One night a few weeks ago, instead of working on the family tree — which I have been doing in my “free” time (ha), rather obsessively, tbqh, for the past, oh, five months or so, judging by the increments of “ryansholin+freetrial5” accounts I am running on various genealogy websites — I tweeted about it.
And it turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly, that many of you also enjoy swearing at your ancestors in your abundant free time.
I never wanted to do this.
When one previously unknown to me relative, many years and email addresses ago, first shared some details, questions, and answers about his branch of the “Sholin” line, I was intrigued and entertained and it stopped there.
When another previously unknown to me relative — let’s call them a “PUTMR” (there may be more of these, let’s make an awkward acronym) hit me up several years later with the news that there was a “Shalin” branch, and expanded it, hey, cool, neato. (It was probably pronounced more like that anyway, transliterated as Zoling/Zolin and sounding like Tzhallen, if you know what that sounds like?)
Somewhere in between there, in a story I’ve told many times about all the reasons I decided to leave New York City before I had any real reasons, one of them sent me the naturalization record of my great-grandfather Sholin, and it included an address that was approximately the length of one F train platform away from my apartment at the time, and ONE HUNDRED YEARS had passed, and I was all there was to show for it.
Fast forward maybe a decade, and my father worked on his mother’s side (Weis/Weiss/Weisman/Wiseman/heck-let’s-get-real-it-was-more-like-Vaysman) so diligently that I became a little uncomfortable with the whole idea, and was unfortunately quite dismissive of his efforts. I AM SORRY ABOUT THAT NOW. He made trips to the National Archives. There were bus trips for seniors doing the same thing. He took them. He interviewed his oldest living aunts and uncles, and took…. chaotic notes. And logged his findings, errors and all, in one of these genealogy website tree thingies.
And I got an account. And ignored it. Until he died last year. And then I started poking around, curious about some of the email he was getting with exciting sounding “record matches” and the like. Well, a “record match,” hey, maybe new information has come to light and I should take a l—- no, no, no, I’m not going to get sucked in.
Here’s how they sucked me in: We did 23AndMe for health reasons (I know, I know, it is weird to throw your DNA on the Internet and give corporations access to it, but here we are) and after I got bored nosing around my ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ health reports and obvious ancestry (98.4% Ashkenazi Jew, maybe more) I looked at the DNA “matches” and started trying to figure out who some distant relatives were.
And then it hit me.
I could use this DNA match stuff to figure out more about who the heck my most mysterious (and not coincidentally most conventionally problematic) maternal great-grandparents were, where they came from, where their other relatives are now.
Reader, I am five months down the rabbit hole, and have built a “family tree” (ha!) with 1,830 people in it. THIS IS A SMALL NUMBER. Honest. I have seen trees from PUTMRs with like tens of thousands of human records in them. Like, football stadiums full of tangentially related people. Right now I just have a large auditorium full. Not even a Sportatorium’s worth yet.
This is the most fun and frustrating puzzle I have ever attempted.
Oh, and I still don’t know who my great-grandmother’s parents were.
On to the swearing at our ancestors.
- Shoutout to the scribes who kept the birth, marriage, and death records in places like Russia and Ukraine and Poland and Romania and Moldova and did you know these are all the same place during some of the periods of time I’m working with here? More on that later.
- The records are handwritten. The handwriting is TERRIBLE.
- That makes OCR comical. And it makes manual translation and data entry rather variable.
- Special kudos to the Montreal record keepers. I am not clear if it’s always the same Rabbi, or if it’s one scribe per synagogue, or if there was some central scribe to which the Rabbis called in their births, marriages, and deaths, because they are absolute butchers when it comes to names. Just, defying logic. And, yes, I am not surprised if an officiant forgets how to correctly spell the name of somebody’s mother when the babies just. keep. coming. so. relentlessly. So many babies.
- Oh, an absolute gold star to the two guys living contemporaneously in Montreal named ESSIE and ISSIE with the same last name and the aforementioned Rabbis/scribes destroying both names differently every time. THEY ARE NOT RELATED. I think. For now. One of them was married to my great-grandfather’s sister for a few years? I think? For now. But on his third marriage record (there are so many marriages, anyone who tells you people get divorced more now has never seen the Ukraine-Brooklyn-Jersey-Montreal pipeline of Jewish couples in the 1920s-1950s) he says he’s widowed, and I’m like, whoops, GG Aunt Freda died, but… then she appears with A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LAST NAME many years later in someone else’s obituary.
- I have no complaints about newspaper obituaries. They are giving me life these days. I also have no complaints about the people who photograph gravestones for fun and upload them to websites with reasonable databases, and many of them are reasonable. I am getting lots and lots of practice reading Hebrew on gravestones to validate or discover someone’s father’s name. Well, their Hebrew name, at least.
- Back to sarcasm, though: Gotta appreciate the entire concept of all those scribes in the “old country” writing down Hebrew names and Yiddish names, neither of which might have anything to do with the name they used in secular life, and certainly neither has to have anything to do with what they name themselves after they migrate to North America.
- Then again, I’ve learned a lot! Did you know Ariyeh (and many variations in Hebrew and Yiddish, like Leib) means “lion” and many of the men with that name chose “Louis” after migration. Trends like this make for some good educated guesswork, sometimes.
- Then again again, sometimes it’s just a trend created because “there was a popular song about a girl named Tillie, so we liked that name, and chose it, and there’s no relation to our original names, sorry, descendants, good look figuring that one out.” I AM NOT MAKING THE TILLIE THING UP.
- Speaking of Tillies, let’s talk about this one Brady Bunch Cubed branch where my other maternal great-grandfather leaves one wife and three kids in Lithuania (it might’ve been Belarus), comes to New York, marries a woman who has three kids from a previous marriage (divorced), THEY HAVE THREE MORE KIDS, and then, AND THEN, the first wife dies and the O.G. three kids show up in Brooklyn like “hi who are all these children and why are there so many” and to be fair, they get along eventually, but not immediately.
The point, if there is one, is that this stuff is messy AF.
Speaking of messy, among the things I’ve learned while working on this puzzle include big geopolitical lessons, like:
- It was WILLFUL IGNORANCE on my part to grow up thinking my “Russian” ancestors were unaffected by the Holocaust, because, dear reader, they were affected. It is dark. Many of my ancestors fled “Russia” after some truly awful and deadly pogroms (with their own geopoltiical impetus) in their towns, but for the most part, anyone who was left alive is later murdered in the Holocaust. (I’ve also observed that “murdered” is a particular and clear way these victims are described by the organizations that have done the hard, hard work of cataloging them all. And it’s accurate.)
- The geopolitical impetus of the pogroms, at least in Ukraine in 1919, the push that sends my least organized great-grandparents across the continent? It has to do with power vacuums, the Bolshevik revolution, and who both Ukrainian and Russian nationalists blamed for their problems. GUESS WHO.
- Wait, there were Ukrainian nationalists? Yes, because Ukraine was briefly independent for a minute after WWI, and, hey, so was Romania, but it went kinda poorly, and hey, this part of Poland is now part of Ukraine, and this part of Austria-Hungary is now part of Poland, and also there’s a place called Bessarabia for a short while? All of these details are literally academic in 9th grade World History, but for the people who lived it it was rather chaotic, with whole armies sloshing across their neighborhoods in one war and then another — and, dear reader, different generations living in these places had very different expectations of the Germans based on their previous experience. Prior results don’t predict future results. Hard lesson.
- Reading some of this stuff is a little traumatic, and I don’t recommend it.
- But it’s mildly joyful to map out the families of the survivors, where they exist. (If you’ve ever met a Holocaust survivor, you’ll know it, because it’s a bit like the old Ski Instructor joke — well, at least it was told to me by a skier as a Ski Instructor joke, but it works with just about anything: “How do you know if there’s a Ski Instructor at the bar? Oh, THEY’LL TELL YA!” Only this is a much more important thing to not shut up about.)
- On the lighter side, geopolitical turmoil also makes finding some records a bit of challenge. These people really did live in four or five different nations over a very short period of time with little-to-no physical movement on their part, so YOU try and figure out whose current country to look ’em up in.
- To that end, there are… complications in record-keeping, like, fires. That burn the records. But sometimes there’s another copy, and at the moment the current hero in the Ukrainian records world is the guy who rescued the other copy AS THE CURRENT WAR IN UKRAINE STARTED and is scanning it, book by book.
- Oh, but no one has translated those records yet, so you’re going to need to learn some Hebrew AND Russian cursive to look through hundreds of handwritten entries from 120 years ago. Good luck with that.
- Just because I haven’t mentioned them yet, a pox on all the houses of the shipping company staff who handwrote records, often in cursive, often in weird slanty cursive that must’ve been “professional” for the time period, because, no. It is not very readable. Dutch port workers, I am giving you some very orange side-eye.
I guess that night on Twitter, I said I would about how I’ve been doing this research, but so far, this is just an extended version of that rant thread.
If you haven’t messed around with any of these apps, I will tell you now that the technology is decent! Despite all my complaining about the quality and cleanliness of the data — and sometimes its existence in unburned digital form at all — the basic premise of a lot of these tools is good.
They work on some basic matching principles, like “Hey, there’s a census record with the name you said was your grandmother’s, in the city you said she lived in, and the other people in the record are the other people you said she lived with, so should we save this to her entry in your tree?”
Rinse and repeat a few thousand times.
Census records, birth, marriage, and death records, city directories, Social Security stuffs, other “public records” collections of dubious but directional quality (not too different from what you can find using Google)… all of these are theoretically free public records, but the apps pull it together in a useful relational way so they can tell you “hey there, it looks like you’re looking for a person with this name and birthdate, maybe this is her?” a hundred times a day.
- MyHeritage is where I paid for a year and have been housing the tree. It’s fine. It’s pretty good about surfacing stuff from JewishGen, but after a while I realized it was a good idea to get an account at JewishGen myself, make a donation, and use the database (and forums) over there.
- JewishGen, yes, if you’re Jewish, it’s well worth the $100 donation to get access to use additional fields in the database search form. Yes, that’s how it works. No, there are no permalinks to the search results. Yes, you’ll be taking a lot of screenshots and pasting tables into Google Docs. This is the way, apparently. JewishGen is the central clearinghouse for what I call the “old country” database. If it was inscribed in a book in The Pale of Settlement in the 19th or early 20th century, AND it’s been microfilmed, AND it’s been translated, AND the data has been entered into the aforementioned database, then, yes, it’s there. FALSE POSITIVES will lead you astray here. Someone whose details kinda look like your great-grandmother if you squint and assume there’s some flexibility in the details over time due to various needs to lie to various governments to achieve various ends to survive and thrive? Yeah, it’s not actually her. And that’s fine, it’s probably a cousin. They’re all cousins. We’re all cousins. Hi, cousin.
- Ancestry has a better search engine, and I think a better algorithm for surfacing the good stuff with less fiddling, but I’m not sure why. They also have more Canadian records, if you need those. If I’m still working on this (ha) after my first year of the MyHeritage subscription, I might move the whole tree over here.
- FamilySearch is the LDS (yes, them) project cataloging as many humans as they can, and they are diligent about it. It’s designed to be a well-organized canonical list of people, but in reality, it is only as organized as people like you and me make it, because people who don’t know our great-grandmother will not transcribe her name correctly from a handwritten record. Or maybe they will, and we were looking for the wrong name all along, which is always a distinct possibility. FamilySearch is free, use it as a reference, and use it as an instructional guide to help figure out where to look for records from all over the world. There’s even a wiki with lots of helpful information about where to look for answers, depending on what countries you’re looking in!
- FindAGrave.com — Gravestones are useful; especially if you have no information about someone’s father and are looking for a clue in the form of a Hebrew name. Obituaries often mention a burial location; the FindAGrave search engine works very well and has lots of filters; sometimes it might be wrong! Sometimes a gravestone has dates that are a little bit off, despite being literally carved in stone, and sometimes the names are not necessarily precisely what you were expecting. It helps to have a clue going into your search, and using FindAGrave to validate your theories. I’ve also had good luck getting cemetery names from here, and then searching for a cemetery website that might have a better, fuller index of graves with names and sometimes even pictures of gravestones.
- DNA matches — Let’s talk generically about uploading your DNA to these sites, or taking the tests. Listen, it’s not for everybody, and I really don’t understand all the technical bits, but it opens up a very big world (you are related to tens of thousands of people, I promise) of distant relatives. You will politely shrug at some of them months before you figure out they could tell you lots you want to know about your great-grandfather’s family, and then they won’t check their messages for years. As mentioned previously, I did a 23AndMe test, and honestly, their “DNA Matches” feature is suboptimal, and obviously not intended to be a big part of their product. Others are better. What you really want to do is download your DNA — and let me tell you, I was humbled when it was delivered as a
.txt file in a ZIP — and then you upload it to wherever you want. I uploaded mine to MyHeritage, and the whole matching scenario is very cool over there, including some tools to cluster overlapping matches together, which helps give you ideas about which family they’re from, mostly, if you know which family one of them is from, mostly. Outside of the big apps, there’s another place called Family Tree DNA that a PUTMR recommended so we could get a better look at our overlaps. Your genetic code mileage may vary.
This draft post has been open in my browser for a few weeks. In the interim, I have more or less quit Twitter for good, so don’t go looking for the aforementioned thread. Unless I haven’t deleted all my tweets yet when you’re reading this. Assuming you still follow me and I haven’t removed you as a follower yet. Anyway, RIP Twitter. I hear Tumblr is lovely this time of year.
During the weeks I’ve been (not so much) editing this post, I also took off a few hours during a work trip to New York City to visit four cemeteries, capturing photos of gravestones from a few different sides of the family.
Every cemetery was a little different, but my favorite was the first one, about halfway to Coney Island on the F train, where the train stop drops you in the middle of a big six- or seven- way intersection, and each triangle off the intersection is a part of the cemetery. There was no website or phone number online, so it was a bit of a leap of faith to go, but taped on the inside of the glass door of the big old weird house that was the home of the cemetery office, there was a phone number. The gentleman on the other end of the line was efficient, accommodating, and appeared at the door within minutes to deliver a map, instructions, and a Hebrew calendar or two.
The moral of the story? Ask questions, talk to people, and they’ll help you find the answers the algorithmic tools can’t know, because the data doesn’t exist yet in machine-readable form. Humans! Still helpful.