My family’s ancestral roots are in Transylvania—known more for its Dracula legend than the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans, like my father’s parents, who had made it their home beginning in the twelfth century. One hundred years ago, my grandfather headed for America from that stunning land of rugged mountains and lush valleys, armed only with youthful optimism, confidence, and a fierce work ethic, determined to succeed in America. My grandmother followed, and they built a life interwoven with the historical events of the decades to come.
I knew the broad outlines of the family story, but details were scant. Until I started the Dig.
After my mother’s death in 1994, (Dad had died five years before), my brothers and I dug through the artifacts our parents left behind, separating trash from treasure. We found the latter, tucked into the corners and cobwebs of their attic. A trove of diaries, letters, documents, scribbled notes, and photos had lain entombed for decades. Relating on a personal scale to Howard Carter’s utterance at his first glimpse into King Tut’s tomb, we, too, felt we were seeing “wonderful things”—the detailed gems of family—and twentieth century—history.
So many in my family were compelled to write: letters to and from the homeland spanning almost seventy years, close to 300 letters exchanged with my uncle, Lt. Frank Gartz, a B-17 navigator in World War II, diaries dating from the 1920s to the 1980s. All these missives and journals reflect on the personal and historical: World War I, the stock market crash, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the 1950s, racial strife and riots of the 1960s in our changing neighborhood of West Garfield Park, and into the ’70s and ’80s.
During the last several years, I’ve pored through the written records of several lifetimes, making astonishing discoveries along the way. What has been laid bare is not just my family’s secrets, but the kind of drama, joy, sadness, and triumph that underlie all our families’ experiences. Their records reveal the daring-do of youth and young love, labor, laughter, madness, illness, war, death, riots, generational tugs-of-war, and marital strife. The experiences may be particular, but the themes are universal–now known only because my family refused to relinquish its history to the trash heap of time.
As the Family Archaeologist, I’ll be sharing with you not just letters and diaries that span much of the last century, but also the excitement of discovery and revelation that sparks my archaeological dig. I hope these finds will create a resonance with your own family’s past and engender curiosity about how history is not just textbook dry, but the fabric into which our families’ lives are woven.
This is not a genealogical site per se, but in the course of unraveling the past, I’ve turned to many genealogical resources: Ancestry.com, census reports, ships’ manifests, death notices, gravestones, interviews with family and friends, and a roots-finding pilgrimage to my grandparents’ home towns in Transylvania, where some startling discoveries awaited my brothers and me.
Stick with me, and through the power of recorded words, you can experience the lives of real people as they were really lived. Without the fakery or hype, it’s a “reality show” of the last century.