Thursday, August 25, 2011

Recommended Reading II: Family Searches and Unexpected Places

This is Round II of recommended reading.  Many of these books I’ve stumbled over by accident, others have been recommended by others.  If you are aware of other books that you would recommend, please don’t hesitate to share them.

In the course of my reading I’ve read several books on the search that others have pursued for their family roots.  In the case of Jewish roots that often takes you headlong into the Holocaust.  Perhaps the best known book of this genre is The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn who launched an extensive and well documented search into the fate of relatives from the town of Bolechow, Ukraine.  I feel a certain kinship as his guide on this effort was Alex Dunai, who also accompanied me to the Ukraine. 

Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History by Helen Epstein chronicles three generations of Czech women.  It presents the impact of the Holocaust on the Czechs, but is also an interesting story from the standpoint of the lives of the women it chronicles.  

The Pages in Between by Erin Einhorn relates the story of her mother, hidden as a child in Poland in exchange for the family’s property.  Erin’s grandmother dies in the Holocaust, but her grandfather survives, reclaims his daughter and moves with her to the US.  Einhorn, a journalist, goes back to Poland to find the people who hid her mother and finds that a property transaction lies unresolved raising many of the sensitive issues that remain between Jews and Poles.

A family history written from a very unique angle is the recently released The Hare With the Amber Eyes by Eduard de Waal.  This book tells the story of the Ephrussi family, a wealthy banking family, through the lens of netsuke that were collected and then gifted within the family.  Originally from Russia, he traces the family through Paris and Vienna.  This is not your typical family history.  These family members were written about by Proust and were friendly with and collected artists such as Moreau, Renoir, Whistler and Monet.  The author’s grandmother corresponded with Rilke.  They lived in a rarefied world, but were ultimately driven from their home and property by the Nazis. Today the netsuke that have made this arduous journey through time reside with the author and his children play with them.

There are also a cluster of books about the families of those with Jewish heritage from regions quite outside the typical Eastern European roots.   The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado  chronicles the move of her family from Egypt to the United States reminding me of the mass exodus of Jews from Arab lands after the creation of Israel.   From comfortable and settled lives, they became immigrants, not always ready to embrace this new world so different from what they had known.  Often they struggle with living at an economic and social level much lower than their prior status.

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel  Sabar  looks at his father’s prior life in Iraq.   His father is now a preeminent Aramaic scholar and part of the story is about the son learning to appreciate the color and texture of his father’s life.  His father came from a Kurdish enclave in Iraq where Jews had lived for 3000 years.  Jews were expelled from Iraq in 1951 and his father moves to Israel.  Here he experiences the low regard in which Kurdish Jews are held, considered to be rather backward and at the bottom rung of the society. Ultimately working his way into Yale, he becomes the expert in Aramaic, the language spoken by those who lived in Kurdish Iraq.   This book is in part a family roots search, but in the framework of an unexpected region.  It also is a story of a son coming to an understanding of his father’s life experiences.   

In the same vein is a fictionalized story, Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer.  The story tells the harrowing tale of a Jewish family in Iran in 1981.  The author’s family escaped from Iran in 1982 after her own father was imprisoned so one gets the sense that this is semi-autobiographical.

The Girl From Foreign by Sadia Shepard is a journey into a Jewish family’s past in India and Pakistan. At her grandmother’s deathbed the author learns that her grandmother was born as a Jew in India and moved to Pakistan after becoming the third wife of a Muslim businessman.  The book is as much about the search as the discoveries and takes the reader along on the journey into a world that is both foreign and fascinating.

I am struck by the fact that several of these books were written by authors who were not raised as Jews and come from mixed marriages.  The search into their Jewish heritage was often a search to better understand an aspect of themselves.  Virtually all of the non-fiction memoirs were written by journalists or in one case a documentary maker.  All were very accustom to finding and telling a story.  The one exception to this rule is de Waal who is actually a very accomplished potter.  He too succeeds in crafting a compelling story.  And for most the story is as much about the search as the discoveries, a lesson all genealogists know well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Recommended Reading I: Jews of Eastern Europe

You may have noticed an addition to this blog.  On the right of the page you will find a list of books that I’ve read in the past few years with Jewish content.  They cover a wide range of subject matter, but all have been helpful to me in expanding my understanding.  Many of them are nonfiction although there is also some fiction among them and some of them I’ve written about in these pages.  I find that many of the ones I enjoy the most are written by journalists as they seem to have a unique talent for taking real events and crafting them into a rather gripping story.  As my discussions of recommended books have become buried in these pages, I thought I’d cull them out and in subsequent entries provide brief comments on some of those I haven’t previously discussed.

In this blog entry I’ll focus on the ones I’ve discussed within the blog already and where you can find them.  While I’ve included the books with Jewish content on this list, they provide interesting reading for a broad range of readers, Jewish ancestry not required.

You will find discussion of Masha Gessen’s book Ester & Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace in Jewish Life in the Soviet Union.  This book provided insight into both the war time and post war period and its impact on Jews in the Soviet Union.  A good companion book on this topic is A Hole in the Heart of the World by Jonathan Kaufman which follows the life of five Jews from the war to post-war in Eastern Europe.  You will find some discussion of it in my entry Readings on the Jews of Eastern Europe.  I found these books both very readable and very important in increasing my understanding of Jewish life in Eastern Europe post-war. 

Also in Readings on the Jews of Eastern Europe is The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe by Eli Valley, a must read prior to visiting Budapest, Warsaw, Cracow or Prague, unfortunately too big to easily carry on your travels.  Filled with historical anecdotes it brings color and context to your travels. 

The Kati Marton books on Budapest are discussed in the The Budapest Brain Drain and I highly recommend all of her work for both insights into post-war experience and the many influences of Budapest Jews on the United States. My favorite book was The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World

 In Favorite Travel Tools and Books you will find discussion of The Zookeeper’s Wife that I suggest you read prior to visiting Warsaw or to learn more about the Warsaw ghetto.  It is based on actual people and events and we were delighted to find references to the people of whom we read at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Also in that entry you will find discussion of Not Me, a fictional story that was interesting reading that also touched on Madjanek. 

Anton, the Dove Fancier is discussed in How They Lived, short stories based on Radom, Poland by a survivor.  These are beautifully written with a photographer’s eye for detail.  In A Contact, A Book and An Interview you will find mention of Everything is Illuminated and The Heavens are Empty, books based on the virtually all Jewish town of Trochenbrod.

In Across the Pond you will find discussion of the Ponary Diary which I often reference when I speak about my Lithuanian based artwork as it recounts the story of the Vilnius Jews murdered in Ponar.  As background on Vilnius you may also want to read Lucy Davidowicz's From That Time and Place which is discussed in Jewish Ghetto Walk.  While not easy reading and filled with names, it is a first person account of Vilnius in the pre-war period and a sad recounting of the fate of many of Davidowicz's friends.

In addition to these books I also wrote of The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson in the entry The Great Migration.  While not Jewish in content so not on this list, it sparks insights for anyone with an interest in immigration and certainly made me think of Nazi Germany in its description of the South at the time of the Jim Crow laws.

In subsequent entries I will address some of the other readings that have informed my search, deepened my understanding and provided context for much of what I've observed.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Searching at the Holocaust Museum

The DC genealogy conference ended yesterday so I decided to head over to the Holocaust Museum library to check out the records from the International Tracing Service (ITS).  Several years ago I had joined the first group to do research in the Holocaust records of the ITS in Bad Arolsen, Germany.  I had gone there with a list of fifty relatives who had died in the Holocaust, all from Radom.  I soon discovered that as they went to Treblinka, a killing camp, there were no records of their deaths.  Only those who were in work camps such as Auschwitz were tracked.  They were viewed as part of the Nazi's inventory of workers, albeit temporary ones.

I had to revise my research strategy to make use of my time there and began to search for those who had given testimony on my family to Yad Vashem.  Through that I discovered cousins in Paris and Israel with whom I’ve since connected.  The records at Bad Arolsen were unwieldy to maneuver and located in several buildings.  Often one would find the original lists of Jews in various locations after the war.  I was struck by the wanderings of many across Europe after the war as they sought surviving family or anyone from their prior town. The files at Bad Arolsen also had original correspondence. I read the heart-breaking letters of a survivor who had gone to Sweden and was trying to find her husband. She had heard he survived, but no one knew where he was.

The records from Bad Arolsen have now been shared with a number of organizations around the world including the Holocaust Museum in DC and Yad Vashem.  The system at the Holocaust Museum library didn’t seem intuitive to me, but was easy enough to learn and pulled up scanned documents in alphabetical order around the name that was input.  While conference attendees were directed to the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center on the second floor, I found the database was also available in the fifth floor library with some assistance from one of the staff in logging in.  I pulled records on several people I had not previously explored and saved the images to my flash drive.

I then shifted my attention to lists of survivors from Radom that were on microfilm. The films which need to be ordered in advance of specific cutoffs can be viewed on scanners and easily saved to a flash drive.  I had worked in books on prior visits so this was my first experience in using the scanners. 

I was buried in microfilm when the alarms sounded and we were herded to a park across the way.  It turned out to be a fire drill, but it reminded me that the museum has to be prepared for a wide variety of threats.  The museum has this drill down to a science and a half hour later we were shepherded back by floors.  The one good thing about the drill was it allowed me to connect with a woman who I had met in Bad Arolsen who lives in Israel and had come in for the conference.  "When are you coming to visit me ?” she asked, and I filed that away as a future trip possibility.  With my websites, blog and genealogy trips to Utah, Germany and various conferences, I have had the good fortune to meet many people in genealogy circles who have become good friends. 

Conferences are a good opportunity to connect with both new and old friends, to research, to learn new information and to validate how much I already know.  And now it’s time to shift gears.  I’m off to the National Gallery.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Juxtaposing History and Family: Cause and Effect

In yesterday’s blog entry I wrote about the Pale of Jewish Settlement and the repressive laws that led to a major mass migration.  Today I had an opportunity to access the Jewish Chronicle, a very useful UK publication I discovered at last year's conference.  I decided to drill down and see how the political climate had affected the community in which my grandparents lived.   I took a look at Kamenetz Podolsk in the Ukraine, home of my maternal grandparents as it was a large enough area to be recorded in the publication. 

One of the earliest entries I found was in 1898.  Here it noted that the director of the Gymnasium (school) had been instructed to expel seven Jewish students from the school.  The reason – their parents did not possess the right to live in the town which is less than 50 kilometers from the frontier.   Jews had been expelled from border areas to assure they wouldn't easily escape the Pale.  Was my eleven year old grandfather among them?  I think about the street I visited on which he had lived at the time of the Russian census just a year earlier.  Perhaps these expulsions account for the movement of my family between Kamenetz and the nearby Chotin area, something that had always puzzled me.

The Chronicle goes on to say that Jewish merchants of the first Guild outside the Pale may employ Jewish clerks.  The police interpret this to mean that only the clerk, not his family may live outside the Pale and have been known to send his wife and children back to the Pale.  The merchants of the first Guild are those merchants who met the requirements to live outside the Pale.

The oppressive laws had their effect.  By approximately 1895 my grandmother’s uncle was the first to immigrate to London.  There he had two children and then went on to New York in 1898 followed by his family.  A procession soon began.  His brother-in-law joined him in NY in 1902 naming the uncle as his closest relative in the US. Soon 1903,1904 and 1906 saw the arrival of the uncle’s sister and my grandmother’s brothers.  In 1911 my grandfather came to avoid the draft leaving behind his new wife and child.

Continuing through the Jewish Chronicle I found that in 1913 in response to the anti-religious legislation in Russia the Jewish school teachers had decided to keep the schools open on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) and close them on Sunday.  The laws required businesses to close on Sunday and that in conjunction with closing on Saturday adversely affected their businesses.  Presumably it drove other practices such as adjusting school hours.

In 1914 the Austrians entered Kamenetz-Podolsk and imposed heavy “contributions” on the town. They took the mayor and several prominent residents hostage, many of whom were Jewish.  As there were insufficient funds, both Jews and Christians brought articles from the churches and synagogues.  It then notes that after Austrian atrocities, the return of the Russian Army was “hailed by the Jews with delight”.

By 1920 there were reports on the pogroms that had occurred over a two year period.  A prominent Ukrainian Jew noted that these were beyond the pogrom excesses with which Jews were so familiar.  He states that “during the last two years the Jewish population of the Ukraine is being systematically, persistently exterminated.”  The Kieff  (Kiev) Red Cross reported that “the general surrounding circumstances have given to the pogrom wave an unheard of range of cruelty, bloodshed, tragic doom and no escape. This wave has for its objective the entire annihilation of Ukrainian Jewry and in several instances whole communities, men, women and children have been put to death”.   Jews were deprived of all means of locomotion and thus communication with the outside world.  It went on to talk of Jewish passengers on trains that went through Kamenetz Podolsk being taken from the train by soldiers and shot.

Family folklore is that my grandmother’s first child died in a pogrom.  In any case she was on a boat by 1921 being brought to America by her brothers, presumably to escape the dangers of Eastern Europe.

Understanding the historical events as they are juxtaposed with my family events begins to paint a picture of cause and effect.  It allows me to understand the environment that influenced the lives of my family.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Understanding Historical Context

I began my day at the genealogy conference attending a history lecture on the Pale, the region where many Jews lived in Eastern Europe largely due to restrictions on their mobility.  At past conferences an interest in history has been awakened for me now that I have a context through which to frame it.  While I knew of the Pale and I knew that borders had changed frequently between countries in this region, Hal Bookbinder’s talk knit together many disparate pieces in my knowledge.

Bookbinder traced the history of the Pale of Jewish Settlement from its creation in 1791 until it was dissolved in 1917.  Along the way he discussed the various partitions of Poland and its arrangements with neighboring countries that influenced the movements of Jews through Eastern Europe.  He spoke of a deal that was struck between Poland and Lithuania in the 1500s when Lithuania turned over the Ukraine to Poland in exchange for protection. When the Poles took over the area they brought the Polish Jews with them.  That is why most of the Ukrainian Jews arrived there after 1569.  The earliest synagogues and tombstones date back to that period.

In 1772 there was the first partition of Poland where Russia took what is now eastern Belarus, Austria-Hungary took Galicia and Prussia grabbed the area adjacent to it.  Poland continued to exist, but twenty years later there was a second partition when Prussia grabbed Posnan and Russia grabbed the Ukraine and Belarus.  Poland continued to exist in some form for two more years until the third partition when they were dismembered in 1795.

Then Napoleon came along and beat Prussia in 1804/05.  He defeated the Hapsburgs and added Galicia to his empire and dubbed this region the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.  The way most family history researchers see this influence is in the genealogical record keeping.  The French used more of a story structure (eg. On such and such a date a male child was born to …) while the Russians used a columnar style. 

Now Napoleon met his Waterloo in 1814 and the Russians marched in and took over most of Poland.  In Vienna they created Congress Poland and declared a new independent nation of Poland with none other than the Czar of Russia as the King of Poland, independence being a relative term.  In the south of Poland, Krakow remained independent from 1815-1847 until Austria-Hungary took it over and it became part of Galicia.

The Poles were a rebellious people and after a few uprisings the Russian czar dissolved Poland in 1871 and reformatted it in the Russian manner into gubernias.  This was around the time that Russia began asserting its influence as the Polish records change from the Polish language to Russian in 1868.  This movement between Polish and Russian control begins to explain why so many ancestors wrote Russia Poland, Poland or Russia as their place of origin, all during the same period. 

With the czar as the new sheriff in town there were a new set of rules for the Jews. Typically there was less freedom of movement except when Russia needed bodies to populate new territories to keep out other countries.  In 1791 Jews were restricted from living in the heart of Russia and the official decree creating the Pale came in 1799 from Alexander I.

From 1825-1850 Czar Nicholas was in charge and he instituted the infamous Cantonist laws.  Jewish boys of 11 or 12 and sometimes as young as 7 were taken and placed in military schools.  When they became 18 they had to serve 25 years as a private in the army.  If they converted they got better food and some advancement opportunities.  Roman Catholics had a similar, but less onerous conscription rule.  In all 70,000 Jewish boys were taken until the law was disbanded in 1856.  After that a more normal conscription period of 3 to 4 years was in force, still enough to spur my draft-dodging grandfather to immigrate.

Nicholas restricted Jews from living in Kiev in 1827 and in 1843 expelled them from an area along Prussia and Austria.  Interestingly there were petitions from the local people to keep them as they did the commerce in that region.

From 1850-1875 Alexander II was the czar and a more enlightened period began.  He ended the Cantonist laws and began to open Russia up to select portions of the population.  Jewish merchants who paid taxes were permitted more freedom of movement in 1859.  In 1861 this was extended to university grads and physicians.  Former military men and certain craftsmen were also granted more freedom.

Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by anarchists and Jews were blamed. Alexander III was an anti-Semite and encouraged a wave of pograms resulting in many deaths. Jews were forbidden to settle outside the towns.  They couldn’t own or lease land. Education quotas went into place. Jews couldn’t farm land or become doctors or lawyers or engineers.    In the early 1890s Jews were expelled from Moscow where many had lived.  They could take what they could carry.  The 1897 census identified 5 million Jews in the Pale all living under these restrictions and persistent dangers.

Pograms intensified in 1903 with thousands robbed, raped or killed.  Finally in 1917 with the fall of the Czar the Pale was eliminated.

During the period from 1881-1914 two million Jews left for the west, mine among them.  Bookbinder attributed this to the period of enlightenment of 1850-1875 followed by lack of opportunity, oppression and pograms.  Train and steamship travel was faster and relatives and friends who had made the journey encouraged them to come.

Understanding the political context creates new meaning for genealogy research explaining movements of people, changes in documentation and shedding light on some of the cultural impacts that are still felt today.  I recall when I was interviewing a Ukrainian immigrant and she told me that you had to perform better than everyone else because the deck was so stacked against you.  Those very limitations contributed to the Jewish culture  we know today with its focus on achievement and education.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

New Resources and Improved Access

I am always on the lookout for genealogy databases that might open a new avenue for my research.   At the International Jewish Genealogy Conference, I learned today of an upcoming release at the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).    The database offers some unusual sources of information.  During WWI the JDC assisted in transmitting funds between Americans and their family in Poland, Romania, Palestine and Russia.   Their records indicate the flow of funds and the sender and recipient.  I remember my father’s cousin, the one survivor in our family, speaking of my grandfather sending a $10 bill back to Poland and I wonder if he might have sent money back during WWI, a few years after his arrival in the US.

I hadn’t fully appreciated the range of situations that involved the JDC and the records illustrate the variety of their involvement.  Some of these situations include aiding Polish Jews imprisoned in Siberia, financial aid to prominent rabbis and Russian Jews trying to contact their American relatives.  In addition to funds, the JDC also assisted Jews in Eastern Europe who were requesting other forms of assistance from their American relatives.

During the Nazi period refugees and emigrants were assisted across Europe.  The well-known case of the SS St. Louis also became involved with the JDC.  This was the ship that carried over 900 passengers seeking escape from the Nazis.  They sought to land in Cuba and were denied entry.  They ultimately were forced to return to Hamburg as no country would provide safe haven.  Ultimately the JDC got the agreement of Holland, Belgium, England and France to accept the refugees and posted a guarantee of their support.  Needless to say many did not survive the war.

During the war many Polish Jews escaped temporarily to Vilna, Lithuania where the JDC provided aid.  Similarly they aided Jews who escaped to Kobe, Japan and Shanghai.  Many Polish Jews survived the war in Russia and are listed by the JDC Location Service when they were sent back to their home country.  CARE packages were sent to displaced persons after the war and identify the location of relatives who sent them.

The new release will occur in fall 2011 and will be found at

Some records are already available at  There you will find a Names index that contains individual records associated with WWII and the JDC Emigration Service in Vienna and Munich.  I input several names of survivors and found records on their immigration to the US.  Also in the database was a list of Polish Jews who immigrated to Vilnius trying to stay ahead of the Nazis.

At another session I heard some welcome news on JRI-Poland.  JRI-Poland provides tremendous value for those of us researching family roots in Poland.  They have indexed 4.7 million records many of which are searchable on the Internet.  It used to be possible to order records with a credit card through JRI due to an agreement between JRI and the Polish archives.  Several years ago the then new head of the Polish archives terminated the agreement between the archives and JRI.  Suddenly the process of securing Polish records became very challenging requiring translating Polish and wiring money internationally.   I have ordered records several times through this rather intimidating process and am quite sure it has proven a barrier for many.   A new agreement will soon allow a return to the earlier process of ordering by credit card from JRI as well as the initiation of the indexing that had gone on hold.  At this point most available records through 1905 are indexed, but a backlog of newer records will need to be indexed.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Blogging from the Other Side of the Keyboard

Have you ever wondered when you read a blog what it is like on the other side of the keyboard?  I’ve been thinking about that lately as I realized that I have passed the two year anniversary of this blog.  I was originally introduced to the idea of blogging by an artist friend who pointed out a variety of arts blogs designed to share one’s latest work with a community of artists.  A blog solely on artwork seemed too limiting to me and as I had been painting family and cultural history it soon morphed into a family history blog with an arts component.  Over the last several years I have traveled widely in Eastern Europe with trips to my ancestral towns in Belarus, Poland and the Ukraine.  Soon I was writing about travel as well.  As I am a voracious reader, the occasional book review also finds its way into the blog if related to family and cultural history.  It’s a broad swath, but I write about what I care about and hopefully attract readers who share some of the same interests.

So a few observations…  I’ve learned that blogging requires deep commitment to sustain the effort.  A compulsive personality is an asset when it comes to consistently blogging.  I began this blog when I was traveling to Lithuania to study Yiddish at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute.  While time is often limited when traveling, material is not.  Seeing a new region through fresh eyes offers a wealth of new material.  The challenge arises when one isn’t traveling.  There have been times when my life was quite full, but not specifically related to genealogy or family history travel or artwork so little blogging occurred.   And then there are times when new material overflows and I seek to capture it as fast as I can.

One of the things that I struggle with is how much personal information to put out there.  Juxtaposing being a fairly private person with a web presence is challenging. A private blogger is a bit of an oxymoron.  Of course I share family history information, ever hopeful that someone related will stumble across my blog and uncover an entirely unknown new branch.  One can always hope.  When I was writing about my oral history project on Jewish Identity & Legacy, I debated how much of my own background and thoughts on Jewish identity to include.  I’ve since concluded that if it is relevant to the topic, then it is appropriate.  My cultural Jewish identity was relevant to my interest in exploring the topic of identity and thus made its way into the blog.

People blog for many reasons.  For me it is much the same reason that I create Shtetlinks (now Kehila links), websites for those searching family from a particular town.  I’ve learned a lot in the course of my search and I hope that others find it useful.  I’ve had many people reach out to assist me as I did my research and this is a way that I give back to that community.  And of course, I like to write.  I doubt most people write blogs if they don’t.  I often find that writing is a way that I organize my thinking.  Many times I have started to write about a discovery and in the process of writing I think of an important new direction to explore.

I always appreciate those who send me comments as it gives me some flavor for who is reading the blog.  I also make use of the statistics available through Google on the blog.  It is reassuring to realize that even if I never wrote another blog entry a significant number of people around the world will continue to find my existing entries.  Google provides statistics on the number of hits, which blog entries and from where they were referred.  It also tells me geographically the number of people who are reading the blog from around the world.   I must confess to some fascination with these statistics.  This week I had readers from the US. the UK and Germany leading the pack, but also hits from Canada, the Czech Republic, Belize, the Ukraine, Chile, Austria and Russia.   Blog entries on Prague and Cracow seem to be most in demand, usually a blip that corresponds to travelers to those regions.

Over the period Google has tracked these results, the US accounted for about two-thirds of the hits with the balance largely composed of Canada, Germany, the UK, Russia and Israel.  Of the almost 120 blog entries that I’ve done there are three blog entries that have generated the most interest.  Stalking the Shtetl Stork is the all-time leader with a focus on a shtetl visit to Pilvishok.  I can only guess that there is a devoted group searching family from that particular shtetl.  Tied for second place is Principles for Basic Genealogy Searches and Archive Day.  Principles is very appropriately named which may account for its hits.  As I was doing research for others, I detailed out my process and the basic principles that guided my search.  It is a good primer for anyone beginning genealogy research.   Archive Day describes my time at the Radom archives doing research.

Two years ago I didn’t imagine that I would still be writing the blog after my Lithuanian travels.  It is quite possible that it will morph over time as I’ve completed most of my Eastern European travels and uncovered many of my family history mysteries.  So keep reading and together we’ll see how this evolves.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Many Hands Make a Mitzvah

One of the satisfying things about my work with genealogy is when I am able to help another person make an important family connection.  As I have created two Kehilalinks, websites for others searching their family history, I often have the opportunity to do that.  It frequently takes many hands to make a mitzvah (a kindness for someone else) and a recent experience illustrates that well.

The first step in the making of a mitzvah was an e-mail that I received last November from the head of the Radom Society in Montreal.  He advised me of the discovery of 72 previously unknown Jewish tombstones that had been erected into a monument in the Jewish cemetery in Radom, Poland.  As most of the tombstones in the cemetery had been used by the Nazis to pave the roads, the discovery of intact tombstones was a very important event. His uncle Haim Kinczler, head of the Israeli Radom Society, had been instrumental in discovering these tombstones and assuring that they would be available to those visiting Radom, a huge mitzvah in itself.  The Israeli prison system and the Polish prison system collaborated with the help of Polish prisoners and a British/Israeli philanthropist to build the structure that houses the tombstones. For more information on this project see my prior post Unusual Collaboration Unveils Lost Tombstones.

When I heard about the tombstones, my first thought was that I needed photos.  The tombstones potentially belonged to the families of those researching family from Radom and I had the means to reach them through the Radom Kehilalink. With the information that was provided, I contacted a friend at the Resursa, the Arts and Culture Center in Radom.  I had met Jakub on my last visit to Radom when he secured the key to the former cemetery for me so I could visit it.  I asked him if he might be able to take photographs of the tombstones for me and he graciously went out to the cemetery in the middle of winter to do just that and sent me a CD with the photos.

I then needed to get them translated so posted a request for help on the JRI-Poland e-mail list.  Two volunteers did the translation.  One of the translators, an Israeli friend with ties to Radom did an additional step cross-referencing it to the Book of Residents, a kind of ongoing census that records family groupings.

Up until now I was choreographing, arranging for photos and translations.  Now my hands-on work began as I had to isolate each picture for a web album, clean up the information into a format for the web and build the appropriate pages and links to publish it on the site.  I also submitted the photos and translations to the Jewish On-line Worldwide Burial Registry which will add them to their database that is easily accessible to researchers.  Finally I completed the circle by sending an e-mail to JRI-Poland’s email list to announce its availability.

Now I had only to wait to see where it led and it didn’t take long.  I already knew that one of my translators had found a family member in the tombstones that he had translated.  This week I spoke with a woman who is planning a trip to Radom who had discovered the Radom Kehilalink.  She reported that in looking at this database she discovered her grandmother’s tombstone.  The links to the Book of Residents further added to the information on her grandmother.

In order to connect a woman in Detroit, the child of a survivor, with her grandmother’s tombstone in Poland, it took many Israelis and Poles to create the structure, someone in Montreal to communicate it, the help of my Polish friend to photograph, two translators, one American and one Israeli and finally me to organize the effort and build it into the website.  Many hands make a mitzvah.