Retracing footsteps by Jennie Milne

‘To be rooted is perhaps the most important, and least recognized need of the human soul’

(The Need for Roots ~ Simone Weil)

I have recently returned from a trip to Warsaw, Poland, at which I presented a talk on the search for my mothers family at the 38th International Jewish Genealogy Conference. I intended to blog whilst I was there but was unable to find the time. I hope to retrace my steps in a series of posts. I may be unable to recapture the intensity of emotion I felt whilst I was immersed in the experience, but since I have returned home my thoughts have been reflective. This has enabled me to begin to process the overwhelming sense of sorrow, joy, and connection I experienced during my 8 day stay- emotion which at the time I did not have the words to express. As they say in Scotland 'Somethings are better felt than telt'.

For those of you who are not familiar with my story and subsequent search, this blog will offer some background. For those of you who are, or who have been part of my journey - please bear with me!

I am a mum of 9. That fact alone lends itself to blog posts to infinity! In this post, I add that information to give you an understanding of my background. I grew up in a very turbulent and  troubled home, and lacked a connection with my mother. My gentle father died tragically when I was 10 years old. My childhood, and that of my siblings was marked by uncertainty and loss. 

I grew up with the knowledge that my mother, born in London in 1943, had been 'left' in a war time babies home in Hope Cove, Devon, when she was less than 2 weeks old, whilst her Polish mother continued to fight in the Polish Army under British Command. The promise her mother made to collect her after the war ended never materialized, and in my mum's words "I was left like a lost luggage parcel'. The babies home was run by Nurse Rose Toms - herself an orphan. She eventually chose to raise my mother as her own child. 

Looking back..

Looking back..

Despite being provided with a stable and loving home, my mother never felt she fitted in. She told me a few months before her untimely death in 2014 that she didn't feel she belonged anywhere. She had no roots, no context to her existence, no relatives to compare herself with or enable her to understand her strong will and restless personality.  All of these factors affected her ability to connect with the large family she created for herself.

My childhood and subsequent adult life was marked by the desire to understand my mother - and myself in relation to her. At times I did not want to belong, I was unsure how to love her, and our relationship came to be the one which defined the way I conducted all others. She shaped me for better or worse. 

Shortly before my mum died, I encouraged her to write down every detail about her background she possessed. I wanted to find her family for her. Sadly however, she became very ill and died before I had begun to search. Standing before her coffin, I realized that although I knew her better than perhaps I knew anyone else, I did not know her at all. It was this absence of knowledge that prompted me to uncover the truth. 

5 short months later, on my birthday,  I found myself in a cafe in Glasgow with renowned Jewish genealogist Michael Tobias and his lovely wife Jane. As a result of my digging, Michael had located my grandmothers records in the Jewish registry books from Stryj, Poland (now in Ukraine). I was Jewish. 

Since that day I have managed to uncover a wealth of information concerning both my grandparents. My Polish catholic grandfather had been a member of the Polish Government before the war, and a member of the government in exile in London following the war. My grandmother originated from a wealthy Jewish family in a place called Drohobych. Her maiden name had been Malie Rothenberg, although she changed names and identities so frequently that a glance at the death certificate for Baroness Helena Konopka would never have identified her.

Over the 4 years I have traced 3 generations of living 2nd cousins  and met 2 of them. My grandmothers 2nd cousin, Rina, my mothers 2nd cousin Alan, and my own 2nd cousins, Sandy and Renata. For me genealogy is a living thing. It provides a connection to history and heritage, roots and relationship. I have always regarded relationships with people to be the most important thing in life. 

So there is a little background. Never did I conceive that 4 short years after I met Michael and Jane Tobias, I would accompany them to Warsaw to speak of my discoveries...especially Warsaw - the most significant and poignant of all places. My grandparents lived in the city and fled in 1939, never to return.

This blog is attached to my photography website. The search I have undertaken has fueled my creativity and desire to connect with others with similar backgrounds and history, leading me to produce documentary work around the themes of memory, heritage, identity and displacement. 

Please feel free to engage with me, ask questions, give insights. ..and follow me so that you may join me as I process and relate this journey- the story of a family shaped by circumstances beyond their control, by hardship and loss - and yet by their desire to rise above and to live. Is that not the human story? 

To be continued...