02 February 2015

Of Elephants, MyHeritage, FamilySearch and balderdash!

I received two messages this morning that made me turn around to consider the elephant in the corner of the room - or at least made me think about how I honor my deceased relatives' history and how I conduct my "cousin"-baiting:
  • A message posted on my blog post (11 November 2012) about my father's WWII service from the offspring of my father's Army Air Corps pilot, Lt. John V. Wessling. 
  • A press release from MyHeritage announced that My Heritage and Family Search will be sharing family trees.
MyHeritage adds 900 million records to its global digital archive
TEL AVIV, Israel & LEHI, Utah – February 2, 2015: MyHeritage, the leading destination for discovering, preserving and sharing family history, today announced that 900 million global historical records have been added to its searchable digital archive, bringing the total to more than 6 billion. By combining its huge and rapidly expanding digital repository of historical records with its matching technologies and newly-released Instant Discoveries™ experience, MyHeritage is helping families unlock their past faster and on a larger scale than ever before.
The additional content announced today is among the fruits of MyHeritage’s strategic partnership with FamilySearch, the world’s largest genealogy organization. The records consist primarily of family tree profiles that have been submitted by more than 22 million users on FamilySearch. Integration ensures that this data is refreshed on MyHeritage on a daily basis as it is updated on FamilySearch. Adding this data to MyHeritage alongside the 27 million global family trees submitted by users of MyHeritage, brings together for the very first time 2 of the world’s 3 largest family tree collections. The beneficiaries are the users of the two organizations that will receive matches whenever MyHeritage technologies locate overlaps between the trees. Millions of users will make new discoveries and find new, previously unknown ancestors and relatives thanks to this partnership.
Gilad Japhet, Founder and CEO of MyHeritage said: "Unraveling the family history of the people of the world requires two primary ingredients - advanced technologies and massive amounts of data. MyHeritage is constantly pushing the limits in developing big data technology for family history discoveries, and today’s announcement marks a substantial advancement in our accumulation of data. We're proud to work closely with FamilySearch to empower families across the globe to learn about their past and, through it, about themselves. Today’s big step helps make the world a little smaller and bring people closer together."
Dennis Brimhall, CEO of FamilySearch said: "Partnerships are a major focus in FamilySearch’s strategy to increase family history discoveries for more people. We value our strategic partnership with MyHeritage and appreciate their global reach and contribution to technology in the family history space. We believe this integration is paramount to the greater good of the community and look forward to a fruitful 2015 and beyond.”
Before I began genealogy blogging, I occasionally used to send out emailed updates to different branches of my family regarding research successes or questions. When I started this blog more than three years ago, I hoped to inspire my relatives to share family stories. Some family members have responded positively, but not many. I think those that are loathe to share publicly and not motivated to share privately, are, frankly, loathe to share publicly and not motivated to share privately - and the ease of posting responses to my posts on this blog has not solved those issues.

Of those relatives who are reading, some comment on my FaceBook page where I announce new posts, some comment to me via email, and some comment not at all. Based on responses, I think most are very pleased when I post something about their direct ancestors and have not expressed privacy concerns. I try to protect information on living people.

Where the blog has really shined has been its presence in search engines. I have been found by several distant cousins (and now by my father's WWII pilot's family) because I have posted accounts that mentioned their relative's names. In most cases, these contacts have been extremely positive events, improving my knowledge about my family.

It is for these same reasons that I have, over the years, posted iterations of my family tree on JewishGen's Family Tree of the Jewish People, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, Geni.com and Rootsweb's World Connect Project. Via all of these platforms, I have been contacted by or made contacts with researchers whose information has advanced my research.

One might notice a glaring absence from this list. FamilySearch: the elephant smiling fetchingly in the corner. Despite my great love for the wonderful work that FamilySearch does, I have not put my tree on their site. 

When I have taught introductory Jewish genealogy classes, I often extoll the virtues of researching on FamilySearch.org or at their numerous brick and mortar research facilities: access is free, they won't bother you for donations, they're extremely nice, they don't proselytize online or at their research centers. But, best of all, their record content is exceptional and improving greatly all the time.

Among my Jewish genealogy audiences, eyebrows are often raised when FamilySearch is mentioned. Many Jewish people do not wish to share their trees with the Latter Day Saints. They feel twice burned by stories of posthumous baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims and fear that posting trees on FamilySearch will foster this behavior. To Jewish people it was an assault on the memory of those who died clinging to their beliefs to baptize them posthumously.

My understanding is that LDS members are only supposed to posthumously baptize people to whom they are related and that the second time it happened, when someone was caught baptizing a Jewish non-relative - Simon Wiesenthal's Holocaust-era relatives - the renegades were stifled (my LDS acquaintances can let me know if this is an inaccurate assessment). 

If this is indeed true - and I have no reason to believe that FamilySearch, institutionally, was behind the Holocaust victim baptisms - then we need to move beyond conspiracy theories.

Now to my mind, posthumous baptisms should not matter to those of us who do not believe in baptism at all: do what you will, it's a bunch of balderdash, anyway! But, I still have not put my tree on FamilySearch. Guess it's my little gut check.

During the past few nights I've been reading Mary Antin's The Promised Land, her 1912 reminiscence of her years in Polotsk and life as a Jewish immigrant in the United States. In her recollections of the sometimes challenging relations between Jewish and Gentile populations in Polotsk, she noted that as a child she felt that compared to pogroms:
...There was one thing the Gentiles might do to me worse than burning or rending. It was what was done to unprotected Jewish children who fell into the hands of priests or nuns. They might baptize me. That would be worse than death by torture. Rather would I drown in the Dvina [river] than a drop of baptismal water should touch my forehead...sooner would I rush out to the mob that was passing and let them tear my vitals out...rather would I be seized with the plague, and be eaten up by vermin...there was no pain that I would not bear - no, none - rather than submit to baptism...

I guess the "balderdash" argument would hold no sway with someone who has that perspective. I think the LDS and our Jewish ancestors might (shall we say) be operating under different paradigms.

I see this morning's announcement from MyHeritage as a game changer for recalcitrant Jewish genealogists - the elephant has moved and is now seated at the table. The announced agreement is the logical extension of all these recent partnerships forged among genealogical titans (FamilySearch, Ancestry, Find My Past and MyHeritage): not just increased access to records, but also global access to family trees. 

In my view, hiding one's family trees from public viewing on any platform is not only detrimental to continued solid research but is also the antithesis of what serious researchers should be doing. Research can only be improved in the light of day and with the constructive criticism of fellow researchers. So, we should be applauding the MyHeritage - FamilySearch announcement.

The question for Jewish genealogists is no longer "can we trust the LDS Church to protect our ancestor's reputations?" but, "do we need to trust them?" I'd like to believe the first answer is "yes," but I absolutely can say that the second answer is "no." 

Jewish people are drawn to genealogy for all the same reasons that Gentiles are drawn to it, but with one big addition. Jewish genealogy has become, because of the Holocaust, an important way to honor and remember those (including whole communities) whom others sought to wipe from the earth. We may be motivated partly by what others did to us, but now we can be motivated by what we can do for our own - regardless of what others may do or want to do. We need to move on as genealogy victors and try to embrace the "balderdash" argument because with that attitude we may best serve our ancestors and their memories.

Family trees are soon to be shared among nearly all platforms. Gut checks are now likely irrelevant. The LDS are policing their troops. I hope their diligence in this regard continues. I also understand that elephant meat is not kosher. But, even if we Jewish genealogists don't partake, our work will improve. We and our ancestor's memories stand to benefit.


  1. Hi, Emily

    FYI, MyHeritage does not have a space between the two words - so you might consider a correction. The posthumous baptism issue was never a church-sponsored action, it was the work of individuals. In the old days, it was a small bunch of zealots. My information is that continual announcements are made to their members not to submit names of unrelated individuals for rites. There is an office for quality control that reviews submissions. However, if only one person in a family is LDS, then the entire family is considered related and names may be submitted.

  2. "MyHeritage" has been corrected - thank you!
    My understanding is that posthumous baptism is church doctrine and only takes place in the Temple.

    An interesting question would be, considering all the new ways of determining ancestry, e.g., DNA, Geni-like links (mother's brother's wife's nephew's granddaughter's boyfriend), what is considered "related."

  3. The press release says that FamilySearch trees are being added to MyHeritage. I assume the reverse is true, but the press release doesn't state that, and I don't like to assume. Does anyone know for sure that MyHeritage trees are being imported into FamilySearch?

    I'm also curious how the LDS 'rules' interpret 'family.' If I have a second cousin who is Mormon, are they within the rules of posthumous baptisms if they baptize my ancestors, even if they aren't their ancestors? Can they posthumously baptize first, second, third, fourth, tenth cousins? Is there a line that stops?

    1. As you have noted the press release is not entirely clear on the sharing of trees. What it does say, however, is significant: ""...The beneficiaries are the users of the two organizations that will receive matches whenever MyHeritage technologies locate overlaps between the trees..." It appears that it is not necessary for trees to be technically on both platforms for the tree comparisons to work. So, it appears the trees are being "shared" - whatever that may mean electronically.

      As far as the definition of those who may be considered for posthumous baptism, that is a little fuzzy. Apparently, when Jewish groups negotiated with the Church hierarchy in 1995, they thought there was understanding that only "direct ancestors" of current church members would be considered for baptism. Apparently, that was not how it turned out. JewishGen has an interesting summary of the past controversy at http://www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/ldsagree.html

    2. I have explained how the "sharing" will work in my recent blog post on Genealogy's Star. FamilySearch users will ultimately be able to get MyHeritage.com Smart Matches or something like that feature, but MyHeritage.com family trees are not searchable in the sense that Ancestry.com family trees are. The FamilySearch Family Tree is a unified tree like Geni.com or WikiTree.com. You can't put your family tree on FamilySearch.org, you can only add your data to the existing tree.

      Thanks Emily for a very interesting commentary on a very old issue.

    3. Good info, Jim. Thank you for checking things out further.

  4. Great post Emily. As someone with a german jewish grandfather and LDS close relatives I have often wondered about this. I have visions of my famed-for-her-sharp-tongue ggg-grandma Semele standing at the gates of Mormon heaven and making some snide comment as she turns away ...

    Perhaps that aversion to baptismal water comes from memories of the inquisition and so forth. Many of us are not so worried by it as we think you can believe in whatever you choose but then I was raised christian so perhaps do not understand.

    And yes I have my tree at ancestry, GENI, myHeritage,wikitree, jewishgen, and familysearch and because of that I find new 3rd and 4th cousins with new photos and stories with great regularity

    1. So glad to hear from you, Kitty! I think that is the conundrum many of us face. While we, personally, may not give much credence to the baptism procedure for those who have already passed, we know that many of them would have found this activity horrifying. How do we best honor their memory?


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