Award-winning genealogist, author, and speaker Genie Milgrom was raised Roman Catholic but starting in fifth grade, she instinctively felt that she was Jewish.
Born in Havana, Cuba in 1955, Milgrom attended Catholic schools in Cuba and the United States, but “felt something was off… It’s hard to explain, but most people who come from these kinds of roots [experience] this phenomenon,” she told The Jewish Press.
She married a Cuban Catholic man when she was very young and had two children. By the time she was 28, however, she felt compelled to change course. “I just can’t do this anymore,” she recalls feeling. “I’ve always been a spiritual person, a religious person, and I was having a lot of problems with the dogma of the Catholic religion.”
Over the next seven years, she radically changed her life by getting divorced and converting to Orthodox Judaism. She had a gut feeling that she was already Jewish by birth – but no proof.
Living in Miami, Milgrom immersed herself in the Jewish community, becoming sisterhood president and treasurer of the local Young Israel synagogue. Through her work in the pharmaceutical industry, she met her second husband, Michael, a chasidic Ashkenaz Jew, and felt instantly at home with his family.
On the day Milgrom got remarried, her grandmother had warned her how dangerous it is to be a Jew – which Milgrom thought meant the danger of her soul leaving Catholicism. It was not until years later, after her grandmother died in 1993 and Milgrom was given a pair of her Star of David earrings, that she realized the true significance of her grandmother’s words. Customs Milgrom’s grandmother had taught her, such as making sure there wasn’t any blood in eggs and sweeping in the center of the room, started to make sense.
(During the Spanish Inquisition, she later learned, Crypto-Jews had removed mezuzahs from their doorposts, but in an effort to still keep the doorway area sacred, they wouldn’t sweep near it.)
Milgrom also found family recipes dating back to the Inquisition, such as fake pork chops. “What they used to do was make this pork chop out of French toast, and then when they were eating it they would throw a real pork chop in their fireplace and it would smell the place up so the servants, the workers, [and] the neighbors would think they were eating pork,” she explained.
Milgrom decided to investigate her lineage strategically by employing the help of Fernando Gonzalez del Campo Roman, an ex-priest in Spain who is also an expert genealogist. “I’m not the type of person that lives in a fantasy world,” she said. “I’m very grounded, I’m very rooted, and I wanted somebody that was going to be doubting what they’re looking for. This is an ex priest – he’s not going to want me to be Jewish, so let me hire him to find my Jewish roots.” Gonzalez del Campo Roman was able to trace Milgrom’s family lineage back to 1545.
The baptism records he obtained stated “Bajo necesidad” next to the names of all of the babies in Milgrom’s family. This meant they did not get baptized, reportedly because they were too ill to go to church for it.
Milgrom’s mother, who came from an elite Cuban family that traveled in social circles where there were no Jews, initially tried to dissuade her from investigating too deeply by pointing out that there were many nuns and priests in the family – but that was common for Crypto-Jews who wanted to hide Jewish children from persecution. Her mother’s last cognizant event before being stricken with Alzheimer’s disease was lighting Shabbos candles and reciting the bracha with her. She passed away several weeks ago.
In 2014, after more than 10 years of research, Milgrom traveled to a beit din in Jerusalem, where she told the dayan about her family tree, and how her grandparents were born in Fermoselle, a small cliffside village between Spain and Portugal, where her relatives had lived for 523 years. He suggested she find out the Jewish history of Fermoselle because as far as he knew there was no record of a Jewish community there.
As Milgrom traveled with her husband to Portugal, it dawned on her that her family must have been caught up in the Portuguese Inquisition. She matched up names in Inquisition files with her family tree which confirmed that at least 45 relatives on her maternal side were martyrs who had been burned to death for refusing to convert. “I was reading about these grandmothers and aunts and 15-year-olds with this incredible faith,” she recalled, “and I said to myself, ‘How could I not be a woman of faith if my ancestors were like this?’”
Once she reached Fermoselle, Milgrom noticed religious symbols etched into many stone walls, including buildings that she soon discovered used to be synagogues. “I sent [pictures of the symbols] to Oxford, to Harvard, to Notre Dam.” One archeologist told her that if she wanted to uncover the secret behind the symbols, she should look at them when the sun struck them at 2:00 p.m., as this was a common way Crypto-Jews would leave messages.
One of these symbols that she was able to see more clearly at 2:00 p.m., known as a crypto-cross, was a cross with an encircled anchor underneath it, the anchor being the same symbol found on ancient Israeli coins. Milgrom recognized this symbol on the back entryway of a church where a mezuzah would have been placed.
“It’s not written anywhere, but I know they touched the cross,” she explained. “Fermoselle was built on a mountain of rock, granite… Every wall is rough to the touch. When you get to that back door of the church with that cross with the anchor, it’s soft as butter. For generations, people touched it… People were treating it as a mezuzah.”
Milgrom told a historian in Fermoselle that her family name was Bollico (“little bun”), which has known Jewish origins. The historian offered to take her to a synagogue that had since been converted into a private home. The next day, Milgrom found herself walking down seven steps leading into the basement of the home, and when she spotted a massive spout jutting out, she realized she was standing in the middle of what once was a mikvah.
Later, a former mayor of the village took her to a different synagogue, where she saw the benches and where they would have put the Aron Hakodesh. “All I’m doing is crying for the lost Jewish history,” she said, “and at that moment, that’s when it became my mission that this is what I was going to do – I was going to go around the world talking about this.”
She sent evidence she uncovered from 22 generations of her lineage to a rabbi in Israel, who did not accept DNA tests and required all of the records to be documented on paper. It took years for some of the documents to be translated into Hebrew. Finally, she received a response from the rabbi. “I got a beautiful letter back saying that I had been born Jewish. The letter said that G-d had brought me to this place in a very roundabout way, but that all my ascendents and descendants were Jewish. It was an incredible day!”
Milgram began posting about her ancestry on social media in 2010 and gained a following of thousands of people, many of whom asked Milgrom how she discovered what she did and told her that they’d like to look for their possibly-Jewish past as well. She started writing a book about stories and recipes of Crypto-Jews who lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Her audience anxiously awaited the next chapter, which she posted on social media as she wrote it, as she traveled all over the world to uncover her past.
Milgrom was awarded the Medal of the Four Sephardic Synagogues in Jerusalem for her groundbreaking discoveries about the Jewish history of Fermoselle. Two of her books, My 15 Grandmothers and Pyre To Fire, have won International Latino Book Awards.
Today, she sits on the advisory committee of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies of Greater Miami, and has spoken at the Knesset, the EU Parliament, and AIPAC. She is also director for Latin America for Kulanu.org, where she teaches about Judaism in Spanish and her husband teaches in French.
For the past 10 years, Milgrom has been working as a genealogist to help people find their Jewish roots. She spoke on a panel with renowned demographer Dr. Sergio Della Pergola, who estimated that there are as many as 50 million other descendants of Crypto-Jews of Spain who do not yet know of their past.
“There’s a staggering amount of people that could change the face of the Jewish people,” said Milgrom.