Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Questions and Answers

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” The closing words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational musical Hamilton, these questions haunt both characters and audience from the moment they’re introduced in the first act. In the final scene after Hamilton’s untimely death, they receive a poignant answer: his wife, Eliza, who devoted the fifty years of her widowhood to shaping his legacy.  As a family historian I find it awkward to wrap this question around someone whose story has been continually told, however imperfectly, when we are working to bring attention to the forgotten, but not inconsequential experiences of our families.

But Miranda has taken up this challenge, too. His first musical, In the Heights, provides a more universal answer to the same question by dramatizing the struggles of his own community, the Latino residents of the barrios of Upper Manhattan. Heights’ main character is Usnavi, a young bodega owner in Washington Heights, who doesn’t know where he fits – New York City, where he lives, or the Dominican Republic, which he left as a baby? Trying to hang on in a city squeezing them out, the characters of In the Heights are the opposite of the historically hyper-aware Founding Fathers of Hamilton. They feel powerless.  And yet, Usnavi’s final revelation about his obligation to his community is not so different from Eliza Hamilton’s determination to ensure her husband’s legacy:

Yeah, I’m a streetlight!
Chillin’ in the heat!
I illuminate the stories of the people in the street
Some have happy endings
Some are bittersweet
But I know them all, and that’s what makes my life complete
And if not me, who keeps our legacies?

If not us, who keeps our legacies? Yes, in a small way, many of us have a sense that we are fighting apathy and forgetfulness in our own families when we reconstruct our family history. But my concern is a larger one, best articulated by Henry Louis Gates in an interview I quote often:

All historians generalize from particulars. And often, if you look at a historian’s footnotes, the number of examples of specific cases is very, very small. As we do our family trees, we add specificity to the raw data from which historians can generalize.

So when you do your family tree and Margaret Cho does hers, and … Wanda Sykes and John Legend … we’re adding to the database that scholars can then draw from to generalize about the complexity of the American experience. And that’s the contribution that family trees make to broader scholarship.

 Illuminating our family’s past adds to the broader scholarship on the American experience when we recognize the public value of our private work.  All our discoveries, at the very least, “add specificity to the raw data.” Plenty is known about the Jewish community on the Lower East Side, for example, but the work I did tracing my Davis ancestors through their frequent moves and changes in profession provides a detailed example of Eastern European immigrants who arrived relatively early, but never established stability. Our best work, however, can exceed this minimum threshold to open up whole new areas of the database no historian has discovered. I’ve experienced this personally during my current project to tell the story of my Hepps ancestors in the steel town of Homestead. In embarking on this research, I thought acknowledging their role in their hometown’s Jewish community was just one facet of the story. But, it turns out, the story of the Homestead’s Jewish community is the one that was missing all along. Homestead’s history has been written often, but never with an acknowledgement of the contributions of the town’s Jewish residents, and the history of Jews in America continues to neglect the narrative thread of small-town communities. Tracing the lines of my Hepps family’s descent led me to this twice-neglected dataset.

On one level, my research has been enormously satisfying. I’ve put the lives of my ancestors in context and come to thoroughly understand their stories. When Usnavi affirms, “I know them all, and that’s what makes my life complete,” I know I have earned that feeling of completeness, too. But what about the incomplete accounts historians have produced about the places and people that have become so dear to my heart? They were not excluded out of malice, but their absence leaves a hole in the record no one else sees and no professional historian is likely to take up. The void in my identity I sensed as a wondering child seems trivial compared to this one.


Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton

I hear “Who tells your story?” as a call-to-arms, because (to paraphrase another theme of the musical) if history hadn’t had its eyes on Hamilton, his wife’s efforts might not have been enough.  As satisfying as the end of the musical is artistically, it’s not enough for me to know that this one man, Alexander Hamilton, has his legacy secure.  Who will illuminate the stories of people who did not found nations? Who will write our ancestral communities back into the narrative?  Everyday people like Usnavi.  People like us.

08-2-29 In The Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi in In the Heights

The untapped potential of family history lies between Hamilton’s “Who tells your story?” and Heights’ “I illuminate the stories.”  History does not have its eyes on most of our ancestors any more than it does on Margaret Cho’s, Wanda Sykes’, or John Legend’s – or any more than it would on a woman like Usnavi’s adopted grandmother, a woman beloved by her neighbors, but anonymous to the world at large. “Abuela, I’m sorry,” Usnavi raps in the show’s closing moments when he decides not to return to the Dominican Republic. “I ain’t goin’ back because I’m telling your story,” he declares ecstatically, finally sure of his place. In the original cast album it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda who raps these words, and I hear in his voice not just Usnavi’s excitement, but his own: with his first outing on Broadway, he’s put the story of his people before the entire world.  When In the Heights closed on Broadway, Miranda freestyled at curtain call,

One day you’ll be somewhere Midwestern
Somewhere chillin’ in some outer theater lobby
Some little high schooler’s gon’ be playin’ Usnavi!
So I want all a’ y’all to grab this —
That little white kid is gonna know what a Puerto Rican flag is!

His prediction has since come true, and his community’s flag has waved in the unlikeliest of corners.  But what about ours?

“Will they tell your story? Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Through In the Heights, I’ve come to hear the ethereal last lines of Hamilton as transcending both Hamilton and his wife, to whom they are literally addressed. As the company sings these words, Eliza stands at the very edge of the stage, backed by the whole cast, all of them facing us, the audience, head-on. The previous three hours have shown us that history can be reclaimed and given a new relevance. Now they are asking, will we rise to the challenge?

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.

The Four Sons

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which starts tonight, centers around a highly ritualized dinner called a Seder (“Order”).  Most of the Seder is spent reading and discussing the story of the exodus from Egypt as recounted in a book called the Haggadah (“Telling”).  As it explains, “All who discuss the exodus from Egypt at length are to be praised.”  To that end, everyone is encouraged to ask questions, suggest interpretations, and offer historical or personal parallels to elaborate upon the Haggadah’s version, and indeed, at a lively seder it could be hours before the meal begins.  Last year, I introduced how the text of the Haggadah works to incorporate the whole family.  This year I want to discuss the section that precedes the recounting of the exodus story:  the story of the Four Sons.

Illustration of the Four Sons by Nota Koslowsky, U.S.A., 1944

Illustration of the Four Sons by Nota Koslowsky, U.S.A., 1944*

“The Bible speaks about four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t even know how to ask,” begins the story.  Each child asks their version of a question seeking to understand the holiday.  The wise one requests the specific details of how the holiday must be observed.  The wicked one asks, “What does this observance mean to you?”**  The simple one pleads, “What is all of this?”  And I think you can all guess about the one who doesn’t know how to ask.  In each case the Haggadah instructs how to respond to the child.

This year it’s the wicked son’s question-and-answer that rattles around in my mind.  Does the Haggadah represent the intentions behind the wicked son’s question fairly?  It focuses on his words “to you,” hearing in them a desire to “[exclude] himself from his people.”  It instruct his parents, “Say to him:  ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’ — for me and not for him.” (Exodus 13:8) In other words, scare the wicked child from his ways with a vision of what it really means to be excluded.

My mind catches instead on first part, “What does this mean?”  I hear a bewildered child wondering, Here we all are sitting around this table.  We spent the past week preparing a holiday feast which we’re not yet allowed to eat because this discussion must happen first.  Parents, please tell me why it matters to you that we do this, so I can understand why it should matter to me. What does this observance mean to you?  Perhaps the wicked child’s intentions are honest:  to be shown a way to connect to this observance happening before him.

Illustration of the Four Sons from a 1695 Haggadah printed in Amsterdam

Illustration of the Four Sons from a 1695 Haggadah printed in Amsterdam*

In the wicked child’s not-so-wicked question I find myself thinking back to my own experiences when I first got into genealogy — trying, and initially failing, to convince my own family to care about the discoveries I was making about our ancestors.  Their muted reactions to the names, dates, and relationships I was sharing were their own, innocent version of, “What does this mean to you?”  Why does dredging up this forgotten family history matter?  The failing wasn’t theirs; it was mine.  I had to I stop presenting elaborate trees with historical records and start interpreting this raw material in a way that made it relevant to my family.  A census gives a snapshot of how our ancestors’ circumstances compared to our own.  An immigration record hints at what they endured so we would not.  Every detail can change the way a family sees itself if looked at in the larger context of history and society.  I had to do more research to learn what these discoveries were really conveying, not just about my ancestors’s lives, but also about their world.

If the wicked son is redeemed by my re-reading of his question, then praise for the wise son must be partially retracted.  The wise son asks for details without context where the wicked sons asks for context with no details.  Neither can stand without the other, especially not in family history.  I failed when I asked my relatives to draw their own conclusions from lists of names and dates and towns, and I failed, too, when I threw out historical tidbits without any orientation, but when I put the pieces together, it was like my family was reading their favorite historical fiction, except the story was true, and its thrust was how they came to be.

At the conclusion of the section about the Four Sons, when the Haggadah starts answering the questions it has posed through these children and in previous sections, it also balances (Biblical) history with the (theological) interpretations that explain its continued relevance.  Something in this formula must resonate deeply, since this text has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly two thousand years.  Your family history goals may not be quite so ambitious, but, as the Haggadah says, “go and learn” from what has endured.

Happy Passover to those who celebrate it.

* In the illustrations, the sons are in order from right to left (following the direction in which Hebrew is written).

** The literal translation of the Hebrew is, “What [is] this observance to you?” It’s complicated to translate since Hebrew grammar omits the verb in this construction, so the translator’s art must guide choosing words that best capture the intended sentiment. “Mean” is the verb I saw in all the translations I consulted.

Here’s to the Volunteers

I was heartbroken to hear a few weeks ago of the sudden passing of Steve Schecter, the Vice President for Programming at my “home” society, the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, just two weeks after he arranged for me to speak at one of the society’s meetings.

I cannot claim to have known Steve well.  We probably met for the first time in summer 2011 at the Philadelphia Birds-of-a-Feather gathering at the annual Jewish genealogy conference.  I was struck from the start by his friendliness and good cheer, from which I benefited after launching Treelines a couple years later.  It turned out that he and I shared an interest in the storytelling side of family history.  He created his own methodology called “Sticky Writing,” which, in his words, “takes the principles of Heath & Heath’s book Made To Stick and combines them with learning theory on how to keep people interested.”  (How many do you know who create their own writing methodologies?!)  He took the time to familiarize himself with Treelines and The Treelines Way and proposed various ways he could help me promote the site.  When I agreed to speak, every step of the way he made the arrangements easy as could be, and after I spoke, his reception could not have been kinder.  He even generously shared with me some of his work on “Sticky Writing” to benefit my own efforts.

One of the reasons why his death came as such a shock was that I took for granted that my talk would be the first of many opportunities for us to work together.  It wasn’t the only way I took him for granted, though.

For as long as I’ve been involved in the organized world of genealogy, I’ve taken all of us for granted. Much of our field runs on the efforts of tireless volunteers, so I’ve stopped noticing the extraordinary contributions of people like Steve, who for no other reason than wanting to spread the fun of family history, devote significant time and energy to blogging, posting helpful links, trading research favors, running societies, indexing records, and even speaking — all for the love of our field and nothing else.  Even amongst the crowd of selfless volunteers I’ve met along the way, Steve still stands out in my mind for the sheer breadth of what he was involved with — writing articles for JGSGP’s newletter, organizing a full calendar of events, and teaching all over the Philadelphia area — and surely much more I never saw — at the time of his death he was helping with the forthcoming Mid-Atlantic Family History Conference — but what sticks in my mind is not just what he did, but how he did it.  He was unflaggingly enthusiastic, and it shone through everything he did.

I took for granted that of course someone so wonderful should work hard to make my society so great, but of course, in most cases that is not how it works out at all.  We can probably all point to volunteer-driven organizations that limp along where we wish they would thrive.  I see such groups in my own life — both within and outside of genealogy — and I make excuses why I can’t be the one to help right now, but Steve didn’t.  He stepped up.  The whole genealogy world is filled with people who step up.  It’s stunning, when you think about, how much we accomplish because so many step up for the love of our hobby.  Whether mammoth undertakings like indexing the 1940 census or preserving the War of 1812 pensions, or more local efforts like our societies and regional conferences, our field grows not because of the few for-profit companies, but because of the infectious enthusiasm of so many volunteers.

As I contemplate the heartbreaking void Steve leaves behind in the Philadelphia-area genealogy community, I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of such gaps that are plugged just because people like Steve care enough to plug them.  Here’s to all of you.  You are what makes the genealogy world what it is.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Steve’s memory to Peer Mentor Program: Magee Rehab Hospital, 1513 Race St., Phila., PA 19102 or The Needy Children’s Fund, P.O. Box 87 Gloucester City, NJ 08030.

The Holiday of Storytelling

HaggadahThe central tradition of Passover, which starts tonight, is for families to gather together for a festive meal called a Seder (“Order”) and read about the Exodus from Egypt from a book called the Haggadah (“Telling”).  First compiled in the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E., at a high level the Haggadah is a fifteen-step manual for conducting a Seder.  Some of the sections involve food rituals, others prayer, but the longest recounts the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the meaning of the miracles that took place.

The Haggadah takes an interesting narrative approach.  First of all, it is a highly personalized account.

We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.  And if the Holy One, Blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we and our children, and the children of our children would still be enslaved to Pharoah in Egypt.

This introduction sets the tone for all that is to come:  we’re not supposed to just sit around reading old Bible stories.  We’re meant to see the protagonists as more than just our fathers, but as ourselves!  “An Aramean ensalved my father,” “we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers,” “the Lord heard our voices,” “the Lord lifted us out of Egypt” — at every opportunity the Haggadah uses the first person plural to bring us into the story.  These things didn’t happen to them, the Children of Israel — they happened to us!  Towards the end of this section my favorite part of the whole Haggadah makes this point clear:

In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as though he had gone out from Egypt… It was not only our fathers alone whom the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivered, but also we were delivered with them.

You can only imagine how this worked on my mind as an ancestor-obsessed child…

And involving the children amongst the Seder participants is the other key narrative distinction of the Haggadah.  The early parts of the Seder include a lot of unusual rituals designed to pique their curiosity, culminating with the youngest child present asking, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and the famous Four Questions about those odd rituals.  These scripted questions are meant to set the tone for children to ask unscripted questions throughout the rest of the Seder.  As the Haggadah explains, the more we discuss the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy we are — and this extends to children as well.

Children are again explicitly involved during the section about the Four Sons: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask.  Children are meant to emulate the wise one, who asks for all the details about the holiday, and not the wicked one, who asks, “What does this worship mean to you?”  But parents are responsible for all of them, and the Haggadah provides answers for each, including rebuking the wicked one for divorcing himself from his own history.  All of those “we,” “us”, “our” pronouns throughout the Haggadah only work if parents raise their children to know and value their background.

Whatever your family’s background, there is much to learn from this ancient text when it comes to passing down family history — how to interest our children in remote events, encourage them to ask questions, take the time to answer them in detail, and most of all, personalize the history so it has significance for them. The Haggadah urges us to make this conversation ongoing, but Passover ensures that at least once every year all the generations come together to ask questions and share answers about how we came to be who we are.  Knowledge of family history is meaningless without doing the work to pass it on in a meaningful way.

Happy Passover to those who celebrate!

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.


In response to last week’s 9/11-related post my sister sent me this article about the Scott family, who learned just before the ten-year anniversary how their father/husband really died:

“I spent 10 years hoping that Randy wasn’t trapped in that building,” Denise, 57, said Friday from a front room in her Stamford home with two of her three daughters, Rebecca, 29, and Alexandra, 22, at her side.

“I thought he was killed instantly,” Rebecca interjected.

“It was so close to impact,” Alexandra concluded.

In a steady tone, their mother explained the power of the note. “You don’t want them to suffer. They’re trapped in a burning building. It’s just an unspeakable horror. And then you get this 10 years later. It just changes everything.”

9/11 letter

Last week I mused about how we genealogists use research and imagination to connect the few facts we have about a person into a coherent life story.  But my sister reminded me that a life story is based more on the information we can pin down than the spaces we fill in.  And however we reconstruct them, the narratives only hold so long as they aren’t disrupted by an unexpected discovery, like Randy Scott’s letter.  Whether we actively research or merely make ourselves available, as Denise did, answers find their way back to us against the odds.

Rohatyn scraps

Marla is related to the Lieblings named in the letterhead

It happened to genealogist Marla Raucher Osborn when, during a visit to her ancestral town, she unexpectedly found physical traces her family left behind during the Holocaust, also in the form of scraps of paper, the poignantly normal vestiges of lives that were completely destroyed in an age of unprecedented madness.  Randy’s letter was “tenderly preserved as it traveled from hand to hand and through time to reach” his family.  Marla’s papers owe their survival to a school director who understood what he found when the school was renovated and trusted that one day a recipient would appear.  She reflects:

So, what remains of a life after that life has ended?

Here is my answer. That physical traces can be found—sometimes by pure chance, or by being at the right place at the right time; sometimes by persistence and repetition and by gaining the trust and friendship of those who work the archives, run the libraries, conduct the Church services, or are local historians or personalities. In all cases, these traces, whether they be records, shreds of paper in a box, notes from an oral history, or forgotten headstone fragments, are like a muffled voice calling out to you from far away, saying, “I was here. I too had a life that was real and meaningful.”

Marla left Ukraine “feeling the ties of the past—ties that now bind [her] forever to the place” her family called home for generations.  Even Denise found comfort that her husband’s message, now in the 9/11 museum, “tells people the story of the day.”  For them to hear the muffled voices just a bit more clearly justifies the years of effort or waiting.

There are so many more traces out there, waiting to be found, from the lives that matter to each of us.  That’s what I always tell friends who are on the fence about starting their family’s genealogy:  you will be surprised by how much you’ll find, even for the most seemingly hopeless of cases.

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,, 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

Who Replaced My Book?

It is the most important revolution in how we read in history:  the traditional form factor of books is dramatically altered after centuries.  Readers must alter how they read–not only how they physically manipulate these new books, but also how they remember a book’s content in their minds and discuss it with friends.  During the time period when the old format gradually supplants the new, there are lots of complainers who feel that the new way debases the reading experience as well as the content itself.  “I just don’t read that way!” they protest.

Do you think I’m talking about the rise of e-books?

I’m not — I’m talking about the replacement of scrolls with codexes (books) starting in the first century!

We genealogists know better than most how much history repeats itself, but it’s amazing to think that almost two millennia ago, people struggled to make the switch from one-sided, one-page scrolls to two-sided, many-page books just as we struggle to move from paper to screen.  We know why e-books are winning:  superior technology.  Codexes replaced scrolls for the same reason.  The breakdown into pages meant for the first time the reader could easily flip back and forth to different sections and reference passages in a clear way.  These advances enabled the early Christians to study and share scripture; it was they who popularized codexes.

Scroll/codex comparison

Illustration by Joon Mo Kang via

Unfortunately, the e-book format reverses some of this progress.  On an e-reader, as in a scroll, it’s very difficult to read non-linearly.  This reason is partly why I am one of the hold-outs still without an e-reader.  I have rituals for how I mark my place, identify my favorite passages, and sometimes let myself skip ahead (bad!).  Instead of buying art, I line my walls with shelves of books, and when one catches my eye, I pull it down to skim my favorite parts.  How does any of this happen with an e-reader?

E-readers clearly win for making books more accessible, affordable, and portable.  But do they advance the actual experience of reading as codexes did?  Search engines and hyperlinks are useful, but surely I’m not just a curmudgeon when I say that the inability to flip through pages is more than the loss of my life-long habits, but a set-back for how we consume and absorb content?

In the first century Pliny wrote, “our civilization…[depends] very largely on the employment of paper,” upon which “the immortality of human beings depends.”  Though short-sighted about paper, he hits a kernel of truth in the transmission of knowledge.  Four centuries later Cassiodorus says it better.  A papyrus scroll “keeps a faithful witness of human deeds; it speaks of the past, and is the enemy of oblivion…There discourse is stored in safety, to be heard for ever with consistency.”  This is the principle that matters most:  a witness that transcends time. So long as we maintain that — whether via ink or pixels — we’ll progress.  The Greeks only read linearly, and look how they advanced human knowledge!

This is Why Your Society Isn’t Attracting Younger Members

Last summer I attended a talk by nationally-acclaimed genealogist D. Joshua Taylor advising genealogy societies how to recruit the younger generation.  He opened my eyes to the differences between my generation’s genealogy goals and the mainstream’s:  we value the stories of people’s lives over individual facts and prefer to share our findings in digital, multimedia formats, not traditional charts. (His assessment subsequently inspired Treelines’ emphasis on narrative over data. 🙂 )

This talk came to mind recently when my friend Elliott, a fellow next-generation genealogist, shared with me the culmination of his latest research — a touching blog entry written in the voice of his great-great-grandfather as he tells his life story, reflects on Elliott’s efforts in uncovering it, and philosophizes about the changes in his family four generations later.*  With accompanying family photographs it proved a beautifully effective, if non-traditional approach to get across what Elliott saw as the lessons of his gggf’s life and the vagaries of historical research.

Elliott sought feedback on his efforts from the geographically-proximate society.  Here is the condescending email he received in return:

The website is very nice, but as I believe I wrote to you months ago, a family tree or at least a list of surnames and locations would be more helpful to genealogists seeking connections.

Did you hire a professional to go into the archives in [country] to obtain documents to prove relationships? It doesn’t appear you have taken full advantage of [Society]’s projects to translate records and make them available to contributors.

President, [Society]

It’s true, Taylor explained, that the younger generation takes a less rigorous approach to research, hence the society leader’s assumption that because Elliott mostly did not cite his sources, he must be a novice (though the essay obviously reflected significant research, some of which I watched him do at our local Family History Center.)  So how did she handle this opportunity to educate?

  • She instructed him that the superior way to share a family history is to organize research into traditional formats.
  • She suggested that laypeople can’t do adequate research on their own.
  • She insulted his thoroughness without actually offering any concrete direction on how to take advantage of [Society]’s resources, or investigating if [Society] even has any relevant information, perhaps because:
  • He’ll have to pay money to her organization to find out.

In short, she heaped scorn upon Elliott for her own failure to recognize the merits of his creative approach and presented a mix of helpful and doctrinaire recommendations as antithetically as possible to his outlook.  Taylor recommended a subtler approach: use the next generation’s focus on personal discovery to encourage methodology as a route to even greater discovery.

Woe betide her society that it so little understands where its audience is headed and how to cultivate it.  Its future depends on understanding, not criticizing why the next generation is channeling their family history interests into creative presentations like Elliott’s.

* I am not linking to Elliott’s blog to avoid identifying the society.