The Shoes

During my recent overseas adventure, I visited both Nuremburg, Germany and Budapest, Hungary, among other locations. These two cities, especially in combination, were intensely moving.

My husband’s family immigrated from the Austrian-Hungarian empire in the early 1900s. The area had been ravaged by multiple wars followed by desperate economic strife and geographic displacement of the residents – not to mention changing national borders. However, that history, as difficult as it was, was overshadowed a few years later by the horrible history of the Nazi era. It’s a good thing his family left when they did, because they would likely have not escaped later. Many did not.

He probably would not have been on this earth today.

Nuremberg

It’s sad that a city lives in infamy for its worst moments. Thankfully, today, rather than attempt to whitewash the past, the Nuremburg citizens realize that they can use the past as a source of education about what they refer to as “our dark time in history.”

Wikipedia contains a short description about Nuremburg history during this timeframe:

Nuremberg held great significance during the Nazi Germany era. Because of the city’s relevance to the Holy Roman Empire and its position in the centre of Germany, the Nazi Party chose the city to be the site of huge Nazi Party conventions — the Nuremberg rallies. The rallies were held 1927, 1929 and annually 1933–1938 in Nuremberg. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 the Nuremberg rallies became huge Nazi propaganda events, a centre of Nazi ideals. The 1934 rally was filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, and made into a propaganda film called Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). At the 1935 rally, Hitler specifically ordered the Reichstag to convene at Nuremberg to pass the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws which revoked German citizenship for all Jews and other non-Aryans. A number of premises were constructed solely for these assemblies, some of which were not finished. Today many examples of Nazi architecture can still be seen in the city.

We all know what happened next.

As a member of the human race, one my biggest fears is that discrimination, racism and misogyny on this level will once again manifest itself.

Visiting Nuremburg, seeing those places for myself was at the same time sobering and spine-chilling. The cavernous locations of Hitler’s rallies, large enough to encompass a full city block and drive multiple busses around inside the arena. The arena below was filled with people and you’re only seeing about one fourth of the size.

The now-silent cheers of Hitler’s legions of Nazi supporters haunt this place, those who would advance his agenda and follow his lead to condemn millions of Jews and other “undesireables” to death – simply because of how they looked or their religion. Fear-incited genocide propagated by a charismatic leader sewing fear and mass hysteria.

Hitler is known for systematically killing Jews, but they weren’t his only targets. Additionally, he singled out LGBTQ individuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Roma gypsies, Poles and other Slavic peoples, Jehova’s Witnesses, blacks, mixed race “mulattos” and members of political opposition groups. According to the Virtual Jewish Library, Hitler killed more than 11 million people in total – 6 million Jews and 5 million others.

Eleven. Million. People.

Think about that for a minute.

New York City’s’s estimated population in 2016 was only 8.5 million. Eleven million is the size of New York City and Chicago, combined. The equivalent populations of both of those cities, today, died at Hitler’s hands.

In 1986, the Hands Across America benefit united 6.5 million people in a human chain from literally sea to sea. If every person stood 4 feet apart, 6.5 million people would have covered the contiguous 48 states. So, 11 million people standing shoulder to shoulder would stretch about the same distance – or standing at 4 feet – across America – twice.

By Buchoamerica at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4213272

Eleven million is an astounding number. I have to ask myself, how did Hitler, or anyone, manage to convince so many Europeans that the horrific murder of 11 million people was not only alright, but justified, AND convinced them to assist and abet this mass murderer by either willfully participating or turning a blind eye?

And in case you’re feeling particularly self-righteous as an American, our collective hands were not without bloodstain. In 1939, a ship, the MS St. Louis, carrying 937 Jewish refugees sailed from Hamburg first to Cuba, where only 29 individuals were allowed to disembark, and then to Florida and Canada seeking asylum, where the ship was not allowed to dock. The ship’s captain subsequently attempted to find safe haven for his passengers in European ports, having no place left to go, but 254 of those turned away by Cuba, the US and Canada were subsequently killed in the Holocaust after the ship and her 907 remaining passengers (one died in route) were forced to return.

Turning a blind eye to fellow humans is aiding and abetting. Failing to condemn horrific behavior is aiding and abetting.

The poem, “First They Came,” was written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a former Nazi supporter who survived a Nazi prison. His poem addresses the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis‘ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

And then, there are the heroes, like Sir Nicholas Winton who saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazi death camps. For a tear jerker, watch Nicholas meet those children decades later as adults. Just ordinary people – look at them. Get the Kleenex, because you will not get through this with dry eyes, I guarantee. You’re in good company, because neither could Nicholas.

Speaking about Nicholas, the Dalai Lama said,

“We must carry his spirit generation to generation.”

To forget history, or to ignore it, is to repeat it.

Budapest

A few days after Nuremberg, we arrived in the lovely city of Budapest, an incredible combination of the old medieval city shown by the spires in the distance combined with a cosmopolitan modern city that was sporting the international diving championships (the blue scaffold) along the Danube while we were visiting.

Having injured my knee at the beginning of the trip, I was skipping out on many of the walking tours, because I simply couldn’t handle that many hours on my feet.

However, as we returned to the ship after a bus tour in the morning, I noticed the shoes.

The tour guide, busy talking about the diving championships, didn’t say anything about the shoes, but I knew immediately what they were when I saw them.

In 1944 and 1945, 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews, were killed in Budapest by the Hungarian fascist party by being lined up on the banks of the Danube River, ordered to remove their shoes, then shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were whisked away – like so much human rubbish.

By Tamas Szabo at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2054459

The Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial was created with 60 period-appropriate shoes cast of iron and affixed along the riverbank for 40 meters. If all 3,500 pairs of feet had been represented, shoes side by side, the memorial would have stretched for the length of more than a mile.

I walked alone along the riverbank on a sweltering summer afternoon in the middle of a heat wave named Lucifer for its punishing intensity, the sun searing and miserable. This memorial is not something you should be comfortable seeing. Discomfort, as well as pain, was welcome and appropriate – and nothing compared to what those people, and their families, endured.

Can you imagine the fear, the horror of seeing your family members, your parents, your siblings, your children, murdered – and knowing you were marching to your sure and certain deaths? The only unknown was how much you would suffer, and for how long.

And it wasn’t just Jews, but anyone who had the audacity to speak up for what was right, which was politically very unpopular – unpopular to the point of death. Death, intimidation, torture, murder, subjugation and annihilation was the Nazi way.

As my gaze was fixed on the empty shoes representing this waste of humanity, I was struck by how much potential was washed away, not just with these 3,500, but with the 11 million in total. How many never contributed to the good of humanity, but would have? Did the person destined to save us from cancer die? What is the unknown cost to us all?

After all, we all bleed blood – the great equalizer, along with birth and death.

What did we do to ourselves, not only with the wasted lives and unrealized potential of those who died, but with the horrid gash we inflicted upon our own souls?

I didn’t want to look, yet I couldn’t look away. I could see their bodies falling into the water, gasping for breath, hopefully, mercifully, dead by the time they hit the water. I pray their deaths were at least swift.

None of us can afford to look away. We must, in the name of humanity, prevent this from ever happening again.

I spent the afternoon alone, in contemplative silence, although surrounded by other walkers.  I sat behind and among the shoes, reflecting not only upon the deaths of so many innocents, but the challenges we face today in a worldwide atmosphere where rampant hatred and discrimination based on the slight differences of human form and our different religious choices seems to be making a virulent comeback.

I felt shame that we, in a global sense, and as individuals, let this happen. That we failed so many.  We must never let it happen again. We must be wiser now.

More the Same Than Different

The DNA of all humans is 99.9% the same, with very few differences. While we depend upon those differences for genetic genealogy, for the most part, we match every other living human.

Remember how many people whose DNA you match that you didn’t expect and don’t know, but you’re somehow related to?

Think about how many of those 11 million people that died you were related to.

Think you’re not?

I have over 30,000 matches among Ancestry’s data base of 5 million – and even if you generously subtract 25% with the assumption they are false positives, that means that I’m related to about 22,000 of 5 million people I don’t know. That means that I would probably have been related to many of the people who died in the Holocaust, maybe between 45,000 and 60,000 of them. That brings it a lot closer to home.

I’m not Jewish, and still, I’m sure that some of my relatives died.  Assuredly, my husband’s did.

The Future

The Holocaust is no longer simply a lesson in history that happened three quarters of a century ago, it’s a dire warning about what is happening today as well.

Because.

Today we have Charlottesville. The re-emergence of the horrific.

Today we hear, on our own soil, horrible racial and anti-Semitic epithets, espousing hatred and bigotry. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter who leads this country or which party is in power, wrong is wrong.

Hatred is hatred.

Seeds of discrimination and hatred sew discrimination and hatred that leads to violence which is the exact scenario that led to Hitler’s massive genocide.

Refusal to condemn and combat hatred and discrimination on an individual level, as well as a national level, simply begets more of the same. We’ve already seen where that leads. Do we have to go there again?

The recorded history of the world, to date, has been punctuated repeatedly by horrific wars (30 Years War, Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI and II with its atomic bomb, to name a few), slavery (African, Native American, Moorish and English, as a beginning) on every continent except Antarctica, genocide (Native American, Jewish, South American, African, as examples) and the murder and/or displacement of millions of people due to their religious differences (Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, aboriginals, perceived witches and the Crusades for starters).

Not one of us lives today whose ancestors weren’t affected by these factors.

Not. One.

Probably every single one of us had ancestors who were enslaved, killed or displaced – one way or another suffering at the hands of other humans within a genealogical timeframe. On this continent – Acadians, Native Americans and Africans come quickly to mind. In the UK, Catholics and the Irish.  The list goes on – all at the hands of a ruling class that either lost or never had a moral compass.

Are we condemned to repeat that past?

Not on my watch.

Never again.

Not if I can do anything about it.

Not as long as there is a breath in my body.

In the words of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Nelson Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

I hope that our DNA connections show us how much we have in common with others and serve to bring us together as the human race, celebrating our diverse roots and our humanity. Remember, the Momondo DNA Journey where 67 people were tested to celebrate diversity around the world and travel to where their ancestors were from? Take a look, here for one example. It’s an amazing story, really, that challenges pre-conceived notions and biases.

In one participant’s words:

“There would be no such thing as, like, extremism in the world, if people knew their heritage like that.”

We’re all cousins.

Remember The Shoes…

…and pray, pray, that no one ever has to stand in them again.

This time, it could be you.

The Unexpected Bounty of DNA Testing – Friends and Family of Heart

Bill and Sandie Lakner, with me in the middle.

When I first started with genetic genealogy in the year 2000, I was interested in proving (or disproving) specific stories about my Estes ancestors as well as learning more about as many family lines as I could.

I hoped that I would meet new cousins that perhaps would have information that I don’t, and who would be willing to share.

What I never imagined, and I almost hate to admit this, is that I’d find a whole new group of friends.

I have always been a rather solitary researcher, in part because I don’t live anyplace near where my ancestors did. There are no records where I live for what I need to research, so the local genealogy societies hold little allure for me. In fact, in my state, I AM the immigrant, more or less. The ‘more or less” part of that comment will have to wait for another day and has to do with my father being stationed nearby in the military.

Several years ago, when autosomal DNA was added to the genetic genealogists menu, I began to hear from LOTS and LOTS of people. In fact, so many that one of the reasons I introduced my blog and began to write educational articles was as a form of self-defense. Between the blog and the projects I administer at Family Tree DNA, I found myself answering the same questions over and over again, so writing a nice article with graphics where I could refer people seemed like a great idea. Never did I imagine the blog would actually increase the amount of communications, but it did!

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been doing this for 17 years now, almost half of my adult life. I’ve met people at conferences and many have become friends. There are people I’ve been fortunate to find that have my back when I need help or am in some kind of pickle. I know just who to refer to for what topic and I’ve been the beneficiary of MANY excellent researchers and kind souls. I’m grateful to and for every one.

Project administrators and those of us with specialty skills try to help everyone, but demand has been increasing like a tsunami. Now, that’s the good news, because an incredible number of people are testing, but it’s also the bad news because it necessitates brevity sometimes and a standard reply to many inquiries.

Somehow in the midst of this swirl, over the years, I have found new friends that stand apart from the rest and are truly near and dear to my heart. Some have specific interests that are similar to my own, but others, for some reason, have simply become friends, close friends, near and dear to my heart.

I’ve even adopted a new brother, John, not to be confused with my half-brother John. (Yes, I now have my brother John and my other brother John.)

It’s like we were all destined to meet and have been waiting for this moment all of our lives. Once we do finally meet, it’s like we’ve always known each other.

If you’re one of those people, you know who you are. You are my family of heart.

Family of heart becomes increasingly important as your family of blood becomes smaller and smaller and is geographically distant. In my case, exacerbating the situation, I moved away. I’m not alone though, because many other people are displaced too, becoming effectively an immigrant family of one in a new community someplace with no family nearby. Those people are much more likely, I think, to develop family of heart relationships.

E-mail, Facebook and other forms of communications have made distant friendships easier. It’s easier for family to keep current with each other as well.

Bill and Sandie Lakner

Enter Bill and Sandie Lakner, several years ago.

I would like to tell you that I remember the first communication from Sandie, but I don’t. I do know that what began as questions about DNA results years ago has evolved into shared genealogy hunts, finds, discussions about children, grandchildren, pets, movies, gardens and Hurricane Sandy – not to be confused with Sandie.

Our topics jump around like neighbors chatting over the fence.

We don’t “talk” daily, but often and usually electronically.  We keep in touch and have for years now, defying the odds of internet friendships and short attention spans. We check on each other when we know something difficult is happening in someone’s life or bad weather is bearing down.

Then, last week, I received an e-mail from Sandie telling me that she and Bill would be passing nearby while returning home from a visit to Minnesota in the next day or so.

Could they meet us for coffee?

Could they?

I was so excited and was hoping the schedule would allow more than coffee. As luck would have it, our time was limited, but we made the most of it.

The Quest

What fun we had!

We immediately began discussing Bill’s “secret quest,” or better stated, his quest to solve the family secret.

Bill was hoping his trip to Minnesota would yield information, and maybe, just maybe, a descendent of each of the male children of Joseph Lakner (1876-1926) who is willing to DNA test. Yes, we were discussing paternal ancestry and DNA.

More particularly, which of Joseph Lakner’s sons is Bill’s father?

By the way, if you are the child, either male or female, of one of Joseph Lakner’s male children and are willing to DNA test, please contact me (and I’ll put you in touch with Bill) or simply order a Family Finder test through this link at Family Tree DNA.

Social Faux Pas

Genetic genealogists sometimes forget that our topics aren’t entirely mainstream.

As we sat at our corner table in the local Big Boy, excitedly talking, I said to Bill, “You remember, that was my brother who wasn’t my brother…..”

About that time, the server who was entering orders into a computer turned around with a slack-jawed, rather incredulous, look on his face. I think he had to see just WHO was having this discussion, because…you know…”old people” don’t discuss those kinds of things. These kinds of “things” and resulting scandals were invented by the younger generation…said with tongue firmly in cheek.

The server was standing behind Bill, so Bill couldn’t see, but Sandie and I could. I fought laughter, immediately lowered my voice and attempted to do some amount of social recovery, but in the midst of the next sentence that had something to do with my father being married to both mothers at the same time, the server’s head came whipping around again, this time, with him staring over the top of his glassed to garner a better view.

I mean, who *are* these rowdy people anyway, and did they escape from the facility down the street? They are clearly demented. Should I call someone?

Sandie and I both saw this entire exchange and both began laughing uncontrollably, to the point that we couldn’t speak to explain. The look on Bill’s face only made it funnier, and then the server turned around once again and asked if we were laughing at his shock. Then he tried social recovery, but ran out of words and finally just muttered, “Hmmm….” and shook his head.

The entire exchange left everyone laughing to the point of tears. My poor husband was looking around, hoping no one recognized him.

It felt so good to be laughing together – friends who had been friends “forever” but had never met before.

Family of Heart

By the end of our very short hour or so, we were left wishing we were those neighbors who could visit over the fence. If we lived near each other, Sandie would know where everything in my kitchen is kept and vice versa and the guys would know how to start each other’s lawn mowers. Our kids would know each other, and our pets would greet each other like family. We had met our family of heart.

The field of genetic genealogy has truly blessed me in ways that I never expected and could never have imagined. Not only does DNA connect us across the world, literally, the topic of DNA connects us to one another as well.

Initially Bill’s search was to find his paternal family, specifically which Lakner male is his father. It’s a story to rival any soap opera, is still not solved and Bill would love to find the answer.

But never in our wildest dreams did we ever imagine that through this process, we would become family of choice. Sometimes it’s the human part of the connection that is the most important and not the genetics. Sometimes our family of choice is the best family of all!

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April Fool Meltdown Thanks to William Sterling Estes – 52 Ancestors #154

You tell me, is this a good day or a bad day, genealogically speaking?

  • You discover that your father was married under an alias. Ugh, not probably good.
  • You discover the alias that your father was married under. That’s good, sort of.
  • …in a newspaper article about him going to jail. That’s bad.
  • Where his wife testified. Uh oh.
  • Before she divorced him. Ough.
  • Oh, that’s going to jail…again…according to the article. That’s really bad.
  • You discover that your father had yet another, earlier, alias too. Getting even worse.
  • And another, very young, wife. Holy chimloda.
  • Who he married when she was 15 and lied about her age. Not looking good.
  • Before he was arrested the day they married for having intimate relations with her a few days before they were married, according to her mother.
  • Who testified to send him to jail. Marriage didn’t save him. I don’t think his new mother-in-law liked him, at all.
  • A few months later, the young wife divorced him, for cruelty, while he was in prison…asking for her maiden name back…in 1939. Did they even do that in 1939?
  • You discover his prison number…#24884.
  • And cry, for all kinds of reasons.

Who says that ancestors cannot reach from beyond the grave to play April Fools jokes on you?

  • Oh yes, and did I mention I apparently have a half-sister too?
  • Who’s deceased…
  • Whose mother is neither wife above and appears to have been married to someone else when the half-sister (if she actually is my half-sister) was conceived. And yes, she still has two living children who would be candidates to DNA test. No, I have not attempted to contact them.  What exactly do I say, all things considered?
  • At the time my half-sister was conceived, my father was married to the first wife mentioned above. Maybe that’s part of why she testified against him in court???

If you’re saying Holy Smokes about now…uh, me too.

I swear, my family has given me a working example of every possible situation.  Maybe that’s the silver lining. It was already difficult enough to discover that my brother wasn’t my brother. Now this.

Um, I think my father might have been a scoundrel.

I have only one thing to say to my father as I try desperately to unravel and wrap my head around this.

NOT ONE DAMNED BIT FUNNY!!!

It’s OK if you’re laughing. I will be too, eventually, as soon as I get over the shock. But talk about rocking the world as you think you knew it. You know, it might have been easier to simply discover he wasn’t my father. But he is my father, warts and all.

My mantra has always been to “not judge” the ancestors, because you can’t walk a mile in their shoes and you don’t live in the timeframe and society they did.  But I never thought of my father as an “ancestor” in that sense and this would be a lot easier had I not known him.  He died when I was 7 and it’s easy to idolize someone who is gone. I never saw his warts up close and personal, only through others and painful revelations like this.

But look at it this way…you’ll eventually get one heck of an article out of this one. I believe in the truth and it wouldn’t be fair not to share this part of the journey with you too. And I must admit, it IS very interesting!

I’m considering titles for the new article(s):

  • Veritas (hat tip to Rosario)
  • Uncomfortable Truths (hat tip to Shannon)
  • Be Careful What You Ask For (hat tip to my husband who is even more confused than I am, even after the full explanation)
  • Rock My World
  • An Inconvenient Truth (hat tip to Janet)

Other suggestions? What do you think?

It’s certainly an April Fool’s Day I’ll never forget. I would have been happy solving a brick wall, you know, 200 years ago or so. Scoundrels are fun when you didn’t know them personally and you didn’t inherit half of their DNA.