Spitting in a vial to find the past


A few months ago, I spit into a vial all the way up to the black line and sent my spit away to a laboratory in California.

Now, thanks to a new DNA identification program driven by Ancestry.com, the results are in.

I am 77 percent European and Jewish.

No surprise there, since I have known for several years that my great-grandfather, Samuel Schwach, came to New York City in 1891 on the steam-ship Noordland from Kisvarda, Hungary.

He was the first of a long line of people with the Schwach name to live in New York City and specifically in Rockaway.

I used to tell a story that my children and grandchildren found funny.

The word “Schwach” means weak in the Yiddish language, the now all-but-archaic language spoken by my forbearers in Europe.

I told my family that our ancestors had a different, unknown name, and when the clerk at Ellis Island asked Samuel what his name was, he thought that he was asked how he felt, and answered “Schwach.”

Thanks to Ancestry.com, I now know that story is not true and so do my grown children and their children.

Why is that important? Because I think that everybody — especially kids — should have an idea of where they came from, not only geographically, but culturally as well.

Obviously, lots of people agree with me. Family trees are becoming big business on the internet and there are several high-profile television series in which celebrities and others search their roots with the help of professionals.

I never used a professional, but I have used sites such as Ancestry.com and JewGen.com to find not only dead relatives, but living ones as well.

I found lots of interesting information — interesting to me, at least, but my grandchildren have begun to show an interest as well, which is the point of the exercise.

The Schwach family lived in Kisvarda in Hungry for a long time. Many came to American in the late 1890s and early 1900s, but there were still a few people with that last name in the town when it was wiped out by Nazi storm troopers, along with locals who were all too ready to assist the Nazis during two days in the fall of 1943. While a number of Schwach’s were on the German manifests of those sent to the camps, only one was left after, according to Holocaust Center records. She went to Israel and her name soon disappeared from public view. Perhaps she died, perhaps she married, perhaps she moved on. For all I know, she might well live in the local area.

I have since learned that Kisvarda’s largest and most famous product and export was an alcoholic beverage akin to our moonshine liquor. I don’t know if any of my ancestors were in the trade, and I would probably have to go to Kisvarda and look up the record of arrests to find that out. I would love to do just that, but have never had the wherewithal to do that.

What is surprising to me is that the remainder of my DNA shows that I have non- Jewish ancestors in Spain, Portugal and Italy. No wonder I love pizza and spaghetti.

In any case, my ancestor’s travels to the new world were pretty standard by all accounts.

Samuel left his wife, Esther in Kisvarda in 1888 and came to New York City to make his fortune. He eventually founded two of the largest barber shops on the lower east side – one at 231 East Houston Street and the other at 285 Stanton Street. The Houston Street building still stands, but the Stanton Street building is now a parking lot.

Samuel and Esther had eleven children, none of whom came over with Samuel on the USS Noorland. Records show that he was berthed on the “eighth deck,” which most likely meant steerage.

My grandfather, Kalman, the oldest of their children, born in Hungary in1879.

It is amazing to me that, in an age where we won’t let our kids play in the street or walk a couple of blocks to a store to get a soda, Kalman, whose name mysteriously changed to Charles at Ellis Island, came to New York City in August of 1893, at the age of 13 or 14, leading his younger brother, Jacob (12) and two younger sisters, Bertha (6) and Helen (8) from Kisvarda to Glasgow (Scotland) and from there on the ship State of California, to Ellis Island in New York Harbor, where they were met by Samuel.

Think about that for a moment; four kids: 14, 12, 8 and 6, travelling half way around the world alone, across half a continent and then on a month-long sea voyage, alone.

It boggles the mind, but it was common in those days.

Esther and the younger kids came a year later.

You find out all sorts of wondrous things when you start out to find out who came before you, to find out about your roots.

I started the search several years ago, doing it for my grandchildren, to answer all the questions for them that I would have liked to have answered when I was their age and never thought to ask until everyone who could answer those questions was either dead or demented.

Along the way, I became reacquainted with a number of cousins who I have not seen or spoken to in more than 50 years, some who live locally.

We met again after all these years because they too were searching for their roots. We found each other on genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com and JewishGen.com.

When I wondered why Samuel is not buried along with Esther and some of the other kids in a northern Queens Cemetery, I found out from a granddaughter of one of the other brothers that Samuel had died in a Manhattan hotel room in bed with another woman and therefore was barred from being buried with the rest of the family.

My cousin’s mother had told her that story a number of times.

I found out lots of other things as well.

I had met my father’s sisters, Gertrude and Thelma, many times and still have some contact with a first cousin who lives in East Rockaway.

What I did not know was that my grandfather, Charles, and his wife Annie, had a fourth child.

I found that out by searching on line through the New York Times database on Ancestry.com.

I knew of course, that my father, Stanley, was born in 1911 in New York City and lived in Rockaway most of his life.

In fact, the 1930 census shows that the family lived at 345 Beach 69 Street and had been there at least seven years at the time. His sisters were born in 1908 and 1913.

There, however, in startling newsprint for all to see, in the birth announcements in the New York Times was a short item – “Born to Charles and Anne Schwach of 174 Fox Street, Bronx, on March 12, 1920, a daughter, Shirley.”

I held the printout in my hand for some time before emailing all the relatives that I knew.

I found out from another cousin, who remembered hearing it from her grandmother, that Shirley had lived for 29 days, passing away from a mysterious illness on April 10, 1920.

I plan on going to the New York City Municipal Archives later in the summer to get a copy of her death certificate and find out why she died.

To my mind, the mystery is that my father was about nine years old when she died, and had to know about her; yet in all the years we lived together and all the years we had a close relationship, he never once mentioned an aunt that I never knew about until I saw it in the New York Times many years after his death.

Shirley, I have since found, is buried in a plot right next to Samuel in a Queens cemetery.

I found out lots of other things in my quest.

My database, or Family Tree, as they call it, now encompasses the details and detritus of the lives of more than 350 people.

When my grandson turned 15 earlier this year, I printed out an Ancestor Tree for him that showed him his ancestors on both his father’s and mother’s side back to great-grandparents. Even a cool teenager was amazed by the detail of where he came from and who came before. He has since become more interested in history and says he wants to teach it when he finishes school. My granddaughter, just entered Grade 2, had to do a family tree for homework. I printed out one for her going back five generations. Now, she wants to know more.

That’s what it’s all about.

It’s more than names on a family tree, but finding out who came before you and the stories that make the people on that tree real to future generations.