January 19, 2020

Journey Back in Time: Discovering My Ancestors’ Past

Photo by VitalityPix

In 2010, a friend recounted to me the story of her recent journey to Europe where she met, for the first time, relatives left behind during World War II. Her meeting was so joyful, it got me thinking about my own family heritage, which, sadly, was very murky at that time.

I knew my father’s parents were from Ukraine and my mother’s parents were from Germany or Austria — but that was as far as it went. With a yearning to learn more about my ancestors’ pasts, I began a project that would occupy most of my time over the next year as I researched family history, conducted dozens of interviews, then wrote my family’s memoirs.

I’m a journalist so I knew exactly where to begin. I started by identifying all my dad’s relatives as far back as I could to build our family tree. I did this with the help of Ancestry.com. Over the next three months, I was able to document more than 350 people in my family going back four generations.

I began tracking down relatives, far and wide. I interviewed more than 40 people — some of whom I hadn’t seen since I was a child and others whom I had never met, like my third cousin Ellen Zirin. Her great-grandfather, Fehter Sucha Ainbinder (“fehter” is Yiddish for “uncle”), was a kosher butcher and cantor in Peabody, Mass. Sucha was one of my great-grandmother’s brothers, both of whom were named Samuel. With Ellen’s help, I learned a great deal about my great-grandmother, Sarah Ainbinder Morochnick, mother to my grandmother, Anna Morochnick Kramer.

By interviewing all of these cousins and documenting their colorful stories, I was able to create a 30-page memoir with short vignettes bringing each person to life. I learned that my grandmother was only 8 years old when she fled the pogroms in 1909, leaving the Ukrainian village of Shepatovka with her mother and four siblings after waiting five years for her father, Boroch, to send them money for passage. Once reunited in America, the Morochnicks settled into a three-story house in West Roxbury, Mass., renting out the attic to various family members as they arrived.

I believe everyone has a story to tell. It is worth recounting these histories for the sake of future generations.

I learned about the mysterious Shia Morochnick, one of my great-grandfather’s two brothers. Shia escaped from a work camp in Siberia by climbing over an electrified fence, eventually making his way to America years later. 

My 95-year-old cousin, Sylvia Loman Morochnick, was a great resource. As the last remaining member of the Morochnicks, she had some of the best stories about the older generation, as she was born to her parents later in life. She told me that her father, Mottel Morochnick (my great-grandfather’s other brother), changed his name to “Max” to fit in and worked as a union house painter. He also served as a member of the Shepatovka Cemetery Keepers in West Roxbury, where many of my family members are buried.

By asking questions and writing down these memories, I learned who my ancestors were and I forged a connection to the past. When I wrote the Morochnick family memoir, I dedicated it to “those who came before us, those who inspired us, and those who will never be forgotten.”

As a thank you to each person I spoke with, I mailed copies of the memoir, complete with historic photographs. The essence of this experience was that I built our family legacy, connecting each of my family members with our shared heritage, which inspired many to renew their connections with one another.

I believe everyone has a story to tell. It is worth recounting these histories for the sake of future generations. If you are waiting for the perfect time to write down the stories of your elders, don’t wait too long, as we never know if we are going to have another tomorrow.

Pat Kramer is a Los Angeles memoir and business writer. In April 2019, she was named “Woman of the Year, 28th Congressional District, Sunland-Tujunga” by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). Click here to read her work.