Solving a 111 Year Old Mystery Part 2: Shaking the Family Tree :: Genealogy
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Solving a 111 Year Old Mystery Part 2: Shaking the Family Tree

Article by fxmartini

A couple nights after discovering I was the direct descendant of Australian convicts, I woke up at 3:30 am with a thought in my head. Search for my Great-Grandmother and the last name Cohen in Australia. The scientific side of me thinks that my subconscious must have been working on the mystery in my sleep and thats probably what happened. The spiritual side of me thinks that maybe something else happened. Maybe something a little supernatural?

Whatever the cause, I got out of bed and did a search on for Ethel Margaret Cross + Spouse = Cohen + Location = Australia. What came up? A marriage record from the Australia Marriage Index for Ethel Margt Cross and Hyman Dvoretsky Cohen in Victoria, Australia in 1900! I had discovered the first link between my Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather. After adding this record to my family tree and adding my Grandfathers first and middle names to his record, a leaf appeared in the tree. That leaf was a burial record from the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry for Hyman Cohen in the Brooke Street Cemetery in Durban South Africa on December 28, 1901. I added this record to our tree then went online to the National Archives of South Africa and found what I believe to be a death record, though I still dont have confirmation of that. I then contacted the University of Cape Town to see if they had any records of my GreatGrandfather. This morning Janine Blumberg from the University of Cape Towns Kaplan Centre sent me a photo of Hyman Cohens tombstone! Parts of the tombstone are illegible but this is what we can read so far (thanks to Shmuly Tennenhaus for the Hebrew translation!):

(In Hebrew)
Buried here...
Year 5662, on the 18th day of the month of Tevet
Chaim, the son of Raphael Cohen

(In English)
Dearly Beloved Husband of Ethel Cohen
Who Met His Death In The Umgeni Railway Explosion
Died on The 28th of Dec 1901
Aged 28 Years

Deeply Mourned by his Sorrowful Wife &amp; Child
God Rest His Soul in Peace

Ive got to admit that I might have cried some tears of joy when I got this photo. Finally after all these years I had the connection I was looking for. The tombstone mentioned my Great-Grandmother and my Grandfather! I now have a marriage certificate, a burial record and a tombstone that connect my Great-Grandparents to each other and to their son, my Grandfather.

So what I have learned from all of this. I learned that I am the direct descendant of Australian Convicts and I come from a large Australian family that has over 30,000 members. I learned that I am the direct descendant of a possibly Eastern European Jew (based on his middle name of Dvorlesky), who married my Great-Grandmother in Australia, moved to South Africa with her, had a child and then died when my Grandfather was only 9 months old. I learned that my family is so much more diverse (and large!) than I ever could have imagined.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions. How did a Gentile girl from a rural town in New South Wales and a Jewish boy meet and marry in early 20th century Australia. (My guess is that interfaith marriages at the time were rare, which makes the story even more incredible.) Did my Great-Grandmother convert to Judaism before they got married. Why did my Great Aunt Edith and the rest of the family try to hide all of this? Was it the fact that we were descended from Australian convicts? Was it because we were of Jewish descent? (Again my guess is that there werent a lot of either group living in early 20th century Truro, Nova Scotia, so they probably thought they had to keep it a secret.)

I know Ill never know the reason for the lie. Everyone who participated in it is now dead. So where do I go from here? Well Ive got yet another line of my family to research (the Cohens). Ive got a Cross/Flood Family Reunion to attend in Windsor NSW Australia in 2015! But the most important thing I want to do now is fly to Durban South Africa and place a stone on my Great-Grandfathers grave. Im not really a religious person, I tend to favor science over religion, but I feel that I have to do this to let him know that he has been found by his family. That he hasnt been forgotten. This journey has reminded me just how connected all of humanity is to each other. Over the last 250 years tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of people have lived who are related to me. If that doesnt make you realize how connected we all are to each other, nothing will.

Prologue: In the Summer of 1967 I met my Great-Grandmother for the first and last time. Since I was only 2 I obviously dont remember too much about the event. I do have a vague recollection of being knocked down the back stairs of her house by her dog, which my Dad always claimed really happened. The other piece of family folklore that came out of this event was that my Great-Grandma looked at me and noticed that I had a ring of light brown/dark blond hair on top of my head in the shape of a halo. She said that the halo meant I would always have good luck in my life. Now I dont know how true thats been, but part of me believes that maybe she saw that one day I would be lucky enough to bring our family back together, 111 years after it was broken apart.

P.S. I wanted to list all of the surnames of my direct family line (that I know of) from my 2nd Great-Grandparents to my parents. Their surnames are:

Cross, Douglass, Wile (Weil), Ernst, Hirtle, Conrad, Cohen, Panizza, Neggia, Peci, Martini

Im actively researching all of these lines. If you think you might be related to me you can contact me at fxmartini at and Ill give you access to my family tree.

P.S. The original version of this post, Solving a 111 Year Old Mystery Part 2: Shaking the Family Tree can be viewed on my blog - Martini with a Twist. It includes several photos of my Grandfather and his family from late 19th century Australia & early 20th century South Africa.

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by fxmartini Profile | Research | Contact | Subscribe | Block this user
on 2012-09-04 01:05:01

Todd L. Martini

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by mowsehowse on 2012-09-05 02:53:40

Brilliant story. Well done!!

by flodjod on 2012-09-08 22:26:37

I so know the feeling of having discovered that my gt gt grandparents were from australia and convicts to boot. i had no idea that any of my family had come to NZ via Australia

by fxmartini on 2012-09-09 00:28:54

It was definitely a surprise, but a good surprise to find out I'm descended from Australian Royalty. ;)

by rossco12 on 2012-09-09 03:39:21

there was a gary Cohen here on the gold coast about 10 / 15 year back worked at "Trio Ford" at Southport and sold me a few cars.

Ross Davis

by fxmartini on 2012-09-09 03:51:21

Thanks Ross! Cohen is actually a pretty common name, but you never know. :)

by Janine_Sullivan on 2012-09-09 05:58:44

Thank you for your amazing story and I had to laugh at the bit about waking up and getting up and going to the computer, because I have done that many, many times. I am also descended from someone with Jewish heritage and my great grandfather married a gentile woman in 1857 in Wollongong but I don't think he continued his Jewish faith. Thanks for sharing your story. Janine

by fxmartini on 2012-09-09 15:35:29

Thanks Janine,

Getting up in the middle of the night to do research is fine on a weekend, but I had to get up and go to work the next day! ;)

Thanks for letting me know about your Great-Grandfather's interfaith marriage. I've been trying to determine how common these marriages were during the late 19th/early 20th century in Australia. I'll probably never know for sure, but I think that our Jewish heritage probably had something to do with the fact that my family hid our origins. (Being descended from Second Fleet convicts probably had something to do with it too.)

With the help of some acquaintances (and long lost family) I'm doing research in South Africa and Australia right now, so hopefully I'll have even more information on my family soon enough. :)

-- Todd


by psanders_1 on 2012-09-09 18:06:39

Wonderful story, so happy you found them.

by robin_molly on 2012-09-09 19:50:23

This is such an inspirational story. Well done. I well know the feelings of frustration and family secrets. keep up the good work.
I think you are probably right about the Jewish origins being part of the reason this was kept so quiet - that and the Australian convicts. people are so funny aren't they. I personally would be delighted to find such people in my ancestry.


by mizwiz33 on 2012-09-09 21:34:43

I know what you must have gone through looking for your G/G/Grandparents. both of mine are hiding somewhere in Ireland so will have to hang in there like you and keep trying...yes also after 20 years or more!
Now you have mentioned a few names that I know who are living in Herbert River District in North Queensland. Both the name Cross and Martini are well known here. Would you like me to let them know about this letter? I think the Martini Family originally came out from Italy not sure about the Cross Family. Both families have lived in this district for a long time so you never know, could be another leaf in your tree here in Queensland Australia!
Will wait for your reply.
Good wishes

by Cher64 on 2012-09-10 05:18:38

I love this story. I feel so excited for you. I live in Sydney, Australia. My gggrandmother was Scotish and my gggrandfather was Polish (jewish) They lived in Victoria and Margaret's father Henry owned sawmills.

All the very best with your research.


by Mattie14 on 2012-09-10 08:43:52

What a lovely story, it is so rewarding when you find definite information about your ancestors.

My Gt.Gt.Grandfather was also also Jewish, his Father Moses(b1785)came to England in 1789 & his Mother Ann King(b1789)came to England in 1796, they had a sn in 1825 named Isaac Lyons King born in 1825 who was my Gt Gt Grandfather, my Gt Gt Grandmmother was Eliza Apperley, they had several children one of whom was my Gt Grandfather Barnet King Apperley c1852-1911 Father of my Grandmother Lizzie Apperley (Isaac dropped the King name when his Father Isaac deserted his Mother leaving her to raise 6 children alone.

by fxmartini on 2012-09-10 15:28:26

Thanks everyone, looks like there are a lot of Australians on Family Tree Circles!

@mizwiz33 Definitely let the Cross family know about the letter. There are 30,000 descendants of Charles Cross & Rose Flood in the Cross family registry, so there's a good chance they may be relatives. :) Not sure about the Martinis. It's a very common name in Northern Italy and I don't have a record of any Australian migration in my family, but it's possible.

@robin_molly I think it's awesome too! We have a long history of colorful characters on both sides of my family, so this just adds to the story. :)

by wyn on 2012-09-10 17:08:00

I just loved going along on this journey with you,and feel the happiness for you as i also have just had a little opening in to a shut door to my past......happy more link ups for you,and would love to read more on where you next journey takes you.....good luck.

by taxisixo on 2012-09-10 23:12:27

Love every story,they're all great. Religion was not a big hurdle in 19th Century Australia and despite the fact that I'm nominally Catholic, I have many Jewish relatives in the family, on both sides, Taber, Goldstein, Goldner, to name a few. I think it was more to do with the isolation and the chance to meet prospective partners than any particular religious denomination. I also have Presbyterian, C. of E., Methodist etc. My husband has both Catholic nuns and Mormans, and of course we both have Convicts. It's not until relatively recent times that it's become "fashionable" to have a convict or two in the family. Just as a bit of trivia, I believe that when "frost" is applied to a sandstone headstone it will show up the inscription clearly. Cheers from the Hunter Valley, NSW, Australia.

by LeicsAncestors on 2012-09-17 03:29:09

Hope that you make the journey!

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