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Genealogy: Passion or Obsession?

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by Fern Greenberg Blood

Family portrait of Fern Greenberg Blood's great-grandfather Peter Greenberg (Paltiel Postilnick, who took his wife’s surname when he came to America), his wife, Libby, and their children. Their daughter, Nellie, is Fern's grandmother. Photo taken circa 1907 in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Family portrait of Fern Greenberg Blood’s great-grandfather Peter Greenberg (Paltiel Postilnick, who took his wife’s surname when he came to America), his wife, Libby, and their children. Their daughter, Nellie, is Fern’s grandmother. Photo taken circa 1907 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

My husband, Larry, introduced me to the joys and frustrations of genealogy research.  A descendant of Mayflower-era immigrants to Massachusetts, his 25-year pastime intrigued me.  Since my ancestors came to America from the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, I thought there wouldn’t be much I could find compared to his archive of over 8,000 individuals.  But I was wrong.  Six years ago I began sharing my husband’s hobby — it’s now a folie à deux (a shared madness)!

Visits to relatives on my father’s side led to a young cousin who’d been researching the family’s history.  Overwhelmed, cousin Ivy sensibly passed her work on to me.  Insensibly, I took it.  First, via Ancestry.com, Larry helped me find birth, marriage and death information for the relatives we knew.  Then, since most of these relatives settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut, trips to city halls yielded information not available online.

Slowly, using genealogy software, we built a database to keep track of each bit of information.  (This hobby is particularly well-suited for the detail-oriented among us!)   At first details flooded in.  The explosive growth of online database collections makes it incredibly easy to compile a vast amount of information — birth, school, marriage, military, residence, occupation, newspaper, death, obituaries.  One stunning discovery was a 1896 U.S. Park Service interview of a relative who came through Ellis Island.  The interview was part of their Oral History Project, dedicated to preserving first-hand recollections of immigrants entering America between 1892-1954.  Nearly 1,900 oral histories are available to the public.

After a few years the flood slowed to a trickle.  Having put the cart before the horse by starting with online research, I took a step back to read books and articles about conducting genealogical research. It soon became clear that the best way to learn about the dead is to interview the living. I invested in a digital audio recorder, found interview questions online, and embarked on conversations with cousins and one surviving uncle. Twelve interviews later, I’ve been richly rewarded by learning about common ancestors and understanding the historical context of their lives. In addition, I’ve been blessed with deepened relationships with relatives known and newly discovered. Many I’ve spoken with have thanked me for the opportunity to share treasured memories.

Eventually the branches of those who immigrated to America and their descendants became clearer.  Some of the bare bones — names, dates, places — were fleshed out with stories of joy and sadness, accomplishment and tragedy.  Now, rather than trying to keep up with the birth of each new descendant, and because of legitimate privacy concerns, I’ve chosen to look further back — into the history of ancestors in the old country.  Surprisingly, many records survive.  Getting access to them, now that’s a challenge!  But genealogists and researchers are everywhere.  Provide a researcher with enough information about those left behind, and often amazing records come back to you. Fortunately for those seeking Jewish genealogy information, most headstones include the name of the deceased’s father.  Also traditionally, children are named after deceased relatives, providing more clues to prior generations.

Genealogy is more than piling up names, dates and places.  I’m not a historian, but the search for family information compels me to learn about centuries of religious, ethnic, cultural and geopolitical history, vividly contrasting the proudly glorious and obscenely tragic.  It’s become a vast interdisciplinary journey. My voyages, literal and electronic, have taken me across time and space: from the pogroms of Russia which my ancestors fled; to World War I France where my great-great uncle died performing acts of heroism; to  Depression-era New England where my grandfather struggled to provide for his family and died before his time; to Florida where I discovered an unknown branch of the family and a man who has become more of a loving grandfather than a first cousin-twice-removed; to Israel where a few descendants who survived the Holocaust resettled after the 1990’s release of Soviet Jewry.  By delving into the past, I am creating a future richer and fuller because it is enhanced with memories of heroes and strivers, sufferers and achievers … a future peopled with new friends and old, sharing an extraordinary journey of discovery.

Editorial assistance from Carl Greenberg and Edith Black Zfass

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