The Family Lens, With Perils and Rewards

Not long ago, filmmaker Yael Reuveny recounted the emotional roller-coaster ride of directing her first full-length film, Farewell Herr Schwarz, a family-history documentary rooted in the Holocaust. In particular, she writes about handling a prickly interview subject – her own mother. And I think genealogists working on their own family histories may find her insights quite useful.

Early in the making of the film, Reuveny sweated out a two-hour session in her childhood home, interviewing her mother. The result felt like a disaster. “My mother is the worst interviewee imaginable,” was how Reuveny described it. “I’m beyond exhausted. This was obviously a very bad idea.” Her mother sounded forced and awkward; Reuveny was snappish and impatient. The footage was a mess, best ignored.

Except of course, Reuveny couldn’t. Four years later, with a painful family mystery retraced, it was time to review and assemble a wealth of material, and as Reuveny’s editors warned, her mother’s absence would “create a real hole in the film.” Reuveny had to face the music. She apologetically asked one of the editors to watch the old footage without her, “just in case … [although] it’s probably a waste of valuable editing time.”

Within two hours she had her feedback: “Pure gold.”

What had changed? Perspective, and passing time. As Reuveny observes, the tension and awkwardness between mother and daughter generated an energy that was peculiarly apt in a film about a mystery unsolved and even unspoken for decades. It just took a while for the interview to slip into its proper place. And it took another viewer, “a certain distance,” to see what Reuveny herself could not.

I think the lesson for those of us investigating our own family stories is that patience is key, both with our subjects and with ourselves. Questioning a relative, particularly a parent, is tricky even for those with professional training. It’s a rare family historian who sails through interviewing Mom and Dad without a chilly patch or two. The interviewer can feel as embattled as the subject.

Another important lesson: We can’t rest our reactions on our first impressions. The interview we feel doesn’t go deep enough or isn’t compelling enough might take on a different luster with the benefit of more research. Even more important is the benefit of an outside opinion. A third party might look at our allegedly frustrating material and see poignance, rather than pointlessness.

Note: Farewell Herr Schwarz, about a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and his mysterious decision to make a new postwar life a stone’s throw from the site of the concentration camp where he was imprisoned, won the Best Documentary prize at the Haifa International Film Festival. I grind my teeth at the fact that I missed its recent run in Manhattan. In the meantime, here’s the trailer.


Film Spotlight: A Vanishing Act

In June of 2009 a tall, thin man with closely cropped gray hair checked into a hotel in in the town of Sligo on Ireland’s northwest coast. He wore dark clothes and spoke with a pronounced German accent. On the hotel’s registration form, he gave his name as Peter Bergmann and an address in Vienna, Austria.

Over the next few days he kept contacts with his fellow humans sparse and to the point. On his fourth day in Sligo, he checked out of the hotel and took a bus to a quiet, pretty beach a ten-minute drive out of town. The next morning, a father and son heading out for a stroll and a swim saw something on the beach that looked like “a mannequin.” When they realized what they were seeing, they said a prayer and called the police.

A short documentary film, “The Last Days of Peter Bergmann,” hauntingly recreates the final hours of a man who, seemingly, just wanted to vanish.

In Sligo, “Peter Bergmann” went to methodical lengths to erase his identity. The address in Vienna was a vacant lot. He had cut every label out of every stitch of the clothing he wore. His movements at the hotel and around town can be retraced to a limited extent using closed-circuit camera footage. But large swaths of the time he spent in Sligo remained beyond the reach of security cameras. Investigators think Bergmann took great pains to ensure this. Who he really was, why he came to Sligo to die, are still unanswered questions.

His story is a compelling reminder that even in our highly trackable, highly visible modern society, a person can be as hard to trace as any 17th-century yeoman – if they want that badly enough.

“I have to be satisfied with our investigations at this time that Peter Bergmann does not exist,” said Detective Superintendent John Reilly, who headed up the case. “It’s highly likely that he never did.”


Resource Spotlight: Bergen County Places

For such a little state, New Jersey has undergone a wealth of boundary and place name changes, with Bergen County providing more than its fair share of riches. The confused but determined researcher has a true friend in this .pdf file:

A Dictionary of Place Names in Bergen County, New Jersey and Vicinity

Compiled with impressive detail by Patricia A. Wardell, this file provides the full scoop on historic places from Acquackanonk to Zingsem. Wardell gives quick historical snapshots of many localities, and best of all, she cites her sources. These include county and local histories, colonial-era road surveys, church records and diaries, all of which give important insights about names the locals used for their towns and hamlets – names otherwise lost to history.

So if you find yourself squinting at a funny-sounding place name that can’t be Googled on a present-day Bergen County map, give this fascinating dictionary a try. If nothing else, you’ll learn a lot about the region’s history.

Pro tip: Pay attention to that “and Vicinity” part. Bergen County’s rich and complicated history means that a lot of the entries are connected to neighboring counties such as Passaic and Essex in New Jersey and Rockland County in New York.

 

 


Recommended: ‘The Lost Sister’

Here’s a beautiful, deeply satisfying story to start off the weekend. The topic is familiar to a lot of us genealogists – the unprecedented ability of today’s online searching to reconnect siblings split by adoption. I don’t care how many of these stories I hear, I love them afresh every time. And the story of how Iris Ojeda Burkart (born Iris Guzman) found her true roots brought me to tears, more than once.

In 2003, when the first Burkart grandchild was born, his nursery was decorated with a giant tree painted on the wall, which Iris suggested be made into a family tree. On one side, [her husband’s] family flourished on the many leaves and branches. Iris’ side was naked by comparison.

“I’m a stump,” she often said, jokingly.

The writing, by Nicole Brochu of the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale,  is impressively clear and precise as well as emotional – a major challenge when tackling a complex story with a large cast of characters. It’s well worth a read. (It’s behind a paywall, but with the option of registering for a limited amount of free articles per month.)

Be sure to check out the timeline that accompanies the story. It contains two intervals that say everything about the way genealogy investigations have changed just in this millennium.

One is the 23 years between 1991, the year Iris located her birth certificate and the names of her biological parents, and June 2014, when she was given an Ancestry subscription as a gift. The other is the four months between that June and October 2014, when Iris’ great-niece signed on to Ancestry as well and the puzzle was finally solved. Admittedly, in this sprawling story, many factors complicated the search – older relatives’ reluctance to talk about what happened, for instance. And sure, a bit of luck was involved, as it always is. But a huge fact remains: Back in the day, it was just ridiculously hard to pursue cases like this long-distance.

I don’t look back on genealogy’s pre-Internet era as the good old days. Looking back, I realize I wanted to start my family history explorations about ten years before I actually did. The trouble was, I lived a thousand miles away from where my ancestors once lived, money was short, and there simply was no cheap way to do it. Like Iris and her siblings, I was stuck, hampered by lack of time and resources.

We often say, and it is true, that the online searching is not the entire picture. But it is a start. And it allows more people to get started more easily, with more chance of success, than ever was the case before the advent of the World Wide Web.

 


Five Years …

… That’s how long it’s been since this little blogging endeavor got off the ground.

What’s happened since 2009 in my personal genealogy hunting, you might ask? Well, I’ve had my share of discoveries, some satisfying and some simply bizarre.

Like finally confirming the identity of my Connors ancestors in Watervliet, N.Y., for example, along with their offshoots in Jersey City, which, in turn, solved a little mystery that was the subject of one of my very first posts.

I discovered that there is indeed such a thing as a “butt factory.”

Also, I discovered that I am not the only person (not by a long shot) who has wondered about things like slumgullion and Anythin’ for Thanksgiving.

There are ongoing, tantalizingly incomplete stories to unravel. For example, the great-aunt on our German side who had immigrated to New York City, unknown to anyone. How did my grandfather manage to forget to mention a sister? She was a real mystery for a few years there. I know more about her rather complicated story now, with still more to unravel (and write about, in due course).

Or the story of Patrick Hageney of Troy, N.Y.: Famine-era immigrant, tailor, question mark. There are many indications, but unfortunately no smoking-gun evidence, that he’s a brother of my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney. Will I ever be satisfied on this point?

Or on any point? Are any of us ever completely satisfied with the state of our genealogy research?

Probably not. But stay tuned. And thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 


Sentimental Sunday: Extra Credit Question, (Retro Edition)!

Class, which of you can identify the object pictured below?

wheel

Bonus points to anyone who actually owns one of these. For more clues, click onward.

Read the rest of this entry »


No, Really, It Was Her Father

They told me, ‘It must have been your grandfather or your great-grandfather.’ They thought I was lying and looked at me like I was crazy.” — Hazel Jeter, daughter (that’s right, daughter) of Civil War veteran Silas D. Mason, First Maine Cavalry

As a nice coda to Veterans Day observances, check out this National Geographic piece on a select segment of U.S. citizens: the living sons and daughters of Civil War veterans. It’s a very select group – the Geographic puts their number at less than 35 – but honestly, that’s pretty good even so, considering that Appomattox was nearly 150 years ago. The piece includes wonderful quotes from the “children,” all in their 90s and upward, along with the Geographic’s typically vivid photography.

Four years ago, I wrote about the fascination of extended genealogical timelines. The cornerstone of that post was the living grandchildren of John Tyler (1790-1862), 10th president of the U.S. from 1841-45 – as in “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” for those of you who keep track of political slogans. They are still going about their business, as evidenced by the current genealogy at SherwoodForest.org, the website of the Tyler family plantation in Virginia. One of the grandsons, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, gave a delightful interview to New York Magazine in January 2012. (By the way, I wouldn’t mind paying a visit someday to Sherwood Forest, which is still in Tyler family hands. According to the website, it even has its own ghost.)

I always love these reminders that, useful as it is to include “typical” generational ranges in sorting out genealogical problems, humans can always throw you for a loop by reproducing when they darn well feel like it.


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