Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Food for Thought: Preserving Your Family Photos, Documents Before the Next Disaster

The recent hurricane here on the East Coast and subsequent wind and water damage that occurred to tens of thousands of homes and businesses has compelled me to write to you with a worthwhile suggestion, as well as some food for thought.

As I have thousands of your precious family photographs already on my museum website, I am constantly reminded of the value of the material possessions that help us preserve and recall our own family’s history.

I know that many of us do not “back up” or photos or documents, as we generally do not anticipate natural (and some unnatural) events affecting us so severely, a tragedy that may occur to one’s property, not only from wind and flooding, but from disasters such as fire, earthquakes (or bombs, G-d forbid).

Many received extensive damage to their homes, especially their ground floors and basements. One can only try to imagine all that was lost, and the emotional impact it had on those who suffered because of it. I come to you here as one who strives to help you preserve your own family history, who has a vast, genealogical interest in his own family history, with a wish that you – perhaps as the fulfillment of a resolution for the New Year – make a full effort in the coming year to preserve and protect your own family legacy.

Can you imagine having all your precious family photographs, etc. destroyed, with absolutely no hope of recovering them? Surely we care more about our own personal well-being and that of our family members, our home itself, etc., but I am talking here solely about photographs and documents, and perhaps other material, family “mementos”.

It is my suggestion that each of us find some way of saving our precious photographs in at least a secondary location, e.g. on an external hard drive, thumbnail drive, CD, etc. Or one can save them to one’s computer, put them online to a photo-sharing program, e.g. with Flickr, or on other such websites.

One must remember, however, that only saving one’s photos to the same relative location is not a good idea, as your precious family photos, etc. can also be destroyed along with your photo backup, e.g. if your house’s first floor floods, and that is where you keep your family albums, as well as your computer who you may back up your files. So perhaps saving your photos (and documents too, let’s not forget) to an outside location (perhaps in a different part of the country) is probably the best bet, whether one backs them up online or in some other physical location.

I could go on, but I think I made my point. Many of us care very much about our family history and the preservation of physical remembrances, etc., so we should make this a priority to back up our precious photos and documents to a safe place. We don’t want to lose valuable family “heirlooms”, nor have to go back and do all our family research over again.

A similar suggestion can also be made with regards to preserving one’s own personal history, either by writing it down or recording it for posterity, before one’s memories fade or worse. Here time is the enemy, not any natural disaster. But that’s for another discussion….

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

New Film: "Stories of the Selfhelp Home"

In the late 1930s, following the ferocious anti-Jewish violence of Kristallnacht, a determined group of young German Jews left behind everything that was dear and familiar and immigrated to Chicago. Here, these refugees set out to create a supportive community for themselves and others fleeing Nazi persecution, eventually establishing the Selfhelp Home for the oldest among them.

REFUGE is a one-hour documentary that reaches back more than seventy years to give a voice to its last generation of victims of Nazi persecution and tell the story of this singular community that has provided a safe haven to more than one thousand Central European Jewish refugees and survivors. REFUGE weaves together historical narrative, archival footage and deeply personal testimony to explore the lives of six Chicagoans against the context of the Nazi cataclysm and how a small group of them came together to care for their own. The film illuminates the lost world of Central European Jewry prior to World War II--middle class, educated, cultured--and the remarkable courage, resilience and character of its final generation at Selfhelp.

In their own words, these refugees and survivors, now in their late eighties and above, speak vividly of loss of family and of place, of separations, and of decisions that meant the difference between life and death. They describe the myriad paths to survival: fleeing to the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, hiding in the French countryside, being taken in by English families as part of the Kindertransport, and as slave laborers in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. And of those, who perished—husbands, parents, siblings, children. Yet, theirs are also stories of renewal, of finding love and creating new families, and of starting again in a new land.

The film moves back and forth between these stories and examines how the trajectories of their lives came together at the end at Selfhelp. And it reaches into the near future, when the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust, those who have animated Selfhelp and given it its unique mission and meaning, will be gone. 
You can view the film preview here.
You can visit the Museum's other thirty-two film clips by visiting its Screening Room.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Landjuden of Euskirchen: The Sibilla Schneider Photographic Collection

Sibilla Schneider was a descendant of the Juelich family that lived in and around the small town of Euskirchen, Germany, which is located about sixty kilometres from the town of Juelich. She and her family  belonged to the social group of landjuden, or “country Jews”, which flourished throughout Europe from the Alsace to Slovakia until their lifestyle disappeared in the Shoah. In this online exhibition, you can view nearly three dozen fine (mostly studio) photographs of the Schneider-Juelich-Heumann families from Euskirchen, and learn a bit about their family history.

To view the exhibition, please click here.   

Lost Treasures: The Wooden Synagogues of Eastern Europe

In this new online exhibition, you can view many linocuts created by artist Bill Farran of New York, each a representation of a wooden synagogue that once stood in Eastern Europe. A very brief history of each synagogue is included.

These synagogues stood in such towns as Chodorow, Gombin, Grodno, Gwozdziec, Kielmy, Koskie, Kornik, Kosow Lacki, Lackorona, Olkieniki, Ozery, Piaski, Pohrebyszcze, Przedborz, Sniadowo, Suchowola, Szawlany, Warka, Wolpe, Wysokie Mazowieckie, Yarchev and Zabludow.

You can visit this exhibition by clicking here.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust", from the Museum's "Yiddish Vinkl" Bookstore

"Ellen Cassedy set off into the Jewish heartland of Lithuania to study Yiddish and connect with her Jewish forebears. Then her uncle, a Holocaust survivor, pulled a worn slip of paper from his pocket. “Read this,” he said.

When she did, she learned something she had never suspected, and what had begun as a personal quest expanded into a larger exploration of memory and moral dilemmas in a nation scarred by genocide. Cassedy’s deeply felt account offers important insights – and hope."

This new book by author Ellen Cassedy is the seventh book featured in the Museum of Family History's "Yiddish Vinkl" Bookstore. Though, like the Museum, the Bookstore is virtual, i.e. it exists solely on the Internet, it tries to spread the word to others of books that it feels worthwhile.
By clicking
here, you may see its book cover, watch a YouTube video about the book, and read an excerpt from the book.

Ellen gave a talk recently to those in attendance at the Jewish Genealogical Society of Long Island and gave an interesting talk about her new book.

The Museum hopes you will visit its Yiddish Vinkl Bookstore, and also encourages you to read about the other books featured.

Please note that the Museum (or this blog) have no financial interest in any of these books.

Steve Lasky
Founder and Director
Museum of Family History

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How Names Changed: My Grandfather Harry Ness

I will share with you one of my own interesting family stories, which will illustrate to you how the path to discovering the history of one's family name can be convoluted and the process daunting.

My beloved maternal grandfather was born Avraham Chone Gniazdowicz. He was born in or about Sniadowo, Poland (there was an adjacent shtetl named Gniazdowo, which presumably is how his family came by their surname). He immigrated to the U. S. with a cousin in 1906, though not as a Gniazdowicz, but as an Oschensky. This was the family name of his cousin Shloime (Sam), with whom he immigrated with (note that his cousin at some time after arriving in the U.S. changed his surname too -- from Oschensky to Ocean).

Presumably grandfather (as a fifteen-year-old) changed his surname while still living in Poland in order to avoid the draft, though perhaps there were other reasons, e.g. the lack of a birth certificate. Perhaps he took the surname of his cousin's family and used the birth certificate of a male in the Oschensky family who had previously died, or because they had no need of it, for whatever reason. One can only guess....

I imagine the reasons for why someone changed their name (or had their name changed) often were not discussed openly within one's family, for whatever reason. Perhaps some were afraid that if the reason for the name change was discussed, it might tarnish their imagine. Maybe worse yet they feared, if discovered by the "wrong people", they might be deported back to the "old country". Or perhaps the name was changed so long ago, it was "in the past" so to speak. To talk about such things might bring more to their consciousness the family they sadly left behind, family events they might not want to talk about, etc.

Let's return to my grandfather's situation. He came over to the U.S. with a different family name, though when he arrived in the U.S. (met by his cousin's father, who had previously immigrated and met yet other relatives on their arrival at Ellis Island), he changed his name back to Gniazdowicz, then quickly to a shortened version of this hard-to-pronounce surname -- now he was a Ness (No relation to Elliot).

Not only this, but on the 1915 New York City census (while living on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side, at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge), he is listed as "Abe" Ness (from Avraham), though this is the only time I've seen this given name of "Abe" used for him, as he subsequently called himself "Harry" (from Chone) in all other documentation. He was known as "Harry" as far as I know till the end of his days. He, my grandmother and uncle moved to Brooklyn in 1918.

So I knew my maternal grandfather as "Harry Ness", who had, by the way, another immigrant cousin who he was close to, who also lived in Brooklyn, also named Harry Ness (I still don't know the common ancestor between them), though his Yiddish given name was Chone Yankel.

This is another example of how family names evolved. Hopefully you know about your ancestors at least as much as I know about my maternal grandfather.

It can be then, for the genealogist, a challenge to gain information on a subject due to all the possibilities relating to how one's family name might have been changed (and sometimes not just once). It goes far beyond the question of whether a person's name was changed at Ellis Island, or at some other place, at some other time.

As they say, "It ain't easy"....

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why Did Our Family's Name Change?

One need only employ one's imagination to come up with a good number of possible reasons why a Jewish immigrant might have changed their name on arrival in another country, for example, the United States of America.

First, one must consider whether the change was by choice or by accident. We must also ask if the change was made by the person themselves or by someone else.

If by accident, perhaps a surname (or given name) was read incorrectly and rewritten a different way. Perhaps there was a typo which permanently changed one's name. One can easily misread another's handwriting. For instance, you can see this simply by looking up some family names in the newly online 1940 Federal Census, and see how those who transcribed the names written on the census to their own database (in this case, made data input errors. Why couldn't I find my maternal grandparents by using their newly created search engine, when I could find it through Steve Morse's search engine using my grandparents' home address in 1940 and finding the enumeration district? Since one basically must have the correct spelling to a family name to find one's family with, I could not find my "Ness" family because it was listed on's database as "Thess". On the census, the capital "N" was handwritten a bit "fancy", and the "N" appeared to the data entry person as a "Th". I could find the name using "Thess" only because I first found the pertinent census page by first finding it using Steve Morse' s search engine, i.e. by knowing my grandparents' address and finding it via the ED. I was fortunate in this way; others won't be so lucky. One can only imagine how a handwritten name might have been misread by these data entry folks and go from there. Perhaps it might be a good exercise to simply examine a number of random census pages and try to imagine how one might misread some of the names.

On the other hand, if an immigrant's surname was changed by choice, what were the possible reasons for such a change? Perhaps the reason might have been an economic one, e.g. they thought that they would be able to make a better living if their surname was this or that. Perhaps a name was changed to make it sound less Jewish and be less open to the prejudices of a potential employer, etc. Years ago being Jewish, even in America, could be a detriment in finding a good job, not to mention finding entrance into certain universities, organizations, etc. Sometimes a man decided to take the surname of his wife if his wife's family was well-known. Sometimes they took the name of the family who sponsored them, who brought them over from the "old country".

Socially, an immigrant often wanted to assimilate more easily into American society, so they either shortened their name or changed it, more or less, to make it more "acceptable". Phonically a foreign-sounding surname was often unappealing and difficult for those who were unfamiliar with such names to pronounce (different alphabet), so the name was "simplified", either by changing the spelling or simply by shortening (or lengthening) the name or changing it entirely.

There are many other possibilities, however remote. Consider my Olshanetski (distant) relatives from Poland. There were a great many children in that clan who were named after a few deceased elders. How many Avraham Olshanetski's can there be? Wouldn't it be confusing if two males had the same name, each one born to sons or daughters of descendants of these deceased elders? So each family varied the spelling of their surname when they arrived in America. Olshanetsky in one instance maintained the same spelling. Other branches of the family became Olshin (also Olshen). Even with double given names, the family decided that their family surname should be shortened, and they tweaked their spelling to distinguish between two (at least) of the same sex, not to mention to distinguish between genealogical branches of the family.

Of course there were many who just didn't like their name, for whatever reason and changed it. Back then, it was easier to "officially" call yourself "Joe Smith" instead of Yosele Shmulewicz.

Here's an exercise for you. Just imagine that you were an immigrant back then, arriving in America at the back end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century. Think about what your name "could" have been back in the old country, using that country's alphabet. Consider how you might have been able to change your surname to make it more "acceptable" to others.

No use wondering whether your family had its surname changed at Ellis Island or at the point of embarkation; whether the spelling was altered when a family member decided to apply for a job, or for membership in some social or political organization. Our immigrant ancestors wanted a better life for themselves and their families, and most of them did what they had to do to blend in and "get along". Of course, many chose to keep their birth surname, no matter how it sounded or was spelled, or how it might be perceived by others. Many were proud of their surnames or indifferent to how it was perceived by others.