The Troubles with Genealogy

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Coordinator

When you work here, part of the job is to know a fair amount about the families that lived in the houses. Over nineteen years, I’d like to consider myself as much an expert as any of the others who work here, and over these years, my interest in genealogy has increased exponentially.

I have always been interested in history and my ancestry and always had a vague idea that it was an “England” and “Germany” thing. Many years ago in the 1990s, I attended a family reunion for my maternal grandfather’s side of the family. Someone had taken the time to create a family tree that was five feet long at least and had it reproduced. Around the same time, my paternal grandmother provided us with her family story, an oral history based on her memory, which my Dad transcribed into a tree. If you are at all familiar with genealogy and collecting oral histories, you can probably see where this is going. Since then, I knew we had this documentation, but no one did anything with it because “we had it already,” meaning, why do we need anything else?

A few years ago, I finally got myself an Ancestry account. My husband’s aunt had just compiled the genealogy for all four sides of their family (maternal – both sides and paternal – both sides), and it inspired me. It wasn’t long before I realized that I knew infinitely more about the Henry, Robinson, and Guy families than I did my own.

On my maternal side, I had a wealth of information about my Nana and my Popa – photos, documentation, I had visited a homestead, heard stories that I could easily verify – to the extent that I can easily trace at least six generations. Why was this so easy? Of course, the personal documents and experiences helped, but genealogically I discovered that my maternal ancestors came from Ireland and England and eventually Canada. I had no problems reading documents found online, deciphering handwriting, or extrapolating data. My paternal side is a much different story though.

Both of my dad’s parents were from the former Yugoslavia. They both spoke with a heavy Slavic accent, and my grandfather had endured several strokes, making it extremely difficult for me to understand as a child. There are oral histories (rumours) that people mentioned throughout the decades but nothing that anyone can easily substantiate. Why is this? Well, no one can read German well enough to translate anything found on Ancestry. My dad has retained some of what he learned as a child but not enough to be helpful in this circumstance.

Another issue that has arisen is that after the Second World War and with the breakup of Yugoslavia into different countries, many names of towns and cities have changed over the years. This, compounded with unique (to me) names makes my research very difficult. My dad transcribed names of relatives, towns and cities as dictated by my grandmother, who was going by her memory of 50 to 60 years ago. I couldn’t be sure if some of these towns existed anymore because of WWII, and the number of spelling combinations for some names is unimaginable. I take some long breaks from genealogical research after getting discouraged.

I began thinking of my paternal relatives again during my research of education programs for the OM’s Displaced Persons exhibit, Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa. My paternal grandparents settled in Toronto before moving to Brampton – but I realized (a little late in the game) that they would have had the same experiences as the participants in our OM project. I had never given any thought to their journey to Canada with my aunt, who was a toddler when they left. Soon the questions came flooding in. When did they come to Canada? Where? Did a group or someone sponsor them? What and who did they bring with them? Why did they leave and how did they travel? Where did they arrive, and are there any existing photos or documentation?

Do you know what else happens when doing family research? You realize that your immediate family usually isn’t the one that has the information you’re looking for, as in my case. My aunt, who was born in Austria and immigrated to Canada with my grandparents, is the keeper of this information, if anything still exists. My family is like most others, those who usually don’t speak for one side for various reasons, which hampers research possibilities. So what now?

I caught a break when some colleagues forwarded me some useful information that may help with creating DP’s exhibit programs. It was the website for the Arolsen Archives – the International Centre on Nazi Persecution. But my family wasn’t persecuted by the Nazis. Or were they?

Some of the oral histories passed down include my grandmother being “in a camp, but not a concentration camp,” that her brother was a part of the Schutzstaffel or SS and had died by suicide, and that my grandfather was an accountant in the German Army.

At the time this blog post is published, I’m still sifting through records and trying to decipher what I can, matching it up to records on Ancestry. One of the great things about the Arolsen Archives is that they will compile information for you. I think this could be of great benefit for me – I have a feeling that there could be a lot I might miss on my own.

I’m curious, does anyone else have complicated genealogy? Maybe we could commiserate together sometime!

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