I’ve loved genealogy since I was a little boy, and in the past ten years have become something of an addict and expert in the field. It is no secret why so many people, especially Jews, love genealogy. What often starts as a very narcissistic all-about-me exercise can quickly turn into an obsession. The Freudian psychoanalyst Sallyann Amdur Sack-Pikus, editor of Avotaynu, The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, recently opined that “the basic human needs for belongingness and for some sort of immortality are what lie at the root of the compelling intensity of the genealogical pursuit that so many of us feel—simply because this activity guarantees the fulfillment of those needs.” (Avotaynu, Vol. XXIV, Number 4, Winter 2018, p. 7.) Of course, Jews have been doing genealogy a long time. We may not pay such close attention in synagogue, but large portions of the Bible are devoted solely to genealogies describing the ancestors and descendants of various biblical figures. Still, new technology has opened the door to genealogical treasures that our ancestors could only have dreamed of. We have entered the golden age of Jewish genealogy.
An Explosion of Resources
Whether you are just starting out, or still trying to break through a brick wall that has been blocking your path for decades, the absolute explosion of new resources available to you will make your life much easier. The main internet hub for Jewish genealogy is JewishGen, which provides access to almost 30 million records ranging from vital records (births, deaths and marriages) to census, cemetery and Holocaust records. Genealogy is all local, meaning that what is available for you depends on what geographic location you are searching. Research in Alsace or Prussia is different from research in Rumania or Belarus. And even within a particular region, the availability of records may vary widely. But no matter where you are searching, JewishGen should be your first stop. New records are being added all the time. One of my favorites, the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, has 3.3 million burial records from more than 7,700 cemeteries in 128 countries. JewishGen also has a searchable index for Aufbau 1944-1946 with 33,557 names of people being sought by loved ones at the end of World War II. Readers of Aufbau should also be interested in JewishGen’s German Special Interest Group (GerSIG), which includes separate web pages for hundreds of towns with descriptions of available records and where to find them. Beyond JewishGen there are at least three large data aggregators that provide access to databases and records, including vital records, census and immigration documents: Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch. Each of these sources has its strengths and weaknesses. FamilySearch is free, while Ancestry and MyHeritage are subscription based. There are also specialized databases worth visiting. GenTeam covers Austrian genealogy (but also Jewish records for Nürnberg, Prague, Budapest and some towns in Moravia). Akevoth has an excellent database for Jews from the Netherlands. Of course, Yad Vashem has a searchable database for 4.7 million victims of the Holocaust. BillionGraves just teamed up with MyHeritage to create a database of over 1.5 million graves in Israel. The Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main also has an extensive collection of German Jewish periodicals including many on genealogy, a goldmine for researchers.
Although interviewing family members is one of the great joys of genealogy, most people don’t start working on the trees until everyone older is already gone. As a result, genealogy can be a lonely exercise. But not anymore. The advent of the Internet has not only made records available, but has made it possible to collaborate with other genealogists from all over the world. In short, it is no longer necessary to do everything by yourself. Teamwork is now the name of the game.
You can build your tree using all sorts of computer programs, but in my view, the best place to build your tree is on Geni, a tree-building website owned by MyHeritage. Geni’s World Family Tree is like a giant jigsaw puzzle where everyone works together on the same tree. You start by building out your own tree until Geni’s matching algorithm tells you that you have duplicated a person who is already on the tree. At that point you can merge the duplicates and then join the rest of the tree, taking advantage of all the work that has already been done and adding to it. The World Family Tree currently has over 130 million connected profiles created by over 4 million connected genealogists. For Jewish genealogy, this method has been a real bonanza. Giving new life to the old Jewish geography game, it is now possible to find a relationship path between any two Jews merely by linking them up to the big tree. If there is not yet a direct, blood relationship, Geni will find a different path, from cousin to cousin to cousin. It turns out that there really aren’t so many Jews in the world and all of us are rather closely connected in this fashion.
One of Geni’s many advantages is a large contingent of volunteer curators (I am one of over forty Jewish genealogy curators). The curators are there to assist people with problems in the tree, help correct errors, clean up messes and resolve disputes. You no longer have to worry about not understanding how the program works, or how to find what you are looking for. The curators, and many other users, are there to assist you. Geni also provides for public discussions and projects that allow us to organize our genealogies in different ways. For example, the Theresienstadt Ghetto project has over 27,000 profiles attached to it, meaning that we already have family trees for almost twenty percent of the inmates of that camp. The main directory for Jewish projects on Geni is the Jewish Genealogy Portal which will lead you to hundreds of projects that have been set up for German communities.
You can also seek help on Facebook where there are two large Jewish genealogy groups — Jewish Genealogy Portal and Tracing the Tribe — filled with tens of thousands of people who are happy to assist with translations or provide assistance. Asking for help is easy, and it is the best way to learn.
The genealogical buzzword of the past few years is DNA. A number of companies provide tests that can be used for genealogical research. Perhaps the largest Jewish database is held by FamilyTreeDNA. Researchers can purchase kits or transfer tests obtained elsewhere. There are three main ways to use your DNA results. Y-DNA, which is passed down form father to son, can help find matches along the paternal line. Mitochondrial or mtDNA, comes from the mother and helps find matches along the maternal line. All of the rest, called Autosomal, is a mix of what you inherited from your father or mother, but can be analyzed to find large matching segments with a common source. For Ashkenazi Jews, unfortunately the autosomal DNA is so uniform, that most of us look like we are very close cousins. You’ll find thousands of matches that are suggested to be connected within a few generations, but more likely the connections are much farther back. This is a result of a small founder population and centuries of endogamy (Jews marrying only other Jews who are also their cousins). So, while you will get many suggested matches, you will likely have to sort through a lot of them to find someone you could connect with on your family tree. Still, DNA research is still in its early stages, and it is smart to get tested now. You may not find someone when you test, but years from now, someone may find you.
For me, genealogy is an exciting and endless pursuit. In no sense will I ever be finished, but along the way I have discovered and learned an enormous amount about not only my own family history, but the history of Jews and the world. Just this past year, my friend Nancy High and I have been working through some old notebooks that catalogue the old cemetery in Prague. I had long hoped that I would be able to use the cemetery and other genealogical resources to push back the family tree of my great-grandmother Pauline Schönberg geb. Nachod, who was born in Prague in 1848. The old genealogy for my grandfather the composer Arnold Schönberg that was completed by Heinz Schöny for the Schönberg centennial in 1974 had taken her family as far back as the mid 18th century.
Using the cemetery records, I am now able to document her family all the way back to the 16th century and beyond. As I had hoped, my great-grandmother is indeed a descendant (several different ways) of the famous Rabbi Yehuda ben Bezalel Loew (MaHaRaL) (d. 1609). But that’s not all. I’ve also found a direct connection to Rabbi Eliyahu Menachem Chalfan of Venice (d. 1560), an Italian physician and talmudic scholar known for providing an opinion (in 1544) that a Jew may instruct a Christian in Hebrew. Rabbi Chalfan also provided an opinion (in 1530) regarding the divorce of King Henry VIII, which the King’s emissary Richard Croke used to try to persuade the Pope to annul the marriage. Chalfan’s maternal grandfather, Rabbi Joseph ben Solomon Trabotto Colon (d. 1480 Pavia) (MaHaRIK), originally from Chambéry, Savoy, was the foremost Talmudist of Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century, whose opinions were enormously important for the development of Jewish law. In one, he ordered the neighboring communities to contribute to a ransom for the release of Jews who had been falsely accused in Regensburg. Rabbi Colon decided that the communities could not refuse to pay their share, because the same accusations might befall them, and if the accused in Regensburg were ransomed and proved innocent, this would also benefit the surrounding communities.
Another ancestor, Moshe ben Hanok Altschul, was the author of the “Brantspiegel” (1602), perhaps the first popular book written in Yiddish, directed at a female audience with instructions on the ethical manner of keeping house and raising a family. His son Chanoch Sofer Altschul (1564-1632) is famous for the Purim of the Curtains, recounting his miraculous escape from death after stolen curtains were given to him, as the Shammesh (servant) of the community, to return to the authorities. Although Chanoch had commanded his descendants to recount his story every year on the 22nd of Tevet, probably no one had done so for over a century before our family revived the tradition this past year. These and other stories I most certainly never would have come across had it not been for my passion for genealogy.
If I could give one piece of advice, it is this. Don’t wait. Go to Geni.com and start building your tree (for free). As Rabbit Tarfon stated in Pirke Avot 2:21: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
E. Randol Schoenberg is an attorney known for the recovery of Nazi-looted Klimt paintings, as recounted in the film Woman in Gold (2015). He is a board member of JewishGen, and the author of the Beginner’s Guide to Austrian-Jewish Genealogy and Getting Started with Czech-Jewish Genealogy. To contact him, find him on Geni at https://www.geni.com/people/Randy-Schoenberg/6000000002764082210 or on the Jewish Genealogy Portal on Facebook.