If you are American and your family wasn’t native, they emigrated here from another country at some point in time. I’ve always been interested in knowing more about my family’s immigrant past and their arrival in America.
99% of Americans have ancestors who came to the U.S. from elsewhere. According to a 2012 study, only 1.7 percent of the US population is 100% Native American due to interracial marriage or rape in the past.
Have you looked up your family’s ancestry?
I had my Ancestry DNA test done a few years ago and my results showed that I’m 51% European Jewish, 48% Eastern European and Russian, and 1% in the areas of Greek and Albanian. Ancestry has been updating its database to give you an even more accurate picture of your family history.
Immigrants that are connected to the Eastern European Jewish side of my father’s family may have come from Latvia, Lithuania, or Northwest Belarus.
My mother’s relatives were non-Jewish Central and Eastern Europeans with DNA from Slovakia, Hungary, or Poland.
I also have DNA traced to Greece or Albania.
My family tree
I have been playing around with my family tree as well and have so far found ancestors born in the late 1700s. It’s been sort of tricky because many of them lived in small villages or shtetls that didn’t keep records. Jews in those areas were often transitory due to religious or political persecution.
The Jewish Eastern European side of my family
The parents of my grandfather on my father’s side came to America from Bialystok, Poland, and my father’s mother’s family came from Augustov, Poland. Both families arrived in New York City through Castle Garden as immigrants in the late 1870s.
I’m not sure what prompted them to come but I can imagine it had much to do with religious persecution. Jews have been in Poland since the Middle Ages. In the 14th-century, protections were given to them by Casimir the Great, allowing them to thrive in relative tolerance. During that time they developed a rich cultural heritage.
By the end of the 19th century, Białystok was mostly Jewish. The city became the capital of New East Prussia in 1795 but after Napolean invaded it was awarded to the Russian empire. They imposed geographic and professional restrictions on the Jewish community. With the exception of some well-off Jewish merchants, bankers, and factory workers, most of the Jewish population was poor and lived in shtetls. During the 1880s – 1890s, after the assassination of the Russian Tsar, the Jews of Białystok were frequently terrorized by pogroms and routinely massacred.
Augustów went under the control of Prussia in 1795 and became a part of New East Prussia. In 1807, it was incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw before it was annexed to the Kingdom of Poland in 1815. By the mid-1800s the city was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural center of Poles, Russians, and Jews.
My ancestors were fortunate to have left Poland for America when they did. The most intense hostility toward Jews ramped up after WWI and almost all the Jews in Białystok and Augustów were murdered by the Nazis during WWII. If they have left later, I wouldn’t be here.
Life in New York City
The Forstadts lived in Manhattan Ward 17 on Essex Street where my great grandfather was a shoemaker.
They had their ups and downs, especially during the Depression. My father often recollected his childhood after his family moved to Brooklyn near Coney Island. His father sold shoes and was a taxi driver for a while. Later on, he owned a deli with my father in Denver during the 1950s. My great grandparents who were both born in Białystok in the mid-1850s lived until their mid-90s and were married for 72 years. Their accomplishment was celebrated in the New York Times.
My father’s mother performed in vaudeville in New York City as a teenager before getting married at 16.
The Non-Jewish Eastern European side
My mother’s family on her mother’s side came from Zavadka in the Saris region of Slovakia and her father was Ukrainian.
My great grandparents arrived in Forest City, Susquehanna, Pennsylvania in the late 1880s, and my grandmother was born there in 1899. The family traveled by covered wagon and arrived in Ramah, Colorado in 1900 where they bought a farm. Many of their Slovakian cousins followed. Some became farmers while others worked as coal miners at the Industrial mine in Superior, Colorado.
My mother’s father Alexei Melinsky had a tragic story. He was born in Ukraine, which was then part of Russia in 1885, and immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1906. He also settled in Superior, Colorado where he worked as a coal miner where he married my grandmother in 1917. Because my grandfather was Russian, my grandmother had to give up her U.S. citizenship as that was the law at that time.
He went back to Russia in 1936 after being lured by Soviet propaganda but my grandmother refused to go with him with their four daughters. He planned to check it out and send for them later. They received a letter from him from Donbas in Ukraine dated March 27, 1938. In it, he complained that his sister was trying to extort money from him so he moved out on his own. After that, he was never heard from again. We don’t know what happened to him but can only imagine because WWII was starting and that area was volatile there during Stalin’s rule.
The book Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s-1990s, describes its long history of horrors and atrocities that have taken place in Ukraine during that time. Sadly, it has continued to this day.
In 1939, after my grandfather’s disappearance, my grandmother was able to become a “naturalized” citizen again.
Do you come from a family of immigrants?
I find delving into my family’s history to be addicting. (in a good way) If you want to learn more about your family’s roots, create an account at Ancestry.com. They have a free 2-week trial period. Once you get started, you’ll have access to “hints” that will help you build your family tree. You can get a lot done in 2 weeks. Then, you can choose to become a member and continue to receive access to exclusive information.
If you sign up for Ancestry DNA, they will send you a DNA saliva test you can take at home. Send back your “sample” and wait for the results. You may be surprised to find you were never German at all! (like in their commercial) Your DNA test results will also connect to your Ancestry.com family tree account making it even easier to connect all the dots.
Immigrants are what make America great. Be proud of your roots.
Did you know that you can find out what breeds your mutt is? Read about dog DNA tests here.
This post was updated 4/2022.
Have you looked into your family’s immigrant past? Please leave a comment below.