dna, updates

John Costello’s DNA – Well, half of it.

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John Costello, my great-grandfather


Just last week I shared my amazing, once-in-a-lifetime find of 7 seconds of video footage of my great-grandfather John Costello.  I continue to delight in it and probably will for the rest of my life.

Seeing John has been so enlightening.  Especially when it is coupled with some recent DNA results.  The last few weeks have felt like “the big reveal” in a few key ways.

Here is what I have always known – John was born in Barcelona to a Spanish mother and an Italian father.  Pretty simple and straightforward.  John was Catholic and attended Mass regularly – usually twice each week his whole adult life.  His wife Mary, who was a Protestant, was baptized Catholic after his death so that she could be buried next to him in a Catholic cemetery.

John had two sons who each had two sons.  From those four grandsons, there are four great-grandsons.  That gave me a potential of ten Y-DNA candidates to test.  I chose my Uncle because that was easiest.  My Uncle took a Y-DNA test for me shortly after RootsTech.

The results surprised me.

A lot.

I was expecting my Uncle to match to a bunch of Italian men with Italian surnames, hopefully several men with the same surname, and hopefully at least one who had a tree and was willing to work with me.  I was hoping this test would help me chip away at the John Costello brick wall.


That is not what happened.

My Uncle matched to 149 men at the 37 markers level.  149 men who ALL have different surnames from each other and from my Uncle.  All different surnames.

Here is a small sampling of some of the surnames on the list:

  • Persson
  • Benowitz
  • Mudd
  • Plotkin
  • Kalmuk
  • Chiprin
  • Meriems
  • Rosenthal
  • Gladtke
  • Mechlowe

There are 139 others.

When I look at his Ancestral Origins list I am seeing this huge list of Eastern and Western European countries like – Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Latvia, Turkey, Hungary, Germany, and Austria.  Notably missing is Italy.  As I am scrolling through this list I keep seeing the same note over and over again – Ashkenazi, Ashkenazi, Ashkenazi.  About 90% of my Uncle’s matches are noted as Ashkenazi.  The rest are not noted with anything.

John Costello’s Italian father was Jewish.

John Costello, who was a devout Catholic, was the son of a man who was, at least on his direct male line, Jewish.  He descended from a male line of Jewish men.

John’s three children who survived infancy never knew that their father was Jewish.  They knew him as a Catholic Spaniard.  So here I am, almost exactly 51 years after his death, discovering a part of himself that he never chose to share.

For many years no one spoke of the fact that he had any Italian blood.  In fact, no one but his children and myself knew that he was half Italian.  His children learned that fact from him, I from research.  It wasn’t until the last few years when I started asking more questions that they were forthcoming with that fact.  Or I suppose it is possible that just my little branch of the family was unaware of his Italian heritage because of separation caused by divorce – and believed this was a new revelation.  Either way, John’s Italian ancestry was a quiet fact.

I wondered if part of the reason behind this was related to his Alien status – a status he held until his death – and the feelings towards Italians during WWII, the internment of Italians during WWII.  Surely, that was an uncomfortable time for him.  Now I wonder if there was more to it.

Now I am wondering how John felt during the war years – Italian and Jewish?

Now I am wondering what happened to his family members on his father’s side during the war years.  I bet he wondered too.  As far as anyone knows, he had no contact with his family after he left.  None of them were literate, or so the story goes.

But all of that leads me to another important question – did he even know any of his father’s family?  His Italian, Jewish father married his Catholic, Spanish mother and they lived in Spain.  Did John ever meet any of his father’s family members?

There are so many more questions now than there were before.

But suddenly I find myself understanding the lack of information just a little bit better.  Or why John may have chosen not to share information.  Jewish persecution is very real and it’s been going on for what feels like forever.  I suppose if you leave your homeland and everyone around you accepts that you are a Spaniard, that is a safe thing to be.

But that means that so much was lost.  So much knowledge and understanding of our family and our family’s roots.  Traditions and faith were left behind.

In fairness, it may well have been John’s father, or grandfather, or great-grandfather who did the leaving and chose not to share information.  I will never know.

Genetically speaking, 12.5% of me is John.  If his father was 100% Jewish, that would make me 6.25% Jewish – assuming the DNA that was passed down reflected the fractions of the tree, which of course is not how that actually plays out.  But for argument’s sake, let’s say that I am 6.25% Jewish.  That is 1/16.  When you look at a family tree – that is a large portion of me.  A portion that I had no inkling was Jewish.

That is a lot of myself that I did not understand.  That I did not know about.

I have so much to learn about this part of my tree.

So much.

Grandpa Costello – you have left me a puzzle that I will keep working on until I solve it.  Even if it takes my entire life.  Even if all I do is stare at the small pieces you left behind until they are emblazoned upon my brain.  Even if those pieces never fit into a bigger picture because so much of the puzzle has been lost to time.  Whatever your or your father’s reasons were for keeping this a secret, I have learned the truth of your ethnic origins.  I honor it, I treasure it, and I will not keep it a secret from our mutual posterity.

And now to commence the learning.



ps – Are you now ever-so-curious about my ethnicity estimates?  I certainly was after getting my Uncle’s results back.  Well, I have them.  I just got them last week.  I will share them soon.  Stay tuned!




Note:  Y-DNA is passed directly from father to son.  It mutates very infrequently and very slightly over time.  If you have a brick wall or tricky spot in your tree and you have a direct line male who is willing to test, the Y-DNA test is generally considered a pretty lucky and straightforward gift – unless you are Jewish or from one of a few other ethnic groups with their own unique challenges.  That doesn’t mean the test won’t help you, it just won’t be simple and straightforward like it is for many other groups of people.  If you have questions about the four different types of DNA tests and when you might use them, this is a great read.  If you don’t yet understand that those Ancestry commercials that encourage tossing the lederhosen for a kilt are not accurately representing the limits of ethnicity estimates, read this.


18 thoughts on “John Costello’s DNA – Well, half of it.”

  1. Fascinating questions you have uncovered here. That seems to be the way it is with genealogy research–we uncover at least as many questions as answers. It is also what keeps me going with it. Good luck with you quest!

  2. Your blog is always so interesting to read. I somehow missed your blog titled “My 7-second Miracle” and was happy you wrote about it again today. I would like to suggest a book to you “One Summer: America 1927” by Bill Bryson. I found it a great read and I think it will answer and give understanding of your questions you have regarding his Italian and Jewish Heritage. DNA test do give us some surprises my wife found she had about 3% Jewish heritage, and no idea from where. Myself a small amount of Native American heritage and no idea from where.

  3. Wow! You have uncovered a whole new set of mysteries! Thanks for a fascinating read; and now I can’t wait til you post about your test.

    1. Thank you Su! It was a big surprise for sure. I have so much to learn. One answer always leads to more questions. The wonder of genealogy – it is a life’s work.

  4. They estimate that about 50,000 Jews survived the holocaust by escaping to Spain. Read “the mezuzah in the madonna’s foot” by Trudy Alexy. It might enlighten you.

    1. I will add it to my list, thank you! He was born in Spain in 1893 and came to America in the 1910s, so he was safe and sound in Washington State during the Holocaust. I wonder if any of his Italian family members made their way to Spain? With family there it may have been a natural step for them. I so hope that I learn who his family was one day. I just keep trying everything I can think of. I will not give up! 🙂

  5. Wow, Amberly—welcome to the Tribe, as we say! That’s amazing. Perhaps he descended from a crypto-Jew and never knew he was Jewish. Have you had any of the descendants do autosomal testing? It might turn up other relatives, though it’s a long shot. If you need any suggestions on Jewish genealogy, let me know. 🙂

    1. I just had to look up “crypto-Jew” to learn what that means. He certainly comes from the regions of Europe this occurred in, so that is a distinct possibility. My mom and I have both done the autosomal DNA test with Ancestry. I chose to test with them in part because my mom’s brother and mother had already tested with Ancestry. I knew I would be able to compare our matches to look for people who are not related to my Grandma, meaning they are a match on John Costello’s side. It is working. I have identified about 10 or so matches that meet this criteria. I have messaged and so far one has responded. He is more distantly related and willing to help if he can so we will see. I just mailed a letter today to my biological grandfather – John’s son – requesting that he allow me to test his DNA. I really hope he will consent. I’ve only met him once when I was 16. We have spoken on the phone a few times and we exchange Christmas cards. He sent a card and money order to my son when he graduated last year. So…, maybe? I’m hopeful. If he agrees I am going to have that test shipped to him asap. He is old and has poor health. I think I’ll do FTDNA, start with an autosomal but add all of the bells and whistles with the other tests as I can afford to. (Hopefully within the first few months so I don’t risk the sample losing it’s integrity.) Since he is the closest to John genetically speaking, I am hopeful this may help. Please feel free to send all of the thoughts, prayers, or good vibes my way that you can, I need it!

      And thank you for the welcome. 🙂 This discovery has added a whole new level of meaning to my serious interest in the Holocaust. I have read dozens and dozens of Holocaust memoirs. I love learning about the heroes of that time that risked their lives to help people escape and the survivors who endured such horrific circumstances and were willing to tell their story. And now I am left to wonder who in my own tree has a similar story that I am completely unaware of.

      1. FTDNA is a good choice since supposedly they have the largest number of Jewish testers in their database. There is also GEDmatch. Do you know about that? Are you on Facebook? There is a group called Tracing the Tribe that is very helpful, and the administrator is from a Sephardic background and knows a lot about Spanish Jews. Do you have my email address? Feel free to contact me that way also!

        1. I am on Facebook, I will look that group up now. Thank you. I do know about GEDmatch, I just haven’t learned the details or used it yet. I kind of feel like I am doggy-paddling in the middle of a gigantic genetic genealogy ocean. I keep adding more water, but haven’t learned how to get myself on a boat and headed in the right direction. I’ll get there.

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