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reading tiger

The Krakowskis, DNA, and family stories

So I told my mother about my little adventure with the Krakowski* surname earlier this week, in the guise of asking for her Ancestry.com login so I could poke around the search results a little more closely. Again, not for any direct family tree research but just for fun.

I mentioned Shmuel Krakowski, he of the "egregiously misquoted by Holocaust deniers" fame, and idly discussed how frequently the surname was clearly Jewish in origin. *Just* how frequent was part of what I was toying with the other day.

Mom reminded me in response that she'd sent in DNA samples for testing to that National Geographic project awhile back.

Guess what the results were?

Some of you here know that there's a persistent story in my family about our possible Jewish background. On paper, my father's family is German and Norwegian, but there have been persistent weird stories about the Germans. Dad reports, for example, that older members of his family used to get together and speak in a language that wasn't German, English or Polish (the latter of which he spoke thanks to his next-door neighbor). My great-great grandfather left Germany "to avoid military service," we're told, and coincidentally right when a bunch of German territories de-pacified their Jewish populations upon joining together under Prussian rule. And so on and so forth. (Also now that I think of it, the family didn't eat much pork either.)

It's been difficult to sort out how much of this is plausible and how much of it is, well, wishful thinking on the part of my father. My father has always had an interest in Jewish culture and apparently seriously considered converting early in his adulthood, but then again he also very considered joining the Air Force --his eyesight kept him out -- and if you know my father you are quite possibly falling out of your chair giggling right now at this particular factoid. Also, the stories more or less all came from him and his sister as far as I can tell, although older relatives on that side of the family are, shall we say, unreliable in their own ways. So we were always inclined to take all this with a big grain of salt and otherwise file it away.

I will tell you, however, that this whole thing has put into a different perspective the whole thing about how My Ancestor Krakowski "was not Polish! She was German!" that my grandparents always used to sputter on about. For years I laughed behind my hand at that one, for obvious reasons like having a Slaviform surname. But now I am going o_O as the emoticons say.

Or, as Steven put it, we are now in Mythbusters territory: "Plausible!"

This is really all just trivia -- the stories we tell ourselves, that have no meaning other than in the telling. In the back of my mind is a remark I ran across recently about how American white folks of certain backgrounds really cling to their identity as, say, "Irish!" even when they're 150 years-plus removed from Ireland. But on the other hand I have living memory of my great-grandfather -- our generations were v. short up until me. And his father is the one who emigrated. So there we are.

* In my family's case, also Krankowsky, Kranskowsky, Kranzhofsky, and Kranz. My favorite were the two siblings with two different variations of the same last name. I am amused to think that she actually got relief from variant spellings by marrying a Selke. Well, some relief, anyway...


This story seems very familiar to me, of course. Though the presumably German part of my family seems to have turned out to be, well, not-Polish (Sorbian).

I have been fascinated reading the occasional psots at Languagehat about the state of ethnic and linguistic diversity and intercombination in Eastern/Central Europe in the period of my family's emigration (from the aftermath of the 1848 revolution to the aftermath of the 1906 revolution, roughly, depending on which polyp we're thinking about)

For me, contemplating this mess, and the terrible terrible history it's part of, is a large contribution to this mess of a novel I'm working on now. Watch out -- it could happen to you.
It did occur to me that considering the geography, that mysterious language could be Sorbian.

Or any of a raft of other West Slavic dialects, acknowledged or not, possibly even an obsolete one, or an idiosyncratic pastiche of West Slavic and German that some villagers cooked up for their own delight. The polyglot nature of the area is another thing that's driving my narrative, of course.