This much we know: He was about 5-foot-2, bald, with hooded eyes, thin lips and a deadpan look that gave nothing away.
He gave away so little, in fact, that my great-grandfather went to the grave without telling any of his children where he came from. “He used to make a joke of it,” my grandfather said. “I would say where did you come from. And he would say, ‘Timbuktu.”’
Now we have a chance to fill in my great-grandfather’s branch of my family tree. Because in the 21st century, when family lore and genealogical research come up short, we have DNA.
The news often reports amazing tales of how genetic analysis proves that a few ancient Adams and Eves living in Africa tens of thousands of years ago gave rise to the entire human race. Genetic testing demonstrates that 3.5 million of today’s Ashkenazi — Jews with roots in Central and Eastern Europe — descend from just four women who lived in Europe less than 2,000 years ago. It shows that most of Ireland descends from a legendary king named Niall of the Nine Hostages.
Could DNA unlock a similarly romantic past for my tiny clan?
Actually, my great-grandfather’s story is pretty romantic already. What it lacks is credibility.
He said that he’d run away to sea during his early teens, and that his career as a merchant seaman had taken him all over the globe — Australia, South America, China. He brought European immigrants to Ellis Island and dodged U-boats in the North Atlantic during World War II. Eventually he made enough money to buy his family a comfortable home in Harrison, N.Y.
According to an affidavit signed in January 1917 by one Ellen Scharker — said to be either Gus’ sister or half-sister — my great-grandfather was born in New York City in November 1893.
But that document, apparently drafted during World War I as a means of gaining Gus entry to the U.S. Merchant Marine, has some serious credibility issues. It claims that Gus’ mother traveled to New York from Halifax, Nova Scotia, not long before his birth, brought him into this world, then returned to Canada shortly afterward — thus rendering him a U.S. citizen.
The mysterious Ms. Scharker goes on to explain that Gus “grew up in Canada and came to the U.S. about eight years ago and took up a seafaring life.”
What a convenient sequence of events both for Gus and the nation, which at just that moment desperately needed sailors to ferry supplies across the Atlantic to its allies in World War I.
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Efforts to confirm Ms. Scharker’s tale have failed miserably. New York City’s records make no mention of Gus Crenson’s birth. Canadian census records contain no record of any Crensons living in Halifax during the late 19th century. And Ellen Scharker is a complete genealogical enigma.
My grandfather said his father always insisted that that ’Gus’ wasn’t short for anything. He was Gus — not Angus, August, Augustus or anything else.
The records at Ellis Island say something different. Before 1918, they show a sailor named Gustav Crenson sailing into New York City on three occasions. But on three occasions after that it’s just Gus, or simply “G. Crenson.”
In an era when sauerkraut was being referred to as “liberty cabbage,” perhaps Gus was trying to avoid drawing attention to a Teutonic pedigree.
He also had an odd way of pronouncing some words, my grandfather reports — like “veel” for “wheel.” And the affidavit says that his parents’ names were Martha ... and Otto.
Could my great grandfather have been German?
The answer could be in my own DNA.
Most of our genetic material gets passed from one generation to the next through a process known as recombination. Recombination keeps us from being clones by giving everyone (except identical twins) a unique combination of genes, half from each parent.
That mixing process makes most of our DNA practically useless for inferring ancestry, at least with current technology. But there are two small sections of the genetic code that never recombine. The Y-chromosome, which confers maleness, is passed directly from fathers to their sons. Another odd little package of genes known as mitochondrial DNA is always inherited from the mother.
Those two portions of DNA can only change by mutation. That means if you know how fast the genes of the Y-chromosome or mitochondrial DNA mutate over the generations, you can calculate how long ago two people shared a common ancestor by comparing their genetic code.
Mitochondrial DNA mutates relatively slowly. So it is hard to use it to find out about what happened in the last few generations, or even in historical times. It is better-suited to studying the expansion of the human species out of Africa 70,000 years ago, the arrival of people in the Americas more than 12,000 years ago or the spread of agriculture into Europe after the ice age.
But the Y-chromosome mutates faster, making it practical for exploring genealogical relationships in the last few hundred years. That was exactly what I needed.
I contacted a genetic testing organization, Family Tree DNA, based in Houston. I scraped my cheek with a little brush, dropped it into a preservative solution and sent it off.
Then I waited as the company extracted the DNA from my spit sample and created a genetic profile of it. The procedure is very similar to forensic DNA fingerprinting, which looks at multiple sites where the genetic code can vary from one person to another. Look at enough sites, and the particular combination of variants in any given person is virtually unique.
Family Tree DNA looked at 37 sites on my Y-chromosome. Then they compared my DNA profile to those in a database of 60,000 men from around the world. The price of a Y-chromosome test ranges from $149 to $349, depending on the level of precision.
About six weeks after I mailed my sample, I received an e-mail directing me to a personalized Web site containing my results. I went to the site, and clicked on a tab labeled “Recent Ancestral Origins.” The screen filled with the countries of origin of the men in the Family Tree database whose genetic profiles most closely matched mine.
Lithuania. Ukraine. Austria. Galicia. Next to many of the country names was the notation, “Ashkenazi.”
I called Bennett Greenspan, founder of Family Tree DNA, and told him that I had some questions about my results. He opened up my site.
“A minimum of half your matches, if not even more, are people of Jewish ancestry,” Greenspan told me.
Greenspan did a more detailed analysis that the company doesn’t normally release to customers simply because it results in a bewildering number of matches. He saw that I had a paucity of really close matches, making it hard to pinpoint exactly where Gus or his paternal line came from. But of the matches I did have, the vast majority were Jewish.
The closest to me was another poor slob who had no idea where his ancestors came from. After that, two guys whose ancestors came from Ukraine and Galicia, on the border between Poland and Ukraine. Then Hungary. Another Ukraine. A couple of Germanys.
For reasons of confidentiality, Greenspan couldn’t tell me the names of those people. But he could tell me one thing: A lot of those names were Jewish.
Crenson isn’t a Jewish name. In fact, it isn’t any kind of name at all. Once I found a Crenson in the Toronto phone book, so I called him up. His wife answered, and I told her my story. She listened patiently, and when I finished she said, “I’m sorry, but I doubt you and my husband are related. He’s Polish.”
She told me what his name had been when he emigrated to Canada. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that I could never hope to pronounce it.
Just a theory
According to the affidavit, Gus had a father named Otto Crenson. Perhaps he was the immigrant who had changed his name from something less pronounceable — and more Jewish.
The genetic data can’t say. But they do strongly suggest that I had a Jewish ancestor on my paternal line during the last 1,000 years — and probably a lot more recently than that.
And it makes sense that I would be descended from German Jews, Greenspan said. Because of the Holocaust, descendants of German Jews are relatively rare today. So like me, they frequently find themselves most closely matching the descendants of Jews from Eastern Europe.
Right now, it’s just a theory. But as more men have their DNA tested, the Family Tree DNA database will grow, increasing the likelihood that I will find someone who closely matches me and has a documented line back to Germany.
“A Jewish background would be a reason why my father would have been so reticent about his background,” my grandfather said, when I told him what I’d learned.
Then again, Gus may have known nothing of his ancestry. It is entirely possible that, half a century after his death, I am learning something very personal about Gus that he never knew himself.
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