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.