Have you ever wondered about your family heritage?
While growing up in a Jewish family in the non-Jewish community of Chester, I was always conscious of being the descendant of immigrants from Eastern Europe. But my parents, I’ve recently discovered, made perhaps inaccurate claims about my ancestors. For example, my mother had told me that her grandmother was Austrian (not strictly correct), which meant her underage son volunteered for the British army during the First World War to avoid her potential internment. Meanwhile, my father claimed that his father came from Odessa in the Ukraine (not correct) and had links to the 1905 Russian Revolution.
My curiosity deepened when I met my wife, Louise, as her family claimed that her grandfather, who was a Polish Ashkenazi Jew, was descended from the famous Dutch Sephardi rabbi Menasseh ben Israel.
These curiosities were further encouraged by the early TV series of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ followed by a short-lived reconciliation with my father, when he let slip some clues about his own family descent.
Strategies to Begin Building a Family Tree
I have learned two important lessons from my own attempts to construct my family tree.
First, speak with your eldest family members as soon as possible. It was only after my mother passed, that my uncle shared with me where my mother’s family actually came from. It was also then that I was informed the family had lost cousins in the Holocaust, and that my deceased mother knew all the names.
Secondly, keep a systematic log of all your internet searches. I failed to do this from the beginning, which made it difficult to retrace past searches. I did, however, find an excellent free piece of software called the MyHeritage Family Tree Builder, which enabled me to start building my family tree, and later made it available to other researchers through a website.
Starting your Family Tree:
Building on the limited information I had, I first started searching census records. Until the 1911 census, all UK census records are available online through sites, such as Ancestry and FindMyPast. These records showed not only where family lived, but gave the names and ages of all the family in the house and their country of birth.
I also searched the National Archives, which had official documents to show that some of my family had applied for naturalisation. For a fee, I managed to order photocopies of their files, which often provided even more information than the census, including the town of birth.
Other websites were very helpful to establish a few key details. For ancestors within the UK, FreeBMD and Ancestry helped me to search the UK birth, marriage and death registers, and once I found the appropriate register entry, I then ordered the certificate from the General Register Office in Southport.
For those ancestors who immigrated to the United States, both the Ellis Island database and Ancestry were also useful for tracing the journeys of family across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, passenger lists were not required for immigrants from Europe to the UK, leaving some important gaps in the story of my family’s arrival in this country.
Jewish Family Tree Resources
There are specific databases and resources designed for just Jewish heritage. For example, JewishGen’s various databases were able to identify and contact people researching the same family name, filling in other branches on my tree, as well as to search vital records (birth, marriage and death) in the countries of origin. Surprisingly, and despite the destruction of Polish records during the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Polish vital records have survived the best, all available through the subsidiary website JRI-Poland.
For those family members who suffered during the Holocaust, the Yad Vashem archives in Jerusalem provided Pages of Testimony on known victims. I also requested a search of the Arolsen Archives, formerly the International Tracing Service, for information on one branch of the family who were in the Lodz and Lwow ghettos, but unfortunately no records were found.
Another lesson I learned when searching for information in these databases is to be prepared for inconsistencies in the official records. Names were often anglicised on arrival in this country with inconsistent spelling. Officials often misunderstood the guttural pronunciation of the immigrants.
Similar problems arise with information on the towns that family came from. Many towns in Eastern Europe had similar, confusing names and boundaries continually changed (e.g., Polish relatives are often recorded as being born in Russia).
My Family Tree Findings So Far
It has been an enormous task to build my family tree; the combined tree for my and my wife’s families has nearly 4,000 people in it! Although some of the links are tentative at best, we have traced both our families back to the 1700s – an achievement, especially in the Jewish world.
Some of our findings have been rather astonishing. My father’s wider family included many famous Rabbis, tracing back to the founders of the Hasidic movement (surprising because he was so secular). If Louise’s family story is true, she can trace part of her family back to 13th century Portuguese Rabbis.
I have also traced two Australian cousins, who I didn’t know existed and with whom I now keep contact. One cousin left Poland in 1968 and only became aware of her Jewish heritage the night before her departure.
In short, there have been many challenges and frustrations over the years, but some surprising rewards as well!
Despite all these obstacles and challenges, if you are interested in finding out more about your cultural history and heritage, I believe it is time well spent. More importantly, if you are a member of a community that has suffered persecution, such as the Jewish community over many centuries, it is a way of memorialising and paying tribute to those who perished.