After an 11-year hiatus, I’m restarting this genealogy column in the IJN, because the interest in finding and acknowledging our ancestors has grown even more. I would be surprised if anyone remembered those columns that ran from 2007 to 2009 in the IJN. Regardless, I want to persuade you that your ancestors want to be found and remembered. And I want to help you find them.
There’s a belief in some cultures that a person dies twice: the first is the physical death, the second is the last time their name is spoken. We can’t change the first, but we can change the second, by rescuing their name and memory from obscurity and breathing life and meaning into their name.
Why bother? I encourage you to take the Fifth — that is the Fifth Commandment: honor your father and mother. I’ll say more about why in a moment. But of course, we want to go beyond our parents, since their parents are also worthy of “May their names be a blessing.” Aunts, uncles, cousins are all worthy of being remembered.
If no one in the family has written their stories, we are the ones best suited (and most likely) to make sure their names, life experiences and stories don’t sink into obscurity. Often, people’s names and stories get lost within one to two generations — and yours will be also.
Whether we have lost our parents and grandparents or are lucky enough to still have them, one way to honor them is to write their stories, since they likely did not. Preserve their lives by writing down all you can remember about them — good and not so good. If you have siblings (even cousins), get their memories and perspectives of your parents.
So, back to the “why bother?” part: For some people, genealogy is a pleasant hobby. For others of us, we have a passion in trying to answer questions: What are my roots? Where did my families come from? (We have hundreds of different branches.) On whose shoulders do I stand on? What kind of lives did my ancestors live, and how did their struggles, tragedies, joys, beliefs and family traditions shape who I am today?
Increasingly, people are finding it useful — if not critical — to know their medical family history. While most of us can guess at our parents’ medical conditions — and maybe a grandparent or two — it’s difficult to go beyond that, unless a systemic effort is made to collect that info from living relatives, and find documents about our ancestors.
Our ancestors made many sacrifices for their progeny; the least we can do is pass down their names and legacies.
But also, we might learn from how our ancestors lived history, such as the influenza pandemic of 1918, and the (not so) Great Depression.
Since we are all currently living through similar and historic times, our stories are important too. I strongly encourage you and your family to record your own pandemic experiences, through writing, audio or video. Just as we dearly wish we could know how our ancestors lived through those events (and sometimes didn’t), our descendants will wish the same of us.
Jewish genealogy is a specialized field, for a variety of reasons, including the nature of Jewish immigration, the Holocaust, accessibility to Jewish records, different languages involved, cultural and religious beliefs, etc. But perhaps 90% of Jewish genealogy is similar to standard genealogical research, especially when tracking down our American roots back to immigration.
There are three myths about Jewish genealogy that stop many from even starting family history:
• Most or all Jewish records were destroyed during the Holocaust.
In reality, a large number of records survived, and are becoming increasingly accessible to researchers through archives in most European countries and Russia. A surprisingly large number are online, although the majority are still in archives and repositories, undigitized.
• They changed our name at Ellis Island.
There are no documented case of name changes made by Ellis Island immigration officials. Since officials called people by their name from the ship manifests (instead of asking them), and were fluent in that immigrant’s language, the name was accurate. The majority of immigrants either changed their own name to fit in, or the generation that arrived previously had changed the name.
• Our family comes from Russia.
Few Jewish families were allowed to live in Russia proper, depending on the time period. Most Ashkenazi Jews lived in Eastern European countries that were once part of the Russian Empire. Because of anti-Semitism, most Jews were only allowed to live east of, or beyond “the Pale,” a line that divided Eastern Europe from Russia.
Understanding that these are myths can get us started. Future columns will address resources, methodology, organizing and DNA in discovering our ancestors, so we might bring them back to living memory. And that’s a real mitzvah.
A professional genealogist, Mark Fearer specializes in Jewish genealogy, and has pursued his family history since 1984. A member of the Assn. of Professional Genealogist and several genealogy societies, he researches, teaches and writes about genealogy. Fearer lives in Boulder. His website is www.ancestraldiscovery.com.