Like many Americans, I never knew where I came from, with any real certainty. My grandparents had migrated, along with the great wave of persecuted East European Jews, in the early 20th century, so my dad could grow up in the transplanted shtetl of the Bronx, and my mother on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But beyond my immediate family, any sense of a deeper heritage was a mystery until I discovered a whole lost world one afternoon, museum-hopping in Washington, D.C.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was featuring a temporary exhibit focused on the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Kovno, Lithuania, documented by one Jew who had hid out, photographed the massacre, and managed to escape. Like all exhibits in the museum, this one captured a seismic tragedy.
On October 28, 1941, some 9,200 Jews were lined up, shot execution-style, and dumped into newly dug graves. When I reached the end of the exhibit, there was a snapshot of the photographer who survived, against all odds, and I saw something familiar. He was my father’s physical doppelgänger, from his angular face to his heavy-lidded eyes. In some ways, then, I wasn’t totally surprised when I finally saw his name inscribed under the portrait. The man I was staring at was one 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 of Lithuania,” he said. Later, the tangled genealogy was confirmed by our Israeli cousins.
Though my discovery of this distant cousin was a case of sheer dumb luck, more and more people aren’t trusting to luck; they’re becoming amateur genealogical sleuths themselves, zealously tracing their family roots as far back as possible. TV shows like the PBS series Finding Your Roots and a new wave of genealogical services—including Ancestry.com and Myheritage.com—have helped fuel the interest. So has the zeitgeist’s stress on personal identity and the notion of an authentic self.
And now, the pandemic leaves many people the luxury of time to play detective and diligently track ancestral lines. When we’re stuck in place, firmly rooted at home, we start to question how deep those roots run.
Before the pandemic hit, heritage tours were on the rise—and should continue doing so once the world opens up again. “We’d seen a growing trend in multi-generational travel, where groups come together for family reunions and learn about their shared genealogy through travel,” says Tess Darci, a marketing director for EF Go Ahead Tours. “One family did a tour to both Scotland and the Basque region of Spain because their heritage traced back to both places.”
This spurt of roots-focused tourism has also led to a growing body of literature that documents the hunt—the search through archives and databases, the frequent dead-ends, the unearthed stories and oral traditions, and the often startling surprises.
One of the most popular forms of heritage literature consists of books that feature a deep dive into the subject’s genealogical history, often stretching back centuries. In his 2009 book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., traces the genealogical DNA of Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey, and Chris Rock, among others.
But he isn’t just tracking down names and dates. Ultimately, as he writes in the introduction, he is hoping to find “the stories, the secrets of the dark past” of Blacks in America.
Some of the stories he unearths are happy ones. Whoopi Goldberg’s ancestors were able to mortgage their own farmland in Florida; they joined the tiny minority of the formerly enslaved who became property owners in the Old South.
Just as surprising was the discovery that Morgan Freeman’s great-great-grandmother, an enslaved woman named Celia, “valued at $1,000,” would ultimately settle down with a white farmer, who sometimes passed as a mulatto because interracial marriages were illegal. This secret reads like a genuine romance. “Alfred and Celia were likely a loving, strong couple,” writes Gates. “He basically gave up his life as a white man to be with Celia and their children.”
Louise Erdrich’s memoir Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country offers a more poetic, sensual rediscovery of roots—and, in some ways, a larger love story. Setting out in her minivan to travel through the lakes and islands of southern Ontario, Erdrich heads into a world of her Ojibwe ancestors and reconnects with the source of her artistry.
Parsing the very meaning of the word “Ojibwe,” which translates to several things, she finds that the “meaning I like best of course is Ojibwe from the verb 'Ozhibii'ige, which is ‘to write’. Ojibwe people were great writers from way back and synthesized the oral and written tradition by keeping mnemonic scrolls of inscribed birchbark. The first paper; the first books.” In the land of her antecedents, she finds the same muse that inspired them: the rich wildlife, the otters and sturgeon, the freshwater streams, and the “low-lying clouds over the water of lake.”
Similarly, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts looks to the old folktales of her Chinese ancestors, exploring the tale of struggle and sacrifice that inform her own status as an Asian American.
Paying homage to ancestors
But while Gates, Erdrich, and Kingston track back through history, retrieving the inherited stories, myths, and oral traditions that reveal their cultural heritage, there is another genre of roots-focused literature. This iteration traces more recent family legacies and focuses on an earlier generation’s migration to America.
Rigoberto Gonzalez, an award-winning poet and memoirist, finds the stress on roots particularly important for Latino writers. In autobiographies like Butterfly Boy, he navigates a twin legacy, one foot in the U.S. and the other in Mexico.
“Latinos inherit the memories and nostalgia of our immigrant parents or grandparents,” he told me. “We may lose our Spanish-speaking skill. We might visit our ancestral homeland often or never. But one thing that never goes away is the knowledge of our roots, and that for many of us our journeys began when someone back in the day made the fateful decision to leave home and build a new one in the shadow of that loss.”
A similar migration story fuels Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas—a chronicling of the author’s often violent Salvadoran heritage and his family’s escape to the U.S. And Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, teases out a family’s story of emigration, from Vietnam to the U.S.
But classicist Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir focuses on a migration that never, tragically, happened. In his The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, he captures the horror of the Holocaust in microcosm. Traveling through a dozen countries on four continents, he ultimately tracks back to a small Ukrainian town, where he finally discovers the devastating fate of six relatives who were trapped in place during the Holocaust. The result reads like an uneasy elegy, a horror show he can’t exorcise.
The subtext of Mendelsohn’s book is an indictment of America’s tight immigration quotas that meant doom for those attempting to escape the Holocaust. And while his story in some ways echoes mine, it also underscores the mix of tragic and occasionally happy discoveries that we unearth when we plumb deep family roots.
In the end, though, even the tragic stories are worth digging up. At least they pay homage to the ancestors who remained, until now, 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 appeared in the annual Best Food Writing anthology.