MyHeritage members come from around the world and they are some of the most interesting people we know. Today we’ll explore Susan Soyinka’s journey that took her back 200 years, more than eight generations and across four continents.
Susan, 68, was born in Nottingham, England today lives in Penzance. Married with three children and five grandchildren, she has degrees in psychology, French and child psychology.
She has been a teacher, lecturer and researcher, and spent 10 years in West Africa. Returning to the UK, she became an educational psychologist. After discovering her Jewish roots, she worked for London’s Jewish community. Now retired, she has the time and energy to develop a new career as a writer and has two published books, one about her family history.
Her mother, Lucy Smetana Fowler, was a Viennese Jew who fled to Nottingham to escape Nazi persecution in 1938. Although she lost most of her immediate family, she spoke little of her experiences for decades.
In 1995, I learned for the first time of other members of the extended family who had survived and were now scattered around the world. Thus began an 18-year search for my mother’s family, and for the story of what had happened to them during that dreadful era.
Throughout my life, I had known only the barest details about my mother’s background. Whenever I tried to ask questions, her reply was always, ‘I don’t want to talk about it, it is all too painful.’
Towards the end of 1994, she bought her husband, Kayode, a practising Christian, a leather-bound Bible for his 50th birthday. At the front was a chart in which to write the family tree, but she didn’t even know the first names of her maternal grandparents.
To fill in the chart, I once again started asking my mother questions, and this time got some hesitant answers. What emerged was that she had had two uncles and an aunt who had fled to different parts of the world with their families.
Susan was utterly astounded to hear that members of the family had survived, and over the next few weeks, desperately tried to track down anyone with the family name Smetana, around the world. One number was that of a Dr. Dennis Smetana in New York, but initially, she couldn’t get through to him.
In early 1995, there was a lot of media coverage of the end of the war, and in particular, the commemoration of 50 years since the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.
I was moved by the television reports to suggest to my mother that we should go to the synagogue to honour her family. Inevitably it was extremely moving and when we returned home, I was prompted once more to ring the New York number. This time, Dr. Smetana answered and when I explained that I was looking for my mother's family and that she had an Uncle Otto who had gone to New York and set up a dry cleaning business, the astonishing response was: ‘That was my grandfather. You have found us.’
From that point, it was only a matter of weeks before Susan traced the rest of the family: Five living first cousins of her mother, three in Australia and two in America.
In April 1995, we received a visit from my mother's cousin Helga from Australia, followed in May by a visit from cousin Gerda, also from Australia, and in September from her cousin, Lori, from New York.
Astonishingly, Susan’s mother had no recollection of any of her cousins other than Ully, Helga's older sister, so meticulously had she buried her past. But they remembered her and brought photos taken in the late 1920s to prove it. One in particular portrays my mother playing happily with her cousin Helga.
Helga brought with her an exquisite cut glass bowl.
Helga gave this to my mother with the words "Your father gave this to my mother many years ago. She gave it to me when I was married, and it has been sitting on my dressing table for 53 years. And now I am giving it back to you.”
Over the next few years, the detective trail continued. Little by little, Susan pieced together the broader family history. Following her retirement at the end of 2005, she was able to give the task more time.
In September and October 2006, I went to Vienna for the first time with my daughter Bambo. We visited the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, the Jewish archives in Vienna, and also many of the former homes of my mother’s family. The most moving occasion was our visit to the grave of my grandfather, Fritz Smetana, who had committed suicide in 1938. Much of what I learned during that visit was further supplemented by research carried out in the Czech Republic in 2011, using, for the first time, professional genealogists.
By this point, I thought my research was complete. However, during 2011, I also received, to my astonishment, some 3,000 pages of Nazi documents from the Austrian State Archives, from which I learnt the fate of several family members. This included detailed accounts of the Aryanisation of their properties and businesses.
Perhaps the scariest piece of correspondence, says Susan, was the letter sent by the Gestapo in Vienna to the Gestapo in Berlin, giving personal details about my mother, showing that they were actively trying to track her down.
But my search wasn’t over. Days before publication of my book, and after attending an IAJGS conference in Paris in July 2012, I finally learned the horrific details of the arrest of my grandmother and aunt in France, and their deportation to Auschwitz.
Susan contacted the departmental archives in Nice, and was sent a copy of her grandmother’s identity card, which she had submitted in January 1942. It was stamped with a large J for Jew, and a photo showed her looking terrified.
Just days before my book’s publication, I received more documentation from Nice which conveyed the horror of their final journey. Now, I could tell their full story.
My journey into my family’s past took me back 200 years, over eight generations and across four continents, and uncovered an oral family history claiming descent from Czech composer Bedrich Smetana.
One of my biggest surprises was to learn that the Israeli national anthem, the Hatikvah, is based on Smetana’s composition, The Moldau, one of the six symphonic poems which form his great work Ma Vlast, “my homeland."
(Note: Susan’s books are From East End to Land’s End: The Evacuation of Jews’ Free School, London, to Mousehole in Cornwall during World War Two, and A Silence that Speaks: A Family Story Through and Beyond the Holocaust. She also writes a blog, http://susansoyinka.wordpress.com/ - click on The Dream Room tab and read the amazing sequel to her search for her family.)
Susan discovered MyHeritage accidently over 10 years ago, when she was looking for information about facial recognition. She spent many happy hours learning which family members and which other people she looked like.
I found the site very simple and easy to use when carrying out my family research, because it has such a large search engine. I discovered, for example, documents relating to my mother’s immigration to England in 1938. MyHeritage had picked this up from the www.movinghere.org.uk website, of which I had been unaware.
I always recommend MyHeritage when people ask for my advice about family research.
I built my family tree on MyHeritage, and again found this very easy to do. I used a family tree chart downloaded from MyHeritage in my book, A Silence That Speaks.
At first, her two brothers were not very interested in her project, but the more Susan discovered, the more interested they became.
My grandfather Fritz Smetana was the Austrian Consul General for San Marino from 1926- 1938, and when the government of that country invited me to attend a commemoration of my grandfather, one of my brothers came with me.
Several of her family members, including newly-found relatives, have access to the family tree on MyHeritage.
Currently, her tree has 195 individuals. During her research, she discovered that her relatives spanned the globe and lived in Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, San Marino, France and Sweden.
Of course, as a consequence of the Holocaust, none remain in these countries. I now have relatives living in England, Australia, USA, Ghana and Nigeria.
She has also had several hundred Smart Matches, but most relate to her brother-in-law, Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize winner. He is a Nigerian now living in the US.
Along the way, she’s discovered previously-unknown living relatives, including five living cousins of her mother and many descendants in Australia and the US.
Since first making contact in 1995, I have stayed in touch with many of them.
Susan shares some of her tips for new researchers:
- Be persistent and determined and never give up.
- It is important to make orderly notes and records of all your contacts (conversations, telephone calls, email etc.) and discoveries, with dates.
- Check through these from time to time, as sometimes something comes up which relates to something you have already learned, but you may not realise the connection at the time.
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