I’m searching for the origins of my great-grandfather Bernard Akerman.
I’m searching for the origins of my Jewish DNA.
Increasingly, I’m convinced those two searches will lead me to the same destination.
Family history has become my passion in recent years. I have solved a few mysteries, connected with a few previously unknown cousins, and identified many more new-to-me relatives—and quite a few new mysteries.
My Great-Grandpa Akerman has been one of those mysteries from the get-go.
Early in my research, I found the record of his arrival at the port of Baltimore in 1903, accompanied by his wife and my 19-month-old grandmother. From there, I could document his life in Pennsylvania, where his family settled. I found census records, citizenship records, his Social Security application, his obituary. Findagrave.com told me where he’s buried and even displays a photo of his tombstone.
But of Bernard’s life in Europe, I know almost nothing. I have begun to suspect that he wanted it that way.
Locating a European ancestor’s birthplace is critical to discovering his parents and siblings. Bernard’s American documents say he was born in 1872 in “Hungary” or “Austria,” which until World War I encompassed a vast swath of central and eastern Europe: present-day Slovakia, the Czech Republic, parts of Ukraine and Poland. For my other great-grandparents from Austria-Hungary, I’ve pinpointed birthplaces and even downloaded digital copies of hand-written Catholic baptism records going back 200 years, all from the comfort of my living room. (Thank you, FamilySearch.org.)
For Bernard, no such luck. The only document on which I’ve found a putative birthplace is his naturalization petition, which says he was born in “Darthmouth, Austria.”
As you might imagine, no such place exists.
Did a government clerk mistakenly type “Darthmouth” instead of whatever Bernard said in his heavy accent? Maybe, but search engines don’t produce any “sounds-like” or “fuzzy match” candidates. So did Bernard deliberately obfuscate? I can only say this: in my research so far, there’s no one else for whom I have found such copious American records and yet been stymied on European origins.
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I started working on my family tree in 2010. My interest deepened after my father died in 2012. Ever since health problems forced me to quit working in 2015, research and occasional writing about my family history have been my primary intellectual and creative outlet.
Five years ago, I got my DNA tested. To my happy surprise, it revealed a bit of Jewish lineage—about 8 percent, according to the AncestryDNA estimate. My siblings’ tests revealed similar or larger estimates of European Jewish DNA. So it’s not a fluke.
Having converted to Judaism decades ago, I was excited to learn that I have a trace of the tribe in my genes. But where does it come from? There are no family clues: no half-remembered stories of the grandmother who inexplicably lit candles in a closet every Friday evening, or a grandfather who always kept a jar of gefilte fish in the fridge.
“The more you test, the more you learn,” according to the AncestryDNA ads. I ordered a kit for my mother.
The results were unsurprising: Irish and East European, split roughly down the middle. No Jewish DNA. So it comes from Dad’s side. But how to find it?
Last year, my dad’s youngest brother—the last member of his generation on that side of the family—graciously agreed to spit into the AncestryDNA tube on my behalf. Bingo: Uncle Paul is approximately 23 percent Jewish. Just about one grandparent’s worth.
Which brings me back to Bernard Akerman.
My father and his brothers grew up in the home of their Akerman grandparents, along with my grandparents: Dad’s mother, who was the only Akerman daughter, and her husband, my grandfather. Bernard’s wife, my great-grandmother, died when Dad was small. But Grandpa Akerman, as Dad called him, lived until 1950, when my father was 19.
So Dad knew him well. He’s the one who corrected my impression that Grandpa Akerman was German: he was from Eastern Europe, although he lived in Germany before immigrating to the United States. One time, after I converted to Judaism but before the DNA test, I asked Dad whether his grandfather might have been Jewish. After all, he had a German-sounding name, but he wasn’t German. Could it have been Yiddish?
Dad said he didn’t think so. For one thing, his grandfather didn’t like Jews. (Sadly, that means nothing: ask any Jewish person, and they will tell you about fellow Jews with anti-Semitic attitudes.) For another, Dad said, Akerman was not his grandfather’s birth name: he changed it when he moved to Germany, to fit in better. Dad couldn’t remember the original surname or where his grandfather came from. Maybe Czechoslovakia, he said.
The mystery deepened. Especially when I asked other family members, who had never heard about a name change. On documents that asked whether Bernard had ever used another name, he answered “no.” On his Social Security application, he recorded his father’s name as Joseph Akerman and his mother’s birth name as Barbara—no family name given.
After my DNA test, my thoughts about Bernard’s possible Jewish origins jumped from curiosity to growing belief. I learned the hometown of Bernard’s wife, Pauline Fritsch, in present-day Slovakia, and found multiple generations of Catholic baptism records for her, her parents, and her grandparents. No Jewish DNA there.
Dad’s father was of German descent. I couldn’t find much information about those ancestors, but I did find dozens of DNA matches whom I could trace to that branch of the family—none of them Jewish. At the same time, I had a number of distant DNA matches who tested as 100 percent European Jewish.
That leaves Bernard. My difficulty in tracing him reinforces my belief that he was Jewish and didn’t want anyone to know it. And btw, if someone wanted to disguise his origins with a name change, why would he pick a Jewish-sounding name like Akerman? He’d more likely go with Smith—which is exactly what Dad’s German grandfather did, leaving Schmidt to his parents.
Frustrated in my head-on efforts to find Bernard’s birthplace or parents, I decided on an indirect route. Very, very indirect.
Separate from my main family tree, in which I can document most of the connections, I am building a speculative Ackerman tree, now at 641 people and growing. I don’t yet know how most of those people are related to each other, let alone how they’re related to me. It’s not even a real tree: it’s more of a bush, with individual branches growing straight from the ground. Only last week did I discern the beginning of a central trunk that might connect the branches.
The first shoot in this bush sprouted when I found a DNA match, 97 pecent Jewish, whose own family tree showed an ancestor named Gertrude Ackerman. By emailing this person, I learned a little more—enough to determine that several other DNA matches are his cousins, descended from the same Gertrude (actually Gittel) Ackerman and her husband, Zalman Hersh Stern. I created a tree called Gittel Ackerman and started researching their descendants.
Soon I learned a new surname: Feuerstein. Gittel and Hersh’s daughter Anna Stern married Morris Feuerstein. Morris’s sister Gussie Feuerstein married Morris Stern—a grandson, I eventually discovered, of the same Hersh Stern and his previous wife. Gussie and Morris Feuerstein’s brother Max married a woman named Ackerman.
And it gets more complicated from there. A lot more complicated. These families—all from the area around Munkacs, Hungary (now Mukacheve, Ukraine)—are completely intertwined. Everybody married a cousin. And they all have the same handful of first names, probably named after the same deceased relatives.
That intertwining makes the research confusing, for sure. But in a different way, it helps: when I find a “new” Ackerman, or Feuerstein, or Stern who’s a first-generation American or earlier, there is a very good chance that their spouse is also a relative. In fact, I’m working on the assumption that all of the Ackermans, Feuersteins, and Sterns from the Munkacs area are related to those who share their surnames—and, however distantly, are connected to me.
This assumption is probably wrong, and so I try to focus my research on branches where I (or Uncle Paul, a generation closer to our Jewish heritage) have a DNA match. At the same time, the everyone’s-related theory is probably more often true than false, and it generates a lot of new leads.
Over the summer I added another surname, Rosner. This came from emailing a distant DNA match who is descended from Abraham Rosner and Gittel Ackerman, who lived in a different part of the Munkacs area. Several other Rosners are also matches. I’m still trying to determine whether the two Gittels are the same person. Abraham Rosner died early enough that his widow could have remarried Zalman Hersh Stern and had a second family. Probably not, I think. But still unknown.
Indeed, most of my theories are yet unproven—including the very premise that Bernard Akerman was Jewish. However, unless Bernard was not my grandmother’s biological father, which would make my task infinitely harder, I truly don’t see any other possible sources for my Jewish DNA. A lot of circumstantial evidence suggests that I’m on the right track.
Also, I need to believe I’m on the right track; otherwise, my zeal for the hunt would diminish. At the same time, I have to recognize that my hypothesis could be wrong. Tracking all of these Ackermans and Sterns, Feuersteins and Rosners might be a wild goose chase.
It is definitely a Wild Geese chase. And that’s a good thing.
This blog takes its name from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese,” which is about finding your place in a world that can feel burdensome and indifferent. In particular, “Wild Geese” confronts me with this line: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” To me, that means: allow yourself the pursuits and practices, the people and places that help you be yourself and remember who you are.
So hunting for Grandpa Akerman and my Jewish roots is a Wild Geese chase, possibly a wild goose chase, part of my ongoing effort to discover where I come from and who I am. That is my Mary Oliver Challenge.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.