Singer-songwriter Carole King’s Russian grandmother barely escaped a pogrom that killed 32 of her neighbors.
Playwright Tony Kushner lost many relatives in a 1941 massacre of Polish Jews.
Criminal defense attorney and former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s grandfather got 28 relatives out of Czechoslovakia in 1939 by guaranteeing them employment in the basement synagogue he ran in the Williams-burg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The ones left behind were never heard from again.
These shocking truths are part of the family histories that are revealed to each of these Jewish celebrities for the first time in the Nov. 4 episode of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” now in its second season on PBS.
Titled “Our People, Our Traditions,” the episode’s theme is strength and survival in the face of religious persecution. Each of the revealed histories includes stories of pogroms and the Holocaust.
“We found firsthand accounts of the massacre of Tony Kushner’s ancestors in the Bukowinka Forest in 1941, including rare accounts by survivors and by a German officer who participated in the killings,” Gates, a Harvard professor and the series’ producer and host, told the Journal in an email. “We also found the original affidavits that Alan Dershowitz’s grandfather, Louis Dershowitz, used to help his relatives escape Czechoslovakia right before the Nazi invasion.”
Admittedly, Gates got lucky in finding that evidence, and in obtaining Russian marriage records that enabled his research team to trace King’s family back to the 18th century.
“It’s always very challenging to trace Eastern European Jewish ancestry because there are so few documents. These are a people who were oppressed for centuries and seen as less than human. Many were illiterate. As a result, very few records of their lives were kept, and very few of those records were saved,” Gates explained. “Also, they lived in a region marked by shifting borders and countless wars, which made written records even harder to trace. A few townships actually have excellent records, but not many. And the tragedy of the Holocaust erased even more evidence of their lives.”
However, Gates added, “I liked challenges, especially challenges that yield meaningful content. And Jewish genealogy is just that: a huge, meaningful challenge. If you can succeed in finding those lost ancestors and their stories, it’s deeply rewarding, both for the guest and for me as a scholar.
“Jewish history is fraught with struggle and suffering, and I always find that so moving. And, of course, each of my guests did as well,” Gates continued. “Though their Jewish identity means something very different to each of them, for all three it was also an important part of their sense of self. Tragedy and loss deepen our connection to our roots, and especially to the history that was stolen from us. All three of our Jewish guests wept when we showed them the original documents that recorded what their ancestors endured.”
Such revelations deeply affect the series’ participants, Gates consistently finds.
“They’ll call me or email me weeks later and tell me that they’re still thinking about what they learned, or that they want to know more. They are very proud of what their ancestors accomplished, even if their accomplishment was just to survive. And they are very grateful that their ancestors made sacrifices that laid the groundwork for their own success. They understand that their ancestors endured things that we probably could not endure. This was very true of the Jewish episode.”
For example, Gates said that Dershowitz was humbled when he saw the names of his ancestors and heard all of their accomplishments. The legal scholar talked about how honored he was to have carried on their struggle — even though he himself never faced the challenges they did.
Sometimes, Gates’ findings give participants new insights into a side of their relatives they never saw before.
“Carole King remembered her grandmother as a tight-lipped, severe woman — someone she had never felt close to as a child. When she learned that her grandmother lived through a vicious pogrom that killed over 30 Jews in her hometown, she felt like she understood her better. It meant a lot to her.”
King, born Carol Joan Klein in Brooklyn, also learns that her paternal grandparents had eloped and arrived at Ellis Island illiterate and with $2 between them. With no means of support, they were detained and would have been denied entry had a cousin, Sam Kline, not vouched for them.
The Nov. 4 episode doesn’t represent the only time “Finding Your Roots” has revealed Jewish connections. Earlier this season, former WNBA basketball star Rebecca Lobo learned via DNA analysis that she has more than 10 percent Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry from one of her great-grandparents (it couldn’t be established which one). Actress Gloria Reuben got confirmation that her Jamaica-born father, who died when she was a child, was Jewish: His forebears had fled the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Jews.
“She was very moved because she knew so little about her family. It was very exciting for her,” Gates said of Reuben. “I don’t know if she’s attended a synagogue yet, but I can see it happening.”
In the Nov. 25 finale episode, which focuses on DNA, actress Jessica Alba is surprised to discover that she has Sephardic Jewish ancestry on her father’s side. “I don’t think she’d ever even considered the possibility before that she had Jewish ancestors, but I can say that she was very intrigued,” Gates confirmed. He has already lined up such celebrities as Jamie Foxx, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jimmy Kimmel and Gloria Steinem for season three.
Complicated genealogy research can easily cost $50,000, depending on the availability of records and the amount of original research required, he noted. “But we’ve done people for a lot less.” Gates suggests that people who want to investigate their own roots start with Ancestry.com, which sponsors the series, by searching for their grandparents’ names.
For Jewish genealogy, he said a good starting point is a website called JRI Poland (JRIPoland.org).
“They are indexing and digitizing new documents every day. You should also reach out to local researchers in the towns where your ancestors lived,” Gates advised. “You never know what might be hidden in a tiny town archive or a newspaper archive. And, if you can, go there yourself. Visit the towns where your ancestors lived. Walk those streets. At the very least, you will get a sense of place to attach to your ancestors. Even that alone can be very meaningful.”