This year’s 30th annual International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) brings to Los Angeles an organization that helped me during the years I spent researching my own family’s history for my book “How Will I Know Where I’m Going, If I Don’t Know Where I’ve Been? A Genealogical Journey.”
I started my book as an amateur — with no experience nor even much interest in genealogy before I started researching — and ended up being able to trace the roots of my family back to the mid-1800s. In the process, I discovered dozens of new cousins — some completely uninterested in my quest, others eager to get involved.
Here are some of the ideas that kept me focused and helped me find success in researching my own family tree.
Find a Muse
My mother was the inspiration that propelled me into the challenging world of genealogical research. Wanting to present her with the historic details of her family’s coming to America was my nudge for daily discoveries.
I suspected that my maternal grandparents, Sam and Annie Bornstein Hiller, were childhood sweethearts in the Polish shtetl of Gritse (Grojec, Poland). But both married others and had children, and both were later widowed.
Sam Hiller and his good friend, Abe Bornstein, older brother of Grandma Annie, arrived at Ellis Island in January 1908. It was fascinating to see their names in the ship’s manifest. Although scholars in Poland, they were to be taught the silk business by their relative in Paterson, N.J. However, after Sam arrived in America, his letters written back to Gritse often asked about Annie. I discovered several picture postcards written by Sam that had been saved by Grandma Annie and her family.
The first official immigration document I found was the ship’s September 1912 manifest for Anni Hiller, age 21, from Gritse, Poland. Interestingly, she used Sam’s last name even prior to their marriage. Just a few months ago, I was thrilled to discover her pristine passport from 1912. A year after her arrival, my mother, Rose, was born. It wasn’t until after World War I that they were able to save enough money to send for the three children from their first marriages in Poland.
Mom knew almost nothing about her siblings’ voyage to America, so I made that my next task: When did my aunts and uncles arrive, and under what names did they come?
The first list I located was titled Manifest of Alien Passengers of the United States. It is a form of the ship’s manifest but with a physical description of each passenger and the name, address and relationship of the person who paid for the passage. There was the name of my grandfather, Sam Hiller, who paid for the passage of his family, including his unmarried sister, Rana. This documented the passage of my great-aunt Rana, after whom my sister, Rona, was named.
With this, I had proof of my family’s courageous journey on the SS Rotterdam, which arrived at Ellis Island on July 3, 1920. It was a gift for my mother, my family and mostly definitely for myself. But it was only part of my journey.
Become a Detective
You are solving a mystery, and although Google is a wonderful tool, it only scratches the surface when it comes to researching Jewish genealogy.
In attempting to identify my paternal grandparents’ shtetl, I was unable to find anything close to the spelling of Grysk, which appeared on my grandfather Morris Ruderman’s Declaration of Intention for Naturalization, signed in 1916. I joined jewishgen.org, a Web site with thousand of databases, research tools and resources for starting out on the genealogical quest. I began conducting searches for the surname Ruderman and for the Russian towns that may have been Grysk.
Grysk became Kraysk (which was the spelling of this tiny shtetl), formerly in the district of Vileika in the province of Vilna, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was part of Lithuania and now is part of Belarus. Kraisk was one of the smallest shtetls included in the First All-Russian Census, taken in 1897. It had just under 700 residents, more than 500 of whom were Jews. I immediately envisioned my family living the lives of the characters in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
In January 2008, after discovering the Jewish Heritage Research Group of Belarus online, I began corresponding with the director, Yuri Dorn, who lives in Belarus.
Just months before my initial e-mail, authorities had been notified that new road construction had caused a slide at the Jewish cemetery in Kraisk. They counted 48 tombstones, mostly facing the ground. The disturbing news was intensified after Tatiana, a young Jewish woman living in the United States but whose grandmother is perhaps one of the only remaining Jews in Kraisk, forwarded photos of the cemetery, including an exposed skull in desperate need of reburying.
It was obvious that this is one of hundreds of Jewish cemeteries across Europe in need of repair. Dorn noted that most of the headstones were dated prior to 1858, which led me and my newfound cousins to believe that our great-grandparents’ remains may be there. We hope to journey there, together, in the future to continue research on this little shtetl that binds our families together.
Research the Time Periods
After years of research, when I decided to compile all of my findings into a book, one of the best suggestions I received was from a newly discovered cousin who encouraged me to research the history of the time periods in which our ancestors lived. The detective work involved in connecting the family tree to particular events in history gave a special perspective to their lives and decisions they made.
Learning about the czarist era in Russia, for instance, helped me understand the story of Moishe Hoffman, my cousin Bob’s uncle.
Moishe grew up in 19th century Russia and came to the United States to live the American dream. His family lived under the tyrannical rule of Nicholas I of Russia, during which time a proclamation was issued compelling all men to military service in the Russian army for a period of 25 years. Only the firstborn sons were exempt. Some of Moishe’s brothers were hidden, while another was snatched from his mother’s arms, never to be seen again. Although Moishe wrote only of his own family’s experience, it is likely that this scenario happened to other Jewish families living under the rule of the czar.
Moishe was educated at the cheder (Hebrew school) in Vilna, apprenticed to a local tailor, married young and finally journeyed to America to escape the iron hand of Alexander the Great of Russia, only to encounter hardships in his Lower East Side New York tenement.
Through discoveries like these, I have acquired a far greater understanding of the difficult lives our ancestors led in their home countries and, along the way, have gained a huge appreciation for their courage in leaving behind loved ones to come to America.
I am continuing my research — with my new cousins by my side, cheering me on.
Elizabeth Ruderman Miller is the author of “How Will I Know Where I’m Going, If I Don’t Know Where I’ve Been? A Genealogical Journey” (AuthorHouse, 2009). Her Web site is howwilliknow.com.