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Imagine yourself as an immigrant to America in the early 20th century.  You are happy with your decision to leave your homeland for a new life in America. Perhaps after a few years you saved enough money to send for your wife and children to join you. You have found a job, and you have found a house to live in. Perhaps you don’t yet understand the English language perfectly yet, but you are slowly learning. You may not get much practice with English though, because  your neighbors and co-workers speak your native language. One day someone knocks on your door – they are from the government, and they ask all sorts of official questions. “Who lives here?” “What are the names of your family members?” The questions were dutifully answered.

Fast forward eighty or one hundred years. Descendents of those immigrants pour over online or microfilmed images in search of answers about their ancestors. Families are found! But…is the information correct? Most of the time, it is correct. But not always, at least not in my family. Ignoring the numerous name spelling errors, the most unusual census mistakes in my family involve relatives that were counted twice!

All My Children

The first example of this was in the 1910 census for the family of Joseph and Antonina Pater (which is listed as “Potter”, or how Pater sounds in Polish).  In 1910, most of the family was living just outside of Philadelphia in the Bucks County borough of Attleboro (today known as Langhorne). Because Antonina’s mother had recently arrived and she was the oldest family member, she is listed as the head of the household (F. Annie Pluta indexed as F. Amie Theta…seriously, it’s a wonder I find anyone in the census!).  The 70-year-old F. Annie is followed by Joseph and Antonina and their six children (although there is some confusion as some are listed as grandchildren of the head of the household and others as children). The only problem? The two eldest daughters, Frances and Eva (listed as Francesca and Edna), were already married with children and living elsewhere.

Frances’ husband Paul and their son Edmund may be enumerated as a separate family underneath the Pater clan (listed under equally mangled and hard-to-read names). Eva, her husband Edward Süsser, and their children Edward and Anna are all enumerated on the census in Dover, Morris County, New Jersey (as the “Züsser” family).  In this case, only Eva is counted twice since I did not find another listing for Frances.  I believe that the married children who were not actually living with their parents were listed simply due to a language mis-understanding when the census taker asked for the names of their children.  By 1920, the Pater parents only list those children still living with them (Walter and Victoria).

By Any Other Name

A more curious case of double-counting happened in the 1930 census.  My Piontkowski ancestors, John and Rose, had been living in the United States for 25 years, so I would have assumed they had a better understanding of both the English language and what the census-taker wanted after having participated in two other federal censuses. The couple leaves out their daughter, who by this time had married and left the family, but counts their teenaged son, James, as well as their married son Joseph, his wife Catherine, and their daughter, Josephine. The entire family lives on N. Front Street in Philadelphia.

I knew that Joseph Piontkowski later used the surname Perk, but I never thought to look for Joseph Perk on the census.  Why should I? I had already found him living with his parents.  Only he really wasn’t living with his parents in 1930! I recently got in touch with my cousin, Joseph’s daughter, who had been researching her family.  When she wrote that she found the Perk family listed in the 1930 census, I did a double-take.  Sure enough, they are living on Hancock Street in Philadelphia about a mile away from his parents.  Listed are Joseph Perk, wife Katherine, daughter Josephine, and daughter Jean – who, based on the age of 0/12, had just been born!  Anyone without knowledge of the name change would certainly think that these were two different families, but they are the same.

I wonder how inflated the census numbers are/were due to difficulties with immigrants understanding the questions? Oh well, Eva Süsser, Joseph, Katherine, and Josephine Perk may all have been counted twice in one census or another – but at least that makes up for my grandmother Margaret Bergmeister not having been counted at all in both the 1920 and 1930 census!

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Beginner researchers often post on mailing lists or genealogy forums, “Does anyone know where town xyz is?”  The typical answer from those “in the know” is a question:  Have you tried ShtetlSeeker?

ShtetlSeeker is an online database developed by JewishGen.  Researchers with no Jewish ancestry may not have heard of it, but if you haven’t you’re missing out on one of the best geographic resources on the internet.  Despite its name, it’s not just for Jewish communities (shtetl is a Yiddish word meaning “town”).  It is a database containing information on all towns in 45 different countries of Central & Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.  If your ancestors were Jewish, there is a separate search form that only looks at the towns with Jewish populations.

What’s so great about this particular database?  There are so many great features that it makes ShtetlSeeker far superior to any other online database or any paper map (and I am very fond of paper maps).  Here are some of the things that I especially like:

He said Woodge not Łódź

The database uses the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex for a “sounds like” search.  The Daitch-Mokotoff soundex is more useful for Slavic or Yiddish pronunciations than the “regular” American soundex, which is especially useful if you have Eastern European ancestry.  Let’s say you asked Grandpa where he was born, and he tells you “Mishzinof” in Poland.  Chances are you didn’t ask him to spell it, and there is no town with that name – at least not spelled the way you heard it.  If you enter MISHZINOF into the search form for a “sounds like” search, you will get 18 possible matches based on the similarity in pronunciation between the search term and the correct language’s spelling.  While you do not need to enter a search term with any special characters, the result will provide you with the correct accented letters in the native language.

Widen the search area

If your ancestors were like mine, they may have said they were from the “big city” nearby (Munich) when they were really from a smaller town that no one ever heard of (Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm).  I am currently researching an ancestor who listed a somewhat large town, Żyrardów, as her birthplace.  A search of the records didn’t find her family, so now I am looking at the towns closest to Żyrardów.  I could open up a map to do this.  Or, I can use ShtetlSeeker to find towns in a ten mile radius with the click of a button.

The beginning of a list of 190 places within ten miles of Zyrardow, Poland.

And then it was called…

Names change, especially town names in central and eastern Europe.  One feature of the database is that you not only see what the town may have been called at a particular time in recent history, but what it was called in other languages.  For example, you can quickly learn that Gdańsk, Poland, was once Danzig, Germany.  Or that my own Polish ancestors’ town, Żyrardów, was called Ruda Guzowska before 1833.  Or that Pécs, Hungary could also be known as Pečuh [Croatian], Pečuj [Serbian], Peçuy [Turkish], Fünfkirchen [German], Pětikostelí [Czech], Päťkostolie [Slovak], Pięciokościoły [Polish], Cinquechiese [Italian], Quinque Ecclesiae [Latin], or Cinq-Églises [French].

Places don't move, but country's boundaries do!

Multiple Towns

Above I indicated that one of my Pfaffenhofen ancestors said they were from Munich.  When I initially found the town name, written as “Pfaffenhoven” in a baptismal record, I discovered there were several towns in Germany with that name.  But, he said he was from Munich, so which of the many towns with that name are close to Munich?  With ShtetlSeeker, you can see a town’s distance from another town as a reference point.

Eeenie, meenie, minie, mo, which Ostroleka did they come fro'?

If you are Jewish, it’s even better!

I recently researched a friend’s grandfather, who listed his birthplace on a draft registration card as “Chernovitz, Austria”.  As there is no town with that specific name, I tried the ShtetlSeeker to perform a “sounds like” search.  The search result was a list of dozens of possibilities located in Poland, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and other countries.  Then it dawned on me…my friend and his ancestors are Jewish!  After I limited the search to only towns with Jewish communities in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the result was reduced to one:  Chernivtsi, Ukraine.  The findings show that pre-WWI the town was known as Czernowitz and was part of the Austrian Empire, so it is likely the correct birthplace for his grandfather.  There are also links to other databases on the JewishGen site related to the town.

Some of the additional town resources for Jewish communities.

Other Cool Tools

There are a few other cool things about the database, such as:

  • Links to actual maps – see the town and its region on multiple online map sites
  • Latitude and Longitude data for the town
  • 3 types of searches – Jewish Communities, places by name (all localities in Central and Eastern Europe), and location (localities within a certain distance of a given latitude / longitude coordinates).

If you have never used ShtetlSeeker, try it!  You may just find where you are searching for…

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One of the great loves of my life has been science fiction.  After just one sentence, I can guarantee that about a quarter to a third of you readers are nodding your head in agreement, or saying, “I knew I liked her for a reason!”  But the rest of you probably groaned – that is, assuming you didn’t skip the post totally based on the title alone.  To all of you groaners – this post’s for you!

Many people dislike science fiction (sf) because their image of it consists of spaceships, aliens, and other planets.  But sf is much more than just those topics, and its range is so broad that there is truly something for everyone – even genealogists.  One category of science fiction that is sure to please genealogists is time travel.  Fantastic?  Unrealistic?  Yes, that’s why it’s called fiction.  But, boy, is it fun! Don’t we travel back in time every time we search through old documents to find our ancestors?  Or look at old photographs trying to imagine what life was really like back then?  When I read some sf authors, especially Jack Finney, I feel as though I am walking through the doors of the Virtual Dime Museum or entering the past by stepping into a Shades of the Departed photograph.  Here are my picks for the best science fiction stories for genealogists.

The Love Letter ~ by Jack Finney

This is my favorite short story by Jack Finney, whose most famous work is the novel Time and Again about travel to 19th Century New York.  Finney’s love and respect for the past permeates this story as well, which was written in 1959 and takes place in 1962.  A young man named Jake buys an antique desk, one that is full of pigeonholes and little drawers.  One night he examines his find more closely and finds a hidden compartment behind one of the drawers.  There he finds some old writing paper, envelopes, and a bottle of ink.  But there is also a letter – a love letter.

The letter is dated 1882 and a young woman, Helen, laments her impending marriage by writing with longing to her “Dearest”, who exists only in her mind.  “I speak with you in my mind and heart: would you existed outside of them!”

Touched by this woman’s words from so long ago, Jake is moved to write in response.

The night is a strange time when you’re alone in it, the rest of the world asleep.  If I’d found that letter in the daytime I’d have smiled and shown it to a few friends, then forgotten it.  But alone here now, window partly open, a cool late-at-night freshness stirring the quiet air, it was impossible to think of the girl who had written this letter as a very old lady or maybe long since dead.  As I read her words, she seemed real and alive to me, sitting, or so I pictured her, pen in hand…  And my heart went out to her as I stared down at her secret hopeless appeal against the world and time she lived in.

Jake writes a short note telling Helen that she’s a girl he could like.  “Do the best you can,” he writes, “in the time and place you are.”  Feeling satisfied with his late-night amusement, he suddenly feels moved to mail the letter.  He finds a vintage stamp from his childhood collection, and walks to an old post office that had been there since Helen’s time – he even stops at the old house that Helen wrote from, though in the present is suffers from neglect and age.  He mails the letter, “feeling foolish but at the same time secretly pleased.”

About a week later, Jake is working at his desk late at night when he thinks of Helen.  He realizes that there are two other desk drawers – do they have hidden compartments as well?  Finney writes that “the night is a strange time” and even though the city of New York had changed considerably over the decades, there are still “little islands – isolated remnants of the way things once were” and “the boundary between here and then wavers.”  Remarkably, Jake finds another letter in the second drawer – addressed to him!  By using the stationary, ink, stamps, and post office of Helen’s time, he feels that it crossed that boundary between “here and then”.  Helen is desparate to know who he is, and how he knew of her thoughts.

Jake responds again in the same way, but this time he tells her that he is writing from 1962.  He tells her he has fallen in love with her, but he can’t explain what was happening.  He realizes there is one drawer left that he has not opened, and because he already discovered the contents of the first two, that can not be changed.  Since he hasn’t opened the third drawer, there is one more chance for Helen to speak to him.

Mailing the letter in the same way, he nervously waits a week.  Opening the final hidden compartment, he finds no letter – but a photograph of Helen.  Across the bottom, she writes “I will never forget.”

A long time later, Jake realizes there was one final way for Helen to communicate with him over time.  Frankly, any genealogist would have figured this out sooner, but Jake apparently wasn’t into genealogy back in 1962!  I won’t spoil the ending and Helen’s final message to Jake, but it is a sweet ending to a bittersweet and magical love story.

What does “The Love Letter” have to do with genealogy?  At the end, Jake uses records we use daily to receive his final message.  But I chose this story because of the interaction between the past and the present.  As genealogists, we “travel” to the past, at least in our minds, when we do our research.  I’m sure many of us would like the persons we research to reach out from the past to communicate with us!  “The Love Letter” may not seem very science fiction-like, but if you have ever wondered about the past after seeing a document, photograph, or antique, you will enjoy this trip.

Second Chance ~ by Jack Finney

Most of Finney’s short stories involve some blurring of the lines between the past and the present, which is the attraction for genealogists.  Another good example of this is his story “Second Chance”.  A young man in 1956 has a penchant for “classic” cars, and he spends most of his time restoring a 1923 Jordan Playboy that was nearly demolished in an accident in which its occupants were killed.  He takes great care to restore the car by using original materials instead of replacing old parts with newer, modern ones.  He finally finishes and takes the car out for a drive.  He takes an old road into town, one that had been there before the highway was built, and he amuses himself by singing old songs from the 1920s and enjoying the ride.  He begins to think he is in the 1920s…

But my car and I–the way I felt about it, anyway–were almost rejected that night, by the time I live in.  And so there in my Jordan, just as it was the year it was new, with nothing about me from another time, the old ’23 tags on my car, moving along a highway whose very oil spots belonged to that year–well, I think that for a few moments, all the chains hanging slack, we were free on the surface of Time.  And that moving along that old highway through the summer evening, we simply drifted — into the time my Jordan belonged in.

When he reaches town he realizes that he had somehow driven back in time, and he parks the car to marvel at the old sights.  But his car is stolen, and he nearly gets killed as the thief races by him.  After walking around town that night, he finds himself back in his own time in the morning – without his cherished car.

Time passes, and the young man falls in love.  It just so happens that the girl’s father enjoys old cars, too.  In fact, he has a 1923 Jordan Playboy!  The narrator realizes it is the car he restored once before, and after hearing the father’s tale he realizes that his trip back in time saved that man’s life.  By changing the past without even realizing it, he made it possible to meet the woman he now loved.

“Second Chance” is an easy-going story with a nice twist at the end.  While it doesn’t seem like “science fiction”, any story with some sort of time travel is automatically part of the genre.  Finney’s sort of time travel rarely involves machines, but instead is brought about by desire and love for the past.  If the lines between the past and the present were truly flexible, I’m sure many a genealogist would jump at the chance to take a peak!

Unto the Fourth Generation ~ Isaac Asimov

One of the undisputed kings of the science fiction genre is Isaac Asimov.  Indeed, while he is most known for science fiction literature, Asimov should be remembered as one of the most prolific writers of all time, and the most eclectic.  He wrote every day, and the end result was hundreds of books ranging from sf to humor and mysteries to non-fiction works on science, religion, and history.  His science fiction covered all sub-genres like alien worlds and robots, with an occasional journey into time travel.  If traditional sf subjects don’t turn you off, by all means read the story that I consider to be Asimov’s best – “Nightfall”.  But, for my genealogist-audience, I wish to highlight a more unusual work in the Asimov canon – “Unto the Fourth Generation”.

Sam Marten is making his way across New York City for an important work appointment.  But with every move he makes, he encounters some variation of the same surname.  It appears in signs, trucks, businesses, and the address directory of the building he enters. Lewkowitz, Lafkowitz, Lefkowicz.  They don’t sound right, he thinks, but he doesn’t know why.  All of these coincidental encounters with the strange name makes him restless; his work meeting does not go well. He now feels haunted by these sightings of the variations of this unknown name. Sam walks, running at times, seemingly guided by unknown hands, to a park.

And there on a bench was an old man; the only man in the desolate park.  He wore a dark felt cap, with a visor shading his eyes.  From underneath it, tufts of gray hair protruded.  His grizzled beard reached the uppermost button of his rough jacket.  His old trousers were patched, and a strip of burlap was wrapped about each worn and shapeless shoe.

Marten stopped.  It was difficult to breathe.  He could only say one word and he used it to ask his question: “Levkovich?”

The old man rises and greets Sam Marten by name.  He has been looking for him.  Marten intuitively knows this old man is named Phinehas Levkovich, and he asks why they are there.  The man answers, “because I prayed.”  The old man’s daughter left for America with her family.  He grew old, and after his sons died he longed to see if his daughter had any sons “in whom [his] soul might yet live and not die.”  The man is given two hours to find the first son born of his daughter’s line in America.  “My daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s son, have I found you, then, amidst the splendor of the city?”

Sam asks his great-great grandfather for his blessing, one to be passed on to his future sons.  The old man says he can go in peace now that he has laid eyes on him, and he disappears.  Suddenly, “there was an instant of renewing motion” and Sam finds himself back where the story begins earlier in the day.  “Somehow he knew that all would be well with him.  Somehow, as never before, he knew…”

One of the more interesting aspects of this story is how it came about.  Asimov’s editor remarked that he had been seeing various signs with the name, and he asked if Isaac could write a story about it.  When it was published in April 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the main character was not affected by the “meeting” with his ancestor.  Afterwards, a fan was talking to Asimov when his editor asked her what she thought of the story.  Her opinion was that the meeting should have affected Sam in some way.  When the story was re-published in one of Asimov’s story collections, the ending had changed.  And the fan? Years later she became Asimov’s wife, Janet!

“Unto the Fourth Generation” is a rather unusual story, but one that a genealogist might like.  Did the meeting really take place since the great-great grandfather had died years before?  Why did Sam go back in time a few hours to the beginning of his day?  Does it matter?  What matters is his sudden feeling of confidence and well-being.  Have you ever suddenly felt a calming come over you?  Or feel loved?  Perhaps we’re being blessed by our great-great grandfather.  The story works because of the emotion showed by both the old man and his descendant, and the meaningfulness of their meeting.

Who’s Your Grandaddy? ~ The Grandfather Paradox

Time travel stories can get a little confusing, and there is actually an issue known in the genre of science fiction as the “Grandfather Paradox”.  If a time traveler goes back in time and accidentally kills his own grandfather (or any other ancestor) before children are born, wouldn’t the time traveler cease to exist because he never would have been born?  There are two short stories by one of the masters of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein, that seem to get around this paradox.  I’m reluctant to write about them, however.  Even though I love Heinlein’s work, these two stories give me a headache!

The first is called “All You Zombies” and was written in 1959. A “temporal agent” goes back in time to recruit a young writer.  The agent plays the role of a bartender, and the writer tells his life story.  The agent/bartender convinces the writer that if he could go into the past, he could change many of the troubled events he described. He goes back to the time of his birth, but…things get a little complicated.  It seems as though his past was more troubled than he originally thought.  Can you be your own ancestor?  Let’s just say that the plot is complicated and includes a sex change operation.  It also has a fair amount of humor, given the hilarity of the situation the main character finds himself (herself?) in.  Many years before this story, Heinlein used a similar theme in “By His Bootstraps,” published in 1941. Let the lesson be “beware of time travelers” because it could be your future self tricking you!

A story called “Dear Charles” by Murray Leinster, written in 1953, also touches on the theme, but without the confusing paradox.  In the 34th Century, Charles receives a letter that was written in the 20th Century by his own 52nd great-grandfather!  Charles’ ancestor explains that a series of unfortuanate events are about to unfold, but he urges him not to try to stop them.  The ancestor is about to appear, through a time machine from the past, and he will take Charles’ fiance Ginny back with him.  As it turns out, Ginny is actually Charles’ 52nd great-grandmother!

And then I smashed Professor Hadley’s time-transporter. I stamped on it, while Joe gazed stupidly at Ginny. I had reason to smash the device. Naturally! If anybody else traveled in time, they might not be as smart as I am, or their descendants might not be as dumb as you, Charles. Something might get messed up. Somebody might marry the wrong person somewhere in the next fourteen centuries, and Ginny might not get born. I wouldn’t risk that!

This story is more light-hearted, and it is told entirely in the form of the letter that the ancestor sends to Charles.  I think we’d all like to receive a personal letter from an ancestor, but I doubt anyone would be happy to find out that their betrothed is actually their own ancestor!

That’s a quick peek into the world of science fiction from a genealogist’s perspective!  My goal was to “convert” someone who didn’t think they liked science fiction at all into someone who is willing to take a closer look, perhaps at one of the authors I mentioned.  Please let me know if I accomplished my goal!  And for my fellow science fiction fans out there – and I know there are several genea-bloggers who belong to that group – please add some of your own ideas in the comments!  What sf stories do you think a genealogist would love?

Sources:

  • Asimov, Isaac.  “Unto the Fourth Generation.”  The Complete Stories, Volume I. New York: Doubleday, 1990.  575-581.
  • Finney, Jack. “Second Chance.” About Time: 12 Short Stories.  New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1998. 183-202.
  • Finney, Jack.  “The Love Letter.”  Tales in Time.  Edited by Peter Crowther.  Clarkston, GA: White Wolf Publishing, 1997. 41-55.
  • Heinlein, Robert A.  “–All You Zombies–.” Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, March, 1959. Available online at <http://ieng9.ucsd.edu/~mfedder/zombies.html&gt;
  • Leinster, Murray.  “Dear Charles.” A Logic Named Joe.  Baen Publishing, June 2005.  Available online at <http://www.webscription.net/10.1125/Baen/0743499107/0743499107___3.htm&gt;

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Not so long ago in a galaxy not too far away, the word “genealogist” may not have been associated with the most technology-savvy person.  The image that came to mind may have been more of a bookworm-librarian searching through piles of books and papers  in dusty old archives.  Today, many genealogists are very well versed about the latest computer technology because it helps to advance our research so much!  So set your GEDCOM-phasers on stun as we uncover the topic for the 43rd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Technology!

When I first heard the topic, I thought we’d be writing about technological advances in the lives of our ancestors or during our own lifetimes.  But, that’s not quite the slant towards technology that the Carnival-goers are writing about.  For this edition, three questions about Technology were posed:

What piece of hardware (besides your computer) do you most rely on for your genealogy and family history research?

This may be an unconventional answer, but for me it’s my digital camera.  While I have a fancy digital SLR for vacations and family portraits, it’s my tiny fit-in-your-pocket digital Casio Exilim that gets a genealogical workout.  How can you utilize a camera for family history research?

First, the obvious answer is to take photos of living relatives and current places.  Did you finally meet your third cousin twice removed?  Take a photo!  Visit your ancestor’s old street, church, or town?  Take more photos!  Tombstones of your relatives?  Take a photo and you don’t have to stand around the cemetary taking notes!

Another great way to use your camera for research is to take photos of…photos! Relatives may not want to loan out their treasured original photos of your shared ancestors, and we all can’t travel around with a laptop and a scanner.  But, with some attention to light and camera settings, it’s easy to snap a digital photo of another photograph.  Watch out for glare on the surface of the photo, and use a macro or close-up setting on your camera.

You can also use your camera to take photos of documents, as long as there are no copyright infringement issues.  My camera has a “Macro Mode” specifically for text.  Hold the camera steady!  This also works if you want to take a photo of a record on a microfilm reader.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ll be visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake City in April.  Since they allow the use of cameras, I’ll keep you posted how this turns out.

What piece of software (besides your internet browser) do you most rely on for your genealogy and family history research?

This one is harder to answer.  Based on my camera answer above, I’ll have to say my imaging software.  I use PhotoImpact by Ulead, mostly because it came with my old scanner and it was easy to use.  It may not have all of the bells and whistles of the newer programs, but it does a fine job of helping me edit my photos.  It’s also useful for editing images of documents, such as snipping a piece to show on this blog or capturing an ancestor’s “autograph” from documents.

What web site/blog (besides your own) is indispensable to you?

Steve Morse’s One-Step site
.  Without it, I would not have been able to find several folks in the Ellis Island passenger lists and many others in Census Records.  Steve Morse’s search tools get around indexing issues or errors by allowing you to search in many other ways and on many different “fields” of the records.  There will always be some ancestor that eludes searches, but Steve’s site makes it easier to find the rest.

What are your favorite genea-tech tools?

[Submitted for the 43rd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Technology Tips for Genealogists]

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