Friday, 2 November 2012

Sous les toits de Paris

My latest round of travel has brought me to Paris, and it being a cold, wet afternoon and All Souls Day, I decided not to view the Impressionists at the Musée d'Orsay but to see the Memorial of the Shoah. During the years that I have been wandering around Europe, I have visited many Jewish museums, but this is among the most darkly impressive. It is mainly housed in a stark modern building over the site of a former barracks which became a deportation centre during the Second World War. At a deep underground level, there is a permanent exhibition of great thoroughness, but above it is a huge dark hall which is down some steps, almost empty, and you see there sparse candles illuminating Hebrew words. There seems to be a tacit agreement that this area should not be entered. I decided to remain at the top of the steps and pray a while.

Whether or not I am myself a Jew I do not know according to any material evidence. My mother, from whom my Jewishness, if it exists, must derive, only ever referred to the possibility in the most ambiguous terms. My ostensible ancestry, recorded on paper, does not support the idea. I was not brought up according to any Jewish custom. I am not circumcised. I am a Christian and a homosexual and a somewhat frivolous, irresponsible person whose most strongly held value is indifference. Part of me wants to stand back from this identity, which could only ever be proved with the utmost difficulty and might bring me harm. But another part wants to know the truth, and cleave to my own people, if such they are, as I believe.

There was a date when my doubts about the origin of both my parents began to crystallise. It was a few days before the Christmas of 2002, my mother had been dead for about three months, and I was visiting an old friend of hers, whom I had not seen since childhood, in her dark flat in the centre of Lisbon. And I well remember sitting in this old woman's room, and feeling both close to her and strangely distant, and her suddenly saying, without any preparation, "Oh, you did know that your father's father was Polish, didn't you?"

"No, I never knew anything like that."

"But it's true! Your mother told me that at the time you were born. I'm certain it's true."

"You're absolutely certain of it?"

"Yes, I am. Your mother wouldn't have made a mistake about something like that. It's definitely true."

"You're talking about the father of Arthur Ernest Hills, who brought me up? Arthur's father?"

"Yes. Who else would I be talking about?"

"But as far as I always knew his father's family came from Kent in England."

"No, his father was definitely Polish. I'm certain of it."

"You're absolutely certain? Not from Kent? Not from Kent? Polish, you say?"


Oddly enough, the old woman's strange assertion did not really much surprise me. This was because, in the years preceding her death, I had become aware of a parallel mystery surrounding the origins of my mother.

I had always believed my mother to be Portuguese, and in her honour  had made every effort to learn the language. But when, after many years, I began to know Portuguese well, I was puzzled that her own knowledge of it seemed to be defective. However, her spoken Italian, in the dialect of Naples, was perfect, as I had known since childhood, because she often boasted of the fact. When I had myself begun to to try to speak Portuguese, at the age of eighteen, I was rather sharply taken up by various Portuguese because my efforts were coming out in Italian. I must have learnt this from her, when I tried to get her to teach me.

So the possibility that my father had been a a Pole rather than an Englishman seemed like a variation on a theme. In the years following the initial disclosure, it was confirmed by two other old women that my mother had often told the story of my foreign grandfather at around the time of my conception and birth. One of the old women is my mother's sister, and she is an exceptionally taciturn person, who simply confirmed that my mother had told her the story, but would add no further details, if she knew them.

The third old woman is also apparently Portuguese but was married to an Englishman and has lived in north London for many years. She is largely unknown to the other two, not in contact with them, and has never been friendly with them. She is also reticent, but has a more open and sympathetic personality than theirs. Her attitude to my mother, who was simply a friend not a relation, has always been more detached.

When I visited her once and questioned her about the story, she said at first that she had no memory of it. This was when we were talking in her sitting-room and her husband, who had suffered a stroke, was sitting nearby in a chair, But, as I was leaving her, and we were standing on her doorstep, and her husband was out of earshot, she suddenly said that she did remember the story, and that she thought my grandfather might have been either Polish or German, she hardly knew the difference between those countries, or so at least she said. On a later occasion, when I questioned her again, she contradicted herself, as she often did when she had revealed something, by saying that my grandfather was not German and must have been Polish.

None of the three women has ever been able to add anything more to these initial details, although all three are still alive and in good mental health and continue to insist that my mother told them this, and that she was referring to the father of my ostensible father, the man who brought me up, Arthur Ernest Hills, her husband.

With the help of the noted researcher Anthony Adolph, who is utterly convinced, without knowing them, that the stories of the old women are just "old wives' tales", in his faintly offensive phrase, I have traced Arthur's official ancestry back to a shepherd of Westwell, Kent, in the mid-nineteenth century, Stephen Hills. To the shepherd's piano-tuning son Frederick Charles Hills was born Arthur Ernest Hills, electrical wireman in the naval dockyards of Chatham and Dover, who in turn, at least on paper, was the father of my father, born at Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey on 6th January 1926. He is recorded as Arthur Ernest Hills Junior, and he died in Chichester Hospital on 24th July, 2004. Arthur's birth certificate shows that his mother was Mary Brown,  a Scotswoman of Edinburgh, whose ancestry Mr Adolph has traced back in Scotland to Angus in the mid-eighteenth century.

I have employed a similarly efficient researcher in Portugal, and, once again, my mother's ostensible ancestry is solid and detailed and can be traced back in the rural area between Mafra and Ericeira to the north of Lisbon, through a long line of peasants and rural proprietors, to the early nineteenth century. In contrast to my father, who was a man effectively without family, I have known since childhood many people in Portugal who seem to be my relations and, if not affectionate, they are generally at least clinging, and therefore they have every likelihood of being my real family.

So, fine Kentish shepherd and och-tha-noo ancestry on one side, innumerable saloios in their peasant berets on the other! In a world of prolier than thou, I should surely be richly satisfied. No one wants to be the mysterious grandson of the Romanovs any more, and only cranks claim to be of the family of Christ.
But why did my mother speak Italian better than Portuguese? And why do the old women, the three sybils, tell their story of the unknown Pole or the hastily withdrawn German? To be unsure of the origins of one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, but to be unsure of the origins of two looks remarkably like... what?

But there is no one, it seems, to provide reminiscences on my father's side, and vague and self-contradictory if insistent old biddies on my Mum's. So, in recent years, I have entered the curious world of genetic genealogy, courtesy of the famous and ostensibly highly reputable American firm, Family Tree DNA. From my experience of this science, admittedly limited and not regarded by me in any sympathetic spirit, it appears to have all the infallibility of early Christian theology, and to possess much of the interest. But it only serves to demonstrate an analogy of how many angels can dance on the end of a pin.

After many courteous, impersonal and dogmatic exchanges with the learned experts of the said organisation, and endless useless upgrades with substantial honorariums attached, I have no close matches on my father's line and belong to no identifiable sub-clade on my mother's. Therefore what I have learnt of the problematic origins of either has been virtually nil.

On her side, nothing suggests ancestry in either Portugal or Italy, the countries she seems to have been connected with, but there are vast numbers of very distant matches in many parts of the world. In the listing called Ancestral Origins, for instance, Iran is quite well represented, and there are also many Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews. But there are also many of everyone else, and no real evidence anywhere to say whether she herself was Jewish.

In contrast to the remarkable world spread on Ancestral Origins in the maternal line, of  23,931 people tested on the paternal line in England I match only one at a single genetic remove, but at the insignificant level of 12 markers, and I initially had no name for the person. I was eventually, on my request, and with some difficulty, given an email for him, and I seem to remember receiving a very vague answer which said the man's ancestry was Welsh. There was also a match at a genetic remove of one at 12 markers among under 700 people tested in Greece, and I was also given an email for this person, but it proved unobtainable. I remember this area of the evidence only vaguely and the learned experts did not clarify it much.

I had six matches at two genetic removes on the paternal line, and these included someone called (or calling himself) Andy Hills, so he shared my surname. But his email was unobtainable, he did not respond to letters, and, because he had only tested to 25 markers and not the recommended 67, it would have been impossible to tell anything useful about what relation we might have, even if I had been able to reach him.

I eventually also managed to elicit emails from two of these other six remote matches. The first, from one of three Americans who shared the surname Rose, knew only that he was of remote English, German and Dutch ancestry in New York State, so no joy there. The fifth match, a rather threatening person known simply as Benbow, almost all of whose details were private,  simply warned me in an unpleasant email not to contact him again.

The sixth of these matches was an American with the Italian surname of DiBartolo, and he did not reply to my contact.

The Population Finder result, which tries to estimate regional ancestry on all lines, but whose results are notably prone to error, estimates that I am 84.80 per cent of Western European (French, Orcadian) ancestry and 15.20 per cent of Middle-Eastern (Jewish) ancestry. According to the learned experts, however, the Jewish proportion could be accounted for by remote ancestry within the medieval Jewish population of the Iberian peninsula.

My sub-clade on the paternal side, which traces the line of fathers is currently called I2a3-L233-Western (this is a fairly new name, and they are about to change it again). It is quite a numerous grouping dating back to the end of the last Ice Age, and I am not closely related to anyone else within it who has tested.

However, I did receive a close match on an extension of the organisation called Y-search, who turned out to be a well-known scientist called Professor Kenneth Nordtvedt, a former advisor to President Reagan, who works closely with Family Tree DNA. But when, in great excitement, having discovered his identity, I contacted him, he immediately confessed that he had faked the match in order to get in touch, he said, with fellow members of the sub-clade. My confidence in Family Tree DNA, already low, was shattered when I discovered that they would resort to providing false matches in order to increase their own information.

The genetic group that includes such an interesting if dishonest person is strongly present in two areas: one is England; the other is the western end of the North German Plain. The learned experts, including Professor Nordtvedt, say there is nothing whatever to tell which of the two areas my father may have been from. So, just as with my mother, all the kerfuffle, expense and expert opinion has told me nothing whatever about the origin of my father.

So, if I am ever to learn anything more, do I have to go back once again to the often rebarbative elderly lady in the beautiful square in the heart of Lisbon, a person mainly so guarded, occasionally so sharply revealing? She wouldn't tell me anything without a good reason. But the last time I visited her, which was only recently, and she is still in fine shape, I suddenly saw, on her mantelpiece, a menorah.

1 comment:

  1. Charles, this is one of your best posts. I love the Oscar Wilde paragraph and may start calling you Ernest. Enjoy and please share your latest adventures. Love Sue x