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My Story

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My kindergarten Halloween party — I’m the ‘Gypsy’ in the second row!  (and my mother claims she knew nothing about our heritage!)

The DNA Test (Part I)

My son and his wife knew for a long time how interested I have been in sorting out our family heritage. Christmas 2007 they gave me a unique and thoughtful gift: a DNA test.

My present just sat on my desk for a couple of months until I finally got around to reading the directions, which turned out to be as simple as scraping the inside of my mouth. The company, FamilyTreeDNA provides the test tubes, scrapers, and pre-addressed mailing envelope.

Once I had sent off the samples, I went on with my life, forgetting about the test until I received a notice on my computer that my results were posted. With great anticipation, I went to the site, logged in with my kit number and password, and made an amazing discovery.

The formal definition of “haplogroup” is “a genetic population group associated with early human migrations and which can today be associated with a geographic region.” Simply put, the term refers to the group of people with whom our DNA markers are identified. My DNA results placed me in haplogroup U3.

What in the world is Haplogroup U3?

Haplogroup U3 and mitochrondrial DNA: (Part II)

The U3 group is distributed throughout Europe, appearing in higher frequencies and greater numbers in Sweden, Georgia, and Bulgaria. U3s are estimated to have originated more than 12,000 years ago, largely in countries that clustered around the Black Sea. A sublineage of haplogroup U3 was perhaps distributed throughout southeast Europe. Research suggests these people were part of the Neolithic expansion that brought agriculture to Europe from the Near East.

As delighted as I was to have my results, I found myself completely baffled because, as far as I knew, no one in my family came from these roots. I wondered if perhaps members of the U3 group had mixed with other national populations.

The very next day, more information of a different sort began showing up in my e-mail box. Apparently I had signed a waiver that gave permission to share my DNA results with others, and I started getting e-mails from people with matching HRV1 and HRV2.

The HRV1 and HRV2 are the two sets of genetic markers in the mitochrondrial DNA. A double match of both the HRV1 and HRV2 means that somewhere in time, you have a maternal ancestor in common with the person who matches you, because mitochrondrial DNA travels down through the generations ONLY through the mothers’ blood lines. The people contacting me with two sets of matching mitochrondrial DNA were from Armenian, Turkish, Syrian, Italian and Rumanian/Ukrainian heritage. Somewhere in time, we share maternal bloodlines.

The plot thickens… I always thought our family origins were German, Finn, and Polish!

Digging Deeper to my family roots (Part III)

One person with matching HRV1 and HRV2 to me specifically asked about my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother’s ethnic backgrounds, a question I could not answer. What did he mean by ‘ethnic’? I decided to get my mother involved since I really didn’t know very much about my great-grandmother. As it turned out, neither did she! But my mother did tell me she had always heard that great-grandmother was born in Luxembourg, but referred to herself as ‘Bohemian’. Bohemia is a geographic area that has been part of Czechoslovakia and East Germany at different times in history. It seemed odd that my great-grandmother was born in Luxembourg (?), so far from Bohemia, but this was all the information I had to go on. I wrote back to my DNA match, citing the fact my great-grandmother was born in Luxembourg, but referred to herself as ‘Bohemian’, wondering what my new ‘relation’ would make of that fact.

The man wrote back, revealing that he was from Gypsy heritage, and told me that ‘Bohemia’ was, in fact, the unofficial state of the Gypsies….didn’t I know that? (Nope, I didn’t.) In addition, he pointed out that since we shared two sets of matching DNA, we share a common maternal ancestor.  He ‘knew without a doubt’ that his maternal blood lines were Gypsy. Now this was something to ponder….

I took that information directly to my mother, saying, “Mother….it appears that WE may be related to Gypsies.” Curiously enough, she didn’t deny that possibility, but claimed to have no details about such a heritage because she had never known her grandparents, or very much about them.

As we have pieced together the story of our heritage, we think we know why we don’t know much about our maternal family roots. My grandmother picked herself up out of a little coal-mining/ mill town located east of Pittsburgh, and went to work in Detroit where she could re-invent herself. She left behind her Eastern European name of ‘Anna’, and became ‘Pauline.’ The only time my mother ever met her grandmother was on the occasion of the death of her grandfather: my grandmother took her three children back with her to Blairsville, Pennsylvania to attend the funeral.

Imagine never knowing such elemental information about one’s own family…..

Finding New Family (Part IV)

Since discovering this startling likelihood our origins could be part Gypsy, I have been engaged in further research and investigation about my family. I have been calling up relatives to obtain more little bits and pieces of information. Whenever I hear the same thing from two different sources, I give it a lot of truth value, because I can find only very little actual documentation in official records.

To date I have learned that my family probably immigrated out of Austria-Hungary, but referred to themselves as ‘Bohemians’ rather than Austrians or Hungarians. Two different family members have confirmed that they were circus performers who somehow ended up working in the mills, mines and machine shops in the industrial towns east of Pittsburgh. I am not sure if they were in the circus in the U.S. or Europe. I think they were probably acrobats of some kind, based on some of the family lore. They were very small, athletic people to the point where a house belonging to some of them had to have its ceilings raised when it sold in order to accommodate the new owners! There were a lot of ‘secrets’ in the family, but Great Aunt Celia was openly living with a man and gave birth to a child whose father was a married man. I do not know if these two men were the same person. She was indeed ‘Bohemian’ in her lifestyle, especially for those years. My great-grandmother lists Luxembourg as her birthplace on a 1900 census, which makes it seem likely that she really WAS born there as this written evidence coincides with what facts family members have repeated about her. I believe that her family was ‘traveling’ for work because these were not people of means.

I engaged the help of a genealogist to track down documents for me: Linda Metzger at http://genealogyresource.synthasite.com/. I highly recommend getting a genealogist to help you track down records because they know where and how to look. It is surprisingly inexpensive and may save you money in the long run because the genealogist knows what records may contain helpful information, and which ones do not.

Normally, a genealogist should be able to track down a lot of records for you but in my case, Linda wound up asking if this family really existed because she could find no documentation of births or immigration into the U.S. The story I hear from relatives is that they entered the U.S. ‘illegally’ somehow, but we don’t know how or why. Birth records were not registered so we only have what information we can find on census and draft cards, which may or may not be true. We cannot even locate some death certificates!

Family members believe the family began its life in the U.S. in Chicago, but other documents place them in the Pittsburgh area. My grandmother was born in Chicago in 1902, so we are still a bit puzzled as to how and why my great-grandmother was in Chicago if her family was in Pennsylvania. She supposedly met great-grandfather in Chicago, marrying at age 17. I find myself wondering if her marriage was ‘arranged’ through someone the family knew in Chicago.

On to Blairsville, Pennsylvania to do some more research….

TinTown (Part V)

I discovered that my grandmother and her family lived in a ‘shantytown’ called TinTown. These company housing projects were sometimes called ‘patches’ in western Pennsylvania. She and her family moved from Chicago when she was still a young child. When she arrived in TinTown, she had never been in school and she could only speak Polish. She was sent to the local Catholic school but only attended for a few years before she went to work in a silk factory in Blairsville.  TinTown was built on the outskirts of Blairsville, just across from the Pennsylvania Plate Glass factory.

Life in TinTown was not as bad as one might imagine. At the Historical Society in Indiana, Pennsylvania, I found an account written by a man who was a first generation American from Croatian background who had lived there. TinTown was a community where everyone knew everyone else. No one there cared much what country you were from. They were all trying to be Americans. Most families kept boarders, new arrivals from the old countries, and the boarders often shared a bed, one working the night shift and the other working the day shift. The front door keys were all keyed to the same lock on each house, but crime was never a problem. There was a ‘tambouritza band’ from TinTown that preformed in the area and gained regional popularity. My grandmother and her sisters attended dances at the Slovak-American Club. They were called ‘Hunkies’ by the local young people, but ‘Hunkies’or not, Grandma and her sisters were very pretty young girls and the local boys used to hang on the street corners whistling to get their attention. I spoke to this author by phone, and it was a great thrill to hear him speak about members of my family whom he knew. This man is now in his early 80’s.

Life in the coal mines, coke mines, machine shops, steel mills and plate glass factory was hard. My great-great grandfather died at age 46, but we don’t know the reason for his death because cannot locate a death certificate. His son died at age 34 in a coal mine accident. My great-grandfather lost his hand in the plate glass factory. Accidents were common. There is a 21-year old man buried next to my great-grandmother with the same surname, with the epitaph on his tombstone that reads: ‘A Young Bohemian killed by a slide of shale’. We think this was Uncle Peter, an older brother of my great-grandmother. A wonderful book that describes the life of these immigrants is Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace. Bell, short for ‘Belejcak’, recounts his Slovak family’s story in this historic account of immigrant labor in western Pennsylvania.

Anyone who shares this family background of being from immigrant labor, no matter what your national heritage, will enjoy this book.

A Historical Perspective on Gypsies (Part VI)

Slovak Gypsies (or Bashalde tribe) immigrated from Austria-Hungary along with the Slovaks to work in the factories and coal mines of the eastern industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Many Gypsies were performers and musicians who entertained at weddings, or special events for the Slovaks/Eastern European people, but generally they came to America for the same reasons as the non-Gypsies: they wanted a better life. Rather than retain their Gypsy identity, they tended to assimilate. I suspect that many Slovak Gypsies identified themselves as belonging to other national groups in order to avoid discrimination. They may have referred to themselves as ‘Bohemians’ which was, in their minds, something different from ‘Gypsy’.

In order to confirm my theory about my family, I ordered a full-genome sequence of my DNA. My DNA is now classified as part of haplogroup U3b. I have read that somewhere east of Armenia, the U3 group mutated and part of the U3 became the subclade U3b the predominant maternal haplogroup of the Gypsies. Whether this is true or not, I do not know, but I have also read that U3b is linked to specific Roma populations. I believe that this U3b haplogroup is a sublineage of U3 found distributed in southeastern Europe.

Using historical facts combined with the scientific evidence of DNA has enabled me to put together a probable story of my ancestors.

My Childhood intuition Finally Makes Sense (Part VII)

The funny part about this whole story is that I have been telling my immediate relatives for YEARS that I believed we had some Gypsy bloodlines. I don’t know if I knew this intuitively – or whether perhaps my grandmother gave me this idea when I was a little girl. I was the oldest grandchild in the family, and spent a lot of time with her in Detroit. We all wore ‘babushkas’ when it rained, and she was very superstitious about things she had sayings for good luck and bad luck, and believed in ‘good’ signs and ‘bad’ signs as indicators of events to come.  She gave me the little red tambourine, which I still have and is photographed on this blog, and as much as she seemingly wanted to separate herself from her family background, I can’t help thinking now that perhaps she was dropping hints left and right!

Today, I think of the red tambourine as a symbol of the mitochrondrial DNA that I carry from all the generations of women in my family that came before me. 

As I think about my great-grandmother, I wonder if she ever thought one day there would be a great-granddaughter who was interested in her and her life. I am so curious to know more about who she was. What was it like to be a young girl who immigrated to the US? What was she doing in Chicago? Was her marriage arranged? There are some things we will probably never know, though I sometimes hope she will somehow communicate this information to me.

My story is just another variation on the many stories of assimilation into the American culture, including the small parts of one’s heritage that ‘sneak in’ with some old world traditions and beliefs, but are over-ridden by the desire of the first-generation to re-invent themselves as AMERICAN. One thing I know for sure because of my ancestors and the hardships they endured, my life is better than they could have ever imagined.

Everyone has a story, and all stories are interesting. Please share your story with me by posting on the blog!

One Response to “My Story”

  1. Leonie Creary says:

    I am truly out of my range here.My girlfriend has given me a book to read about the Gypsies because I was adopted,only found out when I was 40 now 57 that when I found my broth mother she had said my grand parents where both full blood Gypsies,she has passed away and so has my adopted parents.I am very dark skinned and one day my Dr said where did you get that skin colour ,I said who knows so he sat myself down and he started to look up ,first she said they came from Prague!So I am living with out knowing my true father and nothing about my blood family for all have amassed away so I am now going to try your DnA testing .Thanks Leonie

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