When Jessie Lee Went Home to Die

After a lifetime of hard work as innkeepers, a couple prepares to retire to Florida. But life has different plans in store for them.

Kathleen TeslukThis was the family story that came up more than any other in Kathleen Tesluk‘s family, and as a genealogically-minded child, she was always attuned to such family lore.  When she was eleven, she conducted her first interview with her grandfather, as a high school student she started making research trips to county courthouses, and she’s been at it ever since.  She’s a board member of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society and blogs about family stories and genealogy research tools at Voices from a Distant Past.

Katheleen’s been on Treelines since shortly after our launch at RootsTech.  She wrote us, “I am particularly intrigued because you are showing us something new:  how to take the ‘dry’ documents that we are researching and reveal the vibrant, living people they represent.”  From our conversations, it seems like Kathleen was doing that all along — Treelines just gave her a platform to share the results.

An unexpected surpriseYou’ve been working on your family history for many years. What about this story of the twins led you to make it the first story you shared on Treelines?

My grandmother was one of the twins, so I grew up hearing this story over and over again — it was such a part of their sense of identity. Telling this story on Treelines was a no-brainer, because the facts are so engrained in my memory of my grandmother and her sister.

Everyone who reads the story is struck by the part where you write that Jessie Lee prepared for death when she learned she was pregnant at 45 in 1919. It’s just one of those period details that captures the dramatic differences between our ancestors’ lives and our own. Any advice for other family historians looking to find those small bits of historical context for their own families?

The best advice I could give would be to scrutinize every detail of your stories — sometimes the punchline is hidden in plain sight. A family anecdote explains what I mean: Jessie Lee came from a long line of southerners. During the Civil War, successive Yankee raiding parties came through their farm and helped themselves to food and provisions until the family had nothing left but the honey in their beehives. A group of soldiers wanted to take that, too, but the only vessels they could find to take it in were the “honey pots”……. and my family has been laughing at them ever since. I told this story to a friend recently, and got a puzzled look in return. Then I realized that most people don’t know that “honey pot” was a euphemism for “chamber pot.” So, don’t take any story at face value; try to dig a little deeper to see if you can flesh out the details. Google is a godsend for discovering obscure facts!

Why did you want to share a story about your family publicly on the Treelines site?

I am driven by the idea that the more we know about our history, the easier it is for us to put our own lives in perspective. Stories help us see that our ancestors have experienced life’s trials and tribulations and ultimately survived — so we will, too. There was a wonderful article in the New York Times not too long ago describing how families that know their history are more resilient and psychologically healthy than those that do not. I think that sharing stories publicly can be reassuring because it provides more evidence of our common humanity.

Unexpecting parentsWith all of your experience doing traditional genealogy, what is it about stories that you find so compelling?

Stories add color to an otherwise black and white view of the past and adds a human dimension to the dry facts we uncover in our research. I will always be a traditional genealogist because things like factual accuracy, citations, and source analysis all matter to me. The truth is that stories are the means by which the past lives on to touch and inspire the next generation. Through stories, family members who are not genealogists suddenly understand why we are so obsessed with history.

Like all good stories, the end of your Treelines stories left me wanting to know what happened next???  How did Jessie Lee & Abel cope with becoming parents again at 45 and 60?

My grandmother, Kathleen Lynch, wrote: “With two babies to raise, Mother and Daddy decided that they couldn’t afford to get old and die any time soon!  They bought the Arcade Hotel in Springfield, Ohio, and we began a life of hotel living….”  Sometime before 1930, Abel and Jessie Lee left the hotel business, moved to Washington DC, and bought a farm in the country.  Their son, Julius, was employed in DC by the US Government, and I suspect they moved in order to be near him.  It wasn’t exactly oranges and grapefruit, but Abel worked the farm until his death in 1940. In 1944, Julius died of a heart attack at age 50, so Jessie Lee always called the twins her “blessings” because if they hadn’t come along, she would have had to live the last 20 years of her life alone.

Another great-grandfather of Kathleen’s was a real black sheep!  Read about him in her Treelines story, A crafty fellow.

The Most Popular Treelines Story So Far

A long-lost grandfather who sends letters on aluminum foil and drives a psychedelic-painted school bus.  A tenacious granddaughter who feels responsible for healing the rifts in her family going all the way back to the Old Country.

A 14-year old’s quest to find her grandfatherMarla Raucher OsbornIt would be stranger than fiction if it weren’t the true story of how genealogist Marla Raucher Osborn got started at age fourteen!  This former California lawyer now makes her home in Paris and travels frequently to Galicia to visit her family’s ancestral town of Rohatyn and research in local archives.  She writes and speaks extensively both in the U.S. and Europe about her work, especially to Polish and Ukrainian school children.

Treelines gave Marla a place to preserve the more personal aspects of her family history than her usual publications afford.  She wrote us, “Like sitting down with an old friend and talking – that is Treelines.”  She took a break from her busy schedule to share a bit more about herself with us:

You are the author of the most popular story on Treelines so far!  How you found your estranged grandfather made strangers cry.  What do you think it was about your story that people connected to?

There is a very basic and powerful human desire to be remembered; to project into the future: “I lived,” “I was here.” This, I believe, is the role of memory and therefore of story-telling. Through divorce and economic circumstances, a child was separated from his father; so successfully separated, that not a single photo remained for that child to cherish and pass on to his children. I inherited that void – that empty space – in the family memory. To be able to tell this story is to acknowledge that my grandfather lived and that he is remembered.

As the story of finding your grandfather concluded, it seemed by your arrival in Poland that you had caught the genealogy bug big-time.  Why does it matter so much to you to trace your family back and uncover the stories of their lives?

Like many Americans, I am a grandchild of immigrants. For many of us, there is a sense of having been cut off from from our roots. This is particularly powerful for Jewish Americans, but also for immigrant families who then re-settled in California: the move west was like a second emigration and a second window closing on the past. In trying to understand the historic circumstances and the underlying motivations for my grandparents’ moves (from Old World to New World to West Coast World) I learn more about my parents – and about myself. There is an emotional anchoring that comes from this knowledge, and for me, a contentedness that comes from finally becoming “connected.”

What was the experience like for you to share a story about your family publicly on the Treelines site?

Marla as a teenagerWhile this was not my first “public” publication, I found writing this story quite different, because it was less record-focused and not specifically directed toward genealogists and researchers. For Treelines, I wanted to recount the path that led me to my grandfather as if it was an intimate conversation between close friends. So, I sought the right “voice” for the narrative and strove to humanize the research side so that the tale that unfolded wasn’t just a lineal recitation of facts through letter writing, archives, and the internet. It was important that the reader “ride” with me, first as a 14-year old child, then as a mature woman winding through the Przemysl Jewish cemetery. The story’s drama, I hope, comes from the unpredictability of its ending – me, thirty years after finding my grandfather, in the Polish town where his family once lived.

As one of our first writers, you clearly had a strong sense of what story you wanted to tell.  What advice would you give to new users of Treelines who are deciding what stories they want to tell?

Find the kernel – the central, moving, inspiration, emotional core – of your story, and focus on that when you write it. Every family tale has a kernel. It may take some massaging to tease it out, but it is there for you to find and develop. It is the kernel that touches the human heart and turns a personal, individual story into a human story.

Marla’s research in Poland continues in her Treelines story, 1920s Best of Friends.

Personal History is Family History: A Mother’s Perspective

I asked my sister, who has no interest in the kind of distant family history I’ve devoted my life to digging up, to tell us what kind of family history she cares about.  Here’s what she wrote:

My sister and her older daughter turn 4

My sister and her older daughter turn 4!

When I was growing up, my mother attempted to collect all of the artifacts of our childhood into beautifully arranged scrapbooks.  Over time the demands of the task got away her from her, and she started sliding mementos haphazardly between the pages for organization at a future date that never came.  Eventually the books so teemed with keepsakes that she had to put them into bags to hold everything together.  The results my sister and I half-bitterly, half-affectionately dubbed our “scrap bags.”

From then on when I imagined myself as a mother, I envisioned creating the kind of scrapbook that my mother abandoned.  No milestone of my modern-day von Trapps would pass without pasting the proper documentation into an artistic page layout.  Then, I actually became a mother, and realized that (1) my children will never wear matching dresses made from our window treatments, line up in declining size-order, and greet me musically after work, and (2) scrapbooks are easier to imagine than execute.  So my girls, ages 2 and 4, currently have… “scrap accordion-folders!”  Thanks to the Digital Age in which they’re growing up, their “scrap folders” are regrettably thin, but I still imagine that one day I will arrange these scraps into beautifully bound books they will always appreciate their mommy for having made.

For me, these scrap bags and scrap folders are what family history is about.  What I want my daughters to know about their history is the same thing I want to know about my history—How did the narrative begin?  What were the plot twists? My sensitive 4-year-old may grow up to be a famous artist.  I want her to know that she drew her first recognizable stick figure before she turned 3.  My active 2-year-old may grow up to be a star athlete.  I want her to know that mommy was so worried that she did not walk at 16 months, she called Early Intervention (hopefully she will laugh, as I now do).  These memories, whether they hold a lasting significance or not, create a life story.

On some level, however, I realize that these narcissistic self-portraits do not tell the whole story.  My daughters’ lives did not simply begin at “The Presidents’ Hospital” in Bethesda; they began at the comedy club down the road where their parents went on their first date, they began at the hospital in Philadelphia where I was born and would later rotate as a medical student, they began decades before when their first American ancestors set foot in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

But, the further back you go, the less I am interested in being the one who does the curating.  Genealogy has never been a personal interest of mine.  What my sister and I do share, though, is an interest in origin stories.  We’re just interested in different origins!  I studied cognitive neuroscience and early childhood development, so I’ve always been interested in those early formative experiences that define a character and ultimately shape a life.  I’ve often pored over the contents of my scrap bag to understand how I became me, and I similarly peruse my girls’ scrap folders to catch the emerging threads of narrative for the people they will become.

So, maybe my girls, like me, will turn to their scrap folders for answers about why they are who they are.  Or maybe they’ll turn out like their Tante Tammy and ask questions about the things that happened before they were born.  Now that I have children of my own, I realize that there is a spectrum of family history of which the contents of a “scrap bag” or “scrap folder” are only the beginning.  It takes the whole range of family history — the immediate and distant past — to put our lives in context.  Luckily between their mommy and their tante, my girls will have both covered!

One of the Six Million

Today is the day the UN designated International Holocaust Memorial Day.  Sixty-eight years ago Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the death camps, was liberated.  I don’t often have occasion to do genealogical research for this period, but last spring a family friend asked me to research his uncle, Shlomo Israelit.  In remembrance of the six million, I’d like to tell you about this one man and his family.

The story the family friend asked me to trace about Shlomo sounded exaggerated: Evidently he was one of the richest men in Latvia because he created and ran the shipping lines that transported timber from the interior of Russia. The only documentation I had for him was a single Page of Testimony from the Yad Vashem website, where his brother had recorded the basic facts of his life. Immediately I turned to Google Maps and saw that Liepaja, the town listed as Shlomo’s residence, was on the coast of the Baltic Sea, which certainly fit with the profession his nephew recollected. Did any other information about Shlomo survive?

The only online destination I knew of to learn more was the JewishGen Latvia Database, one of a number of such online databases with a very haphazard collection of region-specific records. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit in such databases and have mostly come up empty-handed.  As this database was the one and only lead I had to go on, with some nervousness I typed in Shlomo’s last name into the search form. The results listed Israelits in nine separate record collections, which was not surprising, but were any of these “my” Israelits? The first eight were not. But the name of the last search result was promising: Liepāja Holocaust Memorial Wall. I clicked through and found these names:

  • Salman Israelit, who died at 53 in Stutthof, Germany (Salman is a Yiddishized version of Shlomo, but I will stick with Shlomo, as that is the name that his brother recorded on the Page of Testimony).
  • Eta Israelit, who died at 48 in Riga, the capital and largest city in Latvia, which is 200 km from Liepaja (the Page of Testimony lists Schlomo’s wife as Edit)
  • Muse Israelit, who died in Liepaja at age 38
  • Isak Israelit, who died in Liepaja at age 11
  • Minna Israelit, who died in Liepaja before she even turned 1

Here were Shlomo and his wife and three other relatives – children? Grandchildren? Although this information added little to what I already knew, I was consoled to learn that on 6/9/2004 a memorial wall containing the names of Shlomo, his family, and 6,423 other Holocaust victims from Liepaja was dedicated in the town’s Jewish cemetery (see pictures of the wall here). An entire website memorializing the Jews of Liepaja murdered in 1941-1945 detailed the modern efforts to memorialize the destroyed community. Here is what I read about how the Holocaust took place in Liepaja:

About 7100 Jews lived in Liepaja, Latvia on 14 June 1941. About 208 were deported to the USSR that day, a few hundred fled to the USSR after Germany attacked the USSR on 22 June 1941, and most of the remaining ones were killed during the German occupation that began on 29 June 1941. Most men were shot during the summer and fall; at first near the lighthouse, then on the Naval Base, and from October 1941 on in the dunes of Shkede north of town. Women and children were largely spared until the big Aktion of 14-17 December, 1941, when 2749 Jews were shot. Killings continued in early 1942, and by the time the ghetto was established on 1 July 1942, only 832 Jews were left.

The website includes graphic pictures of the Aktion of mid-Deecmber. I could not believe what I was seeing–families queuing up, removing their clothes, and finally, standing on the edge of a deep pit with a pile of bodies clearly visible at its bottom. There are close-up shots of people moments before their death, who know that it is death and only death that awaits them. They are looking at their family, friends, and neighbors at the bottom of a pit. They know they will soon join them in that pit…

Was I looking at the Israelits?

A German officer named SD Oberscharführer Sobeck (rank of staff sargent in the security service) captured these horrible images. His fellow officers gave the orders to the Jews to undress on the dunes and run around naked in the freezing cold for their amusement, and this man stuck his camera in their faces. He knew exactly what he was doing. He even had the presence of mind to record only the Latvian policeman guarding the Jews and not the Germans actually in charge.

(For context: Large-scale massacres like these were how the Germans began their destruction of the Jews in the territories they conquered in the east. Mobile killing units called Einsatzgruppen, “task forces,” went from town-to-town rounding up the Jews and shooting them en masse. One million Jews were killed this way from 1939-1942. This method of killing Jews turned out to be inefficient and demoralizing for the Germans; it was phased out in favor of the gas chambers of the extermination camps whose names, like Auschwitz, have become synonymous with the horror.)

Returning to the chronology, the website concludes with how Liepaja became Judenrein and the fate of its remaining residents:

The ghetto was closed on 8 October 1943 when the survivors were taken to Riga. Young adults were generally spared, but in the next few months older people and women with children were killed locally or in Auschwitz. When the Red Army approached Riga in the summer of 1944, the survivors were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig in several transports, from August to October 1944. Many died in the increasingly brutal conditions of this camp, especially on death marches in early 1945, and only 175 survived. Of the deportees and refugees to the USSR, many perished, but some 300 survived. (source)

The site explains that “of the 6500+ Liepaja Jews who perished in WWII, only about 1500 have so far been recorded at Yad Vashem.” Shlomo Israelit was fortunate to have a brother to remember him; the author of the Liepaja site worked for three years to recover the lost names and now has information on 93% of all Liepaja Jews. For Shlomo and his family, I found:

  • Salman and Eta Israelit: He was a merchant (again, consistent with the nephew’s information). He died 10/1/1944 in Stutthof. She died in Riga in November 1943.
  • Their daughter and son-in-law, Mira and Josef Pasternak: She died in Auschwitz in November 1943 at the age of 22. He was murdered in Liepaja in 1941 at the age of 22. Their son, Deo Pasternak, died in Auschwitz in 11/3/1943 at two-and-a-half. A survivor recalls that Eta cared for Deo.
  • Muse Israelit: From the information given, it is unclear how she is related to Shlomo. Her children are the Isak and Minna I found earlier. She may have been unmarried. All three died in Liepaja in 1941.

With the historical chronology I copied above, we can now place the gradual destruction of the Israelit family into context. Josef Pasternak may have been one of the men killed in the summer after the German occupation began. Muse and her children were likely killed in one of the big Aktions later that year, maybe in the one the German officer photographed. The rest became part of the ghetto established in Liepaja and even survived long enough to be transferred to the Riga ghetto. Eta died shortly after being transferred to Riga. Her daughter and grandson died around the same time in Auschwitz. Shlomo outlived all of them; three-quarters of a year after he lost the last of his immediate family, he was transferred to the Stutthof camp and died shortly thereafter.

And that is the story of how the Nazis murdered the Israelit family from Liepaja. They lived, prospered, suffered, and died, and while I knew more about their deaths than their lives (and exceedingly little of either), their names were well-enough preserved so that I, a stranger to them and their family, could tell their surviving family something it turned out they didn’t already know. I wrote up what I found, emailed it to the family friend, and stepped away from the computer, happy that against the odds I had found any information at all on his uncle.


But the story doesn’t end there. It often happens in genealogy that you think you’ve read and absorbed a record, but when you come back to it little while later, you see something you can’t understand why you didn’t notice before. If you clicked through the links above, maybe you noticed these comments on Salman’s record that I overlooked at first: “works at German commandanture,” “Chairman of Judenrat.”

Chairman of the Judenrat?

And this is where Shlomo’s story passes beyond mere genealogical records of a life into the historical records of a life that impacted other lives.

From the yizkor book for Liepaja (a yizkor book is a published tribute by survivors to the destroyed the community they came from; the number of such books is in the thousands):

“In spite of overcrowding in the [Liepaja] Ghetto houses, the inmates led an orderly life which was mostly due to the devotion of Mr. Israelit, a senior Jewish functionary in the town, who was assisted by Mr. Kagansky, the lawyer.”

From the St. Petersburg Times:

“The Judenrat members–businessman Zalman Israelit and lawyer Menash Kaganski–were on good terms with [the German commandant] Kerscher and generally managed to arrange lenient treatment of offenders. For this purpose they sometimes bribed him with items such as fur coats, jewelry, or gold coins (contributed by residents), but apparently Kerscher often passed part or all of the bribe on to his superiors to buy their acquiescence. The Judenrat enjoyed the respect and trust of the ghetto residents.”

From a history of Latvia’s Jewish community on the website for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia:

“Israelit and Kagunsky, the leaders of the ghetto’s Council, arranged for a synagogue, a medical centre and a library.”

This was Shlomo Israelit, a businessman who became the leader of his community under the most harrowing circumstances possible–whose house was burned down, whose friends and family were massacred on the sand dunes overlooking the sea where he had made his fortune, but who held himself together well enough to protect his surviving townsmen as best as he could. “The ghetto of Liepāja had slightly better conditions if compared to those in the ghettos of Riga and Daugavpils,” Wikipedia notes in an entry that mentions Salman’s role. This is the difference Shlomo helped to make before he was sent to his death. I was asked to research a spectacularly wealthy businessman and instead found a brave leader.


Shlomo’s position as head of the Judenrat certainly supports the idea that he was the leading Jewish citizen in the town prior to the occupation, but of course, you want to know if the story that he was so fantastically wealthy was true? Though there is no reason to doubt his nephew’s recollection, I didn’t pursue the research to prove it. Had I been related to him, I would have wired money to a Latvian researcher to take a look at these tantalizingly-named records, which I found listed in a guide to Jewish materials stored in the Latvian State Historical Archives:

S. Heifez and Z. Israelitin Forestry and Trade fellowship (Riga)
Archival fund: 6520. 1926–1932. Files: 13.
General ledger; rescontro; memorial books; balance.

(Note that Salman is sometimes spelled with a Z.)

Had I been related to him, I would also have someone review the other, more general records in the Latvian archives. The list of merchants in Liepaja in particular could be useful. The birth, marriage, death, military, census, and passport records for the town could flesh out Shlomo’s family tree. This information is for the family to recover, if they wish.  But likely a good deal more about Shlomo’s survives out there.


Shlomo Israelit may be the one of the six million I’ve spent the most time thinking about, but still I don’t know him. How could he cultivate a positive relationship with the Germans after they murdered almost 90% of his community? Did he believe he could save the remnant? Did he think that the wealth and prestige he accumulated before the war would protect him from sharing the fate of other Jews?

I’ve thought about his brother, too, who survived, who moved to Israel and woke up one day and went to Yad Vashem to submit four Pages of Testimony… for his brother Shlomo, his sister-in-law, and his niece… and for his other brother, Moshe, who died in Wilno, Poland…

There are limits to what research and even memory can reckon with. These are lives we cannot possibly understand. But we can make sure they are not forgotten.

Witches in the Family

My first Halloween in college, my new friends and I celebrated in Salem, MA, where we toured the Salem Witch Museum, visited the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, and enjoyed a number of lighter activities more in the spirit of Halloween revelry.  I was surprised to see that not only had so many locations related to the trials been preserved three centuries later, but also that the scene of such terror had been turned into a sort of giant Halloween fair.

When my friend Robert Riger (he of the wayward cows) visited Salem more recently, he paid his respects to his ancestors, who had been accused, convicted, and executed for their alleged participation in witchcraft.

Robert (and Lady) at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.

Each stone jutting out of the wall, or “witch’s seat,” bears the name of one of the nineteen people executed from June to September of 1692.

Rebecca Nurse's "seat" in the memorial

Rebecca Nurse may be known to us from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the famous dramatization of the trials, but to Robert she is his 9th great-aunt.  Of the hundreds more involved, 25 are ancestors of Robert’s.  Moreover, when Robert began to trace his husband Dick’s family tree, he discovered that many of these people were their shared ancestors!  Rebecca Nurse’s father, William Towne, is both Robert’s and Dick’s 10th great-grandfather.  The table below lists shows their connections to the Towne sisters and others of their 42 ancestors involved in the trials, including ⊕ those who appear in The Crucible.

Ancestor Involvement Relationship to Robert To Dick
⊕ Rebecca Towne Nurse Hanged on July 19, 1692 9th great-aunt 9th great-grandmother
⊕ Elizabeth Proctor Convicted, but was granted a stay of execution, because she was pregnant. Her husband, John, hanged on August 19, 1692. Both of their children were accused, too. Their third child was born in prison. 1st cousin 9 times removed
⊕ Thomas Putnam The main accuser behind the trials. His wife and daughter were also accusers. 2nd cousin, 9 times removed
⊕ Joseph & George Herrick Magistrates for the trial 8th great-uncles
Mary Towne Estey Hanged on September 22, 1692 9th great-aunt 9th great-aunt
Sarah Towne Cloyce Convicted, but escaped 9th and 10th great-aunt 9th great-grandmother
Ann Foster Tortured, convicted, and died in prison after 21 weeks of incarceration at age 75. 9th great-grandmother related distantly
John Alden, Jr. Accused, but escaped to NY Son of Robert’s 9th great-grandparents, Mayflower passengers John Alden & Patricia Mullens
Warrant for the Execution of Rebecca Nurse (and others)

Excerpts from July 12, 1692 warrant for the execution of Rebecca Nurse (and others) (via)

This may be a bad time to write this post, as leading genealogists Dick Eastman and Megan Smolenyak have lately been fomenting a backlash against all the “Surprise, they’re cousins!” press releases. Smolenyak explains:

Colonial times in North America constitute a famous cousin sweet spot. They’re long enough ago that genealogical math has had a chance to work its magic, but recent enough that there’s often a paper trail to follow. That’s why…the touted connections almost always involve a shared colonial American or French-Canadian ancestor. And the living celebrities will rarely be more closely related than seventh cousins. In fact, they’re most often eighth, ninth or tenth cousins.

And indeed, despite sharing 16 direct ancestors, Robert & Dick do not meet Smolyenak’s standard for notability — before marriage they were only 9th cousins (though many times over), and their common ancestors, “witches” and others, are all Colonial Americans.  But still, it’s cool for them to know they share a personal connection to this oft-invoked chapter of Puritan zealotry.

Robert at Rebecca Nurse's house

Robert at his ancestor Rebecca Nurse’s house.

These People Can Trace Themselves to Adam

Today begins International Jewish Genealogy Month!  This past Sabbath appropriately happened to be the week synagogues around the world recited the world’s earliest genealogy in Genesis Chapter 5.  When my friend M. listened to the reading, he heard the earliest ancestors on his family tree:

Excerpt from M.'s tree

Excerpted generations from Adam to Noah at the end of M.’s tree.  (Hebrew spelling of Biblical names used.  At times this tree uses “descended from” to span large periods of time, hence the surprisingly low generation numbers.)

M. is not my only friend whose family tree connects him to Biblical figures.  The earliest ancestor on Dan Smokler‘s family tree is King David!

King David in Smokler tree

The earliest generations of Dan’s tree. King David is listed next to the star.

How can these people make these claims?!, I wondered, when these friends told me about their remarkable trees.  Thus was I introduced to a fascinating subset of Rabbinic genealogy focused on descent from King David.  It turns out there are five so-called primary families who are traditionally considered to have descended from the Davidic royal family.  Both M.’s and Dan’s families are descended from Rashi, an 11th c. French rabbi whose writings remain well-known today.  Other such families include the descendants of Judah Lowe, the 15th c. Elder of Prague, whose great-great-grandson, Judah Lowe, the Maharal, is said to have created the Golem, and the Abravanel family, known best for descendant Isaac Abarbanel, who advised Ferdinand II and Isabella of Spain until he failed to stop their expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

Compared to their counterparts in non-Jewish genealogy ranging from royalty to Mayflower descendants, these prominent, rabbinic families are a very rare example of published genealogies of Jewish families well-documented for centuries, comprising multiple sub-dynasties themselves.  So, the work of family historians is to trace back not 500 or 1000 years to one of those primary families, but a much shorter distance to one of the derivative lines.  In Dan’s case, a distant cousin in Israel reached out to his family to explain their connection to Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1728-1790), the famous Chassidic rabbi who is Dan’s eighth great-grandfather!

Dan's full tree

It took two 10′ tables to unfold Dan’s entire tree!  His family is in the bottom-left, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz is bottom-center of the top sheet, and Rashi and King David are at the very top.  Click to enlarge the image to make out the various family groups.

As this enormous tree documents, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz descended from Nathan Neta Spira (1585-1633), a prominent Polish rabbi.  And here’s how we make the subsequent leaps:

  1. Derivative to primary:  The Spira/Shapira family traces back to Shmuel Shapira (b.1345), who descended from Rashi’s grandson, Isaac (1090-1130), better known as the Ribam, another famous rabbi whose works are still studied.
  2. Primary to Hillel:  Isaac’s grandfather, Rashi (1040-1105), is traced 38 generations over 1100 years back to Rabbi Hillel the Great (110 BCE-10 CE), who lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and Emperor Augustus and whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud and studied to this day.
  3. Hillel to DavidJewish tradition connects Hillel back 35 generations to King David’s son, Shephatiah.
  4. David to Adam:  The Bible documents the 32 generations between King David (1043-973 BCE) and Adam.  Done!

The other primary families follow different routes back to David.  The Abravanels, for example, are descended from the Davidic Babylonian exilarchs, the hereditary leaders of the exiled Jewish community founded in 586 BCE after the destruction of the First Temple.  Their dynasty lasted until the time of Rashi.

At this point you must be dying to know how we know all of this?!  As you might expect, the sources become sparser as we go further back in time.  We start with the genealogical sources most often cited today, published starting in the late 18th c., that trace derivative families back to primary families (#1 above).  They are generally considered reliable, though there are sometimes gaps between generations.

These more recent sources were based on earlier sources that only rarely survive.  In the case of Rashi, there was a genealogical record going back to Hillel’s great x 3 grandson (covering the period of #2 above) which was destroyed in the Swabian War of 1499.  “Johanan Luria mourned the loss of his genealogy more than the material goods he was robbed of,” wrote Abraham Epstein in his early 20th c. work, Mishpachat Luria.  What genealogist would not weep with him?

To get from Hillel to David (#3 above), the source here is more modern than you might expect, a 10th. century work by a prominent Babylonian gaon (leader), based on a work purportedly from 68 CE, just after the Second Temple was destroyed.  The Talmud also reports that Hillel descended from Shephatiah.  But in the case of the Abravanels, who descended from the exilarchs, there is a chronicle from the 9th c., which extends a 2nd c. source to trace the exilarchs back to Adam through the first exilarch, Jeconiah, who is mentioned not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also in cuneiform tablets excavated in Iraq!

Certainly we are now well beyond the territory of trustworthy historical sources.  And even the more recent sources can’t entirely meet a genealogical standard of proof.   Personally, I view these sources in the context of the unbroken line of religious teachings passed down faithfully by people like the authors of these works, who believed they had a holy obligation to do so.  In both genealogy and religious instruction — and there’s an overlap between the two that starts with Genesis and continues through many traditional Jewish sources — oral tradition only belatedly became written texts, and while a tension between preserving truth and embellishing may have come into play, I suspect truth won far more often given the mindset of the authors, steeped in a tradition-obsessed culture, who dedicated their lives to its preservation.

Chaya Feige bat Yosef Zelig HaCohenSo now you understand how my friends M. and Dan can trace themselves back to Adam, but what about me?  I have no connection to these rabbinical dynasties that I know of.  But when I found my great-grandmother‘s tombstone a couple years ago, I discovered that her father was a Kohen, a member of the priestly class patrilineally descended directly from Moses’ brother, Aaron.  Only 26 generations from him to Adam…

Does any of this matter if we can’t be sure?  There is proof, the work of genealogists, and then there is meaning, a goal of more casual family historians.  Learning his family tree did not make Dan a genealogist, but he was so moved by the knowledge that he named his first-born after Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz in the hope that he would emulate his pious ancestor’s virtues.  At the close of the circumcision ceremony, Dan inscribed his son’s name on the family tree in front of all the gathered friends and family, the second of what I’m sure will be many ways in which he will raise his son with an awareness of his illustrious lineage and the example set by his ancestors.  Whether the entirety of their enormous tree meets a genealogical standard of proof is irrelevant if it helps to raise a boy to be kind and good.

My Twenty-First Anniversary in Genealogy

InscriptionThe frustration of being the genealogist in my family is that I’m always the one reaching out to relatives, close and distant, to learn more about our family.  I long for the reverse: to be found myself by a relative who has the stories, photographs, and connections to break through my toughest brick walls or add much-needed color to the barest areas of my tree.  But I sometimes overlook that twenty-one years ago that did happen to me:

7/9/91 letter

I cannot adequately express the excitement the arrival of this letter generated.  Though my father did as poor a job of keeping in touch with family as a person could, he raised my sister and me on stories of his beloved grandparents and favorite cousins.  He immediately reached out to Frances, who told him that we were the long-lost branch of the family!  (As my father still jokes, “But we always knew where we were!”)  She found us just in time to include my father’s recollections in her book all about my great-grandfather and his seven brothers and sisters, which she sent to hundreds of relatives in October 1991.

The Hepps Family book

The Hepps Family book: 80+ pages of trees, stories, & photographs!
(Food stains courtesy of my father.)

Naturally, Frances’ book filled my head with many stories I had never known about my family — but unexpectedly, it confirmed many of the tallest tales my father told:  that my ggf brought over his siblings from Hungary to Homestead, PA and founded a synagogue and Jewish cemetery there.

By bringing the shadowy past into focus in the present, the book changed my entire perspective on my family, their legacy, and my responsibility towards that legacy.  It taught me that the unbounded curiosity I had always had about previous generations wasn’t just a way to pester my parents and grandparents, but meaningful inquiries that could actually be answered.  It showed me that even though the people around me weren’t all that interested in distant family history, there were people besides me who were.  Before the book I was a kid with a strange interest in dead people; after the book I had a sense of purpose as a fledgling genealogist.

Less than two months after we received the book, I became a Bat Mitzvah.  My newfound understanding of just how hard my great-grandfather worked to establish and support Jewish institutions in his little corner of this country made my coming-of-age ceremony even more meaningful for me.

Many years later when I self-published my own family book for my maternal side, I dedicated it to Frances Fleshin for “inspiring my enduring interest in genealogical research.  Her work showed me how the task is done.”  You can draw a straight line from Frances’ book to my creation of Treelines.  If people enjoy this site once it launches, they will have her to thank, too.

Happy Family History Month!

How We Remember a Life

My father once recounted how he and his father listened to the radio for the latest progress of the war in the Pacific to guess where his uncle might be fighting.  The subsequent years impressed upon him the enormity of what he had lived through to such an extent that while raising my sister and me during a time of peace and prosperity, he would sometimes express sorrow that we didn’t live through history.

Then I was in New York City on 9/11.

Like so many I turned on the TV after the first plane hit and watched the second fly into the South Tower.  The anchorwoman didn’t see it — maybe the fuel tank of the first plane exploded?, she wondered — and I gaped at the screen until her co-anchor confirmed I hadn’t imagined it.  I remember walking on the streets during those morning hours while we were still under attack and hearing every kind of crazy rumor about what else had been hit.  I got caught in a crowd running down 44th St. when there was a bomb scare at Grand Central.  Everyone frantically called everyone else; there were no social networks then, and the mobile networks failed under the load.  Days later I passed through armed barricades into the Financial District, walked through the snowy ash, and saw with my own eyes the smoldering ruins we still thought contained survivors.  I cheered the rescue workers on the West Side Highway.  I joined a vigil outside a neighborhood church.  I was turned away from an overstocked blood donation center with no recipients.  I watched a mountain of flowers grow in front of my neighborhood firehouse.  Beneath the long column of smoke that hung over the city, the acrid smell in my nostrils, I eventually returned to work.  And for weeks everywhere I went were the missing person fliers — clustered on lamp posts, spread across park gates, even layered atop the small bulletin board in the lunch place opposite my office.

My memories will pass with me, but hundreds of years from now people will still look at photographs of these things I saw with my own eyes.


So much of genealogy is understanding lives in context.  Faced with the task of connecting the few dots we have about distant ancestors — records, stories, pictures, mementos — we turn to the history they lived through to guess the overall shape of the lives connecting those dots.  Where were they when—?  How were they affected by—?  Large-scale disasters are especially useful, because you can be most sure that they impacted your ancestors in some way.  An entire website, GenDisasters.com, helps you sort by date and place.

Here’s how this works:  From records and stories we learn that a great-grandfather of mine escaped violent pogroms as a teenager, after a few serious missteps became successful during the roaring ’10s and ’20s, and died just before the crash reduced his widow to begging.  In this way we both elevate and reduce the lives we reconstruct:  I’ve made my great-grandfather into a brave survivor and blind victim of history all at the same time.  This narrative is meaningful to me.  But would he tell his life story this way?

Surely he didn’t think of himself as just another immigrant fleeing Russia.  He always came home singing happy songs he made up, my father claims.  Maybe he never saw, as I do, that his life was book-ended by adversity and marked by obstacles.  Probably the events he would say most defined his life left no trace.


There are people whose whole lives are altered by the tragedies they live through.  That uncle who fought at Guadalcanal returned prone to fits of rage.  My closest NY friend at the time of 9/11 suffered PTSD.  Then there are the vast majority of us who live through terrible events, but emerge unaltered, though affected.  My father, who sat by the radio.  His daughter, who lived in the city.  How can you know which way your ancestor was touched by events so diffuse and yet all-enveloping?

And how can we know for ourselves, when only the distance of time can clarify the larger forces shaping our lives?

In generations to come one of my descendants might notice that there was a person in his tree who lived in New York City in the early 2000s.  He’ll do what I do and bend the arc of this ancestor’s life to trace the trajectory of history, speculating how this recent college graduate was shaped by experiencing the tragedy firsthand as she embarked on adulthood.  Thus my connection to 9/11 might endure longer than any life experience that I believe defined me or I want to bequeath, just as the real account of my great-grandfather is permanently lost behind the archetypal immigrant’s journey.  Though 9/11 is in my life story, I don’t organize my version of my narrative around it.  But eventually the telling will be in the hands of a person looking for his own meaning amongst the fragments.

Update:  Traces

When Genealogy Severed My Great-Grandfather’s Pinky

Abe Yorker's WWII draft cardWhen I found my great-grandfather in the database of WW II Draft Registration Cards (the “old man’s draft” for civilian men between the ages of 45 and 64), the back of his card revealed shocking information:  he was short a pinky!

I immediately forwarded my surprising find to three of Abe’s grandchildren. They talked amongst themselves, conferred with Abe’s son-in-law, and agreed they had no recollection of his missing a pinky. But who could fake such an injury to the draft board?!

The answer is simple: he wasn’t missing his pinky, but the previous guy in the pile was! More than a day after starting the controversy, I happened upon this explanation:

Note regarding the images for the states of DE, MD, PA, and WV: These four states were microfilmed at the National Archives in such a way that the back of one person’s draft card appears in the same image as the front of the next individual’s card. Thus, when viewing the scanned image of each person’s original draft card you will see the correct front side of each person’s draft card, but the back side of the previous person’s card.

Five years later, Ancestry still has not fixed the images.  FamilySearch also has it wrong.  Only Fold3 has it right, and now I know:  The poor, pinky-less man is Wister Wellie Yorke, and Abe’s real defects are “moles on nose and left cheek.”

Caveat Investigator

Also in this series:
The Four Days Isaac Fine Went Insane from Syphilis

The Twenty-Year Time Capsule

Time capsuleTwo weekends ago I drove up to my old summer camp to take part in opening a time capsule that twenty years prior the whole camp had gathered to fill.  At the time it felt surreal — 2012 seemed impossibly far away.  “I don’t think I’ll ever reach the day when I read this,” I wrote myself, but two decades later my letter, damp and moldy, was back in my hands.

Both my past and present selves feared that reading my childhood hopes-n-dreams would be emotional (“You’re probably crying now because I am almost crying as I’m writing this!!!”), but surprisingly, my strongest response came from fellow campers who had a much less personal idea about what they wanted the time capsule to capture.  Many listed generic information about camp recorded elsewhere, like names of girls in their bunk, lyrics of songs, Color War themes, and love for traditions and friends.  Others deposited camp and cultural artifacts, the ubiquitous clutter of our childhood.  The camp-related items, lists and memorabilia alike, recalled activities I spent years enjoying or avoiding.  Comic books, toys, and magazines recreated the long-gone world we had grown up in.  Every day the world changes imperceptibly, even major shifts we somehow take in stride, so it was disorienting to be faced with the net result of twenty years of change I rarely noticed happening.  I had not expected the world of my youth to feel so strange!

Time capsule ephemera

We had to explain the dot-matrix printed banner at the top of the picture to recent campers, the oldest of whom were born in the late ’90s.

Perhaps the effect was compounded by the presence of recent camp alumni, all born after the time capsule was sealed.  My peers lament how much childhood has been sullied by technology, but the younger alumni’s glimpse of the world just before the Internet made them pity us in return.  And yet, the twenty year-old record of songs and friends and traditions I had thought so pointless to include was what collapsed the divide between the older and younger alumni.  We recognized that there was an unbroken thread between our camp years and theirs.  We cherished the same experiences in two very different times.  Our lives suddenly felt familiar to each other.

This time capsule covers a small slice of time compared to the centuries we try to leap in genealogy.  Rarely do we read records that so self-consciously address the future, but we’re similarly trying to intuit what they’ve captured about the way things were and to connect with people recalled only by small details.  It’s easy to get so diverted by dramatic changes in technology, culture, and worldview that we forget that human experience is much the same as it always was (which the richness of literature handles better than the spareness of records).  When we set aside the fundamental foreignness of the past and separate changing times from continuous humanity, we’ll recover a lot more of value.