Returning to Our Roots
A common theme in family immigration stories is descendants traveling to their parents’, grandparents’, and ancestors’ homelands to explore their roots. These journeys can elicit intense emotions as people reckon with and begin to reassemble fragmented family histories—travelers discover important family documents, see the sites family members have described, and stand on lands where their ancestors stood, imagining, in a more tangible way, what their older family members’ lives may have been like.
Below are stories from some of our narrators on their experiences returning to the places their families once called home.
“Closing the Circle”: Meeting Relatives in Zaslav, Ukraine
Leonard Nimoy, Jewish actor best known for his role as Spock on the Star Trek science fiction series, discusses his trip to Soviet Russia as part of a program with the World Wildlife Fund. He describes meeting distant relatives in Ukraine for the first time and shares how their joyous reunion was overshadowed by Nimoy’s father’s death shortly after his return to America.
Records of My Ancestors
Sonia Pressman Fuentes, co-founder of the National Organization for Women, describes her trip to Poland to explore her family roots. She recalls her mother’s dismay at her interest in going to Poland, the adventure of searching for information on her parents in Piltz (otherwise known as Pilica), and the moving experience of discovering her mother’s birth certificate.
Returning to the Shtetl, Then on to Israel
In 1967, psychotherapist and author Henry Kellerman’s parents traveled to Ukraine and then to Israel. He describes their return to their shtetl (small town in Eastern Europe with a Jewish population) after nearly fifty years away, as well as his mother’s emotional reaction to entering Jewish airspace shortly before landing in Israel.
Connecting to the Spirit of Vilna
Elliott (Elye) Palevsky recounts his visit to Vilna when he was hired to teach at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and how the present-day city blended with the stories he had heard of the bustling liveliness of prewar Jewish Vilna.
Resuscitating a Tradition: Bringing a Zamir Chorus Back to Its Roots in Lodz, Poland
Joshua Jacobson, professor of music at Northeastern University and founder/artistic director of Zamir Chorale of Boston, speaks about his choir’s travels through Europe in 1999 in celebration of the centenary of their namesake, the legendary Hazomir Choir of Lodz, Poland. He describes their reception in Lodz, singing “Makh tsu di eygelekh” (“Close Your Little Eyes”) in Lodz’s Jewish cemetery, and the Zamir Chorale’s performances in cities throughout Eastern Europe.
Visiting My Mother’s Hometown
Ellen Perecman, founder and producing artistic director of the New Worlds Theatre Project, recounts visiting her mother’s hometown and being invited into the house her mother presumably grew up in. She shares about the ceremony she wrote for herself and her family to perform at each important place along the trip and the beautiful but difficult experience of finding oneself on ancestral land.
“Like Walking on Blood”: A Roots Trip to Lithuania
Ghita Wolpowitz, a Litvak (Lithuanian Jew) who grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), shares her 2008 visit to her mother’s hometown in Lithuania after her mother’s passing. She recalls her mother’s reluctance to go back, saying that it would be “like walking on blood.” Ghita remembers her own intense emotions upon entering her mother’s childhood home, visiting important sites of her mother’s story, and imagining the experiences that had been lived there.