May 04, 2012 06:03 PM by Candace Young
Over the past few weeks, Who Do You Think You Are? has followed the journeys of celebrities such as Rob Lowe, Edie Falco, and Rita Wilson, as they have developed their family trees. Tonight, actress Rashida Jones looks into her ancestry, and winds up in Ireland and Latvia, where she comes to terms with a shocking chapter in her family history. Keep reading for highlights….
Rashida Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton, and currently an actress on Parks & Recreation, has an extended family tree on her father’s side, but doesn’t know much about the Jewish side of her family – her mother’s side. She remembers her grandmother, Rita, who was beautiful and an artist.
She meets with her mother and sister, and finds out her grandmother was born in Ireland, came to New York City, met her husband Harold in 1941, and changed her name at some point from Rosenberg to Benson – probably out of fear of having a Jewish name.
At the library in New York, Rashida finds her grandmother’s name on a passenger list of immigrants. She and her sister, Pearl, were just teenagers. Rita’s mother’s name was Jeannie, and they had an uncle with them who had the last name Benson. She theorizes that they took their uncle’s last name to ‘acclimatize’ to the States.
Upon landing in New York, it was over 15 years before Rita met Harold. Rashida learns she changed her name at the same time she became an American citizen. Rashida travels to an old nightclub with a historian to see where her grandmother spent time ‘taxi-dancing’ – dancing for money with Hollywood producers and Harvard men. They find mention of her in a tabloid column about the dancers. The historian tells Rashida that Rita was also pursuing a career as an entertainer or showgirl. Rashida admires her grandmother’s rather modern ambitions.
Rashida’s next stop is in Dublin, Ireland to learn more about her grandmother’s background.
In Ireland, she learns about Rita’s parents, her great-grandparents. She finds out that Benson was also her great-grandmother, Jeannie’s last name, which makes her curious. She meets with an historian, who reveals records referring to her as ‘Ginny’. She gets to see the marriage certificate of Ginny and Hymen Rosenberg. On it, are the names of her great-great-grandparents, Sophia Weinstein and Benjamin Benson – another generation with the name Benson. Rashida gets to see photographs of them, and learns that Benjamin originated from Russia.
They go on to find records of Pescha Benson, Benjamin’s sister, confirming that they were Latvian. She travels to see her great-great-grandfather’s birthplace.
In the 1800′s, when Benjamin was born, Latvia was part of the Russian Empire. She is shown an enlistment record that lists him as Benjamin Benson – she can’t believe that was actually the last name of a Latvian Jew!
Rashida next travels to Aizpute, where Benjamin’s father was born, and spent most of his life. She learns that at the time of Benjamin’s father’s birth, the family didn’t have a surname. Rashida discovers that Benjamin’s father likely left Latvia as a young man to avoid being recruited into the Russian army – it was mandatory to serve 25 years. Rashida is told that other ancestors who stayed in Aizpute died in the Holocaust in 1941.
She goes back to the first historian she met with in Latvia to try to find out which ancestors stayed in Aizpute. She sees records and passports that indicate her family moved away from there before the holocaust, but eventually learns they were moved from their new location to the Riga ghetto. From there, they were taken to the Rumbula forest where they were told to undress and get into mass graves in which they were all shot. Rashida cries.
Peggy Lipton joins her daughter Rashida in Latvia. Rashida tells her mother about the atrocity visited on their ancestors. She feels it’s a miracle she even came to exist considering what happened on both sides of her family tree (there was slavery on her father’s side). They stand at the memorial for those killed in the Rumbula forest and remember those who died there.
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Photo credits: Ian Wilson/Wenn.com, Adriana M. Barraza/Wenn.com