Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Skeleton in the closet is how my maternal grandmother, Daisy, phrased it. I didn’t understand the significance of what she said until thirty some years later. I was watching a slide show about the first immigrants to America at our family reunion. I looked at the photos and surnames and grandma’s words came back to me, the proverbial light bulb. “Our family were Jews in Prussia and converted to Christianity just before they came to America,” the family secret.

After the presentation was over, I asked the other audience members if they had heard that oral history. Well respected cousin Virgil responded with “Yes, but nobody talks about it.” Why not? Most of the group looked at me like I was insane. I may be odd, but I’m not unhinged. Virgil said that I should ask more of the relatives so I worked my way around the main reunion room inquiring if anyone else had heard that story. Cousin Sula stated that one of the cousin-historians had seen an odd architectural detail so I sought him out.

Peter, local historian and cousin, had visited a newly renovated farmhouse that had been built by one of our ancestors. The latest owner wanted to show off the improvements and had a question. They were a bit perplexed by a Star of David built into the house. Peter thought it was funny but was rather skeptical when I spoke with him about the conversion story. About an hour later he retorted, “Well, maybe the story is true. The people who built the house were excellent carpenters. They would not put in a Star without a good reason.” As “Christians” they should have installed a Crucifixion Cross, not a Star of David. Until recently, Southern Minnesota was openly hostile to people of Jewish decent; it would have been dangerous for them to display their Judaic roots. The Star was eventually covered, no one knows why but it is a very strong indicator. Another cousin knows the new owner of the house and said that she would take a photo and email it to us. We can determine if it was a design detail, not an architectural quirk.

The most enthusiastic relative was Carla. She was recently diagnosed with Factor V Leiden thrombophilia that my mom, sister, and nephew also have (I need to get tested). I located found two other branches of our family, which have this genetic quirk (DNA error). It makes your blood clot faster than it ought to, thus more susceptible to strokes and heart attacks. Carla had done a lot of research regarding Factor V and learned that it is almost exclusive to Ashkenazi Jews; the disorder is extremely rare and profoundly uncommon for non-Jewish people. She threw her arms around me when I asked if she had heard the story and exclaimed, “I knew I was a Jew!” because her doctor had inquired when she was diagnosed. I was a bit startled by her enthusiasm (she’s from the East Coast) but I checked it out and she was right.

Another cousin, Donald, mentioned that his mom told him we were Jewish. Since no one else in the family spoke about it he had not brought up the subject. He had recently already started a DNA test and will share the results if any Jewish ancestry shows up on his mom’s side (our family). He visited Prussia last year and could not find any hint of our ancestors or their family who stayed in the area. Granted, wars and conflict decimated the region but no traces of their names remain in the local churches or cemeteries. Our family outreach was stymied by the Cold War but perhaps we should have been researching synagogue records. Donald offered to check in Jewish databases for the names of the immigrant’s parents and any information about the family that remained behind. Unfortunately, the Holocaust probably obliterated much of our Jewish kin but we can still honor them and connect with any living blood relatives.

This is a solvable mystery. DNA tests will prove definitively yes or no. If no, I’ll be a little disappointed (humiliated and embarrassed). If yes, I hope that we can make contact with the Jewish family left behind. My grandmother’s favorite musical was “Fiddler On The Roof” it was romanticized but perhaps it made her feel closer to our possible Jewish roots. The story of conversion isn’t something that would be stated in jest, especially if several parts of the family heard the same story. It explains some of the gaps of data. I know that I offended a few people by asking, but it don’t question their faith now. If our ancestors were Jewish, it just means that they had to deal with another layer of change along with immigrating to another land. Gotta admire their hardiness (though as a person with Native American heritage I’m sad that one part of my family was annihilated by the other part). Ironic, eh?

Wake up your skeletons.

© 2012 Ima B. Musing

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