that I’ve uncovered corroborating documents, or other family connections. Sometimes they are a match and sometimes it’s a long dead-end, but piecing the puzzle together is fascinating and great fun.
Remarkably, six generations of the family branches are now chronicled and her memory of each family member is recounted – sometimes in flattering ways, sometimes not. Oh dear, that brings me back to bias, selective memory and remembered truths. So I have to ask the question, how important is the “unvarnished truth” as someone remembers it? Are there extenuating circumstances? Is it important to report the details of another persons’ life, which might be better left private? Perhaps in politics it is important, but in family histories, maybe, maybe not. Every family has its share of juicy secrets. After my mother died, we learned some surprising things that she would definitely not have wanted us to know. My own life has a few stories I wouldn’t want to see in print. I think Winston Churchill was quoting someone else, but he said “History is written by the victors.” Ha! Is family history written by the survivors?
So as this family tree grows exponentially I’ve made some 270 connections and I’m only 1/3 of the way through. What I have determined is that without using a whole can of whitewash, I will try to edit on the positive side and leave the unvarnished truth to others. I think I can still preserve Mom’s efforts to follow the Talmud teaching: “As my family planted for me, so do I plant for my children.” I urge you to go do some planting of your own. Family is important. Isn’t that the place where, when you go, they have to let you in?