Uncovering hidden lives

Delving into the often poignant genealogical search for Jewish family members – much of it playing out online

One family’s tree (photo credit: Courtesy)
One family’s tree
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish genealogy time-travels, hand-in-hand with Jewish geography. As our ancestors wandered the globe, they left behind tombstones, records of marriages, deaths, births, and arrivals in countries far from their birthplaces.
Sometimes the authorities listed their names.
They can be found in church archives, ship passenger lists, prisoner camp records; on concentration camp lists, national censuses, at Ellis Island.
Those records reveal vast amounts of Jewish genealogical information – and much of it is now digitalized and accessible online.
So I learned at a meeting of the Israel Genealogy Research Association in Ra’anana last month. Ingrid Rockberger, chairwoman of the IGRA Sharon area and a member of their national board, presented panelists speaking about genealogical computer software, Jewish genealogical websites, DNA testing and tracing Holocaust survivors to connect families.
Many rich documentation sources exist. One, important to the mainly Anglo audience gathered at the meeting, is the British census of 1911. Another is the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany – the biggest Holocaust archive in existence, with millions of records housed in five enormous buildings. Susan Edel, a panelist and volunteer at Magen David Adom Tracing Services, told the audience that the ITS is in the process of digitalizing their records, with some already online. One institution in each partner country will receive copies of the full archives; naturally, Yad Vashem will receive them on Israel’s behalf.
I hadn’t known that MDA had a family tracing unit. Edel described her work there: “I’ve volunteered for more than six years at the MDA tracing unit, which works on restoring family links. I mainly help Holocaust survivors, trying to help them find out what happened to their families – if anyone survived, or at least to cull some information as to where family members perished and what happened.”
An exciting case occurred a year ago involving an Israeli woman seeking information about her father, who disappeared in Russia during World War I. Her mother believed that he’d been shot. He never reappeared, and her mother never remarried.
“She wanted to know what happened to her father,” recounts Edel. “Eventually, through the Polish Red Cross, I got information that her father had survived the war and remarried, in Poland.
He’d had three other children, and died in 2007. A daughter from that second marriage agreed to give her contact information to the daughter here in Israel. The lady was beside herself with emotion. And we found the exact date of her father’s death, so she can keep his yahrzeit now.
“This came after I’d reunited a brother and sister – he was in Moscow and she wound up in Australia,” she adds.
“They hadn’t heard from each other in 64 years. He actually went to Australia to visit her.”
To those seeking information about family connections that were severed in the Holocaust, Edel recommends first researching at Yad Vashem. She adds that she’s willing to help anyone who needs guidelines in getting their search started. (Contact Susan Edel at rfl-imda@mda.org.il.) THE INTERNET is where a searcher will find the most extensive Jewish genealogical sources. David Shulman, Web developer at Jewish Communities and Records – United Kingdom (JCR-UK), explained that unlike American researchers, who have access to immigration records via Ellis Island, British people have no official records of people who immigrated to the US from Europe.
“People whose research involves family who passed through, or settled in, the UK should go to the JCR-UK site, which has over 7,000 pages,” he advises.
The site is a joint venture of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Great Britain and JewishGen.
“The object of the JCR-UK is to catalogue for posterity every Jewish community or congregation that has ever existed in the UK,” says Shulman. “We have 30,000 to 40,000 separate records of burials and school records, etc. JewishGen itself has more than 390,000 records – an enormous amount, considering the size of the Jewish community.”
The site is updated almost daily and is free to use.
Here Ingrid Rockberger, herself English, contributes a poignant family story. “I interviewed my late mother about our family, recording her on tape. She was then 87. She was telling me about how her cousins and my grandfather immigrated to England from Poland, how they moved from place to place, staying with different families. So, like some other immigrants from Poland and Russia, they were never registered in the UK census of 1911.
“Suddenly, my mother told me, ‘Turn the recorder off.’ When I asked her why, she said, ‘Because they were illegal!’ Fifty years later, she was still worried,” Rockberger muses wryly.
Daniel Horowitz, chief genealogist at the MyHeritage website, details the tools available there. “MyHeritage has technology that matches family trees with each other,” he explains. “We may be able to find relatives among the thousands of separate family trees in its database. We also match records; we have more than six billion records from all over the world, and we attempt to match your names, dates and places to those records.”
The site also has technology for transliteration. “It doesn’t matter if your family tree is built in English,” Horowitz continues. “If there’s another family tree in Hebrew, Russian or any other of the 40 languages that MyHeritages supports, we find coincidences between your tree and records from others. Because MyHeritage is an Israeli company and supports Hebrew, it’s the company with more Jewish family trees and records than any other in the market.”
Horowitz offers tips for newbie genealogical researchers. “Build your family tree on your computer,” he advises earnestly. “Use available software or work through a website, but please do something specialized. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost cried when someone brought me their family tree on Excel or on Word – practically useless.
“I’m not against paper. You should keep a copy of everything on paper, but it can be lost in floods or similar house disasters. For example, a month ago, a pipe broke in The New York Times office and the basement flooded. Zillions of pictures and papers were destroyed.”
A beginning researcher can download free software called Family Tree Builder via the Beit Hatfutsot – Museum of the Jewish People site. Visitors to the museum can ask for the CD, also free; the software provides the capability to research up to 150 individuals. “The advantage of using the Beit Hatfutsot system is that your tree will be uploaded to the museum’s records and stays updated there,” explains Horowitz. “Why should you share your family tree with them? Because a lot of people go to the research center there, and maybe someone will connect to you through them.
Also, you can request contact information of people who have submitted family trees. Then you ask that person for a copy of the tree you want.”
WHILE MOST of the meeting revolved around genealogy software and digital techniques for building family trees, panelists also stressed the value of visiting cemeteries. For example, a name on a Jewish tombstone provides more than one lead to family members, for it also bears the name of the deceased’s father: another ancestor, one generation back. Headstones of Holocaust victims often bear additional names of relatives whose ultimate fates are unknown.
Every name and date hides a nugget of information that may open past lives to descendants seeking them.
Finally, if you’re interested in discovering roots via DNA testing, it’s worth visiting the Family Tree DNA site. The company has the most Jewish DNA samples in the world; you may find hundreds or even thousands of familial connections by submitting a DNA sample there.
Active since 2011, IGRA has branches in Jerusalem, Ra’anana and Petah Tikva.
Members come from all over the globe, with one hailing from Iran and another from Saudi Arabia. The organization also cooperates with non-Jewish groups, such as the Mormons. Indeed, the last international Jewish Conference was in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2014.
“Our main purpose is to transcribe information available in Israel to digital form and to upload it onto databases available on our website,” says Lisa Goren, IGRA treasurer. “People anywhere in the world searching for relatives who came to Israel can use it. Our people field questions and help with research.”
“Plus,” she adds, “we’re always looking for volunteers to do transcriptions.
I myself recently transcribed lists of passengers on ships that brought young people from Europe to Palestine pre-World War II – their names, places, ages, and the names of the ships.”
Browsing through the site, I saw links to little-known records, such as a list of 552 people expelled from Tel Aviv by the Turks on December 17, 1914 (via the Central Zionist Archives).
The IGRA website is a rich resource not only for those seeking digging into Jewish genealogy, but also for students of Jewish history.
International Jewish Genealogy Month is taking place now (annually during the Hebrew month of Heshvan – October 14 to November 12 this year), and IGRA will be holding an event in Jerusalem on November 9 at 5:30 p.m., at Yad Ben-Zvi, 14 Ibn Gvirol Street. Key topics include the holdings of Yad Ben-Zvi and photograph digitization. The annual IGRA awards ceremony will also be held then.
Upcoming plans include a MyHeritage Workshop, a behind-the-scenes visit to Yad Vashem, and a lecture series covering such topics as getting the best out of the most essential genealogy websites and search engines, as well as “The ABCs of DNA.” There are also plans for research evenings dedicated to countries such as Poland, Lithuania, and Germany.
Working on a family tree can be compared to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. It takes persistence, organization and even some detective work.
You may have to let an ancestor’s story lie fallow until new information comes up; you may hear conflicting versions of the same story. Yet the search yields a thrill when a fact surfaces that reveals key information about the life of a forefather or foremother, or enables you to contact family members until now unknown.
For many, there is a deeply emotional need to understand the fates of family members who perished in the Holocaust. Others want to establish bloodline connections to a dimmer, more ancient past.
JCR-UK’s Shulman told me, “It boils down to this: knowing more about who I am.”
IGRA currently has 230 paid members and well over 1,000 people registered.
Registration provides interesting links and allows limited searching, but paid members can access and download documents, avail themselves of databases to conduct deep searches, read articles and listen to webinars.
Go to www.genealogy.org.il to register (free) and become a member. Membership fees are NIS 150 per individual and NIS 200 per couple. For more information, contact Ingrid Rockberger at ingridr@013net.net