Name changes in modernity

We often consider the names our ancestors adopted after they arrived in the US, and try to figure out what names they might have used in Europe. There are myriad reasons for a person changing her name(s). One of my relatives I think went about a name change very creatively.

My aunt Ethel who died in 2004 just short of her 101st birthday was an amazing woman. She nursed her mother through her last illness, and then did the same a few short years later for her husband. For fifty years she lived alone. She worked in a large department store in New York for many of those years.

Aunt Ethel had an amazing memory. She arrived in the United States as a 7 year old. Yet, when I asked her if she knew what ship she arrived on and when, she told me without hesitation. When I went looking for the ship manifest experts (this was pre-mega-databases on-line) told me the ship she names did not sail in that year and didn’t go into service until 10 years later.  My aunt was right, though, when I found her passenger list, it was on the ship she named and on the date she claimed to have arrived.

One day I was asking her about her husbands’ family, about whom I knew very little.  Since genealogists abhor data vacuums, I wanted to know. I told her that I couldn’t find the Needleman family anywhere.  She told me something that amazed those relatives who had known her far longer than I did. She said that her husband’s name wasn’t Needleman, it was Nudleman, but, aunt Ethel said, “what kind of name is that, so I told him it had to be changed!”

Silly me, I thought she meant that it was changed when they got married in 1928. Then I found the 1930 census under the name Nudleman, and other documents later than that all of which said Nudleman! I finally found out how she took care of it!  Sometime between 1930 and 1940 the shift was made by changing the “u” to “ee”. In 1940 the name that Ben, Ethel’s husband, gave to the enumerator was Needleman. Ethel took care of the rest – she took their marriage certificate and penciled in ee over the u! Their original marriage record was of course, untouched. Now, admittedly, the difference between the appearance between the two names isn’t great, but they sure do sound differently!

Posted in Uncategorized

Starting 2017 with resolve!

The 2016 IAJGS Seattle conference is but a fond memory, and now it’s time to get to those things which took a back seat to conference planning.

For the last six weeks I have been attending to tasks that I have threatened to start, but in moments of sanity (or laziness) have avoided. Our garage had become a warren of cardboard boxes, mostly empty because you can absolutely never tell when you will need one – so I tasked myself with tackling them all, getting shelves in the garage and getting organized. As of this morning, that is completed.

I am still in the midst of re-organizing a closet in our study. I think the last time anything was taken out of that closet was over a decade ago.  Although the stacks of things (lots of empty boxes) have not fallen down or even threatened to, they did need to be taken apart.  We have filled the car with trash to take to the dump twice (in addition to filling to overflow our garbage and recycling bins twice).

In the midst of all of this, time had to be taken to scan photos which should have been scanned years ago.  There are probably hundreds if not thousands that need to be done. Most, thankfully, had some identifying labels but some had no label.  Others had labels,but aside from the names of the people in the photos, I don’t know anything about them. I wish I did.  My great-grandfather was Simche Moldawsky. The woman alone was his sister, Malke. The couple were his brother and sister-in-law – Moshe and Sura. I know my grandfather was born in Zhitomir, Russia – I have his birth record. I know that his mother’s family was from there, but that his father’s family was probably from a distant place. I have no idea where.  Ah, so back to the 2017 resolve – this year I pledge (and I hope I can do it) to write a blog post at least once a week, and discuss the brick walls I encounter,. some of my successes and some tips I pick up along the way!



HAPPY 2017 to all!

Posted in Uncategorized

My news

I have been quiet for the last several weeks making adjustments and shifting gears.  I am very proud to announce that I have joined the team at AncestryProGenealogists as a Senior Research Manager.  Although my bio and photo are not yet on the website, you can reach me there, or continue to reach me at RelativaTree.

I am really excited to be working with such a great team of researchers and to have so many additional resources available to me.  I continue to work with all types of research problems/questions/challenges in the United States and overseas and my specialty will continue to be Jewish research.

Speaking of Jewish research, the IAJGS annual conference will be held August 7-12, 2016 in  Seattle and I am the Lead Co-Chair.  If you’ve never been to Seattle, now is a great time to make plans to visit and see all the resources for genealogical research.  If you have been to Seattle before, now would be a great time to visit it again – there have been lots of new genealogical resources since your last visit!

Posted in Uncategorized


Genealogy conferences are very different from other conferences.  At other conferences, most based on affinity groups, the common interest, professional or hobbies is what brings people together.  Although that common interest is certainly an attraction at genealogy conferences, the connections between people literally go deeper.

Yesterday, at the IAJGS conference in Jerusalem, amidst all the wonderful discussions about methodologies, techniques, tools and resources, there was another thread that was consistent.

This other conversation was about familial connections and finding relatives among the conference attendees.  Sure, at other conferences there might be conversations among attendees seeing who knows whom in the city in which you live.  This though is very different.  The conversation is extremely personal – it generally begins with the question “where is your family from” and progresses very quickly to comparing surnames to see if there is a family connection in that town.

Some attendees come to the conference knowing that there is going to be someone in attendance with whom you have already established a familial connection, but who you may never have met before.  At one earlier IAJGS conference in France, I finally met a cousin with whom I had been corresponding for years, without ever meeting in the U.S.  At the IAJGS conference in Boston a year later, I was able to meet two other cousins.

There is a strange tie between people with whom you share a common ancestor.  Having a place, the conference, where the chance of meeting a previously unidentified relative or one with whom you have been in contact but never met, gives the conference an undercurrent of excitement.

I feel very privileged to be the next IAJGS conference lead co-chair.  That conference will be in Seattle, Washington August 7-12, 2016.  Hope to see you there.

Posted in Uncategorized

Review and Refresh

Presentations at IAJGS are wonderful.  Today, I went to 3 sessions all of which looked at records that I am very familiar with.

So why, you might ask did I do that?  The presenters in each case were all experts in the types of records they were discussing.  As in so much else in life, reviewing things with which you are already familiar serves a purpose – it gives you a fresh perspective.  For the most part, today’s discussions focused on vital records.  And no, a birth record is not a birth record.

In other words, all birth records are not the same.  In different years and in different places birth records look different.  I spend a fair amount of time in the New York City Municipal Archives, and even New York City birth records have changed through time.  Eastern Europe has changed borders many, many times.  The area we call Ukraine today not too long ago had much different borders and those borders were not stable for extended periods of time.  Different political entities had different rules about the data on birth records.

What did today’s discussions give me a fresh perspective on?  They reminded me that I need to really examine the comments section on the records (and not just birth but other vital records) and get those comments translated, not just rely on my own understanding.  They also reminded me to look closely at the birth places of the parents of the new born.

Some of the comments can open the door to new areas of research, and that information, along with the birth places of the parents can often give us the tip of the iceberg in what might become a very interesting family story.

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

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?

Posted in Uncategorized