Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Cairo Genizah, May 31

Ben Ezra Synagogue
The 1896 discovery of almost 300,000 documents in the genizah (repository for damaged and destroyed Jewish texts) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt revealed information about Jewish history, Islamic history, and more.  The find included Dead Sea Scrolls, writings from Maimonides, and early manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.  The collection is still being studied today.

Rabbi Mark Glickman, author of Sacred Treasure:  The Cairo Genizah:  The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic, will discuss this historic find at 7:00 p.m. on May 31 at the Jewish Community Library of San Francisco.  For more information, visit the library's Web site (Rabbi Glickman's talk is at the bottom of the page).

The library is at 1835 Ellis Street, Second Floor, San Francisco, between Scott and Pierce.  There is free garage parking; the entrance is on Pierce Street between Ellis and Eddy.  The presentation is free and everyone interested is welcome to attend.

Wordless Wednesday

Tom Lantos Research Center Named; Alien Files Now Available

Tom Lantos
Tuesday a group of about 100 people gathered at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional branch in San Bruno, California, to celebrate the release to the public of A- (Alien) Files.  In addition, the research area of the building was dedicated to and named for the late U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the U.S. Congress.

The ceremony was held in the outdoor seating area of the San Bruno facility on a beautiful day.  Several people spoke, including Tom Mills, Chief Operating Officer of NARA; Dominick Gentile, chief of the Records Division of USCIS; U.S. Representative Jackie Speier; representatives of Save Our National Archives, the National Japanese American Historical Society, and the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society; and Representative Lantos' grandson Keaton Swett.  All speakers touched on the themes of family history and the great treasures and information to be found in the A-Files.

A-Files were created by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for immigrants to the United States who arrived in 1944 and later, or who arrived earlier but who had immigration paperwork processed after 1943.  The files were not originally scheduled to be kept permanently.  A grass-roots San Francisco Bay area group, Save Our National Archives (SONA), lobbied to have the files saved permanently and made available to researchers.  Representative Lantos agreed and helped press the issue.  After his death in 2008, Representative Speier continued support for the project.  In 2009 NARA and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS; the government agency which took the place of the INS) signed an agreement to keep the files as permanent records.

A-Files from offices in San Francisco, Honolulu, Reno, and Guam will be maintained at the NARA branch in San Bruno.  (A-Files from other locations are available through the NARA branch in Kansas City, Missouri.)  Currently more than 40,000 files for individuals born in 1911 and earlier are available in San Bruno.  In 2015 files for people born in 1912-1914 will be transferred from USCIS to NARA.  Every five years after that another five years of records will be transferred.  In addition, USCIS created a name index for the records, which is available to the archivists in San Bruno.

I hope many people take advantage of the opportunity now available to them and make use of these records.  Detailed information about the records available in San Bruno is on the NARA Web site.  You can search the online index to the collection to see if the person you are seeking has a file (this index searches the records held at Kansas City only).  You can also search the general ARC index using the terms "alien case file" and the name of the person you are looking for.  If you find a file exists, you can then schedule a visit and hold the original documents in your hands.

Additional comments on today's ceremony, including images of sample documents from A-Files, can be read at the blog of the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Day in the Land of the Dead

On Sunday, May 20, several members of the Northern California chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists met at the Colma Historical Association for a tour of several of the cemeteries.  The tour leader was Pat Hatfield of the historical association.  She and two more volunteers from the association took us on a whirlwind cross-city jaunt that lasted more than three hours.

Colma is a city of 2.2 square miles that has 17 cemeteries.  It became a "land of the dead" when San Francisco decided that its limited land would be more valuable as commercial development than as home to the deceased.  City ordinances declared that having cemeteries in the city limits was dangerous to the public health.  Holy Cross Cemetery opened in 1887, followed by Hills of Eternity, Home of Peace, and Eternal Home.  Other groups bought land in Colma, which was easily reachable by train, streetcar, and even automobiles, and an industry was born.  The only cemeteries officially left in San Francisco are at the Presidio (military graves), Mission Dolores (early natives), and the Columbarium (cremations).

We visited Greenlawn, Cypress Lawn, Holy Cross, Hills of Eternity, Home of Peace, Eternal Home, Olivet, the Italian Cemetery, and Woodlawn.  Along with being shown many celebrity graves (William Randolph Hearst, Governor Pat Brown, Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, Emperor Norton, and more), we also heard a lot of the history of Colma and of the individual cemeteries (including the fact that two of the cemeteries have recently been bought by a nationwide conglomerate, which didn't seem to sit well with our hostess).

Some of the most interesting graves on the tour were at the large plot at Olivet reserved by the "Showfolks of America."  This was a group of performers who bought the section in 1945 and contracted with Olivet that all burials would be at the price set at the time of purchase, which is still being enforced today.  One performer buried in the section is Alfred "Dusty" Rhodes, an early movie stuntman, who fell to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1948 while trying to prove he could survive a jump.

If you are interested in learning about Colma's cemeteries and who is buried there, I highly recommend the tours given by the Colma Historical Association.  The volunteers are knowledgeable and accommodating.  The tours do not have a listed price, but donations are gratefully accepted.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

So where did you say East Friesland was?

It's always especially fun for me when I start research on a new family, because I tend to find a lot of records fairly quickly and the discoveries come fast and furious.  And when the research is in areas that are new to me, I learn interesting new things.

In this family, the paternal grandfather was from East Friesland, an area of Germany considered to be somewhat backward and populated with "country bumpkin" types.  His adult grandchildren identify strongly with East Friesland because they were close to their grandfather and have visited his home town there multiple times.  They were quite surprised when I discovered that their paternal grandmother's father's side was solidly from Bavaria, the traditional antithesis of East Friesland.  Apparently it's kind of like saying that a North Carolina hillbilly hooked up with a Manhattan socialite.

I found the grandfather listed on a Hamburg ship manifest, where his nationality was listed as "Preussen" (Prussian).  What, they weren't German?  Following up on this led to the information that East Friesland was politically part of the Kingdom of Hannover (today the state of Niedersachsen [Lower Saxony]), which was annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia in 1866.  So yes, the East Frieslanders were counted as Prussians!

And then there's the question of just how "Frisian" the East Frieslanders actually are.  Some current research hypothesizes that Angles and Saxons overran the area centuries ago and that the people there today have neglible or no Frisian heritage.

Isn't genealogy great?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Search for Photographs and Stories of Jewish Life in Sarasota and Manatee County, Florida

Temple Beth Sholom, Sarasota
Do you have any family connection with Sarasota or Manatee County, Florida?  Resident Kimberly Sheintal is currently compiling a photographic history of Jewish Sarasota-Manatee and is looking for your help!

Do you have old photographs or vintage postcards?  Do you have relatives who lived there?  Are you knowledgeable about the area's history?

Kimberly is assembling historic images of Jewish Sarasota-Manatee and the stories that go with them to include in an upcoming book to be published by Arcadia Publishing, a publisher of local and regional histories.  To share your photographs and/or stories, please contact Kimberly Sheintal at (941) 921-1433 or by June 1, 2012.

Stories about My Mother

Last year I shared some of the stories my mother had told me.  She liked to talk about her family, and I heard lots of stories.  But some of the stories about her I only heard after she had passed away.

I didn't learn how my parents had met until several years after my mother had died.  My grandmother told me that one evening my mother and her best friend had gone out to party.  Before they got to their event, their car had problems and was stuck at the side of the road.  My mother was upset that they were going to miss the party, but her friend told her not to worry:  "My uncle's a mechanic, I'll call him.  He can fix it."  Her uncle is my father, and so they met.  I don't know if it was love at first sight, but they married and had three children, so it couldn't have been too bad.

Some years later I had the opportunity to meet that best friend, who is my first cousin.  (She's only seven years younger than my father, because her mother [my father's half-sister] was 21 years older than my father.)  She told me that she and my mother had been proto-Women's Libbers and promised never to marry, have kids, or settle down.  Apparently she stuck to the plan better than my mother did!  After my mother married and moved to California they mostly fell out of touch.

Another story my grandmother told me was how when my mother was about 12 years old she announced one day that she wanted to go to Midnight Mass.  My grandmother just about had a fit!  The family was Jewish, she wasn't going to mass with my mother, and she certainly wasn't going to allow my mother to go out at midnight by herself.  Needless to say, my mother didn't go to Midnight Mass that year, but she maintained a healthy interest in Catholicism during her life.  She married a Catholic (my father was raised Catholic), and I even went to Midnight Mass with my mother more than once.  (Never saw her in a synagogue, though.)

It's always interesting to hear about your close relatives from other people.  You can view their lives in a new perspective.

Friday, May 11, 2012

New Issue of "The Galitzianer"

A tombstone in
Brody Cemetery
The March 2012 (!) issue of The Galitzianer is at the printer (yes, it's one of those things I have been behind on) and will be mailed next week.  Articles in this issue include a list of vital records registers that have been transferred to Warsaw and which we hope will be available soon; a summary of an article about autosomal DNA matches that looks at different degrees of cousins; reminiscences from two writers about relatives from Galicia; town research for Bolechów and Brody; and a poem about researching Galician ancestors.

The Galitzianer is available only to members of Gesher Galicia, a nonprofit organization focused on researching Jews in the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia.  If you join you receive a subscription to the journal and help fund research projects, and you help support something you enjoy.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Finding Your Roots" - Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta, and Martha Stewart

Yes, I know I'm behind on posts for Who Do You Think You Are (and I really do intend to catch up, but I've been in training since February 27, which has played hell with my schedule).  And I know that this was the eighth episode of Finding Your Roots, and I haven't commented on any of the earlier ones.  So why am I jumping into the middle like this?

This episode of Finding Your Roots touched me in a very unexpected way.  The focus was on experiences of first- and second-generation Americans.  One of the aspects discussed was how these children born in America have felt cut off from much of their family histories.  One thing in particular that was mentioned was the belief that no records existed that could help them learn more about earlier generations of their families.

My stepsons' grandfather, Karm, was from Khatkar Kalan, Punjab, India.  Along with researching the rest of their family on both sides, I have tried to research Karm's family in India.  One thing I was quickly told by many people, both native-born Indians and people married to Indians, was that there simply aren't records for natives from the period during which India was ruled by Great Britain.  The British barely did any record-keeping for their own people; they totally ignored records on natives.

The only thing close to "records" I had heard of previously were for Hindu families.  When someone in the family died, you went down to the river and spoke to the man who was your family "chronicler" about the death.  He would then remember it and add it to the history of your family, but it was all oral.  He passed on the oral history to his son, who became the new "chronicler."  I even spoke with a professor who was born in Rajasthan about this lack of documentation.  He went back to India years later to try to find some record of his own birth.  Even with the resources available to him at that time, he found absolutely nothing.  He learned that his brother had arbitrarily chosen a birthday for him.

But the researchers for Finding Your Roots found something!  Apparently not all the family histories are oral only.  Two brothers are responsible for Gupta's family chronicle.  The records are only for the men in the family, but they are written and they go back eight generations.  When I saw the book I was in tears.

Karm was Sikh, not Hindhu.  I have no idea if similar books might exist for Sikh families.  But just learning that written records from before Partition exist for any native Indians gives me hope.  Karm's family is said to have been prominent (Karm's grandfather was supposed to have been the last "headman" of the village before the British took over).  Important families in other cultures are more likely to leave records documenting their history; why not in Punjab?

And I promise that as soon as I can I'll get back to Who Do You Think You Are? ....