Do you have Eastern European Jewish ancestry? Have you wondered about the historical events that might have affected your ancestors and how to discover their stories? Daniella Weiss Ashkenazy’s new book, Playing Detective with Family Lore: How plugging the holes in a family history unintentionally came to tell the saga of Jews in a microcosm showcases how a journalist set out to discover her family origins.
The preface provides insight into some of the author’s source material: her father’s papers, documents, and memorabilia. If you have inherited a similarly large collection from a parent or grandparent, you can relate.
They say there is a Collector Gene that runs in some families. We Weiss’s definitely carry it. Gil Weiss saved everything, as I discovered sifting through the Weiss ‘open stacks’ filing system that filled the house in Potomac, Maryland, covering counters and countless other flat surfaces with piles of papers, including the dining room table (except at Passover and other special occasions). This task took three weeks and filled an industrial size dumpster with (among other things) a dozen used motors—stripped for the most part from old washing machine casings in case someone ever needed an old motor and 15 years of mat board catalogs.
Hours of taped interviews with the author’s mother contributed to the foundation of the family story which was then fleshed out with research. I asked Daniella to share some thoughts about writing her family memoir which she graciously agreed to do. She also generously shared photographs from the family collection. To see more photos and documents uncovered in the research, visit Daniella’s website, Playing Detective with Family Lore.
Tell us about yourself.
How did you get started in family history?
To be honest, writing a family memoir wasn’t even on my radar.
Do you remember an initial “spark” or incident that inspired you?
All too well. When my father Gil Weiss died in 1998 at age 83, hundreds and hundreds of people came to his funeral service and everyone wanted to say something in his memory. On the spur of the moment, I offered – a promise announced by the officiating rabbi from the dais, to put together a modest memorial booklet where besides briefly profiling his life and career, anyone who wanted to could have a say. But this project took on a life of its own and underwent a number of metamorphoses that ended up as a full-blown book – Playing Detective with Family Lore, just released.
Did you have any experiences as a child/teen in school or at home that helped you be more inclined toward family history?
My mother was an education major and a history minor at Hunter College, and I became a lifetime history buff early on. I mean American and European history, and later on modern Jewish and Israeli history. But not family history.
What mentors influenced you to get started in family history and genealogy research?
I had no mentors in my genealogy research, and in retrospect could probably have used a mentor such as yourself Diana. With a little guidance my “journey into the past” would no doubt have been more orderly…and my desk (faithfully reflected in the cover art of Playing Detective) a tad less chaotic.
What personality traits, hobbies, or professional pursuits have helped you in your genealogy research?
Undoubtedly curiosity has been the driving force…coupled with a tenacious streak. But it also required a change of focus, if not a change of heart: to seek the truth, which is often far more complex than a light-hearted, nostalgic romp down memory lane. I had to step back from a very tight and loving relationship with my parents to let my journalism skills and critical faculties take over.
And speaking of personal traits, journalists are an ornery breed who beat their own paths. Thus, in attacking this ‘project’ I simply took off into the unknown, based on scant documents and a lot of oral family history in a host of taped interviews with my mother – family lore whose precision needed to be authenticated.
Armed with my experience in investigative journalism and very savvy at Internet mining, I pieced together facts, working on intuition where facts were lacking. My passion as a history buff led me to spend the wee hours of the night reading primary sources and first-hand accounts of this or that period. Nobody was more stunned than I when the “larger picture” – sought merely to provide a bit of context, revealed that as a composite, the four very different places where my family’s four progenitors originated reflect the triumphs and tragedies of Jews in Eastern Europe and America over several generations – giving rise to the secondary title: How plugging the holes in a family history unintentionally tells the saga of Jews in a microcosm.
What makes this work relevant for budding memoirists seeking their family roots (and not just Jewish ones, I would stress) is the process of discovery – how I connected the dots, not just the facts or details unearthed. This involved a lot of “It’s elementary, Watson” moments, shared with the reader in the back seat.
Stitching together snippets of information to forge a more coherent whole at times confirmed and at times contested oral family lore. At times it augmented the narrative. And at times it complexified what I thought I knew – leaving me open-mouthed. But I didn’t leave out places where I was stonewalled. Nor the pitfalls where conjecture was leading me astray.
Why do you do genealogy? Why do you think genealogy is important?
Our memories can be very subjective and far too narrow. Take my grandfather Ben Weiss – whom everyone (my generation and even his children) remembers as a drab nondescript presence, chained six-and-a-half days a week to his grimy hole-in-a-wall tire and battery shop in the Bronx.
As crazy as it sounds, when I contacted the Avenel Historical Society to ask what was the population of this small New Jersey town where my father had grown up, I was floored when the town historian wrote back that she “knew my grandfather Ben Weiss well”…from the pages of a short-lived local paper.
Subsequently, viewed through the lens of snippets of news gleaned from The Avenel Bulletin between 1922-1923 a totally different Ben Weiss sprang to life – a fun-loving and dynamic personality in his thirties, an innovative and daring entrepreneurial local merchant in the Roaring Twenties –– digitized “flashbacks” archived in the local library that totally revolutionized Ben Weiss’ memory for the entire family.
What is the most rewarding part of researching your family’s history?
The most significant – which also provided a sense of “closure” – was hard evidence of the lives of my mother Pearl’s brother Joni and her father Michael Schwarzer – about which she knew absolutely nothing except their names. Her brother had died just short of his fifth birthday when Pearl was two months old – said to have succumbed to spinal meningitis (which turned out not to be accurate). Her father died at age 41 two short years later in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
What has been the most difficult part of your genealogical journey?
Probably it was the decision to seek out the Other Schwarzers – wealthy silk merchants in Upper Manhattan who were genealogically close kin of my mother’s father Michael Schwarzer. As I wrote in the memoir:
I was on the horns of a dilemma: Torn between curiosity and a desire to ‘fill in the blanks’ about the family, and loyalty to a painful chapter in the family history — allegiance to a narrative handed down to me about these Other Schwarzers.
Echoing in my head was [my grandmother DA] Nana’s last words to her sister-in-law who, according to Nana, feared she’d become a burden: “You don’t have to take care of me. I can take care of my own children!” At one point in writing the first draft of this family saga, back in 2003, [my mother DA] Pearl and I had Googled “Schwarzer” and “silk” (she was curious). Yes, Pearl wanted to know more, but we came up with nothing. I decided to take this as a “nod” of consent.
Once I found Michael’s unnamed paternal half-brother – largely due to an inherent weakness of mine to further explore oddities that stand out – the pieces began to fall in place. The upshot was a totally different “take” on the breakdown in communication, that emerges from piecing together small details in census data and other online documents that revealed a far more complex dynamic between these two women.
This would be further confirmed in part, in the subtext of several conversations with the descendants of these Other Schwarzers whom I was able to trace and contact – that included asking what this sister-in-law in their family narrative was purported to be like. What I learned turned the “accepted narrative” in my family on its head.
How do you preserve your family history?
Well, the raw data is archived in my home office in a carton that originally housed 2,500 sheets of printer paper, but the real “repository” is the book. It’s available on Amazon and other book sites as an eBook and print-on-demand paperback.
The content is augmented by a book website – playingdetective.com – where readers can access a family tree that goes back seven (!) generations for two of the four branches. There is also a gallery of all 130-some visuals (photos, scanned documents, serious and wacky family memorabilia) in color, for the benefit of readers buying the paperback edition of Playing Detective with Family Lore where photos and scanned documents are in black-and-white. Of course, the website also includes other enhancements including excerpts from the book, and web pages for displaying book reviews and media coverage. . .
If you had all the time in the world to spend on family history, what would you do?
The problem is not so much time, as money. Since at 75, I am semi-retired, this project was done on a shoestring budget only investing my time, between writing and translating gigs. While some community registries in Eastern Europe have been translated into English (and others are in Hebrew which I know), there are countless archives in Russian registering births, marriages, and deaths that could perhaps solve some nagging enigmas about my family, not just add new members to our family tree. Short of mastering Russian to read them, delving into such registries would require hiring one or more on-site genealogists, fluent in Russian (and Ukrainian, Romanian and Yiddish) and I don’t have the resources to do so.
Who is your most interesting ancestor?
Diana, you will have to view “ancestor” here in its broadest sense. I think it is the person I was named after. I was given the name Diana at birth, and I changed my name at age 14 to a Hebrew name (Daniella) after joining a Zionist youth movement. While traditionally Jews name their children after a deceased parent or grandparent, I was named in memory of someone named Dave who fell in the Spanish Civil War. That was all I knew when I added a piquant footnote to that effect to a section about someone else who fought in the Spanish Civil War…but then found myself asking myself: Who was this Dave? I had never asked!
First I narrowed down the possible Daves to three KIAs from New York City who were approximately the same age as my parents. Then I sought possible links where the lives of my parents crossed paths with these men, or where they had close mutual friends in radical circles. Yes, I found him! But it turned out Dave Lipton, who fell three months after he arrived in Spain to join the Lincoln Brigade, is a fascinating and complex persona in his own right.
It is doubtful I would have found him, had his niece Eunice Lipton – my contemporary and an art historian, not a genealogist – not embarked on a quest to breathe life into an uncle she never knew and whom her family never talked about, culminating in a memoir (A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and Family’s Secrets), just as I, a journalist not a genealogist – had been propelled to breathed life into the lives of an uncle and a grandfather I never knew as a core part of Playing Detective with Family Lore.
Thanks, Daniella for sharing your story with us!
Best of luck in researching and writing your own family stories.