It is interesting to know one’s heritage, especially if that one is me. My great grandfather on my father’s side came over from Germany. My grandfather was the first person in his family to be born in this country. The family came through Ellis Island and family legend has it that they didn’t have a penny to their name at the time. The Ellis Island guards were going to refuse them entrance because they were so poor, until one guard said, “Watsa matta? Dey got five boys in da famlee. Dey all get jobs, and dey’ll be fine.” Since Ellis Island is in New Jersey, I figure the guard probably spoke with a New Jersey accent.
As soon as they were admitted into the country, the first thing my great grandfather did was to change the spelling of the family name. My father said it was because of the pride his grandfather felt at being in this country. He wanted to Americanize their name so everyone would know they were Americans, but my grandfather said it was to confuse the bounty hunters. That grandpa, what a kidder…I think.
I have a younger brother who tried to trace our family heritage on our father’s side back to the old country. He got to the part where they reached Ellis Island, but he couldn’t find much about our family in Germany— except for a few old wanted posters. He even checked land ownership records and found nothing. You’ve heard of being dirt-poor? My family was poorer than that. There are not even any records of them owning dirt.
My mother was Bohemian—they say Czech a lot nowadays. I once had a guy call me a Bohunk. He meant it derogatively, but I’m at the point if you call me any kind of a hunk, I’ll take it. Where I live now there aren’t many Bohemians. Not like it was where I grew up back in South Dakota. Back there you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a Bohemian, and usually they’d pick it up and throw it right back at you. My brother tried to find out about my mother’s family and didn’t have much more luck than he had with my father’s family—remind me not to hire him as a private investigator. My mother’s family has been in this country longer than my father’s family. They were here before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but don’t blame us for that. We all have alibis.
I guess when it gets right down to it, the past isn’t as important as what is inside you. And of course I’m referring to the food. A couple years ago my wife and I had my brothers and sisters over for a Bohemian celebration. We had all the Bohemian things we remembered eating when we were growing up: sauerkraut, potato dumplings, prune, peach and poppy seed kolaches and homemade ice cream. (Okay, it’s not Bohemian, but we like it, so sue me.)
I have a sister who had to have some genetic testing done. The genealogist told her from the genetic markers that it was likely we had some Jewish blood flowing in our veins. There’s a rabbi in the woodpile? It’s possible. I do like chicken soup and bagels, and we did have a great uncle die at Auschwitz—he fell out of the guard tower. (Okay, it’s an old joke but I’m an old guy.)
Next month I’m going out to California to see my mother’s sister. She is the last surviving sibling of my mother’s family. Many of my cousins will be there. Maybe they can answer some of the questions about my heritage that have perplexed me for so long, such as why is my second toe longer than my big toe? Some of these people I haven’t seen in maybe fifty years. I’m sure I won’t recognize them. They won’t look the same as they did the last time I saw them, and if they do I’m going to figure they’re vampires, so I’m leaving.