Hidden Heritage

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Sinti eyes? If only Opa were here to tell!

We’re well into classes at Avila, but in quiet moments I still reflect on my summer trip to Germany and all the things I learned and saw traveling the country with my family; visiting the stomping grounds of relatives and ancestors.

I’ve long been fascinated by family histories, a habit instilled in me no doubt by my own family. I’d drink up their stories when I was young, write them down, and as an adult, even weave them into my own fiction.

I’m especially intrigued by untold stories. The shape of what’s left unsaid is so often more interesting than the official spoken word. Filling in blanks can occupy a lifetime, and sometimes all we have left to connect the dots is our imagination, fed by the somewhat more solid coincidence of history.

On this last trip to Germany, I was given a new blank page in my family history. It turned up in the most unexpected of places, as part of my maternal grandfather’s story. Opa was a close relative to be sure, and a man I thought I knew well, in as much as I could have known him before he passed away more than 25 years ago.

While we were visiting the hometown of my mother’s family near Frankfurt, she mentioned that her father, my Opa, had often been referred to as Zigeuner, the German word (considered offensive by many Romanis) for “gypsy.” Opa and his family were olive-skinned and had black hair, and the area they lived in was known, at least informally, as a Roma settlement.

My mother was never sure whether this actually meant Opa had Roma blood. He was, after all, very much German and 150% Frankfurter. In fact, she has his genealogy dating back to the 1700s; his family had been farming in the same village outside of Frankfurt at least since that time.

But I was intrigued by the possibility of my grandfather’s hidden heritage, so I’ve done a little research since our trip. It turns out there’s an ethnic group tied to the Romani diaspora that arrived and settled in Germany some 600 years ago. They now use the name “German Sinti” – a phrase that didn’t exist when my mother was growing up – to distinguish themselves from more recent Roma arrivals.

So, there it is. Opa could very well have had Roma blood and been part of a family that had settled in Frankfurt and integrated into German society centuries ago.

Which means I might be full quarter Roma. Or rather, German Sinti. (I’m still getting the vocabulary straight.)

It’s extraordinary to come across a revelation like this at this stage of my life. Especially for someone like me who’s had a very particular vision of her heritage drummed into her head from a rather young age.

Extraordinary, and somehow liberating. I don’t know how else to explain it: I feel like I recognize myself now when I look in the mirror. Parts of me that were at war with each other have suddenly settled down. If true, a bit of Roma blood running through my veins – a touch of Sinti culture handed down from my grandfather through my mother – would explain so much.

Of course, this raises questions too. Lots of questions. Now I have a new mystery to explore, a blank page to fill. The stuff a writer’s dreams are made of.

Maybe if I listen carefully enough, I’ll discover Opa’s still there, somewhere. Waiting to tell his story. Ready to help me find the words.

2 thoughts on “Hidden Heritage

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    1. My brain’s certainly been booking! But other projects are taking priority right now. I have, however, been thinking about Eolyn’s father, and how throughout the trilogy I left his past and personality shrouded in mystery (though as the author I know some of that backstory). A metaphor for the unspoken stories in my own family? His bloodline was actually crucial to her destiny, and she never knew!

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