Family History: Getting relatives involved

“How to entice relatives into family history” was the simple question asked by Alberto Guido Chester of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

His JewishGen Discussion Group question elicited numerous answers. With Alberto’s permission, here’s a summary of the responses with added personal notes from Tracing the Tribe.

This question and similar others have been addressed previously through the years on the discussion list; a search of the JewishGen Discussion Group archives will produce other responses.

Wrote Alberto:

I have received a dozen plus of answers on my post: How to entice relatives into family history. Needless to say, that is more answers than from my own family. (grin here).

If I were a shrink, I’d made some good money on the disappointment most of us feel at poor feedback, ignoring and even aggression from some relatives.

But, as someone pointed out, a couple of thank yous, making cousins to meet for the first time or helping a child get an A with his genealogy school project outweigh the latter.

Alberto listed the suggestions received, added some of his own and also suggested that someone get this organized as a handbook to help other genealogists. Tracing the Tribe reworked the suggestions, adding some personal notes. We wish we had time to write up a handbook as Alberto has suggested.


– Send a basic tree to relatives. Include younger people even without correct names. Even if you don’t have birth dates, infer them and write them on the tree. Make sure that everyone (especially women) appear a couple of years older than they are – an error that is sure to elicit a response and correction!

– Family Tree Builder (and other software) can produce descendant reports and charts as PDFs which anyone can read using Adobe Reader, even if the recipient doesn’t have genealogy software.

– Assume recipients will not download a program to see what you sent them, even if it’s free. Also assume they will not print out 30 pages of a chart and paste them together in some way. The sender should do the pasting! Send the chart by snail mail or email a small chart.

– Make sure the recipient can understand the data even if they are not genealogists. NOTE: when Tracing the Tribe sends genealogical information, the envelope includes a chart, a descendant report and sometimes the index of people (with their relationships to the common ancestor).

– Include photos in the chart, or send some photos of interest individually.

– Phone later to check that the information has been received. Ask if there are any corrections or additions. Use Skype for low-cost calls to other countries.

– Knowing the local language is a plus. If you cannot speak (or write) the language needed, ask someone to do it on your behalf. Language can be a barrier to communication. NOTE: Posting to JewishGen’s discussion or SIG groups and asking for help in making a phone call in a certain language often produces offers of help from people who live in the country you are trying to reach, or from native speakers who live elsewhere.

– Practice the art of cold calling. Have your notes ready to entice the recipient in a conversation. Mention a surname from two generations ago that only the person would know – one that isn’t in the phonebook – and it might open a magical door. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe has had great success with “cold” snail mails. Sending a large batch of very short letters to one city to the relatively rare surname being researched produced excellent results. Two letters reached people who knew the family for whom I was searching. Although most produced no response, there were some responses from unrelated individuals who said they were sorry they didn’t know the family I was looking for and hoped I eventually found them.

– Make sure to convince the person you are not doing this for money, and are not selling magazine subscriptions or other items. People are suspicious and generally for good reason, particularly seniors.

– Before calling, determine the time zone of the recipient. NOTE: You really don’t want to call people at 2am their time – they generally won’t be happy, friendly or responsive to your genealogical questions.

– When someone answers, ask s/he if it is a convenient time to speak. Imagine that the person is in the middle of cooking dinner, the grandchildren are visiting, the dog is barking. In the middle of this, a stranger calls and wants the date of birth for Great Aunt Chaya.

– In general, people often prefer answering questions on the phone, once they believe who you say you are. It puts the responsibility on the caller to record the details, and they don’t have to sit down to write a letter. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe finds that people often respond via snailmail or email after a good phone call.

– If the person is not cooperative (there could be many reasons for this), ask if anyone else in their family might be interested, or perhaps has already done some research. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe has experienced this often enough. The call recipient doesn’t want to get involved, but you may find the best possible contact – perhaps another passionate researcher of your family’s lost branch.

– Make sure you give your phone number and email to the person you are calling. Once a person’s memory banks are stimulated, there’s no telling what can happen. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe has received calls at 2am from senior cousins who say “Quick, write this down now before I forget it again.” I don’t mind these particular calls!

Sharing Information

– Upload trees to sites like and produce a periodic update. People become interested when they see the site is moving forward with new information.

– Be constant and patient with regular contact and updates that these sites provide.

– If you plan to eventually publish a book on the family, send proofs to relatives asking for corrections or additions, with a deadline. NOTE: Be prepared for those relatives who will not want anything published about their immediate families.

Young People

– Collect the emails of the younger generations, open a Facebook account for your family project and invite them. Many use Facebook as their only source of information.

– Remember that uncooperative cousins may be the parents of cooperative young people. NOTE: Excellent advice! There are many reasons that the parents may be uncooperative, but the children may not be carrying that baggage!

– Many young people will not be interested in your project, but if you can interest just one of them, Tracing the Tribe gives you permission to do a Happy Dance. We never know from where the next family historian will come.

– Many schools – public, private, Jewish – include genealogy projects in their curriculum. Make sure people know that you will be happy to provide the information when their children need it. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe likes to include a large envelope with the family tree and descendant report with life cycle gifts (weddings, baby gifts, bar/bat mitzvah). Only last week, I provided an updated chart to the bride and groom at a family wedding. The bride’s sister had received a similar chart a few years ago, at her bat mitzvah.

Social Networks

– Another way to use Facebook is to open a family history page, add photographs of deceased relatives and restrict access to invited individuals. Make Facebook friends by asking something like “If you are the son of so-and-so and the grandson of so-and-so, then we are cousins. Come see the family album of ancestors on my Facebook site.” People will respond, “How did you find me?” NOTE: Tracing the Tribe was “found” by several lost relatives during our first week on Facebook!

– Dialogue is opened in a non-threatening way.

– Pick up foreign genealogy buddies

– Contact a person in a country of interest who is willing to help you research your family in exchange for your help in researching his or her family in your country. You will find family info, new adopted cousins and someone to share your interest via email.

– If you can’t find an appropriate buddy, think about hiring a professional researcher.

– Using a professional researcher to fill a specific gap your own relatives cannot (or don’t want to), may be the fastest way and perhaps less expensive than waiting for relatives to help.

Family Issues

– Be prepared to expect hidden relatives, bad branches, skeletons in the closet that no one wants to talk about. Perhaps they just don’t want to talk to you about the issues. Do not take sides on these problems of the past, just try a professional objective approach. An article clearing the air in the family newsletter, bulletin or website you are periodically sending and updating, can help bring the sides together. Remember that our ancestors lived through different and difficult circumstances, which we cannot grasp. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe once had to introduce several branches of the same family to each other on a visit to one Massachusetts town. They never knew they were related because of a problem with an uncle’s wife who didn’t like the nephews who immigrated later. We all spent an enjoyable evening together and none of the “kids” (who were many years older than Tracing the Tribe) had a clue as to why they hadn’t known their cousins. They were sad that their parents and grandparents had issues that kept them apart.

Major Projects

– Organizing a family reunion or raising communal funds to hire a researcher in the old country are additional steps. These projects can take place only after initial contacts. The projects have the added bonus of being an extraordinary push towards the integration of the “team” or “founders” who are already interested in the family tree. Once such a team is in place, major projects can be attempted.

Alberto thanked many who provided responses to his question.

If you have additional ideas, suggestions or experiences, add a comment to this post.

Genealogy, genetics TV series starts Feb.10

Genealogy and genetics figure in the new PBS show, “Faces of America,” which will explore the family history of 11 Americans.

The series, according to UPI, will air Wednesdays, February 10-March 3, hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University.

“Looking to the wider immigrant experience, Professor Gates unravels the American tapestry, following the threads of his guests’ lives back to their origins around the globe. Along the way, the many stories he uncovers — of displacement and homecoming, of material success and dispossession, of assimilation and discrimination — illuminate the American experience,” PBS said in a release this week.”

The guest list includes poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, novelist Louise Erdrich, writer Malcolm Gladwell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, film director Mike Nichols, Her Royal Highness Queen Noor, actress Eva Longoria, actress Meryl Streep and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

Looks like a good mix of interesting backgrounds. Stay tuned!

Ohio: 18th century records online

More county documents are going online.

This time, Hamilton County, Ohio is in the news with its project putting documents – some back to 1791 – online.

The story detailed some 1.1 million Probate Court documents that will make research life easier for genealogists and historians.

To see the documents – including birth, death, marriage, estate, naturalization and other records – click here, then -> Records Search -> Archive Search.

Records and dates:

Estates 1791-1984
Wills 1791-1973
Trusts, 1791-1984
Guardianships, 1791-1984
Marriages, 1808-1983
Minister’s Licenses, 1963-1975
Birth Records, 1863-1908
Birth Registrations/Corrections, 1941-1994
Death Records, 1881-1908
Naturalizations, 1856-1906

Probate Court Journal Entries, 1791-1837
Physician Certificates, 1919-1987

Some records are only for the index books (some are standard alphabetical, others only by first letter of last name), others require a search by volume or other methods.

The initiative is that of Probate Court Judge James Cissell. This isn’t his first project using technology to preserve and make accessible public records.

In the 1990s, he was Clerk of Courts when that court created a Web site that made available online millions of pages of criminal and civil court cases and won national awards. Today, the site has further evolved, allowing access all the time to court documents, and also allows attorneys to electronically file suits and other documents.

Cissell, who took office in 2003, says the new site contains some of the oldest state records, such as birth, death, marriage, estate, naturalization and other records. Researchers may find anything from late-18th century guardianship records to personal moments of Hollywood stars, such as actor Spencer Tracy’s marriage license.

“There are many, many folks who wish to trace their genealogy. By doing this, people will not have to come to our office in Cincinnati,” Cissell said.

Prior to Cissell’s new project, only records from 1983 were online. Cissell decided to preserve 1,600 books (each weighed 30 pounds) with 1.1 million pages by digitizing them and putting them online.

The Probate Court is partnering with the University of Cincinnati, which had stored some of the old records after fires. The court staff did all the work to place the documents online except for $95,000 for the digitization.

According to Cissell, the documents will also have to be stored on microfilm because that’s the official way such records are to be kept.

“It’s going both directions. By the time we’re done with this, we may be the only court in the country that has all of the records in both formats, which, I think, is a hell of an accomplishment,” Cissell said.

More than 10 million pages must be digitized and microfilmed. Cissell further added that it was necessary as “all that microfilm is wasting away,” and that “we have 4,000 rolls of microfilm of records which are quickly disintegrating.”

Tracing the Tribe did a cursory check for naturalizations and found more than 30 for COHEN and COHN in the very first register. If your immigrant ancestors spent time in Hamilton County, Ohio, you might find interesting information in these newly accessible documents.

For excellent details on how to work with this collection, view Diane Haddad’s Genealogy Insider post.

Boston: Hoaxes & Truths, Jan. 17

A number of Holocaust account hoaxes have resulted in major news stories. Forensic genealogy played a part in solving these cases.

“Forensic Genealogy: Uncovering Hoaxes, Confirming Truths” with Sharon Sergeant, is the topic at the next meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston on Sunday, January 17.

The program begins at 1.30pm at Temple Emanuel, Newton.

This program discusses how the genealogical research methods and skills – used to create family trees and family histories — are also used in “detective” situations: uncovering frauds and hoaxes, or establishing historical truths. The speaker gives examples of two cases she worked on that were widely reported in the press: “Misha the Wolf Girl” and “Angel at the Fence.”

Sharon Sergeant received international acclaim for exposing the Misha Defonseca “Jewish hidden child aided by wolves” and Herman Rosenblat “apple over the fence” Holocaust frauds.

As an adjunct professor at Boston University, Sharon created the “Problem Solving Techniques and Technology” module in the genealogical professional development program. She combines technology and the Genealogy Proof Standard methods to research both modern and antiquarian records.

Her articles have been published in the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, and the PI magazine. Sharon has served as Program Director for local and regional genealogical societies.

The program is free for JGSGB members and $5 for non-members. Refreshments will be served. For directions, click here. Click JGSGB for more information about the society.

Brazil: Jewish immigrants to be honored

Brazil has set March 18 as a day to honor the country’s Jewish immigrants, according to JTA.

The country is home to some 120,000 Jews, the largest Latin American Jewish community after Argentina.

The day will be known as Jewish Immigration Day.

On December 17, Brazil’s vice-president Jose Alencar signed the bill and celebrated Chanukah with the local Jewish community in Brasilia. Rabbis, Jewish officials and diplomats attended the event.

The date is significant as it is the re-inauguration date – in 2002 – of the oldest synagogue in the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel in Recife. Founded in 1636, it was built during Dutch rule. When the Portuguese took over, the Jews left for the Caribbean islands while others found their way to New Amsterdam.

The bill was introduced by Jewish congressman Marcelo Itagiba, who said it wasn’t easy to find a date reflecting the contribution made by the Jewish community to Brazil.

JGSLA 2010: Brian Lenius to speak

Professional genealogist and map expert Brian C. Lenius, co-founder of the East European Genealogical Society (EEGS) will speak at the 30th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy.

Brian is the author of “The Genealogical Gazetteer of Galicia.”

His 10 research trips to Poland, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Germany and Austria have resulted in greatly expanding resources available in North America.

He will speak on “The Lviv Archive Research Experience,” cadastral maps and landowner records found in Ukrainian and Polish archives.

Brian will also staff a table at the Market Square event on the conference’s first day, and demonstrate various Austrian Empire property maps and records which were created during three historical periods, 1785-88, 1819-1820, and 1817-1860s.

The last survey created property maps (cadastral maps) for the entire Empire.

These extremely detailed maps reveal individual houses, yards, barns, roads, fields, synagogues, cemeteries and more. Although they are considered technical resources, they provide rich detail for a genealogist or family historian who wishes to know more and trace their ancestors.

Along with vital records – or as a substitute if those records do not exist – the map can be a very powerful research tool.

With a house number and location, the researcher can see the routes his or her ancestors walked or rode by horse and wagon from home to fields, to school, synagogue, and learn about the family’s neighbors.

Brian’s expert knowledge will help researchers learn how to use these resources to uncover rich family details.

For all conference details, see the JGSLA 2010 site, and sign up for the newsletter and blog! Registration opens January 15.

Colorado: Three great January programs!

While most people might not think of Colorado as a hotbed of Jewish genealogy, Tracing the Tribe knows better.

Ellen Shindelman Kowitt and her colleagues in the Jewish Genealogical Society of Colorado are doing a fantastic job in educating their community, organizing multi-session courses, and inviting experts to speak.

Three programs will take place during January.

– Sunday, January 10, 9-11am
How to find naturalization records and why they are so useful for researching family history, with Joan Grady, PhD. There is no charge. Congregation Har HaShem, 3950 Baseline Road, Boulder.

Grady teaches several courses, including one on genealogy, at Arapahoe Community College’s Adult Education division, has presented to local and national groups and her articles have appeared in genealogical magazines.

In addition to earning a PhD, MA, MLA and BA, she completed the BYU Certificate for genealogy with a special emphasis on the British Isles and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She’s been a public and private education teacher, principal and superintendent.

– Thursday, January 14, 6.30pm
Digitized Documents: Footnote & Family Search Pilot, with Janice Prater. There is no charge. Congregation Emanuel, 51 Grape Street, Denver.

Come learn about the exciting research tools on Footnote and FamilySearch. Footnote enhances your genealogy research through the use of digitized documents from the National Archives and Library of Congress.

The FamilySearch Pilot Site is a focus of the LDS and Family History Library; thousands of volunteers are working world-wide to make indexes and digitized images available to researchers. As these records become available, genealogists will benefit from this ever-changing site with expanded search capabilities.

Prater is Colorado Genealogical Society past president and editor of British Connections, a publication of the International Society for British Genealogy and Family History. She has worked in the Denver Public Library’s Western History/Genealogy Department for eight years, and now volunteers in the same department and archives.

Tracing the Tribe has previously written about Ellen’s eight-session Jewish Family Tree Initiative: Workshop and Mentoring Series. Here’s the information on the next session of this great course, which will take place at Temple Sinai, 3901 S. Glencoe Street, Denver.

– Sunday, January 24, 9.30-11.45am
Maximizing the Internet to Jump Start Research: Jewish Resources Online.

Learn how to successfully navigate Internet resources for tracing Jewish family history. Get pointed in the right direction and jump start your research. This lecture will focus on resources that identify, index or explain specifically Jewish documents, gravestones and traditions; JewishGen, Holocaust Research, Jewish Archives in the U.S. and Israel, Blogs and more.

The lecture and workshop are part of the series supported by the Rose Community Foundation. Sessions are led by members of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Colorado and developed to help people get started in Jewish family history research.

Each session includes an instructional lecture and a hands-on workshop to assist with the creation of family trees and historical research utilizing genealogical resources and techniques. Mentoring assistance outside of class will be available.

There is an $18 one-time fee for non-members to cover a book and materials; the course is free for JGSCO members. For those who have already attended one session and paid the fee, the other sessions are free. Attendance is not required for all eight sessions, so feel free to jump in to the sessions you want.

Questions on any of the JGSCO programs may be sent to Ellen. For more information, click on the Jewish Genealogical Society of Colorado’s site.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.