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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Other People's Families

 When I first began doing genealogy, I signed up to join a group of Jewish genealogists in Utah for a week at the Family History Library. For many years it was an annual event. There are a select few who welcome a week of library research with happy anticipation. Given a choice, most people would opt for a beach vacation. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was plotting a course that would carry me into a satisfying future of immersing myself in other people’s families. One of the things that came out of those annual visits was a community of people who shared that rather unusual enthusiasm. In 2008, one of my fellow researchers asked if she could hire me to do research on her ancestor who came to Minnesota in the 1800s. She was a genealogist herself so I knew I was going to be working on the gnarly puzzles she couldn’t solve but living in Minnesota I had the benefit of proximity to the sources.

I discovered that I enjoyed this opportunity to extend my family, for I began to take personal ownership and adopt them as my own. On some level it is an intimate thing to know the nuances of someone’s family. I’ve found stories of re-invention among immigrants who went on to build successful lives, but also stories of deep sadness. Recently I found a family that lost most of its children within a few months, presumably from an illness. And there are the stories of events that were often not spoken of – love triangles and mental illness and of course the illegalities. I’ve looked up records from Leavenworth prison and followed stories of bootleggers. Usually enough time has passed that it has become an interesting story without the anguish of the moment, but I always imagine the weight of those events on their life and that of their children.


Projects tend to find me and I need to then consider what is in my lane and whether I can add value. My lane is largely Jewish genealogy even though many of the skills I have cross over to general genealogy. Even within Jewish genealogy, there are areas of expertise. For example, I do a lot of work in Poland and Lithuania and can navigate records written in Russian with some facility. On the other hand, I know little about Hungarian or Czech genealogy so steer clear of such projects. Then there are the grey areas where I start working on a family with Lithuanian roots and they just happen to have German roots as well. Suddenly I am thrust into totally new territory to navigate with the skill set I’ve developed for other countries.  

I recently found myself in just such a situation. As someone who always wants to pull the rabbit out of the hat, it is a bit unnerving. Can I do that when I step out of my lane? I remind myself that there was a time when all of this was new to me. I’ve learned that once you figure out the resources that are unique to a region, the core process of puzzle solving is the same. You look for the loose thread where a gentle tug will begin to unravel the puzzle and then leapfrog from one source to another. Sometimes I find that thread in a surprising place. 


I begin my research with a newspaper search. Sometimes there is little, but in smaller towns one may find surprisingly granular information. A client’s great-grandparents were fortunate to leave Germany in 1939. On their immigration manifest, they noted a son in Ohio. A search soon revealed two sons in an Ohio town that had about 12,000 people in 1900, around the time they first showed up there. My search of the local paper found reports of their many trips back to Germany in the intervening years. One of the most unusual discoveries was from a newspaper report on an event that happened twenty-five years earlier. You know those look-back columns? The local paper had one that in 1937 looked back on an event from 1912 when this family member was called to NY to attend the funeral of a half sibling. We hadn’t known of any half-siblings so combining that knowledge with a search of NY records, I found the death record that cited my client’s great-great grandmother and her first husband. I then located probate records on the half-brother that cited the entire family in both the United States and Germany, providing me with the married name of an unknown daughter. With this information, I could access Holocaust records for family members who remained in Europe, drawing additional information on who remained from immigration manifests and survivors cited in obituaries of the American siblings. We discovered a significant impact of the Holocaust on this family, all history of which my client had not been aware.

Another branch came from the region that moved from Germany to Poland after WWII. The objective was to trace family in records overseas. I began with JewishGen, the beginning point for Jewish genealogy. There I found one promising indexed record but as the original record was not on-line I contacted the JewishGen Town Leader for that particular town. Not only did he provide me with the record, but he also clued me in to BaSIA, a unique Polish site that allowed me to search successfully for many of the records in what is referred to as Greater Poland (Wielkopolski), a region that was once part of Prussia. In addition to that source, I located helpful Polish sites such as Genetekaa database hosted by the Polish Genealogical Society. While not Jewish specific, its indexed records included Jewish records. Often sites will provide some translation to English and failing that I could easily navigate using Google Translate on my phone with its camera option to translate Polish text. 

My takeaways – don’t hesitate to ask for assistance and look for country and regional sites that may index records within the archives. And don't forget that translation support is easily available on your phone. While such projects may feel initially intimidating even to an experienced genealogist, there is often an entry point that can lead to surprising discoveries.

Monday, February 7, 2022

The DNA Rabbit Hole

One of the areas of genealogy that attracts many people is DNA.  While I am deep down the rabbit hole of genealogy research, I hesitated for some time before taking a deeper dive into DNA research. It was only when I received an email from a woman who reported that her husband had a high level of DNA connection to my late father that I began to pay close attention. I had heard of those “non-paternal events” which essentially mean the father isn’t who he is expected to be, but I hadn’t anticipated anything nearly so interesting within my own family. 


The level of DNA match is measured in a unit called a centimorgan (cM). A parent-child relationship would typically have around 3500 cMs and other relationships scale down from that to a distant cousin at 8 cMs.  Different testing firms can vary in the amount, but the basic relationships are fairly consistent.  Long ago I had convinced my father to get his DNA tested and had then uploaded our DNA to GedMatch, a site that provides tools to analyze the data. They had languished there for some time as I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Neither did I know what to do with the string of emails I was receiving from the original testing company announcing matches. Now I had new motivation.


In this case my Possible Relative (who we’ll refer to as PR) had a match to my father on GedMatch around 434 cM and about 132 cM for me. Raised in Puerto Rico, he had suddenly discovered with some surprise that he was 50% Jewish.  He was curious, but also concerned about causing discomfort in his family as no one had broached this subject with him previously.


I looked up a chart on FamilySearch that told me the likely cM match for different relationships. I eliminated those that were older than my father’s generation as PR was just shy of 50. From the chart, I concluded that the relationship to my father was likely through a first cousin and PR was either a son or perhaps a grandson of that cousin.  If he was the son of a cousin then we would share a common set of great grandparents and would be second cousins. That was the closest relationship I had ever sourced through DNA so now I had some incentive to come up the curve. 


I knew I needed to bring in reinforcements so I contacted a friend, Dan Kastrul, someone who was far more knowledgeable in DNA than I was. He suggested I look at DNA Painter which provides a similar chart as well as a tool that will tell you the odds of likely relationships. 


With his guidance I went into GedMatch and we looked at the X matches of PR to see if it would shed any light on which of his parents was Jewish. A man inherits his X chromosome from his mother so we looked at PR’s X matches on the GedMatch One to Many comparison tool. We saw no Jewish names in the multitude of X matches even though many of the DNA matches that were not X matches clearly had Jewish names. Thus we concluded that the mother was most likely not Jewish and the father was. My next step was to consider which of my father’s male cousins were likely candidates, considering cousins on both my father’s maternal and paternal sides. 


My grandfather had been the only one of his family to come to the United States in the early part of the 1900s. As a result, he was the only sibling who survived as the Holocaust sent most of our family to their death in Treblinka. My father had sixteen male cousins, twelve in Eastern Europe and four in the United States. We were fairly certain of those in Eastern Europe that only one had survived the Holocaust. After the war, Meyer, the son of my grandfather’s sister Bayla, tracked my grandfather down through someone he met in Germany who had an uncle who played cards with my grandfather – a story which gives new meaning to Jewish geography. I considered the five cousins I knew who had been alive fifty years ago and focused on two, one of whom was Meyer. He would have been 52 at the time of PR’s birth.  My hope that his branch of the family had survived may have influenced my focus, but on a practical level I considered that he had been single and lived in Florida, with some proximity to Puerto Rico. 


In the meantime there was a complicated personal story unfolding as PR finally decided to approach his mother with his questions and learned that he was in fact adopted. His adoptive mother produced the adoption file and it gave us additional information about the mother and the likely father. There was no direct line on the father, but some possibilities that still seemed to include those I was considering.


At this point I began to look for photographic relationships.  I had compared a picture of PR to my father and was struck by the resemblance, same forehead, same ears, same coloring. Now I went a step further back. From my genealogy research, I  had identity papers for my grandfather’s sister, Bajla, and her husband, the people I believed were possibly PR’s grandparents. These were papers that the Nazis required to be completed in 1941, along with a photo, as they prepared to  murder my family the following year. I positioned a photo of PR between his purported grandparents and there was a striking resemblance to Bajla. 


What I wanted was a picture of Meyer, the possible father.  I had an identity paper with a photograph, but it had Meyer’s brother’s name on it. Then I remembered a story I had been told. When Meyer left the displaced persons’ camp he had taken his late brother’s identity to get into the United States. He had heard it was easier to enter if you were younger and his late brother was eight years younger than him. He had some explaining to do when it was time to collect Social Security. The picture I had assumed was his younger brother was in fact him under his original name.  I continued to search Holocaust records, now using his original name and at Arolsen Archives I discovered a picture of him at an older age after the war. In the picture there was a deep cleft in his chin which matched that of PR. Based on photographic evidence, I was pretty sure I was on the right track, but I needed the DNA evidence to support it and I knew just where to go.


When I first started doing genealogy twenty years ago, my late aunt had suggested that I speak with her friend Phyllis about family. I was a bit confused at first as to the relationships. Phyllis and her husband rented my aunt’s Florida apartment. How would she know about family? I soon learned that she was far more than a renter. In fact she was a survivor from Radom, our common Polish ancestral town, and her family and mine had worked in the same business. She and Meyer had been in Auschwitz together. There were marriages between the families and Phyllis and my father were both cousins to Meyer, my father on Meyer’s mother’s side and Phyllis through his father’s side. I had done a lengthy interview with Phyllis years ago and learned more of the connections, and that story about Meyer assuming his brother’s identity. She has since passed away but I have kept in touch with her daughter, a contemporary of mine. If Meyer was the link, then Phyllis’ daughter should test similarly to me. 


When we ran the test my theory indeed proved out. Her test showed a similar level of centimorgans to PR as mine. I also ran my DNA against that of Phyllis’ daughter and learned that we didn’t have any direct relationship. I now felt confident that my theory was correct. Photographic evidence and genealogical research were supported by a DNA connection tied to both sides of Meyer’s family. 


Saturday, January 1, 2022

Readings: Exploring what It Means to Be Human

Each year I review what I’ve read in the course of the year, some newly published and some just newly discovered by me.  I look for concentrations of work by a particular author, themes that echo across multiple books and that most elusive of measures - books that speak to me. I’ve been doing this since 2010 and as I review past lists I am struck by how much my reading has shaped my understanding of the world.

Some books that I expected to make my list didn’t, even though they were well-written and by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past.  Perhaps their past work set the bar too high. I had loved Amor Towles A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) and found his latest book The Lincoln Highway (2021), mildly entertaining and with an intriguing premise of the hero’s quest, yet somewhere it seemed to meander off the road.  In Apeirogon (2020), Colum McCann attempts an experimental approach filled with snippets of facts, metaphoric in nature. It offers a lot to analyze, and yet the profusion of details deterred me from quickly engaging with the story at its crux– an Israeli and a Palestinian who each lose a daughter to the conflict and form a friendship as they share their story  to influence the larger story.  Both are still worth a read, just not my favorites within their body of work.


There was a theme that emerged across many books that I read this year that surprised me as it spanned both fiction and nonfiction. Everyone seemed to be writing about gene-editing in one form or another. In addition to enhancing humans, the theme often connected to artificial intelligence that borders and extends human capabilities. That in turn took us into the territory of the golem, a creature from Jewish mysticism, created of clay and brought to life by man. The central question seemed to be “What does it mean to be human?” And a related theme, “What responsibility accompanies knowledge?”


The Code Breaker (2021) by Walter Isaacson sets the stage in the real world as it tells the story of our growing ability to edit genes and raises some serious ethical questions. As our ability grows, where does it end? Is there a distinction between curing an illness carried within the genes or manipulating genes to increase intelligence or physical abilities? And what does the latter imply for our world where there is unequal economic access to the very thing which can alter opportunities in life? Do we in fact create a permanent divide in classes of people passed on through generations genetically? Does that in turn force us to abandon ideas of equality that underlie our political system? Certainly people are born with different capabilities today and economics may influence their ability to pursue them, but this could take it to a whole other level. As our abilities become more “God-like,” what responsibility do we carry in how we deploy them? As always, Isaacson knows how to take facts and shape them into a compelling story. 

I have long been a fan of Marge Piercy’s poetry, but I was surprised to learn of her novel  He, She and It (2010). Set in the middle of the 21st century, this very dystopian world, weaves together artificial intelligence, enhanced humans and the golem of myth.  It took me awhile to step into it as first I needed to learn the rules of this new world which it portrayed, but once I agreed to its premise, it became quite gripping and sometimes surprisingly prescient given when it was written. 

The theme of golems continued with The Hidden Palace (2021) by Helen Wecker, following the characters from her earlier book The Golem and the Jinni (2013). I would suggest reading the earlier book first which I think was stronger. The golem, a rather earth-bound creature as defined by the very clay out of which she is created, explores and stretches the limits of her being.  And the recent book Klara and the Sun (2021) by Kazuo Ishiguro explores gene editing and “artificial friends” through the eyes of an artificial friend who has a child-like understanding of the world coupled with a deep level of humanity.

While I was on the theme of genes, I read The Lost Family (2020) by Libby Copeland which explores how a simple DNA test can upend lives, revealing a different history from that we were raised to believe about ourselves and calling identity into question. Each of these books deals with identity, what is ordained by our genes or shaped by the world in which we live.

This was also the year of Ann Patchett  as I read Run (2009) and The Dutch House (2019) along with her wonderful essays in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (2013) and Precious Days (2021). I especially appreciated her essays where she opens herself up to her reader. She shares who she is and what she thinks and feels and you in turn feel as if you know her.  She reveals her insights into her writing process and her reflections on how essays afford her a different way to approach her writing, a form of expression less pressured by the lengthy timeline which a novel requires to bring it to life.

Other books that intrigued me were Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021) by Anthony Doerr, a complex weaving of stories, and it is indeed about stories and how they preserve us even as their recorded form is threatened with destruction through the forces of time. Dara Horn’s book of essays People Love Dead Jews (2021) has a rather startling title that is quite apropos. In one essay she explores how a young man who worked at the Anne Frank House was told to hide his yarmulke under a cap on his job lest he reveal his Jewishness and hence “non-neutrality” even as they celebrate a young woman who was murdered because she was Jewish. Lots of things in this book to contemplate. 


And finally I need to give a shout out to Heather Cox Richardson, a historian whose twice weekly talks on history and politics have enriched my year. Her book How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020) expounds on many of the concepts in her discussions and is a rather timely topic. Having a historical framework is both disturbing and comforting. Disturbing in that one realizes how long we have been struggling with these same issues and comforting in that we have at times managed to transcend them, moving forward into a truer democracy and perhaps a deeper sense of humanity.

Other good reads to check out in the realm of historical fiction:

The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd on the story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

Dreamers of the Day also by Mary Doria Russell