Family histories are strange things some times. Just when you think you have a handle on where your people have come from, a spanner gets thrown in the works. In my family we’ve always known about my father’s family to as far back as 16th century Portugal for his mother’s family, and the days of Wallace and his gory bed for his father’s family in Scotland.
My mother’s family has always been a little more mysterious in that, although we know where in Europe they were living when they came to Canada, we don’t know what path had taken them to that final destination but one. As Jews they had been on the move for generations. They were afraid to settle in deep enough to put down roots of belonging because who knew when the winds of change would whisper in the ear of the King/Prince of the city telling him it’s time for the Jews to leave.
My mother’s maternal line had settled in Poland just outside the city of Krakow. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Poland and Russia were in continual conflict over a piece of land that lay on the Eastern edge of Poland. That the Pale, which was the name of the area, also happened to be the only place in Russia that Jews were allowed to live meant that their poor Fiddler On The Roof type villages were right smack dab in the middle of a battle field.
My mother’s maternal grandfather came to here to avoid being canon fodder for one side or the other for a fourth time. “Enlistment” parties would ride through the Jewish settlements, rounding up any male that could walk, and conscript them for whatever army happened to hold control over the village at the time. In 1911 he brought over his wife and four kids to settle in Toronto.
Like most of their fellow immigrants, they had lived in Eastern Europe for centuries prior to finally having had enough of the persecution and poverty and making good their escape. At the time it was an occasion for sorrow. Twenty odd years later they would consider themselves fortunate to have gotten out when they did before the doors of the camps were thrown open.
On her father’s side of the family is where the mystery begins about my mother’s family tree. Although we know they were living in Romania prior to coming to Canada, they were far more educated than would be normal for poor Jews (they spoke French on top of Yiddish, Biblical Hebrew, and Romanian), which has long made us wonder about where they had lived prior to landing in Romania.
My mother has long suspected that her father’s family members are descendants of the Jews who had thrived as part of the Ottoman Empire and even Christian Iberia (Spain and Portugal) up until Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The year 1492 not only marks the beginning of the end for the native peoples of North and South America. It was also the year Jews were given the choice of leaving the Iberian Peninsula or converting to Christianity.
Jews who had seen the writing on the wall had retreated in front of the Christian armies as they had taken the land back from the Moorish empire that was based out of modern Turkey. After having enjoyed status as equals in parts of that empire, they weren’t interested in all of a sudden being subjected to limitations on their life and culture. As the retreat continued back through the Balkans and Eastern Europe, people like the King of Romania would assure the Jews that they were welcome to stay in his country.
Unlike their cousins who spoke Yiddish, a hybrid language made up of German, Slavic, and Hebrew, they used Ladino as their common tongue. Ladino incorporated many elements of the Romance languages (ones descended from Rome – Latin-like French, Italian, Spanish, and Romanian), so it would not have been hard for them to acclimatize to Romania..
Most monarchs were always glad to welcome Jews into their countries because they were a source of money and they were the only people allowed by church law to lend out money. While their ability to be users would have made them popular among the wealthy and the aristocratic, the common man would have easily resented their wealth and ability. This was one of the major reasons the church was able to whip up hatred against the Jews so easily.
Without any accounts of how my mother’s father’s family got to Romania, we can’t know for sure whether they were part of the Sephardic peoples (Jews who are from Spain and the Middle East, while the European Jews are the Ashkenazi) migration back through eastern Europe with the Ottoman Empire. Both my mother and I have done some cursory research on the matter, with few conclusive results.
The last name of Marcus is listed as a Sephardic name in the genealogy sites, but it also shows up in the Ashkenazi lists as well. For all we know it could just be a romantic notion on our part with nothing concrete to back it up. It even sometimes feels like an extension of typical Romanian Jew feelings of superiority over the peasant farmers from Poland, Russia, and the other Eastern Balkan states.
One of the stories in our family is that when my grandfather went to marry my grandmother, one member of his family (it’s never been said who) took him aside and said, “Remember to hold your head high. You are a Romanian and they are only Polacks”. My grandfather used to take great delight in repeating this story in front of my grandmother. As long as none of her family were around she didn’t mind, even joining in by saying, “The only thing worse than a Polack was a Litvak (Lithuanian).”
Perhaps thinking our family is descended from a long line of intellectual mystics, who under the rule of the Moors in Spain were elevated to positions of authority so great that one even was senior advisor to the ruler of Cordova, is just another sign of our snobbishness. Who wouldn’t prefer claiming them as ancestors to saying we’ve just been scrabbling around for the last two thousand years trying to survive wherever they will let us live?
Although there is no proof, I keep stumbling across little things that revive my belief in the theory. I was sent a couple books by the Israeli author Haim Sabato to review, and he is a Sephardic Jew. His family had lived in Syria for two thousand years until they moved to Egypt and then Israel.
On the cover of the one book Aleppo Tales (Aleppo being the area where the Jews came from in Syria) is a picture of a family gathering. Staring up at me from the page are the faces of young women who are identical to my mother when she was their ages. I do mean ages, from toddler to it looks early twenties. All the young women look identical to what my mother looked like at those times in her life.
Just to make sure it wasn’t me making something out of nothing, I handed the book to my wife to see her reaction. Her first words were, “They look just like that picture of your mom as a young child, and also that one of her as a teenager”.
It’s not really proof about anything, but it did make my heart beat a little faster for a few moments and revive my hopes that maybe we are indeed descendants of the wise and the gifted on one side of the family. It’s a nice fantasy family history that every so often looks very real.