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When I first got to know my father-in-law over 30 years ago he was deeply engaged in researching his family history. I regarded the project with priggish disdain, as a useless activity and a withdrawal from the world. My own father, who had come to this country from Vienna after the first world war, was the opposite of my father-in-law. He recalled his parents with affection, but never mentioned any previous forebears. This seemed to me altogether healthier.

Yet now that I am about the age my father-in-law was then, I find myself as intrigued by my family’s origins as…

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