Friday, December 18, 2015

A Better Front-End

I started this blog about seven years ago with a focus on family history. At the time I had begun my travels to Eastern Europe where I was visiting ancestral towns. Since that time I (and the blog) have meandered a bit, around Eastern Europe, into my artwork and interview projects and most recently into my immediate family. Family history, both past and in the making, remains at the core. There is a bit of a natural ebb and flow to interests and while my interest in family history has remained constant, the energy I devoted to exploring my own has ebbed as my efforts have been engaged by others.

Over the past year, my energies have been reawakened a bit in family history as I've become drawn into a local effort to create the Minnesota Jewish Genealogical Society (MNJGS). For many years I've felt a bit like an outlier here in the Upper Midwest. I would go to international Jewish genealogy conferences and seldom find another Minnesotan. At the last conference, Walter Elias attended and brought some fresh enthusiasm to this effort. He soon contacted me and I began to work with him to engage others in the area with interest in Jewish genealogy. As a result, I've been much more involved in this arena and have done a number of talks on Jewish genealogy and related subjects throughout the year. Recently I built a website for the MNJGS that you can find at As part of that some of my blogs on family history have been posted on that site, but I am remiss in not also sharing them here.

A recent talk that I gave to the MNJGS was on the site which while a boon to Jewish genealogy is also useful for those who are researching non-Jewish genealogy. It is an immense site so I chose to focus on how I've used it successfully to crack my own genealogical puzzles.

Steve Morse has a number of claims to fame. In his career he was the architect of the 8086 Intel chip. He brought his computer expertise and inquiring mind to his exploration of genealogy and quickly saw that the search engine for many genealogical sites could be improved. He does not create databases, but rather has found better ways to mine existing databases.His site has grown over time and it now addresses the following topics:


Census (US, NY, Britain, Canada)

Soundex Codes

Vital Records (B-M-D, Naturalization)

Calendars and Maps

Transliterating in Foreign Alphabets


Genetic Genealogy

One of the early sites he addressed was Ellis Island. The early version of the Ellis Island site allowed limited inputs on which one could search. Morse observed that they had many outputs which meant that those items were associated with the record. He went to work building a better front-end search engine that allowed more complex searches on those variables. Since his initial efforts Ellis Island has increased the number of search variables, but there are still things one can do on Morse’s site that you cannot on Ellis Island.

Immigration Records: Searching the Town

Example: My family story was that my grandmother traveled with her younger brother to the US. Now family stories typically contain a grain of truth, but like a game of telephone they often garble the details. My grandmother was reportedly shot at crossing the border and ended up in a hospital in France. I finally found her immigration record coming from Boulogne sur Mer to Rotterdam and on to New York. Her brother was nowhere on the manifest. I had searched many avenues for his record to no avail.

Based on my grandmother’s data I hypothesized that I was searching for a Kishlansky who came in 1921, born in Hotin from the Rotterdam port to New York. I went into Ellis Island and input this information. I found that I had to input a surname so used all of their options for sounds like, close match and alternate spelling with no success. When I received nothing I gradually began to remove constraints with still no success.

Then I turned to and tried the same inputs on the Ellis Island Gold Form. Still no success. But there is one more trick to explore. I removed the name thinking it could be misspelled or badly transcribed. This time I got about 300 entries and as I went through them one by one I saw Elia Rishlansky with his wife Golda. When I clicked on the name there was a nicely typed manifest, not one that you would expect to be misread, but the top of the K didn’t appear leaving the transcriber to conjecture it was an R rather than a K. Had they looked further they would have seen that his nearest relative in Europe was his father Abram Kishlansky and he was going to his brother Frank Kishlansky. The date of his manifest was one week after that of my grandmother. Presumably they started out together, but in an age without easy communication perhaps they didn’t connect after her hospital stay.

Immigration Records: Missing Manifests

Ever search in vain for a manifest where you knew the ship and the date and it just doesn't exist? Well, my story was a search for the uncle of my grandmother. I knew he had lived a few years in London before coming to America. I also knew the ship he came on and the dates he left and arrived as they were noted on his naturalization record I had found at the National Archives office in New York. Even with that information, his manifest remained hidden.Finally I made use of the stevemorse site beginning with the Ship Listing Database. I input the information from the naturalization record, the name of the ship and a band around the arrival date. I then got listings on several voyages of that ship. I selected the one that most closely corresponded to those dates and recorded the roll and frame numbers that came up. Then I shifted to another site on stevemorse – Missing Manifests. These manifests exist, but for whatever reason weren’t indexed or linked such that we can access them easily. I input the roll and frame numbers and then started to move through the pages one by one. Soon I made the discovery I was searching for. There his name was on the manifest coming from London to New York. It was difficult to read the initial letter which may be the reason it was not linked. To get a copy of the manifest, I entered another name on the page and pulled it up in Ancestry.

Vital Records: Finding my Grandparents Marriage Record

Steve Morse offers a number of resources to track down vital records. Many of them make use of, a site not exclusively focused upon Italians, but rather New Yorkers. As most of us had some family that originated in New York this often proves useful. Italian Gen is constantly adding records. For many years I searched in vain for my grandparents’ marriage record contemplating if they were ever actually married. I knew their oldest child was born in 1918 and my grandfather arrived in New York in 1913 so I was focusing my search in that window. One day I decided to try just one more time. Success! I went into the Grooms’ Index and input my grandfather’s last name and first initial. I clicked through the brides until I came to my grandmother’s name. With the index number and the family history library microfilm number I was then able to locate the actual marriage record through the Family History Library.

Transliterating to and from Russian or Hebrew

Transliterating is valuable in a number of circumstances. When I travel to Eastern Europe to do research in archives I often transcribe the given names and surnames that I am looking for into cursive Russian so my eye knows what to look for. When I plan to wander around cemeteries I transcribe the names to Hebrew text. Even from the comfort of my home I often find Polish records (written in Russian) that are on-line, but in a folder with other records. Before I post them on Viewmate for translation I want to be sure that they are the correct record. To this end I type out the name that is in the JRI-Poland index. Then I use Morse’s English to Russian tool to get it into Russian text. Note that you will get many entries. I just select the first. Then I do the additional step of converting Russian Print to Cursive which often looks quite different than the typed text. I then compare the text to what shows up in the record to determine if it matches. I don’t worry about endings that may vary.

Tombstone Dates

One of the puzzles that I was interested in solving was aimed at uncovering the story within the data. I had found my great-great grandfather’s tombstone. I knew he died in 1904, the same year as my great-grandfather came to America. I assumed my great-grandfather waited until his father had passed away before boarding the ship, but wanted to confirm that. To this end I first pulled up the tombstone on the Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR). I knew it was there because I had given JOWBR the records for the town. My great-great grandfather didn’t have a last name on his tombstone so I entered his given name, Pesach Mordechai, and the town of Dunilovitchi. It brought up the Hebrew date, but written in English so I used the Jewish Calendar Conversion tool. Sure enough my great –grandfather came to the US shortly after his father passed away. Note that if the date was taken from the tombstone and was in Hebrew letters, I would have used the Tombstone Dates tool which has Hebrew inputs.In each of these cases, I was able to crack the code by using

These are just a few ways in which you can make use of his tools. Now put his site to work on your mysteries.

(If you'd like to work through the examples download the handout next to my talk on 12/13/15)


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