A family’s code, its set of defining characteristics, is left in traces all along the family tree, which is why later generations, born into wealth, are wise to better understand their family’s humble roots, and how their family reinvented itself over subsequent generations.
That understanding of the ancestral code will help current family members define their mutual goals and objectives. For such reasons, private bankers at Abbot Downing, Wells Fargo’s advisory for clients with $50 million in assets or more, are ordering up history lessons for their clients.
Abbot Downing’s in-house history team of nine is led by chief historian Andy Anderson; they assemble for each family a dossier of pictures and historical documents, from naturalisation papers to passenger lists. Those documents tell the story of each family, chronicling back at least four generations. The reports can take between five weeks to six months to compile, and are available at no extra charge to Abbot Downing’s clients.
Anderson has occasionally discovered family members who were slave owners, had entirely separate families, children out of wedlock, and drug addiction. In such cases, he discreetly passes the information to the patriarch and matriarch, concerned that it might not be suitable for children’s ears. Still, having a frank discussion about the family’s past is important because the ultimate goal is to ground the family and discuss the values that will carry them forward, says Anderson.
The Zaslow family is from Wyncote, Pa., and built a small linens store into ATD-American, a major manufacturer and supplier of textiles and furniture. The family knew bits and pieces of the hardships endured by their Eastern European relatives before coming to America, but they asked Abbot Downing for the full story. “Where we’ve been will determine where we’re going,” explains Arnie Zaslow, 84, a second-generation heir.
The history team was able to trace the Zaslows back seven generations, to the 1880s and the town of Pinsk, now in modern Ukraine. As Jews living in the Russian empire, their lives were threatened by the violent pogroms erupting all around them, and both branches of the family fled to America between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Zaslow relatives that stayed behind did not survive; many were drafted into the Russo-Japanese War. “The family vaguely knew that they were from Ukraine but they didn’t know just how close the family was to not surviving the pogroms,” says Anderson. “The biggest source of sorrow was that there was no one to go back and visit.”
One document uncovered by the history team was the ship’s manifest that took Arnie’s maternal grandfather to America. It revealed that, in 1892, he came to America alone with just $2 in his pocket; six years later, he had saved enough to send for the rest of his family. The Zaslows were tailors in their home country, so they set up a small linens shop in Philadelphia. A surprising find: Before the business took hold, Arnie’s mother worked as a stenographer for a stockbroker, to help pay the bills.
“We had no idea of the remarkable sacrifices [our relatives] made for the sake of family,” Arnie says. They have since compiled eight volumes of pictures and documents called “The Family and the Firm,” which, he says, serves as “a strong cohesive foundation to make everybody think family and realise the importance of the relationship of one member to the other.”
Arnie’s niece, Janet Wischnia, is now the president of ATD-American, and has since passed along to her own children stories of past family frugality, plus her own memory of being on summer vacation from elementary school, and working in customer service at the family company, resolving order issues. Every day, she and seven other family members piled into a compact car and drove downtown to ATD-American for work; the elders in her family didn’t want to spend the money to buy another car.
“For me, it teaches the importance of being frugal,” she says. It should also be noted the one car brought the family closer together. While it’s unlikely later generations will find it necessary to repeat the one-car austerity, it is likely the repetition of such stories will quietly install a respect and reverence for frugality -- it is, after all, a deep part of their DNA.
This article was originally published in Barron’s.