Tuesday, October 21, 2008

From Where I Come

Ever since I was young, I have had heard bits and pieces about my ancestory - mostly from my mother's side - so I knew enough in general terms to understand (somewhat) my cultural roots. Like many Americans, my ethnic composition is a hodge podge of several groups, none of which you would immediately be able to detect by just looking at me. My family has been in the United States for a few generation now so I'm about as exotic as Wonder Bread. Because we are a nation that likes to push people into boxes to make things easier, I'm considered "white." I hate that. Yes, my skin is on the pastey side, but I'm not "white." Same goes for "black," "yellow," "olive," and so on. People are not colors. We are heritages and cultures and stories and history. If you're going to assign me to a color, at least pick a pretty one, like "rose" or "indigo."

But I digress. Back to my ancestory. So, my maiden name is not a common one, and most people really don't know where it came from. (For the sake of privacy, I will not give my last name here, but those of you who know me can follow along at home). It's Russian, folks. Or Ukranian, depending on the year you're talking about. People don't often believe the name's roots because it doesn't end in "-ov" or "-ski." I will say this - as with alot of names (just try and dispute it, government), upon entry into the U.S., someone decided to add an extra letter to the name so instead of "-alo" it became "-ailo." And so the name stuck.

Why all this talk about last names and heritage? Well, last week, I found out, under no uncertain terms, that I'm also Hungarian. Or Austrian, depending on the year you're talking about. I had heard rumors drifting in the stratosphere that I had relatives from the Austria-Hungary Empire. As it turned out, it was my paternal grandmother's mother's family. Thanks to the website Ellis Island and some help from my aunt, I saw with my own eyes the ship's record of my great grandmother's passage, who left Hungary at age 7 with her siblings and mother and sailed aboard the passenger ship Derfflinger from Bremen, Germany; her father came a few years earlier. In fact, today, October 21, is the 105th anniversary of my great, great grandfather's arrival into New York aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse.

I can only imagine the hardships they must have faced. It's bad enough to endure cramped quarters on a passenger ship for weeks amongst strangers harboring who-knows-what kind of diseases. It's downright heartbreaking to be so desperate to leave your homeland to seek a better life for your family regardless of the risk to your own; to arrive on a foreign shore not speaking the language or looking the part, coming from shear poverty into more poverty, and trying to improve your standing despite heavy xenophobia and beliefs that you are another species altogether. But they overcame those barriers, just as my maternal relatives from Ireland, Wales, and the Netherlands did. I won't get into the story of my Mohawk relatives; that will be another post.

I guess I could make several points here and go off on a diatribe comparing my relatives' story with the current immigrant situation, assimilation or lack thereof, and how xenophobia still exists and what will the presidential candidates do about it and so on. But I won't. You can do that. I'm just happy to have a connection and a tangible piece of my ancestral puzzle. It's not the only piece, and I cannot wait to learn more. I do know that many records, on both sides of my family, were destroyed either in fires or whatnot years ago, so I'm not sure how far back the trail goes. Has anyone researched his/her family ties? What sites are good? Has anyone tried the Mormon Genealogy Library?