Off the Shelf: Writers sleuthing skills dig up hidden family histories

Somehow, I ended up becoming my family’s unofficial genealogist. When there is a question of how someone is related to someone else, I get a call. It’s a role I actually enjoy, but it has also led me to the sad realization that the hundreds of names and webs of relationships stored on my computer (and updated on the occasion of a birth, death or discovery) are the low-hanging fruit of family history. What I long for are the stories behind the names, and it saddens me that so many of them have become lost to me and subsequent generations.

I am certainly not alone in this realization, and there has been a subgenre of Jewish authors and scholars turning their attention to their families to reconstruct a past that had been lost to silence or oblivion.

Notable works include Helen Epstein’s “Where She Came From,” Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost,” and Nancy K. Miller’s “What They Saved.” All incorporate some combination of research, travel, interviews and, in Miller’s words, “urban archaeology” to illuminate the past and give greater meaning to the present.

This fragility of our connection to the past is at the heart of Doreen Carvajal’s new book, “The Forgetting River.” As she writes, “When stories die, we can’t remember who we are or why we are here.”

Carvajal, a Paris-based veteran reporter for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune, grew up in the Bay Area in a Catholic family. As an adult, it came to her attention that the paternal side of her family, who had emigrated from Costa Rica, may descend from Spanish Jews who had converted to Christianity but never lost their Jewish identity.

The revelation led Carvajal, who had never developed much affinity for Catholicism, to embark on a quest for answers about the family’s Jewish background. 

There are many clues in her family, but, unfortunately, her search is hobbled by bad timing. The women of her grandmother’s generation — including a great-aunt in Costa Rica who kept a menorah in her home and had testified to their Jewish background — seem to have been the final keepers of this knowledge, and they had all died by the time Carvajal began her research.

Undeterred, Carvajal cuts an unconventional path: She takes up temporary residence in the Andalusian mountain town of Arcos de la Frontera in order to absorb its deep history and the ghosts of the Inquisition. She is drawn to the remnants of the Jewish past that endure silently and sometimes subversively. She finds these vestiges in religious artwork, musical traditions, and even in Spain’s ubiquitous ham, whose exaggerated role in Spanish culture may have developed during the Inquisition, when eating pork signified a public repudiation of Judaism and Islam.

Surveying documents now housed at U.C. Berkeley, Carvajal also delves into the long reach of the Inquisition in the New World, including the torture and murder of nine members of the Carvajal family in Mexico City in 1596 for secretively practicing Judaism. While she is unable to connect the dots as she would like to, she offers a compelling picture of a profound and often tragic legacy shrouded in secrecy.

Like Carvajal, former New York Times reporter Leslie Maitland applies her investigative skills to her own family.  In “Crossing the Borders of Time,” she complements interviews with her mother with extensive research and travel to create an exhaustive account of her family’s journey through painful trials and losses.

Born in 1923, Maitland’s mother grew up as Hanna Günzburger in Freiburg, Germany, but eventually took the name Janine out of affinity for France, where the family moved in 1938. Maitland’s account of the family’s efforts to survive in Nazi-occupied France is riveting. Eventually making an 11th-hour departure out of Marseilles in 1942, they journey to Cuba, where they are initially kept under terrible conditions in a refugee camp. A year later, they reach New York, where they settle in Washington Heights.

The book’s twist emerges from Janine’s passionate relationship with a young Catholic named Roland Arcieri during the family’s years in France. Torn apart by the war, the two had pledged to marry once they were reunited. But many factors prevented their union, not the least of which was the fact that Janine’s father intercepted and destroyed Roland’s letters because he, along with other family members, objected to their romance. The two went on to marry others, but Janine’s love for Roland was undying.

Once Janine’s husband was close to death in 1989, Maitland, who was aware of her mother’s enduring feelings, sought out Roland’s whereabouts. The last part of the book recounts this quest and the unlikely rekindling of the couple’s relationship a half century after their tearful parting at the port of Marseilles.

The book is quite long — some readers will surely wish it had fewer history lessons, while others may wish it had spent less time on the romance. But its strength comes through its detailed telling of the profound impact of war on one woman’s family.


Howard Freedman is the director of the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.  All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.


“The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition” by Doreen Carvajal (320 pages, Riverhead, $26.95)

Doreen Carvajal will give a talk at 7 p.m. Tues., Nov. 13 at the BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., San Francisco.

“Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed” by Leslie Maitland (512 pages, Other Press, $27.95)

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.