Friday, July 15, 2011
Finding My Father's Family
Dateline: Emerald Hills, 7/15/11
Yes, I know I haven't blogged in quite a long time, but I have to return to blogging at least long enough to talk about a momentous life event that recently happened to me. Just a few months ago I was watching the short-lived tv show "Find My Family" and envying the participants who were introduced to long-lost parents, siblings, or children. I never dreamed that I would soon have my own such meeting, and without help from tv producers.
For almost 60 years, my biological father was the great mystery of my life. I knew that he left for Europe shortly after I was born, in 1949. As far as I knew, my mother and I never heard from him after that. My mother and I went to live with her parents, my grandparents, in Passaic, New Jersey. Even at a young age, and even though I didn't remember my father, I felt his absence in my life.
As I grew older, I would sometimes ask my mother questions about him, but it was clear to me that she did not want to talk about him. He became a forbidden topic, which only fueled my curiosity. I learned a few things about him from my aunt, my mother's sister, who had mostly negative things to say about him. Among the few things I learned over the years: He was a writer who could not support his family financially. He was Jewish (like the rest of my family), but anti-Zionist and strongly anti-Communist. He loved dogs. He demanded cream in his coffee. According to my aunt, he was wanted for mail fraud.
When I was 6, my mother met and married my stepfather Al, a Holocaust survivor from Poland. I took his last name, unofficially. We moved to New York City. My brother Larry was born a couple of years later. At the beginning of every school year, my teacher would have to be told why the last name I was using was different from my official name in the class roster. I always dreaded these explanations and asked my mother to come to school to have the talk with the teacher. When my stepfather adopted me a few years later, the last name problem was solved.
Life with my stepfather was financially comfortable, but I was an unhappy child and later an unhappy teenager. I continued to be obsessively curious about my father, and felt powerless to learn anything more about him. I was close to my mother's large family: her parents, her 5 siblings and their spouses, and my cousins. I was especially close to my cousin Jeffrey, whom I've written about earlier in this blog.
Years passed. I went to the University of Michigan for graduate school, met Jim, married him, lived with him in the Boston area for 18 years, moved with him to the Bay area. Finally, in 2005, shortly after the death of my stepfather, I started seriously searching for information about my biological father. Maybe it was my stepfather's death that made me feel freer to do this. Jim had a trial membership in ancestry.com and was doing some genealogical research on his own family. I used his account to search for my father, and found my first breakthrough: A record from the 1930 US census, showing my father and his parents living in Worcester, MA. He was listed as 16 years old at the time.
The census record was a breakthrough in several ways. As soon as I saw my father's mother's name, Fae (spelled with the same unusual spelling as my name), I knew for sure that I had found the right family. I knew where my name came from (my mother had been vague about this). And I knew something about my paternal grandparents. I also found my father's middle initial, J. Armed with that single letter, I was able to find a few things about him on the web. Without the J, his name was common enough that I hadn't found anything useful. With the J, I found an article about Israel that he had written for a Catholic magazine called the Sign in 1953. I emailed the archives of the Sign, and the archivist was nice enough to photocopy and send me a bunch of my father's articles.
A few months later, I felt that I had found all I could via the web, and I hired an investigator to look for my father. At this point I didn't know whether he had ever come back to live in the United States after the early 1950's. My experience with the investigator was frustrating in ways that I won't detail here. But she did find some results, 3 cousins of my father. Unfortunately they are from a branch of the family that did not have contact with the other branches, so they did not know about my father. Still, it was very nice to be in touch with them; they were my only link to my father's family. One of them, a neurosurgeon in southern California, sent me a handwritten family tree from the early 1950's which had my name on it. The other two, brothers who were retired from their dental practice in New York, met Jim and me at a Hungarian Jewish cemetery in Queens where the family has a plot. There I saw the graves of my grandparents.
I saw that my grandmother's maiden name was Jones. I had always sort of known that my middle name was Jones, but I used Joan instead because Jones didn't make sense to me. Now I was even more sure where my name came from. And the name Jones was to figure prominently in the continuation of my search, a few years later. It took me much too long to realize that the J. in my father's middle name stood for Jones.
The investigator told me that my father had died in upstate New York in the 1980's. She suggested that I apply to the state of New York for a death certificate. She even mentioned the town Pearl River. Case closed, as far as she was concerned. But I never considered it closed. New York State could not find a death certificate. I even went to Pearl River, which is not far from my cousin Jeffrey's house in New Jersey. We went through issues of the local newspaper from the 1980's, and found a family with a similar name but different spelling, but no evidence of my father or his death. I became convinced that the investigator's information was wrong.
And that's how things stood until New Year's day of this year, when I decided once again to search ancestry.com for my father's name. This time I found the best breakthrough so far, a U.S. State Department report of a U.S. citizen who had died abroad. The citizen was my father, and he had died in Germany in 1958, when I was 9 and he was 44. And, he had a wife in Germany. The facts in this document matched what I knew about my father: a journalist, living in Germany, born in the correct year. His aunt was listed as a contact in the U.S., and her name was on the family tree I had received from his cousins. His last known address in the U.S. turned out to be the address of the Sign magazine, for which he wrote.
I could hardly believe that I had found this information. At last, I knew what had happened to my father. He had settled in Germany, had a family there, and never returned to live in the U.S. And he had died very young, age 44, of a heart attack. The fact that I was only 9 when he died became, in my mind, a rationale for why he had never tried to contact me. Maybe he thought I was too young. Or maybe he had tried to contact me and my mother didn't allow it.
I immediately started asking myself the logical next questions: Was his German wife still alive? Did they have any children, who would be my half siblings? And how would I ever find out the answers from 6000 miles away, and without speaking much German?
This turned out to be much easier than I ever dreamed. One day I did a google search for my father's name, using "Jones" instead of just "J" as the middle name. I found only one hit, but it was an amazing one. It appeared to be a death announcement for someone with the same name as my father, who had died at age 50 in 2002. The dates were wrong for this to be my father, but I strongly suspected it must be his son (even though Jews never name their children after themselves; it is considered bad luck to name a child after a living person). The death announcement had the names of four siblings of the deceased man. None of the siblings had my father's last name, but one of them, Leslie, had the middle name Jones. At this point I knew I had found something big, but I didn't know whether these people were my half- or step-siblings.
I found three of the four siblings on Facebook. Their names were unusual enough, and the information I found on Facebook seemed likely enough, that I was pretty sure I had found the right people. I sent a Facebook message to each of them, explaining that I was looking for information about my father. I could hardly sleep that night, and I thought that due to the time difference I would have answers by morning.
I didn't. I waited a week, not wanting to bother people, and worrying that they didn't want to have contact with me. Finally I emailed one of the siblings at her business website, which she had listed on her Facebook page. The next day I had an answer. She was a daughter of my father's German wife's second marriage, and she told me that Leslie was, indeed, my half brother. Later that day I got a message from Leslie himself, confirming that he and I were half siblings. It was his older brother, also my half brother, who had died at age 50, also of a heart attack.
Leslie and I began an email correspondence that started with exchanging what little information each of us had about our father. Ironically, Leslie was only a year old when our father died, so he knew as little about him as I did. I scanned and sent to Leslie our father's articles from the Sign magazine. I also sent him the U.S. census page and the State Department report by which I learned of our father's death. He sent me a good picture of our father, scans of his passports (showing his many trips within Europe to cover stories), and pictures of our father's typewriter, which Leslie still has. We also exchanged enough personal information and general conversation that I could tell that Leslie has a fine sense of humor, and that I liked him.
On June 24, Jim and I flew to Hamburg to meet Leslie in person. The picture at the top of this post is of our first meeting, at the airport. From the very beginning, I felt more at ease with Leslie than I ordinarily would with someone I was meeting for the first time. I soon felt as if I had known him for years. It helped that we had exchanged all of that email before meeting in person. Jim and I stayed at the house that Leslie shares with one of his sisters, her husband, and their 3 cats. He also met us in Barcelona the following weekend so that we could spend more time together.
I have been amazed at the parallels between Leslie's life and mine. Neither of us knew much about our father. Each of us was adopted by our stepfather and took our stepfather's name. Leslie's family has many ties to the U.S., and they all speak fluent English. The family lived in San Francisco in the early 1960's; his stepfather was a German diplomat who was stationed there. They also lived in London, a city I love and have visited many times. Leslie loves to visit New York, where I grew up. And both of my living half brothers, Larry and Leslie, were born in the same month, April 1957.
I still can hardly believe that my curiosity about my father finally resulted in my finding his German family. Ironically, without the early deaths of my father and his first son (my other half brother), I would not have found Leslie. And the web made this all possible. Also the name Jones, which I decided was a gift from my father to his three children, to enable us to find each other.