JewishGen helps family trees grow
Local volunteers talk about how the program brings people’s history to life
It’s not so easy for Jews to learn about their roots.
We are an ancient people; we were exiled and moved from continent to continent, country to country; we don’t have millennia of birth and death records in an old stone church in an idyllic meadow somewhere. Our people’s lives often were interrupted by pogroms and other acts of violence; most recently six million of them were ended by Nazis who, yes, were careful with their own records, but weren’t so punctilious with, say, gravestones.
That means that doing genealogy isn’t as easy as pulling out the family Bible.
But technology has made genealogy easier for everyone, including for Jews. The internet makes huge amounts of information available; researchers no longer have to fly across the ocean and park themselves in an archive somewhere, desperately hoping that their limited language skills will allow them to understand what they find if they are lucky enough to find it.
Instead, many records are online, and there are databases that make gaining access to that information much easier.
Now, JewishGen and the institution of which it is a part, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, are about to open the Peter and Mary Kalikow Jewish Genealogy Research Center.
Right now, JewishGen is accessible online to everyone and its stores of information are available free, and docents will be on hand to help new researchers get started. Starting in early 2023, should everything go according to schedule, those resources will be available in person as well, and there also will be docents on hand to help new researchers get started.
Jack Kliger is the museum’s president and CEO, and Avraham Groll of Passaic is the executive director of JewishGen. Together, the two talked about the new project.
“JewishGen started in the late 1980s as an online bulletin board,” Mr. Groll said. That was at the very dawn of the internet age, when home computing was just taking off, and the World Wide Web seemed like purest science fiction. “The idea was to connect family researchers so that they could share information, search for relatives, and research their roots,” he continued. “We have remained focused on precisely those things.
“It was considered innovative when we started the database. And then we put up the website, and we grew. It’s unique — from the beginning and until today, we are bringing people together, connecting families, helping people identify relatives, expanding family trees, and providing a context to their backgrounds.”
JewishGen has a unique database and special tools, he said; “the goal is to help overcome the unique obstacles presented by Jewish genealogy.” Some of those obstacles include “Jews never having their own state” until Israel was founded. “Jews came late to the game when it came to having last names. They were not always seen as citizens. They were not in the army. They did not own real estate. The names of their communities changed over time.”
On the other hand, he continued, “there is a common misconception that their communities were destroyed. They are still there.” By that, of course, he meant the physical communities, the structures, the houses and schools and cemeteries; the communities formed by people and their relationships are for the most part long gone.
Another problem, he said, is that “there could be multiple places with the same name. A problem for Jewish genealogists is to figure out which of these communities is the Jewish community.
“If I were to tell you that I come from Brooklyn, instinctively you’d know that I come from Brooklyn, New York,” not Brooklyn, Illinois, or Iowa, or Wisconsin. JewishGen can fill in the blanks where human instinct cannot.
JewishGen’s database has been available to researchers, both professional and amateur, both knowledgeable and novice, since it first was created. The museum acquired it in 2002, Mr. Kliger said. “The museum supported and funded it, but it operated very separately from the museum.
“Now it’s grown, and it’s developed things like the English translation of Yizkor books” — the volumes that towns used to memorialize their dead and their way of life, not only but particularly after the Holocaust — “and other tools.
“And now the museum has decided to fully incorporate JewishGen’s operations into its own operations, not only to make it more administratively and strategically sound, but also to have the chance to help expose JewishGen’s work to the museum’s broader audience.
“So, we are putting a physical destination within the museum, so that visitors to the museum, not only online but also in person, can do their research.”
“It’s a perfect fit for the museum,” Mr. Groll said. “The museum is exploring life before and after the Holocaust, and JewishGen provides a window into Jewish life during those time periods.”
The two men talked about Yizkor books. “About 1,200 or so were published in the decades after the war,” Mr. Kliger said. “They are among our most critical resources. They have a treasure trove of information about how people lived during different time periods. It is a natural offering for the museum.
“They weren’t all in English; they were in many different languages. JewishGen has translated well over 200 of them, so they’re accessible.
“We have both physical and digital sets,” Mr. Groll said. “All of our translations are online for free. “
“That’s one of our core values,” Mr. Kliger said. “The Yizkor books are a tremendous investment in time and money. The cumulative cost over the past 10, 15 years is significant. It’s cost well over $2 million in researching and translating these books. And now we have a physical location for them.” The books can be printed on demand and the museum sells them.
“In addition, we will be able to invest in updating the website so that it is even more user-friendly.”
JewishGen does not restrict its work to Ashkenazi Jews. “We have an extensive collection of Sephardic, Greek, and Italian” records, Mr. Groll said. Still, it’s true that “the majority of the material is Ashkenazi.”
That’s because “another unique element of JewishGen is that we are predominately volunteer-led,” he said. “It’s all done by volunteers who believe in our mission and put their time and their own money into it. Most of them are Ashkenazi, but there’s also a lot of interest in Sephardim. In the last few years, we created the Jeff Malka Sephardic collection, which has more than 146,000 records. They’re all accessible through JewishGen.
“We also have discussion groups, and that’s another unique resource,” he continued. “Remember, JewishGen started as a bulletin board. The discussion group is a community. People can share information, ask for help, give help. People can post a question about any topic and ask for help.”
That’s necessary, because “many of the people who visit JewishGen are new to Jewish genealogy,” Mr. Kliger said. “Our goal is to help them and guide them.”
One of JewishGen’s main tools is the Family Finder. “Let’s say that Jack comes into JewishGen for the first time,” Mr. Groll said. “He’s not sure where to go.” He asked for advice, and now he knows to say, “‘My last name is Kliger. Let’s see if anyone is looking for that name.’ So even before you make a deep dive, we offer to help people connect with each other. No one else offers that.”
The records can connect people to their family’s past in a way that DNA tests cannot. DNA tests can show you who your relatives are, and possibly how you are related to them. The records can show you where your family came from and where and how they lived. DNA tests and the Family Finder and the rest of the database are not in competition with each other; on the contrary, often DNA tests provide an entrée into the larger world of genealogy.
He’s heard many stories about people connecting with long-lost family through the Family Finder, Mr. Groll said. “There are so many stories. There’s the story of two survivors, siblings who were separated. They never had any idea what happened.
“Their grandchildren were doing a research project, and found each other from the Family Finder, and were able to reconnect.
“Every time someone can connect with their family, it is incredibly meaningful.”
He talked about a man “who had always felt alone. He always thought that he had no relatives. He used the Family Finder, and he found a cousin.
“Then he realized that he was part of a family. He had rich roots. It provided him with comfort that he had not had before.”
The JewishGen room will be near the museum’s education wing. “We have 50,000 to 60,000 high school students come through every year,” Mr. Kliger said; he assumes that some of them will try the Family Finder.
“This is a very big step for the museum,” he said. “It’s a huge investment. We are in New York, the center of Diaspora Jewish life.” He sees the museum’s mission as providing support for all Jews, but particularly for the Jews of the metropolitan area, and most of all for local Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Eric Feinstein of Clifton is the associate director of Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Records.
“I first logged onto JewishGen in 1997,” he said. “It couldn’t have existed before the internet. It made everything so much more accessible, with the digitization of a lot of archival resources around the world, and then with crowdsourcing. People could pick specific geographic areas, and then they would both crowdsource and crowd volunteer. They’d create an index that was to everyone’s benefit.”
Before crowdsourcing, “Let’s say that you’d pay $1,000 for access to an archive,” he said. “You might get some information that might help one family, and that would be great, but if you contributed that money toward indexing all marriages records in the town, say, from 1880 to 1920, you might help 100,000 people.”
JewishGen helps people from the beginning, when they might start by constructing a family tree “using what they know, and they can ask advice.
“If you have documents, you can ask people to help you get them translated. You can do it for free. You have a whole community to help you.”
His project, Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Records, is “a virtual cemetery online,” Mr. Feinstein said. “It’s all done through crowdsourcing. People take pictures in cemeteries in foreign countries.”
He arranges for photographers to take pictures in cemeteries and then upload their work to the database.
For example, descendants of Jews from the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv “said they wanted a photography project; they wanted pictures from dozens of cemeteries around there. I helped to organize both the fundraising and then the actual project, hiring people to take photographs, and people to transcribe them, and to put them on spreadsheets, and to make it searchable.
“We took 10,000 photos in the last seven or eight years.
“We did a lot of stuff on the Ukrainian side of the border, but our photographer could not go to the Russian side with her car — it was far too dangerous — so we had to get someone else to take pictures in Russia,” he said. “There are a lot more cemeteries on the Russian side.”
Other volunteers put together lists of names from communities so demolished that they no longer even have cemeteries. He has worked with a volunteer from Brisbane, Australia, who is descended from Dutch Jews, speaks German and Polish, and has been putting together death notices from the community newspaper in Posen, a town that was shuttled between Poland and Germany. “She transcribes it all,” Mr. Feinstein said.
He is a full-time genealogist; he does volunteer work for JewishGen as well as paid work for families whose members would prefer to have someone else do the digging. “I had a client from the town of Busk, in Ukraine,” he said. “I told them that there weren’t many resources there — much of the town had been destroyed in both of the world wars — but there still is a cemetery that has between 500 and 1,000 tombstones. And they said, ‘What are you waiting for?’
“So I hired someone to take the photos. It’s a question of finding someone you trust. Someone who can take good pictures, with a good digital camera. You have to be able to read the inscription.”
Projects like these are not done for JewishGen — but JewishGen benefits from them nonetheless. “I gave them the photos,” he said.
Mr. Feinstein talked about how he became a genealogist. He was born in Boston, but when he first moved to New York after college, he lived with his grandparents in Mount Vernon. “My grandmother’s mother was the oldest of nine children, and my grandmother was the oldest child too,” he said. “There were a lot of cousins.” His grandmother had “a phone book and a family tree, and she was organized,” he said. “She called all of her first cousins every two weeks. So she was invited to all the family occasions, bar mitvahs, weddings, everything.
“When I got there, she showed me all her lists, and I said, ‘This is great. I have heard of a lot of these people, but I haven’t met them. So I took her car, and every Sunday I drove to meet someone new.’”
Which all means that he had the concept of family trees and relatives and stories firmly in his mind.
“I hadn’t planned on a career as a genealogist,” he said. “I did it as a side business. I was in telecommunications sales for many years. But then I started getting more and more involved in genealogy.”
Eventually, it became his main focus. More and more people asked him to help them find their families. He learned a great deal about family trees online, and he was able to connect many of them to JewishGen. Some of the information is available publicly; for others, the indexes are public but the information to which they are linked is proprietary.
“There’s at least one person in every family who’s interested in genealogy,” Mr. Feinstein said.
Lindsay Norman is the manager of the Center for Volunteerism at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The volunteers whose work the center organizes go to Newark’s historic cemeteries once a year to help keep them clean.
Now, she hopes to work with JewishGen and MetroWest’s volunteers to photograph the graves and put those images, along with the information they hold, into the JewishGen’s database.
“The project is weather-dependent, but we hope to start in the spring,” Ms. Norman said. “People really want to volunteer in the cemeteries, and this is a unique opportunity for them to do a meaningful mitzvah there. And it’s a mitzvah that’s a little different than what we usually ask them to do.”
The cemeteries are not active anymore, and they’re kept locked most of the time. “We have to coordinate to make sure we can get in,” Ms. Norman said. Photography trips have to be organized. “It’s not something that somebody can just drop in and do some Sunday morning.” But she encourages people to sign up for the volunteer work. Anyone who is interested should go to the federation’s website, www.jfedgmw.org, and then click first on community, then on volunteering.
Jill Leibman Kornmehl of Teaneck is the coordinator of the Tarnow Yizkor book translation project. She’s a physician; her work for JewishGen is volunteer, driven by her passion for genealogy in general, and for her in-laws — her husband Bernard Kornmehl’s parents — in particular.
“My in-laws, Frances Leder Kornmehl and Nathan Kornmehl, were both from Tarnow, Poland. My mother-in-law was the only survivor of a huge family, and she died before telling me all her family names.
“There were a lot of family members killed in the Shoah whose names we didn’t have. When she died — in 1991, before there were a lot of resources — I said, ‘This is what I am going to do. I will research the family.
“‘The first time I looked for somebody, I found him. My husband’s great-uncle, Moshe Leder, who died in Mauthausen. So I thought that genealogy was easy. You apply to the Red Cross, and they give you a name and a history.
“So I tried applying again, and they didn’t find anybody.”
Frances Leder had been in Auschwitz, and she had a number on her arm. She was fairly easy to research. But if people hadn’t been tattooed, the research was harder.
“And then I discovered JewishGen, and that was transformative. With their help, I recreated my mother-in-law’s family tree, generations and generations of it, dating back to 1810, in Tarnow.”
Dr. Kornmehl had some disadvantages as a genealogist, she said. “I don’t speak Yiddish. I don’t speak Polish or German. I do speak Hebrew — but that doesn’t help. I don’t have any skills that I could bring to genealogy other than that I’m a people person and an academician, and I have natural curiosity. I know how to do research.
“But it would be helpful to speak the languages.”
Still, there is a way around that lack, Dr. Kornmehl said. “That’s the beauty of Jewish genealogy. You meet people who are into the same thing as you are, and they come to it in different ways.
“I met the town coordinator for Tarnow, and he was amazingly helpful. He’s a retired engineer — his name is Howard Fink — who lives outside Boston, and he coordinates getting the entries for JewishGen from Poland into the database.
“He’s amazing. Amazingly organized. His retirement hobby is Jewish genealogy. He is unbelievably motivated, and an unbelievable resource.
“And he can give you ideas. Things like alternative spellings of names, that can get you out of a rut. He can’t do your research for you, but he can give you resources.”
People such as Mr. Fink, and work such as the work he does — or such as the work Mr. Feinstein and Dr. Kornmehl do — are at the heart of JewishGen. “It’s been transformative,” Dr. Kornmehl repeated; it’s a word she uses often when she talks about the project.
“I can use it to sit at home and connect to people,” she said. She talked about JewishGen’s ViewMate, which allowed her to see her husband’s grandmother’s report card, from 1890. “It’s in the Polish state archives in Tarnow,” she said. “They have a lot of stuff preserved. I also have report cards from my husband’s aunts. I got it through JewishGen.”
What was on the report cards? Grades for “math, English, Polish, history, handwriting, music, and sewing,” she said. “No science, except maybe geography.
“School was mandated only up to the seventh grade, and after that you had to pay. Most Orthodox Jewish girls spoke Yiddish, so their language skills weren’t necessarily the best. They were in classes with people who came from a cross-section of the population. There were people who spoke much better Polish than they did.
“Tarnow was 45 percent Jewish then,” she added. “Many of those families were chasidic.” And most of that information came from JewishGen.
“JewishGen has a function where you can post a PDF of something, and someone will volunteer to translate it,” Dr. Kornmehl continued. “You can say that you want a translation from Polish to English, and someone will do it.
“I have a new friend from Switzerland — who isn’t Jewish — who translated some documents from German to English. They will do it as a chesed” — an act of kindness. “They can translate lots of languages, like Ukrainian. I just send my friend in Switzerland anything that’s in German, and she’ll just send back a translation.
“JewishGen is multifaceted in terms of what it can offer you,” Dr. Kornmehl said.
“I’ve done research for people in Teaneck with skills that I have learned from JewishGen,” she continued. “For survivors’ kids, who don’t have their whole story. It’s a skill that once you learn, you give back to someone else.”
She’s learned many family secrets, and that’s kept her going. “When you start discovering that your mother-in-law didn’t have just the four siblings that she told you about, but instead she had 10 of them — she was born in 1925, and some of them died in 1914 –- you discover things that she didn’t know.
“Her uncle apparently was very religious. When I looked up her grandparents’ names, I saw that her uncle came up with 16 kids. Her tree began to flourish. I was able to take it back to 1810. They have lived in the same place for over 100 years. And that was very common. It was hard to move.
“They lived about an hour and a half from Krakow by train, but they never moved there. Why would they? It was expensive, and they were a working-class family.
“Soon, you start to realize that there were generations of people who would be lost if you don’t do the research. We wouldn’t know their names unless you start going back.
“I have met distant relatives along with way.
“That’s why it’s transformative,” Dr. Kornmehl concluded. “It has created a whole existence, way back, that I never would have known about. Now I have a whole legacy that I can pass down along the generations.
“It is such a gift.”
Learn more about JewishGen, including its database and its plans, at jewishgen.org.