Monday, February 19, 2018

Chronicling the Ups AND the Downs in Family History

Hani Simonowitz Schwartz, mother of my grandpa, Tivador "Teddy" Schwartz
After reading this article from Time, about why adults shouldn't shield children from sadness, I decided to write about why family historians owe it to future generations to document both the ups and downs of the past.

Of course we love to trumpet the many success stories (like hubby's great uncles, the famous bandmaster Slatter brothers in Canada). And it's fun to tell younger relatives about the family traditions that we ourselves remember so fondly (like singing the Farkas Family Tree anthem at family meetings when I was a tot).

But every family also has sorrow, struggles, and losses in its history. We may have witnessed grief following a loved one's death or we may have learned about sad or despicable family events from relatives or newspaper articles or other sources.

As genealogists, we owe it to our descendants and relatives to honestly chronicle the lives of our ancestors, both good and bad. It's vital to show younger relatives what formed our family, let them begin to learn about the range of life experiences, and reassure them of the shared strength of our family.

Research shows that children actually benefit from understanding the difficulties faced by ancestors and relatives--and come to believe they can overcome obstacles themselves. Stories are a safe way to begin the learning process, portray ancestors as real people with real lives, and put the past into context for younger folks.

I've written about my husband's great-grandma Mary Shehen Slatter (1837-1889), and her truly heartbreaking tale of being confined in two notorious insane asylums due to a diagnosis of being "melancholy and demented." The cause of her insanity, according to the asylum records, was "misfortune and destitution." She was, it seems, driven insane by poverty and despair. And her children were placed in a workhouse while she was institutionalized.

BUT when I tell their story to my grandchildren, I remind them (with genuine admiration) that Mary's children all went on to live very productive lives. Mary was the mother of the three bandmaster brothers who built brilliant careers and were pillars of their communities, as well as being good family men. If only Mary could have known! Once I found out about Mary's sad life and death (from tuberculosis), I made it my mission to be sure her descendants are aware of the bad and the good in that branch of the family tree.

Another example: In researching my mother's family, no one ever mentioned the many relatives who stayed behind in Hungary when my grandpa Teddy Schwartz (1887-1965) left for America, bringing his brother Sam and sister Mary to New York within a few years after he arrived. All his life, Teddy kept one photo of his mother, Hani Simonowitz Schwartz (see image at top). It must have been painful for him to look back and think about his parents and other relatives he would never see again.

Only through Yad Vashem did I find out that grandpa Teddy actually had many more terrible losses to mourn. I was shocked and dismayed to discover that his other siblings (and their families) were all killed in the Holocaust, his niece being the only survivor. No mention of this tragedy in the family tree minutes, no family stories passed down.

In my mind, I believe the heartache of these losses was why my grandpa Teddy was so insistent that the family observe a moment of silence annually for all the relatives who had passed away in the previous year. That yearly moment of silence--initiated by Teddy and led by him year after year--were recorded regularly in the family tree minutes. Clearly, Teddy believed it was important for the family to at least acknowledge the downs as well as the ups in life.

I agree with my grandpa. Let's make the family aware of the downs, not just the ups. Do we have to publicly disclose everything negative in the tree? No. In fact, there are a couple of stories that I've written for my files only, and mentioned orally but not documented for distribution to the entire family, out of respect for living descendants. (These stories have nothing to do with secrets like "non-parental events," by the way.)

Notice that I'm putting the full stories in my files, to be passed to my heirs after I join my ancestors. The stories won't be lost, and at some point, the historian of the next generation may judge that the time is right to say more to more people.

What do you do with the negative stories you uncover in your tree?


  1. Like you, I tell those stories unless there is something affecting a living person. As you point out, it is important to share tales of overcoming adversity. Even tales where someone could not overcome ignorance or ill-treatment. These are cautionary tales for others now.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I believe we are who we are because of the characteristics we've inherited from our ancestors (strength, determination, compassion etc.) However, I like that you commented about the children going on to have productive lives. That's what happens, life goes on. Great job!

  3. Anna and Becky, thank you for reading and commenting. The question of what to say and how much to say comes up often in the genealogy clubs where I'm a member and at conferences too.

  4. For me, the question is how public to make these stories of adversity and/or less than stellar behavior. For example, I have a great-great aunt who was an alcoholic. I'm going to write about her on my blog but leave that detail out. I'm exploring that part of her life through writing fiction. As much fiction and poetry I've written inspired by family members and actual events could cause problems for descendents in the far distant future, I suppose, if they try to distill facts from the fiction.

  5. Liz, I agree about using discretion when blogging to a public audience. Family members might need to know medical history, but the rest of the world doesn't have to be in the loop. Thanks for mentioning this concern.

  6. You are so right. I have been helped a lot by knowing the stories of my own grandmother's strength after losing her husband before she was 20, finding work to support herself and her child. Then her second husband lost their store and home to bankruptcy in 1929, and had a sort of break-down. She carried on, finding them a place to live and something to cook. Just knowing these things has sort of shamed me into coping better with the "downs" in my own life. I try to share these things with younger generations, although I sometimes wonder whether I'm effective.

  7. I love how you are handling the "downs" in your tree. I especially love that you pass along the good that comes from lives that were hard - like the 3 children of your ancestor who was in an asylum. Thanks for sharing!