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David Laskin Tells Us How To Write Our Own ‘Family’ Stories

On our Monday, Dec. 2 program, author and journalist David Laskin discussed how he traced the three branches of his mother’s family for his book The Family:  Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.  Laskin’s family of Russian-Jewish immigrants includes Zionist pioneers, Maidenform Bra Company founder Ida Rosenthal and seventeen victims of the Holocaust. Here, Laskin describes how all of us can launch our own family search.

The first time I went looking for my family on Ancestry.com, I nearly had a panic attack.  I entered my grandfather’s name – Sam Cohen – and place of residence – Brooklyn, NY – and Ancestry spat out 341,000 possibilities.

Where to start? How to sort?

I’m a guy who always stops to ask directions – so I headed to the Seattle Public Library and made an appointment with research genealogist John LaMont.  John told me that any additional bit of data – names of other family members, a critical date – would considerably narrow the results.

I knew my grandfather’s birthdate, and when we plugged that into Ancestry’s advanced search form, we instantly located MY Sam Cohen’s World War I draft registration card.  That card gave us his address in Brooklyn, and from there it was pretty much smooth sailing through the four census forms (1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940) on which my family appears (1940 is the last census publicly available).  One tiny date and voila! the family tree was assembled.

If you’re thinking of embarking on your own family search, here are some tips to get you going:

* Before you go online, talk to your relatives.  You might discover that a distant cousin has already completed much of the family tree.  Find out who has the family Bible and whether there are family letters anywhere.  My Israeli cousin Benny, whom I had never met prior to starting my search, proved to be a treasure trove of information.  Benny’s mother had entrusted him with 281 family letters written in Yiddish, which we had translated into both Hebrew and English; Benny and his brother maintain a website with photos of their immediate family as well as cousins, aunts and uncles killed in the Holocaust.

* Discipline yourself to be organized and consistent.  When I started work on my family history, I just tossed whatever I found into a folder and let it accumulate.  Bad idea.  I spent hours shuffling papers and ended up misplacing some crucial documents.  Eventually, I started a computer file in which I entered the vital statistics – date of birth, death and marriage; date of immigration and citizenship; birth dates of children – for every relative.

* Some experts advise working on one generation at a time and starting with the most recent generations and working backward from there.  I took a more scattershot approach, but my family is relatively small and I was only able to trace my tree back four generations.  A more regimented approach makes sense for larger families with deeper roots.

* Leave no stone unturned.  Family research, like detective work, involves the random and the lucky.  Sometimes the most unlikely leads pay off big.  My family tree was missing an entire branch – the descendants of Joseph Cohen, one of my great-grandfather’s brothers.  I asked all the other relatives, but no one had a clue.  Finally a Facebook friend sent me a link to a Jewish cemetery website.  Some of the headstones had comments underneath them, and as I scrolled through I spotted a comment left by a woman named Deborah who was looking for her grandfather Joseph Cohen, the uncle of Maidenform founder Ida Rosenthal.  Bingo – I had found the lost branch.

* You will hit a wall.  We all do – even the experts.  Promising leads peter out.  Coveted records turn out to be lost or illegible or riddled with gaps.  You misplace something you KNOW you had unearthed and carefully stored SOMEplace.  Don’t get discouraged.  Sometimes after years of fruitless searching bits of the puzzle fall into place out of the blue.  A word of caution before you embark on your journey into the past:  genealogical research is highly addictive.

Useful websites

Basic Family Search sites

Ancestry.com – with 2.7 million subscribers, the largest commercial genealogy web site; also available free through many libraries

Ellisisland.org – 25 million immigrant arrival records available free online

Familysearch.org – the genealogy site of the LDS-run Family History Library

Genealogy through social media

http://www.cyndislist.com/social-networking — a nice gathering of sites and resources

http://genforum.genealogy.com/ — Genealogy.com’s social media site

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/ — Ancestry.com’s social media site

Sites for Special Interest

JewishGen.org – the go-to site for Jewish family history

TheRoot.com – genealogical guidance for African-Americans

New England Historic Genealogical Society — www.americanancestors.org/home.html — great for deep-rooted Yankee and German-American families

– David Laskin

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