Alanis Morissette had one of her major family secrets revealed before she appeared on “Finding Your Roots": Morissette's mother is Jewish, which Morissette only learned in her late 20s.
“There was a terror that was in their bones, and they were being protective of us and not wanting antisemitism. They were protecting us, keeping us in the dark around it,” Morissette said of her mother and grandmother’s decision to keep their Jewish ancestry secret on “Finding Your Roots.”
During her episode of the PBS series, which aired on Jan. 2, Morissette uncovered more about her mother’s family in Hungary and what is now Ukraine. She also learned what happened to her two great uncles, Gyorgy and Sandor Feuerstein, who went missing during the Holocaust. Her grandfather, Imre Feuerstein, somehow managed to escape the same fate.
Morissette's relatives believed that the two men were forced into a work battalion during WWII. At the time, there was no way of knowing what exactly happened to them, but there are now archival records of the Red Cross showing that Imre Feuerstein made inquiries a few years after the war in hopes that his brother, Gyorgy, might still be alive.
The “Finding Your Roots” team learned, through records at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, that both Gyorgy and Sandor Feuerstein died in the slave labor army sent to Russia, almost half of whom were Hungarian Jews, per Yad Vashem. Over 500,000 Hungarian Jews died during the Holocaust.
“It’s unfathomable for me,” Morissette said of imagining what her uncles went through.
After WWII ended, Hungary became part of the Soviet Union. Morissette's grandfather decided to flee with his family in 1956. Her mother was just 6 years old, and “still harbors harrowing memories of the journey,” per the episode.
Her grandfather successfully got his family out of Hungary and eventually settled in Ottawa, Canada, where Morissette grew up.
During an interview with TODAY.com, the "Hand in My Pocket" singer recalled a tidbit she learned that didn’t make the episode: Imre Feuerstein and his family almost went to Australia, not Canada, but they missed the boat to get them there when Imre Feuerstein stepped out for a smoke break.
“Because he went out for a cigarette, he missed that opportunity and they came to Canada. So I like to say that cigarettes made my life possible,” she says.
However, her grandfather died in a car accident three months after she was born. He was 65 years old.
Reading the article describing the accident during the "Finding Your Roots" episode, Morissette became choked up. Morissette said her mother “didn’t talk about” her grandfather much, but her grandmother did — because Morissette "wouldn’t let it go.”
“Imre had saved his family by fleeing Hungary. But in doing so, he had also cut off all connection to their deeper roots. In fact, Alanis knew nothing about her mother’s ancestry before WWII,” Gates said in a narration. The “Finding Your Roots” team traced Imre Feuerstein’s line back to what is modern day Ukraine.
“I had no idea how super Jewish I am,” she said.
“I feel welcomed into a community that I always had a crush on," she continued. "I’ve always had a crush on Judaism and I would just show up on Passover and at Seder. Now I know why. It was like, come home.”
The episode also looked at the story of her father’s ancestors who, according to Gates, had a “classic Canadian story, from settlers to lumberjacks.”
The “Finding Your Roots” team traced Morissette father’s family back to her ninth great-grandparents in 1600s France. Her eighth great-grandparents, who married in Quebec City in 1667, built a house on a nearby island that still stands to this day.
She also learned that her fourth great-grandfather, a man named James McConnell, born in the 1770s, settled in a town called Hull on the Ottawa River and operated log rafts.
"I briefly had a home, briefly meaning 10 years, that was on the Ottawa River and looked into Hull," Morissette revealed.
"No kidding, wow, so you were drawn back," Gates responded.
McConnell was the subject of a local song about an expedition to run a boat over local waterfalls — over 100 feet tall at their height. The trip killed his brother-in-law and two other men; he was the sole survivor.
“What is happening?” she said upon hearing that her fourth great-grandfather's trip ultimately inspired the folk song.
She learned the trip had no purpose — the men simply wanted to see if they could.
"That readiness to go for it; I resonate with that," she said.
Reflecting on her time on “Finding Your Roots” to TODAY.com, Morissette describes her family history as “so many forks in the road.”