If he hadn’t known his story was true, Phil Silvers said even he would have been skeptical.
“Who would believe it?” said Phil, a 72 year-old retired middle school social studies teacher in New York City.
“If they put something like this in a television show no one would think something like this could happen.”
He grew up in New York City, and although he wouldn’t say so, his early life was tough. He wasn’t particularly close to his parents, and they never told him of his origins.
“It might have been better if they’d told me when I was young but they didn’t do that back then,” Phil said. “This was the 1940s and they didn’t talk about this sort of stuff then.”
Phil’s father had always been distant, which Phil thought was just part of his culture.
“I figured it was a European thing. He just didn’t take much interest in me.”
But nonetheless Phil was thankful for what his parents gave him:
“They did do one thing for me that made up for all that.”
They sent him to college, he said.
Phil became a teacher. His father died of a brain tumor in 1963 and Phil’s mother eventually moved to Florida. Phil married, raised two great kids, who became successful on their own. The closeness he lacked with his own parents he made up for with his wife and kids. He was happy.
But when Phil’s mother died. She left him — her only child — out of his will. She’d said he would know why. He didn’t, and her decision started him asking questions. What Phil learned was that he’d been adopted. Although there had been some hints that maybe he wasn’t his parents’ biological child, Phil hadn’t known. Some of his cousins knew however.
“It was a bit of a soap opera,” he said.
So at 50, Phil started to learn a bit about his history. But what he found out just deepened the mystery. He heard from a relative that he’d been adopted from a Jewish agency that took in the children of unwed mothers, but he couldn’t find out much more. Phil was born in 1942. He did the math and realized he’d been conceived right around the time of Pearl Harbor. Lacking the real story, he’d thought maybe he’d been the product of a liaison with a sailor who was being shipped off to war. It was a nice story, but it wasn’t true, as he would find out much later.
After learning he’d been adopted, Phil soon stopped keep digging for information. He figured his biological parents were possibly already dead or at the very least elderly, so he didn’t pursue it.
“Fast forward 20 years,” his daughter Katie said.
They’d been watching the PBS show Finding Your Roots with Louis Gates Jr. who explores the ancestry of his guests using historical records and DNA testing, including testing done by 23andMe.
“I convinced him that we should use 23andMe to at least find out where we come from,” Katie said. “None of us really thought we’d find actual family. We did the test and were amazed at our results.”
Because he’d been adopted from a Jewish agency in New York, Phil and his family believed he likely had Eastern European ancestry. When they got his results, however, they saw something unexpected.
Although Phil’s maternal line showed Eastern European ancestry, his paternal line showed ancestry from Iraq.
“This surprised me,” Phil said.
For a long time there was a sizable Jewish community with a long and rich history in Iraq dating back to the days of Babylon. But many Jews began leaving Iraq in the 1930s and in the decades that followed. For Phil and his daughter, just learning where they came from was enough, they said. But then a few years after learning this, Phil got a message from a 23andMe customer, who was identified as a possible first cousin.
“I told the person that we didn’t know anything about where our family had come from,” said Katie, who helps maintain her father’s account for him. “The next thing I knew the same person contacts me saying that his father and my father are matching as half brothers.”
Phone calls followed and finally, Phil and his entire family met his half brother and his family.
“I was in shock,” said Phil.
He was taken aback by the similarities. He and his half brother were both teachers in New York City schools. They both have a daughter and a son. Their daughters are both lawyers and their sons were high achieving students. (Phil’s son became an actuary, while his half-brother’s son is an oceanographer.) His half brother shared photos of their father with Phil and he immediately saw the resemblances. He learned that he’d been a good dad. Phil also learned he’d been conceived before his biological father was married. His father came to New York in 1939 and lived in NY before visiting Iraq in 1947 where he met his bride and then returned to New York to raise a family. Phil also learned that one of his family names is Aghassi, and he wonders now if he’s somehow related to the famous tennis player Andre Agassi. There’s a lot for him to learn about the history of his ancestors, he said.
“But much of my life is over now,” he said. “I wish I’d learned some of this when I was younger, but I’m thankful to know. I’m going to read some books and learn about the ancient history of Baghdad.”
He also plans to get to know his half brother better. Phil has visited his brother and his family at their home in upper Manhattan. His brother’s family will also be attending Phil’s grandsons first birthday.
Phil’s daughter Katie is still amazed that the mystery of her family’s ancestry is solved.
“It was truly an incredible experience and would not have happen without 23andme,” she said.