Photo: Šternberk Family Tree, from Šternberk Castle
Do you ever think about your family tree? About where you come from? I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot recently. The idea of learning more about my family line is something that has always interested me and I’ve often found myself looking at genealogy websites, wondering if, out of all those people, one of them might be a distant relative.
I suppose my interest is partially about accepting my own mortality. Life is such a fragile thing; we’re born, we live, we die. There’s nothing particularly special about me as a person but that I am here, alive today is part of a remarkable chain of events that stretches back through time. But why me? Why not someone else? If the lives of my parents, grandparents, ancestors had been just a little different, that chain would have been broken and I wouldn’t be here. I guess in trying to understand more about them, I hope that I may understand more about who I am as well.
Several members of my father’s family have done some research into our family tree and I’m hoping to see it soon. I’ve been thinking about trying to extend it if I can, so that it includes the family on my mother’s side as well. I thought I’d start with censuses and hopefully my research skills will come in handy.
One person I have been particularly interested in learning more about is my great great grandfather on my father’s side. His name was Isaac Levinsohn; he was born in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas in Lithuania) in 1855 and had a remarkable life. He wrote several memoirs and religious books, one of which, his memoir of his early years and conversion to Christianity, my family recently had restored. I’ve spent the last few weeks reading and thinking about it.
I’ll probably write a longer, more detailed post about it at some stage as it’s a fascinating story and I’d like to read his other books as well, but to be honest I didn’t have the reaction to reading it that I thought I would. With the exception of myself as an atheist, most of my family is very religious and have admired Isaac for many years. I do as well but so often I’ve heard (particularly from my father) how wonderful and uplifting Isaac’s story is. Reading it, I found it very sad and lonely.
Basically Isaac’s memoir is the story of how he converted to Christianity. As a child Isaac’s family were pious Jews and Isaac felt immense pressure from his father to become a rabbi. For years Isaac studied and tried to follow his family’s wishes but from a young age, he developed an intense fear of death. He was terrified of the idea that when he died, he would be judged unworthy before God. And so when he was sixteen Isaac left Russia and his family despite their protests, trying to find peace and a way to be saved.
Isaac travelled through Germany, experiencing fierce anti-Semitism, and several times became so lonely and disheartened that he nearly committed suicide. Finally he settled in England in 1871. He spoke no English and had few possessions when he arrived. Eventually he befriended a converted Jew who helped Isaac and introduced him to Reverend Stern, who had a profound influence on him. Over time Isaac began to convert to Christianity and his family disowned him. With nothing left Isaac dedicated himself to Christianity, becoming a preacher and a member of Charles Spurgeon’s congregation, preaching to other Jews and converting them, often on their deathbeds.
Isaac’s story is remarkable but I didn’t find it to be quite as uplifting as the rest of my family. I fully admit that may be because I am an atheist and also because I haven’t read his other books yet, but I’d like to think I can look beyond that. Reading it, I just felt very sorry for Isaac. He wrote it in later life and much of what he remembered was filtered by his beliefs, so his perspective on Judaism and what he felt as a Jew feels somewhat tainted. In his memoir Isaac often writes of his darkest moments hopefully as they prepared him for his conversion, but at the time that couldn’t possibly have been what he felt as he was terribly conflicted. I didn’t feel like I got a genuine picture of what that time was really like for him or what he was feeling.
To be honest reading it, Isaac seemed like a scared young man, a boy terrified of death and of failing his father. He was also severely depressed, anti-social and suicidal (most likely due to bipolar) and losing his family broke his heart. That he found peace and later reconciled with some of his family and did so much good is wonderful, but in the end I found much of his story to be very sad.
But I am glad I read it. It is a remarkable story and Isaac’s leaving Russia for England is one of the major events in my family’s history. If he hadn’t left Russia, I wouldn’t be alive today. Who knows what might have happened to the family line if he had stayed? They might well have perished in the Pale of Settlement – or worse, in Auschwitz or some other terrible place. Perhaps descendents of his extended family did die there; I don’t know. That’s one reason I’d like to know more about our family tree and read Isaac’s other books, to find out more about what happened to them.
I think if I had the chance I would have liked to have met Isaac. He was an interesting man and I’m sure hearing him tell his story would have made it even more compelling. As his great great grandson, there’s a lot I’d like to ask him.
There are other people in my family I’d like to know more about as well. My grandfather on my father’s side (Isaac’s grandson) died before I was born; my father talks about him sometimes and thinks I would have got on well with him, but I don’t know as much about him as I would like to. He was my grandmother’s second husband, after her first husband whom she loved very much died. I often wonder what their lives would have been like if he had not died. Would they still be married now? Perhaps in some alternate reality they are… a reality where my father and I never existed.
I know little about my mother’s side of the family as well, except that historically it is a large Irish family which has settled in various countries. It’s something I’m looking forward to talking to my mother and grandfather about, particularly when I try to trace it back further. My uncle (my mother’s brother) and his partner recently had another child as well, my third cousin. So it looks like that side of the family tree is continuing to grow.
I don’t know whether I’ll add to it. Obviously I’m young and it’s possible I’ll start a family one day but for some reason I’ve always thought that my part of our family line will end with me. The last Levinson. I don’t plan to get married or have children; if I meet someone, great, but it’s not something I’m looking for. I don’t want my genes to live forever; I don’t believe in achieving immortality, except perhaps through writing.
I think that’s one of the reasons I am so interested in our family tree, though. Because in a way it is immortality, following that one seed as it stretches back through time. It reminds me of just how remarkable life is, that despite all the odds, we’ve all lived on this planet, if only for a short time. I think the least I can do is to try and remember.
If I find anything more about my family tree, I’ll let you know. I’m looking forward to seeing what my family has found out so far… and hopefully adding some details of my own.
What about you? Have you ever tried to trace your family tree? Found out anything that surprised you? I’d love to find out.
Update: After posting this yesterday I’ve heard from a couple of relatives we didn’t know about. Looks like there are at least five relatives we didn’t know about. Very excited, particularly as it’s happened so quickly. Hopefully we’ll be able to swap stories.