Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roots and Branches

Elizabeth Zelvin

I remember how I laughed the first time I heard someone computer-savvy talk about digitizing a word-processed (or typed, as we called it back then) manuscript to “put it in a usable form.” I also remember how the audience at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park laughed in 1967 when it was announced that “Hair, a tribal love-rock musical,” would be opening in the fall. How quickly, and how radically, the world changes!

I too have come to see digital material as “usable form”—though I’ve also learned the hard way that if I want materials to be accessible ten or fifteen years later, I’d better keep paper copies as well, because technology changes fast. Anyhow, I’ve recently started the long-term project of scanning my pre-digital family photos into the computer. Especially important are the few remaining “ancestor pictures” I possess, faded and crumbling but irreplaceable: my parents, aunts, and uncles in their youth, my grandparents, and even one set of great-grandparents who never made it out of Europe.

I marvel when I meet Americans who can trace their ancestry many generations back. My blog sister Sheila Connolly here on PDD is one of them. I know a guy who has framed a five-generation series of pictures: himself, his dad, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, all looking much like him. More recent immigrants, especially Jewish families like mine, can’t do the same. A number of years ago I came in contact with a genealogist with the same last name as my maiden name, ie my father’s family name. She had grown up in Dublin and currently lived in South Africa, part of the modern-day diaspora that reduced the Irish Jewish population from 800,000, if I remember her figures correctly, to 15,000 (or was it 1500?) families. She was systematically tracing everyone with that last name and eager to hear what I knew about my family’s past.

Her research turned up far more people than expected. Like me, she’d started out thinking the name was quite unusual. She even turned up folks who were not originally related to anyone of that name: emigrants to Israel who changed their name to ours because they perceived it as “more Jewish” and followers of a “rebbe” (a Chasidic Jewish leader) who changed their original names to his. It’s not clear whether even those with a genetic right to the name are all related. There’s a mention of the name in the Old Testament, so it can hardly be traced all the way back. But even in the last two or three generations, even with people all over the world contributing what they know and the genealogist and her colleagues checking tombstones and written records, there are gaps.

The twin reasons for these gaps are emigration and the Holocaust. The precious handful of old photos I’m now preserving on my computer include those my grandparents carried with them: my paternal grandparents from the Ukraine via Liverpool in 1905 and my maternal grandparents from Hungary via Bremen in 1906. (My parents, both young children at the time, came with them.) I’m still moved when I think of my maternal grandmother (Gran), who lived to 92 and whom I loved dearly, saying goodbye to her mother at the age of 29 and never seeing or speaking to her again. During the Nazi era, not only Jewish records but whole families and whole villages were destroyed. Many of those connections are lost forever.

Here are some of the pictures that I’ve got.

Gran and her daughters, my mother at the wheel
My maternal grandparents
My dad (in suit) and his siblings
My paternal grandfather
My paternal grandmother
Gran's parents
My mother's sister (looks like me)


Sheila Connolly said...

Good planning, Liz! Those images are priceless, and once digitized, you can share them. I've done it for my ancestors, but there weren't all that many pictures so it wasn't hard.

And don't forget to label (in whatever form works) the pictures and identify who's who!

Anonymous said...

Liz, you are fortunate to have these wonderful pictures of your past generations. I never knew a grandfather. I knew slightly only one grandmother. The generation of my great-grandparents exist only somewhere in the vague mists of time. There is often the misconception that those of us whose earlier kinfolk came to the United States a long time ago know all about them. That, my friends, is a total fallacy! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Sandra Parshall said...

What is your family name, Liz?

You should take the old pictures that are crumbling to a restorer before they deteriorate any more. Then keep them under glass (never in plastic). Your grandchildren might cherish them one day if they're preserved.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, imho mothers' maiden names, like children's pictures, are better not floating around in cyberspace. I'll tell you at Malice if you're still interested. :)