From a lecture to the Colorado Jewish Genealogy Society
January 14, 2013
I recently began working on a project to organize 50 years research files for a Jewish genealogist, Jon Stedman. The papers were fascinating. In addition to his family story, they documented how Jewish genealogy research has changed in the last half century.
When Jon first sent for vital records in the 1960s, the cost was $1.00 each. Researchers charged him $2.50 or $3.00 per hour for their services. Jon inhabited libraries and copied microfilms of newspaper articles; some he simply transcribed (pencil and paper). He corresponded with mayors and archivists in Germany, and labored with scholars (including Cecil Roth) to extract the fine nuances of translations. His trees were published in Malcolm Stern’s First American Jewish Families: 600 Genealogies.
By the 1990s Jon was following JewishGen “religiously” to tutor himself about new methodologies. He had his DNA tested early on and kept up with every advance and discovery. He began to correspond with dozens of genealogists whose names would be familiar to those who have worked in the field. He cooperated with other genealogists who had already created family trees for large branches of their (mutual) families, lines that he had been unable to trace.
The changes in Jon Stedman’s research strategy are a reflection of the growth and opportunities in our field. There are now major genealogy sites, Geni, and MyHeritage (the former bought out by the latter) and its rival Ancestry, that include extensive family trees. Complete trees are also available on JewishGen’s Family Tree of the Jewish People, Geneanet, and a several other sites. As a researcher, I always begin my research on these sites, to see if anyone else has already posted a tree. And I also Google the family names (with two or three related ones in order to narrow down the options), because there could be personal family sites as well.
Nowhere do these database opportunities affect the way family historians work than for German Jewish genealogists. There have always been a plethora of existing family trees for German Jewish families, and they are prominent among those on the databases mentioned. As digitized archives collections go online (Leo Baeck Institute www.cjh.org), these trees also become more easily accessible within archival institutions.
Thousands of researchers who have already completed trees have made them available online on their own web pages. I recently had a breakthrough connecting an ancestor I found mention of only in a death record in NYC and was able to connect to a tree Alex had traced into the 17th Century.
Digitized collections, general and geographically specific, have made documents so much more accessible. With dozens of sites offering networking (JewishGen) and digitalized or geographically specialized records, individual sites and DNA, new and experienced genealogists are challenged to rethink their strategies.
Data from DNA testing continues to become more specific and as more people are tested, it becomes more valuable. Not only can one find cousins, but sometimes a more detailed nuance of the relationship. DNA testing offers help for “brick wall” cases, and there are many success stories.
But the most valuable treasure for researchers, one that has transformed opportunities for German Jewish research in the last decade, is the work of hundreds of dedicated historians in German towns who document, collect and make available genealogies and histories from their local area. These records may be available only in the towns or through local historians. These individuals, and now often organizations and museums, are often in contact with former residents and their families, but may not have the resources to locate the descendants of all emigrants who left in the 19th or early 20th century.
On a recent trip to Germany, I discovered three towns that had a complete or almost complete genealogical record of all the families who had lived there. None of the documentation was to be found local archives. In the tiny village of Braunsbach, Elisabeth Quirbach and her husband Hans Schultz , founders of the Rabbinats Museum Braunsbach
, have spent a decade documenting the former Jewish residents and their descendants. The same work has been done by the Jewish museum in Veitshochheim for its former Jewish residents. The Dokumentszentrum in Ulm has an extensive database of Jewish citizens of Ulm; the records are constantly updated.
How can one locate these individuals and organizations? I Google the name of the town and “juedische” , which brings up the pages of Alemannia Judaica (http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/), a series of web pages developed for former Jewish communities in Germany. The bibliographies are helpful in identifying local historians.
Colleagues who are listed in the family finder on JewishGen, and those who post on the Gersig discussion groups may suggest names of local experts with whom they have worked.
Over ten years ago, Arthur Obermayer established the Obermayer German Jewish History Award. This honor is given to five individuals each year in Berlin to bring international attention to their activities that “study, interpret and reconstruct information about the Jewish life that flourished in Germany….” Recipients of the award are listed on the web site http://www.obermayer.us/award. More about the award and the individuals who have been nominated is available online or through Arthur Obermayer’s office, a valuable resource for researchers.
In closing, here is a story by way of illustration: I helped a friend whose grandmother had committed suicide bare two months before my friend was born. The grandmother had emigrated from Germany at the end of the 19th century and died shortly after the Second World War. My friend was always puzzled and saddened that her grandmother had timed her death so cruelly.
My friend knew little about her grandmother – not where in Germany she came from, nor anything about the family history. After identifying the grandmother’s hometown, we sought to learn what resources were available and discovered a recently-published, lovingly prepared book by Hanno Mueller, Monica Kingreen and others about Jews from that area. The two-volume set had extensive histories for each family.
It turned out that days before deportations began from the region in 1942, the grandmother’s cousins were found floating in the river and the father, whom the grandmother must have known as a child, was dead from an overdose of pills, surely a fate they found preferable to the camps. We may never understand the complete story, but knowledge of the situation gave clarity and context to her grandmother’s life and death, and provided solace as well. Could these stories have been found in some archive? Perhaps, but more likely, perhaps not.
Karen S Franklin, an exhibit researcher for the Museum of Jewish Heritage, is Co-Chair of the Board of Governors of JewishGen. A past president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and chair of the Council of American Jewish Museums, she is currently a vice-chair of the Memorial Museums committee of ICOM (International Council of Museums). She serves on the Advisory Board of the European Shoah Legacy Institute. Karen was awarded the 2012 ICOM-US Service Citation. The citation is the highest honor of ICOM-US.