Planting a Forest of Family Trees
Sallyann Amdur Sack was deeply involved in her career as a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., when her 15-year-old daughter came home from camp and announced that she wanted to research the family tree. Mother and daughter started out together, in 1977, writing to all their known relatives and going to the national archives. The daughter soon lost interest, but Sack was hooked.
“There’s a magic in genealogy,” she says. “It combines my love of being Jewish, my great curiosity about people, my interest in history.”
Based on what she uncovered, together with a cousin she wrote and self-published a book about her grandmother called Search for the Family.
Then Sack embarked on an additional, though unpaid, career, as a leader in Jewish family research. In 1981, she founded Washington’s Jewish Genealogical Society, the second in the country, and in 1984, she organized the first international genealogy conference, in Jerusalem. With genealogist and computer maven Gary Mokotoff, she cofounded the genealogical journal Avotaynu (www.avotaynu.com), which she still edits, and helped found the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
By the 1990s, Sack and other members of the international association realized that Jewish genealogy was no longer just a hobby. They wanted to create an organizational framework to ensure that the next generation could continue their work.
The time had come to establish Jewish genealogy as an academic discipline to be taught as part of Jewish studies programs, draw on other disciplines and generate academic research. Thus was born the Jerusalem-based International Institute for Jewish Genealogy and Paul Jacobi Center (www.iijg.org), which opened its doors in January 2006 with Sack as its chair.
A major aim of the institute is to create a comprehensive database that will serve academics—social historians, for example—as well as genealogists. Sack describes it as reconstituting the chain of Jewish history that Hitler smashed, leaving only shards.
Many of those shards can be found in the database of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority (www.yadvashem.org), which contains information about three million of the six million Jews who perished. And that database has recently been augmented by the Bad Arolsen archives in Germany: 50 million pages that constitute the fullest records anywhere of Nazi persecution.
But each shard is like a flat dot, Sack says. To piece them together and make the chain whole, she says, one needs to know the “webs of kinship” in communities, that is, “not only who was living on the eve of the Holocaust but also how they were related to each other.” This requires bringing together data from various sources.
The ultimate goal—which Sack admits is megalomaniacal—is to reconstitute the webs of kinship for all the pre-Holocaust communities; 23,500 are listed in Where Once We Walked: A Guide to Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust(Avotaynu) , a book she coauthored with Mokotoff. All this information is to be represented visually through graphs and charts and uploaded to the institute’s Web site, where it will be available to all.
Sack is the director of the project, which, because of its scope, is being carried out in collaboration with researchers outside the institute. So far, a pilot program has been completed on Pusalot, in Lithuania, which had 120 Jews on the eve of the war, all but one of whom perished. Two genealogists whose forebears lived in Pusalot created family trees that show how the people were related and also who had moved away before the war.
Researching the kinship webs for a small community like that of Pusalot, which comprised only 12 families, and presenting them graphically is relatively simple. Creating kinship webs and graphic representation for much larger communities is a daunting task, requiring sophisticated computer techniques that Sack and other researchers affiliated with the institute are working on.
The task requires merging large databases, for example, those of Yad Vashem and of Ellis Island, and supplementing that information with civil records. It also requires “normalization” of names, that is, using computer programs that can recognize whether Isaac Cohen in one database and Yitzhak Kagan in another are the same person. The project also requires the entering of as many variables as possible, such as place of birth and date of death, which, Sack says, is more complex. This massive project will occupy the institute for years to come.
Similar to the pilot on Pusalot is a project carried out in collaboration with the institute by a historian at Emory University in Atlanta. Eric Goldstein has created a comprehensive genealogical database of family ties in Darbenai (Dorbian in Yiddish), a town in Lithuania, between 1760 and 1941. He chose Darbenai because of his ancestral roots there and after discovering the huge amount of archival material available, but says that objectively it is as good for a case study as any of the many towns where Jews lived in this period.
However, Goldstein is going beyond the scope of the Pusalot study. He aims to show how family ties influenced who came to live in the town, who stayed and who left. He is also studying how family ties determined occupations, status, power in communal affairs and ways of coping with modernization, industrialization and migration. His research provides a fuller picture of life in a Lithuanian shtetl and undercuts many longstanding myths about these communities, where more than half the Jews of Eastern Europe lived. According to Goldstein, historians of East European Jewish history have generally ignored the family and focused, instead, on topics such as intellectual and religious movements and the history of communal organizations and Jewish self-government. But the family network was a much more important factor in the daily lives of average Jews.
“In Darbenai, family networks were the main structures used to organize social life—for example, whether one was sent off to the draft,” Goldstein says. Family ties were important, too, not only within the town, but in the larger region.
“One has a picture of the shtetl as isolated and tradition-bound,” he says. “But people came and left all the time. [Darbenai] was part of a larger network of towns—networks of marriage, for example.”
And when, toward the end of the 19th century, Jews started leaving Darbenai because of economic and political hardship, relatives followed one another to far-flung destinations, including Paterson, New Jersey; Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania; Halifax, Saint John and Moncton, Canada; Krugersdorp and Kroonstad, South Africa; and Rehovot, Palestine. In some of these destinations, especially in the Canadian Maritime provinces, the Jews who had come from Darbenai maintained their ties to the extent that even third-generation Canadians married into the same social network.
Goldstein’s continuing research on Darbenai, apart from the institute-supported study, goes beyond the kinship ties and includes a detailed study of the geography of the town, that is, the precise location of every Jewish home and institution and its relation to the homes, businesses and institutions of non-Jews. His findings laid to rest another widespread assumption, namely, that the shtetl was a Jewish town in which Jews had almost no contact with non-Jews.
But Jews in Darbenai had non-Jewish neighbors. They lived near the market, which served both Jewish and non-Jewish residents of the town. Darbenai was near the German border and Jews often crossed it. Goldstein found that the Jews of Darbenai “were very worldly, spoke several languages and had more contacts with non-Jews than I expected. There were many cosmopolitan aspects to their lives, even though they lived traditional lives.”
Understanding pre-Holocaust Jewish life not only in shtetls but also outside them is among the goals of the institute. When institute director Neville Lamdan started researching his family tree 30 years ago, he assumed that his forebears had lived in a shtetl, a commercial or marketing center with a relatively large population of Jews and non-Jews. After all, that is what one hears about most often in connection with Eastern Europe, and for good reason, says Lamdan, a former diplomat living in Jerusalem: “The vast majority of research we have is about shtetls.”
But as he delved further into his family’s history, eventually tracing it back 300 years, he discovered to his surprise that his ancestors, whose surname was Mandel, did not live in a town at all, but were village Jews. That is, they lived in tiny rural communities clustered around a town but not necessarily in walking distance of it. His curiosity piqued, Lamdan broadened the scope of his research and found that, like his own family, nearly half of East European Jews lived in small villages.
With this new knowledge came new questions. In the shtetls, Jews were sometimes a majority, or at least a large enough minority to have a full range of community institutions, including a synagogue, a mikve, a school and a cemetery. But in the villages, though they might have been able to put together a minyan, they had no kosher butcher and no mikve for the women.
“Nevertheless, they were immensely Jewish [and] they were literate,” often both in Hebrew and in Yiddish, Lamdan says. How did they do it? How could two or three Jewish families maintain their traditions in a village that was beyond walking distance from a town?
Lamdan hopes that such questions will be answered by researchers at the institute as they pursue its main research areas: Jewish history from a genealogical perspective, rabbinical genealogy, onomastics (the study of the forms and origins of names), interdisciplinary aspects of Jewish genealogy, Jewish genealogy and computer sciences, and sources and resources for Jewish genealogy.
Post-Holocaust access to documents has never been better for Jewish genealogists, whose research received a boost from the opening of formerly inaccessible archives following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. “For a family for which I could only do an oral history that would take me back to the end of the 19th century and about whom I knew nothing, I can now document 300 years of their history, all on the basis of Polish and Russian documents available in the archive in Minsk,” Lamdan says. “And more and more sources are being discovered as people go deeper into the archives.”
Sack and her colleagues have amassed a large amount of information about which records exist and where. Another project of the institute consists of mapping these resources, town by town.
Yet another goal is to launch a peer-reviewed journal, the most rigorous and, consequently, the most highly regarded form of academic publication.
Although the institute will not work directly with nonprofessional individual researchers, Lamdan says, its research will both enrich and advance the work of family historians, partly by producing or making available tools that will help them. Meanwhile, family historians who are just setting out on their search will find a quick guide on the Avotaynu Web site.
By combining genealogy with DNA testing, for example, individual researchers can refine their knowledge about their families. But DNA testing sometimes turns up surprises, as it did for Alain Farhi, an Egyptian-born businessman who lives in the United States. Farhi has been doing genealogical research about his family since the 1980s and has an expansive Web site called Les Fleurs d’Orient (www.farhi.org). Over the years the site has grown to encompass more than 80,000 related families (including families linked by marriage) from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Many are Sefardim, Ashkenazim or Karaites, and there are also Christians and Muslims.
Farhi is the institute’s project director for a collaborative study of Sefardic migration through Italy and the Ottoman Empire, and especially Greece, conducted by FamilyTreeDNA of Houston (www.familytreedna.com), Dr. Doron Behar of the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona. The researchers asked Farhi to provide information from his vast database for the study of a genetic marker that would identify descendants of people who may have lived in Spain before the Inquisition and who later emigrated to Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Using Y-DNA (genetic material passed from father to son), the researchers aim to find out where in pre-Expulsion Spain (that is, before 1492) selected Jewish families originated and to clarify the links between them.
Both Farhi and the researchers stand to benefit from the collaboration. For the migration study, the researchers needed, and Farhi was able to provide, information on 54 Jews who had a paper trail leading back to pre-Expulsion Spain and whose ancestors had not been forced to change their faith.
Farhi was hoping that the results of the DNA tests would confirm assumptions he had made about the origins of his own family. The researchers performed DNA tests on 54 individuals with 27 different surnames. For Farhi, the most surprising finding concerned individuals with the same surname as his. His original assumption was that all the Farhis he had traced are descended from the same Farhi brothers in Spain. His sample of 54 included two Farhis from Syria, one from Tunisia and three from Bulgaria. All originated in Bulgaria, and on the basis of the paper trail, some appeared to be distantly related and others were potentially related. But the DNA testing showed, to Farhi’s surprise, that they did not have common ancestors.
In addition to tracing the migration of families, genealogists can also work together fruitfully with researchers from other disciplines on Jewish diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, and on medical traits. According to Lamdan, medical researchers are interested in working with genealogists because they need to know not only which families may be handing down the disease by heredity, but also where the disease may have originated and how it has spread within the Jewish group. “And here genealogists can help do the backtracking,” Lamdan says.
The institute, together with several other research institutes, is housed in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. The library has vast resources for Jewish genealogy, including the Paul Jacobi papers, waiting to be mined. Jacobi, a Jerusalem genealogist who died in 1997, left behind some 400 workbooks and family trees, which are being indexed. But despite the institute’s Jerusalem base, it is international and has an international board of leading Jewish genealogists.
According to Lamdan, research will be smoother and more meaningful when there are agreed standards, for example, for recording proper names and place names. Mokotoff, a leader in Jewish American genealogy, has undertaken the project of creating agreed standards for the conduct of genealogy in general, with adaptations to the special needs of Jewish genealogists.
“Jewish genealogy has reached a level of maturity,” Lamdan says, “where we can [move] from the individual to a wider perspective.”
Meanwhile, Sack’s fervor for genealogy and for that wider perspective has rubbed off on her children and grandchildren and she believes this has deepened their ties to their people. Her grandson has even asked her to will her papers to him.
Sack says that every Jew she has seen engage in genealogy becomes more Jewish, because “their Jewishness becomes more visible. When you know about how your great-grandfather was exiled to Siberia and [your ancestors] become real, you feel like you’re a link in a chain of history.” H