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.

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