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Telling Our Stories

Updated: Apr 26, 2018

This post is reproduced from Layers of the Onion at courtesy of Susan Weinberg -

I just returned from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) conference in Seattle where I got to reconnect with old friends and make a few new ones. The conference is focused on Jewish genealogy, a subject that originally drew me back into my Jewish heritage.

I’ve been at this for some time now so it is no longer that rush of new information from the early conferences. The low hanging fruit has long been eaten. I am pleased if I find a few thought-provoking tidbits that inject a new approach into my research or a document in the Resource Room from a database that I’ve not yet tapped. Our conference days extended late into the evening so I am just now digesting what I learned. I hope to share a few posts on highlights and some of those thought-provoking ideas I carried home.

Some highlights included seeing the film Woman in Gold, this time with commentary from Randy Schoenberg. Randy Schoenberg was Maria Altmann‘s attorney and successfully sued Austria for the Klimt painting of her aunt that had been appropriated by the Austrian state gallery under Nazi control. His journey included a dramatic stop at the Supreme Court. In the film Randy is played by Ryan Reynolds who he related showed up on the set at the end dressed exactly the same as he was. Randy assured us that his character was somewhat exaggerated in the interests of story and some scenes did not occur in reality, such as the goodby scene between Maria and her parents. Nonetheless, he noted that many have related to that scene as it echoed the experience within their families. I had first heard Schoenberg at the 2008 conference and enjoyed watching the story unfold via the film and his subsequent comments.

I also enjoyed hearing David Laskin, author of the Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century. I had read and loved his book about the three branches of his family, those who were murdered in the Holocaust, those who went to what was then Palestine and those who came to the United States. Among those who came to the United States was his great-aunt, founder of Maidenform Bras, the early version of the bra as we know it today. David is a long-time writer and his book reads like an engaging novel. He shared his exploration into genealogy as he researched his book and the very fortunate discovery of 300 letters in Yiddish that informed his storytelling.

I too came to the conference to share my stories, nothing as dramatic as Schoenberg’s or Laskin’s, but ones about which I am equally passionate. I had an opportunity to present about my work on the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project. As an artist and genealogist I had done a series of 17 interviews with elders in Sholom Home, a Jewish residential facility in the Twin Cities. My interviewees included those who grew up in early Jewish immigrant communities, survivors and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These three groups represented those who immigrated to the United States in the 20th century and made up a large portion of the Jewish community. After completing interviews, I developed artwork on their stories. I’ve edited short clips of elders telling their stories and shared both video and artwork. You can find some of the stories and video at my website  and stay tuned as I am working on a book on this project.

As I worked on this series I learned that it was also an immigration story and many shared either their immigration story or that of their parents. I explored the immigration laws in force at the time they came to the United States and how that influenced their access to the United States. For example anti-Semitism and the Red Scare were elements that colored the response to Jewish refugees after WWII, often delaying their ability to immigrate and affecting the environment into which they entered. The concern of stirring up anti-Semitism resulted in caution about “appearing Yiddish”in early immigrant communities. Fear of anti-Semitism was often a factor driving efforts of the existing Jewish community to help the new immigrants to assimilate.

The one thing all of these talks shared was story, perhaps the most important aspect of genealogy, deepening understanding and connecting us to each other and across generations.

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