Tracing the Tribe’s friend and colleague Howard Wolinsky has a new story in Ancestry Magazine, detailing how wildcards helped him end a 30-year search. The techniques may help you, too.
Read the complete story here.
It seemed so simple. I could barely contain myself.
I ended a 30-year search — a long journey littered with false starts, dead ends, and bottlenecks — with a major breakthrough. At long last, I had found my grandfather Henry Wolinsky.
Henry, named Hillel when he was born in 1871, had always been a mystery to me. He died before I was born, but I felt a special affinity with him because I was named for him in the Jewish custom. My religious name in Hebrew is Hillel. The “H” in my first name is in Henry’s honor as well.
My father, Sidney, told me when I was a teen that the original family name was Schrogin. That has been an important bit of data in my search for my family origins. But it turned out not to be the whole story because of translations, misspellings, and name changes, a fact I nailed down only a year ago.
Howard addresses the original surname SRAGAN and that SCHROGIN was the Americanized version. The old name was found in Czarist records.
Wildcard searches helped me overcome these stumbling blocks. Such was the case when I typed Hillel Sra*g*n into Ancestry.com. The * is a wildcard, a character that may be used in a search to represent one or more other characters. If your relative is hidden among permutations of a name created by misspellings, bad transcriptions, poor penmanship, or mistranslations, a wildcard can help root him or her out. Up popped the name “Hillel Sragan,” my paternal grandfather, in a record. I’d found him. Finally.
We are all delighted for Howard.
How did his family get the name? In the early 1800s, Jews in the Russian Empire were required to select a family name. The roots of the name date to the Middle Ages, and involve the name SRAGA (which means “light”). It is also a kinnui for the Hebrew-Yiddish names of Shraga Feibush, which also carry the same meaning of “light” in both languages.
As Tracing the Tribe writes frequently, a great myth of Jewish genealogy is that no records can be found in Eastern Europe. We have been told that they were destroyed during wars, that they have disappeared. Of course, we’ve discovered that this is not true, and there are indeed major record collections all over Eastern Europe.
Like many of us who have been in this game for a long time, Howard heard the same thing when his quest began three decades ago. Over the years, he’s found records showing Hillel was born in Keidainai (Kedain), Lithuania – a branch of my own BANK family is also connected to that town.
Howard has always questioned how and when Hillel became Henry Wolinsky. He knew Henry took his brother’s surname but not how Wolinsky was added to the picture.
He’s tried to determine the truth to a story that the brother bought a business with the name Wolinsky and then changed his own name. Or, was there something else involved?
Howard did what we all have done and continue to do. We check city directories, ship’s manifests from various ports and new databases as we become aware of their existence. He found nothing related to the name change how and why, but he did find new data on his grandfather and his brother.
And now comes the happy DNA dance part of the story. Tracing the Tribe loves DNA. DNA as a genealogical tool was made for this. While this story did not exactly involve a DNA technology match, it did bring together Howard’s DNA friends and genetic cousins, who have met over the years via their mutual research revealing a long-ago common ancestor.
Many of his DNA contacts are also experts in old-fashioned paper trail research, such as Rebekah Canada in Iowa and Jill Whitehead in London. Tracing the Tribe is on many DNA lists and Rebekah and Jill are familiar names.
Rebekah helped with a complex wildcard search and found his grandfather’s brother – Isaac Sragan – who arrived in New York by way of Glasgow in 1884. Howard used her technique to find his grandfather in the Hamburg passenger list showing his arrival in 1892.
A British records expert, Jill found Howard’s grandfather – “Halel Seagan” – in the UK National Archives. Now that Howard had another “official” spelling to work with, a Boston arrival record was revealed for “Hilel Seagren.”
Howard has found many “official” name variations in various databases, including Schrogin, Sragan, Srogen, Shrogin, Sragen, Seagren and Seagan.
While many people think that my own surname of interest, Talalay, is relatively (pun intended) easy to spell, there are some 30 or so variations in various databases. Who would have guessed that such a simple phonetic name could be transformed into some really unrecognizable forms?
The bottom line? Never give up. Keep checking databases (and look for new ones), construct many wildcard searches, and enlist your relatives (including genetic cousins) in the quest.
Howard still doesn’t know where Wolinsky fits in, but I’m sure he won’t give up and will tell us as soon as he finds out. Take a cue from him – never give up.
Yes, I know I wrote that twice. It is that important. If you don’t find what you’re looking for today, look tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. With so many records coming online or new record groups being made available onsite in different places, the chances of success increase exponentially.
Jewish genealogists worldwide are a collaborative group. We try to help each other and we never know where the next clue to our quest may come from.
NOTE: To see a segment of a UK show covering Howard’s trip to Hull to trace his grandfather’s voyage, see this YouTube clip. The host’s accent and the music track is as good as the story itself.