Family tree

A Brief Guide to Family History Research

Preface:

A family history research alias genealogy alias mishpochology is a multi-faceted discipline. To keep the memory of our ancestors has been considered as a mitzvah. The explanation is simple - it connects us to the past and to the future. Everyone who took this journey knows it is rewarding above any expectations.

In modern times, it is often painful experience for many of us to study the family history. However, this guide is based on presumption that family history research connects us to our heritage and strengthens our identity. Also it can - if sensitively taken - can promote discussion both in family and in community.

Genealogy begins at home

Rule No. 1: Start now!

We shall encourage ourselves (our community members) to write down and share what we know already. We need to find a way how to ask questions our parents and grandparents. Sooner is better since after some time there would not be anyone to ask who was who in the family. One has to prepare a visit to interview older members of the family. It is always easier to have some family sketches, old photographs, old letters, etc. Interviewing-taping and photocopying of documents is necessary.

Everyone who is involved in genealogy knows that it opens many gates and brings unexpected results. The outcome of research shall be discussed more in details lately. Finding missing relatives incl. distant cousins, organizing family reunion, forming jahrzeit books, contributing to yad vashem memorial are some of most common outcomes.

Archival research

Rule No. 2: Search for archival records of your area!

There is one of major stereotypes about genealogy: all Jewish records were destroyed during WWII. Many Jewish vital (birth/ marriage/ death) records and records of Jewish interest are still available in town, district and regional archives. Especially in former Austro-Hungarian Empire the records were well kept. Indeed, many Jewish records were destroyed but there are always alternative records. One can learn that during the process. Recently, there are quite a few books published by local historians about Jewish communities which often enlist bibliography and archival sources. Avotaynu is leading journal for Jewish genealogy.

Another source of data is the cemeteries. An ability to read basic "tombstone Hebrew" can be rather easily acquired. It is also tip for - community based course.

Online research

Rule No. 3: Register at jewishgen.org!

Internet is today full of very useful genealogy resources. One can start with geni.com  and jewishgen.org. Jewishgen.org is leading web server showing many databases, family finder and stores the database named Family Tree of Jewish People (FTJP). Very interestingly, there are so called special interest groups (Ukraine, Slovakian, Polish, Czech-Austrian, etc.) with many archives of questions once submitted to jewishgen.org. Geni.org is good for finding relatives and for sharing family data. One can find many information on web pages of Bet Hatefutsot, Center for Jewish History, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and others. Many books of Jewish interest are today online e.g. compactmemory.de. There are many holocaust-related web sites: yad vashem is leading site, U.S. Museum of Holocaust, centropa.at (Vienna-based web site enlists many interviews with survivors), and others.

Community work

Rule No. 4: Share the research experience!

It is vital to encourage members to share their family history and to open discussion group in the community. However, it is necessary to provide assistance to deal with trauma. Lecturers (survivors, historians, genealogists, archivists) can be invited to talk and promote the topic.

Another way is to organize workshops on genealogy (methodology, archival resources, etc.). Leadership could organize Hebrew classes to train members in reading the tombstone inscriptions. Visits to local cemeteries and its cleaning can be organized then. Pinkas and yitzkor books can be compiled by the community. Once the discussion group is consolidated, it should establish Jewish Genealogy Society (JGS) and to become member of International Association of JGS.

As mentioned above, special attention should be brought to psychological help and guidance concerning dealing with the trauma, and also to the theme how to work with families of converts and from mixed marriages. This is space for creativity of community leaderships and rabbis.

Remarks

This is just to introduce the topic and to suggest some guidelines. Everyone has his/her own way how to proceed but there are rules that are worth to follow. Genealogy is life-long task and it is very rewarding, indeed.

Julius Müller, Toledot Prague

(www.toledot.org)

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