By Judith Geer
I am a devotee of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” a weekly documentary in which Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates walks three well-known guests through their genealogical history. His staff researches their ancestry and Gates provides his visitors with a scrapbook replete with pictures and documents showing their familial background.
At the end of each show, Gates reveals to his guests the result of their DNA testing, and often there are blank-faced reactions as they try to figure out how a genetic strain which differs from what they had assumed they were fits into the image of themselves they’d previously taken for granted.
Inspired by this show and my own curiosity about my forebears, which, via multiple stories from both sides of my family I thought was Western European and Celtic, I ordered my own DNA kit and sent it off for analysis. Imagine my surprise when I got the results and found that not only was I Celtic and European, including Spanish, but I’m also part North African and northwest Russian, a small group of Ugric-Finns called Karelians.
My older family members, who had regaled me with ancestral tales for decades, had never told me this. Actually, I was delighted to have a real mix in my genetic makeup, but wondered who my African, Iberian and Karelian umpteenth-great grandparents were and how they came to set sail for the New World. Then I remembered a book series I’d read by British author Ken Follett called “The Kingsbridge Trilogy.”
The stories explore life in medieval Europe and make a point of touting the propensity of these distant folk to travel, something we modern humans somehow think occurred only after the invention of the engine. Follett describes how medieval people rode horses, donkeys, carts and went by boat and on foot all over the at-that-time known world for the same reasons we do today: to visit family, escape wars, disease and famine (attesting to the fact that there have always been refugees), make a religious pilgrimage, or find better living conditions.
I yearn to have a chat with my long-gone ancestors and ask them why and how they migrated. Did my Berber forebear cross the Strait of Gibraltar with the Moorish invasion of Spain? Did he marry a Spanish lady? Did their descendant sail with the Great Armada to England in 1588 and was he one of those sailors who was shipwrecked off Ireland and remained there as a few did after that historical event? I’ll almost certainly never know, but just thinking about this begs a much bigger question.
In late fall of 2017, The News published an article on local Holocaust survivors who detailed the brutal deeds of the Night of Broken Glass in 1938 when German Jews were beaten and imprisoned and their properties smashed by Nazi thugs who considered them to be “other.”
In response to the article, a beautiful letter to the editor followed a few days later that paraphrased historian Gerda Lerner, who wrote that once we humans deem certain people to be “other,” a sense of decency is broken within us allowing for the unspeakable crimes the Nazis and their ilk committed against so many types of “others” over the centuries.
I think of the young neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Va., last August chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and wonder if any of them had their DNA analyzed. If they did, maybe they would find that their ancestors, like mine, had traveled the medieval world producing descendants whose genetic structure, sifting down to them through the ages, whispered a lesson about the futility and ultimately, the utter inanity of racial intolerance.