I never thought that this was something I’d end up doing on this blog – reviewing a Who Do You Think You Are? episode. But it has happened – last weekend’s episode took place partially in Latvia!
The celebrity in question was Rashida Jones, an American actress, daughter of music mogul Quincy Jones and actress Peggy Lipton. The episode was looking at Rashida’s maternal ancestry. They followed her maternal grandmother’s ancestry back to her Jewish roots in Ireland, but the family had arrived in Ireland in the mid-1800s from Latvia.
When in Latvia, the show traced Rashida’s ancestry to the town of Aizpute in western Latvia, and to a time before surnames, revealing that Benson – a name that the grandmother had taken on to disguise her Jewish ancestry, but what also turned out to be her mother’s maiden name – was the first and only surname that the family had in fact known. After these revelations, Rashida turned to finding out what happened to her family that had stayed in Latvia while her great-great-grandfather had left, and learned that all of them perished in the Holocaust. The episode closed with Rashida and her mother Peggy visiting the memorial at the site where their relatives were likely to have been killed at Rumbula in 1941.
For those of you who have watched genealogy programs before, and have also conducted your own research, you’ll of course know that these shows are greatly simplified – nothing is ever that easy! I wonder how many hours of work it took to find out that the Bensons were from Aizpute. The easiest way would have been if the Irish records had a death record for one of Rashida’s ancestors that mentioned the specific birthplace in Latvia, or if there were Irish immigration records that mentioned where in Latvia they were from. If none of the Irish records mentioned anything, it would have been a long process looking through all of the Latvian Jewish records to find the place of origin.
There were some technical mistakes on the show – they mention the “National Archives” and then the “State Archives”, seemingly referring to them as the same thing. They are and they aren’t. The National Archives, from my understanding, is the umbrella group encompassing all of the archives in Latvia, while the State Archives is just one of those archives. Which is where the mistake comes in – Rashida was not at the State Archives, she was at the State Historical Archives, which is around the corner from the State Archives – location shots show her entering the front door of the State Historical Archives, and in the reading room of the State Historical Archives. Most information of genealogical interest will be at the State Historical Archives, and that is where I do my research (and, in fact, I have sat in the very place that Rashida sat!). I worry that this sort of mistake might lead those in search of their Latvian roots to the wrong archival authority, but I’m sure that the State Archives is used to such inquiries and knows to direct them to the State Historical Archives instead.
I’m also wondering, and maybe some of you American readers can enlighten me, but I’m wondering why Americans often pronounce Latvia as “Lot-vee-ah”, instead of “Lat-vee-ah”. I hear “Lot-vee-ah” frequently from Americans, not just in this show. Is there a reason for this unusual pronunciation? Rashida and the narrator used “Lot-vee-ah”, even though the locals in the episode said “Lat-vee-ah”, which is closer to the Latvian pronunciation.
I’m glad that the show took the viewers outside of Rīga, because all too often people focus on Rīga because it is the capital city, and rarely move out of there when visiting the country. But there is so much more to see in the country than just the capital. In terms of genealogy, this is particularly important to show – while certainly some people will have ancestral ties to Rīga, when compared to the number of people who have ancestral ties to elsewhere in Latvia, this number is quite small. Do not assume that just because your ancestors are from Latvia, that they have to be from Rīga!
I’m also glad that in terms of the Second World War, the show only discussed the events of the Holocaust and as they related to this specific family, rather than trying to paint a bigger picture of the Second World War. The Second World War in Latvia is an extremely complex matter that could not be accurately discussed in such a short time slot, so it is a good thing that they decided to leave it aside and only looked at Rashida’s family. I will try to write some posts about the Second World War in Latvia in the future, but it is a difficult time period to fairly describe such that it makes sense for the Western reader, because unlike the “good guys” and “bad guys” fighting in Western Europe at the time, Eastern Europe had “bad guys” and “worse guys”, which label belonging to which power (the Nazis or the Soviets) depending on the particulars of each family’s ethnic, religious, political and class backgrounds. But I will try.
Did you watch the Rashida Jones episode of Who Do You Think You Are? What did you think? Curious about the documents they looked at? Leave your questions in comments below!