Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Genealogist Personality

In talking with my fellow genealogists, I realize that it takes a certain personality type to savor a week of research. Twelve hour days at a microfilm reader are unlikely to appeal to most people. Many of us bring a professional background such as finance, law or psychology that translates well into this pursuit. The common element is an inquisitive mind that enjoys the process of solving puzzles. One had better enjoy the process as there is often a lengthy period of research between discoveries. My financial background lends itself well to genealogy as I use spreadsheet analysis in my approach. I started building databases of information so I could recognize patterns that linked information. Before long I was using analysis tools to manipulate the spreadsheets to help them spill their secrets. In Utah I often do impromptu workshops for others on my approach and out of that taught a course on this topic at the international conference.

Other skill sets prove equally valuable. My friend Fran is a therapist and has an innate curiosity that serves her well in her search. Her questioning mind and gregarious nature help her unlock genealogical puzzles. I’ve learned to be more gregarious in my research as part of the process is connecting with others to gather information. Fran tells me she is contemplating using some of the database tools to which I’ve introduced her.

Before I left on my trip I obtained a missing piece to one of my longstanding puzzles. If you’ve read about my research in Dunilovichi, Belarus you know that I located a sister to my great-grandfather as well as my great-great grandfather’s tombstone (Pesach Mordechai). Both are residing in the Dunilovichi cemetery. My latest missing piece came in the mail in the form of tombstone pictures I had ordered from New York. The tombstones revealed that my great-grandfather has another sibling, a brother, buried in the United States.

The process of genealogy can often unfold over several years. In this case I was first tipped off by my father’s late cousin that my grandmother’s family name was originally Reichel. When my great-grandfather came to the US in 1904 he followed the lead of a Brooklyn relative who had changed his name to Rothchild. They had heard it was a prominent name and could help them do better in the Golden Medina. That piece of information unlocked the Ellis Island immigration records where the original name was necessary to find them. I later found the name change confirmed in the naturalization records where they have to state the name under which they immigrated.

Some years later I made a discovery in the Ellis Island records. In 1923 Awsaj Reichel, born in Dunilowicz, was going to his son Morris Rothchild. Aha! This must be the lynchpin that proved the transition from Reichel to Rothchild. Despite extensive searching I never was able to find a record of Awsaj after that date. By the 1930 census he was not listed with his son. Years went by as I continued to research Morris Rothchild and his family. A year ago I went to the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Chicago. There I located the obituary for Morris Rothchild in a database that was available to attendees. I filed it away in my records and it was yet another year until it dawned on me that the obituary said where he was buried. Perhaps his father would be buried there as well. As it was a cemetery that had an on-line database, I plugged in the names and up popped Israel Rothchild who died in 1927. That would explain why he never showed up in the 1930 census. Before I left on my trip to Lithuania, I sent off to the cemetery for photos of the tombstones. Several months later I received them in the mail.

Genealogists form hypotheses and then collect data to test them. In this case, my hypothesis was that this was a sibling to my great-grandfather. He was the right age and based on the report of my father’s cousin, Awsaj’s son Morris was a cousin. Jewish tombstones always have the father’s name so that would either prove or disprove my theory. Upon ripping open the envelope, I was able to quickly confirm that Pesach Mordechai was clearly carved into the tombstone.

I turned my attention to the name Awsaj. The on-line database gave the name Israel. His tombstone spelled out his name in English as Osias. The Hebrew translated to Isaiah. But a new puzzle soon arose. One would expect to see this same name as the father on Morris Rothchild’s tombstone, but here the name translated to Joshua. In researching the two names I learned that they are derived from the same Hebrew root. They both literally mean “Jehovah saves”. One uses the full form of Jehovah, while the other uses a contracted form. Given the immigration record and the fact that he is buried in the family plot, I think I am safe to assume we are talking about the father of Morris.

Genealogy research unfolds, often over many years. It requires patience and an appreciation of the process. It is very much a process of pattern recognition. That means that we may have the information, but have not yet recognized the pattern. For this reason it is always valuable to review past research as old information may make sense as new information develops. Clues can be lurking in our data that a fresh set of eyes will recognize. As in life, it helps to develop a broad range of skills that build on our natural skill set, but sometimes go against type. Thus introverts learn to be gregarious and the gregarious learn to use databases.


  1. I had wondered how genealogists prove a hypothesis, then move to the next layer. Lots of work!!

  2. The birth entry for my grandfather lists his given name as Osias, but he was known to his family as Yeshia (Yiddish for Joshua). I'll never know why he took the name Samuel on emigrating to the UK.