Reading Austerlitz has been a major experience in my life, for the literary quality of the novel which I hope to discuss another day. What I have to say now is not why I am so impressed with the novel. Still, it is odd that the year’s events have placed me in a Sebald-like position.
I did not expect my father’s Y-DNA to be Ashkenazi (I thought this heritage was only on his paternal great-grandmother’s line), and I did not expect the alleged Belgian origins of our name to be in and near the Pale of Settlement. I did not expect to find the names of my 2d great grandfather the immigrant, and his father (b. 1797), and his father (b. 1773), to be recorded in the list of the Czar’s Jewish troops, Mitau-Jelgava. I did not realize that the Baltic countries were where the Final Solution was carried out the most completely, nor that I would contemplate the names of probable cousins in the lists of the dead. There were even people with my name at Theresienstadt.
From September to March I discovered all the Russian documents, which are not mysterious, but only new. From March to now I have been looking at the Latvian traces, which are far closer to me, but also much more shadowy. If I were W. G. Sebald I would illustrate these comments with a reproduction of the reproduction of the passport I found (but have misplaced) of a cousin in law, as it was turned in to police, Riga 1941.
Getting intimate with the Holocaust: the first step was realizing, by reading the Russian papers (which I must read with Google Translate, which makes me the decipherer of a distant world, as is the character Austerlitz) and realizing that some relatives of ours had been shot by the Gestapo because they were Jews and living in Crimea, which was occupied. I knew there were Jews in the family, but had not thought of this. The next, larger step was realizing how Jewish the family really was, including my direct ancestors (not just cousins by marriage, or people in other branches). This led to looking for more remote ancestors in Jewish databases. I learned that the records I was looking for, from the 18th century and earlier, had been burned, and the reconstruction focused on the twentieth century dead. It was in those lists I saw my name.