Before genealogy was a thing, I had a thing about genealogy. It started with my best friend Janie H. We were 14 years old, in junior high school. Janie raised her hand in Social Studies class and proudly declared she could trace her relatives back to Jamestown, Virginia.
To history buff me, this was a big deal. Relatives in Jamestown. Wow.
After school, I rushed to share the news with my family and determine if we too had celebrity ancestors.
“Really, all the way back to Jamestown?” said my mother, as she sautéed gribenes in a pan. She glanced over at my grandmother — who did not look up but continued chopping liver and onions in a wooden bowl.
“What about our ancestors?” I asked. “How far back can we go?”
But to my urgent questions, my mother said nothing. Instead, she told me it was almost supper time and directed me to set the table. “We’ll talk later.”
After my father came home, after dinner, and after the dishes, my parents sat me down for the talk that so many Jewish families have with their children — the Holocaust Talk. Not the Holocaust as a history lesson, but the “What-the-Holocaust-Meant-for-Our-Family” conversation.
As a second-generation American, the Holocaust seemed far away and removed from my cloistered life as the beloved “baby” of a booming, boisterous family. Unknown, nameless great-grandparents and other relations whose lives were lost was too great a mystery to grasp. Death itself was a remote, still unfamiliar and frightening mystery.
The only part that registered — at the time — was my mother’s words: “The Nazis destroyed all the records.”
There was no way I could trace my ancestry generations back the way Janie had. I knew my mother’s mother, the wonderful woman always bedecked in an apron and a housedress, came from some unpronounceable town in Hungary, and that my mother’s father was born in Romania.
I asked Grandma about her name, meaning her maiden name. Instead, she spoke of her first name, Ida. She said it wasn’t her correct name. Going through Ellis Island, the immigration agent couldn’t say, no less write her name. So, he dubbed her “Ida.”
“So, what is your real name?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” she sighed. “It was so long ago.”
I left the room to cry and rage. To be deprived of your own name. To not recall it. I could not imagine such a thing. That moment, that sadness and, yes, that rage fueled my interest to learn my family’s history. It was no longer about celebrity ancestors. It was just about knowing … and remembering.
And on my father’s side? Even less information was available. The very little I knew came from my mother, not my father. He spoke very little about his childhood. His mother had been sickly and died when my father was young. His father was strict and worked hard to support a large family.
While my father was born in New York City, I knew his parents had immigrated from Romania. Decades later I discovered the name of the town where his two oldest brothers were born — Beltz, Bessarabia, Romania.
Yet, throughout their marriage, my father insisted his family came from Russia. “No, you’re not,” teased my mother whenever the subject came up. Somehow, it became a silly joke between them. But my father was right. Years after his death, a cousin handed me my great-grandfather’s military discharge papers — from the Russian Army.
And the Galatz name? Like many immigrant names, it went through multiple iterations: Galatz, Galazon, Galatzan, Galatzon, Galatzen, Galantson, Galitzes.
And that brings me to Galati, Romania, with its own alternate spelling, Galatz.
Galaţi is a port city on the southern end of the Danube River, just before it becomes a delta and flows into the Black Sea. With a population of about one-quarter million, Galati is Romania’s eighth most populous city.
But of course, what interests me is the city’s history and wondering if my family’s past — and therefore — my future — began there.
Archeological evidence shows people lived in Galati as far back as the Neolithic period, 12,000 years ago! Take that, Janie H. and tracing your relatives back to Jamestown!
The town developed from an ancient settlement of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. In the second century, Galati became part of the Roman Empire.
Jews first settled there at the end of the 16th century. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, multiple incidents of blood libel and pogroms occurred.
If my family did come from Galati/Galatz, was it during one of these outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence, fear, and uncertainty that they moved to Russia? If so, wasn’t that a classic case of “out of the frying pan into the fire”? And from Russia, when and why did they leave and return to Romania, settling this time in Beltz?
There is no way I will ever know. All the men — my father and his four brothers — are gone. And as my mother so solemnly intoned long ago, “The Nazis destroyed all the records.”
Knowing the answers to my questions won’t change a thing, but to paraphrase Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, after all these years, it would be nice to know.
One day perhaps I will travel there. If I’m lucky, perhaps all the records weren’t destroyed. Perhaps I’ll find a trace of my family story. It really would be nice to know.