Archive for August, 2013

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference 2013 (IAJGS 2013) for the first time, held in Boston, Massachusetts, this year, very close to where I live. With over 1,000 attendees, it is the largest multi-day genealogy event I’ve ever attended, and also the largest IAJGS Conference so far. It is also the first international genealogy event I’ve ever attended in person. There were a lot of ways that it was different than an American genealogy event.

Three of the major differences bear noting immediately. One is that when registering you could request to have your self-chosen top surnames and locations placed on your badge, so that anyone else at the conference could read them; most attendees had at least a few surnames and/or locations listed on their badges. Another is that these lists were compiled into a book called “Family Finder,” along with the contact information of any attendee that didn’t opt out when registering, as well as a tiny section at the back for people that chose to list their haplogroup(s) from mtDNA and/or Y-DNA test results. This allowed attendees to make connections with people beyond running into them and happening to find out that they were doing some of the same research, and also allowed people to meet without having to stress about giving out contact information the first time or perhaps never meeting again. You just had to remember the person’s name or their location or some of their research interests to be able to find them in the Family Finder and contact them later. Additionally, the list of research interests allows people to go back and consult the Family Finder again if they find a new surname or location in their own family tree, another way it is useful beyond the immediate conference. And the last major difference is that the standard time slot for a lecture was 1 hour, 15 minutes, not the 1 hour typically allotted at American events, and that some of the multi-slot workshops were free, so that you could attend some of the workshops that took two time slots for no extra charge.

The conference opened on Sunday morning, August 4th. American genealogy events tend to start out with a keynote speech or another speech to all attendees, but this immediately opened with multiple tracks. I readily admit that a number of my sessions on Day 1 don’t really make for the greatest informative retellings (I realize in writing this post that I didn’t mention any of this day’s talks in my conference recap for my in-person genealogy group, though the only reason I didn’t mention the Holocaust research talk is because as far as I know, everyone doing Holocaust research who was at the meeting was also at the conference), but if you bear with me through today, I promise there is more information ahead.

Unsure what to pick first, one of my friends and I headed to Nancy Adelson’s lecture, “Jewish Genealogy Research Essentials Part 1,” billed as an introduction to Jewish genealogy. We had hoped it would specifically be an introduction to Jewish genealogy, but almost all of the lecture could be applied to any kind of genealogical research and was thus way too basic for us. Better titled “An Introduction to Genealogy Research,” most of the information in it will be familiar to anyone who’s read good advice to a genealogy newbie or advised one – start with what you know and the family materials in your possession/access; interview living relatives; from the beginning, keep track of your sources and put an organizational system in place.

Next we went to “The Old German Script of the 19th Century,” given by Gerhard Buck, a German. He had some clear difficulty lecturing in a non-native language (English) and was also trying to fit what he’d proposed as a two-slot workshop into the one-slot lecture that had been approved instead. However, I found the information in the workshop useful for reading 19th-century German handwriting, something that I am thus far not very skilled in doing. Much of it consisted of demonstrations of the standard way to write letters and various ways that might be found in practice, so I am not sure how to reconstruct what I learned here, where I can’t write longhand. There are numerous guides and self-tutorials interested persons can view online, such as on the Federation of Eastern European Family History Societies website here [link to PDF]. What I found most valuable about the lecture vs. trying to self-educate is the variety of examples from records that Buck had collected in his decades doing historical and genealogical research and showed to the audience. As anyone who’s done research with documents written in old handwriting in any language knows, the way a letter was “supposed” to be written is not necessarily the way an individual actually wrote it, and an individual’s style can vary quite dramatically from what one might expect from guides.

The conference sessions started a bit later due to giving people who arrived on Sunday time to register, so this was the only day of the conference where we only had two sessions before the lunch break. During the lunch break we stopped in the vendor hall. A good number of vendors were packed into a very small space, and it was somewhat difficult even to navigate. There were several book vendors, some with bookshelves crammed with books, as well as a number of other vendors. The area outside the vendor hall had a couple of tables where authors, most of whom were also speaking at the conference, would be selling and signing their books for limited time slots on a set schedule. The area is apparently usually used as a coat closet, presumably for the nearby ballroom, as that’s what it was called on the schedule.

After lunch, we attended Hal Bookbinder’s “The Changing Borders of Eastern Europe.” Hal Bookbinder had been recommended to me as a speaker, and I wanted to attend some sessions specifically about Eastern Europe. I’m not really sure what to say about this session. Bookbinder used maps to illustrate the changing borders, and quotes to discuss various influential Russians’ opinions on Jews. While the information in the talk is good information to have, I’m not really sure how much of it I’ll retain on my own vs. having to consult something to remember, say, what country took over what part of what other country when. He mentioned that most of the maps he used in the lecture were from Atlas of European History, published by The Times [of London] in 1994.

After that I split up from the person with whom I’d attended the first three lectures. The SHARE Fair, a fair for societies, non-profits, etc., to have tables and answer attendees’ research questions, was running from 1:30 to 5:00 – rather inexplicably to me, nearly fully concurrent with the afternoon lectures – so they wanted to go to the Fair instead of attending one of the sessions in the next time slot. I decided to go to “245 Telegrams to a Wedding in Vienna 1907” by Thomas Fuerth. The description sounded fascinating, but to me the lecture wasn’t really about what the description suggested it would be. Much of the lecture was statistical analysis of various things about the telegram senders – such as where the senders lived, which side of the family they were associated with, and to whom they addressed their telegram – and only a few minutes was devoted to what I can only assume was the incredible task of the research involved in tracing the senders, which the description had implied to me would be a major part of the lecture.

I went from there to the SHARE Fair, where I ran into two people I know tabling for the Massachusetts Genealogical Council, a group dedicated to monitoring and preserving records access in the state and the country as well as to a smaller extent internationally. After chatting with them a bit I wandered around, with stops including the tables of the Jewish Women’s Archive, the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Britain, the Jewish NextGen Network (for genealogists in their 20’s through 40’s), and the Lost Shul Mural of Burlington, Vermont, where I chatted for a while with one of the people staffing the table. It was also her first IAJGS conference, and she seemed a little relieved to be talking to someone else for whom it was their first. I had no idea that there had been a Jewish community in Burlington at all, though some of my Christian relatives had lived there in the 1800’s. She told me that the other two people at their table would be giving a talk at the conference about Burlington’s former Jewish community and the mural. The staff unceremoniously began dismantling the SHARE Fair while I was still wandering around, as it turned out that ‘ending at 5’ meant they were supposed to be packed up and heading out at 5, for the room to start being set up for the next event.

So I went from the SHARE Fair to “Finding Information about Your Family in Postwar Resources at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum” by Megan Lewis, who is on staff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She repeatedly mentioned during her lecture that many of the links/etc. that she was putting on screen were also in her handout, which I was glad for since I had missed the beginning of the lecture. The Museum has staff actively going to other countries to collect materials, and Lewis summed up, “It makes us a one-stop shop for you.” They have a tremendous amount of material, not all of which is in their (multiple) catalogs and only some of which has finding aids to date.

The impression I got from this talk and the talk by Lewis that I attended on a different day is that by far the best way to do in-depth research is to visit the Museum in person in Washington, D.C., and that if you do that, it’s by far best to contact them a minimum of a week in advance and tell them what you want to research, as much of their huge collection is in off-site storage and the staff also may be able to advise you of further records beyond the ones you have found in the catalog. However, if you know what you are seeking and are researching long-distance, the staff can do limited amounts of copying for you. One collection that Lewis stressed is extremely well-indexed is the oral histories conducted by the Shoah Foundation Institute, which are indexed by name, place, and experience. The catalog of these oral histories is online at vhaonline.usc.edu; you do have to register to use it, but registration is free.

Lewis discussed postwar newspapers as a resource, and mentioned that their collection is simply commercial microfilm of various newspapers and thus long-distance researchers may be able to find a closer location that holds the paper of interest or can order it. Most of the newspapers are in Yiddish. For years after the end of the War, many of the newspapers ran “pages and pages” of classified ads of people looking for their relatives. Lewis showed a couple of example classified ads and mentioned that after years of working on staff at the Museum, the ads still bothered her. An audience member asked her why. Lewis responded, “No one should have to place an ad looking for where their mother is.”

After this time slot, there was a dinner break and then the plenary session by keynote speaker Aaron Lansky and a dessert reception sponsored by Ancestry. Aaron Lansky has rescued many books of Jewish history. I wish I could say I had gone to the plenary session, but I had slept extremely poorly the night before and was feeling so awful I headed home. The session was supposed to be recorded (as a good number of other sessions were), but somehow the audio failed and it was not. I have been told by many people that it was absolutely fantastic and regret not being there to hear it.

Stay tuned for my post on Day 2.

The following (and final) paragraph is about me and some of why I attended IAJGS 2013, so please feel free to just skip it.

I was not raised Jewish, though there is some evidence that at least one of my lines may have converted from Judaism to Christianity after moving to North America, which was unfortunately rather common for families to do early on; however, that is a complicated question for some future potential post. I have many Jewish friends and doing research on some of their families was a good amount of the first pro bono genealogical research I ever did, many years ago now. At the time I had the skill set to confidently find information on their families in the U. S. A number of them know few specifics about their ancestry, and some are not even sure whether the relatives their families left behind survived the Holocaust and the War. The biggest reason I decided to take advantage of IAJGS while it was near me was to try to build up the skills to be able to provide more answers for my friends, especially by building up more skills in Eastern European research and Holocaust research. When Day 1 began, I felt somewhat nervous at being out of my comfort zone and felt worried that I may somehow unintentionally offend someone. By the end of Day 1, some of my nervousness had already begun to fade. By the end of the conference, I was very glad I had chosen to do something that was out of my comfort zone.

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