I would not have expected to learn more about my great-grandmother Shima Heifetz in a book about the founding of the Federal Witness Protection Program, but that is exactly what happened as the year 5779 began.
On page 354 of a book titled “WITSEC” is a description of the harrowing journey she took to bring the children of her murdered son to America following his death during a pogrom in Russia. The book’s co-author and founder of WITSEC is one of my newly discovered cousins. He wonders if his own devoted wife, who reached out to me recently via 23andMe, may have inherited her courageous spirit from the woman whose bravery in the 1920s touched the lives of so many in our family today. He wrote,
En route, Great-grandma Heifetz had prevented drunken soldiers from raping her granddaughter, foiled a border crossing guard’s attempt to hold one of the children hostage for ransom, survived a bubonic plague epidemic, and secured ship passage to America for the family even though she had almost no money.
That sentence certainly put my challenges into perspective.
Another family member who I did not know actually lives and works very near me. He too is active in Jewish community life, which means we could have been in the same room without realizing that we share DNA, precious family history and a passion for Jewish study. Maybe it should not have been surprising to learn that he is a long-time friend of people I already know—but without 23andMe, we might never have discovered that connection.
Because of him, I have also learned about rabbinic scholars in 17th century Italy named Chafetz whose writings have survived through the centuries. A local rabbi friend took less than two minutes to research one of their Hebrew books on his smartphone.
During Elul this year, the horizon of knowledge about my family history took a quantum leap, expanding from decades to centuries and across continents from Zhuravichi, Russia; to Mobile, Alabama; and even to Venice, Italy. I’ve met generous and wonderful fellow travelers, some not even related to me but willing to devote their own time to researching my family history. Sitting at our laptops, it takes us minutes to find documents that would have required countless hours of library digging or been simply impossible to access just a decade ago.
As X-Files fans know, the truth is out there. How it comes to us seems to be changing at remarkable speed, but stories and connections such as these are a reminder that we are all part of a timeless journey. It began long before our lifetimes and will continue far into the future after us.
Our choice is whether to focus only on our portion of the journey, or to see in the courage and resilience of our foremothers and forefathers the countless ways in which our fortunate lives echo their truth and are their legacy.
How does knowing about your family’s journey affect the story you tell about your own life or the lives of the next generation? I welcome your comments and feedback.