I made my first family tree when I was 13 years old (while simultaneously creating a tree for 19th century German composer Johannes Brahms because what 13-year-old hasn’t) and have been researching ever since. Now, on top of being a full-time librarian, I’m a professional genealogist specializing in Jewish genealogy and Holocaust research. I’m also the curator of the Margaret’s Legacy Holocaust Learning Centre set to open in Hamilton in Spring 2024.
My genealogy journey has taken me from local libraries to cemeteries in Scotland (and all over the internet). I began working as a professional genealogist about five years ago; what started as a fairly standard practice working with mainly Jewish families and helping the occasional adoptee via DNA has evolved over the years so that the bulk of my work now focuses on Holocaust research. Often this is working with the children of survivors to trace their family trees or to learn the fates of relatives, but has also included research for a book, a travelling exhibit, and even a legal case. It’s difficult work, emotionally taxing at times, but it is also extremely rewarding. If I can give someone back their family, then it was worth it.
A couple of months ago, I approached Wendy Schneider, editor of the Hamilton Jewish News, about writing a genealogy column and she was enthusiastic right from the start. So here I am. I’m sure the column will evolve over time, but the general idea is that I’ll share stories from my own genealogical journey, tips and tricks for research, and some Hamilton Jewish history as well. I’ll also take questions—if you have questions about genealogy, Jewish history, or a place where you’re stuck in your own research, you can write to us, and if I’m able to help we’ll publish the question and my answer in a future edition.
In this column, we’ll also do some myth-busting! So here we go: It is a common and persistent myth in Jewish genealogy that most Jewish records were destroyed in the Holocaust. This is simply not the case. Jewish records from Europe are abundant, although there are unfortunate cases of towns and cities where few records have survived. Some records remain locked in archives, but increasingly these records are being digitized and posted online. These records can be scattered across various websites and agencies, and of course the language barrier is persistent with many records captured in Cyrillic, Polish, German, Romanian, Hungarian, and a multitude of others. Records for Sephardic Jews are harder to access as very little has been made available online, and the archives holding this material tend to be less centralized with varying degrees of access restrictions.
The first step to finding Jewish records online is to utilize the JewishGen website (jewishgen.org), a non-profit and free to use website. Its resources include multiple databases with indexes to millions of records, as well as Yizkor book translations, educational resources, a family finder utility, and so much more. It is a truly amazing endeavour encompassing the work of thousands of volunteers, but it’s only the first step. There are so many websites, indexes, digitization projects, and people willing to spend their time to make records and resources available. Social media has really been a gift for Jewish genealogy with the members of groups such as Tracing the Tribe on Facebook helping people to locate records and sharing their knowledge with each other.
Your first mission, if you choose to accept it, is to begin compiling your family notes. Write it all down. Interview members of your family and ask questions—what family stories have they heard, what were relatives’ Hebrew and Yiddish names, the cities and villages their ancestors came from. Ask it all and ask it now.
If you would like to submit a question or have some Hamilton Jewish history to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we may publish it in a future edition.
Kaye Prince-Hollenberg is a professional genealogist specializing in Jewish genealogy and Holocaust research.