Time for a family tree

Meliza Amity: From low to hi-tech in the search for ancestors

Meliza Amity (photo credit: Patricia Carmel)
Meliza Amity
(photo credit: Patricia Carmel)
Few would dispute that the Internet has had a major impact in allowing ordinary people to locate long-lost friends and family members.
The availability of so much information on individuals has greatly facilitated – if not generated – enthusiasm for digging into the past and researching one’s roots. Though this was once the realm of genealogy specialists, the Internet has provided anyone who has the time, curiosity and perseverance to investigate their antecedents, document their contemporaries and build their family tree.
Meliza Amity has not only built a family tree spanning generations of her extended family, but is also collaborating with an international team to develop the genealogical software to support inclusion of Hebrew characters and dates, as well as other elements relevant to the Jewish people.
Born in the wake of World War II in Helsinki, Finland, Amity came to Israel in 1965 to study mathematics and physics at the Hebrew University, where she met her husband, Ilan. After graduating, she worked at the National Insurance Institute as a programmer and systems analyst. Later, she moved to IBM, where she worked as a project leader, managing a number of computer-related tasks for internal IBM departments.
“In 2002, I took early retirement and was wondering what to do with myself,” she recalls. “Then my brother in Finland told me that they were planning a family reunion, and he asked me to locate some relatives on our maternal grandfather’s side. It turned out that about one-third of them lived in Israel.
Using completely low-tech methods – phone calls, word of mouth – I gathered information about them, and then it occurred to me that I knew nothing about my father’s side of the family.”
Searching through the Finnish national archives, she discovered that her paternal grandfather’s grandfather had been one of 14 siblings. She also gleaned snippets of family history from a book written by a cousin on her mother’s side.
“The book contained many stories that angered other family members; for example, some people didn’t like the cousin’s claim that Cossack genes account for the fact that some family members have blue eyes,” she says.
“I visited the archives a number of times and began building a family tree, using a family-tree-maker program that I saved locally to my desktop,” she continues. “But then my son Ronen, who is a system administrator, asked me why I don’t put the information on the Internet so I can share it with other people in the family. I started searching for software I could use so my family tree could be available online.”
Amity found an open-source program called phpGedView, which had been developed by the Mormons in Salt Lake City. Open-source refers to software for which the source code is freely available to anyone who wants to use it and modify it.
She joined the team of about 10 developers from such diverse locations as the US, Holland, Norway, Germany and Australia and began to collaborate on modifying the code. One of her first enhancements was to ensure that the software would support Finnish diacritics, as well as display text correctly in Hebrew.
She also introduced a sound search for Hebrew characters, a concept familiar to her from her work in the NII. A sound search is used when the spelling of a name is imprecise; the search engine matches the sound of the character rather than the character itself. Amity defined the parameters whereby the search engine would find, for example, Polish names with cumbersome character pairings such as “cz,” which might be transliterated to “j” in English.
“I developed the algorithms for this and spent a lot of time testing it,” she recalls. “For example, if I’m looking for someone called Chaim, I want to be able to find the name as it is written in Hebrew characters. I also defined a sound search for Arabic and Greek characters.”
Another of her innovations was the inclusion of the Hebrew calendar, thereby allowing the conversion of Gregorian dates to their Hebrew equivalent, as well as the date of each individual’s yahrzeit.
“I WAS constantly testing the software, and if I saw something didn’t work, I would rewrite the code,” she says.
Simultaneously with developing the software, she continued to expand her family tree, collecting information from the Jewish congregation in Finland, reading old newspapers and delving into the database of passport requests and boat migrations in the late 1900s.
“At the beginning, I looked only at Finnish records,” she says. “As the family tree grew, I broadened my search to Sweden, where the archives contain all sorts of information on families as well as census records from the 19th century.”
By this time, she had uploaded the tree to the Internet. Containing information about all the Jews in Finland and their extended families from all over the world – including the US, Europe and Israel – the tree can be read in English, Finnish and Hebrew. At the time of this writing, the tree features 24,360 individuals; the earliest birth date is 1520.
About four years ago, Amity, together with most of the phpGedView team, began to develop a piece of genealogical software called webtrees.
“Our first aim was to make webtrees run much faster than phpGedView,” she explains. “Secondly, there were some serious security issues we needed to correct. For example, we had to make sure there was no unauthorized use of information, so we created a blacklist which prevents certain computers from accessing the information on our servers. We also developed anti-hacking procedures.”
She notes that “there’s also an option to limit the information available to non-users of my tree. Casual visitors who do not have login credentials can view data only on the deceased, and all photographs are watermarked. I’ve also set the program so that no photographs can be downloaded to Facebook, for example. Of course, my users who have logged into my tree can view and update the information freely.”
One of the main issues in managing a family tree is that some family members might dispute the information supplied by other family members. It is Amity’s job to be ever-vigilant in maintaining the accuracy of the information.
Additionally there are family members who oppose publishing certain types of information, such as conversions, adoptions and name changes.
“I try to respect people’s requests,” she says. “But how do you reconcile a situation where one relative doesn’t want the information to appear, against another relative who insists that it does appear?” SINCE BEGINNING her genealogical journey, Amity has become a significant authority on the subject. She frequently lectures on genealogy, is consulted by lawyers in pre-WWII heritage claims and helps other families connect with long-lost relatives and explore their family roots. In 2007, her family tree was part of the 100 Years of the Synagogue exhibition at the Helsinki National Archives, and of the 2010 “Jews of Finland” exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.
Amity spends hours every day working on the software and on her family tree, corresponding with users, approving changes and ensuring that the information and spelling is correct and consistent. Why does she do it? “I’ve always enjoyed puzzles, and genealogy is like a jigsaw where all the pieces are mixed up and then suddenly you find just the right piece you need to put it all together.”
To visit Amity’s family tree: www.amitys.com/webtrees/index.php; to create your own family tree using webtrees: www.webtrees.net; to consult Amity on genealogical issues: meliza@amitys.com.
The writer has worked for over 20 years in hi-tech. If you have a question about any of the products featured in this column or have developed a product you’d like to share, contact: patricia.jpost@gmail.com.