Written by Kelly Zemnickis
I’ve long known that my last name (Zemnickis) isn’t my father’s original last name. But no one seemed to know what it was supposed to be or why it changed. To add to the mystery, my paternal great-grandfather changed the name before he disappeared. I’ve long wondered what the reason might be, was there a family secret that was to be kept hidden? This would have been around the time of WW1, so was there a background he wanted to cover up? “We know that he wanted the family name to sound and look more Polish”, my dad Richard once told me. “But aside from that, it’s a mystery.” Then one day, my late aunt Aija discovered a photo of my great-grandparents and a name was written on the back: Zemit.
My true family name was re-discovered. Zemit.
The question remained, why did he change it? Most of all, why did he disappear? I know that my great-grandfather, Juris Zemit, was a salesman so maybe there was a desire to become more accepted if his name looked more ‘common’. Having a coffee with my dad, he confided, “It was an open secret that grandfather was not faithful, my grandmother was alone a lot because he was romancing all these other women”. Ahhh… so maybe Juris messed with the wrong woman and had to go incognito? My father didn’t grow up in a time or a home that encouraged family history chatter, so he’s at a true loss as to where his roots started. I decided that the only way to go, to see if there was something in my DNA to help uncover some clues was to go to the experts, and I got my DNA kit from AncestryDNA. My parents decided to participate as well.
I started off feeling like I had a bunch of blank puzzle pieces and no idea what the intended image was to be. I’m not famous enough to be on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? But what I was, and still am fascinated by, is also the mere discovery of who made me what I am, all these people before me coming together and forming my story decades before I took my first breath.
I had started my tree on Ancestry years ago, occasionally adding to it over the years as I heard one story or another. Each time as I added to the tree and new potential matches appeared my heart skipped a beat… I’m going further down this rabbit hole and people that have been long forgotten are coming to life once again.
My DNA test results were the first to come back, and despite my belief that my dad’s grandfather had Jewish roots he was trying to hide, no evidence came back to support that. Genetically, I lean more towards my father with my DNA showing 79% Latvian, Lithuanian, Czech, Polish, Slovakian… and then heavily French and… Irish-Scottish. On the map that Ancestry provides, tracking my roots and ancestors’ movements around the world, there was a curious marker… I have ancestors who immigrated to America just before the turn of the century, 1900.
Wait. What? Who the heck hopped a boat to America?
I asked my dad. It was a shock to him too, and I asked him specifically because it seems that they left from Poland. My great-grandfather wanted to appear more Polish by changing our name. Since Nancy Drew is tough to track down, let’s go to Crista Cowan, Corporate Genealogist for Ancestry for some answers!
“When looking for the origins of a late 1800s/early 1900s immigrant ancestor, there are three main steps to take. First, locate them in all U.S. Federal Census records. Available on Ancestry, these records will list the year of immigration and the naturalization status of your ancestors. Second, if they became a U.S. citizen, locate your ancestors naturalization record on Ancestry. These records will often list the birth place in the country of origin, document any official name changes that may have occurred, and list the date, the ship, and the port where they arrived into the United States. Finally, using that information, search the collection of passenger lists on Ancestry to find the ship manifest that documents your ancestors’ arrival. In that record you will see who they immigrated with and, often, you will also see the name and address of their nearest relative in the country they recently left.”
As I looked closer, clusters of my DNA seemed to match parts of New York State and Michigan. “Well, did I ever tell you there was a large population of Latvians at Michigan at one point? That they went there for some reason?” All of a sudden the world I knew I was connected to shape- shifted. It gives me goosebumps. I wonder who went to America, what became of them, did they find what they were searching for?
When my dad’s DNA results came back, we laughed. He appears to be 99% Baltic, 1% Finnish… so there’s no hidden nationality there! No riddle to explain what happened to grandpa Juris. But this experience has gotten me to ask my dad more questions, and in doing so I’ve discovered the multiple marriages and name changes… all things my dad attributes to being pretty common during the war. “I mean, you could easily say you lost your wife. You didn’t know what happened to her”, my dad confessed. This is one thing Ancestry can’t really uncover for me, the decisions made on this side of my family to leave loved ones for new loves. Because my father came to Canada at the age of 11, during WWII, not with his mom and dad, but with his dad and the new woman in his father’s life. Grandmother Zelma stayed in Europe with my aunt Aija. “I grew up with a lot of anger at my father, and I didn’t see my mother again until I was in my 30s. She eventually found us in Montreal by means of a postcard that was addressed to me in Canada. That was it. I have no idea how it got to the rooming house I lived in. I still have that postcard, I should show it to you sometime.”
That means of reinvention though is something I have discovered to be true in myself, that ability to go ‘well, okay… let’s start over’ is in my nature. My ego isn’t troubled by starting anew, it is what it is. The mystery of my great-grandfather still looms, but the discovery of his personal choices has been a discovery I didn’t expect. My DNA can’t reveal why the heart does what it does. (But it may give a clue as to why my dad has a connection to over 60 cousins he had previously been unaware of! SIXTY.) Though I will say this- that in a sea of farmers and very nature-focused folk, I do take after him in the career angle; as does my dad, who eventually carved out a successful career in Canadian advertising. So that aspect of his life definitely continued on.
As I hit a temporary wall in my father’s side of my family tree, my mother’s side is in full bloom. As I write this, I’ve gone back 13 generations on her side of the tree! I’m discovering names and people that I never knew of until today, and my mom’s results came back with a predominantly English/Irish-Scottish mix.
I wonder who I’ve yet to discover… who is hiding in a photo or a tale someone might know about. I once told a friend that my mom comes from a French Huguenot background, the French Protestants who were persecuted and all but wiped out. “How your ancestors survived is a miracle!” he laughed as I told him. “You technically shouldn’t be here!” “We’re survivors!”, my mom countered. “We come from a long line of tough stock.”
My mom’s right. My journey was born out of a complicated path, one that would provide material for a great soap opera or a stand-up set with all the romances and heartbreak and disappearances and leaving one land for another… and it’s a path that I am just scratching the surface of.
This is a journey to be continued. Tune in next week… ;)