In the beginning

I first got interested in genealogy a few years ago when I began researching my eligibility for Italian citizenship, jure sanguinis, by blood. Italy is one of the only European countries that will grant citizenship to family members further removed than grandchildren. But qualifying hinges on quite a lot of frustrating and time-consuming struggle with Italian bureaucracy.

On the left, my Italian-Irish American grandfather serving in the Philippines in WWII.

According to Italian law, my great-grandfather, after being born in Italy and emigrating to the United States at the age of seven, unwittingly passed his citizenship on to my American-born grandfather, who passed it to my mother, who passed it to me. All I needed to do was prove it, with a solid paper trail. I assembled all of the birth, death, and marriage certificates and other paperwork, but then I ran up against the fact that when my great-grandfather was a teenager he abandoned his given name, Pasquale, and started using the more American name Charles, without bothering to make the name change legal. I realized that there was no easy way to prove that Charles and Pasquale were actually the same person, and therefore that I qualified to be an Italian. Disheartened, I gave up on the whole project.

Then came the 2016 US election. Although I had already been living abroad for a decade, the shock of the outcome prompted me, like many other disaffected Americans, to think seriously about getting out of the United States permanently. I renewed my (ultimately successful) efforts to qualify for Italian citizenship through my Italian roots, which rekindled my interest in genealogy.

When the United States’ first version of the  “Muslim ban” was announced, it upset me terribly. I suspect this was due to the experience of growing up as my father’s daughter, the child of a man whose lifelong obsession with his mother’s escape from Nazi Germany can apparently be projected onto almost any situation. The Muslim ban struck me with a sense of horror: I saw that my very existence had depended on the United States’ historic willingness to accept at least some refugees, a policy that was now under attack.

The same day that first Muslim ban was announced I signed up for a two-week free trial with Ancestry. I wanted to know just how many refugee lines I had come from, how many immigrants were on my family tree. The answer was: a lot. In that respect my background is as American as apple pie. I’m a mix of many of the early waves of American immigrants that actually made the country great.

Back in the “old country” with some serious old country style.

One of my great-grandparents had Mayflower and Revolutionary War ancestors and married into an old Scots-Irish Pennsylvania family. Two more were Jews from the Russian Empire, one Ukrainian and one Polish. They fled Odessa in the wake of the 1905 pogroms that ravaged the city’s Jewish community, first traveling to Glasgow and then to New York City.

Two more great-grandparents were Jews from Augsburg, Germany. They considered themselves Germans first — one lost a leg fighting for Germany in the First World War — until Hitler stripped them of their German citizenship. They escaped to London, where they waited on visas to the United States, eventually traveling in 1940 via Canada to Shreveport, Louisiana, and finally settling in Los Angeles.

Another great-grandparent left Ireland for the United States during Ireland’s last famine, in 1879. She started her new life as a maid, cleaning for wealthy families in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There she met another of my great-grandfathers, the English-born son of an Irish Catholic who’d emigrated to England during the Great Famine of the 1840s and an English Protestant from a West Bromwich family of blacksmiths.

And then, of course, there were my two Italian great-grandparents, who left the poverty-wracked south of Italy for Pittsburgh in 1900. They were among more than 13 million Italians, mostly southerners, who emigrated during that period, one of the greatest waves of economic migration in history.

I didn’t figure all that out in two weeks, of course; that’s how those free trials get you. But my research quickly became an obsession that I’ve been in the grip of ever since. Which is part of the reason that I procrastinated so long on starting this blog.

First, because I worried I wouldn’t have time to write a blog when I was so busy looking up Polish death records. And second, because in a way I feel like I’m giving in to my addiction, which I vaguely feel I should be making some half-hearted attempts to resist. But they say you’ll never recover until you hit your bottom. So this blog is my attempt to see how low I can go.

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