I go to bed at midnight, and at 2 A.M. find myself at my desk—logging on. In the middle of the day, I nap. My brain is constantly reshuffling the files and organizing the new information. On the one hand I want to know my history, and on the other it is overwhelming to become aware of so many lives and to realize that most if not all of my ancestors are completely ignorant of my history or even my existence. At times the pain is overwhelming and I have to slow down to accommodate a self that is constantly struggling to catch up, to recalibrate.
At the New York City Municipal Archives at 31 Chambers Street, I sign in at room 103 and pay $5 to use the microfilm machines. The people who work there know how to dig for buried treasure, but they are cranky—picture Danny DeVito playing the hostile clerk behind the counter.
The room is full of people piecing together their own private puzzles, and the first thing that occurs to me is they're not all adopted—so what are they looking for? I remind myself that the quest to answer the question, "Who am I?" is not unique to the adoptee. In this room, everyone is looking for something that will help them either confirm or deny part of what they believe about themselves. They are looking for backup, support, for definition. They are all deep in it, buried in names, dates, codes, but most are also happy to render assistance—some volunteer helpful hints, while others tell their stories. I often ask, "How long have you been at it?" "Seven years," one woman tells me. "It started as a hobby, a birthday present for my husband," another says. "It started when my father died," another woman says. "Have you tried the Italians? They keep good records, even on the Jews." Another woman leans over and whispers, "Have you been to Salt Lake City?" Salt Lake is "the mountain," the mecca for genealogical information—home base for the Mormons, who go around the world collecting genealogical data. Every month five to six thousand reels of microfilm are added to their collection. "I went once for two weeks," the woman tells me. "It was heaven. Think about it," she says.
There is the whir of the machines, juxtaposed against the virtual silence in which everyone works—it is difficult to stay focused. A guy in a white shirt is hogging the files; he's got multiple drawers open, his arms filled with reels, and he's blocking the way. The rule is one reel at a time, take it, look at it, and put it back—which also makes it harder to misfile upon return. "Excuse me," I say, "it's one reel at a time." He ignores me. "Excuse me," I try again. "Just a minute," he grumps, digging through a drawer. I push my leg against the drawer, threatening to close it on his hand. "Excuse me—is your dead person somehow more important than anyone elses's?"
I find marriage certificates for David and Rika Hecht; my biological paternal great-grandparents, both born in Germany, and with each comes the names of their parents, my great-great-grandparents: Nathan Hecht and Regina Grunbaum and Isaac Ehrenreich and Rosa Steigerwald. Within the hour, I have birth certificates for Irving (born Isaac), Arthur S., and Nathan—my grandfather and great-uncles.
We Hear You!