Ancestry travel on pause? These books will inspire your next trip.

Like many Americans, I never really knew where I was from, with any real certainty. My grandparents had emigrated with the great wave of persecuted Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century so that my father could grow up in the transplanted shtetl of the Bronx and my mother could grow up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But beyond my immediate family, every sense of deeper inheritance was a mystery until one afternoon I discovered a whole lost world and museum hopping in Washington, DC

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted a temporary exhibition on the dissolution of the Jewish ghetto in Kovno, Lithuania, documented by a Jew who was hiding, photographing the massacre, and escaping. Like all exhibits in the museum, this one captured a seismic tragedy.

On October 28, 1941, around 9,200 Jews were lined up, shot in the execution style and thrown into newly dug graves. When I got to the end of the exhibition there was a snapshot of the photographer surviving all odds and I saw something familiar. He was my father’s physical doppelganger, from his angular face to his heavy-capped eyes. So, in a way, I wasn’t completely surprised when I finally saw his name under the portrait. The man I stared at was a Hirsh Kadushin (later known as George Kadish).

“Did your parents come from Kovno?” I asked my father that night. “Yes, from Kovno and the surrounding Jewish ghettos in Lithuania,” he said. The tangled genealogy was later confirmed by our Israeli cousins.

(The first official Jewish transport to Auschwitz brought 999 young women. This is their story.)

Although my discovery of this distant cousin was a case of sheer bad luck, more and more people do not trust happiness; They become genealogical amateurs themselves, eager to trace their family roots back as far as possible. TV shows like Finding Your Roots, the stationery series, and a new wave of genealogical services – including and – have sparked interest. This also applies to the zeitgeist, which emphasizes personal identity and the idea of ​​an authentic self.

And now the pandemic leaves many people with the luxury of time to play detective and diligently trace the lineages of their ancestors. When we are firmly anchored and firmly rooted at home, we begin to wonder how deep those roots go.

Immigrants arrive on Ellis Island, New York, in 1902. Now the on-site museum tells stories of American immigration and has searchable historical records.

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Before the pandemic broke out, heritage tours were on the rise – and should continue to do so once the world opens up again. “We had seen a growing trend in multigenerational travel where groups come together for family reunions and travel to learn about their shared genealogy,” said Tess Darci, director of marketing at EF Go Ahead Tours. “A family has toured both Scotland and the Basque region of Spain because their heritage goes back to both places.”

This surge in root-oriented tourism has also resulted in a growing body of literature documenting the hunt – the searches in archives and databases, the frequent dead ends, the unearthed stories and oral traditions, and the often surprising surprises.

Unexpected stories

One of the most popular forms of heritage literature is books that provide an in-depth look at the genealogical history of the subject, often dating back centuries. In his 2009 book In Search of Our Roots; How 19 extraordinary African Americans reclaimed their pasts, Henry Louis Gates Jr. tracks the genealogical DNA of Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock, among others.

But it doesn’t just track down names and dates. Ultimately, as he writes in the introduction, he hopes to find “the stories, the secrets of the dark past” of blacks in America.

(Here’s the story of Black America told like never before.)

Some of the stories he discovers are happy. Whoopi Goldberg’s ancestors were able to mortgage their own farmland in Florida; They joined the tiny minority of the formerly enslaved people who became owners in the old south.

Equally surprising was the discovery that Morgan Freeman’s great-great-grandmother, an enslaved woman named Celia, “worth $ 1,000” eventually settled with a white farmer who sometimes died a mulatto because interracial marriages were illegal. This secret reads like a real romance. “Alfred and Celia were probably a loving, strong couple,” writes Gates. “He basically gave up his life as a white man to be with Celia and her children.”

A mariachi group performs at a quinceanera party in Los Angeles, a celebration that merges two legacies that Latino writers like Roberto Gonzalez explore in their works.

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Louise Erdrich’s memoir books and Islands in Ojibwe Land offer a more poetic, sensual rediscovery of roots – and, in a sense, a bigger love story. Erdrich sets off in her minivan to travel through the lakes and islands of southern Ontario. He plunges into a world of her Ojibwe ancestors and reconnects with the source of her art.

When she analyzes the meaning of the word “Ojibwe”, which translates into various things, she finds that the “meaning that I like best is, of course, Ojibwe from the verb” Ozhibii’ige “which means” to write ” The people of Ojibwe have always been great writers and synthesized the oral and written tradition by keeping mnemonic scrolls made of inscribed birch bark. The first paper; the first books. “In the land of her ancestors she finds the same muse that inspired her: the rich fauna, the otters and sturgeon, the fresh water currents and the “low lying clouds over the water of the lake”.

Similarly, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts looks back on the ancient fairy tales of her Chinese ancestors, exploring the story of struggle and sacrifice that shape her own status as an Asian American.

Tribute to the ancestors

But while Gates, Erdrich, and Kingston trace back through history, retrieving the inherited stories, myths, and oral lore that reveal their cultural heritage, there is another genre of rooted literature. This iteration traces recent family legacies and focuses on the migration of an earlier generation to America.

Rigoberto Gonzalez, an award-winning poet and memoirist, finds emphasis on roots particularly important for Latino writers. In autobiographies like Butterfly Boy, he navigates one twin legacy, one foot in the US and the other in Mexico.

“Latinos inherit the memories and nostalgia of our immigrant parents or grandparents,” he told me. “We could lose our knowledge of Spanish. We could visit our ancestral home often or never. But one thing that never goes away is knowing our roots, and for many of us our journeys began when someone back then made the fateful decision to leave the house and build a new one in the shadow of that loss. “

A similar story of migration drives Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting: A memory of family, migration, gangs and revolution in America – a chronicle of the author’s often violent Salvadoran legacy and his family’s flight to the USA and Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We Briefly Gorgeous, teases the story of a family about the emigration from Vietnam to the USA

More than 3,000 tombstones can be found in the Jewish cemetery in Bolekhiv in the suburbs of Bolekhiv in Ukraine, where a large Jewish community once lived. Many Holocaust victims are buried in this cemetery.

Photo by Eddie Gerald, Alamy Stock Photo

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However, the memoirs of the classic Daniel Mendelsohn focus on a migration that tragically never happened. In his book The Lost: A Search for Six Out of Six Million, he captures the horrors of the Holocaust in the microcosm. He travels through a dozen countries on four continents and eventually returns to a small Ukrainian town where he eventually discovers the devastating fate of six relatives trapped on the spot during the Holocaust. The result reads like a restless elegy, a horror show that he cannot exorcise.

The subtext of Mendelsohn’s book is an indictment of America’s tight immigration quotas, which were doomed to fail for those trying to escape the Holocaust. And while his story mirrors mine in some ways, it also underscores the mix of tragic and occasionally happy discoveries we discover when we dig deep family roots.

In the end, however, it’s worth digging up the tragic stories as well. At least they pay homage to the ancestors who have hitherto remained invisible and unheard.

Raphael Kadushin is an award-winning food and travel journalist. He is also the editor of three travel anthologies and his work has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology.

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