David Duchovny’s ancestors faced many obstacles before they settled in America, and the actor can’t help but get emotional while hearing about their journey in an episode of “Finding Your Roots” which aired on Feb. 14.
Duchovny’s paternal grandfather Mosha, or Morris, Duchovny died when the actor was an infant, so when he sits down with the show’s host Henry Louis Gates Jr., the 62-year-old is eager to learn more about him.
“We missed one another on this plane of existence. But here is, coming back,” Duchovny says in the episode.
He soon discovers that his grandfather was deeply involved in New York’s Jewish community and was well-loved. “I didn’t know how vibrant he was and how busy,” Duchovny remarks.
While reading a record that says Mosha Duchovny was born in Russia, Duchovny suddenly tears up and says, “I don’t know why that affects me.”
“It just makes me so sad that I didn’t get to meet him,” he explains.
Duchovny learns that his grandfather’s family lived in the Pale of Settlement, a geographic region of czarist Russia that encompasses modern-day Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, Ukraine and east-central Poland. Jews were allowed to live in the Pale, but they were also subject to anti-Semitic violence.
“Jewish people suffered an array of humiliating restrictions and were vulnerable to violence at any time,” Gates explains.
Between 1897 and 1915, more than 1 million Russian jews emigrated out of the Pale, including Duchovny’s great-grandparents and their six children. While most went to the U.S., Gates says, Duchovny’s ancestors relocated to the Middle East around 1910 — specifically, Jaffa, a city that’s now in Israel but was formerly in Palestine and part of the Ottoman Empire.
Their stay in Jaffa was brief. In 1914, police invaded the Jewish quarter and deported 6,000 residents to Egypt.
“Are you saying that my family was in that, or is this just something that happened?” Duchovny asks. Gates confirms that his family was involved in this violent ransacking.
Most were robbed of all of their possessions, meaning that Duchovny’s family had to started from scratch, again.
Two years later, Mosha Duchovny and his father boarded a ship to the United States.
While learning about his grandfather’s journey to the New York harbor, the actor tries to put himself in his shoes.
“I can’t imagine their state of mind. You’re always thinking of the hope of the new world. They must’ve had some hope, but the fear and just the dislocation. They’ve been moving quite a bit for a couple years and it’s not going well and they’re just going all over the world. They’re looking for a home,” he says.
The star seems touched by his family’s perseverance and says that he feels very “proud.”
“They ran and they ran and they got somewhere. They didn’t give up,” he says.
Eventually, other members of Mosha Duchovny’s family came to the United States. His mother sadly died just weeks after joining him in New York.
Considering the innumerable obstacles that his family faced, Duchovny is touched by what his relatives went through in order to give their family a better chance.
“I know they didn’t do it for me, but they gave my father a chance to have a different life … they made some good decisions,” he says.
The actor then explains that he always thought his family was just lucky to have left Europe before the Holocaust.
“But now I think it’s more they were smart. They were looking for opportunity. They were looking for safety,” he says.
While talking to Gates, Duchovney remarks that his life has been “so easy compared to (my ancestors’ lives)” and says he feels a huge rush of gratitude.
“I had a solid childhood. But just a few years earlier that would not have been the case … I’m just lucky in that way. The question becomes, what do you owe (them) or what’s your responsibility?” he says.