More than DNA tests, genealogy allows us to trace our roots in history

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Image: Flickr/Breve Storia del Cinema

The recent spate of TV ads for genealogy has, I confess, irritated me: I thought I was Irish but got my DNA results back and wow, I'm Swiss, so here I am in Lederhosen, watch me yodel...I'd never throw such money away.

Yet days ago I was in Odessa, Ukraine, land of my (maternal) forefathers, with my son. Why? Roots.

We stayed in a hotel steps from the steps, the ones in Eisenstein's 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, set in 1905: the same steps the Cossacks on horseback advance inexorably down, trampling innocent civilians to crush the mutiny offshore, till that baby carriage -- the most homaged scene in film history -- starts slipping when the infant's mother falls.

I thought my reasons were personal and direct, responses to an actual voice from the mists of the past, not a TV ad. My late great-uncle Sol, a New Yorker, told me, at my grandma's funeral decades ago, about their previously unmentioned brother, Victor.

In 1905 in Odessa, during that year's failed revolution, they saw him, 15, head for the sounds of shooting at the port, the bulge of a gun visible in his pocket. His mother said, "You can't go." He replied, memorably, "Ma, you're too old to go and you can't go. The kids are too young and they can't go. And if I don't go, who will go?" He went, was arrested, sent to Siberia, escaped to America, then back to die during Russia's civil war.

But really, the undergirding for my reaction was Eisenstein's movie, most lauded of all films. It's on every "best" list or history of cinema survey. Without it, I doubt Sol's tale of Victor would've resonated so. When he told it, I instantly pictured those shots at the port as booms from the Potemkin's cannon.

In fact it turns out that Eisenstein's version, 20 years later, may've been largely fabricated -- or recast. There might've been no advance down those steps, though I once asked my grandmother about it and she said, "Yeah, the steps." I immediately took it as confirmation of the scene, though she wouldn't have been personally present.

But in retrospect, she was probably talking about the huge role those magnificent steps play in the city's life. People still amble down to them on a warm summer's night: some, entirely without irony, pushing baby carriages. And for sure the Cossacks never rode their horses down them, that was entirely my reconfiguring. In the film, they march down on foot, with some horsemen at the bottom, trapping the crowd between.

In fact, I think most of my notions about history are based on films, or distorted recollections of them. I'm no professional historian but I've written a fair amount built around history: plays, TV scripts, books.

And despite the reading or research that went into them, my strongest sense of the past undeniably comes from movies: like David Lean's version of the Russian Revolution in Dr. Zhivago, when Omar Sharif returns to his Moscow mansion, now expropriated by "the people," and has to admit, laughing: "It really is fairer."

I've even done a stage version of John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada's founder; but now that I've seen the entirely fanciful version in AMC's series, Turn, I'll never dislodge that villainous Simcoe from my mind.

So I'm inclined to think every pursuit of the past is a kind of genealogical obsession at the mercy of documents that happened to survive, pottery shards, bone fragments or some DNA you mail to, which is at bottom, not significantly more real or less noble than any other mining of the past -- though it's nice when you think you hear a more concrete, personal or authentic voice.

I sat in a Kyiv café the other day with a local academic patiently trying to piece together what actually happened during the upheaval of 2013-14. "We have reams of data," he said, "including cellphone videos and photos." Yet he's also personally agitated, about right-wing pressure on the expression of ideas, including jail threats, and the increase in violence.

At bottom, that may be what all calm pursuit of the past (lederhosen, trips to the steps or archives) at least hints at: death is stalking us, either close at hand or at a distance; ignorance is our lot; yet we carry on, meaning-seeking beings that we're doomed to be.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Flickr/Breve Storia del Cinema

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