Incognito Press

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Who are you, really? Where history and identity converge

Posted by E on September 23, 2011

To those of you who are fortunate enough to know your family history – you’ll never know how fortunate you are. Never, ever take that knowledge for granted.

Last week I stumbled onto an Anderson Cooper show, a program I’d never watched before (I hadn’t even realized that he had his own show). In it there were two young women who had both been abandoned in trash bins or by the side of the road, respectively, as infants. Although unrelated, both grew up under similar circumstances, and both had always wondered where they had come from. Toward the end of the show, they were given the results of DNA tests they had taken prior to the show taping by a company called 23andme. By discovering which Haplogroups they belonged to, at least they would have some answers.

One of the things that moved me most during the show was when Anderson said this: “My father died when I was ten, and for the longest time I thought he would have left me a letter to tell me more about himself.”

My own father had died around that time also – I was thirteen when he left Canada and shortly thereafter died somewhere in Bucharest. Because Romania was still a communist country and we had been forced to relinquish our citizenship as part of our emigration process, there was no way possible to obtain further information as to what happened to his remains.

 But as I got older, I realized that the absence of a grave or details about his death were only a small part of my frustration, as it compared to the questions I still had of him – and of my own self. Like Anderson, I felt that my father’s death had prompted in me a disconnection to my past, to my own history. My father took to his grave the answers to innumerable questions that will never be answered, and I am forced to live with that for the rest of my life.

My father was fifty-five years old when I was born. He had lived an entire lifetime by the time I was born – 3 wives, two careers, countless mistresses – a life in which a child was not expected or wanted. Consequently, my father kept himself apart from me, a remote man whose aloofness was further accentuated by his deafness. Even as I, as all children of deaf parents, grew up with sign language as my primary way of communication, it mattered not; my father didn’t tell me anything.

He kept all his secrets within the pages of a couple of old notebooks in which he wrote every afternoon, and which he purposefully hid from my prying eyes. Those notebooks were in his valises when he died in Bucharest. After he died, his so-called friends rummaged through his suitcases for anything of value, and discarded the rest as garbage in the alleyways behind their house.

Even today, as I walk through alleyways and backstreets, I find myself scanning the gutters and trash cans, irrationally asking myself, What if? What secrets about myself could I find there?

So many more years later some answers would come, but never the truth that I have searched for – the identity of his father, of an entire line of Hungarian relatives that I will never know because my grandmother took revenge at being abandoned with her infant son, and swore never to tell anyone their name. Even my father’s birth certificate, which I obtained from a Debrecen courthouse, yielded nothing – as she had carefully omitted the father’s name as “Unknown” and given him her own last name.

 It took even more digging and scouring through rumours in the old East European villages of his past to realize that his ancestry involved Jewish roots that everyone from my grandmother to my own mother sought to keep from me. It disturbs me that so many of my relatives have chosen to die with secrets on their lips than to consider the emptiness that their offspring might experience. And furthermore, it saddens me that I may have to rely on an internet-bought $99 DNA test to discover things about my history and lineage that my own family should have shared with me.

But nothing that I can gain from spitting into a test tube would even marginally account for the profound loss of my own history – which, because of shame and selfishness and thoughtlessness, will be inaccessible to me forever. No matter how painful or shameful a secret may be, no matter how much anger still festers, one should never deny one’s children the ability to access their own legacy and history.

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3 Responses to “Who are you, really? Where history and identity converge”

  1. Elisa,
    What an interesting post. Even without knowing so much about your family’s past and your lineage, your family history is fascinating. Consider too that hiding Jewish identity, while perhaps a selfish act from this distance, was also a safety measure for many Jews in Europe. Even once World War II had ended, and imminent danger was past, residual shame and fear (who could expect such a thing as the Holocaust? and yet then it happened) lingered in the diaspora. And, too, secrecy becomes an unfortunate habit. Silence breeds silence. It’s great that you have investigated and are speaking about your family and the secrets and sorrows and identity they have passed on.
    Best of luck with the continued journey,
    Kara
    http://karakrauze.com

  2. Just stumbled on your blog when I looked up “identity” tags. Beautiful, heartfelt post. Coming from Eastern Europe myself, I know how surprising these discoveries of concealed heritage can be. I’m very curious where your research will lead you – and hope that you keep chronicling your journey here. Have you read Jonathan Safran Foer’s work?

  3. Elisa said

    Kara, thank you for your thoughts. Yes, I did consider the need to hide as a reason for keeping a secret like this….but in my life, this ommission has done more harm than good. I only began to uncover the truth when I was in my twenties, and there is so much more I’d like to know that I will likely never uncover. Generally, it’s been a path filled with heartache and a sense of abject loss.

    @Flying Yenta Thanks for your comment, fellow East European blogger! Yes, I have read Foer’s work – I empathize with it conceptually since we share a similar story, but I’m not a big fan of his writing style. I’m in the process of writing my own story 🙂 although at this point it’s still far from finished.

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