I recently re-read The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal and gave a wry chuckle when I read that one day, when de Waal is quite advanced in his family research, his father comes down to his studio to join him for lunch and produces a small white book from a supermarket bag. His father doesn’t know what the book is all about but feels his son should have it ‘for his archive’. In this album are beautiful pen-and-ink images of family members from 1878-1903 – a real family treasure.
De Waal remonstrates with his father asking him how he could possibly not know he had this and says: ‘What else have you got in the suitcase under your bed’?
We are all familiar with similar stories when vital family information is being kept by a family member, sometimes disappearing after the family member dies.
I recently had such an experience.
I was bitten by the genealogy bug almost 20 years ago and did much initial research and created family trees with all the information I had, but always knew there was a lot more to find out.
Having retired last year I decided to go back to my genealogical research and write up as much as possible for the next generations of my family.
I have extensive information about my mother’s side and am in contact with various second cousins from that side of my family. However, I know very little about my father’s family. My paternal grandfather died two years before I was born and, growing up, we didn’t see too much of my paternal grandmother, who hardly spoke English, and did not live near us.
All my four grandparents immigrated to England from Poland before WWI as well as both my grandfathers’ parents.
During WWII my extended family was evacuated out of London to a small country village in Surrey. The family remained there for some 5/6 years after the War, before moving back to London. However, my father’s oldest brother remained there, living in the family home with his widowed mother.
Recently I decided to concentrate on my paternal side and contacted two first cousins who I thought might be able to help. I am still waiting for one to reply, but the other one did – and this is what she said:
“I can only tell you that Uncle Joe and I had a ritual. Every time I went to visit him he would get out some large old brown carrier bags, and in them were photographs of our whole family from many years before. We would go through them every single time. He explained who everyone was, and their fate. The bags contained so many treasures of the past family from many many years before, from the countries they came from, how many of them ended up in France, how they were rounded up by the Germans and murdered. There was one family in particular that was so beautiful; the woman was very heavily pregnant, and there was another young child in the family photo. This whole family was wiped out in the war. Murdered. We had quite a lot of family in France.
Some time after Uncle Joe died, I asked Uncle Haim (Joe’s brother) what happened to those bags. He wasn’t sure what I was talking about, but he was not very good at passing anything on. A few years later after Ray, Joe’s wife, died and the house was being cleared, I asked Ray’s brother if he had come across them and he said they were long gone – his granddaughter had used them in a university project about past families. My goodness, Ingrid, they would have been a huge help for what you are doing now. There were loads of letters, documents and photos in those bags – information about our family’s past.”
Although Uncle Joe was the oldest of the five siblings, (my father was the youngest) he was the last to get married – around the age of 40 I think – and they did not have any children. So Ray obviously gave the bags to her niece without thinking that they should remain in our family!
You can imagine how I felt on receiving this email! Thanks to today’s technology and help from some genners in the UK, I did manage to trace this aunt’s family – but alas no one remembered those bags or using the contents for a university project.
I said to my cousin that I was sure our uncle showed her all this material as he meant her to have that family history after he passed away.
I know all this has been said before, but here is my message: if you are one of the older family members, make sure someone knows who is to ‘inherit’ your family photos, documents and genealogical material, including passwords etc., to your on-line trees.
And if you are one of the younger family members, ask all your ‘older’ relatives – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc…what family photos and documents they might have hidden away and what is to be done with them “when the time comes”, as my mother used to say!
Oh – one more thing – make sure all the family photos have identification of the people on the back of the photo. When my mother passed away, my brothers and I divided all the photos in her possession. Not one had anything written on the back. Fortunately with the help of various cousins we have identified most of them.
NB – names changed to protect privacy
Ingrid Rockberger and her family came to live in Israel in 1981. Ingrid worked as Managing Editor and Publisher of an English-language magazine, and later as a ghost-writer for people’s memoirs and family histories, including some publications for Yad Vashem. Now in her ‘so-called’ retirement she is volunteer Editor of WIZO’s (Women’s International Zionist Organization) international magazine – WIZO REVIEW. Ingrid has been interested in genealogy for some 15 years as has done extensive research on various branches of her family – but still much to do. She has been Chair of the Raanana Genealogy group for 12 years.
Ingrid and her husband Michael live in Raanana, have three children and seven grandchildren.