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MAD RAVINGS OF A GENEALOGIST



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(mad ravings continued...)

The First Big Payoff

Part of what makes the search for Mlynov so fascinating and compelling is the process which is part detective work, part historical research, and part genealogy. I find myself going down "rabbit holes," as my friends and family call them, and following hunches whereever they lead.

...I have found that any life has a story and, no matter where you dive in and which lead you follow, an interesting human drama emerges. That is why I can get as interested in the story of a neighbor living around the corner from my great aunts and uncles in Baltimore, as I can in the story of a relative. This is because we all share the human condition, and in the case of descendants from Mlynov, the Jewish condition. If we are open to it, we can relate to the hopes and despair of anyone's story, whether my particular family, my people, or any other people, who all have dreams and hopes that they pursue, while also facing the conditions thrust upon them by the circumstances of their birth, and their place and time, and which present life's challenges to them, which they may overcome like heroes in their own stories, or succumb to tragically, making their own Greek dramas.

But apart from the stories that can be unearthed in this way, the very process of discovery, by which these stories come back to life, has its own drama, that for the researcher, at least, constitutes the dividends of the effort. These are powerful incentives that make the work rewarding and perhaps partly addictive. The first is the "thrill of the chase." I imagine the hunt for stories is like the experience not only of the detective but the scientist whose investment in research has paid off with a big "aha" moment, when one has a breakthrough that turns up a new discovery, finds a lost record, identifies a person in an old photo, or learns a forgotten story. These moments may not seem earth-shattering to the outside world but to those who want to know what happened to their family members, they are priceless.

Which brings me to the second big payoff of this work: the impact on other people's lives.

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The Second Big Payoff

When I first started this research, my effort was about understanding my family only. I wasn't interested then in anyone else's story. But as the boundary between my story and the story of other families from Mlynov grew fuzzier, and I learned that my family story was entangled in the story of these other stories, I found myself beginning to delve into their stories too. At first these stories were of interest because they illuminated my own family's story. But over time, these other family stories became an end in themselves and I found myself writing up the history of other Mlynov families with whom I had no family relationship at all.

When I did this, their descendants were often "blown away." I had turned up much more of their story than they knew. Indeed, some of them didn't even know their grandparents or great-grandparents were from Mlynov. I often describe the experience as feeling like "parachuting" down into other people's lives out of nowhere and becoming best friends overnight. I suddely appear and know more about their family story than they do. I can gab with them about "Tante Sore" or "Uncle Joe", and I can laugh or marvel with them over those family oral traditions that have been handed down, to which no one else in the family cares about hearing anymore. In this is much of my reward, not only for the cutos I receive for my efforts, but the new connections and friendships I forge.

Some of my favorite moments are becoming best friends with ninety-six year olds, persons thirty years my senior, who are sharp as tacks, and who love to recount family stories and memories, and who appreciate that someone cares enough about these old stories to listen and want to write them down. The knowledge I come with is like a sledgehammer that breaks down all those artificial barriers that people put up when they meet someone new. I show up more like a long lost relative. And for that reason, we immediately are talking about family secrets and precious stories that have been passed down. For these reasons, I feel as if I have expanded my own family, and in a way I have, for we share a past and a history, and we have forged a strong new bond in the present. In some ways, this is what family is anyway.

And there is also something too that makes this work feel, dare I say, sacred, a word I use cautiously and reserve for experiences that feel profound, out of the ordinary, and moving. That feeling emerges when I recover stories that were lost to history and to memory, and in some cases return an ancestor's name or history to their descendant. Those are profound moments in which I touch someone deeply and get to witness the transformation of their self-understanding. How precious is that. And the work of recovery feels sacred too, for reasons I'm not even sure yet I can articulate, recovering lost lives that would soon be gone for good. It is like standing up a fallen tombstone for someone, doing honor to them and who they were.

These essays try to tell some of these stories that I have uncovered but at the same time dig out some the very experience of discovery, and share that with readers, since the final insight is often all the more powerful because of the journey to get there.

One of these essays, for example, tells the story of how I discovered another person's great-grandmother's maiden name and linked one descendant to a whole line of impressive Jewish enlightenment thinkers in Eastern Europe. In another case, I discovered a great-grandfather's brother and reunited descendants of two lines who didn't know about each other but who shared common childhood memories. In still another instance, I introduced one woman to a grandson of her father's best friend, whom he had always wanted her to get in touch with. Over time, the effort has created a virtual Mlynov of sorts, as more than 100 descendants of Mlynov (and Mervits)(more than 10% of the village in the late 1800's) have gathered in Baltimore and now online to share family stories.

I find these new connections deeply satisfying, anchoring me in a community who shares a past and longs to know more about who we are and where we come from. For my efforts, I get the rewards of the work, even as I recreate a community that was lost in time and space.

The following essays attempt not only to document some of my findings but to capture something of that experience of discovery.

Return to the essays.

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Compiled by Howard I. Schwartz, PhD
Updated:July 2020
Copyright 2019 Howard I. Schwartz

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