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Asking the Elders

This post is reproduced from the newsletter of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, written by Susan Weinberg -


The starting point of any genealogy search is oral history. Many genealogists are envious of those who can recall interviewing their grandparent for a grade-school project. Even if some of the people you would like to interview would require a time machine, their stories may have been shared with others. Here are ten important questions to ask the elders in your family.


1. Who are family members named for?

Naming patterns can reveal quite a bit in your genealogy search. Ashkenazic Jews are often named for deceased grandparents or great-grandparents so knowing this information will give you clues for your family tree.


2. What were their surnames in Europe?

Many immigrants changed their names when they came to America. You can spend a lot of time searching for an incorrect name.


3. Where was family from?

Records will often say the nearest large town, but oral history will reveal the small shtetl they may really have come from.


4. When did family immigrate?

Immigration records after 1906 tell us their nearest relative in Europe and who they were going to in the US. Records before that date are much more limited. If they came earlier, but other family members came after 1906, the later records may provide information with greater value.


5. Where did family enter the US?

Over 70% of immigrants came into New York, but they might also have come through Boston or Philadelphia and those headed to the Upper Midwest may have come through Canada or Galveston, Texas.


6. When and why did family go to the Upper Midwest?

If they went to New York did they stay there for a while? Did they already have family outside of New York or were they the first to venture into the Upper Midwest?


7. Where is family buried? Are there any who are buried out of the area?

Tombstones are important sources of genealogy information. They. may tell you their father’s name and their Hebrew name. In areas like New York, they may also tell you what European town they came from as they may be buried in a section with others from that town.


8. Are there any letters from grandparents?

Now here is the time machine I referenced above. After fruitlessly searching for my grandfather’s immigration record, my mother remembered that he had written in a letter to her that he had changed his name because it was too hard to spell and pronounce. She produced his letter from her file on family history. Letters may give you valuable facts and a flavor for their personality and values.

9. Do you know of family who died in the Holocaust? Or who survived?

Holocaust sites such as Yad Vashem are important genealogy sources as well as a way to honor and remember family. Testimony might be filed on family members already and looking at the names of who filed it may connect you to family you didn’t know existed.

10. What do you remember about your grandparents?

Our memories build on the shoulders of those who came before us. Suppose you are interviewing your grandparents about their grandparents. That is five generations of history!


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