Myra Sklarew is in Lithuania now, joining her relatives from around the world in honoring their 29 ancestors who were killed there during World War II. The Bethesda woman is on her 13th trip to her ancestral homeland, a result of her quest to learn about her family’s past.
When traveling through a village the first time, an elderly woman started crying and screaming and chasing her car. Sklarew’s first thought was that this woman mistook her for someone who was there to reclaim her pre-World War II property.
But they got to know each other, and “it turned out that she knew the Jewish community” even though she wasn’t Jewish. “It turned out that she had known all the family tree.”
Jewish genealogy used to be considered a pathway to frustration. Few Jews live in the same country as their ancestors, and many first generation Americans were stymied in their attempts to learn about their family’s past, as their parents and grandparents refused to talk about their former homeland.
But learning about the past is easier now. Lists of those who entered this country through Ellis Island, including actual ship manifests, are relatively easy to obtain. Because many Jews came to America in groups, with their immediate families and other relatives, recognizing one name on the manifest can open many doors.
But the truth remains that checking for ancestors on ancestory.com or jewishgen.org can be frustrating unless the researcher comes equipped with at least some family
They may have been bubbe or zayde to you, but many Jewish relatives had multiple names besides their actual birth name. They answered to their Yiddish name, a Hebrew name, the name officials wrote down when they first came to America and the one they chose to be called as they started their new life here.
“Interview all your living relatives,” suggested Leesa Shem-Tov, who now can trace “more than 1,000 family members” living in Russia, Israel, England and the United States. “They have information they don’t even know they have.”
Ask not just for names but also the countries and towns. Ask about careers, stores they owned or frequented. Study family photos for clues to location and careers. Visit cemeteries to read gravestones.
“My father died when I was 18, and I didn’t know a lot about his family,” the Rockville woman recalled. One day, while attending a bar mitzvah, “someone said something about the czar, and they all spit on the floor.”
Right then, Shem-Tov knew she wanted to learn about those relatives’ earlier lives. But when she started, there were no obvious websites devoted to genealogy. She went to the National Archives in D.C., spending hours “rolling through reams of microfiche.” She quickly ran into a problem: she kept finding information on a man with the same name as her grandfather rather than her own grandfather. “I had really hit all these dead ends,” she said.
One day she saw a listing in the 1910 U.S Census with that same name again, only this time she recognized the name of her grandfather’s street, thanks to relatives. “It was enough. They really did exist. When you find that record, you say, ‘They really did exist.'”
One thing led to another, and Shem-tov learned of many relatives, including about 10 who live nearby. “It’s always like peeling an onion, but you have to be not turned off by smell of the onion.”
The more relatives she found, the more questions she asked until she now is aware of six major branches of her family. With each newly found relative, Shem-Tov asked to view their family photos. Thanks to that, she proudly possesses a picture of her father right before he left Russia.
Weaving lives together
Barry Nove, executive director of Oseh Shalom of Laurel, has been researching his family tree for 20 years and published his own 124-page book, The Ellis Island Experience.
“You need to start with what you have first,” he advised. Ask relatives what they know, check that photo album for dates, towns and even naturalization papers, wedding certificates and more.
Nove enjoys spending time filling in the many blanks of his past. On a ship manifest he saw that one of his relatives had to go to the hospital. His nephew told him that his mother had pink eye. That was the piece of information that Nove needed to understand why his relatives had to appeal to be admitted to America.
While Shem-Tov equates her research to peeling an onion, Nove pictures it more as a banana, “not knowing how to peel it, and then it just explodes.”
Nove has guided many people through their family trees and sometimes has even found relatives of one family while researching another. Nove likes to weave lives together.
“You end up with these little nuggets of things that make your life a little more interesting,” said Nove, who has been asked to help people learn about their lost relatives’ Holocaust experiences. “I’ve given them back their name, and to me, that’s very important.”
Marlene Bishow is president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington, a group that started in 1980. The monthly meetings usually feature a guest speaker on various areas of Jewish genealogy. Also, with a membership of about 300 people, there are plenty of experts, she said. That organization has a library at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville filled with 700 books, close to 60 maps of the places Jews used to live and many CDs and magazines, according to volunteer librarian Vera Finberg.
Bishow’s quest to learn of her family tree started early with a school assignment. One thing led to another, and the 67-year old Rockville resident said she has been involved in genealogy for 58 years.
She rifles through U.S. Census and immigration records as well as detailed records kept by the Germans during World War II. Those records are now obtainable through several sources, including Yad Vashem in Israel and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said Bishow.
Governments in Europe kept records specific to Jews, including how much people paid in a candle tax in Eastern Europe. Also, Bishow said, there is a worldwide burial registry “so someone sitting in Cleveland can do a search of a relative buried in D.C.”
Bishow cautions that anyone researching their past should be open to various spellings of their family names. Despite the common misconception, names weren’t changed at Ellis Island. “The people bought [ship] tickets from ticket sellers in Europe who didn’t necessarily speak the same language so ticket sellers would write it down in their language as they heard it,” Bishow explained. “Depending on your accent and who took the name down, some families have totally different names” listed.
Bishow suggests those interested in beginning the process should attend one of the Jewish Genealogy Society’s beginner workshops. “The first thing anybody should do is start out by interviewing yourself, collect all the documents in your house, birth certificates, death certificates, ketubahs,” she said.
Kaltmans and kohanim
Bishow has learned a great deal about her ancestors, and revels in how many had red hair, she said, adding, “My hair is sort of red.”
Her grandfather, who had a red beard, never liked to talk about his past. When she asked where he was from, he always responded, “Minsk, Pinsk, who cares?” she recalled.
“I knew my grandfather for 42 years. I was the oldest grandchild, but it wasn’t until he passed away” that she learned where he was from. Her grandfather has “at least eight names,” she noted.
“I really got to know, and respect, the man through my genealogy.”
Martin Lobel also got to know his family, and all its legends, through research.
“Actually I did it for my kids so they would know where they came from,” he explained.
His relatives came to America in 1881 from what was then Austria but is now Ukraine, and Lobel visited the area several years ago. “I had to fly to Kiev and then drive eight hours,” the Chevy Chase man said, adding that the place he stayed in “made Motel 6 look like a Ritz Carlton.”
“The old shul was still there,” he said. He came to learn that his grandfather’s family was “apparently quite well to do” and was allowed by the king to own land. His grandfather came to America when he was 15 or 16 and owned a candy store and got involved in politics, handing out liquor and bar licenses in Boston, he said.
Through his research, he learned of an uncle whose wife and baby were shot in the street during the Holocaust. “He found out about it and committed suicide,” Lobel said. He also discovered that many of his relatives were involved in the meat business in
Sklarew started learning about her Lithuania heritage by visiting the country. While in Italy for work many years ago, she made a side trip to that country. “I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t have any contacts,” she recalled.
She hired a guide who showed her the Jewish area. “I just felt like I was home. It was strange,” she said, noting that she even recognized some of the dishes in the homes she
visited, including a gefilte fish platter her family owned.
Through records from the town of Kovna, Lithuania, Sklarew was able to find her
grandfather’s conscription notice into the czar’s army.
Since that visit, Sklarew stays in touch with that woman, sending her medicine, tooth paste and other items for her to use and distribute around town.
Michael Kaltman also has learned much about his family. “As a kid, my father told me that all Kaltmans were related,” he recalled.
He always wondered, and then he decided genealogy would be how he spent his retirement years.
In 2004, he drove to the family burial plot in Staten Island for the first time. “This was like going back in time. There were 22 graves with the Kaltman name.”
Thanks to the Internet, the North Potomac resident was able to “link them up to the trunk of a tree,” thus creating his family tree. “Without the Internet, nobody would know the records even existed.” Kaltman also visited the National Archives at College Park. “The detail of information in there was just outstanding,” he said.
And, as it turned out, a large number of Kaltmans are related, the ones who are kohanim, he said.
Those researching their Jewish roots not only gain satisfaction in fleshing out their life stories, they also have come to make strong connections with relatives they hadn’t even known existed and ties to lands they had never visited.
Ellen Epstein’s research taught her all about Jewish surnames, which often were forced upon her relatives. People with certain last names can trace their families to specific towns, events and professions, she said.
Epstein, who ran up against research dead ends by viewing details on her relatives’ tombstones, has spent years working on oral histories. “In America, everybody is an immigrant.”
While attempts to learn about these immigrants is growing, Sklarew worries, “People are all very interested now. The question is – what about the next generation.”