Our People, Our Traditions

Full Episode

Learn about the ancestors of three celebrated Americans who not only share a Jewish heritage but also history of perseverance. Tony Kushner delves into the history of the Holocaust to discover his ancestors’ fate; Carole King confronts the discrimination her ancestors faced in America; and Alan Dershowitz finds out that the first Hassidic synagogue in Brooklyn played a secret role in WWII.

Stream this exciting full episode, premiering November 4th at 8PM EST (check local listings).

Episode Transcript Print

Finding Your Roots
Ep 207 “Our People, Our Traditions”
Alan Dershowitz / Carole King / Tony Kushner

GATES: I’M HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. WELCOME TO FINDING YOUR ROOTS. IN THIS EPISODE WE’RE TRAVELING BACK IN TIME TO MEET THE ANCESTORS OF WRITER TONY KUSHNER, SINGER SONGWRITER CAROLE KING AND DEFENSE ATTORNEY ALAN DERSHOWITZ, ALL THREE THE DECENDANTS OF JEWISH IMMIGRANTS WHO FLED RUSSIA AND EASTERN EUROPE TO FIND SANCTUARY IN AMERICA AND THE FREEDOM TO PRACTICE THEIR FAITH ANY WAY THEY CHOSE.

KING: It wasn’t about the religion it was about the cultural chain. The people that I came from…

KUSHNER … I’m a Jew. I’m gay and I’m from the South.

DERSHOWITZ: My family was completely observant. But I don’t remember ever believing in God while reading the prayer book.

GATES VO: TO DO THIS, WE’VE USED EVERY TOOL AVAILABLE. GENEALOGISTS HAVE STITCHED TOGETHER THEIR FAMILIES PAST USING THE PAPER TRAIL THEIR ANCESTORS LEFT BEHIND.

Shots of Skip giving Book of Life to Kushner, King, then Dershowitz

GATES VO: AND WE’VE COMPILED EVERYTHING WE’VE LEARNED INTO A BOOK OF LIFE.

CAROLE: …Oh boy get the tissues

ALAN: I hope she had a good lawyer. I wish I was around then.

TONY: Oh my God. Can I skip to the last page and see how I die?

GATES VO: WHILE EACH OF MY GUESTS HAS THEIR OWN INDIVIDUAL RELATIONSHIP TO THEIR FAITH AND THEIR CULTURE, THEIR FAMILY’S STORIES OF PERSEVERANCE IN THE FACE OF POVERTY AND RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION UNITE THEM ALL.

ROOTS TITLE SEQUENCE

B-ROLL NYC / VERITE OF CAROLE AND SKIP

KING BIO SECTION

GATES VO: FOUR-TIME GRAMMY AWARD WINNING SINGER AND SONGWRITER CAROLE KING ACHIEVED POP SUPER STARDOM WITH HER 1971 ALBUM “TAPESTRY.” WITH OVER 25 MILLION COPIES SOLD, IT’S ONE OF THE BEST SELLING RECORDINGS OF ALL TIME.

SHE’S BEEN INDUCTED INTO BOTH THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND THE SONGWRITER’S HALL OF FAME AND MORE THAN 100 OF HER SONGS HAVE MADE THE BILLBOARD CHARTS.

SHE’S WRITTEN SOME OF MY FAVORITE R&B HITS, LIKE ARETHA FRANKLIN’S NATURAL WOMAN; THE SHIRELLES’ WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW, AND THE DRIFTERS’ UP ON THE ROOF.

GATES (singing) “..up on the roof…”

GATES: How did a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn end up writing some of the greatest R & B records in history? Was there an epiphany when you heard something black and you went wow you know, and it just blew my mind.

KING: The minute.. the first time. You tell me what better lyric has ever written than wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom?

GATES VO: BORN CAROL JOAN KLEIN ON FEBRUARY 9TH 1942 TO SIDNEY KLEIN AND EUGENIA CAMMER, THIS SO-CALLED NICE JEWISH GIRL FROM BROOKLYN HAD MUSICAL STARDOM ON HER MIND WHEN AS A TEENAGER SHE CHANGED HER NAME – ADDING THE “E” TO CAROL AND ADOPTING THE LAST NAME KING.

KING: In those days Jewish performers typically changed their names to Anglicize them and I think probably a little bit, there was something about me that I didn’t like then. Just me, and so I thought ok I’m going to give myself a little bit of a new identity.

GATES: Well, most of us don’t like ourselves very much at the age of fifteen.

KING: That’s a good point. I wish I’d known that then.

GATES VO: CAROLE’S CAREER IN MUSIC SPANS MORE THAN 50 YEARS,
BUT IT TURNS OUT THAT THE ROOTS OF HER SUCCESS WERE PLANTED WELL OVER A CENTURY AGO, WHEN HER GRANDMOTHER FLED ANTI-SEMITISM AND PERSECUTION IN RUSSIA, CARRYING HER DREAMS AND A LOVE OF MUSIC WITH HER TO AMERICA.

KING: My mother came from a household in which culture was very much valued and particularly, music. And my grandmother wanted her to be a concert pianist and play in Carnegie Hall.

GATES: Of course.

KING: It didn’t come to pass. But isn’t it interesting that I played in Carnegie Hall?

GATES: So grandma got her wish?

KING: Yes, and she was there may I add.

GATES: She was?

KING: Yes.

GATES: Oh, did she cry?

KING: I don’t know. But I cried just thinking about it.

GATES: Oh I bet it was like, “That’s my granddaughter.”

KING: Exactly.

KUSHNER BIO SECTION

GATES VO: TONY KUSHNER IS ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST ACCLAIMED WRITERS – BEST KNOWN FOR HIS PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING PLAY “ANGELS IN AMERICA” AND HIS ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATED SCRIPT FOR STEVEN SPIELBERG’S “LINCOLN.”

BORN ANTHONY ROBERT KUSHNER ON JULY 16TH 1956, TO WILLIAM KUSHNER AND SYLVIA DEUTSCHER, TONY GREW UP FAR FROM THE LIGHTS OF BROADWAY IN LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA.

KUSHNER: The Jews in Lake Charles were absolutely unapologetic about being Jews. There was no attempt to hide and you know we all went through our childhoods feeling proud that we were Jews.

GAETS VO: LIKE MOST TOWNS IN THE DEEP SOUTH, LAKE CHARLES WAS OVERWHELMINGLY CHRISTIAN – JEWISH PEOPLE MADE UP LESS THAN ONE-PERCENT OF THE CITY’S POPULATION AND DESPITE AN IDYLLIC CHILDHOOD TONY TOLD ME THAT HIS FAMILY WAS NOT IMMUNE FROM ANTI-SEMITISM.

KUSHNER: When my mother was dying in a hospital in Lake Charles, and my mother’s hair had started to fall out. And this woman, she was in her forties said, you know, “Can I just ask you something…” and she said “where are the horns?” And she literally thought…not that we had like devil horns, but you know, the old myth that Jews have these little bumps, and she thought that under the hair, there would be horns.

GATES: No!

KUSHNER: Yeah. And it was a very shocking thing.

GATES VO: WHEN TONY LEFT HOME TO ATTEND COLLEGE AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY HE FOUND THAT HIS EXPERIENCE OF GROWING UP JEWISH IN THE DEEP SOUTH HAD PREPARED HIM FOR WHAT LAY AHEAD.

GATES: You’ve said that being Jewish prepared you for being gay. Can you explain what you meant by that?

KUSHNER: When it came time to understand how to be gay in a homophobic world, I already knew the model to follow because I knew how to be Jewish in a, in an anti-Semitic world. And then, of course, when I was coming out to my parents, I beat them up with that mercilessly. I said, you know, you taught me not to apologize for who I am and to be proud of who I am, and this is who I am. I’m Jewish, but I’m also gay. I’m just doing what you taught me to do.

DERSHOWITZ BIO SECTION

DERSHOWITZ SINGS

DERSHOWITZ: I’m going to keep my day job.

GATES: That’s beautiful.

DERSHOWITZ: I’m going to keep my day job.

GATES: I’m amazed.

GATES VO: WHILE HE CERTAINLY HAS THE BEAUTIFUL VOICE OF A CANTOR, NOT EVEN ALAN DERSHOWITZ WOULD COMPARE HIMSELF TO CAROLE KING. ALAN SOLOS IN THE COURTROOM WHERE HE’S BEEN DESCRIBED AS ONE OF THE NATION’S “MOST DISTINGUISHED DEFENDERS OF INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS”.

A LEGENDARY HARVARD LAW PROFESSOR AND CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY, ALAN HAS PUBLISHED OVER 30 BOOKS AND ARGUED MORE THAN 100 CASES FOR HIGH PROFILE CLIENTS RANGING FROM OJ SIMPSON TO CLAUS VON BULOW.

LESS KNOWN HOWEVER IS ALAN’S PRO BONO WORK ON BEHALF OF THOSE WHO CAN’T EVEN AFFORD AN ATTORNEY—A REFLECTION OF THE VALUES HE LEARNED IN HIS SYNAGOGUE AND AT HOME AS A CHILD.

GATES: You’ve said that your father told you quote, “it’s the Jews’ job to defend the underdog.”

DERSHOWITZ: It was always just an automatic part of our growing up that it was the job of the Jew to always be out there defending the underdog. We were the underdog. We were emerging now.

GATES: Do you still feel like an underdog?
DERSHOWITZ: No. I feel like I represent the underdog. I feel like I have to remember that it was only very recently that I was the underdog and I may become the underdog again.

GATES VO: BORN ON THE FIRST OF SEPTEMBER IN 1938 TO ORTHODOX JEWISH PARENTS, HARRY DERSHOWITZ AND CLAIRE RINGEL, ALAN CREDITS HIS FORMATIVE YEARS GROWING UP ON THE STREETS OF BROOKLYN FOR HIS PUGNACIOUS COURTROOM STYLE.

DERSHOWITZ: And I was a tough kid as a street kid. I used to get into fist-fights. I wore a garrison belt that I sharpened.

GATES: What’s a garrison belt, Alan?

DERSHOWITZ: Wanna hear something really funny?

GATES: You still have it on?

DERSHOWITZ: I still have it.

GATES: I wanna see it.

DERSHOWITZ: This is a belt that has a very heavy silver, in
this case. And I’m ready. I’m ready. So, you know, you mess with me, and you’re gonna get the garrison belt.

GATES: Jesus, that’s a serious belt, man.

DERSHOWITZ: Yep. We all grew up knowing we might have to fight back.

B-ROLL NYC / VERITE OF SKIP AND DERSHOWITZ

DERSHOWITZ: …this is the Yeshiva. I can read Hebrew, so it’s…

GATES VO: AS A STUDENT, ALAN’S REBELLIOUS NATURE OFTEN PUT HIM AT ODDS WITH HIS TEACHERS AT THE LOCAL YESHIVA.

WHILE WILLING TO DEBATE THE RABBIS ABOUT EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THE EXISTENCE OF GOD, ALAN SAYS THE HISTORIC PERSECUTION OF JEWS AND THE UNSPEAKABLE ATROCITIES OF THE HOLOCAUST GALVANIZED HIS COMMITMENT TO PROTECT AND DEFEND THE JEWISH PEOPLE AND THEIR RIGHT TO PRACTICE THEIR FAITH, BOTH AT HOME AND ABROAD.

GATES: The Holocaust is a huge shaping force in your life…

DERSHOWITZ: Yes.

GATES: …I would imagine.

DERSHOWITZ: For me, never again is not a slogan. It’s my life’s commitment. I grew up with survivors. I grew up with people with their numbers tattooed on their wrists. I grew up with stories, mostly untold. It really was a generational silence but we knew, we knew.

GATES VO: TONY, CAROLE, AND ALAN, LIKE ALL JEWISH AMERICANS, HAVE EXPERIENCED PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION BECAUSE OF THEIR FAITH AND THEIR CULTURE.

TONIGHT I’M GOING TO SHARE WITH THEM SOME SURPRISINGLY DRAMATIC STORIES ABOUT THEIR IMMIGRANT ANCESTORS WHO STRUGGLED AGAINST INTOLERANCE AND WHOSE UNSHAKEABLE PURSUIT OF RELIGIOUS AND PERSONAL FREEDOM LAID THE FOUNDATION FOR THE LIVES MY THREE GUESTS ENJOY TODAY.

FIRST KING ANCESTRY STORY

GATES VO: CAROLE KING GREW UP IN A PREDOMINANTLY JEWISH NEIGHBORHOOD IN BROOKLYN, SURROUNDED BY A LARGE EXTENDED FAMILY.

KING: We were a close family, and my grandparents. We lived near them so I saw them a lot when I was a child.

GATES VO: CAROLE SPENT MUCH OF HER CHILDHOOD WITH HER MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER SARAH BESMOGIN, WHOM CAROLE SAID SPOKE VERY LITTLE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A YOUNG IMMIGRANT COMING TO AMERICA.

BORN TO PEASANTS IN THE RUSSIAN CITY OF ORSHA ON APRIL 15TH 1890, SARAH BESMOGIN WAS DRIVEN BY A DESIRE TO BUILD A BETTER LIFE FOR HER FAMILY. HER MUSICAL AMBITIONS WOULD BE PASSED DOWN TO HER GRANDDAUGHTER CAROLE.

KING: My grandmother, she was a child of a baker and she would deliver the bread to the rich girls’ homes, and she’d press her nose up against the window and see the rich girls playing piano, and she would never get to do that in her status as a Jewish woman of her generation…

GATES: Did grandma Sarah ever have any stories from Orsha? Her childhood?

KING: She didn’t speak. She didn’t want to speak Russian. She didn’t want to tell any stories. Not to me.

GATES VO: WE WANTED TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SARAH’S LIFE BEFORE SHE IMMIGRATED AND WHY SHE NEVER SPOKE ABOUT HER PAST.

CAROLE’S GRANDMOTHER SPENT HER CHILDHOOD AMONG THE NEARLY 5 MILLION RUSSIAN JEWS CONFINED TO AN AREA ALONG THE EMPIRE’S WESTERN BORDER. KNOWN AS THE PALE OF SETTLEMENT, IT WAS THE LARGEST JEWISH COMMUNITY IN THE WORLD AT THAT TIME.

ESTABLISHED IN 1791 BY THE RUSSIAN EMPRESS CATHERINE THE GREAT, THE SETTLEMENT’S ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES WERE SEVERELY RESTRICTED, LEAVING THE JEWS LIVING WITHIN THE PALE, LIKE CAROLE’S GRANDMOTHER SARAH, TO LANGUISH IN POVERTY.

GATES: So they were all concentrated in that part of this vast empire called Russia.

KING: Unbelievable. No wonder she aspired to wealth, and culture. All consistent.

GATES VO: CAROLE’S GRANDMOTHER SARAH WAS 15 YEARS OLD WHEN THE RUSSIAN CZAR NICHOLAS THE 2ND, RESPONDING TO SOCIAL UNREST AMONG THE PEASANTS, ISSUED THE 1905 OCTOBER MANIFESTO, A PROCLAMATION THAT OSTENSIBLY WOULD HAVE PUT ALL JEWISH PEOPLE ON AN EQUAL FOOTING WITH ALL OTHER RUSSIANS.

BUT RATHER THAN EMANCIPATE RUSSIAN’S JEWISH POPULATION, THE MANIFESTO SET OFF A RASH OF REACTIONARY POGROMS – OUTBREAKS OF ANTI-SEMITIC VIOLENCE THAT SPREAD THROUGH HUNDREDS OF TOWNS IN THE PALE, INCLUDING THE CITY OF ORSHA, WHERE CAROLE’S GRANDMOTHER LIVED.

IN THE ARCHIVES OF A RUSSIAN NEWSPAPER, WE DISCOVERED AN ACCOUNT OF THE BRUTALITY THAT TOOK PLACE THERE.

KING: The town is completely torn apart, terrorized for two days, destroyed houses, stores, and looted Jewish property. Masses of killed and wounded. The town was burning in several places. Wow.

GATES: When it’s all over 32 Jews were dead. Hundreds severely injured.

KING: No wonder she didn’t tell, I mean this is something… my grandmother would put a wall up. I don’t even want to think about it, so…

GATES: Precisely, and she was 15.

KING: 15.

GATES: Like many of Orsha’s Jews, they probably locked themselves inside their home and prayed that these thugs were not going to come and kill them.

KING: Yes.

GATES: Would you please turn the page? A Russian newspaper published those photos of some of the victims. What impact do you think the pogrom had on your grandmother?

KING: Um it closed a part of her off. She was not a woman who was warm or affectionate.

GATES: Well now we can begin to understand why. It’s a horrible, horrible thing.

GATES VO: THESE ANTI-SEMITIC ATTACKS THROUGHOUT RUSSIA PROMPTED TENS OF THOUSANDS OF JEWISH PEOPLE TO FLEE TO THE UNITED STATES.

IN THE EARLY DECADES OF THE 20TH CENTURY, WAVES OF IMPOVERISHED JEWISH IMMIGRANTS, INCLUDING CAROLE’S 21 YEAR OLD GRANDMOTHER SARAH, MADE THE GRUELING WEEKS LONG TRANSATLANTIC JOURNEY CROWDED TOGETHER IN THE FETID UNDERBELLY OF STEERAGE COMPARTMENTS AND PASSENGER SHIPS.

SEARCHING RECORDS FOR ANY SIGN OF CAROLE’S GRANDMOTHER, WE DISCOVERED A PASSENGER LIST FOR A SHIP CALLED THE S.S. KURSK. DOCKING AT ELLIS ISLAND ON DECEMBER 14TH, 1911, THE SHIP’S MANIFEST CONTAINED AN ENTRY THAT WE KNEW CAROLE WOULD WANT TO SEE.

KING: AH! Oh I love this. It’s the list of alien passengers, which means foreign, not space people. The highlighted name is Sheina Besmosgin.

GATES: Have you ever heard of Sheina Besmosgin?

KING: No, I don’t know who he or she is. I’m guessing he. Is that my great grandfather?

GATES: Sheina Besmosgin is your grandmother Sarah. Sheina was her Yiddish name before she Americanized it to Sarah.

KING: You got the jaw drop. No… I thought it was. Wow. Amazing. Nope, but it’s so great because it’s so consistent with the grandma that I know. You know, it’s like, I get it, even more. There’s a reason for this.

FIRST KUSHNER ANCESTRY STORY

TENEMENT SHOTS

GATES VO: LIKE MOST EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS WHO CAME TO AMERICA AT THE DAWN OF THE 20TH CENTURY, JEWISH PEOPLE CLUNG TO THEIR COMMUNITY AND TRADITIONS– RECONSTRUCTING AS BEST THEY COULD THEIR TIGHT KNIT FAMILY BONDS FROM THE OLD WORLD IN NEIGHBORHOODS TEEMING WITH NEW IMMIGRANTS WITHIN MAJOR EAST COAST CITIES.

HOME MOVIES

GATES VO: THE KUSHNER’S WERE NO EXCEPTION… WHEN TONY WAS TWO, HIS FAMILY MOVED FROM NEW YORK TO LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA TO LIVE AMONG COUSINS AND HIS GRANDPARENTS. BUT WHAT MAKES THEM UNIQUE IS THAT THEY WERE PART OF A CLOSE KNIT SOUTHERN JEWISH COMMUNITY THAT SURPRISINGLY DATES BACK TO THE EARLY 19TH CENTURY.

WE WENT THERE WITH HIM TO VISIT HIS CHILDHOOD SYNAGOGUE, TEMPLE SINAI, WHERE HE REMINISCED WITH THE RABBI AND AN OLD FAMILY FRIEND.

TEMPLE SINAI B-ROLL

KUSHNER: I had the hardest time not laughing in Schull. We just found everything that happened here hysterically funny.

KUSHNER: There we all are.

SANDY: There’s your mom, Tony.

KUSHNER: Where is she?

SANDY: Right here.

KUSHNER: Right.

GATES: Many people are shocked to realize that there has been an historic Jewish presence anywhere in the South.

KUSHNER: As far as I can tell all the way back to the founding of Temple Sinai there was an enormously powerful and proud, um, affiliation, uh, with Jewish history, Jewish culture, and Jewish identity.

KUSHNER: And that’s Rabbi Rosenblatt, and that’s Rabbi Marks…

GATES VO: TONY WANTED TO KNOW MORE ABOUT HIS ANCESTOR’S DECISION TO LIVE AMONG A SMALL JEWISH MINORITY IN THE SOUTHERN UNITED STATES.

TO FIND OUT WHY, WE TRACED TONY BACK TO THE FIRST KUSHNER ANCESTOR WHO CAME TO AMERICA AND THAT WAS HIS GREAT GRANDFATHER, EZRAEL KUSHNER.

WHEN HE ARRIVED HERE FROM KOVNO, RUSSIA IN 1890, EZRAEL WAS 18 YEARS OLD: THE AGE OF CONSCRIPTION — AT A TIME WHEN THE RUSSIAN MILITARY WAS A VERY DANGEROUS PLACE FOR JEWISH MEN TO SERVE.

KUSHNER: Legend was that he had worked as a tailor for the Russian navy, and that he fled when he became afraid that he was gonna get enlisted in the draft, which for Jewish men frequently meant the end because they were killed by their own comrades as often as anything else. And the story I was told was that he took a spool of gold thread, stuck it in a jar of chicken fat, and somehow used the gold thread to pay for his passage and got…

GATES: (laughs)

KUSHNER: It’s very romantic. I don’t know that any of this is true. But that’s what I was told.

GATES VO: WHILE WE COULDN’T CONFIRM TONY’S COLORFUL ANCESTRAL TALE, WE DID DISCOVER SOMETHING FASCINATING ABOUT HIS GREAT GRANDFATHER’S CHOICE TO PUT DOWN ROOTS IN THE SOUTHERN UNITED STATES.

JEWISH IMMIGRANTS MADE THEIR WAY SOUTH IN SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS FOLLOWING THE CIVIL WAR. THE END OF SLAVERY CREATED NEW ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES: SUPPLYING GOODS AND SERVICES TO RECENTLY-FREED SLAVES AND THEIR DESCENDANTS, NOW SUDDENLY THRUST INTO THE MARKETPLACE AS CONSUMERS.

WE WONDERED IF THIS INFORMED TONY’S GREAT GRANDFATHER’S DECISION TO SETTLE WITH HIS FAMILY IN LAKE CHARLES LOUISIANA? A 1927 CITY DIRECTORY GAVE US THE ANSWER.

KUSHNER: Wow… well that’s cool… Kushner Lumber and Building Company. Ezrael Kushner President. Sam Kushner Secretary/ Treasurer.

GATES: By 1927 your grandfather and your great-grandfather were running their own lumber company. What can you tell me about Kushner lumber?

KUSHNER: Again this is a story I was told that my great-grandfather started the Kushner Lumber Company in the black neighborhood because there was no lumber business there, and he saw a business opportunity. We just dissolved it. It went out of business in 2013.

GATES: Wow.

GATES VO: IN LAYING A FOUNDATION HERE IN AMERICA, TONY’S GREAT GRANDFATHER EZRAEL ESTABLISHED A BUSINESS THAT PROVIDED FOR GENERATIONS OF KUSHNERS TO COME—A MODEL OF THE JEWISH IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE.

BUT AS WE RESEARCHED EZRAEL’S STORY WE ALSO FOUND SOMETHING SURPRISING. LISTED IN THE 1930 FEDERAL CENSUS WAS AN ANCESTOR OF TONY’S WHO DIDN’T MAKE THE JOURNEY SOUTH. INSTEAD, SHE WAS LIVING IN BROOKLYN.

KUSHNER: Cecilia Kushner.

GATES: Have you ever heard of Cecilia Kushner.

KUSHNER: No.

GATES: Tony, that’s your great-great grandmother.

KUSHNER: Wow. That’s astonishing. Who was she?

GATES VO: RECORDS SHOW THAT TONY’S GREAT-GREAT GRANDMOTHER CECILIA KUSHNER WAS BORN IN RUSSIA IN 1838. MAKING HER 60 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE CAME TO AMERICA—EIGHT YEARS AFTER HER SON EZRAEL ARRIVED HERE.

WE DON’T KNOW WHY CECILIA CHOSE TO LIVE IN BROOKLYN WHEN HER SON LIVED IN LOUISIANA. PERHAPS SHE SIMPLY PREFERRED NEW YORK WITH ITS THRIVING JEWISH IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY.

REGARDLESS, MOTHER AND SON REMAINED CLOSE AS EVIDENCED BY EZRAEL’S WILL. FILED IN 1930 IT REFLECTS THE HIGH VALUE THE JEWISH CULTURE PLACES ON COMMITMENT TO FAMILY.

KUSHNER: That’s incredible. Where did you find it?

GATES: (laughs) Can you read the highlighted section, please?

KUSHNER: It is my desire that there be paid out of my estate to my mother, Mrs. Cecilia Kushner, the sum of $25 per month during her lifetime. Wow. That’s amazing. That’s really incredibly moving. I had no idea. It’s an incredibly powerful thing.

FIRST DERSHOWITZ ANCESTRY STORY

VERITE – SKIP AND ALAN WALK IN BOROUGH PARK.

DERSHOWITZ: This is where I played punch ball on the street. Of course there were no cars in those days… This would be home plate.

GATES: OK.

DERSHOWITZ: You’d have the ball, and if you could punch it — you see one sewer down there.

GATES: Yeah.

DERSHOWITZ: Two sewers, you were very good. Three sewers: major league.

GATES VO: I WAS DELIGHTED TO ACCOMPANY ALAN DERSHOWITZ ON A TOUR OF THE BROOKLYN NEIGHBORHOOD WHERE HE GREW UP.

GATES: Did you know any non-Jews in school?

DERSHOWITZ: My first twelve years of school I didn’t know any non-Jews…

GATES VO: ALAN WAS JUST TRYING TO BE AN ALL-AMERICAN BOY IN AN ORTHODOX JEWISH COMMUNITY WHERE STRICT RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE AND TRADITION STILL RUN DEEP, AND WHERE THE DEFINITION OF “FAMILY” EXTENDS FAR BEYOND THE HOUSE IN WHICH YOU WERE RAISED.

DERSHOWITZ: I lived here. I lived in this house.

GATES: Alan Dershowitz.

MAN: And your mother lived on 51st Street.

DERSHOWITZ: No, my mother lived right here. My grandmother lived on 51 st.
MAN: And she was a distant cousin to my great grandmother.

DERSHOWITZ: Really? Who’s your great grandmother?

MAN: Sambel is the name.

DERSHOWITZ: I know the Sambels.

GATES VO: ALAN’S GRANDMOTHER BLIMA RINGEL IMPOSED A STRICT ORTHODOXY ON ALAN FROM THE TIME HE WAS A YOUNG BOY. BUT HER STORY EXEMPLIFIES THE OFTEN DIFFICULT PROCESS OF ASSIMILATION FOR EASTERN EUROPEAN JEWS COMING TO AMERICA, STRUGGLING TO BALANCE THEIR OLD WORLD VALUES WITH MODERN, TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICAN VALUES.

DERSHOWITZ: My grandmother dominated the family. Her word was law. Her favorite word was matornisht. You’re not allowed. And if would ever do anything I would get smacked on the fingers and matornisht. You’re not allowed to have a chocolate bar so soon after having a hamburger. Matornisht, matornisht. (slaps his hand)

GATES: I would get tired of someone smacking my hand and not giving me my chocolate bar, right?

DERSHOWITZ: Right. I had an ambivalent relationship with her. When I would come home from a Brooklyn Dodger game and say grandma the Brooklyn Dodgers won she would say, “yeah but was it good or bad for the Jews.”

GATES VO: BUT ALAN’S GRANDMOTHER HAD GOOD REASON TO CLING TO HER CULTURAL TRADITIONS AND RELIGIOUS FAITH. LIKE CAROLE KING AND TONY KUSHNER’S ANCESTORS, BLIMA AND HER HUSBAND NAFTALI WERE FORCED TO FLEE THEIR HOMELAND BECAUSE THEY WERE JEWISH.

ALAN’S GRANDPARENTS BLIMA AND NAFTALI RINGEL WERE BORN IN THE 1800’S IN AN AREA THAT WAS THEN CALLED GALICIA. NOW LOCATED IN POLAND, GALICIA WAS AN AGRICULTURAL CENTER FOR THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE AND WHILE THE REGION WAS POOR, IT CONTAINED THRIVING, TIGHTLY KNIT JEWISH COMMUNITIES.

MAP OF GALICIA REGION

FAMILY TREE

DERSHOWITZ: They were Galician’s which is the lowest level of Eastern European Jew. We were the peasants, the non-intellectuals.

GATES VO: ALAN’S GRANDPARENTS WERE TEENAGERS WHEN IN 1898 WHEN—AFTER A DECADE OF CROP FAILURES—GALICIA WAS THROWN INTO AN ECONOMIC CRISIS. JEWISH MERCHANTS AND BANKERS WERE USED AS SCAPEGOATS. WHIPPED INTO FRENZY BY ANTI-SEMITIC RHETORIC, THEIR CHRISTIAN NEIGHBORS LOOTED AND DESTROYED HUNDREDS OF JEWISH HOMES AND BUSINESSES.

THE VIOLENCE SPREAD ACROSS THE REGION; INCLUDING THE HOMETOWNS OF ALAN’S GRANDPARENTS, NAFTALI AND BLIMA.

GATES: Galicia’s Jews referred to these riots as “The Plunder”. So how do you think this experience affected their Jewish identity? Some people would have fled being Jewish. Too dangerous.

DERSHOWITZ: For my grandparents there was no option. They couldn’t reject their Jewishness. Their Jewishness was who they were. They could reject their Polishness, and they did. They left Poland.

GATES VO: BETWEEN 1900 AND 1910, nearly 170,000 JEWS FLED PERSECUTION THROUGHOUT THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE, THE VAST MAJORITY COMING FROM THE GALICIA REGION.

GATES: This is the passenger record from the SS America. The SS America arrived at Ellis Island August 17th, 1907. Can you tell me who was on this ship my friend?

DERSHOWITZ: Naftali Ringel. And isn’t it amazing that he came on a ship called America.

GATES: Yeah I know.

DERSHOWITZ: Do you know there used to be a law in Judaism that you couldn’t travel on a boat on the Sabbath. Had that law not been changed none of the Jews of Europe could have come to America because it took more than seven days and you’d have to be on the boat over the Sabbath. And that’s what allowed religious Jews to come to America.

GATES: Good move rabbis.

DERSHOWITZ: Yeah, yeah.

GATES VO: TWO YEARS AFTER ALAN’S GRANDFATHER NAFTALI PASSED THROUGH ELLIS ISLAND, HIS WIFE BLIMA ALSO EMIGRATED TO AMERICA. BUT ACCORDING TO FAMILY LEGEND, THE REUNION DIDN’T GO SO WELL.

DERSHOWITZ: When my grandfather left Poland he had a long, long beard, and apparently he cut off his beard. And when my grandmother saw him she didn’t recognize him. And she didn’t believe that this was her husband and rejected him.

GATES: Oh, really?

DERSHOWITZ: Yeah.

GATES VO: NOT RECOGNIZING HER CLEAN-SHAVEN HUSBAND WAS THE FIRST SIGN TO ALAN’S GRANDMOTHER THAT HER OLD WORLD CUSTOMS AND EXPECTATIONS MIGHT BE ON A COLLISION COURSE WITH NEW WORLD WAYS.

ADAPTING TO THE FAST-PACED LIFE IN AMERICA CAME MORE NATURALLY TO HER HUSBAND NAFTALI, AS THIS DOCUMENT FILED ONLY SEVEN YEARS AFTER HE ARRIVED ATTESTS.

DERSHOWITZ: Quite something.

GATES: It’s an actual certificate of your ancestor’s
naturalization. Can you tell me to whom it was issued?

DERSHOWITZ: To Naftali Ringel, um, my grandfather.

GATES: And that’s his actual signature.

DERSHOWITZ: Yes, yes. And it’s a beautiful signature.
GATES: Can you tell me what it says transcribed at the bottom?

DERSHOWITZ: It was ordered by the court that he be admitted as a citizen of the United States of America. I can imagine how proud he must have been. It’s, it’s amazing.

GATES VO: WITH NAFTALI’S NATURALIZATION, BLIMA ALSO WON AMERICAN CITIZENSHIP. AND IN TIME SHE WOULD BECOME COMFORTABLE WEARING A PRAYER SHAWL AND WAVING THE STARS AND STRIPES.

DERSHOWITZ: My grandmother loved America. She would make my brother and me recite the pledge of allegiance. Go to the Statue of Liberty. Her biggest holidays were July 4th. America was everything that Poland was not.

GATES: America was everything that Poland was not.

DERSHOWITZ: Right. Yeah, yeah.

GATES VO: JEWISH AMERICANS SHARED MUCH IN COMMON WITH OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS WHO CROSSED THE ATLANTIC SEEKING A BETTER LIFE.

BUT THERE IS ONE CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE. THE LONG HISTORY OF THEIR PERSECUTION, AND THE MANY ATTEMPTS SYSTEMATICALLY TO ANNIHILATE THEM, MADE THE JEWISH QUEST FOR HAVEN IN THE NEW WORLD LITERALLY A MATTER OF SURVIVAL.

MAP OF GALICIA AND THE PALE OF SETTLEMENT AND THEIR CLOSE PROXIMITY

GATES VO: AND AS MY GUESTS WERE ABOUT TO LEARN THERE WAS NO GUARANTEE THAT JEWISH IMMIGRANTS WOULD BE WELCOMED HERE WITH OPEN ARMS.

2ND ANCESTRY STORY OF CAROLE KING

GATES VO: WE REVEALED TO CAROLE KING THE HARROWING JOURNEY OF HER MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER, SARAH BESMOSGIN, WHO FOUND A SAFE HAVEN IN AMERICA. NOW WE WANTED TO SHARE WITH HER THE IMPROBABLE IMMIGRATION STORY OF HER PATERNAL GRANDPARENTS—DAVID AND MOLLIE KLEIN—WHO ARRIVED HERE WITH THE FAMILY NAME “GLEIMAN.”

THEIR EXPERIENCE DEMONSTRATES JUST HOW FRAUGHT FINDING SANCTUARY IN THE UNITED STATES OFTEN COULD BE.

FAMILY TREE INTRODUCES GRANDPARENTS

GATES: (laughing) Now, those are your grandparents.

KING: Yes.

GATES: Do you know anything about their Russian experience?

KING: David was a tailor. Molly’s family had a little more money. They looked down on a tailor. So they fell in love and to my understanding they ran away together. They really wanted to get to America where there would not be those class differences, get out of their village and they eloped.

GATES VO: WE FOUND THE NAMES OF THE YOUNG LOVERS ON A PASSENGER LIST FOR A SHIP CALLED THE S.S. GUILIA, ARRIVING AT ELLIS ISLAND ON NOVEMBER 25TH 1904. BUT THEN WE LEARNED THEY RAN INTO TROUBLE…

GATES: Can you tell me how much money they had between them?

KING: In possession of $2 between them.

GATES: Two dollars.

KING: Two dollars. And unable to read. Both of them could not read. Wow.

GATES: Do you know what happened, Carole, to immigrants who were illiterate and had $2?

KING: No.
GATES: Turn the page. This is a list of the immigrants arriving on the S.S. Giulia who were detained at Ellis Island.

KING: David Gleiman and wife.

GATES: Immigration officials doubted that your grandparents could support themselves in the United States, so they didn’t let them in the country.

KING: Unbelievable.

GATES VO: AFTER CROSSING A CONTINENT AND OCEAN TO BE TOGETHER, CAROLE’S ANCESTORS, LIKE OTHER DETAINEES, WERE SEPARATED BY GENDER AND THEN HELD IN UNBEARABLY HOT AND CROWDED, LICE-RIDDEN CELLS.

UNABLE TO SEE OR SPEAK TO EACH OTHER, THEY WERE HERDED TOGETHER WITH THOSE WHOSE PHYSICAL CONDITION OR ECONOMIC CIRCUMSTANCES MIGHT PREVENT THEM FROM ENTERING.

IF THEY COULDN’T DEMONSTRATE THAT THEY HAD A MEANS OF SUPPORT IN THE UNITED STATES,CAROLE’S GRANDPARENTS RISKED BEING SENT BACK TO RUSSIA.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE PASSENGER RECORDS REVEALED A MYSTERY PERSON WHO WOULD CHANGE THE YOUNG COUPLES’ FATE.

GATES: Now it tells us that someone came to meet your grandparents.

KING: Yes. It says cousin, Mr. Sam Kline. K-L-I-N-E.

GATES: (Laughing) Have you ever heard of Sam Kline?

KING: Not that I know of.

GATES: We searched everywhere, but we couldn’t figure out how he was even related to your grandparents.

KING: Oh, my gosh.

GATES: But he played a huge role in your family’s history because had he not shown up you’d have been singing, how do you say, Natural Woman in Polish.

KING: Right. I Feel the Earth Move in Russian. Ah, my goodness. Well that may be where they got the name.

GATES: It could be.

KING: They probably adopted it. I thought, uhm, an official had changed their name when they came in, but…

GATES: No. That’s a common myth but it almost never happened.

KING: Hm. Okay.

GATES: But this guy played a huge role…

KING: Do I have to rewrite my book now?

GATES: (laughs) Could you please turn the page? Can you read what it says next to David and Mollie’s names?

KING: Admitted and admitted.

GATES: Admitted. Sam convinced the immigration officials to let your family into the United States. So they were in detention three days.

KING: Three days.

GATES: Three days.

KING: That must have been the longest three days in their lives.

GATES: Yep.

KING: Wow.

GATES: So they went to Klein, you went from Klein.

KING: That’s right.

GATES: (Laughing) Yeah.

KING: Actually, I am still Klein. I’ve incorporated that…my legal now is Carole King-Klein.

GATES: Oh great.

KING: You know, I went through four marriages and changed my name every single time and then I finally came back to, ‘No, I’m Klein’! So that’s pretty cool.

2nd KUSHNER ANCESTRY STORY

VERITE OF TONY WITH BRENDA LOOKING AT PHOTOS.

KUSHNER: This is Grandma and Grandpa. And that’s me.

BRENDA: Yeah.

KUSHNER: I think we probably weren’t living in Lake Charles yet.

GATES VO: SETTLING IN THE AMERICAN SOUTH, TONY’S PATERNAL GREAT-GRANDFATHER EZRAEL KUSHNER MANAGED TO FIND COMMUNITY AND THRIVE, BUILDING A FAMILY BUSINESS THAT WOULD SUSTAIN GENERATIONS OF KUSHNERS.

BUT THE STORY OF TONY’S MATERNAL ANCESTORS WAS MORE COMPLEX. AND THEIR JOURNEY HIGHLIGHTS BOTH THE TRIUMPHS AND TRAGEDIES OF THE JEWISH AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. IT BEGINS WITH TONY’S GRANDFATHER, BORN IN 1884, IN A REGION OF POLAND THAT WAS THEN PART OF THE AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE—HIS NAME WAS BENJAMIN DEUTSCHER.

VERITE OF BRENDA AND TONY LOOKING AT PHOTOS.

KUSHNER: That’s Benny and Sarah.

BRENDA: Oh my.

KUSHNER: I’ve never seen that picture before. …He had a car I know because he took the family on outings in a car.

GATES VO: WHEN BENJAMIN DEUTSCHER LEFT HOME IN 1904, HE WAS THE FIRST MEMBER OF HIS FAMILY TO MIGRATE TO AMERICA, LEAVING BEHIND HIS SIBLINGS AND HIS PARENTS: TONY’S GREAT GRANDPARENTS, PINCUS DEUTSCHER AND CHANY SOMER.

TONY WAS NEVER CERTAIN OF THE FATE OF HIS ANCESTORS WHO STAYED BEHIND IN POLAND IN 1939 DURING THE TIME OF THE NAZI OCCUPATION.

WE DO KNOW THAT TONY’S GRANDFATHER AND, EVENTUALLY, HIS THREE BROTHERS ALL WERE ABLE TO LEAVE POLAND. IN FACT, WE FOUND AN ARTICLE FROM A NEW YORK NEWSPAPER DETAILING THE ARRIVAL OF TONY’S GREAT UNCLE, AARON JACOB DEUTCHSER – KNOWN AS “JACK” – WHO GOT HERE JUST AS THINGS WERE ABOUT TO TURN DISASTROUS FOR POLISH JEWS.

GATES: Have you ever seen that article, that news clip before?

KUSHNER: No I don’t think so. His name is misspelled. Deutschler.

GATES: Yeah could you read the headline?

KUSHNER: …and brother Benjamin. Dr. Aaron Deutschler finds U.S. a happier place to live.

GATES: This is an article about your… great uncle.

KUSHNER: He fled…

GATES: Yep, he fled Poland and arrived in the United States on March 14th, 1938. Would you mind reading the highlighted section of the article?

KUSHNER: His parents are still in their little home of Nadworna, and last night the brothers made a pact to bring them to this country as soon as possible. Wow.

GATES: Do you know anything about their efforts to get the rest of the family over?

KUSHNER: I don’t know exactly what the efforts were. But, I mean there was definitely not much money. And what I’ve always been told is that, by the time they had enough to get the sisters a passage on a boat, they couldn’t contact them anymore. They couldn’t make contact.

GATES VO: BY 1941, THE NAZIS WERE ROUNDING UP JEWISH PEOPLE ALL THROUGHOUT POLAND.

WE FOUND AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE HORRIFYING EVENTS THAT TOOK PLACE IN TONY’S ANCESTRAL HOME, NADWORNA, ON OCTOBER SIXTH OF THAT YEAR.

GATES: This is a statement made by one of the German soldiers who was there that day.

KUSHNER: Three or four trucks brought the Jews to a forest about ten kilometers from Nadworna. With one of the first trucks I arrived at the shooting site. The executions were already in progress. Many of the Jews lay naked in the ditch and were already dead. The shooting continued as long as we saw that there were any living Jews laying in the ditches. The only time we stopped was to wait for the next truck to arrive. Ugh. I, you know, I don’t, I don’t know what to say about it. It’s un… It’s unspeakable.

GATES: The Nazi officers who planned this massacre referred to it in their correspondence as a wedding. They said they were planning a wedding, and they talked about the victims as guests.

GATES VO: TWO THOUSAND POLISH JEWS WERE EXECUTED ON THAT SINGLE DAY IN THE FOREST OF NADWORNA.

BUT WITHOUT DOCUMENTED PROOF, TONY COULDN’T KNOW FOR SURE IF HIS ANCESTORS WERE AMONG THE VICTIMS OF THAT MASSACRE.

TO UNCOVER THE ANSWER FOR HIM, MORE THAN 70 YEARS LATER, WE TURNED TO ORAL HISTORIES FROM SURVIVORS AND THEIR DESCENDANTS. THEIR TESTIMONY APPEARS IN WHAT ARE KNOWN AS YIZKOR BOOKS— YIDDISH FOR “REMEMBER.”THERE, WE FOUND A REFERENCE TO TONY’S FAMILY MEMBERS.

KUSHNER: Pincus Deutscher and Hannah Deutscher, my sister Malka Kernar, Vludwig Kernar, ..their kids Marta and Manick, my sister Leika Hect, my brother in law Metist Hect, and the kids Lanick and Manick, all killed by the German murderers. Yeah, there you go. Unbelievable. I think it’s important that people are careful about the different levels of suffering and different levels of horror. Genocide is a specific thing. Slavery is a specific thing. It’s a kind of soul murder that is unlike other forms of oppression. The holocaust is a near successful attempt to obliterate…

GATES: …In less than a decade.

KUSHNER: In less than a decade an entire civilization. This is beyond human comprehension. And you don’t repress the fact that it happened, but you allow a ring of unknowing to surround it because you can’t… you know what was it like on a slave ship… what was it like in Auschwitz. Our great good fortune in a way is to not actually know directly.

2nd DERSHOWITZ ANCESTRY STORY

GATES VO: DECADES BEFORE THE HOLOCAUST, ALAN DERSHOWITZ’S ANCESTORS NAFTALI AND BLIMA RINGEL HELD ONTO THEIR RELIGIOUS ORTHODOXY WHEN THEY FLED ANTI-SEMITIC VIOLENCE IN GALICIA.

ALAN TOOK ME BACK TO THE BOROUGH PARK SYNAGOGUE WHERE HIS FAMILY ONCE WORSHIPPED.

ALAN AND SKIP IN THE SYNAGOGUE IN BORO PARK HERE

DERSHOWITZ: This synagogue is about 100 years old. Borough Park is one of the only neighborhoods’ that has always been Jewish. That is, it was not a neighborhood until the Jews moved in here around 1900. And this is one of the first synagogues built in the neighborhood, and it’s built in the tradition of the great Polish synagogues with the high dome.

GATES: Oh my God, look at that.

DERSHOWITZ: Yeah.

GATES VO: WE FOUND OUT THAT ANOTHER SYNAGOGUE IN ALAN’S FAMILY HISTORY WOULD BE MUCH MORE THAN A HOUSE OF WORSHIP – IT INVOLVES THE REMARKABLE STORY OF ALAN’S GRANDFATHER, LOUIS DERSHOWITZ, A MAN WHO WAS WILLING TO GO TO EXTRAORDINARY LENGTHS TO SAVE HIS FAMILY FROM CERTAIN DEATH IN NAZI OCCUPIED POLAND.

DERSHOWITZ: My grandfather Louie was a lovely, lovely man. He was an all American guy. Wore a straw hat, liked the Brooklyn Dodgers, liked America and liked being in America.

GATES VO: LOUIE DERSHOWITZ WAS 9 YEARS OLD WHEN HE ARRIVED HERE IN 1891 AND SETTLED WITH HIS FAMILY IN THE WILLIAMSBURG SECTION OF BROOKLYN.

THE SEEDS OF A BUSTLING ORTHODOX JEWISH COMMUNITY WERE BEING SOWN THERE AND THE DERSHOWITZ MEN WOULD EVENTUALLY ESTABLISH THE NEIGHBORHOOD’S FIRST STEEPLE, A SMALL ORTHODOX COMMUNITY SYNAGOGUE IN THE BASEMENT OF THEIR TENTH STREET HOME

DERSHOWITZ: This was a synagogue without a rabbi. This was a family synagogue, and the cantor was my grandfather. The lay leader was my great-grandfather.

GATES VO: DECADES LATER, THIS SYNAGOGUE WOULD PLAY A SURPRISING ROLE IN ALAN’S FAMILY HISTORY. THE NAZI MENACE WAS GROWING THROUGHOUT EUROPE.

JEWS DESPERATE TO ESCAPE WERE FLEEING IN GREAT NUMBERS. IN RESPONSE, THE UNITED STATES RESORTED TO IMMIGRATION QUOTAS AND OTHER ONEROUS VISA RESTRICTIONS TO CONTROL THE FLOW OF JEWISH REFUGEES.

IN 1939 THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION TURNED AWAY THE ST. LOUIS—A SHIP CARRYING 907 PASSENGERS, MOST OF THEM GERMAN JEWISH REFUGEES—FORCING ITS RETURN TO EUROPE, WHERE HUNDREDS OF THEM WOULD ULTIMATELY DIE IN CONCENTRATION CAMPS.

GIVEN THIS CLIMATE, WE WONDERED ABOUT THE FATE OF ALAN’S ANCESTORS WHO REMAINED BEHIND IN EUROPE. SCOURING DOCUMENTS FROM THE TIME, WE WERE SURPRISED BY WHAT WE FOUND.

GATES: Alan, this is a set of passenger records from 1939.

DERSHOWITZ: Amazing. I’ve never seen these before.

GATES: Can you read the transcribed names?

DERSHOWITZ: Yeah. Haschel Dershowitz…Aaron Deresowitz…Hersh Deresowitz… Wolf Deresowitz… I knew all these people. This is absolutely remarkable…

GATES VO: HOW COULD SO MANY OF ALAN’S FAMILY MEMBERS HAVE GAINED ENTRY TO THE UNITED STATES WHEN SO MANY OTHERS WERE BEING DENIED? WHAT WE LEARNED, ASTONISHED US.

ALAN’S GRANDFATHER, LOUIE, HATCHED AN INGENIOUS PLAN, HE USED HIS TINY BASEMENT SYNAGOGUE TO RESCUE HIS FAMILY. BY ISSUING AFFIDAVITS GUARANTEEING THEY HAD EMPLOYMENT, LOUIE PROVED THAT HIS RELATIVES HAD A PURPOSE FOR COMING TO AMERICA.

DERSHOWITZ: My grandfather would have affidavits saying our synagogue needs a rabbi, it needs a hazen, it needs a circumciser, it needs a schochet, it needs shamitz. So they had the opportunity to say we have a job. …and they would come over. They weren’t real rabbis. They were people from all aspects of life and these are the relatives that my grandfather saved.

GATES VO: TWENTY-EIGHT DERSHOWITZ COUSINS WERE SAVED BY THIS BRILLIANTLY ARTFUL DECEPTION.

IRONICALLY, THE ANCESTOR OF ONE OF THE COUNTRY’S LEADING CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEYS COMMITTED CLEVER, BUT NEVERTHELESS UNLAWFUL ACTS THAT COULD HAVE COST HIM HIS OWN HARD-EARNED FREEDOM IN THE NEW WORLD.

DERSHOWITZ: So you might ask me why I’m so sympathetic to illegal immigrants in the United States cause my family were illegal immigrants. Some of the most successful members of my family were brought over on fake affidavits.

GATES: Your grandfather was a hero Man…

DERSHOWITZ: He was… and he was so proud of what he had done…

GATES VO: SADLY, NOT ALL OF ALAN’S RELATIVES COULD BE RESCUED. THEY MET WITH THE TRAGIC FATE OF SO MANY JEWS SENT TO THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS AT PLACES LIKE AUSCHWITZ AND TREBLINKA.

BY THE TIME OF NAZI GERMANY’S UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER IN 1945, OVER SIX MILLION JEWS HAD PERISHED. WELL OVER HALF OF THEM CAME FROM POLAND.

DERSHOWITZ: The most important decision in my life was not made by me—it was made by my grandparents—to leave Poland and come to America. If they had remained in Poland I would have been four years old at the time of the final solution and I would have been part of that solution.

Skip walking in the New York Jewish Museum

GATES VO: THE HOLOCAUST AND THE VICIOUS POGROMS OF THE PAST AIMED TO ELIMINATE THE JEWISH PEOPLE COMPLETELY. TODAY WE ALL MUST CONTINUE TO RECITE THE CHAPTERS OF THIS PAINFUL PAST LEST THE SACRIFICES OF SO MANY BE FORGOTTEN.

YET RECONSTRUCTING THE DETAILS OF THESE HORRIFIC STORIES CAN BE EXCEPTIONALLY DIFFICULT. WHILE THE JEWISH PEOPLE SURVIVED, MOST OF THE RECORDS DOCUMENTING THEIR ANCESTORS’ LIVES BEFORE THE HOLOCAUST WERE PERNICIOUSLY DESTROYED.

THAT’S WHY WE WERE PLEASANTLY SURPRISED WHEN WE FOUND A RUSSIAN ARCHIVE THAT HELD A WEALTH OF INFORMATION ABOUT CAROLE KING’S ANCESTORS STRETCHING BACK FURTHER THAN WE EVER BELIEVED POSSIBLE.

GATES: All right, this is extraordinary.

KING: Wow.

GATES: This is a Russian marriage record from the year 1881.

KING: Oh my gosh.

GATES: Well Fasten your seatbelt because once we had this
marriage record, we were able to go back even further.

KING: …Are you kidding me?

GATES: Please turn the page.

KING: I guess he’s not kidding is he?

GATES: This is another marriage record and it’s from 1851.

KING: Another jaw drop. You got two.

GATES VO: INCREDIBLY, THIS DOCUMENT GAVE US THE NAMES OF CAROLE’S THIRD GREAT GRANDPARENTS, TAKING HER FAMILY LINE ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE LATE 18TH CENTURY.

KING: I am blown away.

GATES: [laughs]

KING: My people don’t, their records are gone…

GATES: George Washington was President of the United States…

KING: Still president…

GATES: …when your third great grandfather was born.

KING: That’s ridiculous. That’s not possible.

GATES: Carole you have a rich family tree.

KING: I do. Thank you.

GATES: And deep roots my god.

KING: Yeah, deep, deep roots. Deep findable roots.

GATES VO: WE CAN SEE FROM THE ANCESTORS OF TONIGHT’S GUESTS THAT FOR JEWISH PEOPLE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA WAS MORE THAN A MERE SYMBOL OF FREEDOM AND OPPORTUNITY. IT WAS A HAVEN WHERE JEWS COULD HOLD ONTO THEIR CULTURE, PRACTICE THEIR RELIGION, AND COMMEMORATE THEIR TRADITIONS – WHILE ALSO BECOMING AMERICANS.

GATES: Do you know what America meant to your grandparents?

KUSHNER: America was everything. America was the promised land. America was the place that the streets were paved with milk and honey and gold. America was for them the salvation.

KUSHNER: There’s no place in world history where I think Jews have lived more securely and more meaningfully in a certain sense than in this country. The US constitution made it possible for us to stay Jews and become free of the curse of anti-Semitism. And it’s… you know I don’t think it’s pie in the sky to say it I think it’s a powerful and meaningful thing and it’s thrilling.

GATES VO: FOR CAROLE, TONY AND ALAN, ESTABLISHING CONNECTIONS WITH LONG-LOST ANCESTORS STRENGTHENED THEIR BONDS WITH THEIR RICH JEWISH HERITAGE.

JOIN ME NEXT TIME WHEN WE REVEAL THE SECRETS OF THE PAST FOR THREE NEW GUESTS ON ANOTHER EPISODE OF FINDING YOUR ROOTS.

[END]

Episode Credits Print

A Film by Kunhardt McGee Productions
and Inkwell Films
In Association with Ark Media

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