Friday, December 7, 2018

In Search of Family


I sometimes wish I had a bigger family. Now that is not because I am especially family-centered, but as a genealogist I am envious of those with many genealogical branches to explore.  I satisfy that desire by doing genealogy consulting for others and temporarily adopting their family as my own. With Jewish roots we often originate from the same region and our ancestors spoke the same language and shared the same customs. Who’s to say we aren’t family. 

I am currently working on one family history from Lithuania and another from Latvia. I have to work at keeping the common Jewish names separated between the two. Often, they bump up against each other in my mind and I sternly order them back to their respective tree.

One of my clients is curious about my process. I do have one, but each search often has unique elements. I draw on hunches that I’ve learned to trust. Part of what helps me is knowing the range of possibilities. For example, double given names can be used interchangeably or be swapped for one with the same meaning, birthdates were fluid, people often gave the nearest big town as theirs even though they may come from a small nearby shtetl. All these learnings guide me. There are many assessments I make, considering possibilities, discarding some while forming hypotheses from others. My process is relatively consistent when I begin, then diverges depending upon what information is available.

1897 Russian census
One client has a family tree that was put together thirty years ago, just names without dates and lots of missing maiden names, but a good starting point to fact-check and expand. I think about how difficult it must have been for them to put it together pre-Internet.  While more recent births are usually accurate, the further back they go, the more family folklore comes into play and inaccuracies can arise. As I fact-check, I build my own tree. I’m a firm disciplinarian as to what I allow into the tree, supporting documentation is required.

I often reference my tree to clarify relationships as names will tend to repeat through different generations. I also begin to create organizational tools as the list of names becomes unwieldy.  One of my most helpful tools is a spreadsheet with names down one side and data sources across the top. I check off my sources by each person to cross-check my process. I look for several sources to validate that anyone on my tree belongs there. I look for linkages between people and cross linkages across both place and person. It is like weaving a tapestry that connects the various elements, people to place, people to people. It has to weave tightly together with no weak links that can introduce errors. To that end I also identify those with the same name and time period who are not related to assure that I keep incorrect data out. You can’t be too eager to add new names.

One of my strategies is to work back from the US to ancestral towns.  I look for links between people from the ancestral town and those who came to the US. There are many ways to find those linkages. If family members immigrated after 1906 the immigration record notes the nearest family member in their place of origin. It also notes who they were going to in the US. Census records will reveal when they immigrated so I use them to work back to immigration records. One of my key linkages with my Lithuanian search is an immigration record of an entire family. Each name and birthdate ties precisely to the Lithuanian records and later to the US records. This is a rare occurrence at a time when birthdates were rather fluid. I steam across the ocean with them, picking up the threads of this family as I disembark the ship. It is a connection woven of many threads, offering me a level of certainty that I’ve found the correct family.

I have sometimes found marriage records in the US that note parents and sometimes death records will also provide that information. Death records will also say what cemetery they are buried in. Findagrave or Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry often have tombstone pictures which will provide the father’s name. I have cracked many puzzles by starting with a tombstone. I read those tombstones carefully hoping for a double name. If I can make a match to two given names, a surname and a place then I have an additional level of certainty that I have the right record. In both of these projects I had the good fortune to find double names. 

From there I tap into the transcriptions of the Lithuanian or Latvian records, both of which are at least partially on-line. If I am lucky, I find birth, death or marriage records and sometimes census records. Sometimes there are links to the actual handwritten Russian records, often not properly linked so a bit of knowledge of Cyrillic Russian is helpful to find the correct record. I know enough Russian to find the record before I turn it over to someone with greater fluency for confirmation. Pattern recognition will often do when fluency is lacking.

Many hunches later, I will have solved the puzzle which had seemed so insurmountable at the start. Then I will hand over the tree to its rightful owners and bid a fond farewell to this family that has invited me in, a guest to their home and their family. 

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