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.

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