Uncovering My Jewish Family History
Life is a miracle. It is incredible that any of us are here at all. How singular choices can shape a destiny and create new beginnings in the blink of an eye will never fail to amaze me.
Growing up, I had a very strong sense of family on my mom’s side. My mom is two of five and has a great relationship with her siblings. Seeing my cousins the one or two times a year we got together was always a huge treat. It was so cool to me that I was related to fascinating, smart, funny people who had good hearts and great educations to make their mark on our world. I feel immensely fortunate to be in touch with all of my wonderful cousins.
My father is an only child with two half sisters who we rarely saw growing up. Whereas my mom’s family charted and knew their many connections and ancestors from generations back, my father’s history was a void, a vacuum of information from which no light escaped. I have faint memories of visiting my grandmother’s house in Forest Hills, Queens and eating corned beef hash with my dad’s Uncle Joe at their kitchen table. My grandmother died when I was very young and the strongest memory I have of her is seeing her in her coffin. My grandfather had died 23 months to day before I was born and all I knew of him were several black and white photos dotted around our house. He was very handsome, debonair even, and wore an eye patch. He was a notorious womanizer and apparently lost his eye in a duel over a woman. It made for a great story and when I was younger, that was enough for me. I knew he lived in Vienna and came to America during the war. His surname was originally Schmerbach, changed to Brooke when he came to the USA. He was a doctor and apparently was concerned that his German-sounding last name would prevent him from continuing to practice medicine. These are some of the threads of the stories I heard growing up but that’s where it all ended. I either wasn’t interested in learning more about him, or there was simply a lack of information to learn more. Either way, that was all I knew about my grandfather.
My mother was raised Quaker in Southern New Jersey and I valued her no-nonsense and fair approach to spirituality. My father was raised without any discernible religion that I could tell. As a result, we grew up in the Episcopal Church which seemed like a low-heat version of Christianity to me. It suited me just fine but as I got older, I drifted away from wanting to go to church. I took deep umbrage with some of the wording in the book of common prayer and became very angry when I started to understand how religion had been used as a tool of separation throughout history. How can one group of people not “be saved” when others can? I know understand the deeper meanings of these words, but at age nine through my 20s, I wasn’t having any of it.
When I was in my 20s, I came face to face with the fact that I was living an unhealthy lifestyle and that something needed to change and fast. In the wake of 9/11, I attended massage school and my world got cracked wide open. Both of my grandfathers were doctors and many of my uncles are also doctors or scientists. As I traveled along my own healing path, I realized that I wanted to help everyone get better, to offer healing services for people to feel as good as I did. I went full tilt into healing work and healing myself. From Reiki attunements to massage therapy studies and dowsing to astrology and numerology, I fully and enthusiastically embraced all the different ways to heal.
I don’t remember when I was introduced to ancestor work, but I do remember my first couple of direct experiences with my ancestral lineage. One was during a kind of dancing vision quest I went to. We wore blindfolds over our eyes as we danced, guided by the voice of woman who was leading us. As one point, I lifted my head upwards and saw before me a full night sky with bright planets and stars, all shining down on me. They were my ancestors and my antecedents, sending me light, support and acknowledgment of my being. I burst into tears when I felt this connection, knowing immediately that it was authentic and very real. Several years later, during a guided meditation, I saw hundreds if not thousands of people lined up before me like a waterfall off a mountain. Their line flowed toward me and all eyes were on me. It was an overwhelming sight but I had a deep, intrinsic knowing that these too were my ancestors - all of them - and their eyes were on me.
As I went deeper into more esoteric work and the more “woo” corners of the universe, this connection with my ancestors grew stronger with a kind of urgency. I received the knowledge that I am here to clear the slate, to heal any old pain or wounds so that my children could have the freshest start possible with all the gifts from those who came before us and with as little of the pain as possible. As I dug deeper, I discovered many connections between my maternal and paternal family lines. Whereas I knew a lot of the facts and life events of my family on my mom’s side, my dad’s side was as silent as a tomb. He didn’t know much beyond what he had been told, and he didn’t seem to be interested to learn more. My grandfather, all things being told, was apparently not a very nice man. He had left my grandmother and dad when my dad was very young and from what I could tell, the two men had a distant and strained relationship. As I learned more about how my grandfather had callously rejected my dad, I became aware of a deeper pain present. How could a man reject his only son? How could a parent ditch their offspring so cruelly? I would look at the black and white pictures of my grandfather and feel a sense of curiosity. What had happened to him to create such unkind behaviors? Who was he beneath that eye patch and dashing clothing? Where had he come from and what was his story?
Among the photos of my grandfather displayed in our house was one of him, his brother Leon and his parents.
I don’t remember when I learned the names of my great grandparents. I believe it was my dad who first shared them with me - Albin and Tonia. This photo was the only one I had ever seen of my great grandparents. The scene seemed so happy and warm and I never thought twice about what would follow.
I don’t remember when I learned that they were Jewish. Any semblance of Judaism had been squashed by my grandfather when he came to the USA and it seemed pretty unimportant. All I knew was that my grandfather grew up in Vienna, was a doctor and was Jewish - nothing else. At some point I learned that my great grandmother had died in a concentration camp and that my great grandfather had committed suicide when the SS came for him. Typing these words now, I have chills, and yet when I was younger it felt like I was reading a story about someone far away who I had no connection to. It was tragic and horrible and made for a very dramatic story. I did not appreciate the gravity of what had actually happened. As I got older, I began to realize that there was much more to the story and that it was going to require some research to unearth it.
Life has a funny way of revealing things as we are ready to know more. My father’s half sister who I had barely seen for a good 25-30 years came back into my life because of Facebook. I relished reconnecting with her and was overjoyed to be back in touch. She is someone I remember having an instant connection with when I was very young, and I always wondered why we never saw her. I have family pain to thank for that pause in our relationship and am so grateful to be reconnected with her.
Thanks to this wonderful aunt of mine, about a year ago, I came smack into connection with my great grandmother. It was February 1, 2018 when I met her. It was Imbolc that day, the pagan festival of Brigid, the Irish divine feminine. I had been wrapped up in warm, sacred thoughts about life and female energy and gratitude. At the time, I was in an unofficial form of seminary and was preparing for a meeting that evening with my teacher. In this beautiful, soft fog of thinking about my ancestors and spirituality and all of our many, blessed connections, I hopped onto Instagram. This is what greeted me.
My blood ran cold when I saw this. There she was - my great grandmother. I finally knew her name - Taube aka Tonia Schmerbach, née Suchestower. She had been born in Czortkow, Poland in 1878 to David and Malka, and she had died in Theresienstadt. My heart was racing as I took in her face staring back at the camera. There she was! Her image and presence hit me like a truck and I remember, with hands shaking, showing my wife her image on my phone. I messaged my aunt which initiated a cascade of details and information that I hadn’t known before. I knew then that it was time to begin my research.
A few months later, my father in law died somewhat suddenly. He had been declining, but his death came as a shock. My wife loved her dad very much but there was a rocky history there. In the months following his death, my wife came up against everything that was not resolved in their relationship. One of those issues was money - he had been extremely, almost cruelly unsupportive of my wife, her education and creative pursuits. When she received her inheritance, she said that she wasn’t going to hoard the money like her father had and was going to put it to good use. After a long conversation with one of my closest friends who lives in Zurich, my wife bought us tickets to Europe to visit my friends and to travel. I immediately said, let’s go to Vienna, and she said yes. We booked the tickets that night.
Knowing that our departure was approaching, I began to dig into whatever details I could find. I opened an ancestry.com free trial account and googled everything I could using Tonia’s Vad Yeshem entry as a starting point. I discovered that where Tonia was born lies in what is now Ukraine and is called Chortkiv. There were so many Suchestowers there with so many different spellings that my leads went cold once I started looking for her parents. When I looked for Albin, there was a lot less information available. I found that his first name was Abraham, for which Albin was presumably a nickname. Albin was born in Biala, Austria, which is nowadays Bielsko-Biala in Poland. Both of my great grandparents hometowns were part of an area or kingdom called Galicia that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I stumbled upon Gesher Galicia which afforded me lots of great leads and an impromptu crash course on Galician Jewish history. I discovered one listing of his name as Aba Israel Schmerbach which initially was very exciting. It wasn’t until we were back from Vienna that I learned the SS renamed all Jewish men Israel on public records as a way of erasing their individuality. I also discovered that Albin and Tonia had a double surname - Altmann Schemerbach.