Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Readings: Bridging the Space Between


Since 2010, I have compiled my favorite books that I read each year. It allows me to trace the topics that have intrigued me over time. I often find recurring themes and this year was no exception. Many had two threads to the story, past and present which ultimately weave together, bridging time and deepening understanding of past to present. Others invoke that liminal space between life and death, often bridged through the suggestion of ghostlike presences. And one addresses a different kind of liminal space, that between sleep and wakefulness.  

Past and Present

One of my favorite authors is Geraldine Brooks. Her books are a rich exploration. Her newest book Horse (2022) is a story of a racehorse and of race. The racehorse is Lexington, one of the most famous racehorses of all time. Coupled with his story is a story of Jarrett, his black groom who raised him from a foal and accompanied him throughout his 25-year lifetime. While a highly recognized and rewarded slave because of his special skills, Jarrett still functioned within the boundaries of slavery. When he sought to buy his freedom, his owner reminded him that as his slave he couldn’t own anything so the money he offered should revert to his owner. A magnanimous owner, he did not impose that requirement, but reminded Jarrett that it was his choice, not Jarrett’s. Paintings were desired of these celebrity horses and were valuable in the horse business of racing and trading. A practitioner of equine art is introduced into the plot and his work reaches into a modern-day story tied to the horse in question. Even the horse’s skeleton becomes an element within the modern-day story. I found myself searching for the outlines of history and it was never far away. Set at the time of the Civil War it was told with accuracy. Jarrett is an imagined composite character as are the two modern-day protagonists, but everything else was clearly documented in history as the reader is given a front row seat. 

Once on a visit to Chicago, I stopped by the Holocaust Museum in Skokie. There I discovered a show composed of letters written by newly freed African Americans post-Civil War seeking their families from whom they had been separated. It was both touching and heart-rending. I was struck by how I had never contemplated the separation of families and the efforts to rejoin them after the Civil War, although I was certainly aware of the similar search of Holocaust survivors for remaining family after WWII. The Book of Lost Friends (2020) by Lisa Wingate takes this period and explores it through one of those past and present books with two layered story threads, one in 1875 Louisiana and the other over a century later in the same location. As a family historian, I often focus on the connection of past to present, a connection that allows us to make sense of today's world resting on the bones of the past. 

Sunjeev Sahota’s, China Room (2021), is another novel with two threads, past and present. Despite its perhaps misleading name, it is set in India and its reference to China is the crockery variety. The first and most compelling story dates to 1929 during a time of arranged marriages. Three Indian women are married to three Indian brothers. The conceit around which all revolves is that none can identify which is their husband in daylight -opaque marriage veils and only nighttime assignations create this circumstance. Mehar, a fifteen-year-old from a poor family, believes she has identified her husband only to be in error, leading her into a love affair with another brother. Seventy years later her great-grandson arrives from England and discovers the traces of her life and the story behind it.


Life and Death

The Sentence (2021)by Louis Erdrich was an especially intriguing book to me as it is set in the community in which I live during the time of Covid and the unrest after the George Floyd murder. To make matters even more interesting, it incorporates a ghost story with a permeable veil between this world and the world beyond. A former customer continues to haunt the bookstore and Tookie, our protagonist, must contend with her presence. Erdrich writes of what she knows, setting this story in a bookstore, no doubt modeled after Birchbark Books, the store she runs in real life. Through the guise of Tookie, we are also offered a variety of additional book recommendations. 


Ghosts seem to be a feature in Erdrich’s writing as the line between the living and the dead seems often quite permeable. In The Night Watchman(2020) a fictionalized story is based on Erdrich’s grandfather and the important role he played in fighting termination. Termination efforts began in 1953 and were designed to eliminate the role of the Federal government in controlling reservations, instead passing costs to the states and pushing Native Americans off the reservation and into the cities. The result often meant the loss of their reservation lands and the government support which was in fact to be compensation. This is one of several plot lines as the Native Americans organize to challenge this strategy. While the character who represents her grandfather drives this storyline, the broader community is interwoven with a cast of strong characters that we come to care about, both living and those who have passed on. Strong women rooted in Native American culture show the way to a future navigating two worlds successfully.


I loved Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet so was eager to read her new book The Marriage Portrait. But first I heard her do a reading where she was asked about her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am (2018). Before I moved to her latest novel, I took a detour and read this most unusual memoir which explores the close calls with death or danger that she somehow evaded. Each chapter focuses on the physical point of vulnerability in her body. It culminates in the life-threatening situation which grips her most deeply as she watches her daughter’s life precariously perched on that thin line that separates life from death. I took away from that book a new appreciation of the opportunity to live each day of our life and the vulnerability which always hovers nearby.


I then moved to The Marriage Portrait (2022), based on an actual marriage in 1558 which similarly sits atop a deep sense of vulnerability between life and death. A young girl of 16 enters a marriage with a ruler who fluctuates between a heightened sensitivity and understanding of his bride and a cloud of threat which makes her fear for her life. It is underscored by the sense of vulnerability women of that time faced in a marriage should they not produce an heir while subject to the control and whims of a spouse. I thought back to Hamnet which also focuses on the thin line between life and death. This seems to be the theme that intrigues O’Farrell through these books, a thread in her own life which informs her choice of material.


Sleep and Wakefulness

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel Harlem Shuffle (2021) is quite different than his earlier books The Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys. It is a character study of both the people and the place, New York Harlem in 1959. I found myself especially intrigued with a concept that it frequently referenced dorvay, a derivation of Ray Carney, our protagonist, from the word dorveille. The word is formed from the French words, dormir and and veiller, to sleep and to be awake. It came from a time before electric lights when people split their sleep in two, waking in the middle to perform those tasks that somehow eluded them in daytime hours. Carney thought of himself as coming from a crooked beginning with a father who was, well, a crook. He however was just slightly bent and dorvay was when the straight world slept and the slightly bent got to work. Carney bridged the world between the straight and the crooked, living a life perched on a tightrope between the two. How he resolves this contradiction is the story.

Stay tuned for a few more topics on islands and remarkable women!

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Layers of Time

When my mother was in her final years, I often traveled to spend time with her. She lived in Peoria, the town where I grew up, still in my childhood home. It was an eight-hour drive and a week-long visit.  I explored the city with her, rediscovering it myself as we visited museums and gardens. We shared special moments, but it was also challenging as her memory fled. I needed a periodic escape to be fully present for her and began reconnecting with old friends from college and post-college days. One evening at dinner, a friend noted that when my mother was gone, my visits would cease. Of course, he was right, but it had never occurred to me, acknowledging my mother’s future absence was not something I could easily conceive of – emotion clouding the logical inevitability.

His prediction came to pass in 2015 when my mother passed away.  I came down again in 2016 for the unveiling of her tombstone and the sale of my childhood home. After that, there was no reason to make that lengthy trek–– until I received the invite to my 50th high school reunion, one year delayed because of Covid. I had never gone to a high school reunion. High school was not my happy place, but rather something I needed to get through to get on with my life. I began to poll my friends on whether they had ever attended a reunion. There were two schools of thought, those who encouraged me to go and those who insisted they would never ever go to a reunion. The former tended to have an air of conviviality that would serve one well at a reunion. I am much closer in temperament to those in the latter group. 


I hold no sentimentality for high school or any of the schools I’ve attended. I’m not much good with the rah-rah stuff, hated pep rallies, don’t follow college sports and have no interest in graduation ceremonies. I skipped two of mine. I love learning, it’s the sentimentality and ceremonial parts that felt foreign to me. And then there is the question of ownership. There are those who owned high school. They were the stars of that show, attended the reunions and basked in the sentimentality of those years.  I understand the concept of owning one’s space better now as I do that in my spheres of interest. It is a good feeling, being recognized for what you do well, a feeling of belonging.  I am grateful to feel that in my life. Still, high school wasn’t my space, and to enter a place and time that didn’t really belong to me, I needed reinforcements. I started a message group with a couple of high school friends who I’d connected with on Facebook. They too were debating attending and shared similar sentiments. Slowly we converged on a decision to attend.

These were the thoughts that occupied me as my husband and I set forth on that long drive. Our route took us through the Driftless area, a region that covers portions of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. This region wasn’t covered with ice during the Ice Age so lacks deposits of drift, hence driftless, but by no means unfocused. It has steep hills, bluffs, dense forests and deep river valleys. The Mississippi River cuts through the region creating amazing vistas and overlooks. Add to that fall colors and my usual napping in the car was held in abeyance as I absorbed the extraordinary beauty of our drive. It felt like a prelude that demanded something equally worthy.

In my purse were several colorful stones I was bringing to place on my parents’ gravestone. My parents’ presence still pervaded my sense of the city. I remembered when my father took us on what we jokingly termed the Phil Weinberg memorial tour. First to the studio of an artist to see a portrait he had just completed of my father, then to their burial plots. Some years later, we gathered in front of his portrait for a family photo after his funeral. Perhaps this was a memorial tour of my own, saying goodbye to a city I was unlikely to return to anytime soon, a city vested with a rich layer of memory. I suppose it is only fitting to have it begin with high school friends, some dating back to grade school.

We stopped for dinner at the Landmark Cafe in Galesburg, a nearby city.  I noted the stamped tin ceiling, brick walls, and a curious window, not sure if it was a decorative feature or an actual window. My husband stopped at the car to pick something up and on his return announced there was a courtyard that the window overlooked. I looked around me again with dawning awareness, picturing the room, its window and door from the opposite side. I logged into my pictures, pulling up a photo of my mother sitting in that courtyard eight years earlier smiling happily at me. It was the beginning of something I experienced throughout my visit, an odd sense of layered time. Past and present co-existing with an accompanying sense of dislocation.

Once in town everything seemed different, yet oddly familiar. My husband asked if I wanted to drive, quickly regretting that proposal as we both remembered the reason he usually drives. He is a horrible passenger. But I needed to drive to get my bearings in this strange mix of the familiar turned on its head. I drove by that old pink house in which I grew up, well more like a watered-down burgundy, now painted white. There was my mom’s old car in the driveway. We had sold it along with the house. I stealthily took a picture out the car window.  


We went to lunch in an area I remembered for interesting shops and restaurants only to learn the familiar places were gone.  Finally, we settled on Cayenne, a place painted with a Day of the Dead theme, grinning skulls on its walls. Once again, I had this déjà vu moment realizing that this was formerly a more sedate restaurant named Salt. We had gone there after my mother’s funeral. I reimagined our table of family amidst the skeletal grins.


Later we went to the cemetery. I said the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and placed my stones atop my parents’ pink marble tombstone, their new pink home. I had started a new ritual on my last visit. Three months before my father died, my parents had called my answering machine and sang Happy Birthday. I kept the recording and played it on each birthday since. My last visit to their graves was around my birthday so I had conjured them up with a rousing Happy Birthday song from cyberspace. Now as my birthday loomed, I again summoned their spirits, letting their voices waft through the graveyard.


That evening we joined old college friends for a Friday night art crawl and dinner. We had a satisfying visit, filled with deep conversations that I had missed. At the reunion the following evening, I enjoyed connecting with childhood friends. Many people were no longer recognizable as the teen in my memory. No one escapes aging. We were the fortunate ones as the list of those no longer with us grows. Since then, life had layered its own disruptions and challenges on everyone in that room, the great leveler. We all live layered lives, juxtaposing times both past and present.

We drove back through the Driftless area, stopping at a vista near which locals had set up a table selling homemade jams. My husband recalled our return from a visit to my parents many years ago. We had stopped there to enjoy the view and had of course purchased jams, likely from the same merchants who confirmed they had been selling there for almost twenty years.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Recognizing Family

I often think of my life as a bit of a Rube Goldberg creation. I set something in motion, as if I were sending a marble spinning on its path.  But that path is seldom a straight line and takes me in unexpected directions, introduces me to new people and new ideas, and often leads to surprises along the way. Just as I trace my path backwards when I solve a genealogy puzzle, I also retrace the pathways that have led me forward in my explorations in life. I am often amazed at the uncharted paths that result from that initial step.

Among the many projects that I have taken on, one has proven especially fruitful with many unexpected surprises. Twelve years ago, I created a website on the city of Radom, Poland as a volunteer for JewishGen. It is called a Kehilalink. Kehila means community and these websites document and commemorate former Jewish communities. Many of these towns no longer have any Jews in them. Judenfrei, the Nazis called that, something they achieved in many places. But they are communities with long memories. Often descendants are children of survivors and heard the stories firsthand, others like me are genealogists in search of the story of their family. 


My paternal grandfather was from the town of Radom, Poland. The entire family was involved in flour milling and he was the youngest son, his oldest brother 18 years older. My grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in 1913,  the only one of his family to depart. My theory has always been there wasn’t room in the business for him. Virtually all of the family that remained in Radom died in the Holocaust, save one cousin who survived Auschwitz and immigrated after the war. I never knew my grandfather well as I was a child when he died, but I have gotten to know the community from which he came.


Among the beneficial things to come out of this project was meeting my good friend Dora who is 98 and a survivor from Radom. Early in our friendship, I had the opportunity to travel back to Radom with Dora and hear about the community in which my family once lived. We traveled there on the occasion of an exhibit of my artwork on the Radom Jewish community coupled with photos of Dora’s from her life in Radom. The Yizkor book, which is a memorial book created by survivors of that town, has recently been translated from Yiddish and one of my paintings from that work will grace its cover (image above).


Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to interview Dora and several others who were survivors from Radom. I’ve done research for people with roots in Radom and each of these projects has taken me deeper into the available resources. Sometimes I find records in archives that are not available on-line and as more gets digitized, I discover it, and add links to the Kehilalink. As a result, it has become a rich resource for people researching their family. I have assisted several people with information for books that are based in Radom, as well as descendants who are traveling to Radom. Through these efforts, I’ve gotten to know a network of people with ties there.


I realized I needed a more active effort to connect people to the resources. "Build it and they will come" only takes you so far. Every year there is a conference on Jewish genealogy put on by IAJGS, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. One of the features of the conference is what they call Birds of a Feather groups (BOFs), gatherings that share a common interest and often are around a specific town. When the conference went online because of Covid, it occurred to me that it presented an opportunity to reach out to people around the world with ties to Radom through a BOF gathering. Last year I shared information on the many data sources in different repositories that can be accessed through the Kehilalink. Afterwards, an attendee mentioned that she had seen identity papers with photos from the 1930s in the Radom archives.  I was aware of identify papers that the Nazis required of Jews in 1941, but not the earlier ones.


I soon located one complete year in 1934 that had been scanned. I worked in partnership with Judy Golan, the Radom area coordinator of JRI Poland, an organization that indexes records from the former Jewish Polish communities.  Over several weeks we made an intensive effort to extract information to include in their database, capturing over 400 photos of Jewish people who lived there. Another search involved me in locating photographs as I sought to find photographic support for a suspected DNA connection to a new-found relative.


This year I made finding photos of family the theme, sharing photos from ID papers, forced labor camps, concentration camps and many sources of that period. I asked researchers if they were aware of anything additional and learned of almost 400 online pictures in a Jewish Historical Institute collection that had gotten separated from the 1941 ID papers, many without names. Viewing the faces felt eerie. As if the name was in my memory, but simply eluding me. 

 At the BOF discussion, one person suggested we explore facial recognition software. You need to have a database of relevant images before that could be useful, but an article in the Times of Israel alerted me to the efforts of Daniel Patt, a Google engineer. Patt is using facial recognition to recognize faces from pre-war Europe and the Holocaust through a project called From Numbers to Names. Inspired by his experience visiting the Polin Museum in Warsaw, coupled with the fact that three of his grandparents were survivors, Daniel drew on his technical skills to develop this project. He has coordinated with the U.S. Holocaust Museum to include photos from their collection and also has photos from collections at Yad Vashem. The quick search runs against about 170,000 faces while a lengthier search reaches about two million faces. You can listen to Daniel talk about the project on the Chai Montreal podcast.

I located the project website, From Numbers to Names, and reached out to Daniel to offer him information on the many photos which I had identified, the largest being the 14,000 images of the Radom Jewish residents from 1941, many of whom later perished in Treblinka. Additional records included those nameless photos, the earlier identity papers, and photos from Dachau and Auschwitz. After viewing the Kehilalink, Daniel also asked me about getting a copy of a digitized film I had referenced of the Radom Jewish community from 1937, as they can extract images from films. The extraction process has begun as they incorporate these images into their database. I expect that there may well be more stories to emerge.


I am struck by how a volunteer effort can be that first step that begins the process. Add a bit of obsessive energy, something genealogists have in excess, and an effort to connect and share information with others of like energy. Those combined elements can power something much larger than our individual efforts.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Inside-Outside: Opening the Door to Community

For the past ten years, I've participated in a Jewish Artists' Lab. Recently I was invited to assist with a retrospective show for the lab and find that it has taken me into my own personal retrospective. 

I had entered the lab with some trepidation. I had felt a bit outside of the Jewish community until I stepped into family history research and began to incorporate it into my artwork. When the lab announcement arrived, I had been showing artwork related to family and cultural history as well as the Holocaust. I didn’t think of myself as a Jewish artist, but rather an artist who was Jewish. There is a subtle distinction between the two. I’m skittish about labels as they tend to constrict paths rather than expand them.

Over time I developed a rather unique role within the lab. In 2012, I began to write about it in this blog. As this has a more general audience, I tended to write of elements of more general interest. As that first year concluded, I wrote a blog on a piece in the show that caused me to consider the importance of naming who we are when the path is still emerging. “I am an artist” or “I am a writer”– tentative announcements that begin to take form in reality by the sheer power of acknowledgement. 

After that blog post, I was invited to create a separate blog for the lab itself. My vantage point changed a bit from a more general audience to one more deeply immersed in Jewish content. I felt a bit awkward at first, finding my voice for this new venue. There is a wide range of observance among the lab members. I’m at the very secular end and I worried a bit about lacking the deeper knowledge of some of my fellow artists who were much more immersed in Jewish practice. I ultimately decided to let the blog reflect my personal lens as I sought meaning in the content for myself, often from the perspective of metaphor. It became a creative engine for me, presenting a different lens through which to contemplate a subject. 

 As part of the lab, we created an artwork for an annual exhibition.  I started each year wondering if I could come up with something thought-provoking. After ten years, I’ve learned to trust the process, but am still relieved when a compelling idea begins to come together. While I created paintings for the exhibitions, the text and the story behind it felt equally important. The process by which it evolved often became an important part of the story as well.

 One of my favorite themes was Text-Context-Subtext. It was in its very name a layered approach, often working itself to the subtext of creativity. We looked at the text of Genesis and the creation of the world, then discussed the difficulty in both beginning something creative and deciding when it is done. I was relieved to learn from my fellow artists that I wasn’t alone in struggling with such things. I began to accept that part of the process of creating is uncertainty.  It is a process of experimentation and being open to possibilities as we find our way. 

Passages in the Torah served as jumping off points for such questions as to how we might compress time, or express sound through a visual medium. I began to step beyond my painting to include poetry, expanding my scope as I drew on a story from a close friend, a Holocaust survivor. I later returned to her story when we examined the theme of light where her experience during the Holocaust flipped our associations with light and darkness on their head. Darkness that hid them was her friend, while light meant exposure. 

I often dove beneath the surface in search of metaphor and tapped a wide variety of sources for inspiration. Sometimes I shaped the theme around a related topic of interest. We explored water, a primordial force of both creation and destruction. I had been painting about memory as I observed my parents’ struggles with its loss and ran across a quote from Toni Morrison that became my raw material for my artwork. "You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places... Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” I explored the linkages between water and memory and put out a memory jar, asking people to submit a memory they shared with someone who had since lost memory. 

The Roundness of Things - Wisdom-2016
Appropriately, wisdom was our theme the year my mother died. For several years she was the source of so much of my creative energy as I processed her loss. She was also a very wise woman, and my artwork was a reflection on the wisdom of mothers, incorporating her notes on the wisdom she gleaned from books.

Stepping into the Chrysalis-2017 

Stepping into the Chrysalis-2017
Two themes were interrelated. The first was Inside-Outside, Boundaries and Otherness. The second was Crossing the Threshold. It was 2016 and we were first seeing the deep divide within our country. There was a lot of “othering” going on and a lot of talk about boundaries. While that was the direction I first anticipated exploring, I ended up delving into the three parts to this topic, inside, outside, and the in-between, navigating the passage across that boundary line. My work became a triptych with an inside, outside, and a meditation on the often challenging in-between. It opened to embrace the viewer much like an ark.The following year, I created a piece that explored stepping into change, a trail of eggshells led into the structure as I stepped into something new and unknown.

Tree Time - 2020
 Our last two years were Covid years. We met on Zoom, and I abandoned the gym for walking. I became enamored with trees as I walked through my neighborhood, a different kind of figurative subject than the people I had painted. And I only realized in hindsight that I had continued with an inside-outside theme for three paintings in a row. 

Burly Tree - 2021
When we explored the environment with the topic of Muddy Waters, I painted a 4700-year-old tree in California known as Methuselah with its tree rings painted as backdrop. We know of global warming in part because of a core taken from that tree. I thought of it as a messenger, much as was the original Methuselah. The following year we addressed Brokenness and Wholeness which I explored through a tree laden with burls. Burls grow out of injury into a thing of beauty, charting a circuitous route, much as we do through life. The burls made up the background of this painting as well.  

When I look back, I realize that the subject that has become central to much of my recent work is the in-between, how to show the inside and outside simultaneously, the liminal state of transitions and the uncertainty that often accompanies it. As someone who has moved between multiple worlds, it is a topic that resonates for me. I also had a few muses, my friend Dora and her Holocaust story inspired two paintings as did my mother. The community of artists has helped me to appreciate the common threads that we all deal with in a creative process and made me feel welcome within the community. And accepting the process has helped me navigate those times when I am stuck and not sure where I’m going next. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot more of the underpinnings of Judaism and have a deep appreciation of its support for questioning, challenging and thoughtful inquiry.

You can find my lab work on my website at Artists Lab.

Monday, May 9, 2022

A Puzzle in Ten Steps

When my father died, I was the first one to tackle his office. My father loved information. If something interested him, it ended up in a growing pile that ambitiously reached skyward. When we would prod him to tackle the clutter, he would threaten to light a match to it. I think he was joking.

After his death, I wouldn’t let my siblings enter that space until I first went through it. Mind you, it wasn’t hard to keep them at bay; it was rather daunting. As the family historian, I feared that someone else would pitch something that only I would find valuable. When I got into family history, my father had joined me. He contacted his cousins and gathered information which he proudly presented to me in our weekly phone calls. 

In his office, I found scraps of paper and envelopes with jottings that I salvaged from destruction. They would have had no meaning to anyone else. To me they were gold. 

 I found myself thinking of that recently, when I was working with a client where we had hit a dead end. His family came from an area where there was little on-line. I had built out what I could but felt as if I was nibbling around the edges. I hadn’t found that thread for which a simple tug begins to unravel the puzzle. As I probed for more information, I asked a question born of my experience in my father’s study. "Do you have any envelopes with jottings on family history?"  I told him about my experience and how an opening can emerge from the smallest detail. 

And yes, he had an envelope with a few details jotted by his late mother alongside notes on a purchase of needles and thread. It was only later that I connected that odd juxtaposition with my own search. In fact, the information on that envelope presented me with a very important thread on which I was able to build. Some of the jottings would not make sense until much later, but the thread with which I began was this:

“Sheba’s mother Betty raised Joe ” 

Joe was his grandfather, but my client had no idea who Sheba or Betty were. I recognized this as a good clue with multiple data points that would help to prove its accuracy. If they all lined, up I would know I was on the right trail. I had two names in relation to each other and one of them was unusual. I also knew they had to be in one of two cities, even better if they were in both. 

1)    Search related data points, lead with the unusual:  I went to and did a search on the unusual name of Sheba with a mother named Betty in both Minneapolis and Milwaukee, the two towns we knew Joe had lived in as a child with his father Sam. Up popped a record with a new surname, Betty's married name of Juster. Betty and Sheba Juster appeared in both cities. The trail was heating up.

2)    Form a hypothesis. To raise someone’s child you likely had a close relationship to his parent. My theory was that Betty was the sister of Sam Cohn, Joe’s father. Now I needed to validate that. I had two names, her given name and her husband’s surname.  I wanted her maiden name to test my theory. I plugged her husband’s name into a Minnesota marriage database and up popped his wife, Betty Cohn. 

3)    Verify the relationship: So how could I verify that she was a sister, rather than perhaps a cousin? For that I wanted to see if they had the same father.  I needed a death certificate for Sam and Betty. We had one for Sam and it gave his father as Eliezer. When we located one for Betty, it gave her father’s name as Alter. So not a match? Not so fast. I’ve done enough research in Jewish records to know that many people had two names which they used interchangeably. The jury was still out on this one. 

4)    Build an information foundation: I’ve learned that sometimes we need to wait for the facts to emerge. What we do while we wait is build the foundation. We look for constellations of related names in city directories and census records. Census records show family groupings. City directories show people with shared surnames at the same address or nearby addresses. The Minneapolis library has digitized city directories, so I was able to do my research from home. 

5)    Watch for multiple spellings. Just in case I forgot, the city directory reminded me that if I was searching for Cohn, I should also search for Kohn, Cohen and several other varieties. In fact, I found that the same person often went by different spellings in different years and across related family members at the same address we could see different surname spellings in the same year.





Alter Cohn

Altor Cohn

Alter Cohn

Rev Alter Cohn

Isaac Cohn

Ignatz Kohn

Isaac Cohn

Isaac Cohn

Bertha Cohn

Bessie Cohen

Betsy Cohn

Betty Cohn

Simeon Cohn

Sigmund Kohn



6)   Look for groupings and patterns: Notice above how both given names and surnames can change. Bertha to Bessie to Betsy to Betty. Isaac to Ignatz, Simeon to Sigmund. And we have Cohn, Cohen and Kohns. Each of these groupings shared a common address within a given year.

7)     Pay attention to proximity: It wasn’t until 1895 that Sam showed up near by. By now the Cohns were no longer living as a family, but in close proximity. Betty’s husband appeared across the street from Sam and by 1900 Sam was down the street from Betty and her husband. After that they disappeared only to reappear in Milwaukee. Alter remained in Minneapolis on that street for many years. I suspected these names were related and that hunch was confirmed when in Milwaukee I found Sam and Betty’s husband in a business called Cohn and Juster.

8)    Search newspapers, including community ones: We believed that Alter was Betty’s father based on her death certificate. I checked the MN Historical Society for death records and found two Alter Cohns in town. I searched for obituaries and found two – a detailed one with none of the related names and one with only the name, age and address. The local Jewish newspaper, the American Jewish World, began publishing under that name in 1915. I had dismissed this as a source earlier because Sam had left Minneapolis before it began. Alter, however, had remained so a search might yield more information than the city paper had. And in fact, a search yielded a detailed obituary that named all of his children, Betty and Sam among them. 

9) Search tombstonesFindagrave is a wonderful resource for tombstones. I did a search for the Alter Cohn in this obituary and came up with an image. Jewish tombstones often list the Hebrew name of both the decedent and their father. While Alter was written in English on the tombstone, his Hebrew name is reported as Eliazar, reconciling the different names given in Sam and Betty’s death certificates. Sam and Betty are indeed siblings based on both the obit and the tombstone. 

10) Expect variances in birth years: There were a few details to clear up about age. The death certificate gave a birth year of 1850. Birth years in census records ranged from 1839 to 1850 and carved into the tombstone was the year 1839, the year he gave to the census taker in 1895. I’m putting my money on 1839 as it was the first year reported and closest to the event. When I calculated how old he was when his son was born, 1850 didn’t make sense. I continued to build out the family, finding details on descendants of Sam’s two brothers and sisters.

So, there you have it. Ten simple steps from envelope to solution, an iterative process to solving a puzzle by finding that critical thread and following it wherever it leads.



Saturday, March 26, 2022

A Place of Perilous Danger . . .and Hope

View of Kamenetz Podolsk 2011

Over recent weeks, I’ve watched the unfolding events in Ukraine with horror. I traveled there in 2011 to the town that my maternal grandparents came from, Kamenetz Podolsk. It is a town with a 13th century fairy tale castle in its midst, turrets rising high above the city. I imagine my family living in the shadow of those lofty spires. My  grandfather left there in 1911 to come to the United States to avoid being drafted into the army. Ten years later my grandmother came in the wake of a pogrom. All that survived was a story of their ten-year-old daughter who died in that pogrom, along with many other Jews. That was to be followed by further massacres during WWII for any family that had the bad fortune to remain. That has been my association with Ukraine, a place of perilous danger.

Recent events have certainly supported that perception of danger, now directed at the Ukrainian population. It has also caused me to feel both empathy for its brave people and not a small amount of pride in their Jewish president. Little did I expect that changes since my grandparents' day would lead to the election of a Jewish president in a landslide.  His courage and communication skills have stood him in good stead as he rises to the occasion­ –perhaps a response to perilous danger resides in genetic memory.

As with many genealogists who have ancestors from Ukraine, the thought that follows the dismay at recent events is to wonder if our history will also be wiped out within the archives. This is a war that is highly destructive to both civilians and physical infrastructure. While not as heart-rending as the assault on civilians, the assault on history is also concerning. Many of us fear the collateral damage that could occur to archives. Ukraine is even more vulnerable to this destruction as they are newer to the practice of digitization. Less is preserved in alternative form. 


1897 Family Photo - my grandmother 2nd from left, great-grandfather -2nd from right

When I first began my research into my Ukrainian family in 2002, I did it the old-fashioned way, taking family stories and testing them against records. I started with a few pages written by my grandfather reporting that my grandmother left Ukraine with her brother and his wife. Shot at while crossing the border, she was taken to a hospital in France. I couldn’t quite imagine the geography of this journey but did indeed find her coming to the US from France, followed one week later by her brother and his wife. I located her brother’s granddaughter who contributed the fact from her grandmother that they had to swim a river to leave the country. I sent letters out to those who shared the rather uncommon family’s name, finding a cousin my mother had never known. Together we traveled to California to meet her. She gave us a photo of the family from 1897. Death records and other documents allowed me to build the tree out to my 3rd great-grandfather. 

The Internet was still fairly new and access to on-line records was limited, especially for Ukraine. I reached out to BLITZ Information Services and they sent an employee to the Ukrainian archives on my behalf. She was able to locate a number of family records despite an archive fire a few years earlier that damaged many holdings. Ultimately she concluded her efforts because of unrest in Ukraine, a recurring theme I had not fully understood at the time. 


Fast forward many years. . . I am doing research for a woman whose family came from Ukraine. I began our work advising her about the challenges of researching Ukrainian family. Relative to many other countries, there is still not much on-line for Ukraine, but this research pushed me to take a fresh look. 

Finding and Digitizing Records 

So how do you confirm if there are records for your towns? Miriam Weiner has done the research to populate a very useful site called Routes to Roots Foundation for Jewish and civil records. If you input the name of the town, it will tell you what information resides in the archives for what dates and which archives. It doesn't however tell you if it is on-line and if so how to find it. For that you will want to see if there are indexed records. These are created by someone familiar with the language who reviews records and extracts key names and supplemental information. For Jewish records you will want to use JewishGen’s Unified Search which pulls up available indices. 


Suppose you find something? Now you will want to determine if it is digitized and on-line. Archives in some countries such as Poland have committed to digitizing and in many cases searches will yield attached links to the records at the archives.  Even without an attached link, you can go to Familysearch  to see if they have digitized it. There you will search on the country and town in the catalog (go to search - catalog). With the details from the index, you may be able to find a corresponding digitized record.


But here’s the challenge –if records are not digitized, there are no on-line records. And if they are digitized, but information isn’t extracted into an index, you will need to have language skills to navigate those records.


Familysearch has been scanning records in Ukraine since 1994. That is a fairly recent history. Political upheaval delayed their efforts for a number of years after they began.With the appointment of new archive leadership in late 2019, an agreement was made to begin digitizing later in 2020. Of course Covid presented delays and now we have a war that could endanger the very documents we hope to preserve.


The recent agreement grew out of extensive work by Ukrainian Alex Krakovsky,a researcher of Jewish history, who has taken branches of the Ukrainian Archives to court many times so he could scan records from the archives without being charged an exorbitant fee. He has pursued this with a sense of mission, posting more than two million records on a Wiki page. Many of these scanned records are now in the queue to be indexed by the Ukrainian Research Division at JewishGen, something that will take some time.


Ukrainian records that are scanned but unindexed are available on-line and can be accessed through the TSAL Kaplun Foundation. This includes an interface to the Alex Karkovsky records. You can also find useful links at the blog Lost Russian FamilyYou can use translation tools at  to learn what the name looks like in cursive, converting from English to Russian print and then to cursive. If you locate a record that looks like that name, post the document on a genealogy Facebook page or Jewishgen’s Viewmate site to get a Russian speaker to translate it further. This is all pattern recognition and not for the faint of heart.


Failing the ability to access Ukrainian records, you may find as I did that you can discover a surprising amount of information from US records. Look for death certificates with parents’ names and immigration manifests that note family members they were traveling to and who they left behind. In the meantime, we are fortunate to have the records scanned by Alex Karkovsky and over time that backlog will be whittled down. And if we are very lucky, the archives and our history, along with Ukraine itself, will survive these perilous times.