Discovering My Family’s Hidden Treasure

February 15, 2023Crystal Hill

Wandering through the upper level of my grandparents' old house, I open a door to a closet. Instead of seeing the expected clothes, I see a passageway that I had no idea existed. I wander down the passageway, which seems to go on forever…and then I wake up.

I've had this dream many times since I was a child. I never quite understood the meaning of it, but it fascinated me.

In my waking life, around the same time that I first began having this dream, my paternal grandmother, who I called Granny, and her mother, Great Gram, began telling me stories about their side of the family. My grandmother told me about her father's family, and we bonded over learning about one of our most famous ancestors, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Great Gram told me stories of her family, who, she claimed, were forced to flee for their lives from Germany to the United States roughly 150 years before I was born. Granny, on the other hand, insisted that her mother was wrong and that we had no family ties to Germany. While I believed my great grandmother, I got the message that it was best not to discuss anything about our German heritage with Granny.

Years later, after both Great Gram and Granny had passed away, I did some genealogical research while on maternity leave to keep my mind sharp and give me something to focus on outside the realm of taking care of a newborn. Genealogy was familiar and had always been a hobby of mine, but it was one that I would dive deeply into for a few months at a time before taking a years-long break. I was intrigued by what I had been told about Great Gram's family but had never been able to find much about them that either confirmed or debunked what I had been told.

This time, however, I had a little more to go on. I had taken a cheap DNA test a couple years prior that showed no German ancestry (or any ancestry from mainland Europe, though it did say "Middle Eastern"). I reasoned that after taking a seven-year break from my research, there were likely more records and information available about my family due to the crowdsourcing nature of genealogy websites. I was right: I found birth records, ship lists, and more that confirmed my great grandmother's version of events. Her family had indeed come over from modern-day Germany.

One night, I found myself mulling over how my family could have been in Germany since the 1600s (when the record trail went cold) but not have any trace of it in our DNA. Since I wasn't getting to sleep anytime soon, I pulled out my phone and googled "Träger surname origin." There, in bold type, were the words "Ashkenazi Jewish."

I found myself recalling the details of my great grandmother's stories, some of which included her family fleeing Germany for their lives. I found out that in the 1840s, there was a wave of failed revolutions across Europe. Jews were blamed for inciting the unrest which, in turn, led to a rise in antisemitism and pogroms. I could see why my ancestors, if Jewish, felt that they had no choice but to leave.

Once I discovered and confirmed my likely Jewish ancestry, I told my aunt and uncle that I had found out that the "German" branch of the family was likely actually Jewish. My uncle looked surprised for a second before responding that he had taken a DNA test, from a more reputable company than I had, which had told him he was 25% Ashkenazi Jewish. However, he had thought it was merely a fluke and hadn't thought much about it until I confirmed the results with a paper trail.

I started researching Judaism as a purely academic exercise. I wanted to know more about the lives of those who came before me, and why the family's story had become somewhat muddled over the years. I read "Choosing A Jewish Life" and "Living A Jewish Life" both by Anita Diamant. In "Living A Jewish Life," Diamant lays out the main streams of Judaism with a very brief overview of what each believes and a link to each movement's official website for further reading. When I came to ReformJudaism.org's "What is Reform Judaism" section, I can only describe what happened as a piece of my soul clicking into place like a piece of a puzzle. I already believed in many of the things stated on the website, and so I began the process of converting to Judaism.

I completed my conversion in October 2022/Cheshvan 5783. In my final essay required during the conversion process, I wrote that discovering my Jewish roots felt like finding a long-forgotten heirloom; studying Judaism felt like returning home after a long trip.

Within a week of my conversion, I dreamt once more of the secret passage. But this time was different. The passage led to a museum full of glittering gems and rare artifacts. More importantly, my grandmother was there, waiting for me. We looked at the treasures, talking about them and bonding once more over our shared love of learning about our family's past.

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