Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Eyes of the Time

If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the environment in which your ancestors lived, newspapers of the time offer considerable insight. For those with Jewish ancestry there is an opportunity through the end of June to access a number of Jewish historical newspapers. Proquest is offering this targeted access to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Anne Frank’s diaries.

For those fortunate enough to be from a larger city and possessing notable relatives, newspapers may offer more specific family information. I quickly ran through my family names to no avail and then resorted to the towns they were from. My Ukrainian and Polish towns brought up articles dating back to the 1880s that reported on the political impacts on the Jewish community.

In order to access this you will want to go to and click the “Sign Up” button. Create an account and then go to database-of-the-month. Click on the words “free access” in the first sentence of the article.

Newspapers that are in the collection include:
• American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger (1857–1922) New York
• American Israelite (1854–2000) Cincinnati
• Jewish Advocate (1905–1990) Boston
• Jewish Exponent (1887–1990) Philadelphia

So what is one likely to find? …many stories that give credence to the term “wandering Jew”.

In 1893 the American Israelite reports that Jewish families that lived in villages and open country were ordered to move to towns. Many families had lived in their villages for generations and were given eight days notice to vacate. In 1915 the American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger reports yet another round of expulsions. The Governors of Radom (where my family came from) and nearby Kielce were especially noted for their “Jew-hatred” . Jews were often forced to leave without their property. Homes, businesses and property were quickly assumed by local Poles. If you are noting geographic movements within your ancestral family you may want to explore whether the timing relates to such events.

Anti-Semitism in Poland is documented far in advance of WWII. During WWI as territory moved back and forth between the Russians and the Germans, Poles accused Jews of being pro-Russian to the Germans and pro-German to the Russians with often deadly consequences visited upon the Jews. In 1931 anti-Jewish riots were breaking out in my grandfather’s town of Radom.

Post-war was no better as I read of the murder of Jews by the Poles as the Jews returned from the camps. In 1945, 600 Jews fled to American-held territory in Czechoslovakia fleeing Polish anti-Semitism and murder, only to be forcibly returned to Poland by General Patton.

A historical perspective makes it clear that Nazi Germany did not exist in a vacuum, but instead grew out of a long history of anti-Semitism, only unique in its magnitude and systematization.

The United States was not without its own bigotry with quotas on Jews at universities, something my father had reported as an obstacle in his time. In 1937 an article noted that 90% of US students at foreign medical schools in Scotland and England were Jewish. They were unable to gain admission in the US because they were Jewish. In the 1950s a study of medical school admissions found that 100% of Protestant A students were admitted while this fell to 88% if you were Jewish or Catholic. If you were a B student and Protestant you still had a 67% admission rate, while Catholics and Jews fell to a third. This bias began to break down in the 1950s as post-war public opinion began to turn against bigotry.

Those of us with an interest in family history are reminded that the history we learn in history books is often massaged far more than in the papers of the day. And newspapers that target a specific ethnicity are far more likely to address the sensitive issues that may not be addressed as openly in mass media.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day Dad

Today is Father’s Day and the build up has felt quite strange to me this year.  My dad passed away in February so this is the first year it suddenly didn’t have direct relevance to me.  Of course that caused me to notice every ad and mention of it.  I thought perhaps in commemoration of my dad that I would share with you a story about him that I learned only after his death.

I’ve been going in to see my mother every few months and part of my task is to wade through the many papers that my father accumulated.  He was a collector in many ways and as he aged it got a bit out of control.  I often recognize myself in his collecting and that too is eerie.  I read the articles that he clipped from the NY Times seeking to divine who he was and realize that they are exactly what I would focus on as well.  In hindsight I recognize a lot of myself in my dad and wish that I had known him better.  He always loved when my mom would say, “You’re your father’s daughter” and now I get it.

As the family historian and the financial person in the family, it is especially important that I be the one to go through the information.  It is painstaking work, a perfect task for a genealogist who knows that gems may be hidden amongst old junk.  I bring to it a curiosity about who my father was and an appreciation of his history as I examine each piece of paper deciding whether to toss, shred, keep or scan.  I make my decisions carefully knowing that once something falls into the junk or shred category it is irretrievably lost.  As a family historian I find myself keeping documents that address health history, life history and career history.  I have found old address books from my parents’ youth and even the early notes from when I began researching family.  My father was rather captivated by the idea and got on the phone to his cousins and distant relatives.  Many of the things that he learned and shared were there in notes, recorded in his tiny script.

On my second visit I stumbled across a box that contained some items that went into the keep and scan pile and actually gave me great insight into my father.  Oddly they spoke to a theme I’ve addressed recently here, the way in which we are shoehorned into career boxes. One yellowed piece of paper was dated 1947 and was when he was at the University of Denver.  He went there on the GI Bill after serving in the Navy in WWII.  He was 22 years old and had just gotten married earlier that year.  He had done some career counseling trying to decide on his career path and the document I found was their report after a wide variety of testing.  Listed at the top were three career directions:  electrical engineer, high school teacher and social worker.  Under special recommendations they noted, “Claimant should make up his mind in the near future as to course he is to pursue” and at the bottom they noted that they had reservations about the objective of electrical engineer because he had only an average Q score.  When I looked at his testing it noted he had a superior rating in social service. 

So what did my father do with this information?  He was not one to let others' reservations get in his way.  He in fact became an electrical engineer and a college professor going one step further to found the Department of Electrical Engineering at Bradley University where he was its dean for many years.  An eclectic and creative man (a combination that I suspect often goes together), he  then started the public television station in Central Illinois, later becoming the dean of a new department of Communications and Fine Arts.  My father worked tirelessly to start Channel 47 and he did it with a sense of mission that could only have grown from a deep sense of social service so presciently captured in that early testing.

I have written before of the tendency of the business world to assign us to career boxes when in fact our interests may not be so easily circumscribed.  Here was an example of how a creative person with multiple interests was able to incorporate them into his career path.  I can picture him thumbing his nose at the career counselors as he took his interests and assembled them into a structure of his own making of which they could never have conceived.