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.