How Science Solved a Romanian Mystery

Senior Manager of Content at Ancestry, Miriam Silverman, shares her experience researching her family history in Romania and how a DNA match repaired a broken branch of her family tree. 

When you come from immigrant stock, it can be very difficult to trace your ancestry back very far. My dad’s dad came over to London as a child of seven in the 1890’s from Romania. Although we knew the town we were from, the only history were had were family legends, like the great great grandfather who had been mauled by a bear and how we paid our taxes to a collector from Turkey while Romania was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire. I had no clue about how to go about doing research in Romania and it turned out that volunteer groups of indexers hadn’t really got that far into the Carpathian Mountains. I put it in a box called ‘too difficult’ and left it.

Then last year, I took an Ancestry DNA test and got my mum and dad to do theirs. While re-assuring to know that my parents were actually my parents, the large number of matches that were returned weren’t super helpful. I come from a relatively small community that had married and re-married over a thousand years, so I’m related over and again to lots of people. But about six weeks after the results had come in, I got an email from another Silverman. Silverman is a pretty common name so I didn’t think too much of it but when I saw that this particular Silverman also came from the same small town in Romania, I got more excited. We were 4th to 6th cousins and a Good match.

We started emailing. He was an American whose Silvermans had left the town only a few years after mine, pitching up in New Jersey and then later moving to rural Pennsylvania and later Detroit. He sent me some photos of the family. They looked familiar – same broad foreheads, same square chins. I sent him some of our photos.

Then he told me that he had employed a researcher a few years ago in Romania who had actually pulled out the civil registers and taken a look at the Silvermans in them. He sent me the results. Most were his direct ancestors but in among them were a few Silvermans he couldn’t place. With a shock, I realised that one of them was my grandfather Rachmil’s birth registration. This was the first non-English evidence I had of his life before his parents and siblings took the boat to Hull; such a small thing but to be able to see your ancestor in situ is a profound moment. It placed him, and by extension my family, firmly in another country’s history, language and culture.

We talked further. I found what I am pretty sure were my grandfather’s first cousins who had followed him to England a few years later. We talked about commissioning some further research from the same researcher. He told me a lot of history of that part of Romania which I didn’t know and so I roped in my dad, who chimed in with his own theories about how and why our community had began, where they came from, where they went. We strove to identify our common ancestor, probably born sometime in the early nineteenth century.

Most excitedly, we found the first bearers of the Silverman name. For most of our history, our community had a patronymic naming system; like the Welsh and the Swedes, we were called x son of y, or x daughter of y. But, the new states of Europe found that very untidy and so we had to come up with surnames (or get given them). The first Silvermans in the town were called that because they were silversmiths. That simple. And although that occupation seemed to have died off and we became tailors and timber merchants, the name remained. Not many people can say for certain why they have the name they have.

In November last year, my long lost cousin and his lovely wife, came over to London for a visit. Myself and my mum and dad met up with them in the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and after a long chat, we gave them a little tour of Spitalfields, where so many of my family lived after arriving in England. His branch had left for America in 1902 and ours had arrived in London in about 1899. This was the first time the two branches had met for 116 years. We resolved that the next time we met, it might be in Piatra Neamt which we left far behind so long ago.

Doing the DNA test finally allowed me to open up my history, find my distant family and discover a different story than just that of an immigrant from a far away country. A great moment in my family history!

Watch Miriam share her story in our video about solving family mysteries with AncestryDNA.