When I began researching my family history more than a decade ago, I wanted to know the facts – the who, what, when and where of the generations that came before me. But there were so many gaps and questions that I quickly found myself digging beneath the surface for answers to the bigger question of why.
My story begins with my great grandmother, D'Jmila Danino. (D'Jmila is pronounced Jamilla, which means beautiful in Arabic.) Born to a Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt in 1883, D'Jmila was forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 12 to a man three times her age. Abram Danino was a Syrian Jew who lived in the land of Israel (then British Palestine) with his first wife. In 1895, D'Jmila sailed from Egypt to Haifa and became Abram's second wife, the one who would hopefully give him the son he so desperately wanted.
She never saw any of her family again.
At the age of 13 and still a child herself, D'Jmila gave birth to a baby boy, Albert Danino. Albert was my mother's father, my grandfather. Whenever baby Albert cried, so did D'Jmila – so young and unequipped was she for mothering. But mother and son grew up together and for the first few years of Albert's life, D'Jmila was safe and protected under her husband Abram's care.
When D'Jamila's was 16, Abram suddenly died and she was left with Albert and a small inheritance. Within a year or so, she remarried a man named Shalom Nahmani, with whom she had a second child, a son named Felix.
Things did not go well for D'Jmila with Shalom and at 18, she did the unthinkable: she sought a divorce in the rabbinical court. But Shalom refused the divorce unless she gave him their son, Felix. She was a prisoner, trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage – with freedom offered in exchange for her second-born son.
And so the story goes, D'Jmila gave up Felix and fled with 5-year-old Albert, to Smyrna, Turkey. There, Albert met and fell in love with Jeanette Franco, a beautiful girl from a prestigious Turkish family. Because Albert came from a poor family, Jeanette's parents disapproved. D'Jmila helped them keep their love a secret and in 1920, Albert and Jeanette eloped to America. Soon thereafter, they brought D'Jmila to live with them in their small apartment in Long Beach, New York. They gave birth to two daughters: Emily in 1923 and my mother, Elise, in 1925.
Mother, Father, Grandmother
One summer, when my mother was two years old, her family rented a cottage on the beach for a family vacation. On July 2, 1928, Albert went into the sea for a swim after lunch. His wife Jeanette stayed indoors with the children that afternoon because she was eight months pregnant and not feeling well. D'Jmila was busy cooking dinner in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. She opened it to find two policemen in uniform outside.
In her broken English, D'Jmila asked, "What is it that happen?" She knew without them saying – her son Albert was dead.
Although a tremendous swimmer, Albert had tragically drowned. D'Jmila collapsed on the floor and Jeanette, unable to recover from the shock, died less than one month later in childbirth, as did her baby. That was the day my mother and her sister became orphans.
There was no other family that could take the girls except D'Jmila. At age 43, with an old-world, Sephardic background and no education, she became mother, father and grandmother to her little granddaughters.
D'Jmila loved my mother and her sister with all her heart. But she suffered terribly, having lost Albert and Jeanette so tragically, and having given up her second son Felix whom she never saw again.
D'Jmila died in 1944 when my mother was 18 years old. Once again, my mother was orphaned, with only a few relatives left that she could call family. Or so she thought… until one year ago when I received something that changed all our lives, forever.
I opened my email and found this note from a woman I did not know:
I am the 7th daughter of Felix Nahmani, believed to have been born in Smyrna, Turkey in 1905, whose mother was D'Jmila. I found you looking on our family tree. Are we searching for the same family? My father Felix never talked about his family, we could not ask about it at all. I am looking to find who he was. I live in Canada and await your reply. Daughter #7
My fingers trembled as I punched in my mother's telephone number. "Mom, are you sitting down? Because you need to be when you hear what I am about to tell you."
Through my genealogical research on Ancestry.com for relatives in Egypt, Palestine and Turkey and the creation of a family tree, the seventh daughter of Felix Nahmani, D'Jamila's son that she relinquished, had found me! Felix, the half-brother of my mother's father, Albert. Felix, the uncle my mother had never met. Felix, the father of 10 children – all of whom were my mother's first cousins and lived in Canada, France and Corsica!
I called the seventh daughter, and a beautiful voice with a French accent answered the phone. Yes, Farida assured me, Felix was her father. And yes, she knew she had a grandmother named D'Jmila – but her father never permitted them to ask any questions about her.
My mother didn't sleep that night, or the next. She couldn't believe that after all these years of feeling so alone, so abandoned, that she had so much family. And they all wanted to meet her!
Over the next several months, tears were shed, photos and letters exchanged.
Over the next several months, tears were shed, photos and letters exchanged, and phone calls carried family history across the continents as we arranged a reunion at my parents' home in New Jersey. The warmth and love of this family toward my mother, their only link to their father's family, was overwhelming.
The October 2012 day we all met was brilliant with fall colors. My mother had spent weeks getting the house ready, making sure that everything was "just so" for her family. They flew in from Toronto, Paris and Corsica – with gifts, pictures, and family letters. We spent a magical afternoon at my mother's elegantly set table. My brother and cousins, from California to New York, also joined us, so that our group totaled 16 in all. It was a day that we will all remember forever.
Some of the stories that were shared were not easy to hear, and at first my mother had a very difficult time believing them. D'Jmila’s story was probably not entirely true, although it is understandable coming from a proper grandmother raising her two grandchildren in the 1920s.
It seems that D'Jmila was never married to Shalom Nahmani, but had his child out of wedlock. Was it a torrid love affair? A night of indiscretion? A rape? We will never know. But what Farida and her family supplied were details suggesting that D'Jmila had been sent to Turkey to give birth to Felix, where she stayed with Albert after baby Felix was born. And Felix told his own family that Shalom gave him away to a sister to raise him because his mother, D'Jmila, had abandoned him.
Yet D'Jmila always maintained that she was a prisoner to Shalom Nahmani, whose freedom she gained in exchange for her son.
The truth may lie somewhere in between.
What really happened? D'Jmila took that knowledge to her grave. It is a terrible secret that must have plagued her every day of her life, especially after Albert died.
In every family, there are many truths. Some are the emotional truths, retold in order to make sense out of life's mysteries. Others are actual facts, softened or changed by time and memory.
Since the beginning of time, in every culture, across every continent, one thing connects us all: the deeply human need to convey what is important to us from one generation to the next.
The telling and retelling of the stories of our lives is essential to the creation of our identities. They are the bedrock from which our lives are built, the source of our sense of belonging, and the vessel that contains and preserves our values, customs, truths and traditions.
And so I ask myself: Why was this story preserved and what is meant to teach me today?
Everyone has a public life, a private life, and a secret life.
When I was growing up, whenever we heard something shocking or out-of-character with what we knew about a person, especially when that person was a family member, my mother would nod her head and comment judiciously: "Everyone has a public life, a private life, and a secret life."
I wonder now if perhaps somewhere deep inside, my mother knew of secrets in her own family that she had yet to discover. And that someday, these words would comfort her, knowing that we all have places deep within us, which harbor the darkest moments and choices of our lives.
Perhaps too, we can learn that secrets are as much a part of our family stories as those that we tell proudly and publicly. And in our lives, we may be called upon to open our hearts and minds to forgive the secrets that – for reasons, varied and untold – were withheld from us. For in the end, even secrets can lead to great things. Anyone who experienced the love enveloping my mother on that October afternoon bore witness to this truth.