Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yad Vashem's Quest

An article in the Ha'aretz newspaper in Israel reports that Yad Vashem has collected the names of four million Jewish Holocaust victims, two thirds of the estimated total. While no one expects them to complete the list (due to lack of records or lack of witnesses), they have made some impressive progress in the past decade. Yad Vashem says that fully one and a half million names were added in just the past ten years. Many of those names were added by Russian Jews, perhaps due either to the many Russian immigrants to Israel in the past two decades, or due to the opening of communications with Russia during the same time period.

Vad Vashem has always had a kind of quest to complete the list of victims. It's not just a technical issue, but an issue of remembrance. Some people perished along with their entire families. Who will remember that they existed once?

I wrote previously about Yad Vashem's Pages of Testimony and how important it is to fill out Pages of relatives you know perished in the Holocaust and also know are not in the Shoah Names Database. If we don't tell the stories of those family members of ours that died in the Holocaust, who will tell their stories? I've never surveyed my family tree about this, but certainly among the information I've collected from other family members it is not uncommon to find relatives that died during the Holocaust. It's always interesting to see how this is recorded in genealogy records, as some people just list the death as taking place during the war, while others write 'Murdered by the Nazis,' or simply 'Holocaust'. In other peoples' records, there is no reference at all to the person having been killed in the Holocaust, and if it was an elderly person who died in the early 1940s, who would necessarily think that they were murdered? Sometimes you jump to conclusions based on where they lived, how old they were, etc. but it may or may not be true.

I'm the last person to tell someone to write something without sources. Sources are another topic I hope to cover in this blog in the future, but for now let me just say that it's important to provide evidence for everything you do in genealogy. I do think that if you know your relatives perished in the Holocaust, you should make an effort to go through your records, fill out a Page of Testimony for each relative, and then submit them all to Yad Vashem. No one should be forgotten.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Giving Back Through Indexing

If you've done any genealogical research in past dozen years you're probably amazed at how much information is available online. The Internet has certainly changed how genealogy is done, even if the number of records online is still a tiny percentage of what records are actually out there in the real world. Yet, have you ever wondered how all this information made its way online? Certainly finding a hand-written birth certificate or census record of your distant ancestor in the 19th century is not something that happens without a human being spending the time to decipher the handwriting and enter all the relevant information into a database. Yet how do these databases get created?

In the world of Jewish genealogy, probably the biggest project to index records is JRI-Poland, which has put indexes of over four million Jewish birth, marriage and death records from Poland (and places that were once part of Poland) online. JRI-Poland doesn't actually put the records online, but an index to those records. Usually the information in that index contains the most important details that you would find if you could view the actual record, such as the name of the person, sometimes the names of the parents, associated dates, etc. although on the flip side, without seeing the actual records you can never be sure that all the information is 100% accurate and you don't know what was left out (sometimes records have notes written on them that contain information important to genealogists). JRI-Poland works by locating relevant records in archives across Poland, figuring out how many records exist for each town covered in the archives, then soliciting donations for the indexing projects for each town. The idea is that if you know your family is from a specific town, then you'll likely contribute to have the records indexed for that town. In their favor, if a town has a lot of records to index (thus costing more to index) there are usually more descendants of those people to help contribute to the indexing projects. Once the money is raised for a town project, JRI-Poland makes copies of all the index pages from the archive and then pays people in Poland to create the electronic indexes of the records. Why use locals instead of crowdsourcing the indexing like other sites do? I think the main issue is that records from Poland from the 19th century and the early 20th century (when most of these records come from) can be written in a mix of Polish, German and Russian. It all pretty much depends on who was in control of the particular town at the time the records were created. Poland was divided among the various empires in the area multiple times the same town might have been under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which generally used German for records) or Russia (which obviously used Russian for records). Finding descendants of the people from those towns that speak those languages and is difficult to do. In order to make the indexing easier and to insure there are fewer mistakes, JRI-Poland finds local Poles who know the languages they need, and pays them to do the indexing. So your contribution in the process is fairly simple, pay the money.

There are other ways that online databases get created. Sometimes individuals or groups take it upon themselves to put either records or indexes of records online. Sometimes people just post their contributions on their own web pages, sometimes they contribute them to existing online projects (like JewishGen) and sometimes they coordinate their efforts through sites set up for such projects, like USGenWeb or the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild (ISTG). These sites help volunteers to coordinate their efforts and bring records online, where a set of local vital records on USGenWeb, or a ship passenger manifest on ISTG. Sometimes these kinds of records are difficult to locate, so indexes to the indexes pop up, like Census Finder.

One very good example of a volunteer site is, which indexes Austrian records. As a group they have indexed over 2.7 million records from across Austria, including hundreds of thousands of Jewish vital records. The records are all indexed by volunteers and the site is free to use (although you must register first).

Another way databases or indexes of records get created is by companies that make money from making the records available online. These companies spend a lot of money in acquiring records, scanning records and creating indexes of these records so that they are searchable on their sites. These companies either have experts in their employ who create the indexes of the records, or pay people to do the work for them (usually overseas where labor is cheaper). Examples of web sites that do this are, (recently bought by,, etc., for example, made a deal with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to gain access to many of the files they have (such as naturalization records) and make them available online. Sometimes these sites will let you search their records for free, but if you want to actually see the records and the information in them, you need to join the website and pay a membership fee. There obviously is money to be made in this area as the large companies each have over a million subscribers each paying them money monthly or annually. In these cases, your membership money goes towards their indexing efforts, but not in a directed fashion of course. You're not contributing to an indexing effort as much as the company's bottom line, but in the end you do get access to new records.

I won't go into detail now about the role of genealogy in the Mormon Church, but needless to say it is important on a religious level, and the church has invested a lot of time, effort and money into collecting records from all over the world. They have collected billions of records from countries across the globe, generally on microfilm, and keep those microfilms in a secure underground archive in Utah. From the original microfilms kept in that archive, copies are made available in their Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, and in Family History Centers (FHC) across the US and across the globe. For decades the only real way to access these records was to go to the FHL in Salt Lake City, or go to an FHC near you and request access to specific microfilms, which if they didn't have they could borrow from the FHL. Accessing these records were difficult for another reason, which is that if you didn't speak the language the records were written in, you would need to hire someone who spoke that language to go to the FHL or an FHC and sit in front of a microfilm reader and find th records you were looking for (if they exist at all). Obviously this was (and still is) an expensive proposition.

Of course, with those billions of records on microfilm it was only logical that people would start asking to make the records available online. The problem putting them online is not only to scan all those microfilms, but to have people create the indexes that will make the records searchable. The Family History Library's online presence is known as, and it is through that web site that Mormons as part of their religious duty collaborate in creating their own family trees, but also where the Mormon Church has started to make those billions of records available online, for free. With such a massive undertaking, had to come up with a way to find help in creating the indexes for all their records – what they came up with is FamilySearch Indexing, where they allow anyone who has access to a computer and Internet to help them index their massive collection of records. FamilySearch claims that over 300,000 volunteers have indexed over 7 Million records since 1996. This year they were trying to index 200,000 records (with only a few days left in the year they're around 185,000 records).

To help out yourself, you start by signing up on their site, and then downloading a computer program which lets you do the actual indexing. The program lets you specify the difficulty of the records you're willing to work on (easy ones are recent records typed or written in block print, harder ones can be handwritten in a fancy script and be written a hundred of fifty years ago when handwriting was different than it is today) and what languages you can understand. Once you've set up the program it runs your through some easy sample records so you get how it works, and then you can start indexing records by downloading them in batches. Batches are collections of records that make up a kind of work unit. You work on all the records in the batch and when you're done, you can submit them for review and get another batch of records to work on. A single batch might have only a few records to transcribe if they're difficult, or perhaps dozens of records if the records are all listed on one page and are easy to read.

As you index more and more batches of records, you earn points. Generally, easy records earn you one point and harder records can earn you more points. Mainly, the points are just a way to keep track of how much work you have contributed to FamilySearch Indexing. The site does offer a Premium Membership to volunteers who earn more than 900 points in a calendar quarter. This gets you a Premium Membership for the rest of that quarter and the whole next quarter. FamilySearch estimates one would earn 900 points a quarter by spending about half an hour a week working on indexing. What does a Premium Membership get you? Well, it seems that while owns a lot of the records they put online, they don't own ALL of the records they make searchable online. In some cases they need to pay the owners of these records whenever someone accesses the image of the actual record. As such, in order to see those records, you need to be a Premium Member, either because of your records indexing or because of membership in an organization that sponsors (such as the Mormon church). If you do find a record that is restricted to Premium Members only, you could of course index 900 records that calendar quarter to gain access to it, although sometimes you may find that the record exists elsewhere and just knowing it exists is enough to send you to another site to find the actual records without doing that much work.

I would say, however, that if you use, which for what you can access is always free, you should think about contributing to their efforts by doing some indexing yourself. It doesn't cost you anything but your time, and the next time you find a record on that is connected to your family, just remember that the file was probably made searchable by a user like you who contributed their time to indexing.

As one of this blog's focuses is Jewish genealogy, and there has been some controversy with the Mormon Church and the Jewish community concerning the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism of their ancestors (some of whom were Jewish), and even the posthumous baptism of people not related to the church members, in particular famous people – including, for example, Anne Frank, who has apparently been posthumously baptized at least nine separate times, I want to point to an overview of this whole topic at JewishGen: The Issue of The Mormon Baptisms of Jewish Holocaust Victims And Other Jewish Dead. The issue is going to come up eventually, so in the context of discussing FamilySearch in this post I figure now is as good a time as ever to bring this issue up. I'm not going to dwell on the whole issue, except to point out that even though there have been several attempts between Mormons and Jews to resolve this issue, it continues. There are voices on different sides of the issue – those that believe that the very idea of posthumous baptisms of Jews is sacrilegious, and those who view the religious rites of a different religion as irrelevant to their own. This fight has engendered strong words on both sides, and frankly I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Certainly many Jewish genealogists have worked hard to make sure whatever information they have on their family is not made available online (such as on public family tree web sites) in order to prevent the possibility that their research might lead to one of their ancestors being baptized posthumously. In this way Mormon genealogy efforts have made Jewish genealogy more difficult due to the added security and protection many Jewish genealogists have implemented with their family trees, yet on the other hand has made many very useful records available to all researchers for free, and that has helped all genealogists, including Jewish ones. I think every non-Mormon needs to make a decision on their own what they feel about this issue, and how closely they want to deal with FamilySearch considering that it is a branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints. As I've shown above, I don't think there is a problem to use to search for records, and I've encouraged people to give back by helping index new records, but beyond that interaction, each person needs make up their own mind about sharing additional information with and their parent organization, the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Search For...Books.

In my youth I was avid book collector. I spent a good dozen years working on building my collection of books, finding books in stores across three continents. The books I was collecting dealt largely with the British Mandate of Palestine, during the years between WWI and when Israel became an independent country in 1948. From bookstores in big cities to a bookstore I used to visit inside a barn that would only open in the summers, from Boston to New York to San Francisco to Jerusalem, I visited a lot of stores to find books. I even remember searching the basement of a large used bookstore in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, during the Hay Festival many years ago. I actually found a number of good books which I had to ship back to the US, which took months to get to me as book rate shipping was slooowww.

Things have changed a lot since then, with the Internet being the main cause of the changes. An interesting anecdote illustrates the point. Before I moved to Israel, I used to visit a couple of times a year. Each time I visited I would try to visit a series of used bookstores scattered around Jerusalem. Usually I would make a day of it and walk to all of these bookstores one at a time. One store was located right in the center of the city, run by an older man. He would buy whole collections of books from families in Israel and would sometimes have books I was looking for after such a purchase. After visiting his store for a few years I asked him if he had an e-mail address so I could contact him occasionally to see if he had gotten any of the books I was looking for in stock. He laughed at me, of course he didn't have a new-fangled e-mail address. The following year I visited the store again and lo-and-behold he had an e-mail address on his business card. Progress. The next time I visited his store, he had a computer on his desk. Not only did he have a computer, but he was searching eBay for items to sell in his store. I don't think he was yet selling items on eBay back then, but now he has a large 'Ebay Store' where he sells items online.

The above story is fairly typical of the evolution of small bookstores in the age of the Internet. On the one hand, in the old days you could find real bargains on books if you found them in a store that didn't know anything about the particular book, on the other hand it was also very difficult to find specific books. Booksellers would offer search services, where I guess they contacted other booksellers and asked about the existence of the book in other stores' inventories. Today the Internet has changed how used books are bought and sold. If you're looking for something very specific, you're unlikely to find a bargain anywhere. Every small bookseller out there, even the one in the barn that only opens during the summer months, is hooked up to the Internet. The bookseller may not have a web site where they sell their books directly, but at the very least they know how to price specific books based on the prices for the book elsewhere on the Internet. Booksellers upload their entire inventories to bookseller network sites like and, which handle the web site selling, and allows customers to search across thousands of tiny booksellers and see all of their inventories in one search. You can even search across these different network sites by using a site like Chances are if you can't find a book on, you won't find it in any store anywhere (at least for the languages it supports). That is a very different environment from the days when I originally went from bookstore to bookstore searching for books. Today it's not about searching for a specific book, but more about figuring out which ones you can afford to buy online. Something is lost in the translation of course, and searching online is not the same as wandering the aisles of used bookstores, smelling the aging books, finding books one wasn't really looking for, or finding the one amazing bargain you could never have imagined. Progress.

Specialist used booksellers would publish paper catalogs of their books. Usually they would send out these catalogs to their customers a few times a year, showing new acquisitions. Can you imagine the costs involved in such a practice? How many booksellers do you think mail out hard copy catalogs today? I still get e-mail catalogs from these some of the same booksellers that used to send me paper catalogs, even years later, which is a smart way for me to look at their new inventory. I imagine if e-mail didn't exist, I would have been dropped from these booksellers' mailing lists a long time ago, for not buying books recently.

Of course, no discussion of the change in finding books would be complete without discussing the impact of Google Books. Google has made deals with libraries across the world, and worked with them to scan millions of books and put them up on the Internet. For books out of copyright, the whole books are posted online for viewing. Google has built, for lack of a better analogy, the world's largest library. You can even download PDFs of the books for off-line viewing. For books still covered by copyright, Google works with the publishers to restrict what parts of the book the publisher wants people to be able to see, and directs people to buy the book if they want to read the whole book. Google's recent move into selling eBooks will blur the lines between library and bookstore.

So what does all of this have to do with genealogy you're asking? Well, strictly speaking this blog is not solely about genealogy. The truth is, however, that there are a lot of books on the topic of genealogy that you can find free on Google Books, or you can locate physical books through many of the various search sites I mentioned above. You can preview the books on Google Books, or sometimes on Amazon (when the publisher has added a preview) and then search online for the best price on a used copy. Amazon also lets you buy used books, but checking the other sites will give you more buying options. Amazon owns, chances are the used book results on Amazon and the results on will be fairly similar.

I still find it hard to pass by a used bookstore and not wander the aisles for a few minutes, even if I don't end up buying something I enjoy look for books, I enjoy the smell of the books, I enjoy the very fact that there is a small business dedicated to selling books. Searching online is not the same, although it is gratifying when that one book you're looking for shows up after a 30-second search online instead of spending years looking for it in dozens of bookstores. Happy hunting.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Future of Sharing (Genealogical Data)

It's no secret that the current standard for sharing genealogical data, GEDCOM, is woefully out of date. The last official revision to the GEDCOM standard, 5.5, was completed in 1996. A minor update, 5.5.1, was released in 1999 but never officially approved (even though some of its provisions have been adopted by various genealogy programs). Revision 5.5.1 added one very important feature - support for UTF-8 character encoding, which is a form of Unicode, which support multiple character sets (including, for example, Hebrew).

GEDCOM has, for all intents and purposes, been abandoned by the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) which created and owns the standard. The church has indicated that they will not be updating it, and indeed are replacing the need for it with a new API (Application Programming Interface) which will allow genealogy programs to exchange data with their website ( One problem with this approach is the need to go through their website, and the fact that they have not made this API publicly available (i.e. it's not a public standard, just a private interface to their web site). Another major problem is that there is no data format that allows one to create a family tree that can be shared independently, like GEDCOM is used today. FamilySearch in no way needs such a format, since their mammoth size and importance in the genealogical world will force genealogy program to support its API, as many have already done.

Over the years, there have been many attempts to either upgrade or replace GEDCOM. These efforts have all failed. In general the problem has been that the companies that create genealogy program need to agree to adopt any new standard, and they really haven't had much incentive to do so. Supporting the import of GEDCOM files allows them to support a basic file interchange, which never will support the full feature-set of their programs which have become much more sophisticated since 1996, but is enough to allow customers to exchange information with their relatives. If they supported a fully-featured GEDCOM replacement (that for example would better support photographs and evidence management), it would only make it easier for customers to try other programs. Thus the disincentive for the companies to support a modern replacement for GEDCOM.

Another problem with replacing GEDCOM has been arguments over the data model used. GEDCOM is based on a nuclear family data model (i.e. one mother, one father and their children). It assumes a nuclear family structure, and other forms of families are harder to support. This problem has caused some to support a data model based not on the family but on the individual. This is philosophical debate, and as you might imagine different people take very strong positions in this battle.

Even with this history, there are a few new initiatives to come up with a replacement for GEDCOM. One initiative that has garnered some attention recently is BetterGEDCOM. The BetterGEDCOM initiative came from the frustration of many genealogists over the lack of updates to GEDCOM and is an attempt to create an open forum for the creation of a new standard. Like many attempts at 'openness', however, it has run into its own in-fighting and conflicts. It remains to be seen how successful this attempt with be. Another recent initiative is the International OpenGen Alliance (OpenGen). This effort is a bit more of a top-down approach, being managed by the company that runs, an online family tree web site. OpenGen is, however, a non-profit organization that is supposed to include more than just the team at AppleTree. There have been some attempts between BetterGEDCOM and OpenGen to coordinate, or at least follow each others' efforts closely. Time will tell which effort, if either, will be successful in creating a new genealogical data sharing standard.

In case you think it isn't complicated enough, other web sites beyond are also developing their own APIs for exchanging genealogical data. last year introduced an API called GenealogyCloud. It seems that no third-party applications yet support this API., which boasts nearly a hundred million profiles on their site, and nearly 50 million that are interconnected in what they call their World Family Tree, just yesterday introduced their own API. Unlike, however, they are releasing documentation and sample applications on their web site. This will allow anyone to write applications that interact with, similar to the way Facebook allows outside developers to create application that access information on Facebook. This is a very positive step. It's not coincidence that one of the other large family tree web sites,, is pushing another initiative to replace GEDCOM (OpenGen). These large sites need to create ways to exchange data and interact with other programs and web sites in order to maintain their growth rates., another one of the big family tree web sites, has taken a slightly different approach in that they have their own application (Family Tree Builder) that runs on a computer, which can sync data to their web site. While this approach allows them more control over what modifies data on their platform, it has its shortcomings as well, not the least of which it requires Windows to run (this coming from a Mac user). I suspect that will release their own public API in the future, if only to compete with, their biggest competitor.

We can always hope that,, and will all come together and create a single API and data format for sharing data, but unfortunately if the past is any guide, this is unlikely to happen.

One indication of the direction the wind is blowing in this regard will be the upcoming RootsTech conference, taking place in February 2011 in Salt Lake City. This conference is the first RootsTech conference, although according to the organizers it replaces three earlier technical conferences – The Conference on Computerized Family History, the Family History Technology Workshop and the FamilySearch Developers Conference. Note that these previous conferences were all connected in some way to the Mormon church. It's unclear how open this new conference will be to new ideas, or if it is really only looking for input for the existing Mormon church efforts such as I imagine representatives from most of the genealogy software companies and web sites will be in attendance at the conference, as will people associated with the BetterGEDCOM and OpenGen efforts. During the week of the conference there will probably be a lot of blogging about what is going on, but the real test will be after the conference if companies announce intentions to seek a common API or data format to move forward with, or whether everyone will just continue the same disjointed approach that has been pursued for nearly 15 years.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony and

A major project of Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust museum, since its founding, has been to try to collect information on every victim of the Holocaust. This has taken a number of forms, but for many it is best represented by their Pages of Testimony project, which allows anyone to submit a page of information on someone they knew to have perished in the Holocaust. In many cases, these Pages of Testimony are the only record of existence of someone who died, as many primary records were destroyed in the war. Yad Vashem has made efforts over the years to collect these Pages from survivors and relatives of victims, including a big push in Israel in the 1950s to collect information. I remember over the years when visiting Yad Vashem, part of the visit would include searching their database for names of relatives, and being offered to submit names of people not in the database. In 2004 Yad Vashem finished digitizing all the Pages of Testimony and made the entire database available on the web (with some additional sources of information like transport lists - creating the Shoah Names Database), a major breakthrough for those researching their families, and also enabled a new push from Yad Vashem to gather information on victims not yet in the database. As the number of survivors dwindle, those with memories of relatives and friends who were murdered in the Holocaust, and if Pages of Testimony are not filled out soon, knowledge of some peoples very existence may be forgotten forever.

For the Jewish genealogist, searching the Pages of Testimony has long been a very powerful tool. While not every form was completely filled out, many forms include the name of the person, maiden name for women, the name of the person's parents, where and when they were born, where they lived during the war, what their profession was, etc. All very important information for someone researching their family. To get the full impact of searching the database, it helps to learn how best to use the Advanced Search interface, which allows you to search by specific fields like town of birth, or maiden name. Searching by town alone is something I highly recommend if you know where someone was born, or where your family was primarily from in Europe, as it may show people that you either didn't think of, or might show spellings that are different than you are used to seeing. The spelling issue is important since many of the forms were submitted in Hebrew, and had the English spellings transliterated automatically. Thus the spelling may be computer-generated, and not necessarily the same spelling you think it will be.

Another important technique for getting the most out of searching the Pages, is that once you find a Page about someone in your family, you should look to see who submitted the information. That person is likely related to you as well. Depending on when the Page was submitted, you may even be able to track down the person who submitted the Page and find out more, or in some cases track down their descendants. When you find a Page, note that there is a menu called Related Searches. The most important search is 'Pages of Testimony by submitter(s) with the same name'. Most people who submitted Pages, submitted multiple Pages. By seeing which other Pages were submitted by the same person who submitted a Page on a family member of yours, you will likely find Pages of other family members (although some may be of friends or family members from the other side of their family). This search can also be replicated in the Advanced Search form by entering the name of the submitter, and then you can refine the search by adding other fields.

Some people who first find a record of a family member who died in the Holocaust by searching the Pages are frustrated when they realize that person who submitted the Page of Testimony is a relative that they were not aware of, yet the Page was submitted so long ago that they cannot track down the person (and many submitters are now deceased). In some cases, if the record was submitted by someone who lived in Israel, it is possible to track down the person or their descendant through a database kept by Magen David Adom (Israel's Red Cross). There are individuals who have access to this same database and can probably search it quicker than going through the normal channels. Some of these people are professional genealogists who charge for this service, but I recommend joining the mailing list of the Israel Genealogical Society (which recently merged with the Jewish Family Research Association) and posting questions about people, as there are people on the list who can and probably will look up people for you for free.

There are other resources for tracking down survivors, or information on victims, such as the International Tracing Service, and connected services run through the American Red Cross and the USHMM. That is a whole different topic, however, perhaps for a later post.

So what happens if you find a Page of Testimony submitted by a relative you can't track down, and may never be able to find, but through which you think you can reconnect to extended family? Here technology offers an interesting solution. Logan Kleinwaks, who also operates the site, runs a site called which is directly relevant. ShoahConnect does something very powerful – it allows anyone to connect themselves to a Page of Testimony, and if someone else uses the site to connect to the same Page, it will notify each person connected to the same Page that there are other people interested in the person on that Page of Testimony. This allows distant relatives to reconnect through their shared relation to a person recorded on a Page of Testimony on Yad Vashem's site. As of this writing, there are 744 users of the site, with 10,978 connections. This uses a similar technique to the web site which connects people through common relatives in census records in the US, Canada and the UK.

ShoahConnect utilizes the Google Toolbar to pull off it's work, so it's not quite a simple as selecting a name on a web site. However, once you have Google Toolbar installed (in Firefox for Mac and Windows, or Internet Explorer for Windows), clicking a link on the site adds a C-shaped button to the toolbar. The next time you are viewing a Page of Testimony you just click on the new button to link to that Page of Testimony. Follow the instructions on ShoahConnect to get everything set up, and then head over to Yad Vashem's site and start adding connections.

One last point to make about Pages of Testimony and ShoahConnect – if you want to make connections to other relatives but can't find relatives on Yad Vashem that you know perished in the Holocaust, you should submit Pages of Testimony for your relatives to the Yad Vashem site, and then link to the Pages you submitted using ShoahConnect. Another thing to remember is that you can provide your own contact information to the Page of Testimony so that if even if someone is not using ShoahConnect, but finds the Page of Testimony that you submitted, they will still be able to reach you based on the contact information you provided as the submitter of the Page of Testimony. If you have photos of the people you are submitting a Page of Testimony for, make sure to also submit the photos, as your branch of the family may be the only branch to have photos of that relative.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust

It's hard to do Jewish genealogy and not run into Avotaynu, the long-time and as far as I can tell only publisher dedicated to publishing books on the topic of Jewish genealogy. They also publish a self-titled quarterly journal, Avotaynu, on Jewish genealogy and an e-mail newsletter called Nu, What's New?.

Avotaynu mostly sells their own books, but occassionally sells other books as well. On set of books they've been selling for years is NYU Press and Yad Vashem's The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust. It's a three-volume set that provides details on many of the Jewish communities that existed before the Holocaust. It is essentially an abridgment and translation of Yad Vashem's much larger Hebrew set called Pinkas HaKehilot, published over many years which covers in much greater detail each of the Jewish communities that existed before the Holocaust and what happened to them during and after the war. I highly recommend this set for anyone researching their families in Europe before the war, as it provides a lot of information on many communities that are hard to find out about elsewhere.

In this weeks' Nu, What's New? e-mail, Avotaynu mentions that while the set costs $199 on Amazon, they are currently selling it for only $99 plus shipping, per arrangement with the publisher. Shipping from Avotaynu is $20 in the US. So $119 for the books plus shipping.

NYU Press, the publisher, is also selling it for $99 plus shipping on their own site, with the use of a coupon code (see their site for the code). Oddly they show the $99 price as a discount from $350, yet if you go to the regular page for the set, it sells for $199. In any event, it's currently $99 plus shipping. I don't know what the shipping costs are from NYU Press, as you need to become a member of their site to find out.

Interestingly enough, Yad Vashem also sells this set directly from their web site. However, Yad Vashem sells it for only $55. Shipping within Israel is free from Yad Vashem, so if you live in Israel it would seem to be a no-brainer where to order it from. If you live outside of Israel, shipping costs $55 which while high, still brings the total cost in the US to $110 instead of the $119 from Avotaynu.

In short, if you live in Israel, definitely order it from Yad Vashem directly. If you live in the US, perhaps check out how much NYU Press is charging for shipping before deciding where to order from. I highly recommend this set for anyone researching their family in Europe.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Multimedia support in FTM for Mac - a bit lacking

Continuing my attempt to transition my family tree from Reunion to FTM for Mac, I wanted to discuss FTM's handling of image listed in the GEDCOM file.

So first, I like the fact that FTM has a Media tab where you can view all images in your family tree file. That is something I've wanted from Reunion for a long time. That said, it seems FTM's handling of the imported images is a bit sub-par. For starters, even though it has the correct path for each image file, it can't seem to find them. Reunion exports the standard Mac (and UNIX) file path to each image, which in my case begins with a tilde (~) indicating that the file is in a sub-folder of my home folder. FTM doesn't seem to know what that means. It lets you either search manually for the file or have FTM search for it. Either option works, but it would take forever for me to do this for each image.

Reunion has one very nice feature when a file goes missing (like if you move it to a different folder) where it lets you find the new location, and then it looks at all the other images that were in the same folder and updates them as well. This is a big timesaver and something FTM should emulate. THis in combination with the Media view that FTM offers would make a large task like changing all the image locations much easier to manage.

Truth be told, however, this task shouldn't be needed at all by FTM – if it understood file paths properly this wouldn't be an issue.

Taking a look at the GEDCOM file itself I can see that Reunion does something very nice – it exports the image cropping information. Frequently when using an image for a specific person you crop the image so it only shows that person. This is particularly true for the 'primary' image that one uses to represent the person in the tree. One can also use one group photo to crop out individual face shots of many different people. Showing the full image in a small window where you only want the head would be fairly useless. It's not clear to me if the _CROP tag that Reunion uses is part of the GEDCOM standard or some kind of generally agreed-upon way to share that information, but it seems to me that FTM ignores the information. Worse, and the likely reason, I can't figure out any way to crop photos in FTM at all.

I have a lot of complaints about Reunion's handling of media. I think it should offer to keep a library of thumbnails or even web-resolution images itself, so that it doesn't need to spend so much time doing image conversion when doing things like creating a web site based on your tree. I think it needs a central media view where you can manage all the images in your tree and make sure all the files can be located, etc. I think some integration with iPhoto would be nice. I think being able to tag photos with information on the people in them and the location information would be incredibly useful. Even with all of these complaints, FTM seems surprisingly inadequate when compared to Reunion in this area.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Researching Jewish Relatives Who Passed Through Belgium

I originally posted this summary in the Galicia mailing list back in September. It is more or less the same as what I posted then, but will the added mention of the new familysearch index when went live just recently.

In an attempt to help those who had family in Belgium at some point before and during WWII, I'd like to summarize the primary archives available and how to best access them (in my experience).

There are three primary archives in Belgium that I will point out:

1) The State Archives in Brussels (, which holds the 'Vreemdelingenpolitie persoonlijke dossiers' which are files that were kept by a special department of the police on all immigrants entering the country. This was a centralized archive for the whole country, and in theory all interactions by immigrants with all levels of government, down to the local cities, was forwarded to this central archive.

2) The Felix Archives in Antwerp (, which holds the local versions of the immigrant files as above. Not all cities kept these files, but Antwerp did, and it is an important resource. It is especially important for those families whose relatives went to Antwerp before 1900, as the central archives in Brussels destroyed some of the older files in 1900 to make room for new files, and anything before 1900 may only exist in the local archives like the Felix Archives.

3) The Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance (JMDR) is a museum and archive set up in Mechelen, Belgium -- the location where Belgium's Jews were collected and deported to Auschwitz in 1942. The archives hold a number of interesting collections, the most important being the registers of all Jews in Belgium done in 1940 by the Belgian gov't, at the request of the occupying German forces, the later registers done by Judenrat members in 1941 and the deportation lists from 1942. They also state on their web site that they are in the process of digitizing the immigrant files from the State Archives listed above, but this may only be the records of those deported, and may not include those people who got out of Belgium before the Germans arrived.

State Archives

So first the State Archives. These files are files that were kept by a special department of the police on all immigrants in the country. If your family moved from Galicia to Belgium at some point before the war, chances are there is a file on them here. The files can range in size from a single page up to dozens of pages. I have one record that is over 80 pages. The files contain all kinds of information, usually including the names, birth year and birth location of the parents of the person whose file it is. The files contain all interactions with the government, so may include letters from consulates on the person's behalf, letters from relatives already in Belgium, dealings with the police, etc. The files can run well past WWII if the person continued to live in Belgium, or even returned to visit later. If your relative lived in Belgium in the 1920s and 1930s you can expect more than one photo of them in the files as well. In theory, everything from the local archives from the city your relative lived in should also be in these files, but as mentioned this is not always the case, and in particular if your family moved to Belgium before 1900 you should track down the local archives as well.

This collection was once held in a different archive that provided the records for free to family members, but this is no longer the case. You need to pay for all copies of documents. If the number of pages are small, they can be provided to you digitally online. If the number of pages is large, they will need to mail you CDs with the files on them. One other expense is that if you want to pay for these copies from outside of Belgium, they require a bank transfer, so you'll need to factor in the international bank transfer into the total cost. My bank charges $35 for this service, which the last time I ordered files was well in excess of what the archive itself was charging me for copying the files.

To access these records, you can send in a request to archives.generales @, and make sure to include in the subject 'with regard to Section 5' so it gets to the right department. When you send in a request, make sure to include as much information about the people that you have, such the full name, birthday, town of origin, name of spouse including maiden name, etc. The more information you provide the better. The index to this archive is on cards, and there are millions of them, so the more information you provide, the easier it is for them to look up the information. The maiden name is very important, as sometimes a record might be listed under the wife's name instead of the husband's name. Some people have suggested in the past that you need to show direct descendency from the relative to access their records, but I have not found this to be the case.

You will be directed to an archivist working in the right department, and they will help you to locate the files on your relatives. Once they have been located, you can choose to order copies of the files. One thing to keep in mind is that on the front of these file folders, the police frequently wrote down the names and file numbers of related people. So for example, it might list the file number of the person's parents, or a sibling, or even occasionally a co-worker. Before ordering copies, you should ask the archivist if they can send you the names and files numbers lists on the front of the files they have found, so you can determine if any of the related files are also of interest to you. In many cases I have found people through these related files that I didn't even think to look for at the beginning.

Once you've come up with the list of files you want you will be directed to the reproduction services department and you will e-mail them the list of files you want and after a little bit of back and forth to determine how you want them sent to you and in what format, they will send you an e-mail with a link that links back to their web site with an invoice for the whole order. You are expected to transfer the amount in Euros to their bank and include the confirmation number on the invoice in the bank transfer information. Once they verify that they've received the funds, they will send you the scanned files. Keep in mind that if you're going to be ordering a lot of files and having them sent on CDs, you can ask them to scan to TIFF instead of JPEG if you want. They don't like it, but they will do it if pressed. 

Felix Archives (Antwerp)

UPDATE: This section is mostly inaccurate at this point since Felix Archives seems to have eliminated their browsable index of the records now that the index is searchable on I've left the post, but the instructions for browsing the indexes on the Felix Archives site will no longer work.

Many if not most Jews in Belgium lived in Antwerp (Anvers/Antwerpen) and this leads to the Antwerp city archives, called the Felix Archives. The web site is at: and is in Flemish (Dutch). If you don't speak Flemish, I recommend using a tool like Google Translate. If you use Google's Chrome browser, or if you have the Google Toolbar installed in Firefox or IE, then you can have it automatically translate each page as you navigate the web site, which makes it very easy.

If you don't have Google Translate, try following these steps:

For the main page, select 'Uw huis, uw familie, uw stad' from the left-side menu, select 'Familieleden' and then 'Inventarissen en indexen' and then 'Vreemdelingendossiers'. This will bring you to a page that lists the indexes to the files they hold on immigrants from different periods - 1840-1874, 1875-1885, 1886-1900, 1901-1915 and 1916-1930. Keep in mind that the actual archives extends to 1970, but only the indexes up until 1930 are available, for privacy reasons.

The reason why the archive has put these indexes online while most archives do not do so, is because they offer no research from their staff at all. You cannot ask them to find records for you, you must do it yourself. Indeed, even if you find the records, you need to have someone physically go to the Felix Archives reading room, get the appropriate microfilm, find the record, and either print it or scan it to a USB hard drive. The good news is at least copying to a USB drive is free, so if you can find someone to go, there are no direct expenses involved.

Once you select a time period, you select a letter of the alphabet and then it shows the different index pages for that letter. These are JPEG images of hand-written indexes to all the files. Try looking up married couples by both the husband's name and the spouse's maiden name. When you find a person in the index, write down the file number.

One new tool available for searching for these file numbers is the new website which has computerized these index files. When searching the site, you may find a hit in these index files. Clicking on the link will allow you to view the image of the index page, and then record the file number. It doesn't allow browsing like the original site, but it might be a good place to start, after which you can go to the original site and browse the files to see if you can find other relatives in the index.

Once you have the file number, you need to figure out the microfilm number that contains that file. Download the following PDF:

In the PDF, look for the correct file range that includes your file. Starting on page 7 it lists all the files and which microfilm they are on. For example, the first line shows that files 1 through 59 are on Microfilm 2,234,925. It also shows where that microfilm is located - in cabinet 3, drawer 5. This is how you will locate the microfilm in the archive reading room. If you look on the web site you can reserve the microfilm for a specified time so you know you can get to work right away when you arrive. Don't forget a USB drive.

Okay, so what if you can't go to Antwerp? They offer one suggestion - to go to an online forum set up for people doing research at:

Go there and select the forum called 'Opzoekingen' towards the bottom. This is a forum where you can post a request for someone to send you a file. You should include the file number, the person's name, the microfilm number and its location in your posting. I tried this and after about a week someone e-mailed me the file I was looking for. Of course, if you have family or friends that live in Antwerp, you might ask them to go to the archives and make the copies for you, especially if there are a lot of files that you're interested in, since the people on the forum are volunteers doing it on their own time and may not be able to copy lots of files from many different microfilms.

Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance

Now for the JMDR ( The first thing to keep in mind about this archive is that it only holds records from 1940 when the Germans occupied Belgium through the end of the war. If you had relatives in Belgium before the war, but they managed to leave before 1940, it is unlikely that you will find anything here. After the expenses involved in the State Archives, and the difficultly accessing records in the Felix Archives, the good news here is that they will look up records for you here, and they will send them to you by e-mail for free. To have a search done of these archives, you should e-mail Ms. Laurence Schram (laurence.schram @ and ask her to look up relevant files on your relatives, again giving as much information on the people as you can - including maiden names for spouses and dates and locations of birth for everyone. She will respond with whatever files they manage to find. In my experience this took only a few days.

I hope this has been a helpful summary. Please post responses on your own experiences with these archives if they differ in the comments, and if I've missed anything please let me know.

UPDATE 3/29/2011: It appears that now that the images of the Felix Archive indexes are searchable on, that they are no longer browsable on the Felix Archives site itself. This is disappointing because it makes it exceedingly difficult to browse them effectively. You can view the actual index images on, but it's over 5000 pages with no navigation aid.

UPDATE 8/15/2011: My own Felix Archives index browser is now up at

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Launching Family Tree Maker for Mac and Importing a GEDCOM

I pre-ordered FTM for Mac when it was initially announced, and received it just recently. It comes on a single CD with a simple installer program on it. Launching the installer and running it, installs almost 500mb of stuff on your computer. Not exactly light-weight, but disk space is cheap these days, so that doesn't bother me very much.

After installing it, I run the newly installed program and find it is a bit clunky when launching. It tells me that the program includes a free 2 week trial of, and asks if I want to sign up, or if I already have an account to enter my login information. As I have an account already, I enter my login details and continue. Things are a bit slow here, as I think it's trying to communicate with I'm not sure how I feel about this connection from a privacy point of view. I certainly don't like that it slows down the program.

The good side of the connection to is that it allows the program to access and try to find records connected to the people in your tree. This is a very nice feature, especially since it doesn't require you to upload your whole tree to where others can see it. If you want to publish your tree to that is possible, but from what I understand syncing data between the online tree and the tree on your computer is not supported currently in the Mac version of FTM - but it is supported on the Windows version. A bit annoying.

The downside of integration is the real question of how they protect your privacy. When you're a member of their web site, you have ultimate control over what Ancestry has access to because they only know what you put on their site. Having access to the whole tree is a whole different issue, and not one I'm sure they've addressed. There's no way to know what information is being sent back and forth. There's also the issue that you need to have a paid account with to use this feature, obviously. As I have an account already, this doesn't affect me, but I wonder what features I will be missing if I decide to cancel my subscription to

So I exported a new GEDCOM from Reunion and told FTM to import it. The process was fairly quick, but it came up with over a hundred errors. I told it to load the error log, and something a bit bizarre happened - it launched the log in Notepad for Windows. Now you may be asking yourself how that is possible since I'm on a Mac – the answer being that I have a copy of Windows that runs in Parallels, an emulator. Even though Windows wasn't running at that time, Parallels is 'smart' enough to know that a Windows filetype was launched and will try to launch it in Windows. Now, whether this is misconfiguration on my part with Parallels, or whether FTM actually created a file that is a Windows Notepad file, I'm not 100% sure, but I can say that this feature of Parallels has never before launched windows when the file wasn't actually a Windows file, so I'm a bit confused. I think it would be nice of FTM to ask which text editor to use when launching text files (something Reunion does) to prevent this kind of mistake.

So what were the errors? They fall into two categories: Non-strict dates and non-standard GEDCOM tags. So first, it seems FTM is being strict about date formatting on import, which is not a bad thing, but annoying in that they don't give you a way to fix these mistakes as you import. Reunion is actually very good about keeping date formatting strict, and converts all dates you enter into a standard format, but the dates that FTM rejected seem to be dates that I imported from relatives in other GEDCOM files. They include things like:

END MAY 1936
1932 OR 1935

These are obviously problematic for a strict date system, but I think FTM should have asked me to correct them. Perhaps Reunion did the same thing when I originally imported the GEDCOM they came from, I don't remember, but there were not so many dates like that and it would be nice to fix them from the beginning. I'll leave it to the BetterGEDCOM group to come up with a way to support fuzzy dates in a standard fashion.

The second problem was unrecognized tags. Reunion lets you create custom fields and assign GEDCOM tags to them for export. FTM doesn't know what to do with these custom tags and does something very bad in my mind – it ignores them. Reunion actually added two of the fields that were ignored, a web site (tag URL) and an e-mail address (tag EMAL) that at some point was added to the profile of the exporter. It's perfectly normal to add an address and contact information to the information in the GEDCOM file about the person who created it, but I guess e-mail and web sites were not common enough when the GEDCOM standard was last updated for these to be standard tags, and thus FTM ignores them.

The other custom tag, which makes up the bulk of the errors recorded by FTM on import, was the NAMR tag. I may may have made that one up myself, but frankly I don't remember as it was such a long time ago. The tag is for the custom field I created for Religious Name. In Jewish parlance, the Shem Kodesh or Hebrew Name. For those people whose Hebrew Name I know, I add that to the custom field. Reunion exports it like any other fact about the person, which frankly is what it should do. Maybe FTM doesn't support custom fields at all, I don't know yet. If FTM does support custom fields and doesn't offer a way to create such a field on import, that would be pretty dumb. As you might imagine, going through the error log and figuring out which people had a NAMR tag (the log only shows the line # of the error in the GEDCOM file) and then adding this fact to each record in FTM would be a mind-numbing experience that I would hope is not necessary. As my knowledge of FTM at this point is fairly minimal, I'll hold judgment on this, but it doesn't look particularly good.

Should I switch from Reunion 9 to Family Tree Maker for Mac?

So I've been using Reunion on my Mac for a long time. More than ten years at least. Probably more than 15. I like Reunion. For the most part I like the way it works, and even if the user interface is hopelessly out-of-date, I still like the user interface compared to many other genealogy programs on the Mac. Being more modern isn't always better if the paradigm doesn't work for you. I like Reunion's family paradigm.

One thing I've always disliked about Reunion is the fact that it's upgraded so infrequently. It's been about three and a half years since the last major update. Before that it was about four and half years between upgrades. It's true that there are lots of little updates and bug-fixes in-between upgrades, but this is not the same thing. There's no excuse for upgrades that take four years. There are plenty of people that defend this upgrade policy, and say they don't want to upgrade every year since it costs so much, but that's a silly argument since I'd rather upgrade for $20 a year then pay $80 every four years. Leister, the company that makes Reunion, also does something else a bit maddening, which is that they absolutely refuse to mention anything about future versions until they are already shipping. Now, this would be so bad if they shipped new versions every year, but when your upgrade cycle is over four years, people begin to wonder if the product is actually going to be upgraded, or if they should start looking elsewhere...

Over the years I've tried just about every Mac genealogy program out there, and while some are very powerful, and some have great user interfaces, none have worked the way I wanted them to, and in the end I've always ended up back with Reunion. One program which has always intrigued my inner-nerd is GEDitCOM II, which is more of a genealogy development system, allowing you to create your own user interfaces and features, using AppleScript, Python or Ruby as scripting languages. One day when I have more time to spend on it, I will probably look more closely at it, although for the time being I like my genealogy program to be easy to use and quick when entering data, and I don't want to think about scripting languages.

It's always bothered me a bit that none of the 'big' genealogy programs out there had versions for the Mac. One of the most popular genealogy programs on Windows is Family Tree Maker (FTM), which while it has gone through a number of owners over the years, is now part of I was happy to hear they finally came out with a Mac version of their product, even if it based on a year-out-of-date version of the product (FTM for Mac is based on FTM 2010 for Windows, not the current FTM 2011 for Windows). Some people reading this are saying to themselves that there was a Mac version of FTM in the past, but that was so many versions and owners ago, I don't really consider that to be anywhere near the same product. So FTM now has a Mac version - how does it stack up against Reunion?

Let's find out together. As I try to transition my 2000+ person family tree from Reunion to FTM for Mac, I'll be posting my impressions on this blog. Next posting - launching FTM for Mac and importing a GEDCOM.