Several weeks ago I saw a request on JewishGen from a woman in the United States who wanted help finding a relative of hers, the descendant of a relative who had come to Israel and been killed in a plane crash shortly after Israel’s founding. She had looked for his name in all the relevant databases, but had come up with nothing.
The woman noted that she’d found a “page of testimony” from 1956 on the Yad Vashem web site that gave information about her relatives. When she googled the name of the person who’d provided the information for the “page of testimony” she got just one result, a snippet published by an 18-year old on her blog about the death of her grandmother, whose name was identical to the name of the person who had given the “page of testimony” information.
When the American woman made contact with the young blogger she discovered that the blogger’s grandmother had, in fact, provided the “page of testimony” information, and after writing to the blogger’s mother she found out that her lost relative was the grandmother’s cousin. This small story shows the great power of the Internet in bringing together far-flung relatives.
This year the month of Nisan, which coincides with March 20-April 18, has been declared international Jewish genealogy month. In our next few articles we will try to help you research your roots online.
Your research begins offline
First of all, set yourself a goal. Mapping all the descendants of your great-grandmother for her eightieth birthday, locating lost relatives in the US, looking for information on relatives killed in the Holocaust, finding a family connection to King David—these goals, and many others, are all legitimate. Your research might have several goals, but you must understand that each of them has to be dealt with separately, using the methods appropriate to the particular goal.
Let’s take, for example, the first goal mentioned above: mapping descendants. The questions we can ask ourselves are, for example, who are the children of our great-grandmother whom we know? Who are her children with whom we’ve lost touch? Is it possible that she had other children we didn’t even know about?
Who were the key figures in the family who are familiar with family connections and could help us in our search (other than great-grandma, whom we want to surprise)? Who are the members of the second generation, and the third and the fourth?
To deal with the second goal mentioned—finding relatives in the US—we need to answer totally different questions. What is the exact connection of that family to our lost relatives? Who was in touch with them and when? Does anyone know where they live? When did they immigrate to the US, and from where? What is known about their descendants? How, then, do we begin?
Gather the existing information
Start with orderly interviews with family members, starting with your parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and ending with relatives you’ve never met. This is also an opportunity to meet Gertrude, who stopped talking with your mother at the time of the scandal whose details no one remembers any more, if only because Gertrude is the one who has kept all the yellowing family documents. Even if you think that no one in your family knows anything, don’t pass up these meetings. Prepare the questions that interest you, and don’t forget to document the meeting.
Take a sceptical approach. Don’t believe everything you are told. Did your father’s aunt tell you that the family came from Vilna (Lithuania)? Maybe they are really from a small town nearby? These details are extremely important if you are to find more material, such as archival documents. Did your grandfather say that he immigrated to Israel in 1923? Consider this as a possibility only unless he has the document to prove it.
Family stories generally contain a grain of truth, but sometimes the passage of time distorts the small details, and there is also a common tendency to rewrite family history.
Don’t forget to ask to see photographs and documents. Ask your relative to note next to each photo who is in it and next to each document what it says. It’s a very good idea to take a digital camera and to photograph the photos and documents. Speak to other relatives that you may not know, and ask your relatives to spell the names of the towns and families in the original language. Prepare a template that you can use to fill in the details.
From this point on, it’s very important to keep a research record. You can do it as a table in Word (or any other program you like) and write in it everything you’ve done, along with the date, a summary of the action, and details for contacting the relevant person.
For example, if you met with a relative and interviewed him, make a note of when the interview took place, what the interviewee’s main point were, what his phone number, e-mail address, and mailing address are, and what your next steps are. That way you can go back to him easily to fill in details, and more importantly, you can document the proofs for each bit of information.
This work may seem to you boring and superfluous, but you’ll see how important it is later on when you have hundreds of leaves on the tree, with contradictory information about some of them. After gathering the existing information from family members you’ll probably discover that you know a lot more than when you started. And now you have to make order.
Building a family tree
After you’ve met with your relatives and collected the information, you’ll probably have a large collection of names, details, photos, documents, stories, and many more unanswered questions. In order to understand the intricacies of your family, it’s helpful to use a genealogical program or a web site that lets you create a family tree. A program can help you document all the materials you’ve gathered in the course of your research, and a web site can assist in getting the word out to family members.
Choosing software is not an easy task, and it’s best to try several before deciding which one you want to use. One of the best programs is MyHeritage, an Israeli product.
The non-digital materials you’ve gathered and will continue to gather (photos, documents, recordings, books, etc.) should be arranged in files divided by relevant families (the family of your grandfather on your father’s side, your grandmother on your mother’s side, etc.).
When you make organize your data it’s important to pay attention to the basic rules of documenting research, since they will help you later on to look for additional sources and communicate with others doing research and with relevant institutions.
Next to the person’s name write his town of origin as it is written today, along with the country where the town is located today. For example, even if your grandmother says that she was born in Lemberg in Galicia, you should write Lviv, Ukraine.
After you’ve gathered and sorted your material and you have enough, you can check other sources such as libraries, archives, museums, web sites, cemeteries, and other genealogists.
The rule is to go from the known to the unknown. If you know that your grandmother was born at a certain time in Poand, try to locate her birth certificate (sometimes you can do that online, on specialized sites). This certificate will provide you with new information about her and her parents. If you know about a person’s death, look for information about that (a record of his death, a photograph of his tombstone, a page about him), and that way you’ll discover details about him and other family members.
If all you know about your grandfather’s father is that at some point at the beginning of the 20th century he wrote a book, try to get a copy of the book. You never know what important information you’ll find there.
Orit Lavi and Ronny Golan contributed to the report