From Wuhan to Warsaw: The Jewish Obsession With Family Trees Yields Unexpected Results

'A nation of migrants always wants to know where they came from': When your boss turns out to be a cousin, seven times removed

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איור היהודי הנודד  מאיירת: טל גוטברג
Credit: Tal Gutberg
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir
Itamar Katzir

This story begins in 11th century Portugal, but I’d like to start in July 2021, in Tokyo. En route to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, the three Haaretz correspondents assigned to cover them, Amnon Harari, Uzi Dann and myself, stopped for a selfie. The photo made its way to social media and a few hours later, a message appeared on the Facebook group called “Descendants of the Harlap family” to which I belong, being a Harlap on my mother’s side.

A user calling himself “Ofer China” posted: “The family now has two representatives in Tokyo. Avraham and Feige Harlap are their progenitors from eight generations ago. Itamar Katzir and Amnon Harari are seventh-degree cousins. Just for that the Harlap family deserves a gold medal.” (Some of the greater Harlap family members spell their name Charlap.)

It would be a stretch to say that Amnon and I are close; our common ancestor was born in 1640. But this story became an anecdote which says a lot about our shared family, the “Harlaps,” which is a Hebrew acronym meaning “Haya, head of the exiles in Poland,” or “Haya, head of the exiles in Portugal,” no one really knows. In any case, the name refers to a paterfamilias called Haya, who lived sometime around the 12th century and was close to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, with his descendants being associated with Portugal’s king. The genealogy is right there in the family’s name.

This still doesn’t explain why for us Harlaps, researching our family tree is a shared obsession. Is it just us? Or is this the story of the Jewish people in general?

Efraim Harlap and his grandchildrenCredit: From the private collection of Yael Pessach

From Portugal to China

Until 2020, I didn’t know who “Ofer China” might be. He turned out to be Ofer Dekel, 61, and lives in Wuhan, China. Delving into family genealogy was a result of the pandemic. “During lockdown you think about family; a lot of philosophy goes through your mind and you say to yourself: wait a minute, I have some family on my mother’s side which is so glorious, amazing and famous. Let’s do some research on it.”

Dekel signed up with MyHeritage, an Israeli company that engages in family trees, and tapped his historian brother Gil Dekel, who lives in London, for help. He also approached some others.

“Luckily, since I became somewhat known during the corona pandemic, I turned to people on Facebook who saw that I was called ‘Ofer China’, so they replied. That way I gathered an endless number of people. We opened a Facebook group and it continued to grow,” he says.

The Dekels aren’t the only ones in the family delving into their history. My grandfather’s sister Yael Pesach is responsible for the family tree at the ANU-Museum of the Jewish People at Tel Aviv University, formerly known as the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora.

An aerial view shows low water level in Yangtze river amid a heatwave warning in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, last month.Credit: CHINA DAILY/REUTERS

“I retired in 1994,” she says. “One of the courses I took was at the museum. By chance, on one occasion they introduced us to the head of the genealogy department. ‘I only have two Harlaps here,’ she said,’ and their names reached the museum only through marriage.’ I then decided I was going to do a project on my family, the family of my grandfather Efraim Harlap.”

That Efraim Harlap was among the founders of the city of Rehovot. But Aunt Yael reached much further than that. “We used to have only one phone book for the entire country. I sat down and wrote down the numbers of all the Harlaps in the book,” she recounts. “I called and told them who I was and that I wanted to construct a family tree. Many replied, some didn’t. After a few years they said they needed help. Their father had died and they were looking for family members.”

The fact that many members of the extended family immigrated to Palestine decades before World War II helped the family and its history survive.

She displays an immense amount of documents and records relating to the family: a photo of grandfather Efraim with all his grandchildren who fought in WWII; an original pedigree list he had received from his father, with the first version created by Rabbi Efraim Zvi Hirsch Harlap, who died in 1849, with a version of that still passing from generation to generation in our family; and mainly, a thick tome written by a New Yorker called Arthur Menton, published in 1966 and relating the family’s history, as well as another book that includes the branching of the family tree. It includes no fewer than 18,000 Harlaps. One of the latest names to be added was in 1996, Itamar Katzir.

Moving around

A tree with eighteen thousand names is exceptional, but our family tree at “ANU” isn’t a record breaker.

“There are 1,307 names on the tree managed by Ms. Pesach, but it’s not one of the largest,” says Haim Ghiuzeli, the director of the museum’s databases department. “There isn’t a single Jewish family in the last 120-140 years which hasn’t moved around at least once, explains Ghiuzeli, touching on the interest in Jewish genealogy. “Jewish migration is one of the things since the end of the 19th century affecting every family. Around 99 percent of all Jews around the world don’t live where their forebears lived 120 years ago. A nation of migrants always wants to know where they came from. This doesn’t happen with the first generation, but rather in the second and certainly by the third generation and onward.”

Efraim Harlap's willCredit: From the private collection of Yael Pessach

Genealogical tools have meanwhile improved, such as internet, where there is a lot of accessible information, sometimes for free, says Ghiuzeli. “Before that most people couldn’t think of where to search.” Now sites such as Ancestry or MyHeritage help build the family tree online, plus there are collections of historical documents, not just of Jewish families and communities.

According to MyHeritage figures, more than one million Israelis use its services (out of its 101 million users worldwide), and the company’s database now includes 18 billion historical documents.

One of the latest additions, for example, is a collection of 228,241 documents relating to the emigration of Austrian Jews in 1938-1939. I ran my great-grandmother’s name through the database. I didn’t find her there. It was worth trying though.

A tourist visits La Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa, on the Island of Djerba, southern Tunisia.Credit: Mosa'ab Elsham / AP

Me? Part Ashkenazi?

In recent years, this whole business took another leap forward with the advent of commercial DNA testing. People buy kits, do a home test, and send samples back to a company that analyzes them. It finds out your genetic origins and connects you to family members with various degrees of affinity who have done similar tests. These tests, incidentally, are illegal in Israel, but many Israelis swab themselves and sent their samples overseas.

“I was just curious,” says Jaime Shalom, who did a test with the “23andme” company. The test didn’t show that he had Turkish origins, even though he was born in Turkey, but it did reveal new details. “I found out that I was 22 percent Ashkenazi; we didn’t think we had such genes. All sorts of things cropped up – Egyptian, Moroccan and perhaps a bit of Persian. We though our origins were with Jews expelled from Spain or Portugal, and then suddenly we had connections to other places,” he says.

The genealogical line Efraim Harlap received from his fatherCredit: From the private collection of Yael Pessach

The test led the family to an old-new connection. “My mother received a message from someone with 8 percent shared DNA, a second-degree cousin,” he says. “The story is that a sister of my great-grandmother fled Turkey in World War II. They flew to Cuba and from there to Miami. My brother knew about her, and when he was 18, he met her in the U.S. We lost contact with her later, but several months after getting her message we met. I personally wasn’t emotional, but there was a lot of emotion there.”

Yet, DNA testing is not a substitute for genealogical research. “These tests are good when there is some extra information,” says Ghiuzeli. For example, he says, when two people share a family name and know that their families came from the same region, a test can confirm their genetic proximity, but it can’t build a tree on its own. Furthermore, the CEO of 23andme, Anne Wojcicki, admitted in 2020 that the company’s database still lacks genetic information from non-European sources.

Aleksandra Sajdak, who works in the genealogical department of Poland’s Jewish Historical Institute, is very familiar with the obsession with genes. Thousands of people turn to her every year in order to research their origins.

“DNA tests are a new excuse for such research,” she says. “People, especially during the corona pandemic, when we were under lockdown at home, did such tests in Poland, finding that 25 or 50 percent of their genetic load is Jewish-Ashkenazi. They want to know what this means. I meet people obsessed with genealogy, sometimes dangerously so. These aren’t only retirees who now have time to research. There are a lot of obsessive young people as well.”

Sajdak isn’t impressed by the DNA trend. On the contrary. “I did a test but at some point, I withdrew my data, since I was tired of getting 20 emails a week. ‘I’m your fifth-degree cousin,’ and I’m such-and-such; great, amazing, hats off.’ I suppose that if we dig deep enough, we are all linked somehow, Jews and non-Jews, people on this continent and on others; everyone can find one common ancestor. I’m more interested in personal stories, in people, more in history than in numbers. I don’t need 25,000 fifth-degree cousins. I don’t deny their existence, but I’d rather know why my grandmother was sad in 1961, for example.”

Mother's identification

Dealing with recent history is what made Sajdak turn to genealogy. “My mother never said [she was Jewish]. In her mind, she was a Pole with Jewish roots. That was it,” she says. “I think I’m the first one since the war to say ‘I’m Jewish.’ So, I started to wonder what happened to them? Why didn’t grandmother have brothers or sisters?”

Thus she became the person other people come to in order to discover their own stories. “It might sound like a cliché, but I think people often want in some manner to close a circle, especially with regard to older generations, and mainly in Israeli and American families. They come, for example, with three generations: a Holocaust survivor, a daughter and granddaughter. They connect the dots, trying to understand Poland, to understand why their forebears lived here for 500 years. They’ll go to places they lived in, to places they got married in. We encounter so many beautiful stories, and we’ve met some amazing people, but sometimes it’s unpleasant and challenging, with people who have only bad memories, and suddenly they’re here, having to contend with it. Some of our work involves sleuthing, some of it is more like psychological work.”

There are no documents in 90 percent of cases relating to murder and extermination during the Holocaust, Sajdak says. “People think there are lists of people who were sent to Treblinka, but there aren’t. There never were. The loss is forever. It’s challenging and sad, and that’s the reason I think people want to collect more names, more relatives, so that they will somehow be remembered.”

Like Sajdak, Ghiuzeli sees a human need to complete a story as underlying the intense interest in genealogy. “It’s part of everyone’s basic curiosity, to know where they come from,” says Ghiuzeli in explaining his creed. “Some people make do with a short answer, but others want a more complex one. There always was such searching, particularly among Jews. You can open the Bible and see a lot of genealogy there, with whole dynasties. Ever since Biblical times, Jews were documenting their family histories.”

The Harlaps are one of those families. The family tree scroll that has been passing from generation to generation for hundreds of years is based on Biblical “genealogy.” Apparently, this obsession, like the scroll, also passes from one generation to another. “At first, I couldn’t let it be,” says Dekel. “Each time I found another relative, it was pure joy. When I realized I was getting sucked into it even though I still had to make a living here and there, I decided I’d do it only on weekends. Otherwise, it never stops.”

In the meantime, he enjoys the discoveries, faint as the connections may be. “I’ll surprise you now,” he declares, and succeeds: “George Best [one of the best-ever soccer players] is a relative. He married a Harlap woman. George Best, do you get that?” George Best!”

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