Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Finding Information on US Immigrants

Table of Contents
Passenger Manifests
Census Records
Naturalization Papers
Military Draft Cards
Historical Newspapers

For many people researching their family history in the United States, the research process seems to end at the coast. Finding information on where your ancestor came from before getting off a ship in New York or elsewhere in the US can be a daunting task. While some researchers can track their families back to the Mayflower or other early colonists, there is a large percentage of Americans that had family arrive around the turn of the century. Between the years 1870 and 1930 the population of the US increased more than threefold, from 38.6 million people to 123.2 million. Besides their numbers, these immigrants are unique in that the information available for them is much more varied then those that came before them and in some cases even more so than those that came after them.

Some information is based on the time of an event, some is based on the time of birth of the person and some is a combination of both of those factors. For example, if your male ancestor lived in the US in 1942 and was born between 1877 and 1897, then they would likely have taken part in what is called the a military draft registration called the "old man's registration" and you can find their WWII draft cards. These cards show their place of birth, their birth date, their address at the time and reference another person who is a permanent contact which is sometimes another relative. These are not military records per se and certainly most of these men, who were between the ages of 45 and 64, did not serve in WWII, but they do provide information on the person and you might not think to look for such records if you thought your ancestor was too old to serve in the army.

I'm going to review several different types of information you can find on immigrants, and show how you can use that information to get to the next piece of information. These resources include Passenger Manifests, Census Records, Naturalization Papers, Military Draft Cards, and Historical Newspapers.

Passenger Manifests

Let's start at the beginning. Your ancestors probably arrived in the US on ships. All ships entering the US had to keep manifests listing all their passengers and those records were generally preserved. While accessing these records used to be quite difficult, today it is actually quite easy. The biggest problems now are if the name on the manifest is not the name you know of your ancestor, and if their name is common, figuring out which person with the same name is the person you are trying to find. While all records between 1820-1952 are archived by the National Archives, some are easier to access than others, due to where and when your immigrant ancestor arrived.

Keep in mind that the names on the passenger manifests are the names they filled out when they departed for America, and may not be the name you know for them. I don't want to further the myth that many people changed their names at Ellis Island, because that's not true (see my article Name Changes at Ellis Island), but when searching for people keep in mind that their first names may have been what they were called overseas, and not what they were later called in the US. If you know a family traveled together, it is sometimes useful to search by each of the family members, such as the wife and children, in case one of their names is closer to what you think it was then the husband. Name changes did occur frequently after arrival in the US, so if you ancestor did change his name once in the US, you obviously will need to know their original last name when searching through the passenger manifests. If your ancestor became a naturalized citizen in the US, their naturalization papers can sometimes tell you what their original name was overseas.

• Castle Garden

If your ancestor arrived in New York between 1855 and 1890, they probably passed through America's first immigrant processing center, Castle Garden. Castle Garden was located on the bottom tip on Manhattan, the Battery, and the Battery Conservancy today operates a web site CastleGarden.org that lets you search through the immigration records. In addition to their own search interface, Stephen Morse has a search page that gives you a little more flexibility in searching the Castle Garden records. It is estimated that one sixth of Americans had their ancestors processed through Castle Garden.

• Barge Office

Between 1890 when Castle Garden closed, and 1892, when Ellis Island opened, immigrants were processed at another location in lower Manhattan called the Barge Office. After a fire at Ellis Island in 1897 there was also a period where the Barge Office was used again until new buildings were built on Ellis Island. There is no fancy web site for the Barge Office, but their records, like those of Castle Garden and Ellis Island are part of the collection of ship manifests available on Ancestry.com. In fact, Ancestry has ship manifests going back as far as 1820 when they became required.

• Ellis Island

Ellis Island opened in 1892 and operated until 1954, although after the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and finally the Immigration Act of 1924 which greatly restricted the number immigrants allowed into the US, Ellis Island was used less for immigration and more for processing refugees and to handle deportations. At its peak in 1907 Ellis Island processed over one million immigrants. It is estimated that one third of all Americans had ancestors processed at Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation operates the EllisIsland.org website which allows searching for people who passed through Ellis Island and the viewing of the original passenger manifests. Stephen Morse's One-Step Webpages site has several forms that make searching the Ellis Island database easier. His Ellis Island Gold Form is the probably the best place to start your search.

Excerpt from 1902 NY Passenger Manifest for Max Trauring (from Ancestry.com)
In the above example (click to enlarge) you can see the arrival of a Max Trauring in NY in 1902. He's listed as being 17 years old from Austria, but most recently residing in Antwerp, Belgium. He was listed as going to his uncle David Suffrin in Chicago.

Here's another example (click to enlarge):

Excerpt from 1906 NY Passenger Manifest showing Lea Trauring (from Ancestry.com)
Note that in this record there is a Lea Trauring also coming from Austria, a few years younger than Max Trauring in the above record, and also going to her uncle David Suffrin in Chicago. In this record, however, her birth town of Lancut is listed. As you might guess Max and Lea were siblings and both were born in Lancut, as you'll see illustrated in a later example.

Census Records

The US government carries out a census of all residents every ten years. Some states also have carried out censuses at different times. The information collected in each census changes each year, and some censuses are more useful than others for finding out about your relatives. Federal censuses from 1880 and earlier do not contain a whole lot of information about the people, although they do list basic information like address, age, marital status, as well as the place of birth of the person recorded, and that of each of their parents. This information can of course be very useful if you have no idea where your ancestor came from, but it can also be frustratingly useless. For example, if your ancestor arrived in the 19th century and listed the place of birth of themselves and their parents as 'Russia' that could translate to any one of the following modern-day countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia,  Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine or Uzbekistan. Other territories including parts of Turkey may also be included in that list depending on when exactly the person arrived.

Continuing the focus on the years 1870-1930 we can look at the Federal Censuses of 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930.

The 1880 census, as mentioned above, contained only basic information on immigrants.

The 1890 census was, unfortunately, destroyed in a fire in 1921. Out of the 65 million or so records only some 6000 remain.

The 1900 census added some very useful information to the census for finding out more about your family. It asked married women how many children they had given birth to, and how many were still living. This can help you to figure out if children were left behind overseas, or if perhaps some children died young. Knowing that records exist somewhere on these additional children if they are enumerated in that field, can help you know what to look for when searching records. In addition, in 1900 the census started asking what year the person immigrated and their naturalization status. Knowing the year the person arrived can help you track down their passenger manifest, as well as help estimate other dates like their naturalization. The naturalization status field showed whether the person had not started the naturalization process and was thus still considered an alien (AL), whether they had filed their first papers (PA), or if they were already naturalized (NA).

The 1910 census asked all women about the number of children born and surviving, not just married women. It also asked how many years the person was married (in their current marriage). The 1910 census also introduced the first question about language spoken, but only usually only recorded the language if the person did not also speak English. The 1910 census also listed whether the the person was a 'survivor' of either the Union or Confederate armies during the civil war. If your ancestor lived in the US during the civil war, this indication can help you know whether you should be looking for civil war military records.

Excerpt of 1910 census record for Max Trauring in Brooklyn, NY
In the above example (click to enlarge), a record is shown for a Max Trauring in Brooklyn, NY. You can see he's the head of the household (his wife and children were on the next page), that he's 42 years old and that he's been married for 18 years. You can also see that he and his parent were from Austria (the Austrian Empire, in this case what would become part of Poland after WWI) and he and his parents spoke Yiddish. You can also see that he arrived in the US in 1888 and that that his Naturalization papers had been filed (Pa).

Note that this is not the same Max Trauring as in the Passenger Manifest example above, but a cousin of his with the same name.

The 1920 census had a couple of very unique pieces of information which are very useful. First off, it asked what year the person was naturalized. Having the specific year obviously helps in finding a person's naturalization papers. The 1920 census also asked what language the person spoke at home before immigration, as well as the languages spoke by their parents. Information on language spoken can sometimes be a better indicator of the country of origin that the Place of Birth field, since like in the example of Russia above, there may have been over a dozen languages spoken in one 'country' listed in the the Place of Birth field.

In the 1930 census there is less useful information than in 1920, but there is the added field showing if the person ever served in the US military. If your relative served during WWI, then it should be shown in this field.

The 1940 census is not yet available to the public, but is scheduled to be released on April 2, 2012. The US National Archives will supposedly be releasing the census records online, although it is unknown at this point whether there will be any kind of index available when it is released. Certainly commercial companies like Ancestry.com will be working hard once it is released to fully index the 1940 census. For more information on the 1940 Census, go to the 1940 Census Records page on the National Archives web site.

So now that you know what you're looking for, where do you find these census records? If you have a subscription to Ancestry.com, their Census Records are probably the easiest place to search for census records. They have all publicly available census years indexed with all images online. Other sites also have census collections such as Footnote.com (which has 1860, 1910, 1920 and 1930) and FamilySearch.org (which has many of the censuses online, although it's not clear to me if they are all fully indexed yet). You can also access the census records on microfilm in various archives and family history centers.
US Immigrant Census Form
For those who follow this blog, you know I recently introduced a new PDF form called the US Immigrant Census Form, which helps you extract the important information from the 1880-1930 censuses that will help you find out more about your relative. The form, available from the Forms page, helps you collect all the specific information mentioned above about a particular person over each of the above years. If your ancestor lived in the US over one or more of the covered census years, I think you'll find the form very useful is collecting all the relevant information on your relative in one place.

State Censuses

In addition to the federal censuses, states also carried out censuses at various times. If your relative doesn't show up in a federal census, it's possible you might find them in the state census close to it. To find what census records are available for each state, and where to find the records for them, check out CensusFinder.com.

If your family lived in New York at the turn of the century, the 1905 NY State Census is very useful and is indexed and searchable for free on FamilySearch.org. The records include the person's address, which country they originated from, the number of years in the US, and their citizenship status.

Excerpt from 1905 NY State Census (from FamilySearch.org)
In the above example (click to enlarge), a family is shown in the 1905 NY State Census living in Brooklyn. You can see their names, genders, age, country of birth, years in the US, citizenship status (the parents are listed as Aliens, and the children are listed as citizens) and occupation. This is the same head of household as shown in the 1910 Federal Census above.

Naturalization Papers

If you don't know where your relative came from, their naturalization papers can be a great way to find out about where someone came from, although usually only if they were naturalized from 1906 and afterwards. 1906 is the year the federal government took over the naturalization process. Before that date, someone could become a US citizen in any number of local and regional courts. If your ancestor was naturalized before 1906, it is still possible to find their records, but they may not give you the information on the town where the person originated. From 1906 on, the records became standardized and required the town of birth for each person.

Post-1906 Naturalization Petition - shows birth city (from National Archives)
 In many cases, only the husband/father went through the naturalization process, while the wife and children received their citizenship through the father. Keep in mind that if the person you're looking for was a minor when they arrived, you'll likely need to find the naturalization papers for their father. The National Archives has a good article on the issue of women and naturalization online. Interestingly, after 1907 a women who married a man automatically received the same citizenship status as him, meaning if he was a US citizen and she was not, she would gain US citizenship, but if she was a US citizen and he was not, she would lose her US citizenship.

There are a few ways to look for naturalization papers. There is a difference between records that are pre-1906 and post-1906. Some of the pre-1906 records have been scanned and indexed, such as at Footnote.com, where you can find records from various court regions such as NY Eastern, NY Southern, OH Northern, CA Los Angeles and CA San Diego. I've personally found my gg-grandfather's Declaration of Intention (1901), Oath of Allegiance (1903) and Petition for Naturalization (1903) from the Footnote.com NY Eastern collection.

Pre-1906 Naturalization Petition from Eastern District of NY (from Footnote.com)
As I have already written about how to find and order Naturalization papers on the Naturalization page, for more information read what I've already written there.

Military Draft Cards

In both World War I (WWI) and World War II (WWII) men were drafted into the US military, and this included many immigrants. Even if your male relative that you are researching did not serve in the military, if they were the right age at the time, they would have been required to register for the draft, and their draft cards can contain important information on their origins. As mentioned earlier, in the case of WWII the records which are actually public are from a set of draft card for men who were between the ages of 45 and 64 in 1942. This means they were born between 1877 and 1897, and you might not realize to look for their WWII draft cards.

• WWI Draft Cards

Did your male relative live in the US during WWI, and was he born between September 11, 1872 and September 12, 1900? If so, check WWI Draft Cards (on Ancestry.com or LDS microfilm).

WWI Draft Card for Max Jay Trauring (from Ancestry.com)
In the above example (click to enlarge) you can see the person's name, address, age, birthdate, whether they have declared for Naturalization, what country the person is a citizen of if not the US (in this case Austria), job, employer's name and address, closest relative, his signature and on the right side a physical description. That's a lot of information, although missing from the information is where the person was born – you only know Austria which as this was WWI meant the entire Austrian Empire which spanned a big chunk of Europe.

Just to be clear, this is the same person as the example from the Passenger Manifests, but not the same as the person used in the Census examples.

• WWII Draft Cards

Did your male relative live in the US in 1942, and was he born between April 28, 1877 and February 16, 1897? If so, he may have been recorded in the “old man’s registration” which was done of men between the ages of  45 and 64 in 1942 who were not already in the military. Basically, there were a series of registrations for those eligible to fight (i.e. who were of fighting age) earlier, but this Fourth If so, check WWII Draft Registration Cards (on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org). Draft registration cards of younger men, who may have actually served in the military are not currently available. Note that draft cards from several southern states (AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, SC and TN) were destroyed and will not show up in any record search, and some of the states which do have records only have partial coverage.

WWII Draft Card for Max Jay Trauring (from FamilySearch.org)
In the above example (click to enlarge), which is the same person as in the WWI example, you can see the name and address of the person in 1942, his age (56), his birth town (Lancut) and Country (Poland), his date of birth (Aug 25, 1885) as well as a permanent contact (his wife) and the name and address of his employer (Miller Dry Goods Co. in Wilwaukee, WI).

Note that this WWII draft card gives the town of birth (which the WWI draft card did not) and that it lists the country as Poland, not Austria, because after WWI the town of Lancut became part of the newly re-formed Poland. You'll also note that the town Lancut matches the town of birth given by his sister Lea who showed up in the 1906 Passenger Manifest example above. You can also see that he moved from Chicago, Illinois where he was living in the WWI draft (and where he was heading to in the 1902 Passenger Manifest) to Muncie, Indiana where we was living in the WWII draft.

Historical Newspapers

Newspaper shows Nat. above from 1917
(from GenealogyBank)

Depending on when your ancestor arrived in the US and where they settled when they arrived, searching through historical newspapers can provide important information on your immigrant ancestors. Some of the most useful information can actually be found in obituaries, although in smaller communities even day-to-day information on an individual might be found.
Two of the big sources for historical newspapers are GenealogyBank.com, a commercial company, and Chronicling America, a free-to-use project run by the Library of Congress.

In addition to these two large sources, there are many smaller efforts to put newspapers online, sometimes by local libraries or universities. I describe using GenealogyBank.com and other sites in detail  in my earlier article Genealogy Basics: Historical Newspapers and I recommend jumping over to that article to see how to search for your ancestors in historical newspapers.


This article covered a lot of possibilities for finding information about your immigrant ancestors. If you're looking for immigrants that came to the US during the great influx surrounding the turn of the 19th century, at least one of these resources should help you find out about your ancestor, and hopefully point to their origin overseas. Once you know the town of origin for your ancestor, you then can start the next stage of your research to find out about their lives, and the lives of their family, in their original homeland. Of course, these records are only the major records to check, but there may be more records that are dependent of your ancestor's circumstances.

For example, if your ancestor passed through Belgium, there may be records there to check (as described in this early blog article, but due for revision soon as it is a bit outdated).

Other sources worth checking are cemetery records. Sometimes people were buried in specific areas of a cemetery owned by an organization linked to the town they came from overseas.

No article can be totally comprehensive, but I hope this article helps to get some people started on finding where their immigrant ancestors came from overseas.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

For Memorial Day, BillionGraves App/Site Launches

Memorial Day in the United States is tomorrow, May 30, 2011. In time for this day, app-developer AppTime has launched a new iPhone App/web site combo called BillionGraves.

The concept is quite simple – provide a way to use camera-equipped phones to photograph gravestones and upload them to a central website for transcription and searching by others. So you download the cell phone application, use it to photograph gravestones, upload the photos to the website, and then you or others can see the photos and add transcriptions which make them searchable. The link to Memorial Day is two-fold – first, that these photographs can be a form of memorial to those who served their country and died in that service, and second that people are off from work can visit cemeteries, and while there photograph gravestones and upload them to the web site.

The idea is quite good, but I foresee some problems. 

I like the idea because anything that makes the process of documenting graves, transcribing them and making them searchable, is a boon to genealogists. The problem is that I don't think AppTime has put quite enough thought into the back-end of this site. Things can be fixed over time, but it would have been better to get some of these things right at the beginning.

The biggest problem I have is the duplication this creates with other sites like FindAGrave.com, which I've written about before. I understand that AppTime wants to make money, and by controlling the server they can better control revenue streams, but I'm not sure there is room for a newcomer here. Far be it from me to tell anyone not to go into a market because it's crowded. I'm a big believer in the market and if they can truly innovate here, that's great. If they just muddle the process and split up the graves indexed on their site and the others, then they are not contributing but detracting from the process. I also wonder if  they will be able to build the large cemetery database needed to make this work. It might have made more sense in this regard to sell an App that is a front-end to FindAGrave.com.

Let's put aside the issue of competition, however. I signed up to the site and tried it out. The interface is simple, which is great. Even without using the cell phone app, I can choose to transcribe photos. If I choose Transcribe I see the photo and a simple interface for adding the names and dates from the gravestone. This simplicity masks some omissions, however. For example, there is no place to add the maiden name of a woman. My only choices, in fact, are to add Prefix, Given Names, Family Names and birth and death dates.

Transcribe interface on BillionGraves.com
So there is no way to add the maiden name, nicknames, or other information that may be present on the grave. I can of course add a nickname into the 'Given Names' field and I can add the maiden name to the 'Family Names' field, but how? If I add the maiden name one way such as in parenthesis, and someone else does it differently, then what if I only want to look for women whose maiden names were Smith? I can't do that, and BillionGraves.com can't add this later without making people go back and correct the data later.

There is no way to fully transcribe a gravestone, to add information on the individual, to add a memorial to the person, etc. This can all be added later, but then how do they know which graves already transcribed have more information to be added once they offer that capability?

There is no way to add more than one photo of a grave, such as when there is writing on both the front and back. There also doesn't seem to be a way to prevent duplicate entries of the same grave. Perhaps they're expecting the GPS coordinates uploaded with the photos to help them figure out duplicates, but there is nothing that indicates that to me, and nothing to prevent someone from photographing a grave already photographed.

While FindAGrave.com could improve the experience quite a bit, they do support the ability to link graves of spouses, parents, etc. This is an important feature, and one that BillionGraves needs to support.

From a Jewish perspective, of course, there doesn't seem to be support for other languages such as Hebrew – common on Jewish gravestones.

The iPhone app is free through June 1 (the next two days) and then AppTime will be charging $1.99 for the app. Presumably the web site itself will remain free. An Android app is currently being worked on and they hope to release it in the next few weeks. For more information on BillionGraves, go to their web site or their blog.

If you have an iPhone then download the App by June 1st for free and give it a try. Let me know what you think in the comments. If you use FindAGrave.com, let me know what you think of the differences.

I hope AppTime fixes some of the initial issues with the web site and wish them the best of luck in this new effort. I also hope FindAGrave.com wakes up and puts out their own cell phone apps to provide a way to upload geo-tagged photographs to their site as easily. Let's hope competition improves both sites.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Finding local records

A recent tweet by Leland Meitzler caught my eye, linking to a post on his blog GenealogyBlog.com, that referenced an article by Allison Carter about researching roots in Newton, MA. I grew up in the town next to Newton, so I thought it would be interesting to see what the article was talking about. My family didn't move to Massacusetts until the 1960s, so there was unlikely to be anything directly related to my family, but I'm always curious about new resources available online.

The article mentions that the City of Newton recently posted birth, marriage and death records, as well as city directories, online. The city scanned these documents and has made them available as PDF files on a new Genealogy page on their web site. They have birth, marriage and death records from 1635 up until 1899, and city directories from 1868 up until 1934. They say more will be added in the future. It's nice to see a city making these records available to the public and I hope more communities will follow suit.

As I looked at the most recent City Directory from 1934 it occurred to me that as a researcher looking for Jewish ancestors, I was unlikely to find much from that far back. While Newton today has a large Jewish population, I don't believe it had very much at all in the 1930s, and certainly not earlier. That made me think about the communities in the Boston area that had earlier Jewish populations – places like Lowell, Roxbury and Dorchester. Did these communities have records online? Like in many cities, Boston's Jewish community had over the years started in the urban and industrial centers and moved out to the suburbs. This process is still continuing today.

I first searched for Lowell, as I know a family that has a long history there, and wanted to see if they would show up in any records. Some searching online turned up a Genealogy Resources page on a site run by the Center for Lowell History at the University of Massachusetts. One of the pages listed in the resources is Lowell - Vital Records 1865-1970. From there, there are pages for Births, Marriage Intentions and Deaths. Each one of those pages lets you look at the transcribed records (not the originals), but you need to know the year in order to find the record. There is no search. That can be fixed with a little help from Google of course. Searching Google for:

site:http://library.uml.edu/ SURNAME

will search the entire web site for the surname I specify (add site: before the web site URL, a space, and then the keyword(s) you are searching for). Indeed running this search on the surname of the family I was searching for found a page from the Marriage Intentions section in 1947 showing a couple I once knew, including the maiden name of the wife and the issue of the newspaper in which it was published. The page indicates that the index was created from marriage announcements in the Lowell Sunday Telegram, a newspaper that ceased publishing in 1952 (it was bought out by a competitor). One can go to the UMass library in Lowell and access these newspapers to see the original citation, but I was curious if the newspaper was available online.

GenealogyBank.com, which I've written about before, has thousands of newspapers online. I looked at their title list and while they list three other Lowell newspapers (all published in the 19th century), they do not have the Lowell Sunday Telegram.

I then checked out Chronicling America, a project to digitize historical newspapers run by the Library of Congress, but it appears they do not have any newspapers from Massachusetts (yet). They do, however, point to the fact that the Boston Public Library holds copies of the Lowell Sunday Telegram on both microfilm and in the original. Hopefully either GenealogyBank or Chronicling America will get around to scanning the Lowell Sunday Telegram one day. At least we know it is preserved in at least two libraries, and is on microfilm.

So what about the other towns in Massachusetts that had early Jewish communities? I can't say I've been as lucky there in finding records. The flight of Jews from communities like Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan is well documented. One book which looks interesting (although I have not read) on this topic is The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions which focuses specifically on these communities and was co-written by the former editor of The Jewish Advocate, Boston's largest Jewish newspaper. The Jewish Advocate has been published since 1902 and their archives would certainly be important for anyone researching Jews in the Boston area for the past century. The Jewish Advocate actually does have an online archive, although it only has issues dating back to 1991, which means it is not very useful for researching these former major Jewish communities. JewishGen, however, does offer a Boston obituary database from 1905 to 2008 gleaned from the Jewish Advocate.

Another approach to researching these communities is to find people in the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF). Most people think of the JGFF as only covering communities overseas, but you can add records to the database for any community, and indeed Dorchester, Lowell, Mattapan and Roxbury all have entries in the JGFF. See my earlier article on the JGFF if you're not familiar with how it works.

So what's the moral of this story? Especially if you have no Jewish roots and you just trudged through this article and the Jewish part doesn't apply to your research? There are a lot of local resources available, if you spend the time to look for them. Other sites like USGenWeb can be useful in tracking down local records, as are specific sites like DeathIndexes.com, but in the end a bit of time and effort searching for the town you want to find records in is the best idea, as you never know where you might find them. The big record database sites like FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com are great, but sometimes the tiniest local site might actually have what you're looking for...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Genealogy Basics: Up, Down and Sideways

Genealogy humor: "Only a Genealogist regards a step backwards as progress". While amusing, it also points to an interesting issue faced by many people interested in genealogy.

Many people who research their family are very focused on going back as far as they can. Perhaps the thought is that if you go back far enough you're bound to find someone famous (or infamous) you're related to, some royal blood, family that lived in a famous town, or lived through famous events in history.

There are actually a few different directions you can research your family. You can, as mentioned, research up your tree. You can also research down your tree, taking your oldest known ancestor in one line and researching all of their children, grandchildren, etc. (not just the line that leads to you). You can also research sideways, researching collateral ancestors, like the siblings and spouses of your known ancestors. Each of these techniques is useful, and indeed you will likely need to try all of them when doing your research if you want to be successful.

Let me give a good example of why researching your non-direct lines is important. Let's say you've tracked back to your great-grandfather who lived in Poland or Russia in the 19th century before moving to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. That fits the profile of a large percentage of American Jews. Now if you've been able to find out about the great-grandfather but haven't been able to get back further than that, we call that a brick-wall.

Maybe you only have information on your great-grandfather from after he arrived in the US, and you haven't been able to find the name of the town where he was born in Poland.

Maybe you know which town he was from, but it's a large city and he has a common last name, which makes research nearly impossible.

In this case you've researched up your tree to your great-grandfather. The next step is to research down your tree from your great-grandfather to find all of his descendants, your aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Even if your goal wasn't to document these branches of your family, you need to realize that just like you have certain information on your family and where they came from, your extended family likely has different information, some small piece which might help you in your search. Mapping out all of the descendants of your most-distant-known-ancestor can frequently lead you to additional information about that ancestor.

Section of birth record of my grandfather's
aunt, showing the birthplace of her father,
my great-great-grandfather – Kanczuga.
In my own family research I was looking for records in the wrong town for many years because that's where my grandfather said our family was from originally. It was partially true. His siblings had been born in that town, as had some of his father's siblings. It was, in fact, one of his father's siblings' records which led me to the town my gg-grandfather was from originally. If I had only been searching directly up my tree, I would never have discovered this fact, since my great-grandfather's birth record (which took much longer to find in any case) did not name the town where his father was born. Even though it might seem a waste to look for records on all the siblings of the people whom you are primarily searching for (you can think of this as searching sideways), remember that they share the same parents and grandparents, and thus any information you find will help your search.

An important point is that it turns out that cousins of mine knew the town my gg-grandfather was born in long before I discovered it. Had I been in touch with these distant cousins earlier, it would have saved me a lot of pointless research.

Another way to search sideways is to contact cousins that you may not have figured out quite where they fit in your tree. In the case above, it was actually a cousin whom I knew was related, but wasn't sure how they were related. If I had in fact pursued the question of how we were related and asked where their branch was from, it would have led me straight to the town from which my branch also originated.

Also, if you find references to relatives in family letters and don't think it's worth figuring out who those distant relatives mentioned are, think again. If you've hit a brick wall, those distant cousins, or their descendants, may be the ones that can help you knock down that wall.

Those distant relatives may also have photographs of your common ancestors. Another example from my own family concerns family photographs. I received portrait photographs of ancestors of mine, but without labels showing me who they were. After contacting a distant cousin and having him send me family photographs in his possession for me to copy, I found other copies of the same portraits with the names labeled on the back. They were, in fact, my ggg-grandparents, the in-laws of the gg-grandfather mentioned above. Many years later, someone contacted me through the JewishGen Family Finder (read my earlier article on JGFF if you're not familiar with this amazing resource for Jewish researchers) and he turned out to be a 4th cousin of mine, descended from the same ggg-grandparents. Now, because I had received the portraits, and another cousin had labeled alternate versions of the same pictures, and this cousin from the other side of my family (he was a descendant of the sister of my gg-grandmother) had found me through JGFF, he now had photographs of his ggg-grandparents. This is why it's so important to seek out your distant cousins, because you never know who has what information (or what photo).

So when searching for your relatives, even your direct ancestors, always remember to look for other descendants, some of which may know much more (sometimes just that one tiny important detail more) about your ancestors than you. Feel free to share your stories on finding information from distant cousins in the comments.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hebrew Ethical Wills from JPS 70% off – for three days

I have been meaning to write something about the topic of Ethical Wills, a very fascinating topic in my opinion. Ethical Wills have a long tradition in the Jewish community, and essentially outline one's moral and ethic code for your children and other descendants (separate from a monetary will). The first ethical will might, ironically, be the same chapter in Genesis that I described in my last article where Jacob was blessing his sons and compared some of them to various animals. Those comparisons were in the context of what today we would probably consider an ethical will (although I don't suggest comparing your children to animals in your will).

In any case, I haven't had time to write about this topic yet, but I just saw that JPS is having an overstock sale for the next three days, and that their important work Hebrew Ethical Wills is one of the books that is on sale for 70% off. That puts the cost at $10.50 for a new copy from the publisher. I think that's a pretty good deal for an important work on this topic. I've embedded the discount code into the link so it should get added automatically, but if for some reason it doesn't show up the code is OS2011 and just add it once you add the book to your shopping cart. If you want to see the other books on sale, go to the sale page. Note that the sale ends in three days on May 20, 2011. Presumably that's the end of the day Eastern time in the US, since JPS is based in Philadelphia, PA. The book itself contains excerpts of various forms of ethical wills that date back almost a millennium, including texts by Nachmanides (Ramban), Maimonides (Rambam) and the Vilna Gaon, but also lesser-known individuals as well. It is certainly interesting that the moral code shown in these documents over hundreds of years is essentially very similar, as they are derived from the same religious and historical Jewish sources. If one wanted to show that religion can dictate morality, then these documents would certainly make a very good case-study.

I'll warn you that the book is a facsimile edition of a book originally published in 1926. As such is it not the easiest book to read. A new introduction was written in 1976, and some new material including excerpts of Gluckl of Hameln were added in 2006 to add a female perspective to what is otherwise all writings by male authors. If you follow the link to the book on Amazon (in a box to the left) you can use their 'Look Inside' feature to see what the book looks like, or if you prefer there is a Google Preview of the book as well on the JPS page on the book. Of course, if you're reading this post after May 20, 2011, then the Amazon link is probably your best bet to find a deal on the book.

[The sale is now over, but you can get it from JPS or from Amazon if you're interested in reading it.]

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Animals and Name Pairs in Jewish Given Names

This article is a brief look at two common historic Jewish naming patterns, and how they intersect. The first naming pattern is the use of animal names from Hebrew and/or Yiddish. The second pattern is giving two related names to a child.

Illustration from Worth1000.com
In some cases when given two names the names constituted a shem kodesh (holy name, used in religious functions) and a kinui (secular name, used in the world at large). When doing genealogical research on your family, you may sometimes run across the shem kodesh (i.e. on an all-Hebrew gravestone) and at another time run into the person's kinui (i.e. in a newspaper article) and not realize that they are in fact the same person. Some records will, if you're lucky, record the both names as first and middle names for a person, but sometimes there is only one. Knowing how names are sometimes paired together can help you connect the dots in your research. Another important point is that if you do run across a document that lists both a first and middle name for a Jewish ancestor, they might have only publicly been know by the middle name (which could have been their kinui). Thus if you find a reference to someone whose first name doesn't match the person you're looking for, but their middle name does, then you should be taking a closer look at that reference to see if it's the same person.

Animal associations with Jewish given names probably originate with the blessings given in the Bible by Jacob to his sons before he died. While some sons were associated with other things in the blessings (such as the seashore), five were given animal associations. Let’s stop for a moment to look at the names and their associated animals as they show up in naming patterns even today. These are all listed in Chapter 49 of Genesis:

Yehuda (Judah)LionJudah is a lion's whelp
IssacharDonkeyIssachar is a large-boned ass
DanSnakeDan shall be a serpent in the way
NaftaliDeer“Naftali is a hind (female deer) let loose”
Binyamin (Benjamin)WolfBenjamin is a wolf that raveneth
* Bible quotes from the JPS 1917 Edition online edition from Mechon Mamre

Now, it’s not surprising that Dan and Issachar do not have naming patterns that follow the animals they are associated with, as no one wants to name their child after a snake or a donkey. However, the remaining three are common name associations. Some variations:

Yehuda Aryeh/Leib/Leyb/Loeb (Aryeh is Hebrew and Leib is Yiddish for lion)
Naftali Hirsch/Tzvi (Hirsch is Yiddish and Tzvi Hebrew for deer )
Binyamin Ze'ev/Wolf/Wulf/Volf (Ze'ev is Hebrew and Volf is Yiddish for wolf)

Other animal name pairings exist that do not come directly from the bible. Some common examples include:

Aryeh Leib/Leyb/Loeb (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of lion)
Ze’ev Wolf (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of wolf)
Dov Ber (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of bear)
Tziporah Feiga (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of bird, a woman's name)
Tzvi Hirsch (Hebrew and Yiddish forms of deer or gazelle)

In addition to these name pairings, there are also other animal names that are used, which include:

Ayelet/Ayala (modern female names based on Hebrew word for a deer)
Deborah (Hebrew for bee)
Rachel (Hebrew for young lamb)
Yael (modern female name based on Hebrew word for an ibex)
Yonah (Hebrew for dove, generally a male name)

It’s also worth noting that many name pairs existed that had nothing to do with animals. Some examples include:

Asher Anshel (Anshel is Yiddish form of Asher, derived from Hebrew word for happy and blessed)
Esther Malka (Queen Esther, Malka being the Hebrew word for a queen)
Menachem Mendel (Hebrew and Yiddish words meaning comfort)
Shlomo Zalman (Zalman is Yiddish form of Shlomo, derived from Hebrew word for peace, Shalom)

You might recognize that the name pair Menachem Mendel is still commonly used among Lubavitcher chassidim, as that was the name of the seventh (and as of now, last) Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away in 1994.

Name on Polish birth certificate from 1888
Of course, just because you find one side of these pairs does not mean the other side will be the same. This is not a rule, just a common pattern. In my own tree there is a Binyamin Mendel, for example, which in many references shows up as just Mendel. If you only used the above you might think his first name was Menachem, which would be wrong. If you only knew his first name was Binyamin you might thing his kinui was Wolf, but you would also be wrong. At the very least recognize when you hear a name of someone you are researching, especially when used in a casual framework, that the name may legally have been their middle name and not their first name.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Five Way To Follow Blood and Frogs

I get asked often what the best way is to follow the blog, as people want to know when something new is posted. The answer is that it there are lots of options, and it really depends on you (like if you use Facebook or Twitter, if you want to receive more e-mail, etc.). You'll notice on the top of the page there is now a link called 'Follow This Blog' which will take you to a page listing five different ways to follow this blog.

The five ways to follow this blog that I describe include E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Google Friend Connect and RSS. In many cases you might decide to utilize more than one of these options. Read the Follow This Blog page for more information.

Name Changes at Ellis Island

I think that there are three stages in the evolution of a genealogist.

The first stage is when they hear that family names were changed at Ellis Island they believe it.

The second stage is when they realize the whole Ellis Island Name Change thing is a myth, and basically no names were changed there.

The third stage is when they recognize that most myths are based on some aspect of truth, and even if you know a name in question wasn't changed at Ellis Island, there is probably something to your family story that may help your research.

This leads into a different issue in that as genealogists we find a lot of the what, but a lot less of the why in our research. If we do discover that a family name was changed that is a what find, but it doesn't usually tell us at all why the name was changed. This is one of many frustrations a genealogist comes across, as some changes don't seem to make any sense at all. When you research your family and you find vital records, obituaries, etc. you get a lot of the what, but hardly any why.

I have a story in my family that tells the supposed why of a name change. My great-grandmother's name was Rachel Cohen. She was born in what is now Belarus in 1898 and moved to New York sometime around the turn of the century. As an adult she looked for work but couldn't find a job. Her friends told her her name was too Jewish sounding. So she changed her name and the next day got a job as a telephone operator at Macy's. What did she change her name to? Ruth Cohen.

Why are Names Changed?

I was reminded of this story recently while reading a book from the National Genealogical Society called Petitions for Name Changes in New York City 1848-1899 (on Amazon) which was published in 1984 and lists the name change petitions on file in the Hall of Records in New York City for the years 1848-1899. The book is simply a listing of the 890 petitions made during that time period. As the full text of the petition is given, the interesting thing is that the reason for requesting a name change is also given as part of the request. Of course, a good portion of the name changes from this period deals with immigrants.

The reasons given for changing one's name in this book generally fall into a few categories. There are people whose names put them up to ridicule, usually because the meaning of the name in the US is different than it was where the petitioner was born (Schitter to Schiller). There are those who wanted to simplify their names because it was hard to spell for English speakers (Lishniewsky to Lish, Klinkowstein to Kling, Koenigsberger to King, Sandelawsky to Sands). Some found that there were other people with the same name in New York (imagine that?) and wanted to change their name so there would be less confusion. Many name changes were children of divorced parents who wanted to take on their mother's maiden name.

Frequently name changes followed other relatives who had done the same. Two petitions show a man who changed his name because the woman he wanted to marry objected to taking the name (Rindskopf), and the father who a year later changed his name to match his son (now Risdorf). Of course the second petition by the father doesn't mention the reason the son changed his name, just that other family had changed their name to Risdorf. Perhaps someone whose German is better can explain the meaning of Rindskopf, but it seems to me to be meat head. Another Rindskopf, not clearly related, changed his name to Rieders.

At least two women actually took their deceased husbands' names in order to help continue their businesses without difficulty. Many cases also show relatives offering the petitioner money to change their names, sometimes when the relative did not have someone to continue their surname and wanted the petitioner to change their name in order to keep the surname alive. Sometimes the receipt of an inheritance was dependent on the petitioner changing their name. What one finds in many cases is that the petitioner has already used a different name in business or school for many years, and now is trying to legalize the name they have been known by, in some cases, for decades.

One common reason, similar to my great-grandmother's name change, was antisemitism or just general xenophobia. Many people changed their names to help get jobs, or improve their businesses, etc. Indeed, when you consider that the main reason most immigrants came to America during that period was for employment, it's not surprising that people were willing to change their names to help get themselves a job. Sometimes the petitions state the reason clearly, that the person is Jewish and wants to change their name, while other times a euphemism is used such as "would be advantageous" or "will obtain pecuniary advantages." Sometimes the person already had a job, but their boss didn't want to bother calling them by a name he couldn't pronounce and just called them something else. Over time the person would decide they wanted to use their new boss-chosen name legally.

One interesting name change, which might not seem so at first glance, was from Alter J. Saphirstein to Jacob Saphirstein. All the petition says is that he is known to his friends and in business as Jacob and now wants to take that name legally. What isn't said is what Alter means. Alter means 'old' in Yiddish. You might wonder why a parent would name their child old? Well, it was actually quite common when the child in question was sick as a baby. If the baby had problems when born and the parents feared the child would die, they would name their child Alter to confuse the Angel of Death. Imagine the Angel of Death looking on his list of names for a baby to take, and finding someone named Old – obviously that can't be the baby he was looking for, so move on. Well, that was the idea. In this case it would seem his name was Alter Jacob (notice the J. middle initial) and he was just dropping the Alter from his name, which he obviously never used himself.

My 'Ellis Island Story'

So back to Ellis Island. Like many families, I had an 'Ellis Island Story' too. Technically speaking it wouldn't have been at Ellis Island as my family arrived in the US before Ellis Island opened its doors in 1892, but it was of the genre. My grandfather told me that some of our family, whose name is Trauring, arrived in the US and when the clerk asked them for their name they didn't understand and probably said a word in English they knew, Husband, and the clerk heard Hausman, and they ended up being known as Hausman. It sounds like a pretty standard immigration story.

Just to be clear, passengers arriving the US could not change their names at the port of arrival in the US. In fact, clerks at these ports worked off of passenger manifests provided by the shipping companies that had been filled out overseas. If a mistake was made to the name, it wasn't done in the US port of arrival. There is no truth to the myth that people's names were mangled by clerks who didn't speak the same language as the immigrant, etc. as everything was written down and the clerks just copied the names from the passenger manifests. While my grandfather told me a story which is demonstrably not completely true, there were some pieces of the story which even my grandfather didn't realize were true.

My gg-grandfather Isaac Trauring (my grandfather's grandfather) married Ester Hausmann. They were the first generation of my family to arrive in the US. Knowing that my gg-grandmother's maiden name was Hausmann added a bit of interest in the story I had heard about the immigration name change. Was there any truth to the story that someone whose name was Trauring had gone by the name Hausmann?

In later years I discovered an emergency passport application filed by Isaac Trauring in Vienna in 1914 that showed the name of the ship and the date he arrived in the US. Originally I got copies of this document through the US State Department, but later it turned up on Ancestry.com as well (with a page not provided by the State Department by the way). I looked up the passenger manifest for the ship mentioned in the passport application. Isaac wasn't in the passenger manifest for that ship. The name of his wife, Ester Hausman, does show up in the manifest, however, as does the name of her brother Moses Hausmann and sister Chana Hausmann. In the manifest, however, it lists Moses Hausmann and Ester Hausmann as the same age and married to each other.

1884 Passenger Manifest showing 3 Hausmans (Ester in the middle)
It occurred to me at the time that perhaps the Moses Hausmann in the manifest was actually Isaac Trauring, using identification documents from Esther's brother to travel to the Unite States. The third person, Chana Hausmann, actually matches very closely in age to a real sister Chana, so perhaps the sister traveled with them. The one person missing, however, is Isaac and Ester's daughter Katey which would have been two years old at the time. Was it actually Isaac on the ship as he said in the passport application? or did Isaac travel with daughter Katey on a different ship? or did Katey arrive with someone else at a later date? or maybe the ship listed was altogether wrong and the fact that there is an Ester Hausmann on this ship is just coincidence?

So fast forward a few more years and Ancestry.com released additional passport applications, including one by a child of Isaac and Ester that was born in 1897 in New York (the brother of my great-grandfather). In his application, there is an explanatory note that while his birth certificate lists his last name as Hausmann, his real last name is Trauring, and it was just a mistake made by the midwife who recorded the birth:

This wasn't actually the first time I had thought to look up birth records under the name Hausman, but I hadn't been successful in the past. However, here in front of me was proof that the name at birth of Isaac and Ester's children (or at least this child) was Hausman. First, this would seem to give support to the theory that the Moses Hausmann in the passenger manifest was actually Isaac Trauring. Second, it offered real proof that a NY birth certificate existed for this child, if not others (they had at least three children in NY that survived to adulthood).

FamilySearch.org has New York births from this period indexed on their web site, so a quick search of their site (for Abrum J. Hausman born in 1894) returns an Abraham Jou Hausman, born in 1894, to Isaac Hausman and Esther Hausman Hausman. No that's not a typo, it actually lists her last name twice, because it is her maiden name and her married name according to the birth certificate. We know why this is the case, since Isaac was using her surname, she had to list hers twice. The full FamilySearch.org results (click to enlarge):
FamilySearch.org Search Results for 'Abrum J. Hausman'
Now, if one would want to order that birth record, you can do so from the NYC Department of Records, but I want to point something important about online indexes like that on FamilySearch. When ordering a birth certificate, it is helpful to know the certificate number (to insure the correct record is reproduced), something not listed in the FamilySearch information. Presumably FamilySearch had access to this information, but when they indexed the birth certificates they did not add in the field for certificate number.

If you were to do the same search on Ancestry.com, you would get the following result:
Ancestry.com Search Results for 'Abrum J. Hausman'
Note that while Ancestry.com has provided less information than FamilySearch.org, such as leaving out the names of the parents, it has provided the certificate number. Also note that the name is indexed differently in each database. In the FamilySearch.org record, it seems to be an expansion of what is actually on the certificate, where they guessed (or based on a list of abbreviations) that Ab was Abraham, but didn't know what to do with the Jou (which is actually Joseph). In the case of Ancestry.com, they actually match the text as written in the passport application exactly, which leads me to believe that in both the case of Ancestry.com and the birth certificate shown for the passport application, there was probably an index created of these records that both Ancestry.com and the Board of Health clerk who issued the birth certificate transcription in 1915 used.

The moral of the story here is that if you have access to more than one database that covers the same information, it is usually worthwhile to search both, as they will not always give you the same information.

This is the actual birth certificate as provided by the NYC Department of Records (click to enlarge):
Birth Certificate of Abraham Joseph Hausman/Trauring
Now who here thinks it was a mistake by the midwife? Yeah, me neither. In fact, in birth certificates from two other births of children from this same couple, the Hausman name is shown in the same fashion.

If you look at the birth certificate closely, there is an important piece of information that you might miss at first glance. It shows the number of children born previously to the mother, and the number currently living. This is similar to the information in the 1900 and 1910 US Federal Census records (see my US Immigrant Census Form on the Forms page for more information about that). In this case it shows 7 children born, 5 still living. If one were unaware of the number of children in a family then this is a good way to check that you are searching for the correct number. Indeed out of the five listed as living at that point, I know of only three that survived into adulthood. I have an additional birth certificate of a child was born two years earlier, but whom I don't know anything else about (so presumably died), and there is a child who died young before they moved to the US. It would seem that at least indirectly I can account for all the surviving children, although there is at least one death I am not aware of from any of my records. Of course, there is an alternative possibility, that the child born two years earlier did survive, and I just don't know about her. That would mean that there were two deceased children I was unaware of instead of just one.

It would seem from the above that it was not likely a mistake, but rather the family was indeed living under the name Hausman. The name didn't change at Castle Garden (where they would have arrived instead of Ellis Island which had not yet opened) and it wasn't a mistake by some clerk, but rather for reasons not entirely clear, the family arrived using the name Hausman and kept it. Probably they just used ID documents with the Hausman name as they didn't have any other IDs in the US. In later years, as evidenced by the passport application, all of the children were known by the Trauring name, not by the Hausman name, and indeed when Isaac Trauring later became a Naturalized citizen, there is no mention of using the Hausman name at all in his application. I believe this is because he left the US for a brief period after these births and returned with proper documentation before starting the Naturalization process.

So the story I heard years ago about a branch of the Trauring family going by the name Hausman was indeed true, and not only that, it was my own branch. Name change issues can be very complicated, as this episode shows, where the name changed and then changed back so that documents exist for earlier dates under the original name, then exist under the changed name, and later under the original name again. This is not so different from the issue of children using their mother's maiden name due to lack of civil marriage by their parents (only having a religious marriage), then later switching back their father's name, as described in my earlier article Religious marriages, civil marriages and surnames from mothers.

In the end, whether the reason for a relatives' name change was because of pressure to fit in, overt racism, to get an inheritance, to take the name of one's mother after one's parents divorced, to reclaim a father's name, to improve one's business, or just because they had the wrong documentation when they arrived, the very real possibility that members of your family did change their names at some point, even if it wasn't at Ellis Island, is something to consider when doing your research.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Grave of the 'Unknown' Soldier

Yom HaZikaron Ceremony. Photo from Wikipedia.
Tonight begins Yom HaZikaron in Israel, Israel's memorial day for fallen soldiers. As with most Jewish holidays, the 'day' begins at sundown the night before and ends at sundown the following day. Tomorrow night begins Yom HaAzmaut, Israel's Independence Day.

It's always struck me as incredibly emotional to have a country's Memorial Day lead directly into its Independence Day. This has a lot to do with Israel having had a mandatory draft, for men and women, for its entire existence. Just about anyone who grew up in Israel, or moved here young enough to have served in the army, has friends and/or family that were killed while serving in the Israeli army. In some ways one can compare the attitude of memorial day in Israel to that of memorial day in communities in the US that have large military connections. It's unfortunate, by true, that in many areas of the US, Memorial Day is considered just another day off from work. It's hard to think that way in a small country like Israel where everyone knows someone who was killed.

On Yom HaZikaron, all Israeli TV stations either broadcast a memorial symbol like a burning candle, or broadcast programming that respects the reverence of the day. Only the kids channels and foreign channels broadcast normally.

Another fascinating thing that happens on Memorial Day in Israel is that a 2 minute siren is sounded around the entire country, at which time people stop what they're doing and listen. Car actually pull over on the highway and wait for the siren to finish. The first time I was driving on a major highway at the time of the siren, I had no idea why everyone was pulling over. Other driving knew to pull over even before the siren started, and I didn't realize why everyone was pulling over until the siren sounded. Here's a Youtube video of this very interesting experience:

So what does any of this have to do with genealogy? Well, I was just reading a fascinating article from one of Israel's main newspapers, Haaretz, titled Identifying the unknown soldiers from Independence War. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once proclaimed that Israel did not have a grave for unknown soldiers like other countries. The point was that he intended to insure that there was never a need for such a memorial – that every soldier would be known.

The article describes the efforts the Israeli Army goes to to identify 'unknown soldiers' from various wars, including now doing DNA testing when necessary to confirm the identity of soldiers who, due to the circumstances of the war, were buried without proper identification.

Somehow after last week's Holocaust-related posts (on Yom HaShoah, also last week, Israeli TV stations also do not broadcast normal programming) it seemed appropriate to mention this article which points out that many of the 'unknown soldiers' in Israel were Holocaust survivors who arrived in Israel just in time to fight and die for the nascent State of Israel. Many Jews arrived from Europe with no family or friends who knew them in Israel, and when they died fighting had no one to insure they were properly memorialized. The Israeli army's Eitan unit, which handles the investigations into unknown soldiers, identified the graves of fourteen soldiers from the 1948 War of Independence between 2009 and 2010, and nine out of those fourteen soldiers were Holocaust survivors

While a sad topic, it is somehow clear how fitting Israel's scheduling of Independence Day the day after Memorial Day is, when you realize how the initial soldiers in Israel's War of Independence died fighting to insure the country was not snuffed out before it even began. All the more reason it seems critically important that those soldiers who have no memorial today are identified, found and have proper memorials set up.

Update: Someone posted a video taken in the open marketplace in downtown Jerusalem yesterday on Yom HaZikaron which I think is worth seeing. The video shows the hustle and bustle of the open marketplace and about a minute in to the video the siren begins...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

World Memory Project: USHMM and Ancestry.com Team Up

The US Holocaust Memory Museum (USHMM) has teamed up with Ancestry.com to digitize and index the millions of documents from the USHHM's archives. This partnership is leveraging the indexing software that Ancestry.com build for its existing community project, the World Archives Project. Basically, this software allows people to register on Ancestry.com (this is free) and select a document in the queue, view a document, and then transcribe it so it will become searchable. The software knows the structure of the document you are transcribing and helps you through the process. Usually the way this kind of system works is that more than one person ends up transcribing each document, and then if there are any differences between the multiple transcriptions, an expert reviewer will check the transcription and correct any mistakes. This redundant system allows non-expert transcribers to help in a massive indexing projects like this one.

I wrote awhile back about the concept of giving back to genealogy through indexing projects like this one. In that article I explained how the process works at FamilySearch.org, whose indexing program is very similar. If you have been researching family members that were killed in the Holocaust then this is a great way to give back to the community. The millions of records being indexed from the USHMM archive will increase our knowledge about millions of people whose lives are recorded in these documents. Many of these documents will hold the key to families discovering what happened to their relatives during the war.

At the beginning, the project has started out indexing the following ten document collections:
  • USHMM Ain, France, Selected Holocaust Records
  • USHMM Czech Republic, Jews Deported to Terezin and Poland
  • USHMM Czech Republic, Selected Jewish Holocaust Records, 1939-1941
  • USHMM Eure-et-Loir, France, Selected Holocaust Records
  • USHMM Munich, Germany, Displaced Jewish Orphans at the Ulm Children's Home, 1945-1948
  • USHMM Palestine, Illegal Immigration from Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1938-1946
  • USHMM Poland, Jewish Holocaust Survivors Registered in Warsaw, 1945-1946
  • USHMM Poland, Jewish Prisoners of War in Lublin, 1939-1941
  • USHMM Poland, Jews Displaced from Biała Podlaska to Mie̜dzyrzecz Podlaski, 1942
  • USHMM Romania, Family Questionnaires for Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Victims, 1945
The languages vary per collection, but the system is designed to allow even those without knowledge of the specific language to help transcribe the documents. Of course, if you do know one of the languages from these collections, that can only help. As the Palestine collection was generated by the British Mandate government, that collection is largely in English.

The project expects the first documents to be made available by this summer or early fall. As more document collections are completed they will be added to the web site. Like other collections that are indexed by the public (through the World Archives Project), these collections will be free to search, even though it is being hosted by Ancestry.com.

To get an idea of how indexing a document works, you can view a video guide the project has posted for one of the Polish collections:

The video should give you a good idea of how the process works.

[Update: Ancestry seems to have removed the video from their site and made it private on Youtube. I don't know why this is case, but you can go to their written explanation of the same data collection to see pictures of the records and what information is extracted from them.]

One important note, especially since I am a Mac user myself, is that the Ancestry.com software being used for this project does not support the Mac. You can only currently join this project if you are running Windows. Hopefully Ancestry.com will remedy this problem in the near future.

It seems this week has had two intertwined themes running through it, the Holocaust and the digitization of archives. This project certainly borrows from both themes and it is great that there is a way for everyone to help in bringing these very important archival materials online.