29 November 2013

Waxing Philosophical: Final Elizabeth Shown Mills NY Times Genealogy Advice

The past Wednesday, the New York Times Booming Section ran the fourth and final installment of genealogy questions answered by genealogy methodology maven Elizabeth Shown Mills.

In part 4, Mills covered questions regarding:
  • Research Stalemates on the American Frontier
  • Identifying an Immigrant’s Place of Origin
  • Why Genealogy?
The answers to the first two include the FAN principle and exhaustive searches - themes Mills explores successfully throughout her research and teaching career.

I was particularly drawn to the second question because this is a topic I have explored for several years - first, in an article published in Avotaynu in 2011, and more recently in my August 2013 International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies presentation in Boston.[1] [2]  

My specific interest is in determining which location from among villages of similar-sounding names is the correct one. My research methodology (as reported in the Avotaynu article) included the FAN principle on steroids - analysis of all immigrant families in two landsmanshaft (community association) burial plots in a New York City cemetery. I have not yet explored this subject in this blog, but should - and will.

Mills struck a philosophical note in response to the last theme: why genealogy? Her words are absolutely correct for me and my research: "Acknowledging our personal pasts, reconstructing the lives of our ancestors and restoring them to human memory can validate the struggles they invested in creating the world we now enjoy." 

For me, the Holocaust, long an abstraction, has become much more personal since I began my research. One of my greatest thrills was sending a large family tree to a Holocaust survivor relative whom I have not yet met. The fact that our family has grown, thrived, and continued to contribute to our society was an excellent and satisfying response to those who pictured a world free of Jewish people. 

1. Garber, Emily H. "Using Landsmanshaft Burial Plots to Discover and Confirm the Location of a Family Shtetl," Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish  Genealogy, Volume XXVII, Number 1, Spring 2011: 3-9.
2. Garber, Emily H. ""Beyond the Manifest: Methods for Confirming One's Ancestral Origins," Presentation 6 August 2013, International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference, Boston, Massachusetts.


  1. Yesterday I saw The Book Thief and again it inspired my motivation to talk about my parents, grandparents and relatives. I want to honor their lives and keep their memories alive. My son is 14 and we are thousands of miles away from relatives. He will not be able to listen to his cousins talk about their personalities or the funny things they said and did. When he visits his father, he will not hear anything about the grandparents on that side of his family. To honor your parents is to keep their memory alive. People follow their dreams, and family memories become the casualties. My brother also lives in another state, but even when I do see him, he does not want to talk about the past. He does not light Hannukah candles, he has no children. My mother was a first generation American and worked hared to blend into main stream America. She did not belong to Jewish women's groups or causes. My brother completed his college and graduate degrees at Catholic institutions. My grandparents came to America in 1905 and 1906 because of the pogroms in their hometowns of Rymanow and Royhatin or the fear that their villages will be the next victim of hatred.
    During a private moment with a coworker I talked about a conflict of personalities I was having at work... I told her with a smile on my face, I can endure and overcome the rough issues because, "We (us Jews) are used to being where we are not wanted."
    Diana Liebross Steinman

    1. It is sad, but true, that most of us do not start this research until those who lived the past are gone. The desire to learn about our families is definitely inspired by the sense of losing them and the memories they take with them. Thanks for sharing, Diana. I hope that some of my work helps you feel a bit more connected to family.


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