Stowaway from Romania

When I started working on my genealogy research, I was particularly interested in my dad’s family because I knew so little about them.  Members of his family emigrated even later than those in my mom’s family, so you’d think we’d know more, but we didn’t.  His ancestors came from Eastern Europe, fleeing from communism and other kinds of oppression.  They were desperate to assimilate into American culture to forget the repression they’d left.  They didn’t yet trust in the place they’d come to, and they had left large parts of their families behind.  It was painful to talk about the past, and harder to forget it if they did, so they buried it and tried to make new lives here.

One family legend was that my great-grandfather, Simon, had emigrated from Romania as a stowaway on a potato boat.  People in my dad’s family love to tell this story.  It was just after the turn of the 20th century, and the Romanian government was forcing boys into the military, apparently as young as age 12.  Simon’s parents saw World War I coming, and didn’t want to see him get killed, so they tried to convince him to leave the country, but he didn’t want to.  He wanted to stay with his family.

Sometimes when my dad tells the story, Simon was drafted, but ran away and came back home.  In this version, the military found him and put him in military prison, and he escaped again.  By then, he agreed with his parents that he had to leave, so he stowed away on a ship.  Sometimes my dad says Simon escaped and was captured repeatedly.

Other times, my dad thinks he never was in the military at all, and was convinced to leave before they could draft him.  His status as a stowaway was never a question in the story, though.

Simon must have been a fairly lucky guy, because he stowed away on a ship that happened to have a hold full of potatoes, which he could eat on the trip across the ocean and still remain hidden from the crew.  When the ship eventually docked on the East Coast, story has it that he got off and panicked.  No idea where he was, and not able to speak a word of English, he went back down into the hold of the boat.  The boat then left again, travelled through the Northwest passages, and ended up in Chicago, where he decided to brave it and venture out into the world.  He was 18 and it was 1907, and that’s how my dad’s family came to be from Chicago.  So far, I have not been able to validate any of the crazy details that would confirm Simon was a stowaway, surviving on potatoes, but I’m still working on it.  All I know for sure is that he is from a small village in Romania, he ended up in Chicago in 1907, and I happen to like potatoes a lot.


When I first began writing about my life, genealogy didn’t figure into the picture.  I’d been doing some serious research on my family’s history for some time, but it wasn’t until later that I saw how the two subjects fit together and provided an additional framework from which to view my own experiences.  It was the show, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ that sparked my genealogy obsession.  The show was really an marketing project – each episode a short documentary that showed a celebrity’s experience tracing some branch of their family tree.  Of course, on the show, each celebrity finds some amazing information with seemingly no more effort than typing a name and birth date into a website.  They travel from city to city, or even from country to country, and have genealogy experts waiting for them at each point to tell them amazing secrets about their ancestors.  That’s not what it’s like in real life.  You can easily spend a lifetime trying to build stories around the names you can find in your family tree, especially if you come from a broken family or a family that doesn’t believe in airing its dirty laundry.  But the show inspired me to start my own research, nonetheless.

I had also been writing a little bit about my life around the same time.  At some point, it occurred to me that writing about my life could potentially save some random relative a few generations down the road from pounding their head on their desk trying to figure out what my life and my family was all about.  I also began to think about the stories of my ancestors – their triumphs and tribulations – the tragedy and stoicism – the good luck and the bad luck – and how they may have influenced me.  Many traits pass themselves down through the generations – some good, some horrible, and I started to see patterns emerging.  The idea of weaving in stories of my ancestors into my memoir struck me as having some additional value, so that’s what I’ve done.  I’ve made some amazing finds, and I’ve run into rock solid dead ends, but the research is fascinating.  I’ll share a few of my genealogy stories shortly.