Interview with a Jewish Genealogy Researcher

Have you always been interested in your ancestral history?

JG: Unfortunately, no. Growing up, the thought never crossed my mind to find out who my great-great-grandparents or their siblings were. I loved my relatives, but I wasn’t aware enough to ask questions.

What changed?

JG: I got older. And part of me wanted to connect to my past. I now realize that I missed out on the opportunity to ask my grandparents and great aunts and uncles all sorts of questions. Not everyone had this opportunity.

What kind of questions?

JG: Names and dates… who is who in photos.. They could have answered immediately what took research time to discover. But actually, that was part of the fun.

Is genealogical research difficult?

JG: You need a lot of time, patience and tenacity. You need to thrive on puzzle-solving and to know how to apply a very clear investigative methodology to the research.

Most of your research is online?

JG: That’s the starting point. There are several online resources for genealogists which offer database search capabilities.

What exactly do you find on these databases?

JG: Well, from the Polish Archives, for example, you get vital data: names of ancestors; the year their birth/marriage/death was registered. The basic data is from the archive index; more extensive data is found in extracts, if that town has been extracted – parentage, dates, spouses, occupations. That’s what I’m doing now, as a volunteer.

So you speak Polish?

Not really. I taught myself to identify the vital data on the Polish records well enough to fluently interpret the critical information. The hardest part is deciphering the handwriting of some of the sloppier clerks. Numbers and dates are easy, as are first names (there weren’t that many options). And when you have about 50 years of records from a specific town’s archives, you get to know the families. The fun part is seeing the families grow and noting who married who. Families tended to marry within clans or within their own family. Lots of first cousin marriages.

Wasn’t that frowned upon?

JG: They didn’t know about genetics in those days… I was amazed to discover that my grandmother’s father’s parents were first cousins. And then I discovered that my grandmother’s mother’s parents were also first cousins. And not only that! My great-grandparents were third-cousins-once-removed! I guess it explains the family twitches…

Is all the archive information online?

JG: Unfortunately not. First of all, some data has been lost or destroyed. And in many, many cases, information simply wasn’t registered with the authoritative bodies. But every year more and more data is available from the pool of extant information, and it’s very exciting when you come across a find.

Please define a “find”

JG: I call a “find” important documentation relevant for your family. For example, I decided to tackle researching the civil records (church-transcribed) of my ancestral town in Poland. I spent three days going through the records on Microfiche, searching for family, and found the 1820 marriage registration of my great-great-great-grandparents. It was a real find because the “Patronymic” names were used – not yet the “family” names. This correlates with the 1821 mandate in the region which dictated that Jews had to start using formal family names rather than a last name based on the father’s first name [son of so-so-and-so]. After 1821 there was continuity (more or less) of last names from father-to-child. So I have a good idea of when the family assumed its last name

When is family research complete?

JG: It’s never complete. It’s a puzzle without borders. You set the limits.