A Daughter’s Gift: Unraveling the Mystery of a Paternal Grandfather
The following post is written by Jennifer Payen, who embarked on a mission to find her paternal grandfather. Read how DNA testing and a family tree on Geni were instrumental to solving this family mystery and gave Jennifer the opportunity to finally share with her father where he came from.
Little did I realize that as a result, my father would reveal a secret that had been tightly-compacted to his chest for many years. My grandfather Frank, who had lived with us all of my life, was to make the move into a nursing home, as we could no longer provide the 24-hour care that he needed. Not long after, I can still recall sitting at the kitchen table, oval-shaped and nearly a hundred years old. This table had been passed down from Evelyn, who was my Dad, Jeff’s maternal grandmother. From this memory, tinted with a haze caused by the passage of time, it was a fairly normal evening. The only peculiar thing about this evening was that it wasn’t time for dinner. My dad had politely called for my younger sister and myself to gather at the table.
He needed to have a chat with us.
At first, it was thought that this chat would be something to do with Grandpa Frank, an update on his current level of care at the nursing home, how he was settling in, but the look on my dad’s face was telling, like the point in which a dam is breaking; he was similar to that little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, but the pressure to hold it all together was too much, and something simply had to give.
My dad lowered his head, took a deep breath in, a sigh followed along with the potential forecast that his eye ducts would find themselves working overtime; and by his side, my mother, steadfast, supportive and always there, especially when the proverbial and literal ball is to be dropped.
Finally, my Dad spoke with a glint of determination in his eyes, “I just want to say and preface, what I am about to say and disclose to you, it doesn’t change anything about your grandfather. He has watched you two grow up. He loves you guys more than anything.” There was a pause, as my sister and I found ourselves with such a tunneled focus on my Dad, his feelings palpable, the whole spectrum of emotion, dancing and partnering up with the emotions we also were feeling, waiting for him to say the words that awaited our ears and minds to ingest.
“Your grandpa is not my biological father. He raised me and even gave me his last name at the age of seventeen, as would have been more difficult to do this after the age of eighteen. The memory of this event is etched in my memory as it was very uncharacteristic of Dad to call me into his room. He wanted to talk to me for a minute. I walked into the room and looked at him, as if by instinct, I knew exactly what he was going to say.
Re-winding back to the age of fifteen, I found out that it was pretty much common knowledge to everyone but me, that the father that had raised me was not biological. My good friend, who was dating my older sister at the time, was the one to tell me, but it was never discussed with my Dad, until the moment I stood in his room a couple of years later.
Before he could get a word in, edge-wise, I said to him, I know what you are going to say to me, I already know, It doesn’t matter, you’re my Dad. He looked really puzzled and gave a hug, asking me for the okay to make my last name official. It was only natural to say yes.”
Grandpa Frank with step/adopted-son Jeff
I could almost sense my pupils dilating in slow motion. This came out of left field, a revelation I never suspected to come into being. A quick moment of introspection and I felt my focus drawn back to my Dad, and instinctually my sister and I got up and gave a well-needed group hug. We all knew that this news was a tough thing to chew on, but of course, it lead to more questions.
Sitting down with my Dad, I began to pick his brain on any morsel of information he might have about his biological father. He reflected back on conversation with his maternal grandmother, Evelyn, who knew my Dad’s biological father, but mostly in passing. His apparent name was Hyman or something similar, last name was along the lines of Schoenberg or Shoenfeld. It was hinted that he would have been slightly older than my Dad’s mother, and was originally from somewhere on the East Coast. He also found himself in the Chicagoland area in the mid-1950s, possibly connected with being in the Army.
My Dad’s maternal Grandmother Evelyn with Hyman: The one and only picture my Dad had of his biological father.
My Dad never met his biological father, although it was told by his grandmother Evelyn that after my Dad was born, Hyman did make an attempt to be in his life. Regardless of any good intent, Evelyn and my Dad’s step-grandfather still denied him the right to see his son and firmly told him to stay away from the family. So, the mystery only deepens in the fact that there could be a thousand and one reasons why Hyman was not allowed to be a part of his son’s life.
Another interesting thing to note was about my Dad’s birth certificate. His mother, my paternal grandmother, listed him with the last name “Shelly”, which was not actually the birth father’s name, but maybe a sort of nickname or an indirect acknowledgement of his father. The two were not married at the time and the nature of their relationship was also unknown.
For those involved at the crossroads of this story, a few truths have gone to the grave.
Absorbing the information, I honestly felt like this was very little information to go on, but then again maybe more than most people in a similar situation. I was at a standstill, not sure how to go about researching any information out there, plus with all of the health issues my Grandpa Frank was going through at the time, my Dad was not particularly motivated to find out more. With his original birth records being sealed, any information would probably just send us all on a goose chase.
As I finished my high school years, my grandpa Frank shook off his beautiful mortal coil three weeks shy of his 91st birthday, in my senior year. On an early and warm June day, as I sat on one of those uncomfortable metal fold chairs in the middle of the football field, I did think of him at graduation. I would have loved to have had him sitting on the school bleachers, cheering me on with my Mom, Dad, sister, uncle, and cousins as I accepted my diploma. Life marched on, I went to university, graduated, fell in love, married and moved to a different country, and settled down with my own life, enjoying the path I was walking down.
In 2009, I turned to the internet and started a family tree. My mom’s half of the family tree was so easy to hash out, so many records to back up family connections and paper trails, but on my Dad’s paternal side, there was that little thing known as a genealogical brick wall.
Along with the fact that I was putting plan to action, decidedly I had entered a staring competition with this brick wall. I was beginning to feel quite determined to win this one and crack one of Dad’s great mysteries in his life. What greater personal motivation is there than gifting someone the information and knowledge of who their parent/parents are and maybe even more about that side of the family?
In 2015, with DNA testing becoming more mainstream, I decided to DNA test myself at 23andMe. Now here is where timing and synchronicity come into play. Without my prior knowledge or any hint in a recent conversation, my Dad also had decided to DNA test, but at AncestryDNA, so our results came within mere weeks of one another. Great minds or Hive mind, take your pick!
The great thing about these testing sites, which now Geni works in conjunction with MyHeritage and offers DNA tests to connect to your tree, is that they give you a list of cousins and immediate family connected through your DNA. Really neat stuff. Another thing to consider is the fact that your raw DNA is yours for the taking and you can download and upload to a few other genealogical sites, just to spread your DNA out there. This helps to increase your net in order to catch those family members and hopefully connect.
I was more than willing to dig deep into the gene pool, climb those family trees, and use available resources. Also, I cannot stress enough how important it is to reach out, connect, and communicate with your top DNA cousins. Not all of them will be responsive, but there are still those cousins who can end up being the very ones to help break those genealogical brick walls with you.
Next, I put my Dad’s raw DNA into Family Tree DNA and paid the fee to see my Dad’s full list DNA matches. Also, it is a good idea to put your DNA onto the GEDmatch website, which is a free database for not only people who test at Ancestry, but 23andMe, Family Tree DNA, and a few other smaller DNA companies. With MyHeritage DNA kits now available through Geni, you can also upload your raw DNA data onto GEDmatch.
I also had my Dad’s Y-DNA tested at Family Tree DNA, which is a paternal test that connects males to those related through just a male’s paternal lineage, so his father, his grandfather, great grandfather, and so on. Geni also has the option to connect the Y-DNA results to your Geni tree, which is ingenious and will surely prove more advantageous in future, as more men test and connect their Y-DNA results to Geni on their profile.
Dad’s Y-DNA (67 markers) results connected to Geni tree, as seen on Family Tree DNA website.
Y-DNA test from Family Tree DNA seen connected on Geni. Simply click on the DNA tab on individual Geni profiles for this information.
One of the main challenges in all of this was the fact that both of Dad’s parents were Ashkenazi Jews (European Jew/Caucasus). With this being the case, I had to be mindful that DNA cousins might not just be related in one way, but possibly in few other ways, so focus on 3rd cousins or closer would be ideal.
Here is a step-by-step approach that was taken to unravel the mystery of my Dad’s biological father:
1. DNA test December 2014/January 2015.
2. Dad also DNA tested after me, without knowing each other was testing.
3. Got DNA results.
4. Added raw DNA to GEDmatch website, free to do so.
5. Looked at top DNA cousin matches for both Dad and myself.
6. I got into email contact with a 3rd cousin match on 23andMe, which would be probable 2nd x 1 removed match to my Dad. This 3rd cousin match’s parent should then be 2nd cousins with my Dad.
7. Transferred my Dad’s raw DNA data to another site, Family Tree DNA, for more matches, which produced a top match at an estimated 2nd – 3rd cousin level.
8. Researched my Dad’s 2nd – 3rd cousin match by Googling and it produced a Geni result, so started to work up their tree. This was my first exposure to Geni, which then prompted me to create my own tree.
9. I noticed that an individual with the same last name to my 3rd cousin match had added a Geni profile connected to my Dad’s 2nd – 3rd cousin match I was researching. I then emailed my 3rd cousin match from 23andMe to confirm potential relationship to this person, which ended up being her aunt, and her father’s sister.
Results from two different DNA sites, connected through triangulation
10. This meant that my 3rd cousin match’s father, along with her aunt, were my Dad’s 2nd cousin through the Geni tree and also that the father to my Dad’s 2nd – 3rd cousin match from Family Tree DNA, was also a 2nd cousin to my Dad, making my Dad’s three 2nd cousins, 1st cousins to each other.
11. With this triangulation, I was then free to move up the Geni tree. One parent from each pair of parents of 2nd cousin matches would then all be related, as siblings. Now using my Dad as the reference point, this connection would be at the 1st cousin, 1 time removed level.
This now meant that I could look at the two parents of these siblings. One of the two parents would have to be the lucky Great Uncle or Aunt to my father.
Chart/tree is in relation to my Dad and the arrows indicate relationships between those listed on the chart.
12. On Geni, it listed siblings to both of my Dad’s potential Great Uncle or Great Aunt. I noticed the name Shoenfeld/Krasnopoler, which both mean “Beautiful field” on the potential Great Aunt Chaya.
Malka Krasnopoler & Chaya Krasnopoler (Shoenfeld), mother & daughter / Photograph from Mark Alan Goldsmith’s personal collection
13. Continued research on ancestral databases for my Dad’s birth father, so plugged in the name Shoenfeld. This yielded a marriage record of a Hyman Sheinfield to another lady in Chicago, in the right place and time frame, more than a year after my Dad was born.
14. I went back to looking at the potential Great Aunt and shifted sideways to her siblings, as one of her brothers would then be my Dad’s potential Grandfather.
Two of the brothers both had Chaim/Hyman sons born in 1922, which was a little confusing to begin with, so I looked to census records to differentiate the two. In doing so, using the Hyman with the marriage record, I was able to connect this to be one of the Hyman’s connected to this family. And yes, this family was based on the east coast, exactly what Dad’s Grandma Evelyn had previously mentioned in conversation.
15. Felt the impulse to try and find visuals of these family member, so looking on Geni, there was a family photo of the Shonfeld/Sheinfield/Krasnopoler siblings and one brother, the potential Grandfather, had a similar look to my Dad, so went to his profile for a closer look.
Sitting at the head of the table, three siblings sitting from Left to Right, Itzik Shonfield, Chaya Krasnopoler/Shoenfeld, and Chana Shoenfeld, celebrating Chaya’s birthday / Photograph from Mark Alan Goldsmith’s personal collection.
16. I then skipped over to the other brother to my Dad’s potential Great Aunt and looked at the listing of his children. I then did a yearbook search and found a picture of that Hyman, which I then least suspected to be my Dad’s birth father, more or less starting to prove that the other Chaim/Hyman, son of Itzik, was looking to be the better candidate. I also came across the least suspected birth father’s sister Charlotte’s yearbook photo and it gave me chills as I looked a bit like her.
Left, high school yearbook photograph of Charlotte and right photograph, wedding picture of me.
Continuing with researching school yearbook photos, found one of my Dad’s potential paternal Uncle, which is equally as fascinating to compare.
Left, Jeff. Right, Yearbook photo of potential Shonfeld Uncle.
18. At this point, it was time for me to make the attempt to contact my Dad’s 2nd cousin, 1 time removed match from Family Tree DNA via email to see if we could get a confirmation on the only photograph my Dad had of his birth father. This cousin was quick to respond then forwarded me on to his father, my Dad’s 2nd cousin, as he would be more knowledgeable of the family back then.
19. My Dad’s 2nd cousin then agreed that there were similarities in the photograph of my Dad’s birth father to a couple of Itzik’s sons he knew growing up and even remembered seeing Chaim, as he was known, at family parties from time to time, but wanted me to get into contact with another potential 1st cousin to my Dad. She would have been the niece to my Dad’s birthfather and was well-versed in all the family members. My Dad’s 2nd cousin then said some really encouraging words, “Good luck. I’m sure you are very close to success now.”
I emailed the potential 1st cousin and attached the photograph of Chaim to it with such high hopes. After clicking the “Send” on the email, I did close my eyes for a moment and whispered to the universe that I wished with all my heart that an email response would come back to say something positive and confirming it all. I felt so close to solving this riddle.
20. And so one week passed and finally got email confirmation from my Dad’s 1st cousin.
The picture was indeed her uncle, my Dad’s birth father!
It is often said that in moments like this, when getting this sort of confirmation on a mystery that has lasted for so long, the amount of endorphins that magically start to pump throughout your body, you truly feel the sensation of your heart being full.
My heart was full, pouring out and I just had to contact my Dad, ASAP! Within five minutes of this confirmation, I was on my computer’s camera with my Dad, asking if he had a moment and if he could sit down for what I was about to tell him. It was almost a kind of full circle, from the time my Dad asked for my sister and I to sit at the kitchen table, to pour out the fact that his birth father was unknown to him.
“Dad. Your father has officially been confirmed with your paternal 1st cousin. We have figured out who your Dad is, through DNA and a lot of time researching and communicating with all of your really wonderful cousins.” Happy tears through smiling faces ensued on both our parts. The mystery was no more and an important truth had finally flowered to greet the sun for the first time. The next question from my Dad was, “Well, is my father still alive?” Sadly, I had to tell him that his father passed away ironically the same year my Dad told us about his unknown birth father.
Although he would never know his father, he has since spoken briefly to his paternal uncle and hopefully in the not too distant future, plan a visit to learn more about his birth father and all the newfound family that now surrounds us.
And I can’t say it enough, to have been a part of and orchestrate such a monumental moment for my Dad, this has been one of the biggest highlights of my life so far. Everyone wants to know where they come from, so to have the truth verified, nothing feels better.