Those of you with more common family names, or with appreciable extended families, may have a hard time seeing the point of this post. But, as I’ve noted before, there are very very few Gelwans. I have always wondered, or you might even say obsessed around, how/if those I find are related to me. I have very little in the way of extended family; I guess this preoccupation of mine reflects an envy of those with large extended families and a thirst for deeper family connection, especially so that my children might come to feel embedded in a broader web. It becomes poignant each year around the holidays, which you all celebrate with enormous extended family gatherings while we have the four of us around the dinner table.
I subscribe to a Google alert for new Gelwan references on the web, and once received a link to this page (gendrevo.ru). Alas, the page is now gone from the web. It appeared to me to be from a Russian genealogy site in which survivors post remembrance pages for their relatives who died in the Holocaust. On my paternal side, the generation of immigrants were my grandparents, in the early 20th century; my father’s older siblings and he were born in the U.S. between 1910-1915. I have always assumed that Gelwan was an Ellis Island anglicization of something else and thus that researching my family’s roots would become squirrely because the family name of anyone related to me might not have precisely the same pronunciation or spelling. It was explained to me that, as the part of the world from which my ancestors emigrated shifted back and forth between Slavic and Germanic dominance, between Cyrillic and Roman alphabets, so too did the rendering of family names. I would have to pursue the Gelvans, the Gelmans, and even the Hellmans for relatives. [I may have made this up, but I think I learned somewhere along the way that we are actually distantly related to the Hellman’s mayonnaise family…]
The flip side of that coin is that literal Gelwans might not be related to me. For example, I found through Googling traces of a Deborah Gelwan who was in the public relations industry in Sao Paulo, Brazil who is referred to on the web. When I was a child, a Brazilian tourist with the last name Gelwan, possibly from her family, arrived on our doorstep, having looked up Gelwan in the phonebooks on arriving in New York City. It appears that my parents and the visitor determined that it was unlikely we were related (although I cannot imagine how they did this, as my parents spoke no Portugese and rumor has it this visitor spoke no English). Deborah and I are now Facebook friends but we have not established a family relationship. I would at least love to figure out if these South American Gelwans descended from Eastern European immigrants. I am aware that eastern European Jews did go to South America in the diasporas, but I am not sure about Brazil per se.
Similarly, I have reached out to Gelwans in Lebanon and Iraq but I doubt we are related. It appears to me that Gelwan is a transliteration of a first name, not a family name, in Iraq.
I have even discovered two other Gelwans in the New York area where I grew up, interestingly enough both physicians as I am: Jeffrey, a gastroenterologist and Mark, an ophthalmologist. We’ve spoken by phone but cannot establish a common background. I assumed that it might merely be an accident that we share our name, that Gelwan might be a final common pathway of anglicization from diverse unrelated family names in eastern Europe.
I was told that my family originated in Riga, Latvia. Given that, I’ve written to Vladimir, or Wladimir, Gelwan, who I learned was the principal dancer in the Latvian National Ballet and who now runs a ballet school in Berlin, suggesting that we may be related, but have never gotten a reply back. (What is it with these nonresponses? Someone writing me from afar suggesting they might be my relative, with such a rare name, would immediately pique my interest and would surely get a response, although that might just be me. Do you think the recipients might have worried that my messages represented some kind of con?) I have seen a picture of Vladimir Gelwan on the web and can even imagine a certain family resemblance. I have determined that I will drop in on him when next in Berlin. [Do I have any readers in or near Berlin?]
Given the waves of upheaval that repeatedly washed over eastern Europe in the 20th century, with ever-changing political hegemony over various regions, large scale displacement of populations, the Holocaust, the destruction of records, the changing of names, etc., conventional genealogical research is not possible. It is not as if there is an established family tree, with records waiting around for the taking, as is the case for at least some families with western European origins. My father’s older brother, now deceased, once returned to eastern Europe to try to find some of our roots. Despite a reputation for being extremely resourceful, he apparently had no success at all. Lamentably, I cannot find any notes from his research; otherwise I (acknowledged as someone with no lack of resourcefulness myself!) might pick up the trail where he left off, despite the passage of time having added fifty further years of obfuscation.
It has been a little easier with my mother’s ancestors. She herself, as a young child, emigrated with her family in the 1920’s from the Eastern European town of her origin. Several years ago, my son and I visited there looking for indications of her family,armed with notes from an uncle of mine who had made a similar trip decades before. Unfortunately (probably because they were a Jewish family), the town hall and the burial grounds held no traces. We did see the house where she was born; eerily, we had by coincidence parked our rental car right in front of it when we had entered the town center.
If you have a complicated heritage that will not be easy to trace on ancestry.com or some such geneology research site, my advice is to embark on a project of tracking down and documenting what you can. It only disappears over time. Your children and their children may appreciate it if they thirst for information about their mysterious family origins in the face of our increasing rootlessness in the world.
Perhaps one day someone googling their family name will be linked to this post and wonder how they might be related to Eliot Gelwan. Hurry up, Google, crawl this post and index it!