When the results for my DNA test came back from ancestry.com, I was happily surprised. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve become interested in my family’s origins. The only thing I’d ever wondered about was my last name. ‘Alex’ is pretty rare, likely short for Alexander but definitely German. Probably. Maybe.
My dad grew up in Berlin and his side of the family was mostly German/Prussian plus one Polish grandmother. My mom grew up in Vienna. Her dad’s side of the family was from Prague and her mom’s side was Austrian. So clearly, I was mostly German or western European with a little bit Slavic or eastern European. Or so I thought.
Ancestry DNA commercials and advertising popped up everywhere and I finally went for it and ordered the test. Mostly, I expected to find out what my western to eastern European DNA ratio was. When I got the results, I was elated.
As it turns out, I’m nearly 75% eastern European and ONLY 20% German/western European. I’ve been at odds with my German heritage my whole life, starting with growing up in Vienna and having to move to Germany to attend school there. With an Austrian accent, my first year was marked by references to Heidi and other Alpine mountain-bound maids.
In tenth grade, when we covered the Third Reich in history class, I was horrified. We had heard of the holocaust but we didn’t know in detail what had happened during those years. Our teacher covered the facts–the whats and whens–but without any explanation of how any of it could have happened in the first place. We watched many documentaries. We cheered and cried for Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. We watched in dismay as July 20 came and went. It was surreal, with every telling of every resistance movement, we fervently hoped for a different outcome, knowing perfectly well how it would end.
In 11th grade, I went on a youth group trip to Israel. We traveled for ten days and visited religious sites like the Wailing (Western) Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We had fun driving from city to city with our crazy, cool driver Mine at the wheel, yelling out the window for directions whenever she wasn’t sure which way to turn. After several days, we were back in Jerusalem. The next morning, Mine dropped us off at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center just outside of Jerusalem, where we spent the better part of the day. When we left, we were devastated. Nothing in history class had prepared us for what we saw. Our parents’ generation had committed unimaginably heinous acts. And they were our people.
Then we visited a moshav where we would observe Shabbat with a table full of Jewish folk who introduced themselves and asked where we were from. Still reeling from the experience at Yad Vashem, I mumbled “Mannheim.”
Inexplicably, this put a smile on the face of the older gentleman seated next to me. “Oh, I am from Cologne. I had to escape the Nazis with my parents when I was young but I still remember it well. What a beautiful city!”
I sat, dumbfounded.
“Is the big cathedral still there? There was a big park where we went for a walk every Sunday,” he added.
“Yes,” I said, “The cathedral is still there. I saw it just a year ago on a school trip.”
And so it went on. It was the same for all of us. Everyone in the moshav was from Germany. Everyone had a story, many of families separated or lost. Everyone was genuinely friendly and interested in our lives. It didn’t make sense and in a way, it made things so much worse. We didn’t deserve any kindness at that table.
A few years later–I had emigrated to the U.S.–the movie Schindler’s List came out and I went with my friends to the theater to see it. It was like being in Yad Vashem all over again. I felt just as ashamed and uncomprehending as always.
Shortly after, I went to Germany to see my parents and visit friends. The movie remained vivid in my mind and with it so many unanswered questions. On the last day, I finally asked my father what he remembered about the early 1940s (he was a small child then) and how German’s could just stand by and let it all happen. My father’s face turned ruddy. I saw veins bulging on his forehead and for a moment I thought he might suffer a stroke. I hadn’t seen him this upset in years and I’d never seen him speechless. Things were complicated, he finally said, and I wouldn’t understand.
Not any more enlightened, I returned to California, to college. Three weeks later, I received a hand-written letter from my father. It’s interesting to note that my father never hand-wrote anything. He had learned Sütterlin, the old German style of cursive writing, that hardly anyone could read anymore. Any correspondence was dictated to my mother who jotted it down in shorthand and later typed it up. But this letter was painstakingly hand-written, all four pages of it.
There isn’t enough room on this blog or in my brain to summarize my father’s letter. Regardless, the story continues in other ways.
Fast forward to 2018. I had just gotten the results from my Ancestry DNA test and I was relieved and loving every single percent of my ancestry that wasn’t German (or western European). Still, the 10% Finnish/north-western Russian floored me and I sent a DNA test to my mom to find out whether it came from her or my father. A few months later, my mom’s test came back. She, too, had a little Finnish/north-western Russian but much less than I so I assume that comes from my father.
What we didn’t expect was the last of her four primary ancestries: my mom is 5% Jewish. Which doesn’t make sense because in 1935, according to the Nuremberg Laws, my family (like every family) had to prove no-Jewish-ancestry-three-generations-back when the Nazis started their racial cleansing. And what makes somebody Jewish? Is it their religion or is it their genes?
I do know that it’s probably a good thing there weren’t any DNA tests back then.