UK: Pedigreed properties

If the walls of your house could talk, what would they say?

Did you know that UK genealogist professional Dr. Nick Barratt – of Who Do You Think You Are? fame – will investigate the history of your house?

He spends three days researching the house and provides a report and CD. He’s been doing this type of genealogy for 15 years, and says there’s a growing interest with the past, whether it is family or real estate.

The Independent (UK) detailed “properties with pedigrees” in this story by James Boardman.

This takes family history a step further. Not just bodies and names, but stones, bricks and real estate. A house with a documented past may also be more valuable.

Resource sites include old maps, census records, architectural surveys.

The story quotes professional house historian Dr. Ian Friel, who said that family history programs spark interest. People who often asked about a building’s history – more than about their ancestors – were the inspiration for his new line of work.

But like researching family trees, digging up dirt on a house can be a time-consuming task: be prepared to spend hours trawling through old records, books and websites. While some amateur historians will enjoy nothing more than poring over parish registers, for those who don’t have the time or inclination, paying someone else to do the research is becoming an increasingly popular choice. While Friel says that he’d “never want to take away the fun of people doing it for themselves”, he does warn that researching your own home’s history could take many months.

Barratt said “We’re re-engaging with the past to tell us something about the present. It’s a bottom-up approach to history.”

He found one house built by a government customs officer who was also a smuggler. The home was built over a cave system where he stored goods from the smugglers he was supposed to be catching. He also thinks another property once held Jack the Ripper.

Another researcher in the story, Sue Austen, said that “Houses are full of stories; my job is to find the story.” Her company produces hardcover house histories including professional photography resulting in coffee-table books.

She got into it by doing a book on her own home as a surprise for her husband.

“I managed to find early plans, discovering what rooms were first used for, which staircases and doors had been moved around – how the house was used at different times in its life story,” she says. The book details not only the history and many occupants of her seafront house, but also includes details of the town’s development as a holiday resort, the terrible storms that struck in 1897 and 1948, and the fluctuating reputation of the terrace’s sometime watering hole, the Dolphin Hotel.

The story also provided some good UK-based resources as well:

The National Archives

— Nick Barratt’s Hidden House History’s step-by-step guide.

Bricks and Brass with hints on how to date a house by design and style.

Old Maps has Ordnance Survey maps back to the 1800s.

Read the complete article and check out the resource links above.

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.

New York: Treasure trove of WPA photos

Tracing the Tribe apologizes for not posting this much earlier. It has been languishing in the drafts folder and deserves to be made public.

This resource will help you locate photos and details for your own addresses of interest, as it did Tracing the Tribe’s Bronx apartment building and Brooklyn house.

From 1938 to 1943, 700,000 photos were taken of real estate in every borough of New York. In the 1980s, a second set of 800,000 photos were taken.

Read the story in the New York Times with details about ordering prints. Here’s a general shot of the Brooklyn Bridge (1934).

Known as tax photographs. The first set was taken for the city to make property assessments and as a federal employment program for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The second set was for another round of assessments.

The earlier set has been available to researchers for two decades, and the second set is now also available. Photos from both sets can now be purchased from the city.

Each photo carries the property’s block and lot number. Find the block and lot number by entering the address at

I easily found the BBL (block number) for both our Bronx apartment building and our Brooklyn house.

The 1940 shots are black-and-white: $35 for an 8×10; $50 for an 11×14. The 1980 shots are color: $45 for an 8×10; $60 for an 11×14. For up to six prints the shipping and handling is $5, and prices go up by another $5 per address if block and lot number is not included. Payment is refunded if a photo is not found.

According to Brian G. Andersson, city commissioner of records and information services, many of the earlier batch of photos may be the only extant shots of some properties. Some buildings are not there anymore, some have been extensively renovated and some have changed little.

More photographs and the history of specific properties are available at

Have fun finding the shots of your own properties of interest.

Gesher Galicia: Lviv Photo Project

For many researchers around the world, traveling back to the homes of our ancestors may an impossible dream.

Wouldn’t it be great to see the house our great-great-grandparents lived in? Or, to bring it forward to more contemporary times, perhaps the house you or your parents lived in?

Thanks to volunteers around the world, it is becoming possible. Now it is a reality for some whose families came from Lviv/Lvov/Lemberg (was Galicia, now Ukraine), thanks to Gesher Galicia’s “Lviv House and Street Photography Project.” See it here.

When a Dutch-born teacher, now working in Germany, volunteered to do work during his summer in Lviv, the project took off. For four weeks in July, Dick Koops covered the city in search of the streets, lanes and pathways our ancestors once walked, enabling many Gesher Galicia members to have photos of the places where they or their ancestors once lived.

When Koops sent the photographs to Pam, he wrote:

I very much hope that my work in Lviv, will be meaningful for the Jewish grand-grandchildren of those who were victims of the Nazi-regime and those who supported it or allowed it to exist. We cannot change history; at least to learn from it is already very difficult.

Many street names have changed during the past 70 years. Thanks to the Henri Nouwen Foundation, one worker researched the street names, and the brother of the Foundation’s local head, Petrov Kokor, served as Koops’ guide and translator. Read more at the link above.

When you click on the site link, photos are listed in alphabetical order according to street name and number. In some cases, there are interior/courtyard and street views and more than one house is included.

Feel free to download the photos for personal use only as Koops holds the copyrights to these images. Email him to obtain permission for another purpose.

Visitors to the site are invited to add comments about the house (the age of the building, the identity of residents and when they lived there) by emailing (see below) the details to Pam Weisberger. Viewers may also add comments on Flickr via the provided link.

Eventually, says Pam, the details will be in a searchable database. Gesher Galicia also plans to create an interactive Lviv map, overlaying old maps onto contemporary ones, with photo links and resident details.

Many readers actually lived in these buildings before and after the war, and those personal stories are very important to the project; make sure to contact Pam if you have stories to share.

For more information about Gesher Galicia, click here. Email Pamela Weisberger if you have additional information for a photo or personal story. Credit where credit is due: Special thanks to Brooke Schreier Ganz for formatting the photos for the Internet.

Place of space: Our ancestors’ homes

How do our surroundings, our living spaces impact our families, our thoughts, our history?

Isn’t this what our pursuit of genealogy helps to reconstruct? To make sure that our family history remains alive and known and preserved?

In a poem by Leib Borisovich Talalai, a young Yiddish poet whose family was from our shtetl of Vorotinschtina, who later lived in Baranovich and in Minsk, and who was ultimately murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1941, he writes about his family house in our shtetl, “If the walls of this house could talk. …”

What do you know about the spaces in which your ancestors lived? At left are steep steps in the old Jewish quarter of Girona, Spain.

On Yom Kippur, I usually read for a good portion of the day. This year, it was “Sepharad,” by Antonio Munoz Molina, one of Spain’s most famous writers, who draws on the Sephardic diaspora and touches on the Holocaust and even the purges of Stalin while telling this story I couldn’t put down.

The book, praised as “a masterpiece” by “The Lost” author Daniel Mendelsohn, offers some insights into what I’m terming “the place of space” in our lives and in our family history. Mendelsohn wrote in the New York Review of Books:

“Shame and guilt, homelands and exile, ceaseless wanderings and bitter alienations both internal and external, metaphorical and real, are persistent motifs….”

Writes Munoz Molina:

“What is the minimal portion of country, what does of roots or hearth, that a human being requires?” Jean Amery asked himself, remembering his flight from Austria in 1938, perhaps the night of March 15, on the express train that left Vienna at 11:15 for Prague, his troubled, clandestine journey across European borders toward the provisional refuge of Antwerp, where he knew the endless insecurity of exiled Jews, the native’s hostility toward foreigners, humiliation from the police and officials who examine papers and certify or deny permits and make you come back the next day and the next and who look at the refugee as someone suspected of a crime. The worst is to be stripped of the nationality you thought was yours inalienably. You need at least a home in which you can feel safe, Amery says, a room that you can’t be dragged from in the middle of the night, that you don’t have to run from as fast as you can when you hear police whistles and footsteps on the stairs.

Later on he asks the reader:

What do you do if you know that from one day to the next you can be driven from your home, that all it takes is a signature and a lacquer seal at the bottom of a decree for the work of your entire life to be demolished, for you to lose everything, house and goods, for you to find yourself out on the street exposed to shame, forced to part with everything you considered yours and to board a ship that will take you to a country where you will also be pointed at and rejected, or not even that far, to a disaster at sea, the frightening sea you have never seen?

He describes an old Jewish house with a low door, on a narrow street in a neighborhood of 15th century houses. On the two ends of the large stone lintel are two Stars of David, inscribed in a circle. The author adds:

The two Stars of David testify to the existence of a large community, like the fossilized impression of an exquisite leaf that fell in the immensity of a forest erased by a cataclysm thousands of years ago. They couldn’t believe that they would actually be driven out, that within a few months they would have to abandon the land they had been born in and where their ancestors had lived. The house has a door with rusted studs and an iron knocker, and small Gothic moldings in the angles of the lintel. Maybe the people who have gone carried with the key that fit this large keyhole, maybe they handed it down from father to son through generations of exile, just as the language and sonorous Spanish names were perpetuated, and the poems and children’s songs that the Jews of Salonica and Rhodes would carry with them on the long hellish journey to Auschwitz. It was a house like this that the family of Baruch Spinoza or Primo Levi would leave behind forever.

Quite by coincidence, a Google alert this morning led me to the Genealogy Blog’s post which also commented on “the place of space” in our family histories.

This leads me to a thought: what part do places hold in our family histories? It would seem places (like houses) take on a character of their own, a spirit, if you will. They facilitate gathering and celebrating and memories. When they are taken away, it seems there is a disruption in our gatherings until we can find another substitute. In our transient society where we uproot every two years, are we constantly severing these vital ties with the past and memory.

Is there a difference between taking away a house, or taking away the family that lived there? What happens to the generations and centuries of memories? How long do they remain to be passed on to younger generations?

When do those memories disappear?

When does the disconnect occur between history and youth?

New Hampshire: Living 1919 again!

Tracing the Tribe loves living museums where people and businesses recreate ordinary life as it was in a particular historical period. Williamsburg (Virginia) is one of those places I could visit every year!

In New Hampshire, the Strawbery Banke restoration is a living museum demonstrating some 350 years of preserved Portsmouth homes, stores, churches and history. It’s located in Puddle Dock, a rundown neighborhood that was supposed to be torn down for urban renewal. Fortunately, a 1950s-60s campaign, led by the town’s librarian, saved 42 houses on 10 acres for the museum.

And there’s a Jewish element to the restoration as actor Barbara Ann Paster plays Shiva Shapiro in 1919.

According to this New York Times article, the area was settled in 1623 by the English and named after the wild strawberries they found there. In the early 20th century, the Italians, Irish, English, French-Canadians and Eastern European Jews came to find work. By 1919, there were some 152 Russian Jews, about 25% of the immigrants of Puddle Dock; 18 of them were Shapiro relatives.

“Shlom Aleichem!” Shiva Shapiro said in a heavy Yiddish accent to her visitors.

As she deftly stuffed cabbage leaves with rice and stewed tomatoes, and displayed other dishes she has made on her 1900 Beauty Hub coal stove, Ms. Shapiro drew her guests into her life.

“This is 1919,” she said. “Last year was the end of the influenza epidemic and the end of the war to end all wars. We’re a Jewish family and we’re keeping kosher in our home. I don’t read English, only Yiddish and Hebrew. My daughter Mollie learned about bananas at school. I think that bananas are mushy, but I take her to buy a hand of bananas for 25 cents.”

In her persona as Shapiro, Paster’s cooking follows the seasons and the Jewish calendar. She makes strawberry jam, pickles cucumbers with dill and puts up peaches with brandy. For Rosh Hashana, she made pasta dough strips into bowtie noodles for her kasha, as well as honey and poppy seed cakes.

Mrs. Paster, 61, has been portraying Mrs. Shapiro since the Shapiro house opened in 1997. “My entire life was made for this job,” Mrs. Paster said with a laugh. “I married an Orthodox man. I’m Jewish from Russia, so I know the rules of kashrut and family purity. I am also a storyteller.”

The first Mrs. Shapiro arrived in 1905 from Anapol, Ukraine to meet her future husband from the same town in Portsmouth where Abraham worked in a shoe factory and later was the Portsmouth synagogue’s president.

As Shapiro, Paster portrays a 34-year-old woman whose time is spent in a kitchen with coal stove and icebox. The museum staff were very careful about the historical accuracy of the foods Shapiro/Paster prepared and what items the family actually would have had available.

“To authenticate the Shapiro house,” said Michelle Moon, director of education for the museum, “the curatorial staff interviewed 30 people from the neighborhood and took pollen and seed analyses to determine what grew and was eaten in their home.”

The immigrants brought seeds of traditional vegetables such as yellow Ukrainian carrots, kale, parsnips, yellow Ukrainian tomatoes and others. Seed catalogs of 1919 included Russian cucumbers and yellow Zubrinski potatoes, which now grow there. Read about Strawbery Banke’s historic gardens and heirloom seeds here, which offers information on the Shapiro Garden:

The Shapiro Garden is a recreated Russian Jewish immigrant family’s garden of 1919. It is representative of the many small urban gardens planted by the different ethnicities that made up the early 20th-century Puddle Dock neighborhood. The Shapiros used their garden to propagate many types of vegetables, such as heirloom cabbage, garlic, breadseed poppy, hyssop and yellow Ukrainian tomatoes, which helped to preserve the diet and culture of their homeland.

In the nearby town of Greenland, Jewish farmers even grew buckwheat (kasha), an immigrant staple.

If you are ever near Portsmouth, take some time to visit Strawbery Banke.

UK: Home building for genealogists

Looking for a new way to honor your ancestors and their Old Country villages? Take a cue from a British couple who have built miniature models of her ancestors’ homes after researching 500 years of family history.

The Telegraph carried the story.

Peggy and Peter Newman, both 77, have traced buildings linked to 13 generations of relatives since they began researching the project 25 years ago.

Painstakingly carved by hand, each of the 14 houses and other buildings took six months to construct.

Mr Newman, a former electrical engineer, who is now a keen carpenter, has built the houses while his wife has researched the materials and the style, and has contributed needlework.

Mrs Newman said: “The models go back through the ages, with buildings from Tudor and Victorian times right the way through the two World Wars until the present day.

“I am very fussy when it comes to history and they really are authentic. It has been quite hard work but a lot of fun.”

The collection, which has cost the couple more than pounds 100,000, includes a blacksmith’s, a church, a windmill and a seaside scene.

It also contains homes of Mrs Newman’s nine times great grandfather Thomas Rist, who died in 1616, and of David Rist, her five times great grandfather’s cousin, who died in the 18th Century.

Some models also have figures of their owners. Her GGGGF is shown pushing his baker’s cart.

And talking about seeing a mirror in a mirror – one model is the couples home where the entire collection is displayed.

Most of the research was conducted before the internet, and Mrs Newman travelled across the south of England, visiting libraries, sifting through old newspaper cuttings, and contacting local historians.

Some of the older houses are based on photographs as the buildings have been knocked down. The photographs were sent to a kiln so the couple could be supplied with the necessary tiles and stone.

Mrs Newman got the idea after seeing a doll’s house in a shop.

What a great idea!