Are You “Dun” Researching Your Ancestor’s Business?

If you’re in business today and considering partnering with another company, you might rely on Dun & Bradstreet to acquire “commercial data…on credit history, business-to-business sales and marketing, counterparty risk exposure,…lead scoring” and other business metrics for “more than 235 million companies across 200 countries worldwide.”  You might be surprised to discover that such a modern-sounding company, addressing what seem like contemporary business challenges, dates back to 1841, when the company’s founder “[created] a network of correspondents who would provide reliable, objective credit information to subscribers.” (source)  The company’s name became R.G. Dun & Co. in 1859 after an ownership change, and a merger with a competitor produced Dun & Bradstreet as we know it today.  Despite all the name changes, the company’s mission has remained remarkably consistent.

What has changed is the size of the database and the nature of the companies included.  In the early 1900s, when the database of ~1.5 million merchants first included my great-grandfather, it reflected a time when most businesses were synonymous with their proprietors, making researching the businessman and researching his business nearly identical activities.  From this period two sets of historic R.G. Dun & Co. records are accessible to researchers, making it possible to gain far more insight into our ancestor’s business activities than the usual names and professions we find listed on genealogical records.

Reference books

The first set of Dun records are reference books which were published by a subsidiary called The Mercantile Agency, which maintained offices in many commercial cities.  Local agents worked to identify all the “merchants, manufacturers, and traders” of the vicinity in order to “[supply] information in detail as to the antecedents, character, capacity, and credit of Business Men throughout the civilized world.”  Four times a year, they published an updated list of all these men (and sometimes women), organized by city and state and coded with their business type and credit rating.

1880s R.G. Dun & Co. reference books at the Library of Congress

1880s R.G. Dun & Co. reference books at the Library of Congress

A fairly complete run of these reference books is available at the Library of Congress, covering 1859-1966.  Most of the books are only available as physical books, which must be requested in advance, but the 1900-1924 run is on microfilm, with two reels per edition, or eight reels per year, all of which are stored on-site.  If you know the city and state in which your ancestor was located, it is easy to wind to the section for that state, then to the town within that state, and then scan the town’s list for your ancestor’s name.  In this way I was able to pinpoint one great-grandfather’s entry into the liquor business and trace another great-grandfather’s relocation from one state to another.  For those ancestors I can’t identify when they lived where, using the books to solve such mysteries would be tedious-bordering-on-infeasible.  But they could solve these mysteries if only they were scanned and OCR’ed.  Federal censuses come every 10 years in the U.S., city directories are at best annual, but these books, remember, came out four times per year!  Imagine the kind of granular data available to you if your ancestors were included!

The question you may be asking yourself, then, is whether your small-time merchant, manufacturer, or trader ancestor warranted inclusion?  And the answer to this question is what I find most remarkable about these books — yes!  I reviewed the microfilm from 1900-1914 for Western Pennsylvania, and saw even the tiniest of towns listed with their one or two local merchants.  For Homestead, PA, where I had already compiled merchant lists from censuses, city directories, newspaper records, and synagogue records, I saw that these books covered even the smallest mom-and-pop shops.  These records are not “best of” compendiums; they aimed and succeeded in being truly comprehensive.

Partial list of Homestead merchants. (Source: The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, June 1913. Vol. 181, Part 2.)

Partial list of Homestead merchants. (Source: The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, June 1913. Vol. 181, Part 2.  Scanned from the microfilm at the Library of Congress.)

While the businessmen lists appear to be objectively complete, the subjective nature of their credit ratings makes them less trustworthy.  Having such familiarity with the businesses of Homestead, I was surprised to see that merchants held in high regard by the town’s paper, or whose other activities suggested personal wealth, were given low credit ratings.  It’s clear that one’s rating and success do not correlate in an obvious way.

Agent reports

How the agents arrived at the credit ratings is illuminated by the second set of R.G. Dun & Co. records.  These are the agents’ detailed field reports with the information they collected about each businessman they researched.  Another businessman or bank could order this full report if they needed to know the specific information that went into the credit rating printed in the reference book.

“The information given on this sheet is an answer to an inquiry made by a Subscriber to The Mercantile Agency, who asks for the same AS AN AID, to determine the propriety of giving credit. … the information thus communicated shall be STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL; shall never be communicated to the persons to whom it refers…” (source)

“The information given on this sheet is an answer to an inquiry made by a Subscriber to The Mercantile Agency, who asks for the same as an aid, to determine the propriety of giving credit. … the information thus communicated shall be strictly confidential; shall never be communicated to the persons to whom it refers…” (source)

These records are much harder to get a hold of.  Very early handwritten records from 1841-1891 are available at the Harvard Business School library, but they are off-limits to genealogists.  No one I’ve spoken to, neither reference librarians, nor the current-day D&B employees I’ve contacted, knows where the later, typewritten records are.

The early agent reports consist of handwritten volumes divided by state and indexed by the last and first names of the people included.  It proved too challenging a system for me to review all the merchants of Homestead or even Western Pennsylvania as I had intended, but I was able to look up the individual merchants whom I had previously identified from other sources.  The entries I read were fascinating and colorful.  Somehow the agents gathered detailed information about whether each businessman paid his bills on time or owned real estate, what were the his character and net worth, and how he and his family members were connected to each other’s businesses.  Multiple entries were recorded over many years, tracing the cycle of a person’s fortunes.  All of these notes served to answer one question:  If you loaned this person money or sold him goods on credit, what was the risk you won’t get your money back?  For example:

  • About a peddler in 1882, “Does a pretty [fair business], but not in a position to be sued if not disposed to pay…Not in the market for credit.  Cash only suggested.  Could not force collections.  Said to have means but in such shape could not attached.”
  • About “a peddler traveling with his pack upon his back” in 1882, “He has a [modest] line of credit at home.  Is considered honest and manages to do a fair [business] is inclined to be a little slow of late.  He is not thought to be worth much and should buy sparingly.”
  • About a tailor in 1883, “His financial responsibility limited and the trade in some instances go cautiously, selling him on sharp 30 days.”

Not all were assessed so critically, though most of the small-time merchants I was researching were.  A couple more positive examples:

  • A man with a highly-regarded feed store in 1884, “is spoken of as a very reliable close going man.  Strictly honorable in all his bus. dealings.  Owns property in the 19th ward.  Does a very snug [business]. Pays his bills promptly.  Making money and knows how to take care of it.  [Estimated worth] 5 to $8,000.”
  • About a wholesaler in 1881, “In [business several years] – [should] be [doing] well + [thought] to hold his own at least.  Active + [attentive,] [regarded] honest.  His father failed some [years] ago + it was the impression that he was connected with it – this had the effect of impairing his [credit].  We hear no complaints as he was credited [small amounts] by some here. Is [worth] at least 2-3 [thousand] $ now worthy [modest credit], though a little caution [should] be used in granted large [credit].”

Some entries betray the latent biases of the period. My particular interest was in researching Jewish merchants, who were easy to pick out since agents took care to note this characteristic — sometimes benignly (“a Jew”), and other times insinuatingly (“a very close Jew”). One merchant, agents noted repeatedly, was called “Jew John” by his neighbors (his name was Leopold).  “Not in favor here,” one agent summarized about him.  Though it’s impossible to know just what put the agents off men like “Jew John,” the cumulative effect of their field notes gets at a certain reluctance amongst by the establishment to trust people not like themselves in business matters.  And yet, as difficult as such raw material is to read with its transparent racial, religious, nativist, and even socioeconomic biases, it certainly adds insight into the challenges such men faced in trying to overcome these prejudices.

(Researchers are not permitted to photograph these books, which is unfortunate, as the entries are written in difficult handwriting with numerous abbreviations (all of which I replaced in my transcriptions for readability).  Please forgive any errors.  You can see a couple photographs of other Dun records here, if you’re curious.)

Research opportunities

Unfortunately, I am not yet able to complete the circle of research.  While I have the credit ratings for the Homestead merchants for whom I’ve been able to compile detailed biographies, I haven’t been able to find the internal reports for anyone from that time period, Homesteader or otherwise.  Do the internal reports match up with the pile of evidence I’ve collected from other sources?  If not, why?  Is it because the agents, coming from outside of the community, couldn’t truly penetrate the complex social dynamics that made it possible for men who seemed like the Other to gain acceptance?  Is it because the agents only interviewed men like themselves, who had a vested interest in raising the status of men in their own networks and lowering the status of their competitors from other backgrounds?  Is it because by ignoring informants from marginal groups, the agents overlooked the role of ethnic support systems in advancing the members of their own group?

These elusive, later agent reports are a critical missing piece in my research.  Despite years of looking for untapped sources, I have not been able to find anything even remotely comparable to the unfiltered assessments of the early agent reports. I crave this level of insight into how the community I am researching was really regarded by outsiders.

So — my immediate goal is to interest someone, anyone in digitizing the printed, quarterly reference books.  Their genealogical value is significant, and their layout makes them well-suited to search engines already commonly used.  Update January 2022:  Mission accomplished!  The Library of Congress just posted the digitized volumes for 1900-1924 (the microfilm portion).  The earlier years, 1859-1899, should be added starting in spring 2022. Thank you to Natalie Burclaff at the LOC for championing this project and to everyone else at the LOC who made this happen!

My secondary goal is to continue to dig for the internal reports, which I believe are still held by Dun & Bradstreet.  Selfishly, I need them to complete my personal research into the merchant class of Homestead.  But if Dun & Bradstreet were open to donating their reports to an archive with fewer research restrictions attached, the unique observations they record could allow family historians to see their merchants ancestors from a new angle.  Wouldn’t you love to know if your ancestor made his fortune by selling “[dry goods] + made up Underwear…on the [installment] plan” to “‘Fancy Women’ [hereabouts]?!”

Further Reading

These records have formed the basis of many fascinating and remarkably in-depth studies.  Here are a couple on early Jewish merchants that make me salivate over the possibilities of what these records might contain for the community I am researching.

Genealogy is Hacking

Since this year’s RootsTech wrapped up, there has been some grumbling amongst the techier attendees about the relative dearth of technical sessions this year compared to RootsTech’s early days.  And yet, the conference drew by far its largest audience, showing that changes which troubled a minority appealed to the overwhelming majority.  These conservations about RootsTech’s evolution got me thinking about whether there really is such a divide between genealogists and technologists.  As a member of both groups, I’ve long seen an overlap in how good genealogists and good technologists work, because we’re all hackers.

Your first thought may be to bristle at the comparison.  Hackers are evil geniuses who steal your emails, selfies, and credit card and social security numbers for fun and profit, right?  Well, not exactly.  For one thing, they’re hardly required to have genius-level skills anymore, with so many tools freely available and so many under-protected systems there for the taking.  But more importantly, they aren’t always evil, either.  Paul Graham, a well-known tech investor, articulates how most programmers would define the term:

To programmers, “hacker” connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants—whether the computer wants to or not… When you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s…called a hack.
The Word “Hacker”

Graham goes on to explain that hacking predates computers, giving examples of people who cracked safes not to steal anything, but just for the curiosity of discovering how the device worked and the intellectual satisfaction of having solved the puzzle.  “Show any hacker a lock,” he writes, “and his first thought is how to pick it.”

Some years ago I met Paul Graham and had to give him an example of something I hacked.  My first thought was, who, me?!  But I’m the textbook example of a goodie-goodie!  I like to think I have as much curiosity as the next person, but I’d never dream of channeling it in such ambiguous ways.

And then I realized:  I hack history every day!  As a genealogist, the locks I pick aren’t on doors, safes, or firewalls — they’re on time itself.  The system I reverse-engineer is the by-product of the fundamental human impulse to keep records of our existence.  The lives of our ancestors intersected with these record-keeping systems — military, governmental, religious, fraternal — that took down their information long ago and are often still out there preserving it.  A good genealogist knows how to find those intersections, and if the records of those intersections survive, s/he can provide answers others would consider irrevocably lost.  A good genealogist makes the system give up its secrets.  (And in case it isn’t clear, I present this analogy as someone who researches family history and writes code in equal measure.)

My uncle said to me after his parents, my grandparents, passed away, “I guess we’ll never know where their parents came from,” and within a month I had a pile of records — primarily censuses, ship manifests, and bank records — documenting the immigration stories of all of four of his grandparents, my great-grandparents.  If you’re a genealogist, you know that this research isn’t impressive.  But my uncle’s eyes welled up when he read stories he had given up on ever knowing.  Rediscovering my family’s immigration story — towns, dates, even original names that I, too, had once believed lost — was the moment I gave myself up to genealogy forever.  I cracked the system once.  I needed that fix again.

After years of looking, this ad is the only one I've ever found for my great-grandfather's business. It appeared in a program for a dramatic evening organized by a local Hungarian organization. "This is absolutely unbelievable," my father wrote when I sent it to him. "I can't imagine how you possibly found this." (Source: Archives of the Carnegie Library of Homestead, Collection No. 22, Box 22, Folder 4.)

This ad, in a program for a dramatic evening organized by a local Hungarian group, is the only one I’ve ever found for my great-grandfather’s business after years of searching. How could it have been so profitable with no advertising?!  “I can’t imagine how you possibly found this,” my father wrote when I sent this ad to him. (Source: Archives of the Carnegie Library of Homestead, Collection No. 22, Box 22, Folder 4.)

Last summer a cousin sighed, “I wish I could know how our great-grandfather made his fortune.”  Naturally his rumination became my challenge.  Like any hacker, my natural impulse is to prove I can pick this lock, too, but it’s a much harder one.  I had no easy clues to start with, no letters, journals, or bank statements someone threw into an attic.  And the kinds of genealogical records that opened doors before turned up little this time; his ship manifest is missing, the pivotal 1890 census is gone, and the town’s city directory, by its own admission, bothered little with poor “Hunkies” like my great-grandfather.  But they revealed just enough for me to see the shape of the story I must fill in.  Somehow my great-grandfather went from delivering liquor for a local wholesaler in the 1890s to building and running his own hotel in the early 1900s.

So off I went, considering every possible way such a man would have intersected with the record-keepers of his time.  Old newspapers tell me he appeared in Pennsylvania’s annual license court for a judge to decide if he was fit to sell liquor; does the county have transcripts recording his testimony?  Deeds show me when he bought the land for his hotel, and Sanborn maps suggest the timeframe when the building went up; does the borough have building permits?  Tax records?  Voter rolls?  What about records from before he made the leap — peddling licenses, bank loans, personal loans, credit reports?  The more I press on, the more I see that — to paraphrase Daniel Mendelsohn — the records are not so much lost as waiting.  I ask clerks to show me ledgers covered in dust and archivists to escort me into rooms closed to the public, and I wind my way, literally, through miles of microfilm.  Through sheer dint of effort, I will make the past give up what secrets it retains.  I have already gleaned some; ’til I got started, no one living even knew my great-grandfather had started as a teamster.  This discovery is satisfying, but it is only the beginning.

What we do as genealogists isn’t always intellectually demanding.  There is a tremendous amount of brute force in a reasonably exhaustive search (though there is in programmatic hacking, too, only one can automate such tasks).  But just as surely as there is artistry to hacking (see Graham’s essay Hackers and Painters), there is artistry in knowing how to dance from record to record.  You have to know how to frame a question clearly and precisely.  You have to know how to determine what sources are out there.  You have to know how to bend the sources you find to your will.  In Jewish exegesis, there is the p’shat, the surface meaning, and then three deeper levels of meaning.  Genealogical records aren’t as many-layered as scripture, but if you can’t get beyond the p’shat, you’ll miss most about what a record is telling you — and more importantly, where it is pointing you next.  Part of moving beyond the p’shat is having a sufficient command of the period you’re researching.  Even this most indigenous aspect of historical research has an analog in hacking.  “Great hackers can load a large amount of context into their head,” Graham writes, “so that when they look at a line of code, they see not just that line but the whole program around it.”  Similarly, a great genealogist doesn’t see a record in isolation, but as the product of the historical circumstances that created it and link it to other such records.  Though we genealogists push ourselves through long periods of semi-engaged searching ’til we find the needle in the haystack, those periods are framed by a creative, considered approach not unlike how a hacker assesses his or her mark.

In Star Wars the rebel alliance discovered that the Death Star had an unprotected opening through which it could be destroyed.

In Star Wars the rebel alliance discovered that the Death Star had one small, unprotected opening through which they could destroy it.

Genealogists and hackers are united in their delight in cracking seemingly impenetrable systems.  So many of the qualities Graham articulates about great hackers are what I see in the best genealogists I know — a love for their work, a marked preference for interesting problems they can learn something from, and a special ability to focus.  Both groups take on inherently imaginative work, engaging in it cyclically based on shifting levels of inspiration.  In sum, we demonstrate a similar work ethic as we pick at our respective locks, trying to open doors others consider impossible to budge.

You may or may not see yourself in this analogy… yet.  I pointed out at the start that today plenty of wannabe hackers lack the qualities Graham articulates — script kiddies, this lesser group is called, after the scripts they run without understanding just to see what havoc they can wreak.  Here, too, I see an analogy with genealogical research.  Digitization has come so far that it’s easier and easier to fall into the trap of being a “search kiddie,” just typing your ancestors’ names into online databases to see what’ll come up.  Script kiddies are beholden to the scripts better hackers share; search kiddies are beholden to the records others choose to put online.  Sometimes those records get you where you want to go; they were more than enough for me to give my uncle the answers he was looking for.  But if I had believed those records were the beginning and end of what remains from the past, I’d have believed my great-grandfather’s early years in the U.S. were entirely lost.

There’s one more quality about good hackers that applies equally to good genealogists:  a sense of wonder.  You have that, too, wherever you are on the genealogy learning curve.  The wonder about the past that got you started in family history is the same wonder you need to apply to researching more creatively.  There is much more information out there than you realize, waiting for you to discover it.  The heart of hacking is “[doing] something so clever that you somehow beat the system,” so embrace your innate curiosity and start hacking those historical records.  For many of your most pressing questions, it is not too late to find answers.

Baiting My Margarine Cousins

The story of my margarine-moonshining ancestors is the genealogical gift that keeps on giving.  One especially gratifying aspect is that from the beginning it has connected me to distant cousins — some of whom I’ve found, some of whom have found me, and all of us tied together not only by blood, but also by margarine.

Nikole and I posing with a storefront we just happened to walk by!

Nikole and I posing in front of a store we just happened to walk by!

It all began with my third cousin Nikole, who Googled her great-grandfather and came across the mug shot of him which I had posted online.  I’ve seen her three summers in a row during her family’s annual visit to New York, and this coming summer I will fly out to the west coast to attend her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah and participate in the service!  Wouldn’t our ancestors be proud!

Other margarine cousin meetings followed.  Most exciting by far was my cousin Zach, who saw publicity for my margarine talk at IAJGS in Salt Lake City this past July and turned up most unexpectedly.  Meeting him got me thinking about all the ways we all can attract more cousins to us.  You don’t need to give a talk at a national conference about your family’s history to create good cousin bait online. You also don’t need to be a web whiz, nor do you have to worry about the privacy issues around making your whole tree public. Continue reading

The Four Days Isaac Fine Went Insane from Syphilis

"Alleged threats to kill Samuel Katz, a government witness, and an alleged attempt to bribe the same witness to prevent his testifying against Jacob and Max Goodman yesterday resulted in the arrest of Ike Fine." --Chicago Examiner, 6/15/1909

Chicago Examiner, 6/15/1909

With the help of my friend Alex, I’ve been painstakingly reconstructing the movements of my margarine-moonshining ancestors.  Isaac Fine was the one who threatened to kill and/or bribe a witness set to testify against a couple of them.  We ran into trouble tracing Isaac after the moonshining period.  The last certain mention of him we had was the 1920 census.  The 1930 census included his wife, Minnie, and their three children who weren’t yet married, but Isaac is not listed with them, though Minnie still lists herself as married.  Where was he?  Minnie’s death certificate from Brooklyn, 1932 also listed her as married, but did not list the name of her spouse.  Why?

Alex dug into the matter further and located a 1930 census record taken not far from Brooklyn for an Isaac Fine of the right age and country of origin.  This Isaac Fine was listed as an inmate of the Kings Park State Hospital, then a notoriously awful insane asylum.   The 1940 census had this Isaac still in an asylum, the nearby Pilgrim State Hospital.  If this Isaac Fine were mine, that would explain Minnie’s married-but-husbandless status.

There was another reason why I believe Isaac Fine could have gone insane, and it’s because I already had evidence suggesting what Isaac had gone insane from! You see, Minnie was married once before (though Isaac might not have known it, as the certificate for her marriage to Isaac lists their marriage as her first).  This earlier marriage lasted only two years, because her first husband died of syphilis!  Did he transmit it to Minnie?  Could Minnie have transmitted it to Isaac?  All these unlikely coincidences began to convince me that the hospitalized Isaac Fine was mine.


Part of the death certificate for Minnie’s first husband, who died in Manhattan Hospital on Ward’s Island, also a psychiatric hospital.  “General paresis” is a form of insanity caused by late-stage syphilis.

Guided by advice on RootsWeb, we decided that a death record would be the fastest way to connect this Isaac connected my family.  Alex contacted someone through Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness to look him up in the New York State Death Index.  Four days later, she reported that she could find no matching record.  But she did point out a 1920 census record from Stamford Hall Company, another area psychiatric hospital, that had an Isaac Fine whose details were consistent with the one we had been chasing.  As we already had our Isaac Fine where he was supposed to be in 1920 — at home with his wife and children in Brooklyn — it seemed unlikely he was in a psychiatric hospital at the same time.*

Her discovery from 1920 was what was required to end our own temporary insanity and stop trying to put my Isaac in an insane asylum.  We returned to our regularly scheduled research plan and looked up NYC death certificates, quickly finding a clear match for an Isaac Fine who died of a stroke in a regular hospital in Brooklyn a year after Minnie.  Further, a closer look at the reverse of Minnie’s death certificate showed that her death was reported by Isaac, whose address was the same as hers.  So, while we still don’t understand why he isn’t with her and his kids on the 1930 census, it doesn’t appear that insanity is the answer.

I heard a great talk at IAJGS last week by Israel Pikholtz, who reminds us that “engaging in wishful thinking” is one of the main ways genealogists leap to conclusions the evidence only partially supports.  For that reason Alex and I wasted time on a wild goose chase through the insane asylums of the greater New York area when the answer was exactly where we had originally expected to find it.  Well, it was fun for the four days it lasted, though I’m happier knowing that poor Minnie and Isaac, who had already been through so much, didn’t have to endure this as well.

Caveat Investigator

* Although, not impossible!  In the 1910 census two of my margarine moonshiners are listed twice — at home with their families and also imprisoned in Leavenworth — contrary to the instructions given to the census takers.

Previously in this series:
When Genealogy Severed My Great-Grandfather’s Pinky

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.

Other People’s Sorrow

When you aim to dig up the past, you must confront that the past is never truly past.

Recently I’ve been grappling with the consequences of crashing headlong into other families’ painful pasts.  This past summer when I was searching for the family of my Bankoff great-grandmother, I connected with third cousins whose (grand)mother had been raised in an orphanage because her mother, my great-grandmother’s sister, was mentally ill and couldn’t take care of her children.  I struggled to balance the questions I had with sensitivity to their painful legacy.  What was still traumatic for them was for me one of the more fascinating family stories I had ever dug up.

Around Xmas I found myself in the same position when I connected with the widower of a woman FamilyTreeDNA said was my 2nd or 3rd (but probably 2nd) cousin.  His lovely, detailed email was entertaining to read.  As an opera fanatic, I especially enjoyed this part:

B. had an Aunt Valya who sang with the Russian Imperial Opera and was quite famous, receiving gifts from royalty.

The Tsar’s daughter once threw a gorgeous white ermine coat onto the stage after one of Valya’s performances.

She was imprisoned and sang for the jailer who was so touched that he let her go.

She smuggled her jewelry out “on her person” and went to the US.

B. spotted Valya’s photo at the Russian Tea room (Countess Sonja’s?).

She told Countess Sonja, “That is my aunt.”

Sonja said, “Well, if she is your aunt, what is her nickname?”

B. told her that she always called her “Valya” and the Countess then believed her.

Poor Valya committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid after losing her boyfriend to her sister.

B. said it was not a good way to die; certainly not like in the operas.

B’s half-sister was [redacted], the famous opera singer who taught at [famous conservatory].  She died a few years ago.

Wait — I know that singer!

She was the grandmother of the friend who is the wife of one of my closest genealogical collaborators!  If B. and I were second cousins, my friend and I would be fourth!

I quickly forwarded the exchange to my friends, who were as flabbergasted as I at the coincidence:  “When [their grandmom] died, someone claiming to be her half sister contacted them, and they didn’t believe it.  It must have been her.  Minds are blown.”  B’s widower confirmed B. had tried to reach out.

This was their connection.  I began to wonder about mine…

I guessed that my relationship to B. went through her father, Misha, since he was from Kiev, and all of my mother’s family was from that immediate area.  For B. and I to be second cousins, Misha’s mother would have had to have been the sister of one of my Benn, Skversky, Zeitzer, or Yaroker great-great-grandparents.  Based on what I then believed about Misha’s life, I did not believe there would be American records with this information.  Alas.

But thank goodness I had the wife of a genealogist by my side!  My friend already had a lot of records and photographs to share.  And I quickly discovered that there was a lot of fascinating information easily available online about Misha.  We spent an exhilarating day trading records back-and-forth and marveling at one great find after another.  It was one of those days when it seems like there is nothing easier or more fun in the world than genealogical discovery.

Then she produced the NYC marriage certificate of Misha and her grandmother — and it turned out that Misha’s mother’s last name didn’t fit.  Drat.  That meant that if FamilyTreeDNA were right*, B. and I were 3rd cousins, my friend and I were 5th cousins, and now I really was solidly in the territory where there are no readily available records.  Back to the real world of genealogy!

But there was one last discovery before the brick wall truly ended our day of discovery.  When my friend went to scan the one family photograph she had of Misha’s family in Russia, she noticed for the first time that there was writing on the back.  Of all the improbable discoveries, she had found Aunt Valya!  (B’s widower confirmed the ID.)


But this is a post about sorrow, and for as fun as this research expedition was,  it had a painful subtext:  Misha was not a good man.

Misha abandoned his first wife, my friend’s great-grandmother, and also his second, B’s mother.  While my friends’s family was stunned to make this connection, it was painful because Misha’s disappearance destroyed the lives of his wife and three young children, including the girl who grew up to be a famous singer.  Their mother had to take a factory job to support them and wasn’t able to be around for them.  The pain carried through the generations to such an extent that they were even now reluctant to revisit this part of their history.  The older generation asked my friend and her husband to stop their research entirely.  In this post you’ll note that I’ve shared few names and no identifying details or photographs with you.  That was the only way they would permit me to speak publicly about their family’s story.

B’s widower, too, confided painful family stories to me.  Not only had he lost his beloved wife, but family relationships unraveled after her passing to make his life even more difficult.

I was, of course, a safe distance away.  In the case of my friend’s family, something terrible happened to them almost a century ago, and in the case of B’s widower, something painful was happening to a stranger on the other side of an email.  Neither situation had the sort of immediacy where social norms are clear on how to behave.  I was excruciatingly aware that I had barged into rooms usually kept locked and had asserted my right to see their contents based on an extremely tenuous connection.  In my real life I would apologize profusely and back away with extreme embarrassment.  In my genealogy life I couldn’t help but continue to push — as carefully and sensitively as I could manage — but push all the same.  And while my friend, B’s widower, and my Bankoff 3rd cousins excused my prying, the uncomfortable feeling lingers still as a slightly queasy subtext to these otherwise productive genealogical searches.

Out here in the world of genealogy, far beyond the territory of Post and Debrett, what are the rules of conduct?

* “If FamilyTreeDNA is right” — an article in its own right!  DNA expert Elise Friedman explains that with FamilyTreeDNA’s FamilyFinder test, “90% of 3rd cousins can be detected, and 99% of 2nd cousins can be detected.”  However, “Ashkenazi Jews have a major challenge when it comes to autosomal DNA because we’re so intermarried that we typically share more DNA than the average for each relationship level, and end up looking like we’re more closely related than we really are. Family Tree DNA has tweaked their matching algorithm for Ashkenazi Jews (since many people were showing up as 2nd-3rd cousins to each other!), but there’s only so much that an algorithm can do to get around our crazy biology.”  So, it’s quite possible that B. and I aren’t third cousins at all, but, say, 6th cousins in five different ways.  Alas.

If you want to learn more about genetic genealogy, I highly recommend Elise’s webinars!

Would You Abandon This Woman in Liverpool?

Fanny c. 1910

This picture of my great-grandmother Feige (later Fanny) is one of the heirlooms I treasure most.  When my grandmother, her youngest child, was alive, it had pride of place in her apartment, and I used to stare at it for long stretches, imaging the life of the woman with the beautiful, plumed hat.  This photograph was probably taken when Fanny was in her late teens, only a few years after she immigrated from Russia to Philadelphia at age 15. But she almost didn’t make it!

Her father arrived in Philadelphia in late 1901 and worked for three-and-a-half years before he bought tickets on 5/3/1905 for his wife, his eldest daughter Feige, and Feige’s five brothers and sisters to join him. The Skversky family traveled from their hometown to Hamburg, and on 8/5/1905 they sailed from Hamburg to Grimsby then took a train to Liverpool. They were then supposed to have boarded a ship on on 8/9/1905 to take them to Philadelphia. But this is the ship manifest I found for that journey:

8/9/1905 struck-through ship manifest for Skverskys

I was unsure what it meant that their names were crossed off until I found this second manifest from a week later, also for a Liverpool to Philadelphia journey:

8/16/1905 ship manifest for Skverskys

I now understood that the family must have belatedly changed their minds about the first ship.  But why?  A closer look at the second passenger list shows a problem that begins to unravel the mystery:  There are only five children with my great-great-grandmother, Malke!  Fanny is missing!

These manifests are frustratingly mute about this traumatic chapter in my family’s history.  Why was Fanny left behind?  My first instinct was that she had gotten too sick to travel. Perhaps it was too expensive for her mother and five siblings to remain with her while she recovered.  Did they expect she would recover?  I dwelt on the heart-breaking possibly that when they parted, they might not have known if they would ever see each other again.  Genealogy friends suggested a less fraught scenario:  she had to stay to work to pay for her fare.  Though a common occurrence, I doubted this possibility in Fanny’s case, since I had the receipt for all the tickets her father purchased:

5/30/1905 Rosenbaum Bank record for rest of Skverskys

This receipt for the tickets my great-great-grandfather purchased to bring his family over comes from the Rosenbaum Bank Passage Order Book records.

My first guess turned out to be right.  The real story eventually came out via my mother’s second cousin, Rhea, daughter of Fanny’s sister Sarah.  She had heard that the family had had to leave someone behind in Liverpool due to illness—but Rhea thought it was her grandmother!  As with so many family stories, the kernel of this story was true, if not the specifics.

Obviously Fanny made it to Philadelphia, where I know she married Abe of the “severed” pinky and lived the rest of her happy life.  But when did she arrive?  It took me a while to find her listing, because her last name was misspelled.  It turns out she departed on 11/29/1905, two and a half months after her mother and siblings left her, arriving in Philadelphia 107 years ago today!

High on my list of genealogy mysteries to solve is exactly what happened to Fanny during the long months when she was apart from her family.  After years of being told that no relevant records survive, hope finally came via Saul Marks, an expert on Jewish genealogy in Liverpool.  He writes:

In answer to your query, I can’t imagine there would be many records at all of Fanny’s few months here in Liverpool. As a child, she wouldn’t have joined a synagogue & she wouldn’t have been listed in trades directories or electoral rolls. She may have lodged somewhere but I suspect that the most obvious place she stayed would have been the workhouse infirmary. There are admission & discharge records held by Liverpool Record Office for the former workhouse on Brownlow Hill, so we could investigate these

Unfortunately the Liverpool Record Office is in the process of moving facilities, so their records will not be available to researchers until May 2013.  In the meantime, the woman in the plumed hat keeps the answers to herself.

A Tale of Two States

Yesterday I found myself emailing with two state archivists — the amazing Bette Epstein of the New Jersey State Archives, and a beleaguered manager at Pennsylvania’s Division of Vital Records.  Bette is a shining example of what an archivist should be — prompt, helpful, intuitive, and thorough.  The PA manager seems competent, but represents an organization so maddening that I almost got kicked out of a restaurant when I reacted to her latest missive.

I met Bette at a genealogy fair hosted by a Philadelphia society (noteably not attended by her PA counterpart).  Beyond merely locating the birth certificate I requested, she cross-referenced the address to federal and state censuses (the latter not yet online), deducing in one case that the family listed was mine despite numerous errors.  Though outside her purview, she even included a number of New York City vital records to fill in the details.  Within days I received the birth certificate I requested and the state censuses she brought to my attention.  Her helpfulness was no fluke.  Within hours of yesterday’s request, she provided me with the answer even though the index in question just came online, pointed out additional information of interest from this census, and again consulted the relevant NJ and NYC vital records for me.

Why am I so amazed by Bette’s helpfulness?  Because for the past two-and-a-half years I have been beaten down by her counterparts across the Delaware.  Through inaccurate instructions on their website, bureaucratic inflexibility, and long turn-around times, it took over a year and three sets of returned forms before I received even one record.  Shortly after I submitted my second set of requests, the state law changed to open up the records I needed, and thank goodness, because when I eventually received “No Record Certification” responses, I could go into the indexes to see for myself.  In the worst case the archivists were just plain wrong — a death they claimed they could not find between 1930 and 1940 was clearly listed in 1936.  Other cases — two people with rare last names, one whose first name was listed as “Male,” another whose death year I had slightly off — reflect the difference between a sharp archivist who aims to solve problems and an uninterested clerk who does not.  The worst part is that their turn-around time means I must wait another six months for the fixes.  And the reason why I’m now corresponding with a manager?  I demanded a refund.

To some extent, my experiences aren’t comparable.  Who knows if I would have gotten a personal touch had I gone through NJ’s usual channels, and maybe the PA archivists, when consulted directly, are helpful and fast.  But it just goes to show the difference a personal touch and service-oriented outlook make.  Here’s to the archivists who care as much about solving our problems as we do!  And three cheers for Tim Gruber, whose work opened up the PA records!  Come 2014, they’ll be indexed on Ancestry, and I won’t have to wait on the state ever again!!!

Who are the archivists who’ve helped you break through your brick walls?  Tell us about ’em here!

Update:  I have since learned that PA has a backlog of 10,000 requests!  They’re not helping themselves by fulfilling them incorrectly, that’s for sure.  I’m still haggling with them about a refund, and meanwhile, the NJ archivist is still emailing me records in response to my previous inquiry.

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

Your Lifetime Genealogy Goals: Breadth or Depth?

I spent last week at IAJGS, where I had an eye-opening discussion with friends about our life-time genealogy goals.  I had always assumed that everyone, like me, wanted to take every branch of our families as far back as we could go, answering every question possible and solving every mystery.  But that turned out not to have been the case!

One genealogy friend focuses her work entirely on one branch of her family, particularly on two sisters.  Another friend, after succeeding in reuniting the parts of his family divided by WWII and the Iron Curtain, shifted his interest from traditional genealogy to the town that family came from.  And coincidentally, on the day I returned home James Tanner of Genealogy’s Star wrote about the same issue!  His goals include incorporating tens of thousands of documents, negatives, and digital images into his tree.  So:  here are three active genealogists with three very different approaches.  What can I learn from them?

Lately I’ve despaired that I’ve been staring at the same brick walls for a year with very little to show for my efforts (here’s one exception).  Is my problem that I haven’t focused on one area hard enough?  The first friend, who focuses on two sisters, learned details of their lives I thought it impossible to recover.  If I likewise limit myself, could I have the same success?


When I started out, I divided family by my great-grandparents, since that’s roughly the generation that immigrated, and aimed to:

  1. Trace each line back to a specific town in the Old Country (6 of 8 branches done)
  2. Find evidence from the Old Country to document their presence (3 of 8)
  3. Locate and visit all of the American graves of my direct immigrant ancestors (almost there, unless more people immigrated than I know)

But a ton of burning questions accompany these high-level goals, such as:

  1. What was the original last name of my Davis forebears?
  2. What happened to my maternal grandfather’s namesake?
  3. How are my Hungarian Hubsches related to this more illustrious line of Hungarian Hubsches?
  4. Is there any truth to my father’s claim that his great-grandparents were doctors to the czar?

The range of these questions require tracing every part of my family.  So, I tend to work round-robin style, focusing myself on a particular set of research tasks for a period of time.  If that bears fruit, I’ll keep pursuing each new lead, but if it doesn’t, I’m more likely to turn to a different part of the family than to try something new for the part I had just been working on.  So yes, I’m scattered.  Too scattered?


In short, dear readers, I’m curious to know what your lifetime genealogy goals are.  What are your burning questions?  How broad or narrow are your aims?  I’m looking for inspiration to focus my work in the coming months, since with Treelines in heavy development, I have much less research time than ever before.  I look forward to reading your responses in the comments section!