On Wealth Inequality

Since receiving an enormous windfall at the conclusion of the Altmann v. Austria case, I have had lots of time to consider what it means to have wealth in America. Of course, like most people I had considered wealth much earlier, and was already well aware of my good fortune growing up in Brentwood and attending an elite private school and later an elite college.  I remember in high school teasing my best friend that we were not middle class, as everyone seemed to claim, but “lower-upper class,” a term basically no one ever uses, although I recently found this definition of the upper class which does use the term:

Comprising only 1 to 3 percent of the United States population, the upper class holds more than 25 percent of the nation’s wealth. This class divides into two groups: lower-upper and upper-upper. The lower-upper class includes those with “new money,” or money made from investments, business ventures, and so forth. The upper-upper class includes those aristocratic and “high society” families with “old money” who have been rich for generations. These extremely wealthy people live off the income from their inherited riches. The upper upper class is more prestigious than the lower upper class.

Wherever their money comes from, both segments of the upper class are exceptionally rich. Both groups have more money than they could possibly spend, which leaves them with much leisure time for cultivating a variety of interests. They live in exclusive neighborhoods, gather at expensive social clubs, and send their children to the finest schools. As might be expected, they also exercise a great deal of influence and power both nationally and globally.

The definition tells us a lot, I think, about how Americans like to think about class.  Class is a state of mind, not merely a measure of wealth.

This psychological element explains the complete abandonment of all objective measures when talking about wealth. Take for example, Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary, who very much likes to remind people that the top 400 families today own a greater share of the country’s wealth than everyone in the bottom half of the country combined. It sounds awful. And scary. But what Reich must know, but doesn’t dare say, is that this has always been the case. Why? Because the bottom half of the country has always had basically no wealth at all. That’s right. The entire bottom half of the country is and always has been flat broke.

So, it’s true that the top 400 have more wealth than the entire bottom half of the country combined.  But it’s also true that just about any section of the top 50% have more wealth than the bottom half combined.  Now that’s scary.

You don’t believe me, I’m sure.  But take a look at this recent paper by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of UC Berkeley. “The second key result of our analysis involves the dynamics of the bottom 90% wealth share. Since the bottom half of the distribution always owns close to zero wealth on net, the bottom 90% wealth share is the same as the share of wealth owned by top 50-90% families—what can be described as the middle class.”

It’s sort of comical, I think, to define the “middle class” as the class of people who are in the top 50-90%. That’s usually not how we define “middle.” But it demonstrates the psychological aspect of the term “middle class.” My guess is that most people in the top 99% and even quite a large proportion of the families in the top 1% consider themselves “middle class.”  (A 2012 Pew Research study revealed that just 7% of respondents characterized themselves as lower class and 2% as upper class.  In other words 91% of respondents believed they were “middle class.”)

Saez and Zucman don’t spell it out in their paper, but they are hiding a huge amount of inequality by lumping together the 50-90%.  No doubt, just as most of the wealth in the top 1% is concentrated in the top .1%, most of the wealth in the 50-90% group is also concentrated at the top.  Saez and Zucman estimate that the 50-90% group own 22.8% of the country’s wealth.  The 80-90% probably own at least half of that, and the 50-60% group a negligible 2.5% or so.

What this means is that the country is not really divided into three comparable classes (lower, middle and upper), but rather two: the haves and the have-nots. And, as I will explain further, wealth inequality is really only an issue for the very upper stratum of the haves. The vast majority of the country basically never has had much wealth and probably never will, regardless of what tax policies are adopted.  The “class” terms are being misused to create a sense of mistaken solidarity among everyone who does not feel super-wealthy. The percentages are just arbitrary numbers really. The fundamental issue is the psychology. For example, Bill Gates has 1,000 times the money that I have. So if I want, I can consider myself poor with only .01% of what Gates has, or I can look back the other way and feel rich, realizing that I am wealthier than 99.95% of the country with a net worth that is 1,000 times the average of the Bottom 90%. If the first number changes dramatically, and I am now only 1/100th of Gates, it doesn’t really change the psychological aspect much. The same is true for most of the people in the top quintile of the wealth ladder. They are far, far ahead of just about everyone, and yet still feel like they are falling behind.  The idea of class is more a psychological problem inherent in every non-Communist system than it is a function of the actual distribution, I think.

Measuring wealth inequality in America is not easy, because we really do not try to collect data that would allow us to easily measure the distribution of wealth. Saez and Zucman therefore arrive at their estimates based on studies of income and estate tax returns. As I have discussed before in connection with Warren Buffett, who invests almost exclusively in assets that produce no income, income is not always correlated to wealth, so looking at tax returns of the super-rich can often be misleading. But lets assume for the moment that Saez and Zucman have correctly figured out a way to calculate wealth in America.

The results of Saez and Zucman’s research indicate that “the top 10% wealth share peaked at 84% in the late 1920s, then dropped down to 63% in the mid-1980s, and has been gradually rising ever since then, to 77.2% in 2012.”  But the somewhat arbitrary focus on 10% masks what is really going on.  If you look at the right side of the graph below, you will see that in 1983, the Top 10% to 1% held 40% of the wealth and that this figure decline to 35% in 2013.  The gains were all at the top, with the Top 1%’s share growing from 27% to 42% in the same 30 year period.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 10.18.36 PM

Similarly, even within the Top 1%, the lion’s share of the increase is in the Top .1%, as this graph demonstrates, showing that the share of the Top .1% has grown from 9% to 22% from 1983 to 2013.  As Saez and Zucman conclude, in 2012, the top .1% included about 160,000 families with net wealth above $20.6 million.  No doubt this could be carried out further, with the Top .01% accounting for nearly all of the increase of the Top .1%. Etc.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 10.30.39 PM

So, what is really going on?  What we are witnessing is not a general trend toward wealth inequality affecting large numbers of Americans, but rather a huge increase in the wealth of the very, very top, without much change in the lower 99.9%. The more refined the top sample is, the more evident the trend. We can see it reflected in the Forbes 400 List, first published in 1982. In the first list, the top spot was held by Daniel Keith Ludwig, with a $2 billion fortune, or about $4.8b in 2012 dollars. Today, Bill Gates is at $75b at the top of the list (even after giving half of his fortune to his eponymous foundation). The distortion caused by the disproportionate increase in wealth at the very, very top accounts for most of the changes in the distribution of wealth throughout the rest of the population.  Saez and Zucman note that the total wealth share of the Forbes 400 (normalized for population growth) has tripled from 1% to 3% over the past thirty years, as has the entire Top .01%, from 3.5% to 11%.

Saez and Zucman focus primarily on the Top 10% of the population and do not provide data for any of the lower strata, which makes it much more difficult to see how little the change in wealth distribution is affecting the Bottom 90%, who have collectively an average wealth of $84,000 per family (a figure that masks the fact that the average wealth continues to drop precipitously, so that nearly all of the wealth of the Bottom 90% is held by the 80-90% stratum). But the chart does illustrate how much the upper .01% (16,070 families) are influencing the results. To put things a different way, 1/1,000th of the Top 10% has over 1/10th of the wealth in that category, or more than 100 times what you would expect if the distribution were even.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 10.47.47 PM

Is this a bad thing? Is it unexpected? Or, asked differently, is there a different, fairer way that enormous increases in wealth could be achieved? And who would benefit? Certainly, we could bring back much higher income, capital gains and estate taxes, as in the past, or even wealth taxes, as has been attempted in various countries. This would provide a barrier for those trying to amass great wealth, and might also decrease the net worth of those at the top. But how much would this really do to alter the distribution of wealth? The results of Saez and Zucman’s research demonstrates that the Bottom 50% would still have essentially zero wealth. Indeed, the Bottom 90% would hardly expect to notice any difference. The debate over wealth inequality is really a champagne problem, affecting only the psychology of the upper class, which is how I would characterize the Top 10% of families, those with at least $660,000 in wealth.

I am sure that hardly anyone in the Top 10% thinks that he is upper class. This is because, no matter where we are on the wealth ladder, we tend to look up and see only the people above us. A family with a net worth of $1m may feel middle class, because they see what looks like a large number of families with far greater wealth. But it really is a conceit to ignore the fact that 90% or more of the country is far less fortunate than you, and pretend that you have more in common with them than with the relatively small number of families in the Top 10%. It is only because the relatively few families at the very top of the ladder loom so large that everyone else has the feeling that he is in a different class. Further proof that people tend to ignore the poor is that we talk of wealth inequality mainly on a national level, completely disregarding the fact that the United States itself sits atop the international wealth ladder with 25% of the world’s wealth and less than 5% of the world’s population. Nearly the entire world of 7 billion people has less wealth and a far lower standard of living than most of those in America who consider themselves “middle class.”

I have been aware of Bernie Sanders since at least 1986, when I listened to KPFK on my way to and from work in the offices of Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, and learned all about the socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont. In 1988 I took a course at Princeton called “Technology and Social Change” from engineering professor Steve Slaby, a dyed in the wool socialist who loved nothing more than to burst the bourgeois bubbles of his sheltered students. I remember him asking during one of our classes whether any of us had ever even heard of Sanders, assuming that none of us had. When I raised my hand, he was visibly upset, obviously because I had messed up his attempt to show us up as a bunch of uninformed rich kids. But I was already learning to look beyond the utopian rhetoric to see unanticipated problems. (One I didn’t see coming was a very effective guest lecture we heard on the promise of the independence for Eritrea, which sounded like a great idea in 1988, but resulted in the creation of a totalitarian state with an abysmal human rights record. So much for utopia.)

One of the problems I have with Sanders and his rhetoric is that he makes people think that wealth inequality is a problem for the 99% of the country that isn’t in the 1%. If we’ve learned anything from the rise and fall of Communism, it is that attempts to equalize wealth can quickly get out of hand. What happens when we bring wealth inequality back to 1983 levels and no one notices any difference? The rich are still rich. The vast poor are still poor. The top of the wealth ladder is still unattainable, whether it is $1 billion, $10 billion or $100 billion. Absent a decision to end personal wealth and adopt Communism, with all of the coercion and tyranny that is required to maintain equality, we are always going to have wealth inequality. The bottom 50% will have nothing and everyone else will be looking up at the people above them on the ladder, wondering how he can climb higher.

Of course, we tolerate inequality in all sorts of ways and don’t always call it “unfair” or “rigged.” Is it fair that a 7 footer has a better chance of playing in the NBA (and earning millions of dollars) than folks of ordinary height? Is it fair that people who are older have more wealth than people who are younger? Is it fair that people with high intelligence find it easier to get high-paying jobs? It might not be, but then again there’s not much we can or should do about it if we want to allow people to be different. Inequality is a fact of life. And much of the increase in wealth at the top of the wealth distribution is certainly the result of increased market efficiency, which allows individuals with popular inventions to amass enormous wealth very quickly. Think Mark Zuckerberg, who at age 31 is worth over $35 billion. His wealth is the result not of a rigged economy, but an incredibly efficient one, that allows exploitation of the herd mentality of the entire population desiring the same products and services.

Saez and Zucman do not address the effect population growth might have on wealth distribution. It would seem obvious that the distribution of wealth is not even over the increase in population. In other words, immigrants are more likely to be very poor and the poor also tend to have higher birth rates. Therefore, you would expect population growth to distort the wealth distribution by shifting wealth toward the top. The impact of population growth on measures of wealth inequality deserves to be looked at more closely.

The most we can ask, I think, is that people who are fortunate enough to have advantages be aware of their good fortune, and not pretend that they don’t have advantages. One downside to the ridiculously skewed way we define “upper class” is that we don’t get the type of honesty we deserve. People like Robert Reich or Bernie Sanders might not feel like they are upper class, but by any estimation they are. Robert Reich’s net worth is estimated to be $4 million, which puts him in the Top 1%. Bernie Sanders’ net worth is estimated at $528,014, not very far below the $660,000 wealth threshold for the Top 10%. When he rails against the Top 1%, he is doing so as a member of the lower-upper-class, with a wealth greater than 85% of the families in this country, most of whom have nothing.

There are many wealthy people, and I am one of them (and so is my doppelgänger Eric Schoenberg), who agree with Sanders and Reich that we at the top can afford to share more and to pay more taxes. I also think it is in our best interest to do so. Indeed, as I pointed out in my blog on Warren Buffett, enacting barriers to extreme wealth creation is the best way to ensure that a rich person maintains his place on top of the wealth ladder. But because of this we need to be sure not to raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled. Ending wealth inequality is not going to happen. Redistributing wealth from the top is probably not going to make people happier, at least not directly, or bring them closer to the top of the wealth ladder. What is important is what we do with the wealth that we tax, what services we provide to improve the lives of the vast, vast number of families who will never have any wealth at all.

Geni Envy

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.26.43 PMSince I posted my recent blog on Geni’s World Family Tree, the haters have come out of the woodwork. I’ve interacted with many of these people for years, and it’s always the same thing. They get so caught up in their own personal problems and experiences, they cannot see the overall benefit to the genealogical community of what is happening on Geni.com. It’s ok. Not everyone has to love Geni. But then again it’s also not necessary for folks to comment incessantly on my posts about their negative views. If they want to write about Geni, let them do it on their own posts, instead of making inaccurate, misleading and uninformed comments on mine. I do my best to answer them and explain the facts, but that only gets them more riled up. They never seem to let up, and always need to have the last word, which is “I hate Geni.” Apparently that makes them feel better.

I posted a link to my blog on the German Genealogy Facebook group (with over 15,000 members) and twice the Admins have taken down the post (initially without even reading it), because some of the Geni detractors complained so vociferously. I tried to post there because I have some genealogical background in Germany.  My 6g-grandmother Bella Sinzheim (Hahn) was from Frankfurt, and my 7g-grandfather Isaac Sinzheim was from Mannheim. I’ve worked the past few years on a huge project on Geni to enter in all of the data concerning the old Jewish community in Frankfurt, which was one of the few that never got expelled and was continuously present in the city from at least the Middle Ages, if not Roman times. It’s an enormous task, involving the creation and linking together of tens of thousands of profiles. (To give you an idea, the progenitor of the Rothschild banking family, Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), has almost 110,000 profiles within just ten steps of him.) The first major compendium of the Jews of Frankfurt was Alexander Dietz‘s Stammbuch der Frankfurter Juden (1907). But the more thorough and accurate work is Ele Toldot (These are the Generations), a collection of transcriptions of genealogical records of the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main, made by the lawyer and genealogist Shlomo Ettlinger from originals in the Institut für Stadtgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main. Using Ele Toldot, available online at DigiBaeck (the Leo Baeck Institute‘s online database), we’ve managed to reconstruct most of the major families online on Geni. They are all tied together and connected in multiple ways, going back to the 14th century. There have been some previous attempts to do this, but none of them are nearly as comprehensive as what is on Geni. There is still a lot of work to be done. As always, it’s a work in progress. I am hoping that Frankfurt will act as a model for others wanting to build out their town’s Jewish population.  We’re in the process of setting up Geni projects for all of the Jewish Communities in Germany.

The work we are doing on Geni is difficult, important and groundbreaking, and I’d like other people to know about it and maybe even participate. But it’s sometimes hard to get heard over the noise made by the few people who seem so hell-bent on tearing our work on Geni down. I’ve tried to answer all of their complaints, especially in my earlier blog post Answers to Geni Skeptics. But the complainers just aren’t interested in the answers. They only want to hear themselves complain, and jump on any opportunity they get. My Facebook posts attract a lot of attention.  (There are already over 1.5k likes and over 300 shares on this one.)  And the Geni-haters are attracted to them like moths to a flame.

It was very discouraging to have to deal with the administrators of the German Genealogy group, since none of them really know who I am. At first they wrongly thought I was advertising, or that I worked for Geni. I was accused of that in one comment. So many genealogy bloggers are on the payroll of the big companies, they assumed I must be also (as if an intelligent person couldn’t have an opinion in favor of the World Family Tree). I tried to help them understand the situation, but it didn’t seem to work.

On one of the other FB groups, Genealogy, I was heckled and even received anti-Semitic insults.  I was accused of “barking like a rabbi,” and when I called the poster (Justin L Smith) on it, he responded with something about killing Palestinian babies. He later sent me a private message about gun control for dual (Israeli) citizens.  Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.24.44 PMIt was all a bit incoherent, as you might expect, but clearly anti-Semitic.

And now the German Genealogy group admin, Ali Constable, who seems nice enough, but isn’t paying that close attention, I think, has decided to delete my post for the second time because some unnamed people supposedly complained.Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.32.08 PM

In legal terms what is happening here is called the “heckler’s veto.”  A few people don’t like what I am saying so they argue and complain loudly until my post gets deleted. In the Internet world it’s called “trolling.” It’s a shame, because what I am trying to say would be useful to people doing genealogy. On Facebook, I suppose it’s not easy to tell who is a serious person and who is a heckler. I guess if the Admins googled me, like Deborah Stoloff did today, they’d figure it out.  Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 12.09.05 AM

Over time, I suppose it won’t matter. Geni has already won the war; it’s just that most people don’t realize it yet.

Geni’s World Family Tree Hits 100 Million Profiles. Why Aren’t You A Part of It?

I’m always surprised when I find good genealogists who are not working on Geni.com‘s World Family Tree, the largest collaborative tree in existence, which will hit 100 million connected profiles in the next few weeks.  I’ve written previously with Answers to Geni Skeptics, but I’d like to approach the problem from a different perspective.  Below are the reasons why you really should be building your tree on Geni, and advising others to do the same.

Because a lot of the problem is a matter of reputation, first let me explain (in excruciating detail) why you should trust me on this issue. I recount this history, not to brag or bore everyone, but to demonstrate that I really do know what I am saying when I talk about Geni’s World Family Tree.  When you weigh my comments below against others you might read or hear, keep in mind the source. Or if you trust me already, just skip to the numbered list below.

I have been an avid genealogist and computer enthusiast since I was in elementary school in the 1970s, which makes me perhaps uniquely qualified to advise people on how to use computers for genealogy. Here’s a picture of me in front of my 12-foot family tree in 1977, about the time I turned 11.10357461_10152165406091270_4332223011985406148_n

Around the same time, my uncle Larry introduced me to computers.  If you don’t understand what it means to program Mugwumps in BASIC on a Commodore Pet, you probably haven’t used computers as long as I have.

I continued to be the family genealogist and computer maven through high school and college. At Princeton I majored in Mathematics and received a certificate in European Cultural Studies.  Of course, I also took courses in Computer Science at Princeton, and also during my semester abroad at the Free University of Berlin in 1987.  One of my deans at Princeton, Patsy Cole, turned out to be my third cousin once removed (a fact I discovered because I knew the names of all sixteen of my great-great grandparents).

I returned home to Los Angeles for law school at USC, and during the next decade took advantage of the library at UCLA and our nearby Family History Center, where I spent days underground combing through microfilms of records from Austria and Hungary.  Over the years, I have also done archival research on-site in Vienna and Prague.  I am pretty comfortable with library and archival research, having done a ton of it as a high school debater, including summer camps at Redlands and Georgetown.  I also interned in my grandfather Arnold Schoenberg’s archives when they were at USC in 1985, and helped my aunt Nuria when she was working on her document biography, Arnold Schonberg, 1874-1951: Lebensgeschichte in Begegnungen.

Because I have always been an Apple/Mac person, I used an early version of Reunion for Mac to computerize my family tree.  By 1996, I had managed to put my tree on the Internet using a program called Sparrowhawk by Bradley Mohr that converted GEDCOM files to html. This may not sound like a big deal today, but remember that in 1996 newspapers like Los Angeles Times and New York Times were only beginning to launch their online versions.

I attended my first IAJGS conference in 1998, and helped form the Austria-Czech Special Interest Group on JewishGen, which now has 1,800 members.  On our website you can find my two articles: Beginner’s Guide to Austrian-Jewish Genealogy and Getting Started With Czech-Jewish Genealogy. Over the years, I have become increasingly more involved in Jewish Genealogy, and have attended the past six IAJGS conferences, giving lectures on a variety of topics, including Geni.  I serve on the advisory board of JewishGenthe main Internet hub for Jewish genealogy.  I also founded the Jewish Genealogy Portal, by far the largest Jewish genealogy group on Facebook with about 15,000 members.

After giving the keynote speech about the Recovery of the Klimt Paintings at the 2008 IAJGS conference in Chicago, I met Noah Tutak in the vendor room where he was advertising Geni.com, then a relatively new online family tree program. Geni was started up in 2007 by David O. Sacks, the former CFO of PayPal, and in May and July 2008 Geni had announced both GEDCOM importing and Tree Merging, two features that allowed for explosive growth and the creation of a World Family Tree. I was intrigued with the idea of an online tree-building program but did not act right away. That fall, I weighed options for moving my tree to a different platform. Because I had incorporated enormous GEDCOM files given to me by David Solomon for the Gomperz, Wertheimer, Oppenheimer, Fraenkel, and Chalfon families, my tree (at that time kept on Reunion) included about 54,000 profiles. I’d guess only about 5% was my own work. By placing it on the Internet, I had attracted lots of attention, some from people angrily accusing me of “stealing” their work (apparently unclear on the concept that genealogical facts are public domain), but more often from people who were happy to find so much of their family tree online. Keeping the tree updated with new information and corrections was beginning to be a chore.  A more collaborative site seemed to be the perfect solution.

In February 2009 I began uploading my tree to Geni.com.  I had to break it into parts, because the GEDCOM upload feature had a limit of 50,000. Because I didn’t know that (at the time) the search index feature had a lag of several days, I thought it did not work and tried to upload it a second time. This caused a big headache, and there are still remnants of this mistake on Geni, although most of the second upload has been deleted or merged to eliminate the duplicates. I didn’t realize at the time that my GEDCOM upload was one of the largest that Geni had ever had. At the time, the World Family Tree on Geni had just 8 million profiles, but was growing at the rate of 2 million per month. The tree I contributed — again mainly compiled by David Solomon (to whom I always try to give credit) from published sources, such as Louis and Henry Fraenkel’s Genealogical Tables of Jewish Families, 14th – 20th Centuries and Neil Rosenstein’s The Unbroken Chain — became the backbone of the Jewish tree on Geni. David wasn’t happy to see all his work on Geni, but the decision to move it there was the right one, as history has proven. The tree has grown and improved many times over since then.

At first, working on Geni was difficult for me even though I was technically and genealogically very proficient.  There were forums where you could complain or ask for help, but the learning curve was steep and some of the ways Geni worked just didn’t seem to make sense.  But eventually things improved and I got used to the way Geni operated.  After two years, in 2011 I was made a volunteer curator on Geni, and this gave me much greater insight into how the program works, and what its strengths and weaknesses were.  I even visited Geni’s old offices in Beverly Hills a few times where I showed them how I used the program (and they taught me some of its unadvertised tricks).  Geni was purchased in late 2012 by MyHeritage and since then there have been a number of new features, most notably the ability to add references and sources on Geni profiles with links to records and trees on MyHeritage.

In the 7 years I have been on Geni, I have tried to build upon the work that I imported via GEDCOM.  I have added another 85,000 profiles to the tree, much of it from original research using online records from the Czech State Archives in Prague, and now manage about 140,000 profiles on Geni. I like inviting people to Geni when I work on their tree, and have invited over 1,300 people so far. There are a number of ways to add sources on Geni, and I like to add screenshots of documents as profile photos.  So far, I have added over 21,000 of them. I work pretty much every day on Geni, and have set up a number of large projects there, including the Jewish Genealogy PortalJewish Celebrity Birthday CalendarGeni Top 10 ListsHolocaust: The Final SolutionJewish Communities in Bohemia and MoraviaProminent Jewish Families of ViennaTolerated Jews of ViennaJewish Families from Prague, and Jewish Families from Frankfurt.  There are many features that still need improvement on Geni, as with any program or platform, but that’s a topic for another day.  If you want to read about some of the history of Geni, some of the curators have put together a history of the World Family Tree.  Ok, so now for the reasons you absolutely need to be building your tree on Geni.com:

1.  Working collaboratively is better than working alone.  Think of it this way. Who can accomplish more: (a) you alone or (b) you working with me? Sure, it’s a fun challenge to do an entire jigsaw puzzle by yourself. But it’s even more fun to do a larger puzzle with a group of friends. And let’s face it, your family tree is an enormous puzzle. How big is it? Well, let me give you some idea. I developed a program called the Geni Forest Density Calculator, to measure how many people are within n steps of a profile (where each parent, sibling, spouse or child is one step away). If your tree were filled out completely (everyone has all of his/her parents, siblings, spouses and children), how many people would be within just 6 steps of you?  For some of the historical figures we’ve tested, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the number is about 13,000. Of course the largest figures are for the folks with many wives, like Brigham Young, who has 70,943 people within just six steps. At 10 steps, he has 1,153,592. So, good luck with that if you are working alone. There really is no other way to have a remotely complete or comprehensive tree than to collaborate and work with others, and Geni has the best platform for that type of collaboration.

2. “I don’t care” is not a valid genealogical principle.  I used to think I had enough problems with my blood relatives, and didn’t need to worry about filling out the trees of all the in-laws. Big mistake. Sometimes the best way to make progress is by “going sideways” into the trees of people who married into the family. After all, who attended your great-uncle’s wedding?  Not just his side of the family; but also his wife’s.  All those people you think of as non-relatives could be holding clues to your own family — photos, documents, stories and more. Taking a broad view becomes more important the further back you go. When you get back to your ancestral village with a few hundred people in it, you can pretty much be assured that everyone in town is related to everyone else — by blood, marriage and everything else. These folks often lived in the same place for hundreds of years, meaning that over time all of the families braided together into one single family.  If you aren’t working together with everyone researching that town, you’re making a big mistake. Where else but Geni can you collaborate with others and build trees for an entire town?

3. Preserve your work for the future. Most people start genealogy with a pretty narcissistic it’s-all-about-me approach. Just look up top at that picture of me from 1977, pointing to myself in the center of that large tree. But as you mature, you should start to think about how you can contribute your work to something larger than yourself. You want to pass it on to your family, to posterity. The best way to do that is not to work alone. That tree on your hard drive has no chance of ever being found or used by anyone. It’s gone as soon as you are. Same with all those files in the garage. Even if you self-publish a book, it’s unlikely to ever see the light of day again. No, the best chance you have of making your work last into the future is by contributing it to the World Family Tree.  At 100 million connected profiles, Geni’s World Family Tree is by far the largest and fastest-growing tree in existence. To give you an idea, it is 10 times larger than its nearest competitor WikiTree. Geni’s annual growth in the World Family Tree is about 7 million per year. You want to be part of that growth. Because in the end, the World Family Tree on Geni is a unique and relatively valuable asset. Whatever happens to Geni or its parent company MyHeritage, that asset isn’t going to go away. No one is going to want start over and repeat all the work that went into creating it. So, as long as people are interested in genealogy, people are going to want to have access to this tree. It’s going to be around in some form or other for the rest of recorded history. That’s right, forever. Of course, the same might be said for copies of your tree that you put on Ancestry or any other platform. But Geni’s World Family Tree is something different. It is a living tree, improving daily with millions of people working collaboratively on it. As people quit and die off, all those small trees on Ancestry will just stagnate, frozen in time. They’re like tiny, incomplete snapshots of small twigs on the big tree. They are nice to keep around in the drawer, but when people want to look for something, they’re going to look first to the big, living tree.

4. Let’s face it, you’re lazy.  I know why you haven’t put your tree on Geni. You think it’s a lot of work, and you don’t want to have to redo everything you’ve done for the past umpteen years. Sure, back when I joined in 2009 all you had to do was upload your GEDCOM and you were there. But that feature was discontinued because it caused too much duplication. On Geni, each person gets just one profile on the World Family Tree, so any duplicates have to be merged. If GEDCOM imports were allowed, it would be a nightmare, because everyone would be importing huge trees duplicating what is already there. Anyway, the good news is that pretty much everything you have on your GEDCOM is already on Geni. What I mean by that is that with few exceptions you cannot find a large family tree with more than a few hundred profiles that is not already mostly on the World Family Tree. Nearly two-thirds of all of the profiles on Geni are already connected to the World Family Tree and the largest unconnected trees are all mostly fewer than 1,000 profiles. All of the easy, available large trees have already been added to the World Family Tree. So you’re well-advised to just start your tree by hand and build up until you get a match to the World Family Tree and can merge in. If you are a paying Pro user, you can also use the amazing tool SmartCopy, a Google Chrome app developed by Geni curator Jeff Gentes, that allows you to quickly import one family at a time from a whole host of platforms, including Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeMaker, RootsWeb, WikiTree, WeRelate, etc.  For most people, it takes less than a day to connect to the World Family Tree. Really. Just ask a volunteer curator for help.  Listen, unless you’re the stubborn type who still listens to music on an 8-Track player and watches videos on your BetaMax, you’re going to have to upgrade to Geni at some point. You might as well do it now.

5. Getting help is easier on Geni than anywhere else.  I’ve already mentioned that Geni has a cadre of nearly 200 volunteer curators from all over the world who can help you with your tree, solve problems, untangle messes, answer questions and teach you how to use Geni. My friend Adam Brown refers to us as “park rangers.” The curators are elevated from the ranks of regular Geni users. Most have years of experience in genealogy and have contributed over 5,000 profiles to the World Family Tree. Some have accomplished seemingly superhuman feats (e.g., 500,000 merges or 200,000 profiles added in just 4 years). Curators can see private profiles to help users (because they sign a non-disclosure agreement), and can mark well-sourced profiles as master profiles, and lock fields to prevent changes. You can also find (or offer) help in a public discussion.  Geni has a comprehensive set of Wiki pages that provide a wealth of information.  And there is also a Help button at the bottom of your Geni home page that leads to a Knowledge Base where you can search through previously asked questions and take advantage of other self-help tools, such as Help Topics, Video Tutorials, and Community Help forums.  Paying (Pro) users can also submit help tickets and get answers from Geni’s Customer Service department.

6. Your relatives will be more likely to collaborate on Geni. Here’s one of the big difference between Geni and the rest of the platforms. Sure, Ancestry will allow you to invite your relatives to join your tree and collaborate. But mostly your relatives won’t participate, and here’s why. It’s your tree. You only share a portion of your genealogy with your cousin, and she’s not likely to add her other branches to your tree. So for her, your tree isn’t complete and isn’t much fun. On Geni, there is no my tree and your tree. It is only our tree. Geni is like a giant jigsaw puzzle where everyone works together on the same puzzle. There is no ownership. You invite your cousins, and they invite their cousins, etc. etc. The tree grows and grows in all directions. Everything belongs to everyone and you work and add profiles wherever you can. Sure, they have privacy restrictions, mostly on the living portions of the tree. (I’ve written and spoken on these privacy issues extensively, so follow those blue links if you are interested.) But for the most part we all can and do work together on Geni. There are almost 4 million users connected to the World Family Tree. When you add and invite people to the tree, they’re going to be able to do as much as they will ever do. And they can do it for free, because Geni doesn’t require you to pay to work on the World Family Tree.

7. Geni is made for tree-building.  I use the other major online genealogy platforms (Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch) almost every day, and am pretty familiar with how they operate. For the most part, they compete with each other as data aggregators, meaning that they are all scrambling to add and offer more and more data sets, like the U.S. census every ten years. For the for-profit companies, that is where the money is. Aggregate data and offer it to customers (for a price). Geni never played that game, which is part of the reason it was gobbled up by MyHeritage. The other platforms offer tree-building as a gateway to getting customers to pay for access to the data. MyHeritage now uses Geni that way, which is also a boon for Geni users who want to pay for that service.  But Geni has always been about tree-building, and it has the best tree-building platform because that is all it ever wanted to be. I spoke last summer with Shipley Munson, the Chief Marketing Officer for FamilySearch, and he told me that they commissioned a study of all of the tree-building platforms and determined that Geni’s was the best and most user-friendly. It is. None of us who use all the platforms would be on Geni if it weren’t the best. Of course, all of the online programs are superior to the stand-alone programs in most respects. Even Ancestry has admitted that by announcing the discontinuation of its popular Family Tree Maker program.  Sure, some other program might have this or that feature that you like, chart-printing or whatever. But none has nearly the number of great features Geni has. I’ll discuss some of these below.

8. Projects are the way to make progress. Geni set up a feature that allows users to create their own projects, which are essentially ways of collecting and organizing data and collaborating with other genealogists. There are many thousands of projects on Geni and more are being created every day. Basically you create the project page, which you can edit using rudimentary tools.  Then you invite collaborators to join, so they can also edit the project page, start discussions, add photos or documents, and attach profiles to the project. There is such a wide variety of projects, it is hard to give an overview of them. Some are umbrella projects that provide structure and organization to a group of sub-projects. Some provide a common theme that ties together all the attached profiles. Here are a few, just to give you an idea:  Passengers of the Mayflower, Finnish Priests, New Zealand Pioneer Families, Holocaust, and RMS Titanic.

9. Nothing beats Geni’s Relationship Finder.  If you think that finding the shortest path between two nodes in a network is easy, you’ve probably never heard of Dijkstra’s algorithm.  (You probably also never heard of the even more complicated Traveling Salesman Problem. That problem was the subject of my computer science final back in 1985. My algorithm came in third in a class of 100+.) Geni’s World Family Tree is a network of 100 million profiles, so finding a relationship path between any two profiles takes a lot of computer work. Geni’s algorithm is the best I have seen, and can often find paths between very distantly connected individuals, which makes the game “how am I related (connected) to X” a lot of fun. As an experiment, last year I decided to try to find a path between my son and the other 52 kids in his fifth grade class. It worked. I also set up the Jewish Celebrity Birthday Calendar, in part so I could test whether Geni could find a path between me and any of the 2,500 famous people I added to the project. It works pretty much every time. Recently I checked to see if I could find a path between my cousins, who have some deep American roots, and any of the U.S Presidents. It’s too much fun. Just connect to the World Family Tree and give it a try. The more connected your tree is (on all sides), the better it works.

10. Find and correct mistakes.  One of the paradoxical things about Geni is that some people think the big tree has lots of errors when in fact it has fewer. Why is this? Because on Geni it is easier to find the mistakes. Every tree has errors and Geni has a ton of them for sure. Even if the error rate is just 1%, that would be 1 million mistakes in a tree of 100 million. But on Geni, you have millions of eyes scouring the tree all the time. The profiles are mostly public and easy to find using a Google search, thanks to Geni’s excellent SEO. So mistakes tend to get caught. The good thing is that you can fix mistakes, both yours and other people’s, which means that over time, the tree becomes increasingly error-free. The people who care the most about their branches make sure to keep them tidy. If someone makes a mistake nearby, they catch it and fix it. Curators can even lock down problem areas so they don’t get messed up by recurring errors. This doesn’t happen on other platforms, where you’ll find the same mistakes repeated over and over again, never getting corrected. That is why today there is no question that Geni’s World Family Tree is the most accurate and most comprehensive tree in existence.

11. Use it for free.  It’s worth repeating. Everyone can use Geni for free to add unlimited profiles, merge duplicates, view relationship paths and upload up to 1GB of photos, videos and documents. Geni Pro members get some added features including access to tree matches, search, GEDCOM export, unlimited media uploads, and premium support. If you pay for MyHeritage, you get access to Record Matches with data (including U.S. census and FamilySearch data) and SmartMatches with MyHeritage trees. But unlimited tree-building is free on Geni. One essential tip: non-pro members can use Google search to find public profiles.  Just add +site:geni.com to your Google search.

12. Geni is mostly public.  You want your tree to be found. You really do. The best thing that can ever happen to a genealogist is having an unknown cousin make contact and add a branch to the tree. That won’t happen unless you put your tree out there for people to find. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect. It will never be perfect. I’ve seen too many people hold onto their trees until they die, never allowing anyone to see anything. Don’t be that person. And don’t wait. The sooner you get things out in the open, the sooner people will find you. Thanks to Geni’s SEO, there is no better way to make your tree public than putting it on Geni. Ancestry and the other major platforms don’t allow Google to index all of their public profiles. So if you build your tree there, chances are only other users of those platforms will find it. Only Geni (and its much smaller imitators) make it possible for the rest of the world to find you using Google (the most popular search engine in the world with over 1 billion users). I’ve experimented by putting a large GEDCOM export of 100,000 profiles on Ancestry. I got almost no messages. On Geni, people contact me every day. You won’t believe it until you do it, but making your tree public on Geni is absolutely the best way for people to find you.

13. Be a part of a community of genealogists. Before I started on Geni, I basically worked by myself on my genealogy and participated in discussions on the Austria-Czech SIG mailing list. I had really no idea how much (or how little) other genealogists actually did. Geni opened my eyes. Now I could see the work of other genealogists from all over the world. And they could see mine. I could learn from how they did things. I could see who was speaking from experience, and who was just talking. Everything became transparent. Geni’s newsfeed is one of its great features. The work of everyone you follow or collaborate with comes in your feed, so you can see where they are working and help out if you see something. While I sleep, my friends in Israel and Europe are busy working on the tree. I wake up and see what they have done, and continue the work building the tree. Until you do this yourself, you have simply no idea what it is like, and how energizing and inspiring it is. You can even get a lot of the newsfeed in an e-mail. Sure, some people say all the notifications can get annoying, but you can adjust your settings if you don’t like them. I think the newsfeed and notifications are some of the best features on Geni.

14. Use discussions to solve problems. Geni has all sorts of ways to start discussions. You can start a discussion on a specific profile, or project, or just start up a discussion on a new topic. You can comment on a photo or document. You can send private messages or write on someone’s guestbook. There are so many ways to contact other people or ask for help. Working on Geni isn’t a solitary pursuit. Because everyone is working toward the same goal, a complete and accurate World Family Tree, you get answers. Problems get solved. There’s simply nothing like this on any of the other major tree-building platforms.

15. Geni is a global phenomenon. I try to concentrate on Jewish genealogy, but that’s just a teensy-weensy part of the larger puzzle. Geni has spread virally through lots of different communities throughout the world. As you might expect, the American tree is very well populated, but that’s not the only place where Geni is attracting attention. For some reason, Geni is one of the most popular websites in Estonia. Geni has users on all seven continents, in 235 countries and territories throughout the world. That’s good, because even around my family group (4th cousins + spouses), I have people who are from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, England, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Holland, France, BelgiumItaly, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Ukraine, LatviaSlovakiaSerbia, BosniaGermanyCanadaMexico, Brazil, Argentina, UruguayKorea, China, Japan, Viet Nam, IndiaNew Guinea, Bali and Kenya. Geni’s platform allows for crowdsourced translations, so it works in 83 languages so far, and users are adding more translations all the time.  In 2014 Geni added a unique feature allowing for multilingual profiles, which no other platform has.  As the World Family Tree grows, Geni’s user base is expanding as well.

16. Enjoy genealogy for the fun of it. Most people just work on their own small trees, but on Geni, you can work anywhere. Suddenly genealogy is not just a search for your own past, but a way to record history for the rest of the world. Some people wake up in the morning and do a crossword puzzle. I do genealogy. It feels good, and productive. For example, my friends and collaborators on Geni are working through records in different areas of Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic, building trees for entire communities. In the end, we’ll have a pretty comprehensive collection of interlocking trees covering an entire region. Because some 65% of Czech Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, we’re essentially rebuilding a destroyed world. Genealogy isn’t just an occasional hobby anymore; it’s my favorite pastime.

17. Learn about areas beyond your field. Being part of the World Family Tree means you are connected to everyone else, so you may end up exploring in places you would never otherwise see. And this is a great way to learn more about genealogy, and how to do genealogy. If you’re stuck in your area, see how they do it somewhere else. I focus mainly on 18th and 19th century records, but sometimes I look at what people are doing in earlier time periods, just to see what it’s like.  It’s fun to plug in a historical figure like Charlemagne or the famous 11th century rabbi Rashi and follow the relationship path, learning about other historical figures along the way.

18.  Geni’s open architecture means innovation. Geni allows programmers to develop apps that use the Geni database. Curator Jeff Gentes has created a number of good ones that you can find on HistoryLink, including hyperlinked descendant reports and this neat chart that allows you to visualize how complete your tree is.Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 9.55.31 AM

19. Make your tree accessible to the people who want to see it. There’s probably only a small number of people who are really interested in your family tree. But why not at least make your work available to them. By inviting your family members to the tree on Geni, you instantly give them free remote access to all of your work. You can upload everything you have found — photos, documents, records and videos — and write family stories on the profile pages so that everyone who wants to can see them. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Your kids and grandkids, nieces, nephews and cousins might not want to ask you directly, but they live online and if you make it available to them on the Internet, they’ll check it out. When someone tells you they scoured the tree looking for a family name to give their new baby, you’ll know you’ve done the right thing.  (You can find the most common first names in your tree from the statistics page.)

20. Stop wasting your time, and mine. Your goal is to create a family tree with your relatives. The goal of Geni is to create a family tree with everyone in the world. These goals overlap. There’s no reason for you to be repeating work that has been done on Geni, and similarly there is no reason that people on Geni should have to repeat your work. All that time you spend sprucing your small, private tree is a waste, because it all has to be repeated on Geni. All the work you do correcting mistakes and documenting your sources will have to be repeated. The more efficient thing would be to do all that work on Geni.

21. Geni is the scientific method. The best way to make progress in an empirical field like genealogy is to use the scientific method.  When you record an observed genealogical fact you are making a hypothesis (e.g., X is the husband of Y, or A is the son of X and Y). The next step is to test that hypothesis by placing it in the tree and seeing if all of the resulting relationship still make sense. Geni is the perfect place to test your hypotheses, because other people can view your work. Think of it like submitting an academic paper for peer review. There’s no better way to see if everything fits, or if you have overlooked something or made a mistake, than to submit your genealogical work to review by other genealogists. That is what is happening thousands of times a day on Geni, as people add information to the tree and their collaborators review them. Working by yourself, you will never be able to get the type of feedback and review necessary to make your work accurate. If you aren’t submitting your work for review on Geni, you aren’t really participating in the advancement of genealogical knowledge the way that Geni users are. This again is why the tree on Geni is in almost every instance more accurate, more documented, more verified than what you do on your own.

22. Help yourself by helping others. Every day I get about a dozen messages from users asking for help on Geni. As a volunteer curator, it’s my job to assist them, and I love doing it. I get to help and teach people how to use Geni, and in return I get to learn more about genealogy. There’s no replacement for experience, and Geni has given me much more experience as a genealogist than I ever could have had on my own, or even working as a professional on paid projects. I have no doubt that Geni’s curators are among the most experienced genealogists in the world, and I am proud to be one of them.

23. Take another look. Very often I look up people on Geni and find that they signed in once, maybe five or more years ago, didn’t find what they were looking for, didn’t add their tree, and never came back. A lot has changed on Geni since that time, and there have been many improvements. (Have you seen how Geni handles adoptions, for example?) But the biggest and most important development has been in the size of the tree and the level of accuracy. You need to come back and take a closer look. If you haven’t built out some of your tree on Geni and connected to the World Family Tree, you really don’t know what Geni has to offer. Over and over again I have had the experience of helping build out someone’s tree on Geni and making a discovery for them. This has been true even for the most experienced genealogists with very large trees on other platforms. You really won’t know until you try.  So what are you waiting for?

Find me on Geni at http://www.geni.com/people/Randy-Schoenberg/6000000002764082210.

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

P.S. If you want to see my tree on Geni, follow a link to one of my ancestors in the hyperlinked Ahnentafel report below (created using AncestorGraph on HistoryLink).  Let me know if you find any mistakes.  It’s always a work-in-progress.

Randy Schoenberg(1966 – )

Peter Beinart’s Holocaust Problem

Last night I watched a long video of Peter Beinart’s November 4, 2015 appearance at Beth Chayim Chadashim with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR.  Beinart is correct that he did not attempt to justify terrorism against Israel when he said that he believed that some of Israel’s policies have contributed to the terrorism problem (“Israel is reaping what it has sowed.“)  But he did say something at the very end of his talk that I found disturbing.

At the end of the program (at 1:21:30), in answering the final question, Beinart went on a riff about what he perceives as the misplaced priorities of the American Jewish community:

The American Jewish community has spent . . . and this may be a controversial thing to say, but I think we have spent too much money on Holocaust memorials and not enough on Jewish education.  I think it says something very troubling about a community where you can go into city after city and they have built these Holocaust memorials which are gleaming and very impressive. And then you go to the Jewish day school and it is crumbling. I mean there’s no gym, there’s no science lab.  What does it say about a community that’s more interested in memorializing its dead than providing for its future?

So, two things.  First, Beinart is factually wrong.  If you look at Los Angeles, for example, it is true that in the past 25 years we have built both the Museum of Tolerance and the new building for Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.  At the same time, our community has also built a number of new Jewish day schools, including Milken Community SchoolsdeToledo High School, Brawerman Elementary School, and greatly expanded others, such as Sinai Akiba Academy, Shalhevet, and Yavneh Hebrew Academy.  You’ll find state of the art science labs and excellent gyms at all of these schools, and many others in and around Los Angeles.  These Jewish schools have also been building up their endowments, thanks to a program sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) and the Avi Chai Foundation.  So Jewish education is not “crumbling” in Los Angeles.  And I doubt it is crumbling in any other Jewish community that has invested in a Holocaust museum.

But second, Beinart is setting up a false dichotomy.  Indeed, when you look at the major donor lists, you find that the same families are supporting both Jewish schools and Holocaust museums.  Why?  Because our Jewish schools and our Holocaust museums serve different functions that are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, they complement each other.  Jewish schools naturally serve just the Jewish community, and in particular a subset that wants its children to learn Hebrew and religious observance. Our museums serve a much larger community, and one that is largely non-Jewish. Certainly, one great aspect of our Holocaust museums is that they are places where Jews can memorialize the victims, and teach our young the terrible history of our recent past.  But these museums also, indeed primarily, serve to teach non-Jews about our history.  Those of us who contribute to both Jewish education and Holocaust museums know that while it is important to continue Jewish traditions, it is equally important to educate non-Jews about our history and the terrible consequences of anti-Semitism.

What would it say of our community if we only built Jewish schools, teaching, as Bienart suggests, the holidays of Purim and Simchat Torah, but neglected our role as interpreters of the Holocaust?  One of the things that makes us human is our sense of history. Our schools are designed to transmit the history of our species, and so we learn about the great civilizations, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, etc.  We learn about great conflicts, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Battle of Hastings, the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution and Civil War.  And, from now on and for the next thousands of years, we will teach our children about World War II, the distinguishing feature of which will be the Holocaust, the greatest mass-murder in the history of mankind.

We have the privilege of living with the last generation of survivors, who are first-hand witnesses to the history that will be taught for millennia.  Our Holocaust museums are designed to collect and marshall the evidence while we still can, to package and deliver it to people in an effective manner.  Our Holocaust museum serve also as places for the inter-generational transmission of history.  There are few other places where you will regularly find a 90-year-old teaching a class of 8th graders, as happens every day in our Holocaust museums.Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 4.27.56 PM

So why does someone like Peter Beinart make such a grave error when speaking about Holocaust museums?  My theory is that it comes down to his genealogy. Beinart’s parents were from South Africa, so his heritage is a mixture of early Russian and Lithuanian immigrants from the pogroms as well as one grandmother from Egypt. He probably doesn’t feel that his family was very affected by the Holocaust.  I’ve seen this very often also in the United States.  There are many American Jews for whom it comes as a shock to learn that the defining moments of Jewish history over the past 100 or even 1,000 years were the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel — and they missed them both!  (They thought that it was growing up in Brooklyn, listening to Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand, and rooting for the Dodgers.) These folks like to build different types of museums, like the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which was completely empty when I visited last March. (Really, I did not see one other person inside, although the nearby Barnes Foundation museum had been full of people when I visited there an hour earlier.)  But their story just doesn’t resonate — not with Jews and not with non-Jews.  Meanwhile our Holocaust museums are booming.  (For example, LAMOTH‘s attendance increased 25% each of the past two years and is set to increase another 7% this year.)

The good news is that views like Beinart’s will die out as the generations move forward.  Before too long, every Jewish family will be descended or connected to a Holocaust survivor family.  That’s just how genealogy works.  But in the meantime, those of who really understand the importance of the Holocaust to Jewish continuity will continue to pour our support into our museums as well as our Jewish schools.

The Problem with the Monty Hall Problem

I was so taken with Leonard Mlodinow‘s new book The Upright Thinkers, that I went on Amazon and ordered some of his previous books, including The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. In an early chapter discussing the mathematical development of probability, Mlodinow discusses the Monty Hall problem, made famous in 1990 by Marilyn vos Savant in Parade magazine.  In her Ask Marilyn column, reproduced (with slight modifications) by Mlodinow, Savant was asked:

Suppose the contestants on a game show are given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. After a contestant picks a door, the host, who knows what’s behind all the doors, opens one of the unchosen doors, which reveals a goat. He then says to the contestant, “Do you want to switch to the other unopened door?” Is it to the contestant’s advantage to make the switch?

Marilyn answered “yes,” but thousands of her readers, including some with advanced degrees, wrote her to tell her she made a mistake.  Marilyn solved the problem using elementary probability.  If you are given a choice of three doors, you will pick the correct one just 1/3 of the time.  For the 2/3 of the time that you initially chose incorrectly, you could win by switching your choice to the door that remains after the host reveals the first goat.  This seems a bit counterintuitive, which is why so many of her readers were upset, because you are still left choosing between two doors, not knowing what is behind either one.  It seems like a 50-50 choice.

Many people, including Mlodinow, use this example to show how our intuition can be faulty and not correct according to the laws of probability.  Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics for this type of work.  But the problem with this example (and even some of Kahneman’s that I have read) is that they don’t really prove that our intuition is wrong.

Take the Monty Hall problem.  Look at it more closely and consider this: how does the contestant know what game he is playing?  All he knows is that he was asked to choose one of three doors, then one of the unchosen doors was exposed and he was asked whether he wanted to switch.  That’s it.  The contestant has no way of knowing what game the host is actually playing.  And that makes all the difference for what our intuition tells us to do.

It isn’t hard to imagine that this is not the game that Marilyn thought it was.  What if the game was this: if you choose incorrectly, the host opens the door to reveal your goat; but if you choose correctly, the host tries to induce you to change until you pick a door that has a goat or accept a smaller gift.  Sometimes he opens one of the unopened doors to reveal a goat and asks if you want to switch to the other unopened door (as in Marilyn’s example). Sometimes he asks you if you want cash instead of what is behind the door you chose.  Etc. Etc.  You never know if or how the game will end.  Now this game looks to you the contestant exactly like the game that Marilyn described.  If the host induces you to switch your choice, it means you’ve lost.  Do you want to follow Marilyn’s advice?  You’d lose every single time.

So, back to our supposedly faulty intuition.  Is it really so bad?  What makes more sense: that the host would give us an easy chance to double our odds of winning, or that he would try to trick us into giving up our correct choice?  Our intuition tells us to be skeptical.  It tells us that we don’t have enough information to know what game we are playing, and so the choice is really 50-50.  We just don’t know if the information we received when the host revealed the goat really means anything.  So we are left again with choosing randomly between two doors.

While it is certainly true that our intuition often is at odds with the laws of probability, (and indeed that is why many people are initially confused by this problem), it turns out that the confusion is sometimes more warranted than strict probabilists are willing to admit.  There are plenty of real-world examples that show how bad people are at probability.  Take, for example, the fact that so many people buy lottery tickets, which are a terrible bet that no one in his right mind would take.  (In other words, the expected payoff is far less than the cost of a ticket.)  It makes you wonder though, why so many smart people like to use completely unreal problems, like the Trolley problem, or flawed ones like the Monty Hall problem, to make the same point.  You really cannot test the correctness of our real-world intuition with unreal make-believe problems where people can’t even know what game they are playing.

[For a more thorough enumeration of how Marilyn might have been wrong when answering this problem, see Herb Weiner’s Marilyn is tricked by a game show host.]

Danish Delegate Cohn and Article 49, par 6 of the Geneva Convention

One of the more frequent complaints against the State of Israel is that its settlements violate international law.

Perhaps the central current criticism against the government of Israel in relation to its administration of the territories occupied after the 1967 War concerns its alleged infractions of the final paragraph (6) of Article 49, of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of August 12, 1949. The preceding paragraphs deal with deportation or transfer of a population out of the occupied territory. The final paragraph (6) reads as follows: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Julius Stone, Jewish Settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Geneva Convention, IV, Article 49(6) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War

Given the massive population transfers that took place in the decade prior to the 1949 Geneva Convention, both during the Nazi period, as well as after World War II — for example, the millions of ethnic Germans expelled by Poland and Czechoslovakia, and further millions transferred during the partition of India and Pakistan — I was curious to learn what exactly was meant by the drafters of Article 49, paragraph 6.  Then I read that “The addition of the final paragraph of the present Article 49 (then Article 45) was proposed by Danish delegate Cohn at the Legal Commission of the 17th International Red Cross Conference (Summary of Debates of the Sub-Commissions, pp. 61-62) and adopted (ibid. pp. 77-78).”  (Notes to Discourse.)

Who was the “Danish delegate Cohn” who first came up with the language of Article 49, paragraph 6 on the transfer of populations?  It turns out he was the Jewish diplomat Georg Cohn, born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1887.  Cohn headed the Danish delegation to the Geneva Convention in 1949.  His father was a Russian Jew, while his mother’s family seems to have lived in Germany for many generations.  Cohn’s wife, Elfriede Bamberger, was the great-granddaughter of the Würzburger Rav Seligman Baer (Yitzhak Dov) Bamberger, one of the leading torah scholars of the 19th century.

Georg Cohn

According to a book by his daughter, Cohn was a strong supporter of Zionism and even considered leaving the Danish Foreign Office and joining the Israeli one.  It would be interesting to learn if Cohn left behind any writings about Israel.  Given his background, it is ironic that the sentence he managed to add to the Geneva Convention is now being used to assert that Israel is in violation of international law.

Addendum: With the help of USC Law Librarian Paul Moorman, I found the transcripts from the August 24-25, 1948 sessions of the 17th Conference of the International Red Cross in Stockholm, where the final paragraph of Article 49 (formerly Article 45) was proposed and adopted:

Privacy Issues with Online Trees

Avotaynu Online has published my recent lecture on Privacy Issues with Online Trees that I gave on July 7, 2015 at the 35th Annual Conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies in Jerusalem.  The summary of my article’s findings are:

  • Deceased individuals do not have a right to privacy, so publication of genealogical data about deceased individuals is unrestricted.
  • There is generally no legal limitation on the publication of genealogical data about living individuals, since that data is neither private nor objectionable to a reasonable person.
  • Living individuals may have a right against public disclosure of private facts that would be offensive or objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.
  • Online genealogy sites may restrict publication of genealogical data about living individuals, but solely as a result of marketing decisions and not because of any legal requirements or risks of liability or litigation.
  • Subject to the rule against public disclosure of objectionable private facts, genealogists are generally free to publish online family trees, and do not need to accede to privacy requests from individuals named on those trees.



Stolen Mahler photo offered on ebay for $150,000

A few weeks ago I contacted Cliff Fraser and offered to resolve the issue of the stolen Mahler photo by purchasing it for $20,000.  He countered by demanding $120,000 and I decided not to pursue it further.  There is still no reason to think the photo wasn’t stolen from our home in Brentwood or loaned somewhere by my grandmother and never returned after she died of cancer in 1967.  (Just this year the Edinburgh Festival returned a bunch of photos and a diagram for Gurrelieder that were loaned in 1961.)

Now Cliff has decided to try to the sell the photo on ebay.  It looks like he is being assisted by someone with the listing, because in previous correspondence he has been less than articulate.  The listing was picked up by Norman Lebrecht on Slipped Disc, who then also reported that the photo appears to have been stolen.  If no one purchases it, maybe Cliff will come to his senses and at least accept my generous offer of a reasonable price for the return of the photo.  Unfortunately, to date he has been acting more like the original thief than simply the grandson who found the stolen photo buried in his grandmother’s boiler room.


The Story of the Escape of Fritz and Maria Altmann From Germany on October 21-22, 1938

What follows is Bernhard Altmann‘s description of the circumstances surrounding the escape of his younger brother Fritz Altmann (1908-1994) and his wife Maria (1916-2011) from Nazi Germany, an event portrayed by Max Irons and Tatyana Maslany in the 2015 film Woman in Gold.  The text was translated by Bernhard’s son Cecil Altmann for Fritz’s 80th birthday in 1988.  Fritz and Maria were married December 9, 1937 in Vienna. Nazi Germany annexed Austria on March 12, 1938. Fritz and Maria’s escape took place on October 21-22, 1938.  For further details, see Fritz Altmann: My Adventures and Escape from Nazi Germany.


I had taken residence in Paris and was rapidly making my plans for the future.

An expansion of the Paris factory could not be taken into consideration because the French market was not large enough for our products, certainly not to be able to create a subsistence for my large family. It was also clear that I would not be able to get sufficient working permits for the many members of the family.

I thought first of going to the United States and building a factory there. On the 31st of March, I took a visitor’s visa to go to the U.S. That turned out to be very wise because later such visas could be obtained only with great difficulties.

In April, I went to England and started discussions with the government. In May, I was to obtain an answer. When I went to London in May, I was not given a definitive answer. The Scottish knitware manufacturers had objected to the granting of an entry permit for my family and myself to the building of a new factory.

After fourteen days, I decided to follow-up on an offer made by Sir Frederic Marquis and went to Liverpool. I was welcomed there and at a lunch that the Lord Mayor held on June 1, I concluded an oral contract with the key officials. A factory would be built for me, and I would only have to lease it. After three years, I would have the right either to discontinue the lease, to continue it, or to purchase the building at that time. Martin’s Bank offered me a 5 years credit of a minimum of 10,000 pounds (which we have not drawn on to date).

Then I went to Paris and sought means to bring my family out of Vienna.

Max had become a sales representative for the Vienna firm, travelling to France and England. He begged me in the name of the family to forego the new establishment in Liverpool. It seemed to be the main concern of those family members of the family remaining in Vienna not to make any waves. They were concerned about my keeping some of my assets but did not see that everything was lost and there was only one task ahead: finding every possible way to bring the family members out of Vienna.

Instead I had a multitude of wishes, communications and requests not to establish anything. This to avoid reprisals against the remaining family members.

I did not let myself be deterred from my task. Even if certain members of the family would be taken into custody – Fritz at this time had already been taken into the Landesgericht – after their release they could have an entry possibility to England and even a job. Without this, they would come to naught in Vienna and I could not do anything for them.

Max wanted to travel back to Vienna and I kept him from doing this. I had to beg him to stay.

In August, Julius came. When I asked him before his departure not to come to Paris before Trude and Nelly were out of Vienna, he hung up the phone up on me angrily. As he had come without Trude and Nelly, I asked him to stay because each member of the family out of Vienna was for me a relief.

Clara and Liselotte Herlinger had both received passports. I asked Clara to go to Italy immediately. Nothing stood in a way of her departure. However I heard nothing but excuses from her. She could not leave for one or another reason. Her son Gerhard – a marvelous young man, who lived with me in Paris 3 months – was also very upset. I could not give credence to all these excuses.

Despite these difficulties, she finally travelled to Italy. There I could take care of her because there were some Lira in my Italian company.

Shortly thereafter, Titti, the wife of my brother Max, came to London with her daughter.

Thus only Nelly, Trude, Fritz and Maria remained in Vienna. My brothers had made the mistake of picking the wrong Vienna attorney. Our case was given to a man by the name of Hentschel. He was more afraid of the Gestapo than we were. And he obtained nothing. It would have been better had we had no lawyer at all. In September, I decided to send a former administration employee named Robert Luthy to Vienna to help matters along. He did obtain the promise that Nelly and Trude could leave Austria.

I have to say about my wife Nelly and also of Trude that they behaved extremely well. I had not the slightest complaint from them and the letters that Nelly wrote me were heartwarming. She sought to calm me.

In the middle of September, I decided with an attorney from Brunn (Czechoslovakia) to obtain the departure of the four remaining family members to that town. It was all prepared. In Prague, the permission from the government had been obtained for temporary passports. However, this effort failed.

On October 5, I decided to go to Holland. I had heard that the crossing of the border to Germany was relatively easy. I booked a flight from Manchester to Amsterdam. On the 5th of October in the morning, there was a storm in England that caused a dozen or so casualties, hundreds of trees were uprooted. I did not let that get in my way and drove at 6 in the morning to Manchester and took the plane to Amsterdam. We had a tailwind – rather a tailstorm – and landed in the record time of one hour and 17 minutes later in Amsterdam.

I drove to the border, viewed the crossing possibilities and thought those dangerous. Every railroad crossing, every bridge was watched by border guards. When I talked to my Dutch friend C. in Paris a few days later, he advised me differently and counselled me to pursue the Dutch border crossing plan.

On October 12, I was able to receive Nelly and Trude in London. I then decided to bring Fritz out. And went to Paris on October 13.

Now I wish to tell the story of the events that led to the successful escape of my brother Fritz and his wife Maria.

The rules of classic greek drama require unity of time, place and theme. The Schiller drama William Tell is perhaps the best example of this. He follows the rules and his drama is further divided in three sections: the Tell-, Gessler- end the Attinghausen tales. As it happens, the tale of my brother’s flight also follows the classic rules. This drama, – although with a happy ending – also has three parts: the German, the Dutch and the English.

My brother was in contemplation of an escape for several weeks. His first idea was to get a Yugoslav passport. He should have got one on October 20. However the people who should have gotten it for him were arrested and thus this plan came to nothing.

An escape to Luxembourg was also considered and dropped.

Finally, Fritz agreed with my suggestion to go across the Dutch border.

Our correspondence was thru a good a friend of Fritz’s, Nissel. He brought the mail regularly to my brother in his apartment at the factory where he was under house arrest by the Gestapo.

The porter at the factory had the obligation to tell the Gestapo if Fritz were to leave without permission.

I advised Fritz that it would be best to tell the Gestapo agent Landau that he had to have dental treatment. In this way he could arrange regular departures from the factory. He did this. As he wrote me that it would be probable that an SS man would be given him as a guard, without whom he could not leave the factory, I made out [the] following plan: He should go with this man to the old Bristol Hotel and ask him to wait in the hall. Behind the hall there is a bar with an exit to the Mahlerstrasse and there one always finds a taxi with which Fritz could go then either to the railway station or to the airport.

On the 10th of October, Fritz left the factory and we talked on the telephone and finalized all plans. I left Liverpool, flew to Paris and met my cousin Isakower who went with me to Holland. Max Isakower, 28 years old, had gone from Paris to Vienna three times, and this without passport. He went over the French – Belgian border and the Belgian – Dutch border at night, and then over the Dutch – German border. He had some modest amounts of money in Vienna which he wanted to bring out, and he did this in this fashion. I took him with me so that he would fetch Fritz in Cologne and then bring him to the Dutch border.

Early in the morning, we drove out to Le Bourget, had some difficulty there because Air France wanted us to sign a declaration that we understood that we were going to Holland at our own risk. Since there was no need to have a visa, it was at the discretion of the police authorities to permit Austrians to enter or to be turned back. The only time that I had a strong heartbeat during these three days was then because I feared that the Amsterdam police would turn me back. But it was without a problem. And so I got to Amsterdam with Isakower and agreed that we would go to the border as soon as possible.

Isakower was to cross the border at Keerkrade in the night of October 20. This was the Dutch border town. From there, he would go to the German border post Kohlscheldt and go to Cologne and meet Fritz on October 21 at 3 p.m. at the Dom of Cologne.

To cover contingencies, we agreed with both Fritz and Isakower that in case something were to go wrong that the concierge of the Dom Hotel would be given a message for Mr. Fritz Hooper. This was the cover for any necessary communications.

At eleven o’clock in the morning of October 20th I said goodbye to Isakower.

Now the drama unfolds and I wish to tell the Dutch part first.

I went to my friends C. to get advice from them. Mr. M. C. would give me his full help, wanted to lend me his car so that I might pick Fritz up at the border and drive him to Amsterdam. I thanked him very much and I said “Listen, my dear friend, you are a Dutch Jew; as such I can’t bring you into such an affair which is not permitted under Dutch law. I thank you for your wonderful and humane help. I would be indebted to you if you would only give me a good and reliable attorney.”

And Mr. M. C. then gave me the name of a wonderful man, Dr. X.P., to whom I went immediately after lunch. I told him my story which he understood in its full importance and seriousness. To my great regret, he had to leave the next morning and was therefore not in a position to take this case on. He did however let me know that I would have his full support and that he would be available for me in the evening.

The marvelous thing in all this tale is that at various points, it looked like the whole scheme would fail; as in a tragi-comedy, all the missed opportunities resolve themselves in a happy ending.

So I was in the apartment of this wonderful lawyer Dr. P. and we developed our plan.

One must keep in mind that the southern-most province of Holland called Limburg was at that time in [a] state of alert with regard to all illegal immigrants.

Since hundreds of German Socialists, Jews and Catholics transited there every night, the Dutch Government had reinforced the customs posts. In the little stretch Heerlen – Keerkrade there were at least 50 border policemen.

I then related my plan again in all its details. My brother was to depart on the German Lufthansa flight an October 21, 1938, at 9:45 a.m. He should thus reach Cologne at about 3:30 p.m. In front of the Dom, he was to meet my cousin Isakower and then go with him to Kohlscheidt. There, he was to wait with farmer H. Senior till evening. H. Senior should then bring him to the border under the cover of night. On the Dutch side, the son of H. Senior should then take Fritz to his house in Keerkrade. Where Fritz and his wife were to spend the night.

The wife of my brother Fritz – Maria – said that she wanted go with Fritz although she had a valid passport and visas for entry into France and England. Like a biblical heroine she stayed faithfully by the side of her husband to whom she had sworn her troth ten months earlier.

With Dr. H. I discussed that he would travel to Maastrich on [the] evening of October 21. There he was to spend the night in the Hotel Lievre [???] at Aiglon. In the morning of October 22, my brother was to leave Keerkrade and go with him to Amsterdam. In case something were to happen at the border, Dr. H. should try to make an official intervention.

The border police had the task of hunting down people coming from Germany without an entry permit and then to turn them over to the German authorities without further ado. Such money that the refugees had was given to the border SS. Dr. H. promised in case any tragedy were to befall us that he would arrange for custody for my brother in Holland.

Now it became necessary to provide entry for my brother to England. And I would arrange for the necessary documents.

Dr. H. was to travel with these documents on the 21st of October to Maastrich. I spoke with him at 11 on the 20th of October and sought to give him the documents.

According to the old rule I adopted, that an officer of the general staff should not go to the front, I took my quarters in the Hotel Victoria in Amsterdam and this was a good thing.

I operated from my room and by telephone. I spoke to Fritz as agreed on the 20th of October at 4 p.m. in Vienna and confirmed that everything was in order.

I called my son Hans in Liverpool. And this was our talk:

“Listen, my son, tomorrow Fritz should come to Holland. He would have a false Czech passport with which to come to England. While need creates expedients, it would not be good to start a new life in wonderful England with a lie. Go to see our protector in Liverpool, Sir Frederick Marquis, and tell him the situation. Ask him for a police document whereby Fritz would be let in to England.”

Hans told me that he thought this impossible.

“A lazy servant is a half prophet – says the old Jewish proverb” said I to him, “go and do what I ask of you.”

Hans was to express mail the entry permit for Fritz.

But let us return to the Dutch part of the story. On the morning of October 21, I went to the air company KLM and asked for the rental of a plane for the next day. I was told that only larger planes of the Douglas variety were permitted to fly over the channel. Such a plane – a 14 passenger plane – would cost 1180 Florins for the flight to Liverpool. I did not want a firm rental as something might still go wrong. On the other hand, I wanted to arrange that Fritz end Maria would not spend a minute longer on Dutch soil than would be necessary.

The KLM official asked for a large down payment. According to a principle learned from my mother I did not want to give anything as a down payment. Finally, we agreed on a sum of 50 Florins for which I got a receipt.

In every serious story there is a touch a humour – and I laughed very much when I saw on the corner of the receipt, the words, in Dutch: “EXTRA VLUCHT.” *

*Translator note: the German homophone, Vlucht, means escape.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, a courier from Liverpool should have brought the letter. He brought nothing. The concierge of the Hotel told me that the next mail was only at 7 p.m. But then Dr. H. would already have left. I went to the central post office, and asked the different departments whether they had not found an express letter. And I found the letter in one of the departments.

I thus went to Dr. H. and gave him the English entry permit which had been in the letter, the receipt from KLM and also photos of Fritz and Maria. With best wishes for his travel, I said goodbye to this excellent man.

On Friday afternoon, I did several errands, and went to the hotel to call Liverpool. At this point, let us go back to the English part of this saga.

Hans did go immediately to Sir Frederick’s office and found out that he had left the very morning for South Africa. He then went to Alderman Shannon who heard his story out and declared his willingness to help. He recommended him to the chief of police of Liverpool, who was not in his office. However, his assistant declared to Hans that such a permit was outside the authority vested in him. He would however get in touch with the Home office. He did this immediately over the phone and official there asked what interest the city of Liverpool had in the entry of this man. He answered that we were building a factory in Liverpool and that all the family was reunited in England with the exception of Fritz, and that Fritz had spent some time in a concentration camp. The Home office gave its approval right on the telephone and said that Fritz could enter into England without a passport. That police official immediately gave his assurance that the next afternoon – Saturday – both an official of the Immigration service as well as a Customs official would be advised that Fritz could enter the country without any further formality. This closes the English part of the story.

With some excitement, I awaited the evening. I agreed with Fritz that he would send no messages.

At 8 p.m. I had to be in the hotel because they advised that there would be an air raid alarm. All Amsterdam was made dark and the hotel was candle-lit like a church. The candle light gave the whole picture an additional element of ambiance. It was muggy in the hotel and the hall was not inviting.

I went first to my room, then down to the lobby. It was 9, then 10 p.m. I had to get some air, but I could not leave the lobby because [at] any time there might be a call. At 10:30 p.m. I decided to go on to the street for 5 minutes to catch a breath of air. I was out on the street only for 7 minutes and as I went back the telephone operator told me that there had been a call from Heerlen. Mr. Max Isakower was on the telephone, gave his number and asked for a return call.

I got a connection immediately and within 5 minutes I got Isakower who told me that Fritz had crossed the border successfully but had not been able to spend the night at H. Junior’s place in Keerkrade as planned but was already 7 km from the border at Heerlen where he was the guest of a bicycle dealer. He could not explain this on the telephone. Fritz and Maria could not spend the night there at any cost. What should he do?

I said that Isakower should immediately take a taxi and go to the Hotel Lievre & Aiglon in Maastrich. There he should ask Dr. H. that he should go with him to the town of Heerlen, 27 km away, to fetch Fritz. Under the direction of Dr. H., they should then go back to Maastrich to the hotel. Isakower immediately went off to Maastrich.

Then I Immediately called the hotel in Maastrich to speak to Dr. van H. He had gone out.

I asked for a connection with Heerlen again because in my haste I had forgotten to speak to Fritz. I wanted to give him courage, should he be in bad spirits. I had not told them about the dangers on purpose because I did not want to trouble him needlessly.

He came to the phone and was in full good mood which made me happy. He had just eaten very well and was waiting for Isakower who was supposed to bring him to Amsterdam in some fashion. I was very happy to know him in such good spirits and promised him that we would meet the next morning in Amsterdam. How that could be arranged I did not know at that time. But I had confidence in my lucky star.

A few minutes later, I spoke to Liverpool and to Paris and told Max and Julius that Fritz was in Holland. Their relief was immense. Yet I was not comforted.

It was at 1:15 that I got a call from Maastrich. Isakower was on the phone. He had been stopped 3 times on his way to Meastrich by gendarmes. On the way back to Heerlen, another time. The clever fellow had come up with a good plan at this time. At 12:20 a.m., the last train leaves Heerlen to go to Maastrich. He took a taxi with Fritz, Maria [and] Dr. van H. to the railroad station. They were there at 12:18 a.m. He quickly took tickets and they hopped on the train so that the policeman who was on duty did not have time to ask them anything. And in half an hour, they were in the hotel in Maastrich. Dr. H. was well known there so they did not have to register. Isakower made an arrangement with the concierge that the door be locked because there was a usual round by an inspector of the police at 2 a.m. to check on the guest list. To avoid further complications, not only was the door locked, but the bell was disconnected. As I had this news, I did have a moment of relief because I told myself that not much could happen anymore. If, by any unhappy circumstances, Fritz would have been taken by Dutch authorities, he would be put into their custody and not turned over to the German border police.

I then informed my family by phone of the improved position.

What had happened in the meantime? How come had Fritz not spent the night at H. Junior’s in Keerkrade?

Now I have to return to the German part of the story.

No! First I have to record that Max Isakower never went to Cologne. What had happened in the meantime, I could not know. The border from Holland to Germany could not be crossed that night, for some reason. Max Isakower was to have contacted some German coal-workers who worked in the mines in Keerkrade and daily went back over the border to Kohlscheidt in the evening. He arrived too late and could not go over to Germany anymore. He had however told the father of H. in Kohlscheidt, to pick up Fritz at 3 o’clock at the Dom.

Senior was there. He asked at the Dom Hotel if there had been any message for or from Fritz Hooper. The concierge said, “Yes, a telegram is here.” The old H. took the telegram and its content was “Cannot travel because of illness.” The telegram was directed to a Fritz Leeman but the old farmer who was used to code names thought that could only be for Altmann. Therefore he went back to Kohlscheidt.

Now back to Vienna.

Fritz had left the factory at 9 o’clock, and got to take the 1:45 plane to Frankfurt. He took the ticket in the name of his friend Nissel whose passport he had in his pocket.

A pair of dark glasses and a stern look on his face should have made him resemble the picture on the passport more closely.

Fritz and Maria flew to Frankfurt, changed planes and were soon in Cologne. At the Cologne airport, a stewardess from Lufthansa asked if there were two passengers from Vienna in the group. Fritz and Maria did not answer the call but were unsettled by this query. They arrived in the city and waited a while in front of the Dom – which in our telephone calls we always spoke of as the little church – saw nobody and then asked in the Dom Hotel if there has been a message for Mr. Hooper. Yes, the porter said. The elderly gentleman had taken the message and left.

What a comedy of errors!

Fritz decided immediately to take the next train to Aachen. There, they put their baggage in storage (which would be an important element later) and took a taxi to Kohlscheidt. They gave the chauffeur [the] address of the elder H., who did not know the street. However he drove off rapidly and wanted to go to the border post to inquire of the SS man the directions to the well known smuggler.

Fritz was able to stop just before the border post and paid the taxi off and started off on his own to find the eider H.

He did not find the address immediately and asked a young Catholic priest. This priest brought them there immediately.

It was then 4 o’clock in the afternoon and far too bright to try an illegal crossing of the border. So they waited at the house of the old couple until the start of night.

Because the Gods were so favorable to this undertaking, there was no moon that night and it was very dark when Fritz and Maria were under way under the direction of the old farmer.

They came soon to a barbed wire fence that they climbed over. Then there was a second such barrier which tore not only Maria’s stockings but also her calves. “Do you see the light flickering in the distance?” asked the old farmer. “Those are of the German border guards lighting their pipes – being changed at 9 p.m.” As they crossed the second barrier into Dutch soil, the old farmer indicated a large tree which was just barely visible to Fritz and Maria in the darkness.

“You see the tree there? My son is waiting there for you.”

With these words, the old H. left my people, turned around, because he did not wish to walk on Dutch soil. Even such people have their principles.

So Fritz and Maria left to reach the tree in high spirits – after all they were in Holland and thus felt safe – and found there a young couple. This couple presented themselves as friends of H. Jr., explaining that he could not come and that they were delegated in his stead. What had happened?

Jr. had received word In the morning that a search was being undertaken for custom smugglers and it was necessary to be very careful; therefore Fritz and Maria would not be safe spending the night at his house.

The young couple would bring them into safety at Heerlen but they were not to speak a word of German, letting only the others speak.

It was good that they had no baggage because even the smallest bag would arouse the curiosity of the police. Maria took the arm of the new Dutch girl friend and Fritz walked gaily with the man to the tram from Keerkrade to Heerlen which they reached at 10 p.m. Isakower waited for them and called me. We are thus again in Holland.

I spent the night telephoning and writing and did not realize that it was already 8 a.m. I had agreed with Dr. van H. that my people should not get off the train at the Central station in Amsterdam because the police made random identity checks there. My dearly beloved travelers were therefore to be met by me at the Amsterdam V.S. station (which is about 10 km before the main station) where they were to arrive at 2:18 [?????]p.m.

At about 8 a.m. my brother Julius called from Paris and declared that Mr. Bohme – who was one of the two gentlemen who had taken over the Vienna factory – had called, and he was totally distressed by the fact that hostage Fritz had flown the coop. Julius should now go to Vienna instead of Fritz, Bohme asked saying that it would be terrible for him because the Gestapo would now arrest him. Julius promised him to inquire with me.

I called Bohme in Vienna then and gave him my word. We had agreed in August that I would turn over the factory without any compensation. I had so agreed because a large part of my family was under the control of the Gestapo. Now this was not the case, but I would keep my word.

I asked him and his companion Bagusat to come to London to sign the contract. This did happen on the 9th of November 1938. I gave them the factory and all the land, material, machines, etc. They agreed to pay me and my family an amount of £400 a month for the next five years. I gave them an amount of £1200 on account of sums received on my London account.  After 3 months, in February, 1939, they stopped the payments. I had never received an additional penny.

At 1 p.m. on the 22th of October, I went with my Amsterdam friend Mr. Alfred C. to the railroad station Amsterdam V.S. where we then received the two refugees who looked marvelous and were in best spirits, getting off the train at 1:18 p.m. At 1:55 p.m., we were at the airport at Schiphol where the Silverbird – a Douglas plane with 14 seats – was ready. At exactly 2 o’clock, as agreed with the KLM the day earlier the airplane took off. Over the Channel I unpacked the provisions I had got them. We drank a cooled bottle of champagne to the health of the newly reborn young couple. At 4:00 p.m., we arrived at Liverpool. There, officials of the police and customs were waiting. A half hour later the happy couple was reunited with its even happier family.

Thus ended my efforts at taking our family out of German custody.

I thus had my hands free to continue with the rebuilding of my business reorganisation and to bring my family back into the production process.


N.B.: This translation has been completed on another airflight: Singapore Airlines Inaugural Vienna – Manchester August 23, 1988.

Fritz Altmann: My Adventures and Escape from Nazi Germany

The following speech was prepared by Fritz Altmann (1908-1994) about his escape from Austria with his wife Maria Altmann née Bloch-Bauer (1916-2011).  Fritz is portrayed by Max Irons in the 2015 film Woman in Gold.  For further details, see also the essay of Fritz’s older brother Bernard Altmann.



I am deeply grateful for the interest you show for me and my experiences and it is a pleasure to tell you, the citizens of a free country, of what can happen and has happened in other countries in Europe not at all far from here.

The Austria from 1918 to 1928 had been a free and progressive country – free from hard political feelings. There was a free press and the possibility of free speech for everybody, and a hard-working Parliament.

It is a pity that Austria was not able to follow this line longer than 10 years.

After this period the party of Dolfuss and Dr. Schuschnigg started to curtail the freedom of the people more and more.

At last, some 5 years ago the Parliament was dissolved, the freedom of press and speech was stopped, and citizens who intended to defend their freedom were shot.

Vienna was a battle-field for 2 days, and Dolfuss and Schuschnigg established a new politic, which was the beginning

of the end. I had been living in Vienna, capital of the former Austria, where my eldest brother had a factory with approximately a thousand workers.

A short time before Hitler came into Austria, I married, and this is just a time when one is not too interested to look at newspapers, and so I was rather surprised that one day, almost overnight, the situation had changed; good and well-known citizens were despised only on account of their personal feelings or thoughts or religion if different to the Nazi ideas. Nobody was allowed to have a personal opinion – everybody must think alike.

My brother, the owner of the factory, had not been in Austria at that time, and it was not enough for the Nazis to take his house and all his belongings and the whole factory – without taking the trouble to look into the facts of rights or wrongs – and without trial they took away all the possessions of our family.

The method was very simple. A young boy of 25 years came into the factory one day, showed a badge of the Secret Police and told us that this organisation had taken over the factory and all belonging to it, and another even younger man, without the slightest experience in the class of business, had been detailed to act as commissar. But even this was not enough for the Nazis. A large part of the trade was in export, and they could only take over the bank account in Germany but not the money outstanding against accounts in other countries where right is still right.          They therefore, decided to force my brother to
transfer all foreign accounts to them, and they followed the method – which is the gangster’s method – and took a hostage.

I was taken for the hostage, and was imprisoned for 3 months during which time nobody told me why, for how long, or to what purpose. Not once was I given the opportunity to state my case nor did I see any responsible person to whom I could tell my story.

In the meantime, the new owners of the factory went to Paris to meet my brother, and told him that if he wanted to see me again, he would have to transfer all his foreign possessions including the factory he has in Paris, and he would have to declare that he would not start a new factory anywhere in the world, and further that he would help the export trade of his former Viennese factory.

My brother told them that he would not make any agree­ment before I was released, and a short time later I was sent home.

In order to tell you my experiences I have to state first that I was in a Viennese prison for 3 weeks, and although I have not had experience in a prison in any other country, I think the conditions were at least not worse than those in any other such place, the reason for this being that our guards were Viennese.

The Viennese people are quite civilised and not to be confused with other Austrians, who are Germans. The reason for the difference may well be that in Vienna, capital of the former Austrian Empire, for hundreds of years the citizens have been a mixture of all the nations of the Austrian Empire. There is an old. Viennese proverb which says “Every real Viennese is a Hungarian or Czech.”

One night a couple of hundred prisoners were brought to the Railway station where a special train was waiting to take them to the Concentration camp at DACHAU. I was one of these -prisoners, and I will never forget that journey as long as I live. We were all sitting very close together the whole night in a railway carriage. In every compartment there were one or two young men – only 16 or 17 years of age.– members of the Storm Troopers who were really pleased to torture their unfortunate victims.

We were forced to sit the whole night without the slightest movement, and to look straight at the light in the carriage; each blink of the eyelid was enough to cause a hard blow to the head with the butt of a rifle.     It is almost
impossible to explain what ideas the young boys had for new tortures.  I have only to say that a few of us were contemplating trying to jump through the closed window of the fast moving train, as the sure death seemed preferable to sitting in the carriage.

Among the prisoners were a number of the best known men of the former Austria, including ministers of the State (one being a personal friend of Dr. Schusehnigg), the Managing Director of the Austrian Railways was sitting on the floor of my carriage, his face streaming with blood. Also clergymen and a number of men who were officers during the last war, and had been decorated several times. A Couple of Artistes were in the same transport – top line comedians whose only fault had been to joke about the Nazis in the years before.

After our arrival in the Concentration camp, we were without food or drink for more than 24 hours, sitting upright or standing perfectly straight the whole time.

The start of the life in the Concentration camp seemed to be a relief after the journey.    It was, however, very hard; not for me as I was young and athletic and had always been very fit, but it was terrible to see old men of 60, 70 and nearly 80 years having to do the same hard work from 3:30 a.m. until 9:00 p.m., and the most cruel punishment was inflicted if they rested for a minute, or could not do the work required of them.

As on the journey, the guard at the Concentration camp was composed of boys of 16 or 17 years.

The Concentration Camp at Dachau is a very large ground – a couple of square miles, with a large yard in the middle where the prisoners had to spend a few hours every morning and every evening, standing in line to be counted, to check if anybody had escaped.

One day we had to stand a few hours extra as one man was missing, until the guard found he had forgotten to allow for the fact that a man had died the same morning.

Round the camp was a wide and deep trench, and outside

of this a high barbed wire barrier, which is electrified at night. At each corner is a tower on which guards with machine guns were posted day and night. Every night the whole camp is as bright as day, with search-lights.

We were living in huts, the walls of which were made of a kind of corrugated paper; these huts were very clean and modern, and we slept 50 men to a room. The food was fairly good and it was possible to obtain supplementary rations with money received from home.

The food and living conditions were quite human, the very bad part was the treatment, the kind of work required, and the hard punishments which were continuously being meted out.

It would take a long time to explain all the trouble and the treatment in the Concentration camp, being too bad sometimes even for animals to endure, and in spite of this I have to say that I saw the Concentration camp at its best. It was spring, the weather was nearly always fine, and there were 5,000 men in the camp which was therefore not overcrowded. My poor friends, with few exceptions, had much worse times later as there have been as many as 15,000 and they have had to stand perfectly still hour after hour as there was not room to sleep.    Once, in January they were forced to stand perfectly still the whole night out of doors.

But I should also like to relate one amusing experience. There were among us a few hundred burglars and I must say they were the most interesting people of all. Nobody could tell such humorous and interesting stories as these fellows. One day during working hours I had the luck to be with one of them. After telling him who I was he started to give me a full description of our factory, with all details of our cashroom, and told me exactly when we had been in the habit of sending for money from the bank and when we paid our work-people, at which hours the watchman made his rounds, and the size and breed of his dog.

He was the thief who had entered the factory some 10 years previously, opened the safe and relieved the firm of a considerable sum. He also told me that never in his life before or since had he been so successful and so he would never forget the name of the factory. Half of the sum obtained had been sufficient for his accomplice to drop his profession, go to the United States and establish himself as a respectable citizen.

At that moment I was envious that I was the person from whom he had stolen and not the one safe in the States.

This robber and I became good friends; many of my evening and Sunday hours have been made brighter by this friendship.

One night I was released and I regretted that I could not take my friends with me to freedom. But it was not freedom that was waiting for me. I was brought back to Vienna and confined to my home for 3 more months, because the Nazis were unwilling to let their hostage free until they had taken the last penny from the pocket of my brother.

I, therefore, started planning to escape. Three times I attempted without success, but in spite of the watchfulness of the Gestapo, nobody was aware of these attempts.

The fourth time was luckier. I left my home in the morning having received permission to make one of my trips to town for a few hours. My wife and I went to the aerodrome and boarded a plane.     My wife’s passport was quite in order, but she would not let me try to escape alone. My passport had been taken away from me, which of course, added to my difficulties. In the afternoon we were in Cologne, then travelled by train to Aachen and motor car to the small house of a peasant on the Dutch border. We arrived there at 9 o’clock the same evening; after a few weeks of correspondence directed to a friend of mine, we had an appointment with the peasant, and a few minutes later he was leading us. We were jumping over stepping stones in a little brook, then climbing over barbed wire barriers, to Holland. The night was very black, the moon was not shining, just the stars in the sky.

At the same time the Secret Police were issuing a warrant for my capture to all the border countries.

Our arrival in Holland was one of the happiest moments of my life, but even now we were not sure of safety because the Dutch Police used to send back to the German frontier, all people whose passports were not in order.

My brother, who was in Amsterdam at this time, was careful to send a well known Dutch Lawyer to escort us and the next morning we arrived in Amsterdam. There we boarded an aeroplane and flew straight to Liverpool, where we landed the same afternoon, having received permission from the Home Office to land without a passport, and when I told the Immigration Officer that I had no passport, he smilingly said, “Yes, I know,” and his only question was “Did you get well over the border?”

I am sure that I would not have received the same treatment in any other country in the world.

When I consider the whole matter, I really have the longing to shake the hand of every English man I meet, and to thank him.

I think that the majority of people born and living here do not realise the difference between this and other countries.

When you are tempted to take for granted the blessings of this country, I hope you will think of my today’s talk and appreciate the freedom and happiness which is yours.