Finding Grandpa: How DNA Solved a 70 Year Mystery: Part One

I never met my maternal grandfather.

black and white profile picture of a man, my Jewish grandfather from Latvia
My grandfather Moses, aka Morris

He died when my mom was 15.  Up until June 2017, I never referred to him as my grandfather.  He was always “my mother’s father.”  I was only 9 when my grandmother died, and my interest in genealogy had not blossomed yet.  It never occurred to me to ask my grandmother about her late husband, my grandfather.  I called my grandmother Mama Amelia.  I knew Mama Amelia was a widow, and I thought talking about her husband might make her sad.  My mom had given me all the information she knew about her dad, but there were lots of missing pieces.

My grandparents met in Nicaragua in December 1929.

black and white picture of a woman, my grandmother, in her twenties
My grandmother Amelia

Mama Amelia was a strikingly beautiful lady.  I say this not because she was so dear to me, but because it was true.  As the story goes, she was sitting on a park bench, when two military guys began to harass her.  My grandfather appeared, and defended my grandmother, and made the men leave her alone.

Three months later they were married.

Just under a year passed and my mom was born.  Mama Amelia was pregnant with my mom’s little brother, when gramps decided to move to Chile.  He had a business there.  My grandfather was a co-owner of the Balart-Sallick shoe factory.  He left his small, but growing family behind in Nicaragua.

black and white picture of a little girl, (my mother), holding her younger brother
My mom and Uncle Morris

My mom’s brother, Uncle Morris, was 3 years old when their father finally decided to have his family leave Nicaragua and join him in Chile.  Uncle Morris had never met his father, as he had left Nicaragua before Morris’ birth.

My grandmother was thrilled to leave Nicaragua,

and move to a more sophisticated place like Santiago, Chile.  My mom and uncle attended the finest Catholic boarding schools Chile had to offer.  Mama Amelia was a society lady, and her husband a successful businessman.

He lived a great deal of the time in Osorno, Chile,

a town nearly 600 miles south of Santiago.  Mama Amelia never went to Osorno with him, despite her children living in boarding school.  I believe my grandfather never invited her.

When he would come “home” to visit, he would sometimes stay at a hotel instead of his apartment with his family.  I think my mom was too young to ask questions, or was afraid to.  When I learned this is how they lived, it made me very sad for my grandmother.  She must have felt hurt that her husband, whom she seldom saw, would not even stay in their home during his photo including my grandfather, grandmother, mom, uncle, and two unknown people

My mom feared her father, and said he was strict with her.  Interestingly enough, my Uncle Morris has completely different views about their father.  He loved his father, and it was clear his father loved him.  Some parents treat one gender differently than the other, and in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, perhaps it was more prevalent.  Mama Amelia did not have favorites, but my grandfather may have.

During one of his visits home,

he asked my mom if she wanted to go to Baltimore, Maryland to meet her relatives.  He had told her that is where he was born.  She was so excited, and said yes and danced around the apartment overflowing with happiness.  She had never met a single soul who was related to her father.  Unfortunately, he never took her on that trip, so she could not meet her relatives.

My mom told me stories about a small briefcase her father had with him during his visits. open, empty, old brown briefcase on a table He kept it locked, and admonished her to stay away from it.  When he came home for the last time, he did not have the briefcase with him.  He knew he was terminally ill, and would not be returning to Osorno.  He died November 1946.  Whatever was in that briefcase was to remain an eternal mystery.  Its contents, and fate, were never known.

After my grandfather died, my mom left Chile

older white haired woman, my great grandmother, sitting in a wicker chair
My great-grandmother Panfila

and went to Nicaragua to live with her grandmother (my great grandmother Panfila).  My mom moved to Nicaragua so she could start working, and support her mom and brother.  My uncle and grandmother stayed in Chile for some years, but eventually could no longer afford to live there without my grandfather’s income.  The money my mom sent them kept a roof over their heads, but Mama Amelia was no longer a society lady.  There was no point in staying in a country to which she no longer had a connection.

My mom had an opportunity to move to the United States

when a family friend offered to sponsor her.  Initially, she tried to immigrate as the daughter of a US citizen.  She had been told by her father that he was born in the USA.  The application research took 6 months.  The state department told my mom they found no record of her father being born, entering, or living in the US.  They also told her that if he came here from another country and changed his name, she would, “never find him”.

As a child, my mom had asked her father if he was Jewish.

He was furious, and said, “Who told you I was Jewish?”  She said, “no one.”  He denied it vehemently, and claimed to be Lutheran, though never stepped foot in church.

My entire life growing up, and into middle age, this is all I ever knew about my mother’s father.

June 13, 2017, everything changed.

Please see Finding Grandpa: Part Two, and follow my path to finding out the truth about my grandfather.

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