March 7, 2016
By Arthur H. Gunther III
In my youth, in Spring Valley, N.Y., we school kids were all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and at Christmas time, we sang songs for both the holiday and Hanukkah. But beyond these events, there was no one pointing to another and saying, “Here’s the Italian kid,” or asking “What are you?” At least my time in the 1950s never had us believing we were anything but Valleyites in a community where most of our parents and grandparents were also from the village, had gone to the same schools, etc. Heck, we didn’t even think of ourselves as New Yorkers.
None of us thought about being American either, since that was taken for granted. We didn’t feel a need to shout it. The few kids who were immigrants were American to us as well, or at least we didn’t make an issue about it. They were here. They were American. It was just a different time, place, I suppose.
Now some decades later, and here I am thinking about genealogy, probably because I am about to visit my second son Andrew and his wife Patricia and the two grandkids, all in Germany because my daughter in law is an Army doctor posted there. Reluctant traveler though I am, I want to see the family, and it seems the pull of an ancestral land is getting stronger.
Like all of us except our Native Americans, to whom we owe so much (and the debt is yet to be paid), my forebears came from other lands. The surname is Prussian, but the family area that my ancestors left in 1848 or so has been in German, Russian and Polish hands, so I probably have those DNA in me, too. My mother was of almost pure Irish descent, though her father was English with possible Irish parents.
The trip to Germany is a connection to part of my family history. It is not a tracing I thought of when I was a teen when I could have asked living relatives about the past. Most of the Gunther family photographs from the later 1800s have disappeared in various moves, and my mother had none, being orphaned by her mom’s passing at age 32 and subsequent separation from her father.
It is a human thing to feel some pride that you are going to visit one of the lands of your ancestors, though in this case Germany’s history — its Nazi times and all that horror — cannot be dismissed. But I will see a country far different, and there was much in its past to be proud of, of course.
While I wish I had asked questions about genealogy when I could still speak to now-gone family, it was a blessing in the years at the South Main Street, North Main Street and other Valley schools that none of us thought we were anything but Valleyites, and by extension Americans. No rah-rah, no flag-waving, just acceptance. It was a gift, that time.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org