"They were just Jews from New York City." As far back as I can remember, that was the story I heard about my father's mother's family. My grandmother Ann Aschermann was born in New York in the 1920s, her mother was born in New York, and that was that. But that was wrong.
My uncle Tony has an encyclopedic memory, a cerebral archive of every last detail of his and my father's upbringing in Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s. What brand of toothpaste did they use? How much did pickles cost in the deli on the corner of 18th street and 1st Avenue? He knows it all, but he never knew why he was named "Anthony," not the most common first name for a New York City Jew. My father Jeffrey and he were named after two long-dead aunts they'd never met, close relatives of my grandmother's named Annie and Josephine. That was all they knew.
About a year ago I got a call from my father. "Tony remembered the last name of the aunts we were named after. It just came to him." At that moment, at the age of 36, my sum total of understanding about my family history went like this:
I came from eastern European Jews on both sides
My mother's parents came to New York after World War II, where they had survived years in a concentration camp in the Romanian-Ukraininan region called Bukovina. Their parents had died in Europe during the war.
My father's parents met in New York City after my paternal grandfather emigrated from Vienna.
A missing piece of the story was about to get filled in: "Their name was Jacobowsky," my father said.
If I knew little of my family history at that point, I knew far less about genealogy. I had always thought of it as the obsessive discipline of compulsive nerds, primarily. Historians, academics. I didn't realize I was on the cusp of joining them. As a clueless amateur, I did what came naturally: I went to the New York Times website and searched for "Jacobowsky." No results. I gave up.
A few days later my father mentioned in passing that the Times was offering subscribers of their print addition the chance to "gift" a digital subscription to one or two other people, so I took my dad up on the offer. Full subscriber access meant I'd be able to search the entire Times archive back to the 1850s or so. I figured that if any Jacobowksy from New York had made the Times at any point since 1850 or so, I'd find him there. I was right.
John David Jacobowsky died at his residence on West 84th street in New York City on February 11, 1897. He was my great-great-great grandfather, and before he died wealthy and successful in New York after years spent selling horse harnesses (aka "buggy whips"), he was a forty-year veteran of life in the deep south, an expat from Prussia and southwest Mississippi.
Soon I would discover another truth about the man I began to call "The Big Jacobowksy": he was a cotton plantation owner, a Jew who owned slaves.
Discovering my family's supremely unlikely link to the Big Jacobowksy and the Deep South was just the start of the revelations I've uncovered in my brief time as a genealogist. It turns out my family has direct ties to soldiers who served in the Civil War and the American Revolution. Maybe I just had beginner's luck, but I've found the process fascinating, illuminating, and addictive from the start.