Exploring Archives and Local Resources

I am very excited to be off to the IAJGS conference in Jerusalem.  One of the wonderful things about genealogy conferences is getting to explore local archives and resources.  Although many archival resources are on-line today, there is no substitute for walking into an archive and having the archivist take you on a tour through the facility, describe what kinds of data are maintained there, how new data is acquired and how you, as a researcher can access the acquisitions.

In just a few days I’ll be meeting with the director of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP).  I have done long-distance research and correspondence with the CAHJP for several years and have met the director in person, but not on the premises of the CAHJP before.  I do know that the holdings there are quite extensive and much is still not digitized.

The first time I was able to look at archival material in an archive outside of the United States was about 20 years ago.  At the time I was researching someone who had died in the Holocaust, and had virtually no documentation about him, only some family stories that Norbert Silberman, my grandfather’s brother, had died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp.

The archive in which I spent a day researching was at Yad Vashem.  That day, I struggled with microfiche after microfiche, looking at the names of survivors and at those who had been murdered.  These were Red Cross records and records from the camps.  When I finally found the record of his interment and death I was overwhelmed by emotion.  Reading a transcription would just not have been the same.1761722_0_1

Other documents that I have found in archives since that long ago trip to Yad Vashem have certainly not been as dramatic but the experience of being in an archive is always amazing.

Sometimes, as was the case in Ukraine, the materials are neither digitized nor on microfilm – instead, you handle the original documents, some of them hundreds of years old.  When researching those archives, I was very taken by the paper, some of which was handmade, the handwriting on documents, and the thrill of handling the originals.

A trip to an archive is always an experience that has the potential to open up doors.

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Names are NOT generally unique!

Sure we are all unique individuals.  Even identical twins are unique individuals.  So why would we think someone’s name we are researching is going to be a unique experience?

The best way to illustrate or explain what I mean is by describing an experience dealing with two people on my family tree.  The combination of the two names is probably a unique combination (but maybe not) but what they did with their names is certainly not unique.

Esther Leah Millontzik married Samuel Czidovetsky.  When they came to the United States they changed their surname to Goldberg and they became Esther and Samuel Goldberg.  Someone I do not know had an Esther and Samuel Goldberg in their family tree and decided that their Esther and Samuel were the same as mine.  He sent me an inquiry and asked if he could join my tree so he could see all the rest of the information I had and incorporate my data into his.  By way of proof he sent me his Samuel and Esther’s parents names.

My Samuel’s parents were Harry and Hannah (Chaim and Chana) and Esther’s parents were Harris and Rose (Tzvi Hersh and Ruchel).  The names this other person sent me did not match at all.  I was sure of the names I had – my mother knew Harris and Rose and a cousin knew Chaim and Chana.  Not knew through stories, but knew as in had met and spent time with these people.

My email back to the inquirer said that I didn’t think that his Samuel and Esther Goldberg were a match to mine.  I commented that mine had left Europe under the surname Czidovetsky and changed their name in the US and I also gave him the names of their children.  He responded that I had to be wrong about the surname change and the names of Esther’s and Samuel’s parents AND that I must have their children’s names wrong.

A long conversation ensued at the end of which the person admitted that he was not looking at the same person.

The moral of the story?  When you are trying to match people, look at more data than their names.  Look at dates for birth and death, places they lived, names of their children, reconcile differences in the things you think you know with the new data.  AND, most importantly, don’t be afraid of admitting you are not looking at the right records, and move on.  DO NOT try to force a match by insisting it must be right because the names are.  Any idea just how many Samuel Goldbergs are in the United States?

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The Importance of Using Tools

I know I’m fortunate in that I have access to lots of databases through subscriptions, databases that I’ve purchased or for which I’ve made contributions to obtain,  and also because of a lot of volunteer work which I do.  I just wanted to get that out of the way.

One of the databases I have from a European city, came with an index.  That’s right, someone made a handwritten index of all the vital records over a 75 year period listing the page and record number for births, marriages and deaths.  I have pored over that index countless time, finding lots of birth, marriage and death records, which included the deaths of my great-great-grandparents, and my great-grandfather; and the births of my grandfather and many of his siblings.

A lot of these records have now been translated, transcribed and indexed and are searchable through the JewishGen databases.  On the heels of the excitement of finding my great-grandmother’s sister in Montreal, I decided to give the digitized index, which for this city is pretty new, a look.

Amazing stuff.  The original index is organized by the name of the person who was born, married, divorced or died.  It is not indexed or cross-referenced by any other names which might appear in a record.  Major reason to consult on-line resources IN ADDITION TO, definitely not instead of, original documents.

Today I found some pretty interesting stuff.  One of my great-grandmothers’ sisters was divorced after the birth of her first child, remarried and had 3 more children.  Her ex-husband also remarried and had several children with his new wife.  Then, in May 1891, he left Europe for Montreal.  I don’t know if he returned, or if he stayed in Canada.  Still researching that.  That’s of interest because I now know that another sister of my great-grandmother’s went to Montreal.

All of this caused me, once again, to go back and examine documents I haven’t reviewed in a long time.  In 1956, one of my great-grandmother’s nephews in Israel wrote to my grandparents in New York, referring to his two children who were still in Romania!

Obviously, there is more work to be done!

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The last place…

It’s true that not only is the last place you look the place that will uncover the lost item or reveal the information, but it’s often really the last possible place to look.  It’s also a truism that the shoemaker’s children are often the last to have shoes made.

Last week, finally, I had the last few of the cache of letters I have had lying around translated.  The 6 letters that had not been translated were in Yiddish and a combination of Yiddish and German.  The first 4 letters in Yiddish, from my great-grandparents in Romania, were mostly letters complaining of ill health, loneliness since most of their children had left for America years earlier, and neglect by those children as evidenced by sufficient money not being sent home to keep the parents comfortable.

The last two letters were the German one and a Yiddish letter.  What made these different was that they were written after the death of my great-grandfather.  The Yiddish letter, written shortly after his 1926 death, was from my great-grandmother, with some of the same earlier complaints, but now, added to this was concern (and complaints) about waiting for a ticket to join her children in America.

The German letter, a year later, was from Montreal, and identified the writer as one of my great-grandmother’s sisters.  A sister I didn’t know she had.  In this letter, the sister was adding her voice to the anguish my great-grandmother had expressed and asking why, after so long, was she still in Europe!

These letters answered a question of why it took 2 years after the death of her husband for my great-grandmother to leave Europe for the US.  It also answered the question of who the person in Montreal was.  Thirty years ago, my grandfather asked me to find out what happened to the writer of that letter, who he identified only as someone who was important to his mother.  It turned out that the woman in Montreal died less than a year after her sister arrived in the US – I don’t think they ever saw each other.  The sister in Montreal had left Europe 25 years earlier.

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Hurray! Ellis Island resources are accessible on site!

Many, many thanks to Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee, for so articulately summarizing what is happening at Ellis Island.  She wrote:

“…the new Ellis Island National Immigration Museum story goes to the present day whereas the Ellis Island Immigration Museum story covered only through 1954. The new gallery, Peopling of America, opens today, May 20th. This major expansion of the museum “bookends” the Ellis Island era by telling the story of immigration to America before the processing station opened in 1892 and after it closed in 1954. To read more see: http://tinyurl.com/kpwuaxp Original url: http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/peopling-of-america-center?ccd=email.CAMP30029 The historic baggage room now houses the world migration globe depicting migration patterns around the world, not just to the United States. There are displays about pre-Ellis Island as well as post-Ellis immigration. Displayed at the entrance is the American Flag of Faces, an interactive video with a montage of images submitted by individuals about their families and ancestors. If you would like to submit photos see: http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/about-the-flag-of-faces The site also has a link about genealogy-see: http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/genealogy

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But it Sounds Like…

As a genealogist I often work with transcriptions of documents not originally written in English.  Of course I also work with documents written in English.  A lot of the time, even if the document is one which a person filled out themselves, spelling of names and places seems a bit “off”.  We can clearly see documents written in English in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and earlier, where significant changes in the spelling of a name makes it difficult to track a person, and we have to rely on other information like occupation, children’s or spouse’s names, birthplace, address, and other date.

Think of how this gets compounded when the person doesn’t read or write English, or in a very heavy accent is pronouncing a name or place and another person is writing what s/he hears.  A fairly common name like Schwartz (German for “black”) can be written in many ways.  Some of these might be SZWARC, SHVARTS, SZWARTZ, SZWARZ, SWERCZ, SWIERCZ, SWIRCZ.  Now imagine looking at the original documents written in Polish or Hungarian (both of which use the Latin alphabet but have more letters than English), or at Cyrillic (the alphabet used to write Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian and other languages)  or Yiddish documents (written in using the Hebrew alphabet), neither of which use Latin letters, and trying to determine which of the names could sound like “Schwartz.”

So, what’s a person to do?  Try not to be completely wed to the way the names you are looking for should appear.  Keep your mind open, after all, what if the name really began as Schwatzkopf, Schwartzbrodt or Schwartzberg?  Google the alphabet for the language you are looking at so that you can understand what letter combinations make which sounds – this will be a great aid to picking out names – you can try some combinations of the letters before hand so that you have an idea of how the name should look!

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Two Marriage Records – Same Bride, Same Groom?

Okay, what gives with this?  Why would there be duplicate marriage records a few days, weeks or months apart for the same bride and groom?  Really, they are the same couple – no mistaking this – their parents’ names are the same, ages, occupations, birth places and addresses all match on BOTH certificates.  The certificates of course all have different numbers.  Today I spent time looking at the marriage certificates/records of 5 different couples in the New York City Municipal archives. Their marriages were recorded between 1903 and 1937, the last year that marriage records are publicly available in New York City.

The answer proved to be very simple.   Perhaps this is not always the reason for these duplicate certificates and records, but it was clearly the same reason for these 5 couples.  In each case, one certificate represented a civil marriage, often but not always, conducted in a municipal office.  The second certificate represented a religious marriage and was conducted by a Rabbi or Cantor – a person designated by one of those titles or by the title “Reverend” which is a generic, non-specific title designating clergymen (in those days it was all men).

I don’t know if this situation exists today outside the United States, or if we are even still likely to find this occurring today.  These are examples of the separation of civil and religious ceremonies both designed to unite a couple in what we refer to as “marriage” – a category which does not distinguish between the civil and religious union.

In Eastern Europe, when there were religious marriages in the Jewish community, those marriages were not always recorded with the civil authority, and outside religious boundaries, that couple was not considered to be married, and the children of that union were generally given the mother’s surname, not the father’s. If and when that marriage was registered (often years after the birth of their children) the record was frequently amended and a note was inserted about the paternity, often with a surname added to the one given at birth.

So a person’s name might be Name X v Name Y where “v” coming from the Latin word vel, which means “also known as.” This person might then be known by both names, where the person might sometimes be known by the mother’s name and, at other times, by the father’s name.  Or Name X r Name Y where “r” coming from the word recte means “legally” and would mean that this surname was the ‘legal’ name.  There is a 3rd way a name might appear and that is with an “f” between the names standing for “false” which might mean that the person was not legally supposed to be using that surname which was the father’s surname and the parents’ did not have a civilly recorded marriage.

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