Thursday, August 21, 2008

Meeting with Minsk researcher Yuri Dorn at O'Hare Airport

I've skipped a number of items from the IAJGS meeting that I hope to write about, but trying to stay in real time, I'm on the flight home having had my last and possibly most important interaction of the trip just before leaving. (Actually, this is posted from home the next morning.)

Well-known Minsk research Yuri Dorn would be speaking at the Belarus luncheon tomorrow afternoon, but since I would be missing that I had contacted Yuri beforehand to see if we could arrange another time to meet at the conference. You may recall that I had recently been in touch with Yuri with my inquiry about 1858 census records from Novogrudok.

Yuri was happy to meet but he was not planning to arrive at the conference until Thursday morning. Since I was leaving Wednesday evening, the one chance to meet might be at O'Hare Airport as he flew in on Wednesday afternoon. My return flight was out of Midway, but it turned out that there would be a window of perhaps 45 minutes to meet if I would come to O'Hare.

That's what I did. We arranged to meet at his baggage claim and then proceeded to the Hilton bar to discuss my project. Yuri of course remembered the work he had done a year ago for Walter, and thus had some familiarity with our Rabbi Spektor connection and some of the facts of Spektor's life.

I filled him in on the details of Spektor's birth in Rosh, marriage and rabbinical training in Volkovisk, and early career in Isabelin, Baraze, Nishvez and Novogrudok. We talked about the name change from Spektor to Rabinowitz and I gave him my theory about the Novogrudok census. His first reaction was that it is likely someone who had come to the town only seven years earlier would not likely be listed in such a census, but would instead be considered a resident of his birth town.

I hadn't considered this before but recalled that our Tulbowitz relatives from Rezhitsa were still considered townsmen 20 years after they had resettled many thousands of miles away. But Yuri said this is not a sure thing so my Novogrukok theory was still worth checking out.

He said it might also be possible to look for revision lists and similar records from Spektor's birthplace in Rosh. I asked about vital records, mentioning that I had had no success in finding any Spektor or Rabinowitz family records in the Belarus online indexes.

Yes, he said, sadly all the "medic records"--births, deaths and marriages--from most of western Belarus had been lost during the war. There is very little hope that any such records will be found, either in Minsk or in regional archives. By contrast, when I inquired about records from Mogilev in eastern Belarus on behalf of Dale Friedman of Berkeley whom I had spoken to earlier in the day, Yuri said that, yes, vital records for towns in that guberniya are likely to be accessible.

Nevertheless, Yuri felt that our Novogrudok search would still be worthwhile, and there will be other avenues to pursue should that turn up empty. We left things that I would follow up with a detailed email and that he will begin working on our case when he gets back to Minsk.

He also made a request that we contribute the story of Rabbi Spektor's early life to the project his research group has undertaken to renovate a Minsk synagogue. I'm not quite sure how our information can help in this worthy project, but of course I told him that I and/or Walter will be pleased to help any way we can.

Rzeszow research group meeting in Chicago

Continuing to focus on interactions at the conference directly relevant to our search (as opposed to sessions and discussions that were merely interesting), I'll mention the Tuesday morning meeting of the Rzeszow Research Group.

First of all, 20 lashes with a wet noodle — I need to work on my Polish pronounciation. It is voiced something like zhe-shov—there is not 'R' sound at all. Marian Rubin, the helpful leader of the group who had recently supplied me with photocopies of some of our Ringel birth records, teased me good-naturedly about my typical newbie's error.

She introduced me to Eden Joachim, a leader of the JRI-Poland SIG (later I learned also of the Litvak SIG) who was JRI-P's liaison to the Rzeszow group. Also in attendance were a dozen or so others with family from the town, including several members of the extended Reich family who produced famous relations both in Rzeszow and in the U.S. (one example is former Cabinet secretary Robert Reich).

Also in the meeting was Logan Kleinwaks, whom I wrote about in an earlier post. In conversation, Logan said he had some Ringel members from a nearby town in his family, so I will want to follow that up later. Also, on the Reich thing, I didn't remember until later that Schija Ringel's mother had the maiden name Reichman. I wonder if there is a connection.

The meat of the meeting was Marian's report, with frequent amplifications from Eden, on the status of Rzeszow records availability. The gist is this: I probably have all the birth and death records that are available, but there is a slew of census data from various 18th, 19th and 20th century years that should contain Ringel family information.

There is a very formal process for obtaining the census data supplied usefully in the from of Excel spreadsheets, and it involves money—$180 to be precise—to be paid to JRI to fund the various indexing projects that it manages. That is separate from a mandatory contribution of $150 to obtain 20th century vital records that are available but are of limited interest to us at this time.

I certainly don't begrudge JRI's contribution policy and completely understand the logic behind it. I'll just note that of all the SIGs I have encountered, JRI is the most formal and organized in its pay to play policy. It should be said that it is also the biggest and probably most accomplished of all the JewishGen SIGs.

And, yes, I do want to get my hands on that spreadsheet. I guess my $180 check will be on the way soon.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

East Prussia expert Ruth Leiserowitz has Wohlgemuth gravestone from Koeningsberg

Here's a quick item following the Litvak SIG luncheon, at which East Prussia expert Ruth Leiserowitz was the featured speaker. I'll follow up later with details of her presentation about Jewish records from Memel, as well as on her session on Litvak migratory decisions from Monday—both plenty interesting and useful.

For now, I will mention that I spoke with her briefly afterwards about the Wohlgemuth families of Memel and Koenigsberg, about which she was very knowledgeable. We didn't have much time, but she told me that she had photographed a Wohlgemuth gravestone from the old Jewish cemetery in Kaliningrad and that it was up on her website.

Here's the link and here is the photo.

We have an Isaak Wohlgemuth in our family, the brother of our great grandfather Julius Wohlgemuth. However, this is a different one. Ours was born in Koenigsberg but died in Berlin in 1929. We already have a photograph of his gravestone from the Berlin Jewish cemetery. This new Isaac died in 1896, while our Isaac was born in 1865, so he is not likely to be a direct forebear (or he wouldn't have been named Isaac). But perhaps we have another uncle here. More work to do.

Correcting Cannold data in Ancestry

One tip I picked up last night at the Ancestry session was about making corrections in their census index records. Having struggled twice in the past to find and then find again some months later the 1930 census record for our great aunt Meta Cannold, this feature gives me the ability to submit a correction so that future researchers (including myself) are not misled.

Because of an apparent indexing transcription error, they had Meta and her sons listed at Connold instead of Cannold. Here is what I submitted: "Meta and her sons Harrison and Thaddeus are named Cannold. Meta (nee Rabinowitz) was married and divorced from Lester Cannold. For more information, contact Dan Ruby at ."

According to the site response form, my information will be reflected in the index view of the record in a short time and in search results after several weeks.

Wohlgemuth connection made at Chicago conference

I should have done this long ago, but I've just now submitted our nine family names and towns to the JewishGen Family Finder. Of course I have used this useful resource numerous times to locate other researchers, several of whom have turned out to have helpful information. Now other people looking for our names will find me. It will be interesting to see how many queries will be sent my way.

One connection I made yesterday showed me the benefit of this kind of listing. The conference provided a similar capability for registrants to list their family names, and that data was made available to other full-conference attendees. Unfortunately, since I paid for three conference days instead of the week, I didn't get a copy of the conference binder, but my data is in there for others to access.

Monday morning I got a call from a Sigrid Belinkoff, who wanted to talk to me about the Wohlgemuth name. We arranged to meet up the next morning to compare notes. She was a lovely lady from Los Angeles who is researching her Shandling family, which includes an ancestor Minna Fluegeltaub, who appears to be related to the Wohlgemuths of Memel. According to Sigrid, Fluegeltaub was derived from Wohlgemuth, both having to do with winged flight.

That was new to me. I had Wohlgemuth as "well-being" or something similar. A quick name search I ran later did not confirm a connection between the names, but it is something to follow up on later. Sigrid said that her Fluegeltaub was also related to a Wing family in Portland OR, and that she is in contact with several researchers in Oregon who have more information about them.

All of that was interesting but a seeming tangent until she began to focus more on Minna from Memel. I revealed to her the results of my recent interaction with Eli Wohlgemuth, with whom she was unfamiliar (other than having read Walter's account of meeting Eli in Kaunas). When I called up the email I had from Eli, I began to read it aloud to her. There in the first paragraph were the facts that Rabbi Yeshaya Wohlgemuth of Memel had two Minnas in his life—a sister and a daughter. It was not immediately clear which if either of these Sigrid's Minna could be, but it definitely seems to be a likely clue.

Sigrid left me with at least three important contacts with Wohlgemuth knowledge to follow up with. I'll be doing that in the days ahead as we continue to make some progress on our ancestors, the Wohlgemuths of Koenigsberg.

JewishGen-Ancestry deal called an alignment of interests

The big news at this year's IAJGS meeting was the Tuesday night announcement of an alliance between and While an announcement was expected, the details of the relationship go deeper than I had imagined.

Under the deal, Ancestry will make much of the content of JewishGen databases freely available on the Ancestry site, develop new search capabilities that will make that data more accessible, and take over the hosting of JewishGen's site. Except for technical services, JewishGen will continue to operate independently.

The deal gives Ancestry instant credibility as a repository of international and U.S. Jewish historical and genealogical records. For JewishGen, it provides a robust technology platform for future growth, along with a modest flow of income coming a one-time payment and ongoing affiliate revenue share.

Jewish genealogists and researchers are expected to benefit from the integration of JewishGen content and Ancestry technologies. Perhaps that accounted for the palpable buzz in the main conference ballroom Tuesday night before the announcement. Many Jewish genealogists have something of a love-hate relationship with Ancestry, the world's leading commercial genealogy site. Clearly something big was in the works that went beyond the advertised subject of the session, "The Jewish Collection at"

The first one up to announce the news was David Rinn, chief financial officer for The Generations Network, parent company of Ancestry. com. At first, I wondered why the CFO instead of the CEO, until Rinn began to display his own Jewish family tree. He emphasized that he was speaking both as an executive employee of TGN but also as a user of Ancestry and JewishGen.

He frankly acknowledged the current limitations of Ancestry's Jewish resources, which contain more than 9 million records but are mainly limited to collections from the United States. Rinn ticked off the many international projects that the company has underway, but then said that as a Jewish researcher "I would consider suspending my Ancestry account until it provided eastern European content."

Rinn's family history and candid comment began to warm up skeptics in the audience, many presumably wondering how Ancestry's aggressively commercial business model might mesh with JewishGen's community ethic. He emphasized that JewishGen content will be accessible for free in front of the Ancestry "paid wall," but that advanced search capabilities and other special features would be added value for Ancestry subscribers.

Then he turned over the podium to David Marwell, the director of JewishGen's parent organization, The Museum of Jewish Heritage. Here is the gist of Marwell's remarks:

Earlier in the conference, JewishGen founder Susan King had been honored. Now begins a new chapter in the life of JewishGen. It was a long negotiation conducted with good will on both sides. The principles of the deal: (1) records remain free and freely accessible, (2) provide a stable technical foundation, (3) provide more data more quickly.

While Ancestry and JewishGen have differing business models, the deal is possible because of a happy coincidence of interests. Ancestry opens a major new market for selling its services. JewishGen gets a technology platform that ensures its future. In addition, JewishGen gets unspecified compensation in the deal, plus will get a percentage of revenue from future Ancestry signups referred from JewishGen.

The technical deal is for so-called pipe and power. They provide the servers and the bandwidth. JewishGen will administer its own site but may get help from Ancestry in improving the JewishGen user experience.

Marwell ended by thanking various members of JewishGen leadership with their help in reaching this important agreement. Then Rinn recapped the news and handed the session over to Ancestry indexing director Crista Cowan for a deeper dive into Ancestry's plans for its new Jewish collection.

I won't describe her full talk, other than to say the future she described of Ancestry features overlaid on JewishGen content is pretty compelling. Ancestry provides myriad capabilities that would greatly enhance the user experience and success rate.

Of course, that will all happen on the other side of Ancestry's wall. Clearly the company's goal is to get as many Jewish genealogists as they can to cough up $30 a month or $150 a year to gain those benefits. How many do so will depend on how much added value Ancestry can provide with its fuzzy searches, community features and sharing tools.

My take is that this is a fair proposition, as long as the playing field stays open. If Ancestry can wow me with its added value, I can choose to pay their fee, but I haven't lost any access if I choose not to.

However, I have to say I'm leery that Ancestry may use its market position to lock in customers. I can use lots of different services, but I want to have one location for my master family file. If Ancestry's service is good enough to convince me to maintain my tree there (or integrated with TGN's Family Tree Maker), will I ever be able to migrate off of it? Am I buying into a life-long financial commitment?

I'm sure these questions and others will be asked at a JewishGen general session Wednesday evening. I am leaving today at 5 pm, so I'll miss that, but I'll keep an eye on the email lists in upcoming days to gauge the user reaction to this important announcement.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Arrived in Chicago

Okay, I'm here Monday morning at the International JGS meeting in Chicago. I had hoped to have caught up on the last few weeks by now, but did not manage that, so this week will be something of a flash forward. I hope to record my observations from the conference several times a day.

After registering, I was going to graze a couple of the early morning sessions, but instead settled in at the lobby cybercafe, where Shelley Dardashti and some other bloggers were already at work. As I chatted with Shelley, she also greeted Logan Kleinwaks, the web developer of a new site called

He uses optical character recognition software to automatically index a huge list of historical directories. Shelley sat him down for a demo and interview, and I sat in while they talked. I won't go into the details since I don't want to scoop Shelley's story. All I will say is the Logan's site looks incredibly useful. More about that later.

Friday, August 08, 2008

A translator's cautionary tale

On August 4, I received a reply to my inquiry from Miriam Samsonowitz, the translator of Toledot Yitzhak. She wrote:
I do have the book Toldos Yitzchak which I have not read through fully. It's not an easy book to read because it is written in old rabbinical idiom, is extremely verbose, and the author moralizes for most of the book and just includes biographical details in between the moralizing.

She says she will translate or make copies of pages for me for a fee, but she doesn't sound terribly enthusiastic. She does provide me with some interesting leads that could be helpful, one to a rabbinical genealogist is Israel and the other to the editor of Yated Ne'eman in Monsey NJ. That is R. Pinchos Lipschitz, a great grandson of none other than Ya'acov Halevi Lifschitz, the author of Toledot Yitzhak.

All that was very interesting, as was an article she attached, "The Reliability of Genealogical Research in Modern Rabbinic Literature," by Rabbi Meir Wunder. It is very long and in some places arcane, but contains some important ideas. I will excerpt one section about genealogical errors and the concept of yichus, or lineage, and then urge you to go to the full article on the Rav-SIG online journal.
Moving on into the second half of the 19th century, we do have famous experts in rabbinic genealogy, but even so, their writings include guesses, assumptions, and mistakes. They were very knowledgeable, and in their period the genealogical data of families were preserved, but they had no sure means to check the veracity of their findings. Contact was through letters, which were slow; very few managed to make use of the libraries of Western Europe with their important manuscripts. Poverty was rampant, and one way to put bread on the table was to research and edit yuchsin scrolls for the wealthy who had money, but still lacked the prestige of great lineage. Thus, if the facts were shaky or uncertain, one might build castles in the air without a solid foundation. An example of this is relating the Maharsa, Rabbi Shmuel Eidls, back to Rabbi Yehuda Hechasid, which is totally false, because the Yiddish names Berish and Mendel, in the chain, were not known in the middle ages in Germany.

Inexact terminology also makes it difficult even to this day to clarify yuchsin. Terms such as neched (grandchild), or she'er besari (my relative), or mechutanim (in-laws) were used to describe much more distant relationships. Another example of lack of clarity occurs when someone writes: “Yitzchak the son of Avraham, the rabbi of such-and-such a community.” Who was the rabbi, the father or the son? Other proofs are needed to make that clear. The lack of punctuation, especially commas, causes confusion. If it says, “Yitzchak son of Avraham, son-in-law of Reuven,” then Yitzchak is the son-in-law. But, if the comma is omitted, then Avraham is the son-in-law. In cases where someone married twice, it may be unclear who was the mother of each child. This fact would affect the whole chain of yichus.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Video: Eli Wohlgemuth

Video of Feb. 10, 2008, shloshim observance in memory of Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth of Brookline MA, including presentation of Wohlgemuth genealogy by Eli Wohgemuth of Montreal.

The segment with Eli begins about 27 minutes into the video. Depending on your connection speed, you'll have to let the download run for 10 to 15 minutes before you will be able to advance to the 27:00 minute marker.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Kovno ShtetLink page gets massive update

Great news today from the JewishGen ShtetLink Project that the Kovno ShteLink page has been taken over by the inestimable Eilat Gordin Levitan. Here is the updated site, containing a wealth of content about Kovno before and during the Holocaust. His Rabbi Spektor info is similar to what Levitan has published elsewhere, but there are many other things to look at here, starting with the slideshow at the top of the page. Enjoy.

Short takes on Thursday developments

Events are moving faster than my ability to write them up, especially since I have another job. Here are capsules of items from yesterday, July 31. I expect to expand on these over the weekend.

• Most important was our conference call with Shmuel Elhanan, in which we learned many new details of his story between the liquidation of the Kovno ghetto and the reunification of his family in Palestine. One highlight is the account of how Shulamit's letter was delivered to the brothers, leading to their action to change their names in honor of their father.

I have a recording of the 33-minute call, and I am going to want to take the time to transcribe some of it. Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to post actual audio of the call. I used a new iPhone app to do the recording, assuming I would be able to transfer the sound file to my computer. Now I discover the app is fairly brain dead and is only meant to capture recordings on the phone, not transfer them to the Mac.

While we gained important new information, there is only so much that can be accomplished in a phone call. Shmuel suffered a minor stroke recently, and it is clearly difficult for him to handle all my queries on the phone. Walter and I agreed that we need to visit Shmuel in Israel as soon as we can. We are both looking into the possibility of making a trip in December. Maybe Joanne will come too.

• Last night, I attended the first of several San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screenings, a wonderful film called "Emotional Arithmetic" about the impact of Holocaust memories on a family in Quebec in 1985. It has an all-star cast including Max von Sydow, Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne and Christopher Plummer. For me, it resonated on the subject of the psychological after-effects on survivors' family relationships. Let's say that I recognized things about our family in seeing this portrayal, including the performance of Ray Dupuis as Sarandon's quietly suffering son. This is a remarkable movie that will be available soon on DVD.

I'll be seeing "Love Comes Lately," an adaptation of several Isaac B. Singer stories and "Every Day the Impossible," a documentary about Jewish women Partisans in WWII, on Saturday and Sunday, and maybe some others later next week. Last night, was the closing night of the first week of the festival, and the last of the San Francisco screenings at the Castro Theater. Saturday is opening night at the Roda Theater in Berkeley. For closing night, "Emotional Arithemetic" director Paolo Barzma discussed the film with festival director Peter Stein and took questions from the audience.

• There was ridiculous traffic on the Bay Bridge getting home, but I did a bit of research work when I finally did get back. I followed one of Morris Spector's recent leads and found myself with a searchable database for Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens. This is where both of Stan's parents, Walter and Selma, are buried, and where we have visited several times in the past. It occurred to me to look for Joseph Rabinowitz there, which I did and had a brief moment of elation when I found a JR who died August 31, 1920 and was laid to rest by the Isaac Elchonon Independent Society. It has to be the right one, no? Well, I cross-checked the date with the ItalianGen NYC death record database, and I find that the JR who died that day was just 47 years old. There is a different one that died at 65 in November 1920 that we were hoping for. It looks like another near miss.