Friday, May 30, 2014

The Route to Your Roots

Executive summary by darmansjah

Home is much more than your current address. Home means birthplace, family, roots, culture, tradition. It’s a deep longing that a growing number of Americans are addressing by tracing their lineages across and continents to their ancestral sources. The urge to glimpse the life of one’s forbears by traveling to their homeland is powerful, says genealogist Megan Smolenyak. “Once you get a taste, it’s like your own mystery novel; you just can’t stop turning the pages.” From Krakow to Taipei, here are stories to inspire you to visit your own past.

Fueled in part by TV shows such as NBC’s hit Who Do You Think You Are? In which celebrities like Blair Underwood and Marisa Tomei discover their ancestral heritage, interest in roots travel has taken off in the past decade. In an poll last year, four out of five Americans said they were interested in learning about their family histories, which can often be accomplished in a series of mouse clicks, thanks to the extensive collection of digitized records on the Web at places like and But now more resources are becoming available to help families on the ground in the old country, whether it’s locating grave stones, retracing immigration journeys, or meeting long-lost relatives.

Collect data: The trend taps into a collective yearning for connection in our transient culture, says genealogist Megan Smolenyak, whose latest book, Hey, America, your Roots Are Showing, delves into her experiences tracing the ancestry of the Obamas and other prominent Americans. “Families have dispersed so much, (genealogy) gives us a way to feel we belong.” Before you jump online, Smolenyak suggests gathering names of ancestors and dates (births, deaths, marriages)-as many as possible. Look through old memorabilia, such as military discharge papers, Bibles, and yearbooks, and chat up older relatives. “If you have a few specifics in hand, you may avoid barking up the wrong tree.”

Search the Web: Use genealogical websites to help you fill in the blanks. At ancestry .com, a $35 monthly subscription buys access to a trove of ten billion records. Other sites, such as, which explores African-American genealogy in the Southeast, are geared toward specific diasporas. The granddaddy of ancestral record collections, however, is Family Search in Salt Lake City, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the names of three million deceased people. The records are still being digitized, but armed with key dates, you can order microfilm to be shipped to one of the library’s 4,500 branches.

Make connections; Tourism offices can also be a resource. Discover Ireland (, for instance, has a section on its website devoted to helping Americans trace their heritage, as well as a toll-free number that helps connect callers with ancestral towns. A government initiative this year is capitalizing on the roots travel tend by inviting anyone in the Irish diaspora to the Gathering 2013, a series of events in the country throughout the year.

Go the extra mile: Once you’re on the ground, dig further or search for original documents at local archives or churches, depending on the country. In Ireland, some hotels even have genealogy butlers. Or just page through the local phone book to look for residents with family names. “Call them up and start comparing names of ancestors,” suggests Michelle Ercanbrack,’s family historian. “There’s something incredible that happens when you go to these places. It’s an absolute adventure.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Going Home

Five writers return to their ancestral lands

Executive summary by darmansjah

Home is much more than your current address. Home means birthplace, family, roots, culture, tradition. It’s a deep longing that a growing number of Americans are addressing by tracing their lineages across and continents to their ancestral sources. The urge to glimpse the life of one’s forbears by traveling to their homeland is powerful, says genealogist Megan Smolenyak. “Once you get a taste, it’s like your own mystery novel; you just can’t stop turning the pages.” From Krakow to Taipei, here are stories to inspire you to visit your own past.

Unearthing a Polish Past

In search of a prewar life in Krakow, original text by Nina Strochlic, is an avid traveler and a reporter for Newsweek and the Daily Beast.

A few times a year throughout my childhood, my mother and I sat around a tan suitcase. She’d pop open the single working hinge and pull out sepia-toned photographs and frayed papers-curfew extensions, identity cars, immigration forms. The suitcase held the remaining tangible links to my grandparent’s prewar lives. In the late 1930s, my grandparents were forced from their homes in Poland into ghettos, and later into labor and concentration camps. On nights the suitcase came out, we’d watch videos of my jovial grandpa remembering the miles of frozen marches and how he won my grandmother’s  affection by baking her a cake in a displaced persons camp. Soon after, they got married, boarded a ship for Cuba, and sneaked off in New York City. My grandmother died long before I was born, and my grandfather died when I was five, but I know their stories. I know that when my grandmother’s parents and brother returned to the rural house where they’d stored valuables, they were murdered by its postwar inhabitants. “Never forget’ wasn’t just a phrase for my family; it was a mantra. 

My grandfather swore he’d never return to his homeland, but my mom and I needed to go. I thought of it as time travel-Poland was a country of ghosts, a crowd of bearded men walking down cobblestoned streets and hastily evacuated shtetls. A county stuck in the loop of 1938. But the Krakow we encountered, with its soaring castle and café lined medieval squares, was nothing like that. Virtually unscathed by the Germans, it had the charm of a young, modern city set amidst the mystery of an ancient one. Bursting with Jewish tours, museums, and shops, the city catered to tourist like us – pilgrims unearthing their heritage. Mom and I arrived with a jumble of addresses and began a scavenger hunt in search of my grandparents’ past. On a corner in the center of old town we found the storefront site of the seasonally rotating ice cream parlor or fur shop my great-grandparents owned, and across a bridge a music school now occupied the ghetto building they were forced to live in. but our main goal was to see my grandmother’s apartment, to touch the childhood home of a woman I never knew.

Rising from the middle of Krakow, a Gothic castle keeps a watchful eye on its city. We found my grandmother’s building on a street encircling it, a classic limestone structure. Standing inside the dim hallway, my mother holding a note that explained our quest, we rapped on the wooden door of Number 2. A middle-aged woman cracked it open and greeted us hesitantly. Her eyes flitted over the handwritten note, and confusion melted into warmth. She introduced her self as Marta and ushered us in. the apartment was beautiful, with ornate inlaid wood floors. “It hasn’t been remodeled, except for the bathroom, since my mother bought in 1949,’ she said. Mom’s expression mirrored my own disbelief. I could almost imagine my great-grandparents stoking the green ceramic tiled heater that stretched to the ceiling. We talked to Marta for an hour, lingering in the apartment that, save a war, could have been our home.

As my mother and I left, it was hard not to admit our unexpected love for Krakow. The city no longer conjured only fleeing Jews and ghetto walls. Along with them were pierogi festivals and imposing castles. I put mementoes of these in the suitcase where the old and new worlds could finally merge.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Going Home

The Sensation of Sisterhood

Reuniting in Taipei’s Night Market, executive summary by darmansjah

I pass through the turnstile at the exit of the Jiantan elevated train stop and follow a throng of thousands down the stairs and into Shilin, one of Taiwan’s most famous night markets across the Keelung River, near the heart of Taipei. Above me, Chinese characters scrawled on brightly lit red, white, and yellow signs pierce the Taipei Sky. Floodlights swing above women stirring noodles in cast-iron woks and flipping oyster omelets on sizzling grills. I can understand a small set of random, only moderately useful-“I,” “good,” “beer,” “eat,”- in the steady pulse of Mandarin and Taiwanese shouted by vendors and passersby. It is my first visit to the land where I was born, where most people have hair and eyes like mine, where I’m about as tall (or as short) as everyone else. Still, I am foreigner, laowai. I left Taiwan in 1974, when I was an eight-month-old infant, to be raised by an American family in Detroit, a place that could not be more different from this Taipei, located about one hundred miles from the southeast coast of china, is a crowded landscape of skyscrapers, Buddhist temples, and weaving traffic. The market feels like a riotous blend of foreign sensations.
My sisters are ready to purchase anything for me. They want to show me their native hospitality. They wan to make up for 23 years lost.

One of my older sisters holds up a pair of earings. 

“You like? Pretty!”

Dolphins. I’m grateful, but it’s not exactly my style. And their generosity is humbling, overwhelming. I smile and say, in my suddenly broken English, “Too much. Not necessary.”
She ignores me and bargains with the shopkeepers. They bark prices at each other and throw their arms into the air. But then they laugh, a deal is struck, and the merchandise thrust toward me.
We dodge the women selling neon T-shirts illegally from a rack in the middle of the street. Young girls with their hair dyed blond and pink try on sunglasses. Boys nose their mopeds through the fray.
I wander, puzzling over another menu I can’t understand. I’m a soggy noodle in the humidity of a Taiwan spring night. The growing mob pushes in, close.

Xiaojie! Miss!” A woman calls to me and grabs my sleeve. She wants to sell me something. I shrug the universal sign for “I don’t know what you’re saying.”

My younger sister slips her hand into mine. The feeling of our intertwined fingers sends a jolt through my body.

In Taiwan, women commonly hold hands .as awkward as this intimacy feels to me, the American, I let her lead me away. The combination of this closeness, the dizzying smell of fried dumplings, and the screaming singsong of men selling fabrics scissors leaves me breathless.

I’d never wanted to visit Taiwan or my biological family before, but here I am, feeling as if I never want to leave, magically assimilating to a place and people I’d never known. Later, I’ll look back and wonder if this intense sense of belonging was a dream, an illusion of desire. But during this first visit to Shilin, I could not feel more at home. I let the night market absorb me. I’m a rainbow sign promising the best bargain, a shrimp in a neon tank, a piece of tofu sweltering in soup. The colorful Chinese characters stacked high above us leave a brilliant stamp in my memory.

My sisters and I meander through the damp streets and alleys, stopping here and there to inspect a pair of platform sandals. We shake our hips to the Mandarin pop blaring from shop speakers. My heart feels so open it bleeds as we hold tightly to one another’s hands and slide through the crowd like a snake.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Going Home

Beyond the Pale Charting new territory in Northern Ireland,

Executive summary by darmansjah

Conty Cavan, we head west and then north, soaking in the primal vibe of the Donegal coast. At Slieve League, we brace against 55-mile-an-hour gusts to glimpse some of Europe’s highest ocean cliffs, dropping nearly 2,000 feet to an angry sea. We then wind through a wild, deserted mountain bog to the top of Glengesh Pass-breathtaking and bleak. The road hairpins out of sight. I’ve completely misjudged  our travel time to the northern village of Dunfanaghy. This long day isn’t over. The skies blacken, and the heavens open. Mother hums “Stormy Weather”, and, with 30 miles left, all the road signs turn Gaelic.

We find the emerald pastures of great-great-grandfather’s farm an hour and half northwest of Dublin, just “beyond the Pale” in medieval Irish terms, near the rural market town of Cootehill in County Cavan, Ulster. Our road trip begins here, bound for the northerly shorelines of this region, composed of Northern Ireland plus three counties of the Irish Republic-a region at times divided by religion, but forever fused by deep roots in ancient Ireland. With their 85-year-old grandmother, my sons, Mack, 11, and James,18, pick small cut stones from the ruins of a well, the last vestige of our Beatty homestead. Mom is humming “Irish Eyes,” as the three huddle from a steady drizzle under her red drug store umbrella. Standing at the farm gate, I picture William Senior setting off from here with his young family, bound for timber reaches in far-off Upper Canada in 1835, ten years before the start of the potato famine. I knew coming here would feel this way, as if we are their emissaries, making the return Journey that they knew they never would. If there’s such a thing as shared genetic memory, the idea of three generations summoning it together just seemed important. From

At Dunfanaghy, a rising tide fills the wide shallow harbor just outside Arnold’s Hotel. Inside, Mack presses for another family story before bed. He’s our lore guy, for years collecting tads of our history the way a robin gathers bits of twigs. Tonight it’s great-grandfather’s cousin Sir Edward, the grandson of a Cootehill farm boy who became head of a global transportation empire, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Mack recalls the picture of him in our living room. He is standing beside the Prince of Wales in 1930 on the maiden voyage of the Empress of Britain-an ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat in 1940, just miles off Dunfanaghy’s shores. We vow to find a good lookout tomorrow to see what we can see.

By morning, everything has changed. The sun shines. The breeze is  warm and gentle. We hike to Tramore Beach’s vast empty expanse; the boys race down its massive dunes, formed in the great storm of 1839; we ride big-boned Irish ponies across the Dunfanaghy tidal flats. And in one brilliant, no-granny-left-behind mission, James insists that he and his dad half-carry my mom up a steep, craggy path to the highest, most westerly lookout of Horn Head peninsula. As they reach the summit, I see in Jame’s eyes a satisfaction born out of wisdom far beyond his 18 years. His granmother’s joy is palpable, infectious, as together they survey what feels like the northwest corner of the universe-the Atlantic and bloomin’heather as far as the eye can see.

Three hundred miles later-including one golf game with two slices into the North Atlantic-we ponder how best to kill seven hours before flying home. Sleep? Pshaw. Like any self-respecting Irish progeny, we go to the pub.

Mack tosses five euros in an open guitar case to seal the deal. The bandleader introduces. Mom. She’s surprised but doesn’t hesitate, squeezing up to the mic through a cheek-by-jowl throng of Gaelic football fans at Dublin’s Oliver St.John Gogarthy pub. This Temple Bar hub pulsates with revelers, their beloved “Dubs” having just recaptured the championship after a-16 year drought.

“Just say the words here,” she instructs as she points to her right hearing aid. Eyes roll as the band proffers a few bars of a familiar lead-in. the song: “Danny Boy.”

What follows is transcendent. As she leans into her audience, lyrics flowing seamlessly in one ear and out her mouth, her classically trained, freakishly youthful voice sends this Celtic gem soaring. At the end, band members hug her and locals line up to shake her hand. “Imagine what she could do if she knew the feckin words!” shouts the banjo guy over deafening applause.

Later, in that quiet descent to slumber, I reply this moment. Yes, her voice, but more her pluck, her fearless embrace of the moment.

It’s a delightful end to a journey that has revealed so much-for sure, illuminating bonds with those long gone, but mostly, reconnecting us to the very best in us here and now.