By Allyn Freeman
Last November, I ordered a DNA kit from My Heritage, an assay that would disclose my DNA along the matrilineal line from mitochondrial samples. In effect, I would learn my mother’s lineage, and nothing about my father’s background, which is a different test. The company charged a $12 shipping and handling fee, and, frankly, for that hefty sum, I expected a technician to swab me in person, vacuum the rug, and gift me a large box of Raisinets.
The scientific analysis would provide information involving 42 global ethnicities. I was excited thinking of a possible genetic connection to the great Ramses II, third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of Egypt. He fathered 162 children, so it was possible to imagine that we were distantly related. Maybe then I could claim a burial place in the Valley of the Kings, to be entombed next to my famous forebear.
My mother, Anne, née Glasberg, was born in 1902 in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, in a town that, when pronounced, sounded like “Wishnits” (sic). She told me it was “just outside Vienna.” The Viennese connection shaped a young boy’s romantic image of his mother waltzing to Strauss tunes and twirling on the dance floor with elegantly uniformed dragoons of the Emperor’s Hussars.
For years, I could not find “Wishnits” (sic) on any modern day Austrian map or even old ones from the last century. Perhaps the town had been an insignificant Viennese suburb swallowed up by urban expansion. In any case, it seemed to have disappeared under the sands of time.
The Glasberg family immigrated to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1914. Over came grandfather Louis, a tailor, bringing his wife Cecilia and six kids. Patriotically, the seventh child, Dorothy, was born on the 4th of July. The family expanded to thirteen children, numbering seven daughters and six sons.
After a few months, the DNA results arrived:
- Ashkenazi Jewish—90.2% (Central Europe location)
- North African—3.4%
- East European—2.2%
- West Asian—1.6%
The heritage data were revealed on a world map depicting different colored amoeba-shaped forms covering the above named geographical areas. North Africa encompassed a swath of territory from Algeria eastward to the Middle East. West Asia extended from Turkey to Pakistan. Difficult to make rational sense of the odd DNA finding from far away Papua, New Guinea.
In 1998, in a New Yorker article entitled “Buried Homeland,” the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfield (1932-2018) wrote about returning to the province of his birth in Bukovina, which once flourished as a center of Hasidism in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here, he visited shtetl towns decimated in the Holocaust, and one place he stopped in was named Vizhnitz!
At last, I had unraveled the riddle of the “V” and “W” pronunciation and spelling mystery of my Glasberg origins. The discovery that Vizhnitz was probably not much more than a mud-bound shtetl village in the European Pale ended long-treasured notions of my mother’s embroidered Viennese history. No Strauss Waltzes. No eating apple strudel or tortes at the Café Sacher. No strolls with uniformed Hussars in the Vienna Woods.
Vyhnytsia, as the town is called today, is located along the Cheremosh River in western Ukraine. Using Google Maps, the driving distance from there to Vienna is 890 miles, which is the same mileage that makes Nashville, “just outside” Manhattan.