Friday, 18 July 2014

In the footsteps of our families

I'm about to embark on a project that I hope might be of as much interest to you as it will be to me.

It's called In the Footsteps of our Families. Together with my good friend, the American journalist Stu Seidel, a former senior editor at the US public radio network NPR (that's us in the picture), I'm going to be exploring the experience of migration through the stories of our own families.

Stu's grandparents and great grandparents were immigrants to the US from Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. My parents came to the UK as refugees from Nazi Germany. So we're going to retrace their footsteps, from the centuries-old Belarussian town of Pastavy, 100 miles north of Minsk, then west through Lithuania and Poland, and into Germany.

We'll end the European leg of our journey in Hamburg, once known as the Gateway to the World, from which five million emigrants embarked on their way to new lives between 1850 and 1939. Later in the year, we'll pick up in the US and see where Stu's family settled, first in New Jersey and then in Baltimore.

Where possible, we'll visit the streets where our forebears grew up. In Lithuania, we'll visit the site where my maternal grandmother was shot by the Nazis, in one of the first mass executions of deported German Jews, in 1941. We'll also stop in the Polish city of Wrocław, which is where my mother grew up. Except when she lived there, it was called Breslau, not Wrocław, and it was in Germany, not Poland.

Why are we doing it? Because, like an ever-increasing number of people, we have a growing interest in our families' origins. But also because, as journalists, we can't help but be aware that migration is one of the biggest challenges facing the world we live in. So it's only natural that as the son and grandson of immigrants, we're irresistibly tempted to use our own families' pasts as a way of examining the present and the future.

And that's why -- I hope -- you might find our journey interesting as well. Most families have a migration story or two in their past; in most cases, it's almost impossible to reconstruct the individual stories from the flimsy evidence that remains. Hence the popularity of the TV show "Who do you think you are?" which enables us to enjoy vicariously the search for answers from the past.

I'm luckier than many, because both my parents wrote memoirs, as did one of my grandfathers. On one side of the family, I can trace my antecedents back 10 generations, to my great x 8 grandfather, who was born in 1578 in Vilnius, which is one of the destinations on our forthcoming journey.

As we make our way across Europe over the next two weeks, we'll meet up with local historians and experts and talk to them about the migration experience. We'll talk about the twin threats of war and poverty, the universal drivers of migration, both in the past and still today.

Today, we're launching our new website at where we'll be posting regular updates as we cross Europe. The idea is that we'll produce words, pictures, and audio to form a real-time record of our journey. I'll also alert you via Twitter and Facebook every time we publish a new piece.

Think of it as part genealogy, part travel-writing, part The Hairy Bikers meets The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon -- plus a dollop of old-fashioned journalism for added value.

We've already posted a couple of introductory pieces and some archive photos of our respective families on the website, so click here for what I hope will be the first of many visits.

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