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Experts Agree: High Tech Sparked Genealogy Buzz

July 23, 2009 By:
Hillel Kuttler , Jewish Exponent Feature
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Three years ago, David Mink began volunteering at the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, helping to index its microfilmed collection of ledgers from the city's long-defunct Rosenbaum, Blitzstein, Lipschutz and Rosenbluth banks. The early 20th-century banks doubled as agencies to facilitate immigrants' money transfers to relatives in Europe to book ship passage here.

A fellow volunteer eventually pointed out some interesting information to Mink: A March 26, 1923 entry had been made for $98 that Mink's grandfather, Jacob Pseny, had paid to bring over a cousin, Fraitel Szklarz of Moselle, France. Another entry showed Pseny's transfer of $104 to his grandmother's brother, Avrum Gruber, of Siemiatis, Poland. Neither relative bought the ticket -- probably because of U.S. immigration restrictions, Mink speculated -- and Pseny received a refund.

"I was absolutely flabbergasted," Mink said of the discoveries.

Thanks to the Internet, Jews today can experience such Eureka! moments from the comfort of home. Most of the Philadelphia bank records are available on the popular Web site JewishGen.org -- just one example of improvements in Jewish genealogy in the digital age.

Such technological advancements will be front and center at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies conference, to be held Aug. 2-7 at the Sheraton Philadelphia Center City Hotel. At last year's Chicago conference, a session on maximizing one's research on Google proved so popular that three such talks are scheduled this time, with other sessions covering the capabilities of Google Earth in plotting important family sites in a shtetl, and of Google Translate in searching and e-mailing abroad, said Philadelphia conference program chair Mark Halpern.

It's Come a Long Way, Baby
Jewish genealogists also are utilizing new social media, such as MySpace and Facebook, which link researchers with roots in specific towns and enable them to hold virtual family reunions.

"It's a big thing," said Halpern of technology's role in Jewish genealogy today. "People have found lost relatives by going onto these sites. I've found a lost relative on JewishGen."

We've come a long way since interest in genealogy exploded in the late 1970s with the publication of African-American author Alex Haley's novel, Roots, and the screening of the namesake television mini-series.

Such books as Arthur Kurzweil's From Generation to Generation and Finding Our Fathers by Philadelphian Dan Rottenberg soon sent Jewish genealogists to the National Archives, Ellis Island and municipal offices throughout Europe to document their ancestors' lives.

Jewish genealogy societies quickly developed throughout North America, Israel, Europe and Russia, and international Jewish genealogy conferences were convened.

Another pivotal development was the fall of communism two decades ago, which removed many barriers to accessing historical records in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

But the popularity of personal computers and of the Internet increased research possibilities exponentially, leading to even more of Europe's local and national civic records being digitized and made available online.

The improved service and convenience, in turn, have made genealogists' trips to dusty European archives an option rather than a necessity, said Warren Blatt, JewishGen's managing director.

"You can access records" through the Internet. "It really is a revolution," he said.

The wealth of information today means that someone's modest efforts to document his or her family "gets pretty big, pretty fast," added Blatt. "You have to do triage to figure out where you're going to spend your time."

Much More to Accomplish
Still, genealogy fundamentals -- curiosity, persistence and pen and paper to interview relatives -- will never go out of style. Decades will pass before all records of interest are digitized and put online, if ever.

Indeed, JewishGen's shtetl-, town- and country-specific "special-interest groups," or SIGs, continually fundraise in order to support the translation into English and the digitization of European records of interest to many of the site's 300,000 registered users.

That notwithstanding, Jewish genealogists today face political obstacles to the release of records by countries like Belarus, Ukraine and Rumania, due to their governments' "Communist mentality or privacy" considerations, according to Blatt.

Progress on Various Fronts
Researchers see hope in the ascension of the young and progressive Dorin Dobrincu as director general of the Rumanian national archives.

Dobrincu's appearance at the Philadelphia conference (which, at press time, was not finalized) would be an opportunity "for him to see what we're doing, and for us to talk to him about the need to open up the records for Holocaust research, Jewish genealogy and historical research," explained Halpern. "This is something that researchers of Rumania should be excited about."

Meanwhile, technology's applications to genealogy proceed in ways that no one from the Kurzweil-Rottenberg era could have imagined. DNA testing allows people to determine whether they share a common ancestor, and the DNA Shoah Project helps reunite those separated by the Holocaust. Face-recognition and photo-tagging technologies can also show whether people are related.

Halpern finds such developments absolutely fascinating.

"It's like watching 'CSI' and using some of the techniques they use," he said. "When you're doing genealogy, you're not solving crimes, but you're solving a puzzle, and are being a detective."

 

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