Answers to Geni Skeptics

Over and over again, I see the same questions and negative comments from folks who can’t seem to understand the beauty of the World Family Tree at  So, here are some answers to their issues:

  1. Someone stole my tree and put it on Geni.  You are confusing the different qualities of the word “my.” It can be used as a possessive, as in “that’s my wallet.” But it can also be used as an attribute, as in “red is my favorite color.” You can steal a wallet, but not your favorite color. When you say “my family tree,” it does not mean you own it. It just means that your name appears on the tree. You don’t own the facts on your tree.  You don’t own your mother and father, even if you call them “my mother” or “my father.”  So, no one can “steal” your family tree. Additionally, the law of copyright protects only original works of authorship. The basic facts on a family tree (name and dates and places of birth, marriage, death) are neither original nor authored by you. They are not protected by copyright. This is true even if you did a lot of work or paid a lot of money to compile the information. The bottom line is that anyone is allowed to create a family tree using the data on your family tree. So, get over it. Whoever added the information did you a favor. Now you don’t need to do it yourself.
  2. I found sooooo many mistakes on Geni.  Yes, there are mistakes on Geni, as there are on every family tree. Is your tree publicly available so we can check it to find your mistakes? The beauty of Geni is that you can find and correct the mistakes. Geni’s World Family Tree has 77 million connected profiles.  If only 1% of them have errors, that is still 770,000 mistakes. The fact that you discovered a few of them is no big deal. Did you try to fix them? Often you can just fix the mistakes yourself. Other times you can contact the managers or start a discussion on a profile to address mistakes. By allowing users to fix not only their own mistakes, but the mistakes of other people, the tree on Geni is quickly becoming the most accurate tree ever created. The same principle worked for Wikipedia. Initially, skeptics questioned whether a crowd-sourced encyclopedia could ever compete with and be as reliable as the professionally edited versions. Ten years later, the printed versions are obsolete and no longer being printed. Geni works the same way and with the same effect. After a while, the Geni tree surpasses and supersedes any other version.
  3. I want to be deleted.  No man is an island.  We all are part of the World Family Tree, even if we don’t want to be.  In general, you can’t boss other people around and tell them what to say and do.  Do you also go around to your friends and family and tell them not to talk about you? Do they listen?  So why do you think it is appropriate to do that on Geni?  You have two options: either ignore it if it bothers you, or join Geni and take over the management of your own profile so you can do with it what you want.
  4. I want my family member deleted.  This is a variant of the one above.  You say “I don’t care for myself, but my sister wouldn’t want to be on the Internet.” Please.  Let your sister take care of herself.  You aren’t responsible for her.  And all living people are private on Geni anyway.  Read Geni’s privacy policy.
  5. I want my children deleted.  Another variant of the above.  Why would you want your children deleted?  Do they not exist?  Why deprive them of their ancestry?  The answer is the same as for the previous ones.  You can’t boss people around and tell them who they can and cannot put on the World Family Tree. So just get over it. Besides, all living people are “private” on Geni already. Read Geni’s privacy policy. In most cases, if you ask the manager, they will remove your kids. And Geni policy is to remove them upon request. But someone will add them back in sooner or later, so it’s really pointless.
  6. Geni is dangerous because it will lead to identity theft.  First, there is no such thing as “identity theft.”  You don’t wake up one morning and say “Who am I?  Someone must have stolen my identity!”  What people call “identity theft” is merely garden variety fraud. The most common kind is the use of credit card information, ordinarily stolen in bulk from some merchant or individually by a store clerk.  Neither of these require the use of genealogical data. Another type of “identity theft” is when someone applies for a credit card in your name. This ordinarily is perpetrated by someone you know, someone with access to your mail, who also knows your address and phone number and social security number.  Usually it is someone living in the home.  Again, since the person already knows you and has access to all your information, there is no need to use an online genealogy source to perpetrate this type of fraud.  In the many years I have been following this issue, I have not heard of a single case of “identity theft” (or any crime) involving the use of an online family tree.  Not one.  But I bet you are still worried.  This is not because of any real risk, but of something called narcissistic paranoia.  People imagine that the world thinks they are as important as they feel themselves to be.  But trust me, with 7 billion people in the world, no one really cares about you.  No one is targeting you for fraud. Get over yourself.
  7. On Geni you lose all control of your tree.  Yes. That is what works so well. You collaborate with other people and together you solve problems, fix mistakes, make breakthroughs and build a better tree. Geni is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with millions of people working together at the same time on one single puzzle. If you are a control freak, and can’t work with other people, Geni is not for you. If, when you were in Kindergarten, you got a “Needs Improvement” in Works Well With Others, then Geni is not for you.  But remember, that beautiful little tree that you spruce up and polish and admire is going to simply disappear into oblivion when you are gone.  No one is going to care.  Eventually, someone will put all the data on Geni and no one will ever look at your work again.  No one.  But go on having fun hugging your tree.  You might want to put your private tree on MyHeritage, since that site works well for personal trees.
  8. I have a huge tree and don’t want to take the time to put it on Geni. This is a legitimate issue. But here’s the story. What you think of as a large tree is really very small. What do you have, a few thousand profiles? Geni’s World Family Tree has 77 million and is adding more at a rate of 7 million per year. Any personal tree with more than a few thousand profiles most likely is built by importing Gedcom files and adding data that is already on Geni. The problem is that Geni had to disallow importing Gedcom files because it caused too much duplication. But the problem you have is solvable. First, just start your tree again on Geni. Very soon, you will find a match with part of the existing tree. Then you can take advantage of the work that has already been done and not have to re-enter that part of the tree. With any sizable tree, you will find duplicates very quickly. Second, make sure to invite your family members to the tree so that they can assist in re-building it on Geni. This is one of Geni’s strengths, because everyone can work together. Last, ask for help. There are a lot of folks on Geni who love to just help people enter data. Start a discussion or ask a curator for help. Trust me, it is doable. There is some pain involved, but in the end you will be happy you took the time to migrate your data over to the Geni platform so that your tree can be part of the World Family Tree.
  9. There is no quality control on Geni. False. Geni has over 100 Curators whose job it is to help users resolve issues and to clean up messes in the tree. This is another unique feature on Geni that does not exist at any other collaborative tree program.
  10. I don’t want my ex-husband on my tree.  You should have thought of that before you married the jerk.  Seriously, the issue here is that genealogists have traditionally used marriage records to help identify people and discover genealogical data. This has made the marriage itself genealogically significant. So, even if it was just a few bad years for you, genealogists will want to include your marriage on the tree. Practically what this means is that you have to share your tree with your ex. Geni will keep living profiles private from ex-spouses and anyone else you remove from your family group. Some people still hate this. But it’s just something you have to get used to. On Geni, the goal is to have one single tree with everyone, so it doesn’t make sense to have ex-spouses working on separated trees. Especially if there are children from the marriage, it just doesn’t make sense.
  11. I have a problem with how Geni works. We all do. Geni is just a small company with a tiny staff that works very hard to keep the platform running. There are about a thousand pending improvements that we are all clamoring for.  Go to the Geni Help Desk and request an improvement.
  12. There are no sources on Geni. Geni is a place to build your family tree. Geni’s parent company, MyHeritage, competes with Ancestry in offering (for a fee) access to billions of records and other data sets (like US census records). On Geni, you can also pay to access the data on MyHeritage.  When there are record matches with data from MyHeritage, you can attach those records to your profiles on Geni (just as you can if you build your tree on Ancestry).
  13. The trees on Geni have no sources and are just copies of trees found elsewhere.  This may be true for some parts, but many parts of the World Family Tree are very well sourced. It just depends on who is doing the work and how much has been done. There are people who have added many thousands of documents and photos to the tree. (See the Geni Top 10 Lists to see who has done the most.) Bottom line is that the World Family Tree on Geni is only as good as we make it. If you have sources that aren’t on Geni, then go ahead and add them. What are you waiting for?
  14. I can’t figure out how to use Geni. There is a learning curve on Geni and in the beginning it can be steep. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a Curator.  Also search the Geni Wiki and the Knowledge Base at the Help Center.  Trust me, we’ve all been there. Not all of it is intuitive. But the good thing is that Geni is a very flexible tool. Pretty much anything is possible and all problems can get solved.  So be persistent and don’t give up.
  15. How do I stop someone from changing my tree?  If there’s a problem with vandalism, you can report the user from his profile page under the Actions menu, or contact a Curator. But if it’s just that you want absolute control, that’s something that Geni doesn’t allow. Geni is all about collaboration and working together. If you can’t stand the idea of someone adding or changing something on the tree, stay away from Geni. Of course, you’ll be missing out on the most exciting thing to happen to genealogy in the last 100 years, but that’s your choice.
  16. Who can get access to change my profiles?  A good question. Because of the various levels of privacy, there are several ways of getting access. If you are in the “family group” of the manager, that will give you the most access. Under the Actions menu on the manager’s profile page, you can request to add someone to your family group. You can also “collaborate,” which gives you the ability to edit only the public profiles of the other manager. Generally, deceased profiles should be public, and living ones private. Public profiles are searchable on Google, which is a great way for people to find your tree.
  17. Geni has all this fantasy stuff, Adam & Eve, Odin, Zeus, even God Almighty, and I don’t want my tree connected to such things.  Part of collaborating is allowing other folks to do their thing. Sometimes it strikes us as bizarre. But seriously, who cares? Most of us have plenty of trouble dealing with just the past few hundred years. If others want to make believe and work on fantasy trees from thousands of years ago, just ignore them and leave them alone. With over three million users connected to the World Family Tree, there are going to be more than a few crackpots. But you have to take the good with the bad. Working with others in the parts of the tree you care about is the main thing.
  18. The Geni tree is completely unreliable. Again, it depends where you look and who is doing the work. In the area I focus on, Austrian and Czech Jewry, the tree is incredibly accurate and reliable and includes tens of thousands of sources and documents added by dozens of users who work nearly every day to improve the tree. If you think you are the world’s expert on some part of the tree, and you haven’t put your work on Geni, then you only have yourself to blame. Geni is not the place to find the answers to your genealogical problems (although it often does have them), but rather it is the place for you to share your answers with others. Geni works because the best way to conduct any type of scientific research is to make your hypotheses public and allow others to check your work. Geni makes this possible like no other platform. See my earlier post On Certainty in Genealogy.  So, bottom line, either roll up your sleeves and get to work, or just be quiet and keep it to yourself.  There’s plenty of work still to be done and nobody likes the guy who just sits on the sidelines with his arms crossed criticizing all the other people who are actually doing the work.
  19. I’ve used another site and it’s better.  It’s pretty clear you have no idea what you are talking about. Those of us on Geni also use all of the other sites. We wouldn’t be on Geni if there was something better. There’s simply no comparison with the competition. The other collaborative trees are much, much smaller. Remember, the World Family Tree on Geni has over 77 million profiles and over 3 million connected users.  The World Family Tree is growing at a rate of 7 million profiles per year. And Geni also has millions of as yet unconnected trees added by millions of users. By comparison, WikiTree has just 7,395,539 profiles from 169,417 members. WeRelate has just 2,548,000 profiles. FamilySearch (operated by the Mormons) just started its collaborative tree, and it’s not certain how large it is, but it will be tough for them to catch up. The Mormons are industrious, but Geni already has an incredibly comprehensive Mormon family tree. (According to the Geni Forest Density Calculator, there are over 125,000 profiles within just seven steps of Brigham Young.) OneGreatFamily claims to have a big tree as large as or larger than the one on Geni, but I don’t know of anyone who uses it. It is not publicly searchable on Google as far as I can tell, which makes it a bit useless. Bottom line is that Geni has a big advantage over its competitors in terms of the size and number of users, which makes it really the only place worth putting your tree.
  20. I am a serious professional genealogist and people like me don’t use Geni.  Wrong. There are plenty of fabulous genealogists using Geni, including many professional genealogists. But you know better. You logged in one time in 2007, didn’t add any of your family, made a couple of searches and didn’t find the data you were seeking, and never came back. You don’t believe in sharing genealogy for free because, after all, that’s how you make your living. You have never tried to work with a client by using Geni to collaborate with him on his tree. You found a mistake on Geni and therefore decided the whole thing is worthless. (See #2 above.) You didn’t bother to try to fix the mistake because you’d rather criticize Geni than actually do genealogy. You think you are the greatest genealogist in the world, but you have no clue because you have never worked on a collaborative site like Geni and seen how other genealogists work. There are folks on Geni who do more serious genealogical work before breakfast each morning than you do in an entire week. But you wouldn’t know that, because you are too old-fashioned to try something new. You like to badmouth Geni to others because it threatens you and your livelihood. You are right to be afraid.
  21. Geni is a for-profit company and I won’t give my information to them so they can make money off of me. Geni is a small company with a handful of employees, now owned by MyHeritage. It makes enough money from subscriptions to keep itself going, but not much more. Your own contribution is negligible among the millions and millions of profiles on Geni.  So don’t worry about anyone making tons of money off your work. If you are under the illusion that your contribution to the World Family Tree is that valuable, see the comment about “narcissistic paranoia” above (#6) and just focus on the narcissism part, or better yet, look up “delusions of grandeur“.
  22. Geni might go out of business and then all my work will be lost. Your work will be lost anyway. Trust me, as soon as you’re gone, that tree on your hard drive will never be looked at again. That private website you pay for? Gone within months. Only if you publish is there some hope of your work outlasting you. An online tree is an easy place for most people to publish their work. Geni’s World Family Tree is a unique asset that will certainly continue to grow and have some non-negative value to whichever genealogy company owns it. Of all the trees being built today, it has the greatest chance of being maintained far in the future. You can also eliminate any short-term risk of data loss by exporting Gedcom backups from Geni. The real risk is in refusing to share or publish your data. What would you have to show for all your work if your home were to burn down? Have you ever considered that?

Disclaimer:  The views expressed above are my own and are not necessarily the views of Geni or its parent company MyHeritage.

Ich bin Österreicher

Today I was awarded Austrian citizenship. Last year Austria passed a new citizenship law (Section 64a Abs. 18 StbG) that allows children born between September 1, 1964 and August 31, 1983 to an Austrian mother to apply for citizenship. The deadline for application is April 30, 2014. Several years ago, my mother, who was born in New York in 1940 to parents who had fled from Austria, convinced the authorities that they should award her Austrian citizenship retroactively. I am not sure this was a normal application of the law, or if they made some exception for her. In any case, this meant that technically my mother was an Austrian citizen when I was born. Unfortunately for me, at the time of my birth, Austrian law did not allow a child to inherit citizenship from your mother.


As an aside, my father’s parents, also Viennese, had Czechoslovakian citizenship when they fled from Germany in 1933. Although my grandfather Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874, he was not able to obtain Austrian citizenship after World War I because of discriminatory anti-Semitic laws that prohibited “Eastern” Jews (from Hungary, Slovakia, Galicia, etc) from obtaining Austrian citizenship. Arnold had inherited from his father the status “zustaendig nach Pressburg” (meaning he had official residence rights only in Pressburg/Bratislava), so he automatically became a citizen of Czechoslovakia after WWI. More recent restitution laws have corrected this injustice, but not posthumously, so my father is not entitled to Austrian citizenship. So I had to rely on my mother’s status.

1689170_10151963463601270_1426601067_nIn any case, I applied under the new law, which was a bit cumbersome (FBI fingerprint reports, apostilled birth and marriage certificates, a biometric passport photo), and just today received my certificate awarding me retroactive Austrian citizenship. The good news is that I can now pass citizenship on to my children. The ones under 14 require only an application, while the older one first needs to pass a basic German test and a quiz on Austrian history. But once they are citizens, they can study and live anywhere in Europe. I figure that this might come in handy for them someday.

If anyone else is in the same boat, I urge you to contact your nearest Austrian consulate and get your application in before the April 30 deadline.

Schoenberg drought continues

Almost two years ago, I blogged about the fact that the Schoenberg Violin Concerto had not been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  (Actually it had been performed just once, in December 1974, with conductor James Levine and violinist Zvi Zeitlin.)  Well, the orchestra programmed the piece for this month.  But the performance was cancelled when both the conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the soloist Christian Tetzlaff, cancelled due to illness.

Next season’s program will be announced in a couple of weeks and we’ll have to see if the now twelve-year drought in Schoenberg performances by the LA Philharmonic on a regular subscription concert will continue.  I don’t think there is another major orchestra in the world that has avoided playing Schoenberg for such a long period.  Most of them perform Schoenberg’s music quite regularly.  Only in his adopted home-town is he so mistreated.  Very sad.

On Certainty in Genealogy

In June, I wrote an article on collaborative genealogy for Avotaynu.[1]  In recent articles, Israel Pickholtz and Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus have responded by raising concerns about collaborative genealogy, especially as it is practiced on the leading collaborative genealogy platform[2]  Both authors suggest that genealogy on Geni is not for the “serious/accomplished/seasoned genealogy researcher.”  In his most recent article, Pickholtz uses the term “serious” no fewer than five times to describe his differing approach.  Elsewhere the authors describe their opposing genealogical method as producing results that are “authoritative,” “definitive,” “verified,” “proven,” “fully vetted,” “accurate,” “validated,” “correct” and “certain.”  The implication throughout these articles is always that the genealogy that I and others do on Geni is none of these fine things.  So certain is Pickholtz that his, and only his, method leads to truth that he defines his own mantra, and the lesson he would have us teach new genealogists, as “if it might be wrong, it doesn’t belong.”

In fact, the problem is a philosophical one.  The “serious” genealogist, as defined by Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus, is a positivist.  He or she believes that empirical genealogical facts can be conclusively verified as true by following prescribed rules.  The Genealogical Standards Manual of the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), and other such manuals propounded by groups of professional genealogists, is a positivist attempt to set forth such rules.  As a lawyer, I find the positivist approach very appealing.  It is comforting to begin with the rules set forth in code books and precedents and think of the practice of law as merely an application of the rules to the facts of the case.  But as a scientific approach to determining empirical facts, positivism leaves a lot to be desired.

Let me explain.  Positivists set up rules for interpreting evidence and assume that these rules lead to “verified” results.  In a court of law, a judge will exclude hearsay or documents that lack foundation (a verified source), in order to prevent consideration of evidence that might lead to an incorrect result.  Similarly, in the Genealogical Standards Manual you can read about “unsound presumptions – concepts that may be valid, but cannot be accepted as true without supporting evidence.[3]  As the first example of an unsound presumption, the BCG lists “A man’s widow was the mother of all (or any) of his children.”[4]  Now, a positivist following prescribed rules, and interested only in facts that can be “verified” according to those rules, might be able to dismiss and exclude for lack of corroborating evidence the possibility (even the likelihood) that a man’s widow is the mother of his children, but that isn’t necessarily the best scientific approach for a genealogist trying to make an educated guess at the mother of those children.

There is another approach, which I will call the “sophisticated” approach, to differentiate it from the “serious” approach propounded by Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus.  Genealogy is the science of assembling empirical genealogical facts such as “A is the son of X and Y” or “B is the sibling of C” or “X is the husband of Y”.  The sophisticated genealogist understands that there is no scientific method that can definitively determine the truth of any genealogical fact.  Rather, as the great 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper, a critic of the positivists, suggested, the best that one can say about any posited empirical fact is that it has not been falsified, that there is no evidence suggesting it is incorrect.  Take, for example, the fact that “Y is the father of A.”  A serious genealogist, following a positivist approach, might say that this fact has been conclusively determined to be correct because it has been verified in a birth certificate, a document presumed under the Genealogical Standards Manual to be true and correct.  Of course, the sophisticated genealogist knows that paternity is a tricky thing.  Sometimes the father listed on the birth certificate is not in fact the biological father.  What appears true and correct to the serious genealogist is for the sophisticated genealogist merely a likely possibility, not yet disproved or falsified.

A sophisticated genealogist would never say “if it might be wrong, it doesn’t belong,” because the sophisticated genealogist understands that every assertion of an empirical genealogical fact might be wrong.  No matter how many genealogical research standards are applied, the empirical truth of observed facts can never be conclusively determined.  There is always a chance that the evidence has led to the wrong conclusion.  So, when someone asks me, as they often do with regard to genealogical profiles on Geni, whether I am certain that something is correct, I always answer: “I am never certain of anything!”  I am always looking for new evidence, open to the possibility that something I had believed to be true has been falsified in some way.

For good reason, Karl Popper’s approach of empirical falsification is today much preferred by scientists over the positivist approach.  If genealogy is the science of assembling empirical genealogical facts, then empirical falsification may be the best philosophical framework for a sophisticated genealogist.  I think of every genealogical fact I put on Geni as a hypothesis waiting to be tested by other genealogists.  If they find a fact that tends to disprove the hypothesis, it is easy to change the hypothesis to fit the newly discovered fact.  That flexibility is what I like about Geni.  Contrary to what those unfamiliar with Geni, like Pickholtz and Sack-Pikus, have presumed, Geni does not use an algorithm to merge or change any profile.  All changes are made by humans and are viewable by other users.  Each profile includes a “Revisions” tab that records any changes that were made, so prior hypotheses can be revisited.  Geni curators are not authoritarian arbiters of correctness, but rather facilitators who help other people discuss and resolve or preserve differing views on the Geni platform.  For example, to answer one of the criticisms of Sack-Pikus, there is a trick that curators can use for people who were adopted, so that you can have two sets of parents, biological and adopted.  I have used this for the poet Richard Beer-Hofmann, whose mother died in childbirth leading to his adoption by his mother’s sister, who was married to his father’s nephew/first cousin.  It’s a complicated family, but on Geni you can show all the relationships, a necessity for historians trying to figure out ambiguous references to family members in the poet’s biographical writings.

Pickholtz dismisses the analogy to Wikipedia, but he misunderstands the argument because he is stuck in the positivist philosophical framework.  Wikipedia and Geni are not mechanical arbiters of objective truth according to some positivist rule book.  Rather, they succeed because they are platforms that allow scientific collaboration by many millions of people, each presenting empirical facts and testing hypotheses.

The underpinning of the sophisticated approach is to always add ever more documents and sources so that others can retrace the steps and test the hypothesis. I have personally uploaded about 14,000 documents to Geni.  The ability to allow others to recreate an experiment and independently assess the evidence is at the heart of the scientific method.  The results of this type of scientific collaboration on a shared platform are clearly superior, leading to more discoveries and more correction of mistakes.  From his website, Pickholtz is thrilled to receive a note from another researcher “every few months.”  On Geni, I receive about five messages per day related to work I have done.  The work on the tree is never-ending and continuous.

Genealogy can be done in many different ways and collaborative genealogy on Geni is not meant to supplant or replace other forms of genealogy.  If you like, you can and should keep your own file, whether written or digital, for keeping certain types of records and work in progress.  I have nothing against websites like Pickholtz’s, or even the obviously silly way he attaches percentages of certainty (30%, 50%, 90% etc.) to various speculative connections.[5]  I find all types of assertions of genealogical facts interesting and useful.

So, as a sophisticated genealogist, if I were asked, as Pickholtz was, what advice to give to new genealogists, I would say: have fun.  Don’t be dour like the serious genealogists.  Make the best guesses you can, based on the facts at your disposal.  But don’t fret too much over whether every fact you set forth in your tree is correct or not, or whether it is verified according to someone’s rule book of standards.  No one, not even the serious genealogists, can conclusively determine the truth.

[2] I. Pickholtz, “Getting It Wrong,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 2, p. 21; S. A. Sack-Pikus, “As I See It,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 2; I. Pickholtz, “Concerns about Geni and Other ‘Collaborative Genealogy’ Websites,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 14; S. A. Sack-Pikus, “Collaborative Genealogy: Some Cautions on an Exciting and Useful Advance,” Avotaynu XXIX, No. 3, p. 13.

[3] The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (2000), p. 11 (emphasis in original).

[4]  Ibid.

[5] See (viewed November 28, 2013).

London’s National Gallery Shows Nazi Loot

This article has been published on Al Jazeera.

It might be news to some that London’s National Gallery is featuring an unreturned Nazi-looted painting from Austria in its current show “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900.”  Gustav Klimt’s beautiful unfinished portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, herself a Nazi victim, was owned by Amalie’s friend, the widower and Jewish sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.  In March 1938 Ferdinand was forced to flee Austria, and survived the war in Zurich, Switzerland.  He died in November 1945.  As he explained in his 1942 will, his “entire property in Vienna [had been] confiscated and sold off.”  His heirs never found or recovered the portrait of Amalie.  For the rest of the story, see  Al Jazeera.

Amalie Zuckerkandl

Prague Blog #7

October 6, 2013

On our last morning in Prague, I took a quick walk around the Jewish quarter and ended up in the Robert Guttmann Gallery to view an exhibition on propaganda films made in Theresienstadt.  Watching the films, seeing the faces, often close-ups, of the young and old people who would soon, most of them, be murdered in Auschwitz, was heart-breaking. Of all the memorials and cemeteries I had seen on the trip, this made the most impact on me.  Perhaps it was also because I left Nathan in the hotel and went there alone.  When you are alone with your won thoughts, it is easier to connect emotionally with the material.  I see this also in our Holocaust museum, when people have the audio guides on and in their eyes you can see the emotion as the story hits them.

These propaganda films have naturally been criticized for not showing the truth about Theresienstadt.  But there is something actually quite subversive about them, and I can understand why the Nazis never released them.  The town was prettied up for the film and all of the old and sick people were taken out of sight.  Instead, the film shows relatively happy-looking, fit and comfortable people just going about their daily business, watching a concert or a soccer match, reading a book on a park bench, hanging out in the dormitory-like bunks.  In all, they look perfectly normal — which of course raises the question:  what the hell are they doing being locked up in a prison-ghetto?  Why are all of these nice, normal, well-mannered, happy people being treated like criminals.  The Nazis could never have released the film because it would have undermined the entire premise of their extermination campaign.  This film is the absolute opposite of the the stereotyped anti-Semitic caricatures of Der Stürmer and of the Nazi propaganda films like Jud Süß.

Perhaps the prisoners realized the subversive nature of the film and played along, with the hope of demonstrating to the Nazis how good and normal they were.  But the performance was too good.  Rather than demonstrate how well the Jews were being treated in this supposedly “model” ghetto, the film put the lie to the entire Nazi enterprise.  Of course, one would need to know the context these days to understand the film in this manner.  All one needs is the coda, used also at the end of this exhibit, that 60% of the people remaining in the camp in the Fall 1944 were deported and murdered at Auschwitz, as many as 24,000 in one month.

I do not want to end this blog on a downbeat.  The trip itself was fabulous, the weather was perfect, the people were universally friendly.  Really, the whole thing could not have been better.  Nathan really loved the trip and loved spending time with me, and I know I will always remember this trip I took with him.  I think he got a sense of where he came from and how he got to where he is today.  You can’t ask for more than that.


Prague Blog #6

October 5, 2013

Michaela picked us up with Hana early this morning at 7:00 am for the drive down to Ckyne.  Prague is beautiful at all times of day, but especially in the morning when things are quiet and the sun is coming up.  As we headed south, the road took us through a pastoral landscape of low, green, rolling hills fenced off into small farms with random clumps of forest here and there.  Every few miles we passed a small village or could see one in the distance.  Ckyne is about two hours south of Prague.  We passed through Strakonice, once the fez capitol of the world.  As we approached Ckyne the hills got larger and steeper, the road curved more and the scenery became more green.  We first passed through Volyne, a town that looked like it might have about 5,000 people.  A few minutes and hairpin turns later we arrived at Ckyne.  The town was larger than we expected. We were told there were 3,000 people living there.  Michaela stopped at a market to ask for directions to the new synagogue.  Make a left and another left and you will see it.  Sure enough, there it was, bright and shiny in its brand new white paint job.


We were early so I got to look around a bit.  The building was immaculately restored. There was a small prayer room at the top, used when it was too cold downstairs.  This will be the permanent home for the old torah they found in the attic.  Downstairs in the main sanctuary, they have repainted as best they could the design they found for the are around the ark.  The place looks terrific, very comfortable.  They built large cases on the side for exhibits about local Jewish history.  They look like giant closets when closed up, really a terrific design and very practical, with shelves behind glass on top and pull-out drawers underneath.

IMG_0931The services began around 10am and lasted almost three hours.  Over 100 people attended, far exceeding any expectations I had.  There were representatives of other old Ckyne families: Wedeles, Wudl, Fantes, Sittig and Nathan and I represented the Blochs. The services were led by a wonderful singer named Michal Foršt. He lives in Prague also acts as a cantor for the small congregation in Liberec (Reichenberg).  Michal was wonderful, explaining and performing and reading in Czech and English, guiding everyone through a somewhat traditional service.

IMG_0924The old torah scroll found in the synagogue was used for the service, even though it is a bit damaged.  One of the attended was Anna (Kineret) Sittig, a rabbi from Amsterdam.  She was called into service to help with the torah, which was not rolled to the correct portion (Noah, near the beginning).  I got up and helped her roll the old torah until we got to the right place.  It was really very exciting because obviously the torah had not been used in about 100 years, since the community disbanded and sold the building (long before the Nazi era).  And it was fun to think that probably our ancestors had used this very same torah.

Michal called Nathan up to do some of the prayers before the torah reading, and then Nathan was called for the first aliyah, the prayer before the first reading from the torah. Having Nathan there made everyone very excited, I think, because they all started to take photos.  I couldn’t resist joining in.  I put a video up on facebook of Nathan saying the prayer following the torah reading.  More photos from the trip are in the 1, 2, 3 facebook albums I made.


Julius Müller acted as gabay and helped figure out all the various people to call up for the remaining aliyot.  A man from Germany, Hermann Löffler, who had helped support the restoration of the synagogue, was called asked to call out the names. After Nathan, I came up, then the Sittigs and Wudls and also a friend of my fellow Geni curator from Israel, Rafi Kornfeld, was touring in the region and came to join us.  The last aliyah was given to everyone in the community, so we all stood up around the old torah as Michal read from it to conclude the torah service.

The service was long, and with most of it in Czech or Hebrew, sometimes my attention flagged.  At one point I actually got disappointed because I was missing the smell of an old building.  I wanted some sense that the old congregation had been there.  The place felt too new somehow.

IMG_0989After the service, many of us were invited by Jindra Bromova, the woman who organized the entire restoration project and this event, to the local hotel restaurant for lunch.  Nathan passed on the trout, but I actually liked it even though I don’t ordinarily eat much fish.  After lunch, we all went to the outskirts of town and climbed up to the old Jewish cemetery.  It is on a hill enclosed by a high wall that has broken down in one place so you can easily walk in.  The tombstones were recently cleaned (by Matana, I heard) and looked white and polished.  I could not find Rabbi Bloch’s grave, until I took out my blackberry and went to the Geni page and found a photo.  I realized it was against a wall and then Alex Woodle showed me exactly where it was.  Not with all the rest of the graves, but completely separate, along a wall about 10 yards away, his grave stood almost alone, lined up with some much later graves of children who had died young.  I did not understand this, since he died in 1850.  Later I asked Achab Haidler, a wonderful man, and actor by profession, who has helped catalogue many Jewish cemeteries in the region, and he thinks the grave was moved, or perhaps the plaque with his name fell off and someone attached it to a different grave along the wall.  He said he would investigate further.  You can hear Achab on this video of the Ckyne synagogue.  Achab can read all the tombstones, a very difficult task, and he even made a catalogue of the cemetery in Ckyne.   I should also mention Jan Podelsak, a local man who had been IMG_0957working to rescue the old cemetery and the synagogue for about 20 years.  In fact, I recalled coming to Prague in 1996 and getting a poster about saving the Ckyne cemetery that he must have designed.  Jan was clearly very moved by the tribute to him and seeing his long dream fulfilled.  He is a local hero there in Ckyne.

We returned to the synagogue at 4pm for a concert led by Michal Foršt and his band of musicians from Prague.  They began with a lengthy spoken introduction about my grandfather Eric Zeisl (whose grandmother was from Ckyne), followed by a performance of several of his works: Menuhim Song for violin and piano, Shepherd’s melody for Clarinet and piano and two songs for baritone (Ein Stundlein wohl vor Tag and my mom’s favorite Stilleben).  This was well received and then followed by a very entertaining series of Jewish standards (Romania, Halavai, etc).  Michal is truly a great performer (and he said he had a cold, but we didn’t notice at all).

The restoration of the Ckyne Synagogue was obviously a group effort with many people involved.  Jindra’s business partner Vladimir Silovsky was extremely nice and showed me all the work that had been done.  The mayor was there too, and Jindra said he had dedicated one million Czech crowns to the project (about $50,000), which is quite a large sum for such a small town.  Many people came from all over the region to attend the ceremony.  An elderly Jewish woman, apparently the only one in the entire region, came to attend also.  She showed me her mother’s Jewish star and other family documents.  Apparently she had survived as a hidden child. I met a British girl, Natalie, from Cesky Budejovice (Budweis) who came with some local friends of hers that she had met.  A Czech-Swiss woman said she had read about it on the Internet and decided to come from Basel.    There was a film crew and the rededication made the evening news in the Czech Republic.

We left just before Achab Haidler conducted a Havdalah service, because we had a two-hour drive back to Prague and both Nathan and I were exhausted.  Michaela drove us back through the scenic villages and countryside to the shining lights of Prague, with its castles and churches all lit up against the evening sky.  This has been an incredible trip for Nathan and for me, one that I am sure we both never forget.  I hope to return to Prague and the Czech Republic soon, to see all our friends and relatives, and to explore in more depth the home of 3/4 of my ancestors.  I am coming away with a much better mental picture of the world that they lived in, and a real connection to their lives, which was my goal all along.


Prague Blog #5

October 4, 2013

The day began too early, with a silly phone call at 3am from Budapest from someone who thought I was in Los Angeles.  Should have put the phone on silent, I guess.  Afterwards, neither Nathan nor I could fall asleep.  Finally got back to sleep around 7:30am, but then had to wake up again so we could get to a meeting I set for 10am at the new Jewish cemetery.

During the trip I wanted to try to make some headway in getting the Jewish Community to make the cemetery database available for genealogists.  The Vienna Jewish Community put its much larger database online years ago.  So I got in touch with Zuzana Beránková, who administers the cemetery for the Jewish community.  We met in her office along with Rabbi Chaim Koci who represents the Jewish Community in these matters.  My cousin Helena Vankova showed up with her two year old son Adam and joined us, which was nice because Helena’s husband Daniel is a good friend of Rabbi Koci.

Bottom line is that they want money, about 15 500,- EUR in order to make the database of over 20,000 names public on their own website.  The data is ready, but they want to recoup some of the cost of compiling it and perhaps use it for further work on other cemeteries.  Nathan thinks it is ridiculous, but I suppose that’s how these things work. They have something that we want, and hope that they can get something for it.  Others might consider it a duty or even a mitzvah for the Jewish Community to help Jews with family members in the cemetery find their loved ones and remember them.  But even mitzvahs can cost money, I suppose.  So I will see if I can help raise the necessary funds.

They should make the data available on the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, but they want to keep control.  It’s a mistake, because now only those who know to research in Prague will use it.  But Prague, like all major cities, was a magnet for Jews from the surrounding smaller towns, especially from Galicia.  While a Galizianer might search a surname at JewishGen and find a cousin in Prague they never knew existed, they aren’t likely to search a Prague database. So they will lose all those if they do it themselves and don’t share with JewishGen.

IMG_0810Helena and Nathan and I walked through the cemetery.  I took photos of all the tombstones with names I recognized, about 20 percent of them.  All these very common Prague family names that do not exist anymore: Nachod, Beständig, Porges, Bondy, Schifferes, Moscheles, Taussig, Teweles, Klemperer, Wehle, Wantoch. You can see a list of about 200 of them on the genealogy website I have been working on, that ties them all together in one big tree.  Helena showed us some of her family graves, which are in prominent locations in the cemetery, easy to find. They must have been relatively well off.

Then we met my friend Julius Müller, for my money the best genealogical researcher in Bohemia and Moravia.  First we went to lunch, and I had another typical goulasch with a somewhat canned knödel.  (It was sliced, but you’re supposed to pick it apart with a fork.)  After lunch we went to the older cemetery in Zizkov.  This one was mostly destroyed in the 1980s when the Communists decided they needed a giant radio tower in the center of town.  Julius said the tower was really used to block reception of Radio Free Europe.  Didn’t work, I guess, since the Communists fell in 1989 anyway.  The Jewish Community was apparently too weak or complicit to stop the demolition of 5/6 of the cemetery.

I noticed again that it seemed that only the oldest tombstones, all in Hebrew, survived.  The cemetery lasted from 1780-1890 and therefore most of the tombstones should be in German.  Jews in Bohemia and Moravia predominantly spoke German after 1780.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  After Czechoslovakia declared independence in 1918, the Jewish community split into three camps.  Citizens were forced to declare their nationality. Some Jews, the Zionists, declared themselves Jewish.  Others, who had assimilated German culture, picked German.  And Czech nationalists picked Czech.  After 1918, it became increasingly advantageous to be Czech and so all the younger people became Czech, the children spoke Czech in school, etc.  After the Nazis murdered two thirds of the Jews and most of the others escaped, the Czechs then expelled anyone (even surviving Jews) who had declared themselves German.  So the only ones left were the Czech nationalist Jews.  Mostly they suppressed the fact that their families had spoken German in the 19th century.  You hear so many family stories of Bohemian Jews who claim that their grandmother spoke only Czech.  Certainly it was true for some, but only a tiny minority. IMG_0765You can tell because in most villages the tombstones after the early 1800s are all in German until about 1900, and mostly German through 1918.  I’ll be able to confirm this again when I go to Ckyne tomorrow, but it is certainly true for the new Jewish cemetery in Prague.  Only the newer tombstones, done after 1918, are in Czech.  Here’s a good example of one.  Franz Klauber died in 1936 and his epitaph (Mein Bestes – Mein Edelstes – Mein Alles! / My Best – My Truest – My Everything!) is in German.  Underneath is the name of his mother, who perished in Treblinka in 1942, listed with a Czech female ending as Amalie Klauberová.  I bet she never called herself that.

IMG_0830I suspect very strongly that part of the motivation for erasing the Zizkov cemetery in the 1980s was to erase this large remaining sign of the German-speaking Jewish history in Prague.  No doubt the Jewish Community also found it embarrassing to have this reminder of their very recent conversion to Czech.  Bulldozing it was in everyone’s best interest, except for those like me who live abroad and descend from the people who were buried there. Unfortunately, I was too young to know or do anything about it.  Would be different today, I hope.

Julius Müller

Julius Müller

Julius took us toward his office in a nice part of the city, near the river.  I always learn things from Julius, who told me there are “missing” Jewish registers held by the Jewish Musuem of Prague for about 20 Moravian towns.  We need to get them scanned.  He also gave me scans of the index for the mostly destroyed Zizkov cemetery.  I always wonder what happened to all the gravestones and how come there were no pictures.  Julius said he heard that the Jewish gravestones were sold to the CIty and used for cobblestones.  Martin Smok tells me the stones were destroyed already in the 1960′s and in the 1980′s it was only the graves that were removed.  In any case, they are lost to us.

IMG_0835Nathan and I rested a bit and then went by subway and bus to Michaela’s apartment for dinner with her and Hana.  The apartment building was just as I remembered it, still with the sandbox out front.  Michaela even still had the old 1991 Let’s Go Europe that I had left with her after my first visit.  At that time she had not yet explored outside of Czechoslovakia. By now she is a world traveller, fulfilling her lifelong dream to see the great sights of the world that were for so long cut off to her.  Michaela showed me some old family photographs.  She has better ones of my my great-grandparents than I do!  And a very cute one of my grandmother’s older brother and sister. I took photos of the photos, so now I have them in some form at least.


Maria and Rudolf Kolisch

Tomorrow we head down early in the morning to Ckyne for the rededication ceremony.  I am curious what it will be like.  Ckyne is a very small town, and the cemetery is not overly spectacular like many others in Bohemia.  But there are apparently no better examples in the south of Bohemia.  it should be a fun conclusion to our week here.





Prague Blog #4

October 3, 2013

Today was our museum and sightseeing day.  Still jet-lagged and awake during the night, I managed to fall back asleep and as awakened by a call at 9:45, so we got off to a late start.  The breakfast at the Intercontinental is very good.  Nathan tried a fried egg this time.

We went up the street to a book store that sold tickets for the Jewish Museum, which is located in several synagogues throughout the area.  We went first to the Spanish Synagogue, which has a good exhibit on the history of the Jews of Prague, with emphasis on printed materials and important personalities, as well as the obligatory fantastic display of ritual objects.  I’ve spent the past serval years really digging into the family trees of the old Jewish families from Prague, so I recognize the names and faces this time.  When I see an engraving of Rabbi Eleazar Flekeles, Dr. Jonas Jeiteles or publisher Wolf Pascheles, I feel I know them.  Photography is forbidden, but Nathan secretly takes photos with his i-phone and no one seems to care.  Why should they?

We went around the corner to the offices of the Jewish Museum and I asked for Dr. Alexander Putik, the leading expert on Prague Jewish history and author of many important books and articles.  His specialty is the political history, figuring out the feuds and fights within the community.  Dr. Putik kindly brings us up to the book shop and I proceed to buy a half dozen tomes he suggests, including a brand new edition that records the domicile forms that were filled out by the Jews returning in 1748-1751 after the expulsion by Empress Maria Theresia.  A genealogical goldmine if I can manage to link them up to the later trees I have been working on.

IMG_0672Dr. Putik answers my secret wish and offers to take us through the old Jewish cemetery.  Ordinarily, visitors are herded through on the far sides of the cemetery, unable to wander through the massive field of jagged stones.  But with Dr. Putik we hop over the ropes and follow him to areas we could never otherwise reach.  The stones are beautiful, but my Hebrew is not good enough to read them on the fly, and in any case tombstone Hebrew is a real specialty.  Nathan and I snap some pictures as Dr. Putik tells us of his recent find, the brother of the Hakham Zevi, a famous chief rabbi of Hamburgi.  He cannot remember exactly where all the Nachod (my great-grandmother’s family) graves are, but suspects they are with the Horowitz family (the Nachods are supposedly a branch from one of the daughters of Aaron Meshulam Horowitz) and near the Pinkas synagogue, which was built for them.

After the cemetery, we part from Dr. Putik and make our way through the various exhibits, fabulous displays of Judaica, reproductions and paintings and all sorts of items.  An embarrassment of riches.  I see a painting of Theresia Wolf (Foges) and immediately know from her maiden name that she is on the family tree.  Turns out not too close.  She’s my first cousin four times removed’s wife’s first cousin’s wife’s sister.  I wish I had scans of all the paintings and photos in the museum.  Would keep me busy for the next year.

We stopped into the cafeteria of the Jewish Community to say goodbye and thank you to Dr. Putik (after getting grilled by the guard who claimed he was Hungarian, but sounded and acted Israeli to us).  Then we went to the fancier kosher restaurant King Solomon.  I finally got my goulasch and knödel.  A bit disappointing.  Not quite enough meat and the knödel were too dry.  Nathan ordered and ate goose (hard to believe).

IMG_0695After lunch we walked down across the river and found our way up to the big castle (apparently the largest in Europe by some measures).  Nathan and I really liked exploring all the sights.  We entered the big church of St. Vitus with it’s fantastic stained glass windows (glass is a Bohemian specialty).  The exterior is not too different from Notre Dame in Paris.  We had the most fun in a museum full of armor and weapons, many of then 500-1,000 years old.  Nathan got to try his hand at shooting a cross-bow.  I thought the old viking swords were cool.


At the bottom of the castle we even went into a torture chamber.  Nathan was intrigued by a contraption that looked like it was used to lower a person into a pit with wild animals. We also visited the Lobkowicz Palace, which has an audio guide spoken by the current head of the Lobkowicz family (an American).  The family had fled the Nazis and returned, only to have their property confiscated again by the Communists.  They managed to recover the palace and its contents, mostly family paintings but also a nice Breughel landscape and some Canalettos from London, after the end of Communism in 1989.

Restitution in the Czech Republic is a sticky subject.  As is history.  After the nationalism, nazism and communism of the 20th century, basically no one in the country knows anymore what the truth really is.  The country is filled with legends of the Bohemian roots of the place, mostly neglecting the German and Jewish contributions.  For example, you’ll often hear that Jews lived in the area since about the 10th century. What they don’t say is that the 10th century is also the earliest evidence of a separate Czech language in the region, and that Czechs arrived maybe a few centuries earlier.  The German presence probably predated them.  But the land was ethnically cleansed (twice) in the last century with the extermination of the Jews and the subsequent expulsion of millions of Germans. So today it is basically all Czech all the time.

When people debate about Israel and whether it should have a one-state or two-state solution, I like to remind them of the Czech Republic.  I don’t remember hearing about any recent UN resolutions concerning the expelled Germans.  And no one seems to care about all the expropriated Jewish property in the country, most of it never returned.

For example, the castle outside Prague that was owned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (of Klimt painting fame) was taken and used as the home of the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich (the man who convened the Wannsee Conference and set in motion the Final Solution).  After the war, the Communists expropriated the castle again.  When the Communists fell, the Czechs privatized the castle, selling it to an agricultural company, before they enacted any restitution laws.  Ferdinand’s heirs at law, including his niece Maria, did not even qualify for a token restitution payment (limited to victims and their children only).

I am dealing with a crazy case at the moment.  I am helping out the family of a holocaust survivor, a woman who made it through Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and several other camps.  She returned to her home in Moravia and managed to reclaim the property of her murdered sister’s murdered husband Rabbi Schön, including an old illuminated manuscript called a Kitzur Mawar Jabok, with prayers for the dead, that had apparently come from the community of Mikulov (Nikolsburg).


She managed to escape from Czechoslocakia and came to the United States.  After she died, her family offered to sell the book to the Jewish Musuem of Prague, which initially agreed to purchase it.  But then, with the assistance of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York, the Musuem and the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic claimed ownership of the book.  I find the claim incredible.  First, no one knows for sure who owned the book before the war, nor how the book made its way into the hands of the Holocaust survivor, so calling the book “stolen” is a leap. Second, the Museum and the Federation were not the prior owners of the book. Their theory is that the book should have been stolen by the Nazi, then stolen by the Communists, and in the 1990s should have been given to the Federation and housed in the Museum.  That’s not exactly a convincing claim of title in my opinion.  I tried to set up a meeting while I was here, but the Museum directed me to its lawyer in New York, who only wrote me this Monday.  So we’ll have to see how this gets resolved.  I did see another book on display today and have to agree that this one is much better.  So now I know why they want it.   I’m ordinarily on the other side of these cases, seeking restitution.  But in my book, before you go accusing a Holocaust survivor of holding stolen property, you’d better have some real proof that it was stolen and a good claim of title.

A postscript to yesterday’s trip to Theresienstadt.  I remembered the story that the survivor Pavel Stransky told his tour.  He had returned at the end of the war to Theresienstadt, but was caught in the quarantine because of the typhus epidemic.  His new id card said “suspect of typhus” so an attempt at escape was impossible.  he and a friend then doctored their id cards to say “unsuspect of typhus” and were able to convince a guard that they could leave.  Then, when a Russian soldier tried to commandeer their truck, they claimed to have been exposed to typhus in order to scare him off.  I contacted a survivor friend about Stransky, thinking that they must know each other, but apparently he had a bad experience with him when they were in Auschwitz.  I suppose there are folks I knew in high school that I might not want to see either, and my high school was not the worst hell on earth, as his was.  So I can understand.

Tomorrow I have a meeting at the new Jewish cemetery to discuss making the database available to genealogists.  Then I have lunch with my old friend Julius Mueller and new Ckyne friend Heleen Sittig.  In the evening, we will be eating with my cousin Michaela and her family.  Then Saturday is the big trip down to Ckyne for the rededication.  So far, it has been a wonderful trip.

Prague Blog #3

October 2, 2013

Michaela picked us up at the hotel to drive us to Theresienstadt.  She brought her late brother’s wife Hana with her.  And we joined with our cousin Petr Willheim on the way there.  Petr knew Theresienstadt well and would be our guide.  His parents had both survived the camp, and he had even been stationed there when he was a young soldier. From the parking lot Petr took us first toward the Small Fortress.  We passed a long rom of gravestones, mostly from late 1945, around the time of liberation, when thousands died of a Typhus epidemic that spread through the ghetto and the outlying areas.  Half of the graves were Christian and half Jewish.  Most of the Jewish ones had no names, just a number.  Michaela said that she heard that Gypsies had stolen the iron names form the graves, but I later heard that the unnamed graves simply represented hundreds of unidentified people who died during the epidemic.

Theresienstadt cemetery outside the Small Fortress

Theresienstadt cemetery outside the Small Fortress

I wasn’t really much interested in seeing the Small Fortress.  It has a few claims to fame, as the home of the SS men who administered Theresienstadt Ghetto, as the place where prisoners were taken by the SS to be tortured to death or executed, and as the place where Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist who started World War One by assassinating the heir to the Habsburg throne, was imprisoned. I asked Petr to allow us to turn back instead to the town where the ghetto had been.


We walked toward the old garrison town, with its star-shaped exterior walls along the river Oh?e (Eger).  First we went to the memorial site where in 1944 the ashes of 22,000 prisoners who had died in the camp were thrown into the river.  The memorial did not do much for me, a tall sculpture of a woman standing next to a marble block.  Nathan and Petr waled down to the riverbank but I wanted to head back to enter the camp.

Despite having read extensively about Theresienstadt, I suppose I did not have a good mental picture of it.  Once inside the walls, it appeared very much like an ordinary town, a bit shabby in places, but in many ways just fine, with open spaces, parks, and nicely painted buildings, not like the army barrack housing I had imagined.  I took two pictures, to show how different you can make the place look, depending on where you point your camera.

IMG_0608 IMG_0604


We went into two buildings with museum exhibits.  The first one was a comprehensive exhibit with the history of the Jewish camp, with text panels in Czech, German, English and Hebrew, and reproductions of many documents.  I found the placards advertising concerts and events very interesting.  Some of the things I had seen before, but I could have spent longer.  There were some good videos also on display, in Czech with subtitles in English and German.  But near the end I joined a tour being led by 92-year-old survivor Pavel Stransky.  I only heard the last part of his story, and also an epilogue about the fate of Fredy Hirsch, a man who devoted himself to the care of children at Theresienstadt and later at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I had an opportunity, but did not feel like interrupting the end of the tour to speak with Mr. Stransky.  After he spoke was the only time I felt that emotional wave of sadness come over me that I had been dreading on this visit.  I wrote in the guest book: “First family member to return to Theresienstadt since my great-grandfather Sigmund Zeisl was here July-August 1942.”

Downstairs in the gift shop I bought a book on Vedem, the children’s newspaper in Theresienstadt edited by Petr Ginz.  When I was in Prague in 1996, Michaela had introduced me to Martin Glas, who was a friend of hers.  I have a video of our conversation where he showed me an issue of Kamarat, another magazine he had helped publish as a teen in Theresienstadt.  He survived and later became been a tv news anchor in Prague. Downstairs there was also an exhibit room that had the names of all the children who who perished.  At first I did not realize it was just children and spent some time looking for my grandfather’s cousin Arthur Schönberg, who died in Theresienstadt.  But there were no Schoenbergs.  Then we realized that they were only the children.  It was overwhelming and sad.

800px-Terezin_CZ_Magdeburg_Barracks_Ater91We walked down the nice street to the Magdeburg Kaserne, the barracks that also housed the offices of the camp leadership.  Upstairs was a good exhibit that included a few rooms made up like barracks, with triple bunks.  I had presumed that suitcases had been taken from the prisoners, but I was wrong, and saw confirmation also in photos.  Perhaps it was just the contents that were stolen.  And maybe they were used then communally and not individually.  I don’t know.  Anyway, it was good to get a mental image of the barracks, even though it felt not quite as dingy and dirty as I had imagined it, probably because it was in fact clean and empty and not filled with sick and dying people, as it would have been when Theresienstadt was packed with ten times the ordinary number of inhabitants. The smell was missing.  This is also Daniel Mendelssohn’s critique of the boxcars that pepper our Holocaust museums.  Yes, they can give people a feeling of claustrophobia, but the stench, the cold, the heat, the fear — those are all absent.

IMG-20131002-00845The exhibition included rooms on the artists, composers, writers and actors in Theresienstadt. I was surprised to see a placard for a concert put on by Viktor Ullmann that included two songs by my grandfather.  Alice Sommer-Herz, now nearing her 110th birthday, was the pianist.

I did not feel like visiting the Crematorium and so we left Theresienstadt.  It was an odd visit.  I was used to our museum, where the architecture is part of the story.  In Theresienstadt, the architecture worked against the story.  These were just nice buildings in the Bohemian countryside.  The exhibits were adequate, but not extraordinary.  There was nothing there to give you the feeling that you were in the presence of a catastrophe, the site where tens of thousands of Jews were crowded together and murdered with hunger and sickness or deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka.  The town is just a somewhat humdrum old country town, nothing more.


We went to nearby Litomerice for lunch.  It has a beautiful town square, all neatly restored, and nice restaurants.  No goulasch on the menu so I ordered duck with knödel on the side, which was Bohemian enough and very good.

We returned to Prague and visited my distant cousin Helena Vankova (Kovanicova), whom I had never met.  We had corresponded over our Nachod ancestors for a number of years so I was eager to meet her.  IMG_0661She greeted us with her mother and two small children, Leah and Adam.  Later her father Jiri, a photographer, came, as did her husband Daniel, who teaches and works for the Jewish Community in Prague.  We had a nice dinner, speaking mostly English with some German.

They tried to teach us a few words in Czech, but I am afraid my brain can’t hold it in.  It was nice to finally meet Helena, although she was so busy with dinner, I hardly got to speak with her.  Her husband is friends with some folks I hope to meet later in the week, so it was nice to get to know him as well.  He let Nathan try out his shofar, which was challenging.


We returned home for some computer time and now it’s time for bed.  Tomorrow I hope to see some of the Jewish Museum and also maybe the Castle.