I know my conversion makes me a Jew, but I still keep looking for my ancestors’ potential Jewish connections.
My path to Judaism began several years ago when, trying to construct my family tree, I came across a small notation next to the name of an ancestor in a digitized marriage record. The word appeared to say “zsidó,” which Google Translate informed me is the Hungarian word for “Jew.”
Huh, I thought, well isn’t that interesting.
I was a doctoral candidate at the time, so—like any grad student—I did what I do best: research. That one word led me deep into online archives where I found a generous trail of breadcrumbs that strongly suggest that my Hungarian/Slovakian ancestors were Jews who were forced, implicitly or explicitly, to convert to Catholicism sometime in the early 19th century. Realizing that my Catholic school education left me woefully ignorant of Jewish history and customs, I gave myself a crash course in all things Judaism before reaching out to a local rabbi who helped me realize that I wanted to officially convert.
I was really happy in my decision and so excited when my conversion was official, but the matter of my unresolved family connections to Judaism have nagged at me ever since. Logically, my brain knows that my status as a “real” Jew has nothing to do with my ancestors and everything to do with my own life choices, but there is a part of me that is really bothered by the not knowing.
I think I feel extra sensitive about all of this with the claims to Jewish ancestry recently made by a certain infamous New York politician, which have really gotten under my skin in a way that I find hard to shake off. Forced conversions, forged documents and secret identities certainly sound like the fodder of either spy novels or political hacks, but—in my case and that of many other amateur genealogists—these are very real matters that make it hard to figure out the truth of our families’ Jewishness.
In my case, the mystery lies in my maternal grandfather’s branch of the family tree. Though my grandfather Paul (and his siblings Joe and Ann) were born in America, their parents, Borbála and József, emigrated from Hungary in the first decade of the 20th century. Birth, marriage and death documents I’ve turned up for Borbála (nee Ádám) and József Iván indicate that they were Catholic and identified themselves as “Magyar,” ethnic Hungarians, but documents and circumstantial evidence going back to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations makes things more interesting—and Jewish.
For instance, the towns where many of these ancestors came from had high Jewish populations in their contemporary periods; many even had—or still have—Jewish places of worship in the town or nearby. Names have provided other clues; many of my ancestors have first and last names common among Jews in the time.
I’ve even connected with people online whose family trees overlap my own, one of whom turned out to be a distant relative whose great-great-great-grandfather was my own great-great-great-grandfather’s brother. She has been able to document her ancestors’ Judaism, even tracing the records of ancestors murdered in the Holocaust.
Names. Birthdates. Place of birth. Conversion records. She has it all.
Me? Not so much.
The reasons for this are many and varied. Some are bureaucratic and have to do with the changing national boarders in Central and Eastern Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. My ancestors, for instance, considered themselves Hungarian, but the region in which they lived is now southern Slovakia. Many central European countries experienced shifting borders, a fact that can make deciding which national archives to search more complicated. Should I focus on Slovakian databases, since that is the country in which my ancestral towns are now located? Or is it more prudent to start with Hungarian records, since my ancestors seemed to move around a bit more within present-day Hungary’s borders? It’s twice the possibilities, but also twice the data to sift through, and, unfortunately, I have a limited amount of time I can spend going down these rabbit holes (I’m not in grad school anymore). Many of the towns in this area have multiple names (in multiple languages); websites like JewishGen that specialize in Jewish ancestry searchescan help parse through some of the confusion, but it can be a frustrating, time-consuming process.
All of this, of course, assumes that the records are available, digitized online for those of us who can’t just drop into town halls in central Europe, legible and (especially in terms of online archives) indexed correctly—not to mention that one’s ancestors needed to follow through on these bureaucratic matters correctly.
None of these things are a given, especially when we are talking about documents that might be hundreds of years old. In different languages. In archaic ornate script. Often with plenty of abbreviations. That are probably behind paywalls. Earlier, I mentioned that I think one of my ancestors has a note indicating he was a Jew, but the scan of the original document is not entirely clear; the ink is light and—if I’m being honest with myself—I can’t say that I’m that 100% confident in my transcription of the handwriting. So, circumstantial evidence at best.
Also, many central and eastern European countries experienced waves of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries that, coupled with rising antisemitism, forced Jews to take assimilation measures. In Hungary, for instance, Hungarian Jews were encouraged (read: pressured) to legally change their first and last names from Jewish-sounding to mainstream Hungarian names and/or convert to Christianity. It was legally and financially expedient to comply with this trend, driving some who did so to practice their Judaism underground and others to hide their Jewish family roots, which can make records even more difficult to find.
Additionally, during anti-Jewish pogroms and the Holocaust, Jewish spaces were often among the first targets when enemies rolled into town; the places that held Jewish records, like synagogues, were intentionally ruined. The records that some genealogists are searching for are simply gone: burned, looted or bombed by people who wanted to wipe out every trace of Jews.
While I try to remain hopeful that one day I might have the concrete proof I’ve spent so much time searching for, there is a very real possibility that I never will. This is a thought that, at this point, as least, sits uneasy with me. I often romanticize about what it would be like to find the conversion certificate or name change document that proves my suspicions. I know there is a part of me that thinks I would feel more Jewish or better connected to Jews in history.
Ultimately, if there are Jews in my family tree, I believe that they deserve for their Jewishness to be liberated—to not be kept secret any longer—as a final act of defiance against the anti-Jewish hate that sent it underground in the first place. I don’t know if I will ever find the answers to the questions I’ve been asking, but for now, at least, I won’t stop looking.
LEAH GRISHAM is a contributing writer to Kveller and Jlife magazine.