Saturday, October 31, 2009

Using the Utah Family History Library

I’ve spent this week in Utah doing research at the Family History Library with a group of Jewish genealogists. En route to Salt Lake City, I spent a few days in Nevada with my brother. He owns a group of radio stations there and before departing I did a radio interview about my travels in Lithuania and my genealogy research.

In Utah I was reunited with Fran, my traveling companion from Lithuania. We originally had met in Utah and became good enough friends to brave six weeks of travel together, appreciate our differences and still enjoy each other’s company. My trip to the Family History Library is an annual event and an opportunity to meet others who share this same passion as well as do much more intensive research than is easily available elsewhere.

The Family History Library is run by the Mormons and actually ties to their belief system. By baptizing ancestors posthumously they believe they buy them access to the “Celestial Kingdom”. Thus their research has a very different objective than my own. Because this is so central to their beliefs they go around the world copying records that are maintained at the library. Some areas are well covered, while others are much less so. I’ve had a great deal of success in Polish records which are recorded from around 1810 through the 1870s, but far less success in the Ukraine and Belarus.

The library has filmed in 110 countries and territories and includes records from the United States, Canada, the British Isles, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It is the largest library of its kind anywhere in the world. The library is open to everyone and frequented by groups studying their specific ancestry. They offer a variety of lectures on different topics free of charge. If you look up your local church of the Latter Day Saints you will find that it may have microfilm readers and library resources. They will order records from the library for you to review locally. Typically they have limited hours as they are staffed by volunteers. Their equipment is usually far less sophisticated also so while they can be helpful, they certainly don’t replace the benefits of a trip to the Utah library.

While in Utah we stay at the Plaza hotel which offers comfortable accommodations in addition to its proximity, literally next door to the library. The library opens at 8AM and closes at 9PM (except for Mondays when it closes at 5PM and Sunday when it is closed). That means I usually put in a 12 hour day. During the year I keep a computer file called Library Preparation in which I record information that I want to search for while I am there.

The library has a catalog which is on-line so one can determine what information is likely there. You can find the library at Click through the headings to find the catalog where you can search by a variety of methods. I find that place and keyword are often good starting points. If you enter New York City it will come up with the different boroughs of New York. If you click on a selection you will find subtopics related to that area. You then click on the desired topic and in the upper right hand corner click on Film Notes and it will bring up the related films.

Often you first need to use a film with indexes before you find the film with the record. I find that many of the index films are no longer necessary as there are sites such as which search multiple sites which have indexed records for New York in particular. His site is also quite helpful in researching immigration records by a variety of elements such as the town they are from. He keeps adding search tools so it is worth exploring what is available at his site. When you identify the film that you want, you go to the files and find it and return it when you are finished.

This year the library had a new feature. The old copiers were gone and in their stead were scanners where one could print directly or scan onto a memory stick. There was an enhanced ability to clean up the film to make it more legible. While I was there I scanned records with family names from 1820 through 1865 in Radom, Poland. Over the years I have built a database for Radom and Sienno, Poland from where family came. In it I’ve recorded all the family names, the associated records and data that I was able to decipher. Because I began doing this a few years ago when I knew far less, I decided to go through and clean up my database. I was amazed at how much I learned over the years as records seemed so much more decipherable. It brought me back to those early days when I dove into the Polish/Russian records before I even did the US records. Not the wisest thing to do perhaps, but I couldn’t wait to get to the European records. In addition to reviewing the information for accuracy, I also was reformatting the database so I could better use some of the analysis approaches I’ve developed since I began.

My database has already proved fruitful. Some months back I ordered information from the Polish archives in Radom. I had requested copies of the death certificates for my great-great grandparents. To my surprise I learned that my great-great grandmother had died at 92 in 1904, not an age many get to today, let alone in the 1800s.

My great-great grandfather’s death certificate provided another piece of data that I didn’t know, the names of his parents, Berek and Chaia. This took me back five generations. Hmm, now I could test out the utility of my database. I did a search for a Berek Rubinsztajn and discovered I had a record for one who died in 1839. It noted that he left a wife and three adult children. I then searched for records where Berek and Chaia Rubinsztajn were parents and discovered marriage records for two of their daughters in my database complete with hard copies. Together with my great-great grandfather that would make three children. I had these records all this time; I just needed the information to connect the dots.

But I wasn’t quite finished. With the names of both husband and wife to match, I decided to tackle the patronymic records. Patronymics records are those which preceded Jews taking last names. Similar to the Johnsons or Carlsons which are so prevalent here in Minnesota, they merely add an ending to the father’s name which means “son of”. The patronymic records are found prior to the 1820s in Poland and are included in the Catholic records. In the 1820s the Jewish records were split out and maintained by the Jewish community. These records are fairly easy to separate from the Catholic records as the names are quite distinctive; Malkas and Bajlas, Dawids and Yaakovs as opposed to Jans, Stanislaws and Paulinas.

In 1811 I found the birth of a son Israel to Berek Herskowicz and his wife Chaia Herskow Berkowiczowna. The child died a few months later in 1812. This was the only record for a Berek and Chaia in this time period and fell right in the middle of their child bearing years. It also gave me another piece of information. The fathers of both Berek and Chaia were named Hersk taking me back six generations. Berek would have been born around 1770 based on his death record. Presumably both Hersks (fathers of Berek and Chaia) would have been born around 1750. What makes me so sure that this couple without a surname is the same Berek and Chaia who later took the name Rubinsztajn? Remember that Berek died in 1839. Ashkenazic Jews typically name a child after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent. In 1842 my great-great grandfather had his first son after three daughters. He named that son Hersz Berek, an honored name as he was named after both his grandfather and great-grandfather.

On this visit I scanned the records that I’ve identified. I also figured that if Herszk, my fourth great grandfather, was born around 1750 than it was possible that his death record could be in the period around 1810-1830. Using my database as a guide, I scanned the Herszeks in the patronymics. My hope of course is that a record will indicate that a Herszk of the right age range died leaving a survivor named Berek or Chaia so that I could connect him to the names I already know. I’ve not found anything as of yet, but with the scans I can spend some time studying the records at home. As the library has no records prior to 1810 for these towns, I am nearing a time where I will need to visit Poland to see if there is anything else which I can access.

Monday, October 12, 2009

1939 in Moorhead, Minnesota

It is snowing here in Minnesota, two to three inches are coating our trees which have not yet lost their leaves. Good weather for hibernating. Sunday it will be 59 degrees and we will savor the few days of fall we are allotted, appreciating the reprieve as we’ve been reminded of the long winter that awaits us.

In addition to painting, I’ve been doing some genealogy consulting for others. One of the projects on which I am working is for a client who has family in Moorhead, Minnesota. I’m searching in the Moorhead Daily News in 1939 and I find myself subtracting time from my billing as I often get side tracked by the headlines which interest me. This was a time when there were frequent reports of Hitler threatening and ultimately taking control of a succession of countries, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France one by one fall to the Nazis. The US had not yet entered the war, but as the year progresses and Britain comes under attack the headlines are filled with war news. It is strange to read it in real time, through the eyes of readers who didn’t know the subsequent events. I find myself wondering what was known at that time. I read with interest articles about what was happening to the Jews in Europe.

In January I read of the former chief rabbi of Lower Austria who wept as he arrived in NY with his wife and children. He said he could scarcely believe he was in the US where he could speak freely with no fear of reprisal. Just a hint that life was constrained in Europe.

In January Felix Frankfurter was appointed to the Supreme Court. Hitler expressed his disapproval of a Jewish justice. An article (1/9/39) reports on Frankfurter’s 80 year old uncle Dr. Salmon Franfurter learning of the news from a radio broadcast. It goes on to relate that Dr Franfurter was once an honored Austrian government official and director of the Vienna University library. Now he was a Nazi prisoner.

In June (6/6/39) an article was headlined Cuba Bars Jews. A ship of refugees was seeking shelter from the impending doom in Europe, but could not find a place that would accept them. I later learned that after two months at sea they found a haven in Belgium. It didn’t serve as a haven for long unfortunately as Hitler expanded his reach.

August 1939 was an active month. First I read of a refugee mother from Czechoslovakia who leaped to her death with her two small sons. Her husband had been a prosperous textile manufacturer who sold his business and had only a small amount of funds left. They had been admitted to the US on a six month visitor permit which was soon to expire and were seeking admittance to Canada or Bolivia. The woman despaired over her losses and grieved for her relatives who couldn’t get away. They authorities attributed it to “temporary insanity due to persecution”.

Later in August I read of the “Gildmeester Action” where they were trying to prepare a settlement for Jewish emigrants in Ethiopia in cooperation with Italian authorities. There were 15,000 German Jews residing in Italy who would soon be placed in “homestead camps” in Italy to prepare them for colonization in Africa. Did this occur or was it a scam? I can find no further information.

In the same month I read about Jews completing paying 20% of their fortunes towards a $400MM fine for the murder in Paris of the embassy secretary by Polish Jews. Mind you that was in 1939 dollars. If that money earned just 5% it would have been worth $12 Billion in today’s dollars.

Later that month I read that Danzig Jews were following the European situation with grave apprehension. They believed if war broke out many would be sent to concentration camps, but this was at a time when this was thought to mean work camps.

In October the German Bund reported that the KKK and other anti-Semitic organizations were working with the Nazi organization.

Also this month Franklin Roosevelt called for a plan to find homes for the 10 to 20 million who may become war refugees. At the same time FDR received a petition with 238,199 signatures of congressmen, governors, mayors and others urging “prime consideration” of Palestine as a sanctuary for these individuals.

“The American Jewish Congress …appealed to the international executive committee on refugees to consider the plight of 5 million Jews in eastern and central Europe, including those made homeless in the German-Soviet partition of Poland.” The AJC also asked that the term “refugee” be redefined to include the thousands who were imprisoned by central European countries. They contended that they were “equally real refugees from oppression”.

As the year progressed, these articles became overshadowed by headlines of bombings of Britain, war on the French border and a US ship being taken. The war was very present in the newspapers of the Upper Midwest, but there was little mention of what occurred within the countries which were taken.

As I read this I am struck with the theme of refugees with nowhere to go. And the clock ran out. The existence of Israel assures that this will never occur again.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Painting at Last!

It has been a little over a month since my return from Lithuania and a lot has happened since my return. A week after I came home, my long-term partner and I married. At the beginning of the week, I had no idea that would be occurring. I spent three days planning and took advantage of the lovely September weather we were having in Minnesota to enjoy a beautiful outdoor wedding. Shortly after that we took off on another overseas flight to spend a week in Paris for our honeymoon. With the experience of Lithuania fresh in my mind, I looked at Paris through new eyes and will share some of those observations in this blog.

In between I was able to begin some of my paintings from my trip. I was sketching ideas on the plane to Paris. My blog gives me considerable material from which to glean visual imagery. One of the images that stuck in my memory was that of the trees overlooking Ponar, the killing site of Vilnius in which most of the Jews were murdered. They bore silent testimony to the horrors that occurred there. While I usually paint people, I felt compelled to try to capture the imagery of the trees overlooking the burial pits. Below I wanted something that suggested the bodies buried in the pits and decided to go with metaphor and use the letters of the Yiddish alphabet to represent bodies.(see closeup) Lying on their sides they provide a figural suggestion and unfortunately an accurate representation in that the future of Yiddish was largely buried in the pits with its speakers. Bands of upright letters spell out “Gedenken” which means “Remember” in Yiddish. As I neared the bottom of the pit I increased the size of these bands until the letters become clearly apparent. The vantage point of the viewer is from the pits looking upward, perhaps the last view of its many victims. The painting is 24" x 72".

Since my return I’ve read the book “The Ponar Diary 1941-1943 by Kazimierz Sakowicz. This book was written by a Polish journalist who lived in Ponar during the time of the murders. He observed them daily from his attic and wrote about what he witnessed, burying each page in a bottle. I was especially struck by his dispassionate tone in which he would talk about the beautiful day in the same breath as the murders. I wanted the painting to reflect that juxtaposition as well. I’m not sure if I’ve completed this painting or if I will paint out the lower section and rework it, but here’s the image thus far. Its name of course is Gedenken/Remember.

Another painting which I’ve been working on is based on the stories told in the blog entry “Storytelling”. As you may recall we visited a restaurant in Vilnius under which there is a tunnel that ran from the old synagogue behind the restaurant to outside of what was once the ghetto gates. The proprietor of the restaurant showed us the gate to the tunnel. As we stood under the starry night sky we could almost imagine the synagogue that once stood there. She also shared with us a story about an elderly man who came to the restaurant one day. He stood in front of the restaurant for a long time and then came in and asked if he could sit in a particular room, one where one wall is filled with a rack of wine bottles. He looked distressed as he sat there and she asked if she could get him some coffee. He turned to her and said, “This used to be my bedroom”. He had lived in that building when it was part of the ghetto with his mother and sisters. When he stood up to leave he said, “I won’t be back again”. Yet another story she shared with us was about when they were renovating the space late at night. They often felt and saw a presence which she felt was benign, as if it were children. She had learned that the coal chute was often a hiding place for children during the ghetto when hiding successfully meant another day of life. As we left we had told her that if she felt the presence again she should say, “Shalom Aleichem” which means “Peace be with you”.

All of those stories are reflected in my painting titled “Shalom Aleichem”. In this painting an old man is the central figure. I based the painting on an elder Lithuanian man who was attending the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Behind him are circles within circles signifying the wine rack which gradually melts into a starry night sky. Above him is the gate to the tunnel with the tunnel leading from its lower left corner in the direction of the ghetto gates. A chute with the suggestion of a child flows into it, perhaps a recollection of the old man, perhaps a ghost-like presence.

The third painting I’ve been working on is a language painting based on one of the few buildings left in Vilnius with Yiddish writing. Below the storefront is a window on which visitors have written in Yiddish in the dust. The Yiddish was translated as “You were not killed, the nation of Israel lives”. The painting contains part of the script over the door as well as the handwritten Yiddish for “the nation of Israel lives”. In the corner is a pile of stones such as those left on tombstones to show one has visited the grave. There are images embossed into the painting that are drawn from the synagogue memorial in Riga. Unfortunately they don't show up well in a photograph.

I don't know that I would consider any of these paintings finished yet. That is always a hard call as I often am tempted to change them even when they are hanging in a show. If you are interested in seeing what I am currently working on or past work, you are always welcome to stop by studio 409 in the California Building, 2205 California St. NE, Minneapolis, MN. We are usually open from 12-5 on the second Saturday of each month along with other studios in the building.