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Enthusiast: Family Records More Accessible Than Most People Think

December 7, 2006 By:
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Mark Halpern (standing) visits Grzec Aleksander and Stefania Germanska, elderly residents of the Polish town of Pieszcaniki, where Halpern's maternal grandmother, Chana Girszowicz (below) was born in the 1880s.
Many American Jews assume that it's impossible to learn all that much about their family histories, since so many vital genealogical records were destroyed in the Holocaust.

Yet according to Mark Halpern, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, a surprising amount of material -- including birth and marriage certificates -- did survive. Much is accessible, especially in Poland, where the government of late has cooperated with Jews who seek out these documents. And though it may not be a snap, it is possible with perseverance to learn quite a bit about the lives of great-grandparents and even beyond, he maintained.

Having recently returned from a week in Warsaw, the 59-year-old West Chester resident spoke about his 10-year-long search for details about his maternal grandmother's life. He also discussed his efforts to preserve Jewish records in Poland, most of them from the period when much of the country was ruled by Russia.

He made his remarks at a Nov. 28 meeting of the Delaware County-Main Line Affiliate of the Jewish Genealogical Society.

The group meets four times a year at Martins Run, the Jewish retirement facility in Media. While most of those who attend the gatherings are residents, usually about half a dozen others travel to the facility for the programs, according to organizers.

"When I go to these [Polish] towns, I always look at the Jewish cemeteries," said Halpern. "There is a lot of the history of the Jewish people in this area, but the only thing that I would say is tangible -- spiritually tangible -- that is left of our heritage there are the people buried in the cemeteries."

He used a slide projector to screen hordes of photos he's taken on multiple trips to Poland. Several images depict his grandmother's birthplace, the tiny town of Pieszczaniki, situated about 15 miles west of the border of Belarus in what the speaker dubbed "the middle of nowhere."

"I just wanted to go to the town where my grandmother was born," he said, adding that there are no Jews there anymore. He hasn't yet been able to find a birth certificate for his maternal grandmother, Chana. Ironically, she's the one he knew best as a child, but he's learned the least about her through his research. Still, he insisted that he won't stop trying.

Halpern said that he's not religiously observant, and wasn't much involved in Jewish life prior to this budding interest in genealogy, but that he now feels "more Jewish."

He became interested in the Jewish past about a decade ago, while working in Poland for an oil company. He knew that much of his family originated from the Bialystok region, and he decided to visit there on a weekend -- a trip that spurred many questions and an interest that's lasted well into retirement.

Web Proves Crucial

Halpern spoke about his involvement with the Web-based project called Jewish Records Indexing-Poland. He serves on the board of directors for this all-volunteer group that so far has indexed roughly 3 million records from more than 450 towns. It can be found at: www.jri-poland.org.

He described numerous positive encounters he's had with Poles -- from a meeting with a group of university students in Warsaw who had organized a Jewish history club to a visit with a Catholic priest who works to preserve an entire archive of Jewish communal records. He also pointed out that it's not uncommon to encounter anti-Semitic graffiti in many cities, and that it's obvious that anti-Jewish sentiment can still plague the country, no matter how few Jews actually reside there now.

Springfield resident Shelda Sandler, president of the Delaware County club, said that she's been interested in family history since she was a teenager.

"In the beginning, I said, 'All I want are names.' In an instant, I knew that that was not enough," said Sandler, now in her 60s. "I wanted dates, places. I wanted to know where they lived and anything else about them.

"Every time I find a record or hear a name of someone I didn't know about, I almost feel as if I have brought that person back to life."


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