One of the most basic mistakes we all make is not asking our parents about our ancestors – youth is obsessed mostly by the present, a little about the future and zero concerning the past. Sometimes our parents do not know much about their ancestors but mostly they have a fair knowledge of a few preceding generations – it is amazing what stories can be fleshed out once they get talking.
Relative to most kids of my time I was always fairly inquisitive about our family history. A problem was that our parents were then recovering from the traumas of World War II and the Holocaust – they were in survival mode and one of their tools was to draw a line, putting the past behind and moving on. This was understandable as they had lost most of their families and possessions during that period and were forced to work hard in putting their lives together again – some managed better than others. For decades many could not even bring themselves to talk about the past as it was too disturbing for them.
My father, Kurt Moritz (Morris) Wiener, was born in 1912 in the north German city of Lübeck and fled his home country in 1936, three years before the war started. Fortunately his immediate family escaped the Holocaust but many of the extended family were exterminated by the Nazis. Whilst growing up I would periodically ask Morris about his youth and he would occasionally share a yarn here and there but he ensured that these conversations were brief and generally evaded talking about the bad times he had endured. I understood this and did not want to upset him by probing too deeply. Morris and I had a wonderful relationship but also respected one another’s comfort zones.
When Morris passed away in 1978 after a short illness I realised how little I knew about the family. I was an only child and Morris had no close relatives in South Africa to whom I could turn for information, his only remaining sibling being his sister Hilda who lived in Argentina.
The first line of enquiry I took was to write to the archives of the City of Lübeck enquiring what recorded information about the family they might have. A few months later (remember this was pre-fax age, never mind emails, and “snail mail” was the order of the day) a letter arrived for me from Germany. With great delight I read that they had fairly detailed information available and they also included a basic family tree of our Wurzburg family going back several generations.
Now, understanding the unpredictability of life, I promptly booked a flight to Argentina to visit Hilda in Buenos Aires. Spending a wonderful week together I pumped her for as much information as possible, taking copious notes. Fortunately Hilda, although almost 10 years older than Morris, had an amazing memory and was able to impart most of the details to me, including basic family trees of the Wurzburg, Hirsch and Wiener clans.
I appreciated that what I had learned could just be the tip of the iceberg. My wife Charlotte and I went in November 1982 to Lübeck where we stayed at a small hotel on the Trave (canal) near the main gate, the famous Holstentor. We were taken aback by the beauty of this medieval city. We spent most of our time visiting the house in which Morris grew up, the school he attended, the shul, the cemetery in Moisling where my ancestors are buried, the buildings which the family had owned and of course the archives. The archives staff was prepared for us and had all the family documents at our disposal. It was a very successful trip and I learned so much about my grandparents and their lives. My appetite whetted, I resolved to really find out as much as possible about my ancestors.
Over the next 20 years we frequently visited Germany with our children touring the beautiful country and showing the kids where they came from. They endured all the visits to the places I mentioned above, sometimes moaning and groaning, but they got to know the family history. In the meantime I was progressing slowly in accumulating documents and evidence going back further than my great grandparents. Progress was slow during that period because I was still involved in my businesses and the technology of the internet was not yet available for on-line searching.
After making Aliyah in 2003 I had a lot more time on my hands and I decided to do some serious research. The internet had developed with lightning speed and more and more libraries and archives were making their records available on-line. Specialised genealogy web based sites like Geni.com and Ancestory.com provided excellent general information. Using these tools and with no little assistance from my good genealogist friend Paul Cheifitz I made good and steady progress. I discovered complete branches to my tree on more than a few occasions and you will later read of their fascinating histories.
Whilst I had found all this remarkable information about the various branches to the tree, I had hit a brick wall with the WIENER family, my paternal lineage, which hailed from Hamburg. I could not get past Nathan Wiener, my 3rd great grandfather and had virtually no information on him.
I searched cemetery lists, birth records, archival records but to no avail. Whilst searching on Geni I found a family named Ries-Wiener, formerly Ries-Oettingen (they originally lived in Oettingen, Bavaria in the 1400 to 1600 period), one member of which had relocated to Hamburg from Berlin in the late 1600s. Various facts regarding this family led me to hypothesise that they were probably our forefathers. They were Levites, they had the same first names as our family had, such as Elias, Eliyahu and Moses - and I just had this gut feeling that I was on the right track. But the paper trail was not there and it could remain only but a supposition. For nearly a year I obsessed about finding the answer but it remained elusive – it was really haunting me.
There was now only one possible avenue left for me to explore – the science of DNA to determine if I could get a match with some living person with whom I shared a common ancestor in the period 1400 to 1700. Investigating this option I selected a Texas based company called FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) who appeared to be the leaders in this field and who also had a large Jewish clientele thereby increasing the matching possibilities. I opted to purchase the Y67 marker test kit with Family Finder autosomal testing included.
Three months later my results were posted on my FTDNA web account page. At first it was all Greek to me but slowly I started figuring out the basics.