Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"In Everything I Do"

Elizabeth singing "In Everything I Do"("B'chol Ma'ssai") written by Karen Davis
 and accompanied by her father.

This beautiful melody and song, "In Everything I do," has been playing over and over in my mind since I first heard it at the Kranowitz reunion eighteen months ago. Elizabeth, is my third cousin, whom I met for the first time during the reunion weekend. Prior to the reunion we were barely aware of each other's existence. I'm not sure she realizes, but that moment, captured on my iphone—that song—has left a  extremely strong impact. It left a particularly powerful impression on me. It transformed the way I view genealogy.

I see genealogy as many things. Mostly I feel it's a gift, or—as my great-grandmother wrote in her journal—a treasure. So powerful are her words: "I stored up many treasures in my life on this earth," that I based the title of her memoir, Stored Treasures on them. Minne Crane, my great-grandmother, in those two words,"Stored" and "Treasures," captures the process of genealogy. Studying family history, is truly a treasure hunt. Each aspect of the work we do, tracing our lineage back in time, continually surprises us with hidden delights. Elizabeth, reminded me that sometimes, the treasures of genealogy are not hidden in the past, they are right here in the present.

Let me explain. Searching for roots is a personal journey—at least, that is what I believed when I embarked. For me, it was almost a selfish need to extinguish an unquenchable thirst for knowledge about where I come from. I have been described as many things, including: well centered, hardworking, persistant, self confident but never spiritual. I think of myself, as a woman who is very comfortable with who she is. Therefore, I often ponder why understanding my family's past has become so important to me? Who knows? Maybe it's a type of mid-life crisis? After all, I did hit forty when I became a genealogy geek. Researching my ancestry may not be an identity crisis, it clearly has deepened my sense of who I am.

Seated in a conference room at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, amongst the Kranowitz descendants, I listed in awe to Elizabeth sing. This prayer, turned song—which she sang first in Hebrew, then English—was an amazing conclusion to an incredible reunion. Listening to that song, I realized two very important things. The first, my great-grandmother, did not just send me on a voyage into the past when she challenged me to search for lost treasures. The wise grandmother that she was, she understood the value of family, and of the present. What she learned from the past, she utilized to constantly improve her life. The past and present are inseparable. The family reunion—particularly the song, "Everything I do"—reminded me of that small pearl of knowledge. The second, while advancing genealogical work is extremely important, sharing the legacy with the family and beyond, is the gift that keeps giving.

William Crane with his wife Luba (Elizabeth's
and son's Fred, Maurice and Robert (Elizabeth's
Most of the weekend, Elizabeth was fairly reserved and quiet. She seemed like a lovely young women, but no one realized she could sing. Her branch of the family had lost contact with our extended family for many years. Elizabeth's grandfather had a falling out with his dad, and eventually,  lost touch with everyone. What we learned at the reunion was, that Elizabeth and her brother, grew up feeling like they had no relatives at all. They barely knew their grandfather and never met any of his Crane (Kranowitz) cousins. One of my original goals for the reunion was to have every branch of the family represented. Their branch was a particular mystery. I search for them high and low with only names and an old defunct address to go by. Eventually, I found Elizabeth and her family through good old google. I contacted her dad, Kendall and invited him to join the on-line tree and come to the reunion. He was thrilled!

William Crane in WWI army uniform
Getting ready to leave for the front.
1917, Hartford CT
(This is a photo I recently discovered
 in my aunt's attic). 
Kendall, his wife and children are all musicians. They fit in quite well with the rest of the Kranowitz descendants, as the musical gene is heavily expressed throughout. Elizabeth and her brother, were amongst the most engaged of the twenty year-olds present. Isolated from family for so long, they could not get enough of the stories about their grandfather and great-grandparents. Kendall  recalled what lead to the family rift so many years ago and was grateful for the warm welcome he and his family received.

Musical as we all are, the family hosted a sing along on Saturday night. Kendall pulled out his trombone and dazzled us with his skill. Elizabeth, sang along with the rest of the gang. When the crowds thinned, her dad encouraged her to share a song. She was a little intimidated to sing in Hebrew. Their family's had left traditional judaism generations back, but most of the rest of the family is Jewish. We encouraged her to sing anyways, and then she sang. This first performance was as haunting and beautiful as the encore she gave the following day—in front of a packed house—adjourning the reunion. To a stunned crowd, she unveiled her stored treasure.

The song is a very powerful prayer. The message, taken from Psalms 139: be true to everything you do, resonated with all of us who listened to her sing. Elizabeth, who knew little of her Jewish ancestry, was singing a prayer in Hebrew, to her newly discovered Jewish relatives. Amazingly, it's very much the message our common ancestors brought to America when they immigrated a hundred years ago. While most of the family is not religious, the traditions and prayers—so powerful for our ancestors—are very much respected. Elizabeth, part of the Non-Jewish minority in our family, brought to us a universal prayer. As we prepared to return home to our daily routines, she reminded us of the unexpected hidden treasures found all around us, not only in the past, but right here in the present.

Thank you Elizabeth for not letting me forget an important fact: genealogy makes us aware of the past, in order for us to live a better present and prepare for the future. Thanks for everything you do!

Do you have a stored treasure you would like to share? How has genealogy changed your life?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Never Give Up and Good Things Will Come

My Grandfather, on guard duty at his Kibbutz, 1939.

WARNING! Researching dead relatives can be a lonely endeavor. If you are thinking of researching your family history, consider yourselves duly warned. The genealogist amongst you, surly know what I'm referring to. For the record, please note: as difficult, frustrating and lonely as this pursuit may be, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND GENEALOGY! 

Personally, I am far from sharing Tim Tebow's religious beliefs—and as a Bostonian, I could not be happier that the Patriots just ended his amazing run—but I share in his message: Never Give Up and Good Things Will Come. Genealogy is a form of detective work requiring spending long hours alone, perseverance, attention to details and exceptional deciphering skills. Those around you, will rarely understand this crazy obsession with the past. Luckily, for you and for me, the internet is full of other's like us. The good news is, there are millions of Americans—and many more millions around the globe—researching their family history. In my immediate family, everyone is far to busy living their lives. Justifiably, they have little interest or time to study the lives of those who came before them. Yet there is a whole community of professional genealogist or self declared genealogy addicts who are out there sharing their work, offering advice, posting blogs and supporting this amazing and important process. While the process can be frustrating and guaranteed  to lead you into many dead ends, I promise it's a journey worth taking. To illustrate how perseverance will result in great discoveries, I want to share  with you one of my most remarkable discoveries: records in the Yad Vashem (Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority museum in Israel) database exposing information I feared lost forever. Read on, and remember DON'T GIVE UP!

It was two o'clock in the morning, and once again, I was staring at my computer screen, looking for clues about my great-grandparents who died in the holocaust. Four of my eight great-grandparents, lost their lives prematurely in the holocaust. My father, lost all his grandparents before he was born. So little did my grandparents talk about their lost family, that my father—now in his sixties—just did not remember the first names of his long deceased grandparents.  "How can you not remember your own grandparents names?" I kept asking. They were people, full of life! They were trapped by history. Living in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Someone needs to remember them. These missing ancestors were a huge hole in my family tree and my heart. All I had to go by, was their last names. Yampel and Celnik. 

My Great Uncle William Celnik who
Survived Auschwitz and his wife Edith Rose.
On my father's Kibbutz, almost his entire generation grew up without grandparents, uncles or cousins. Like many Kibbutzim, Kibbutz Tel Yitzchak, was founded by young Eastern European pioneers who came to Israel as part of the zionist movement in the early 1930s. As idealistic teenagers, my grandparents left their families and comfortable middle class Polish homes, in pursuit of their dream: creating an independent Jewish state in what was then the dangerous, wasteland of Israel. During World War II, they lost everyone in their family except one of my grandmother's brother's who survived Auschwitz. In 1942, when most European Jews—among them my familywere obliterated by the Nazi's, my grandparents were in their late twenties and had not started a family of their own. They never determined exactly how they died. For them, there was no closure. No funeral, no shiva (traditional week of mourning), no grave to visit, no death certificate, not even a clue as to where or when exactly their loved ones perished. As I think about the strength it required to commence a family while you are mourning such unimaginable loss, I am overwhelmed. 

I must have searched the Yad Vashem site hundreds of times prior to that night. I searched there and on many other sites, and JewishGen to name a few. Without a first name, or any other identifying clue, it is almost impossible to identify a lost one. I kept probing my father for information and insisting that there must be somewhere we can bring to light the names of his grandparents. After all, they were his grandparents, not some distant relative. Earlier that day, my dad walked in triumphantly and said:" I found some documents. I hope they help." In his hand he held two death certificates belonging to his parents. My expert eyes scanned these documents in amazement, and immediately picked up a very important fact he had completely over looked. Both death certificate, written in Hebrew, listed the name of the deceased's fathers: Leon Yampel and Matias Tzelnik. Finally, I had names. This was a huge breakthrough! Armed with this new information, again I entered, hoping to discover something about the two men who gave me life, and whom I knew nothing about. I looked and I looked. Nothing. I tried different spellings. Nada. And then, as I was about to call it a night, I noticed an option on the search engine which said witness.

It took a little more exploring to understand what this witness option was all about. Yad Vashem, collects testimonies of holocaust victims. These documents are called Witness Pages and are a kind of combination of a birth and death certificate. Despite the German's compulsive record taking practices, millions died during the war without a trace. The Witness Page is a testament to these victims lives and the fact that they existed. Normally these forms are completed by a relative or person who knew the victim and therefore witnessed their life. I had an epiphany. My grandfather, must have documented losing his parents, brother and in-laws.

For many years, grandfather worked as an archivist at a small holocaust museum on his Kibbutz called Massuah. His job was to record every article that appeared in Israel's newspapers related to the Holocaust. Reading the newspaper at my grandparents home was never any fun. Huge rectangular sections where missing from where a holocaust article carefully removed. In their home, there was an unspoken rule not to discuss the holocaust. As a little girl, I loved my grandfather's stories about the early days of hardships in the state of Israel. My saba (grandfather in Hebrew), loved tell stories about swarms of malaria infested mosquitos attacking him as he dried out the swamps by planting eucalyptus trees. But if I asked about Poland and his childhood, he would simply brush me off. "That was so long ago, I don't remember." he would retort and quickly change the subject. Yet, the newspaper, riddled with holes, was an ever present reminder to me, that my grandparents never forgot. They carried the weight of the holocaust on their shoulders silently. They wanted to shelter us, never to burden us children with such a heavy cargo. This restraint silence explains my father's inability to recall his grandparents names.

When I saw the witness option, on the Yad Vashem search engine, I knew that my grandfather, with his dedication to documenting the holocaust, must have filed a testimony page in Yad Vashem. Instead of looking for Yampel or Tzelnik, I tried a new approached and searched for Baruch Lavi, the witness. (My grandfather, Born Zigmond Yampel, Hebrewtized his name, around the foundation of the state of Israel. This was another attempt to leave Europe behind). To my amazement, instantly, sixteen records appeared. I looked at the list of names, and there they were. My four great-grandparents, and four great-aunts and uncles, each of their name appearing twice. I clicked on the first one, and read the summary. Then I clicked to see the original document. What I unearthed, was a Witness Page filled out by my grandfather in 1955. By then, after years of searching, he must have given up hope of finding survivors. This document may have been the only piece of closure he had. His familiar hand writing, recorded his fathers name, Leon Yampel—transcribed Jampel (J is pronounced as Y in Polish, a fact I did not know at the time), no wonder I could not find it—date of birth, names of Leon's parents, occupation, last known address, and where Leon may have perished.
Yad Vashem Witness Page for Leon Jampel my great-grandfather

My grandfather's brother Michael Jampel
Who perished in the holocaust. He was about
12 years old when he perished.
Alone, at my desk, tears streaming down my face, I read about my relatives. My beloved grandfather, who did not want to talk about the past, left these records behind for me to discover. That night, I felt he preserved this heritage only for me. I was the only one interested, the only one asking for stories. He understood, that one day, I will be ready to carry the weight of remembering. He understood, that one day, we, his descendants, will need to know. In 1999, when in his eighties, he filled out these forms again, forgetful of the 1950s duplicates. Luckily for me, the new expanded questionnaire provided additional information and clues. My saba wanted to leave his parents legacy even if it was to painful for him to talk about them. He knew then, what I am only coming to understand now: you can not rush people into the discovery of their past. The understanding that family history is one's own history, comes time and maturity.

My great-grandmother Anna Celnik (Rosenbloom)
Holocaust Victim
This gigantic breakthrough for a genealogist—finding information about eight lost relatives—meant little to everyone else around me. My dad was very moved of course. My husband congratulated me, but most people did not understand the gravity of this monumental advancement. From these records, I was able to retrace my father's family four generations more. Through much persistance, I began to learn about these relatives, found three surviving photos and reconnected with the descendants of my great uncle who survived Auschwitz. I even found the concentration camp uniform which he donated to the kibbutz museum.

William Celnik's Auschwitz uniform
(photo curtsey of Massuah)
Note the red triangle overlaying the yellow
triangle designated him as a
 political Jewish prisoner.
Many question remain unanswered in my mind. I know very little about these forefathers. I know even less about the circumstance of their death. I am far from closure. So I keep looking for clues, digging for leads. Most importantly, I NEVER GIVE UP and I believe GOOD THINGS WILL COME.

What has been your most amazing genealogical discovery? Please share with us in the comment section. Have you reached a dead-end? Do you need help? Write me a comment!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Photo Worth A Thousand Words

"What a strange gift!" I thought to myself as I unwrapped an old photograph framed in a beautiful, gold, antique picture frame. I was a young bride of twenty-six at the time—returning from a honeymoon in South America—to find my home over-flowing with boxes filled with wedding presents. I placed the photo on my desk and stared for what seemed like a very long time. As a matter of fact, I had a difficult time peering my eyes away from this remarkable image. I stared, and they stared back at me. "Who are these people?" I pondered. I knew they were related to me, but exactly how, I was uncertain. Many questions came to mind: "Where did they come from? When was the photo taken? Who sent me this photo and why?" If there was a card along with this unusual gift, I do not remember. All I remembered—at least until recently—was that a cousin of my grandmother sent me this photo. I did not know this cousin and found it even weirder that she sent me a gift, but after checking with my grandmother, I found out that I had met this favorite cousin when I was a little girl. My grandmother had invited her to my wedding but she was unable to travel to Mexico for the festivities and sent this gift instead. "It's a photo of my grandparents, my mother's parents" my grandmother told me. Out of respect, I kept to myself the fact that I found the gift bizarre.

For years, this picture lived on a shelf in my library. I would like to believe I sent my grandmother's cousin a thank you card for her award winning gift. My husband and I dubbed it: "Creepiest wedding gift"—as I must admit—we found it a bit scary. It's not that I did not appreciate discovering what my great-great-grandparents looked like, but my great-great-grandmother had a very disturbing stare. His forlorn, sad eyes, juxtaposed with her glare make the photo even more eerie. Eventually, after several moves, it ended up in a box somewhere, where it remained undisturbed for at least a decade. Then, three years ago, my son, had a bar mitzvah. Together, as bar mitzvah project, we created a family tree on Thanks to this tree, I started an amazing personal journey, became the family historian, published a book and began this blog. At the heart of this ongoing, phenomenal endeavor, is this sepia print of my ancestors. 

Hand Written
Kranowitz Family Tree
When you start a family tree, you begin with names. As the tree grows, the branches connect, the generations expand, one can not help but wonder who these people where? What they looked like? When or where they lived?  What did they do for a living? What where they like as people? The more I researched, the more I wanted to know. So, one of the first things I did when I had some time—after the bar mitzvah craziness died down—was to dig up old photographs. My favorite, by far, was the prized photo, now bestowed "the most intriguing photo" award. Dusted off, and prominently displayed on my desk, I began at the beginning. Names. What where their names. My mother, who was visiting at the time, brought with her an old family tree. One page, was clearly labeled, with a xerox copy of this famed photo, at the top. Moshe Aaron Kranowitz and Feige Yarmovsky. I summed-up what I knew, Moshe Aaron, was a postman, my mother recalled. His wife Feige, was a very ill woman, she suffered from arthritis or something like that, she ventured. They had many children (eight, we learned from the tree). 

Me welcoming the Kranowitz family to the
reunion with the photo of Moshe Aaron and Feige
projected behind me.
Last August I welcomed seventy members of the Kranowitz family to a, first ever, family reunion. As I stood infront of this group of cousin's—some of whom I had only met on the internet—I scanned the room looking for genetic similarities. Behind me, I projected, this now famous family photo, and waited for everyone to settle down. After two years of research, I learned many things about Moshe Aaron and Feige (we are now on a first name basis). Moshe Aaron and Feige had a total of one hundred and seventy one descendants. One hundred and forty one of them are living around the globe today. Many of them were seated comfortably around the room. I began my welcome speech with a question: "How many people had ever seen this photo?" Almost all the hands went up. "How many of the people in the room, had ever seen this photo before visiting the reunion website?" I continued. A lot fewer hands went up, mostly belonging to the eldest of the four generations of cousins present. "How many of you have this photo hanging at home?" I wondered. A few hands came down, but almost every table, had a representative who displayed this photo on their walls. "How many people know who these people are?" I asked. A few hands came down. "How many people know their names?" Aside from my mother, myself and two cousins who are genealogist like myself, only the elders kept their palms raised.  Like me—when I was a young bride, staring at her forefathers—most of my family, knew very little about  Moshe Aaron and Feige. Everyone in the hotel conference room, was either a descendant or married to a descendant of Moshe Aaron and Feige. They all somehow owe their existence, or the existence of their children, to the choices and the sacrifices Moshe Aaron and Feige made over a century ago. Some, like my children, were six generations removed from the photo. For others, this was a photo of their grandparent. Grandparents whom they never met. I proceeded to share their story, our story, and what I learned in years of researching the photograph and the people in it. I began by telling my family how I acquired the photo myself as a wedding gift, but forgotten from whom. Cousin Flossie, interrupted me: "I sent it to you!" she said. "Do you still have the frame?" she asked. "I do, "I proudly told her." She beamed, and I continued with the tale.
Four Generations of Kranowitz descendants

Genealogical research is a lot like working on a puzzle. As clues are uncovered, the story comes together. Moshe Aaron, the patriarch of our family was born around died at the age of seventy-one. I learned his age at death, from an article my great-grandmother published in the Belitza Yizkor Book (Holocaust Memorial book from the their home town of Belitsa, now in Belarus, whose Jewish community was obliterated by the Nazis). He died at temple while saying the Shmone Esreh prayer (a central prayer in the Jewish liturgy). From this photo, I determined what year it was when he was seventy-one, and therefore I could surmise the year of his birth. Turns out this snapshot was taken in the last year or year and a half of both their lives. I deduced this fact, when I showed the photo to an elderly distant cousin on the Yarmovsky side. He pointed out an obscure old custom. In the only known photo of Moshe Aaron Kranowitz, he is wearing a skull cap, also known as a yarmulke or Kippa, in accordance with his religious observance. As was the custom back then, this particular type of Kippa was only worn by eastern european jews who were seventy years old or older. Among the Jewish community, seventy years was considered a life span. A special ceremony was celebrated at the temple on a man's seventieth birthday, and only then did he wear this type of kippa. At the age of eighty-three, a second bar mitzvah was celebrated—a custom still practiced by some jews today.

Another tid-bit I discovered was that Moshe Aaron had a second wife. Shortly after Feige passed away, he remarried to woman named Fruma-Leah. Here is where I did some math and put together the puzzle. Moshe Aaron was older than seventy when he remarried (he was married to his first wife Feige in the photo, with the Kippa) but younger than seventy-two. Feige must have died by 1923 or so. Flossie who was born in 1924, was named after Feige, and Ashkenazi jews do not name their children after living relatives. If wife number one, Feige, was alive in 1922-3—as documented in the photo—and Moshe Aaron was at least seventy years old in that photo, than, she must have died shortly after the photo was taken, dating the photo to around 1922. Moshe Aaron outlived Feige by no more than a year or so, making his second marriage very short lived and a miracle that it was noted on our family tree. If he died around 1923, then he was born around 1853. The last think I expected of this elderly grandfather, was that he would rush to remarry after losing wife, his life-long companion. By 1922, his youngest daughter, Sara Esther, was in her twenties, indicating that he was not looking for a wife to care for any young children. Who knows, maybe he married Fruma-Leah to care for him as he was aging? Or, maybe he married for love?

Like Moshe Aaron, Feige's portrait, reveals her as an observant jewish woman, dressed in the black dress and head coving typical for the time. Her most striking feature are her eyes. Their stare is intense, but their color is very light. Blue? Maybe Green? The color of my eyes. I was the first person in four generations on my branch of the family with light eyes. Feige's eyes passed down to me. No one remembered where the green eyes came from, until I studied this photo. As I looked closely, I at her face, I realized something else. Feige's face was full of scars. The scars are part of what makes her seem so frightening. One of the cousin's at the reunion brought another photo of a younger Feige. It is difficult to appreciate the light eyes in this second photo, but it is clear that her face was smooth when she was a young woman. These scars were mostly likely pox marks. Did she survive the small pox I wonder? 

Every time I listen to the song The Story, by Brandi Carlile, the lyrics remind me of Feige's scarred face. "All of these lines across my face, tell you a story of who I am" Brandie bellows and I think about Feige and her story. This vintage snapshot of my second great-grandparents reveals only a sliver of their story, a story I am still piecing together. I have a hunch that this photograph was taken on Moshe Aaron's seventieth birthday and sent to America to share with their five grown children who had immigrated. I base this educated guess on the fact that, in their children's possessions, there was no other photo of Moshe Aaron, and only the one other photo of a young Feige. This must have been a very special occasion, for the couple to have their picture taken. They were very poor, and portraits would have been expensive. They were religious jews who mostly did not believe in having their photo taken. Most young Jewish immigrants, brought a family portrait with them, before they sailed across the atlantic, often never to return. The Kranowitz siblings, had no such photo among their meager belongings. This is the only photo they had of their parents. By the time this photo was taken, they had not seen their parents for ten years or so. One brother immigrated in 1905 and the others between 1913-1914. I bet they requested a photo for many years, and probably sent money home for just that purpose. Did the photo arrive in America via the mail? Did someone personally deliver the photo to the Kranowitz siblings? I can only imagine what this photo meant to them. 

Many questions remain unanswered in my mind. They say a picture is worth a thousand words? I wrote 2,063 about this prized picture and I could easily add a thousand more. I can not put a worth to this photograph. To me, it's priceless. A treasure to be unveiled.

Do you have an intriguing photograph that tells a story? Want tips for finding old photographs? Want to share an amazing discovery for your family's history! Write a comment and share your thoughts!

(Much more about Moshe Aaron Kranowitz and Feige Yarmovsky can be learned in my book Stored Treasures, A Memoir), available on

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is the Art of Diary Writing Lost Forever?

With all the twitting, facebooking and blogging, are we as a society losing the art of journal writing? Does anyone keep a diary anymore? Does it matter? Can a blog replace a journal or a diary? I have spent much time pondering these questions as I foray into the blogging universe?

When was the last time you kept a diary? I myself was only a sporadic journal writer. As a child—well intention as I may have been—I meticulously inaugurated scores of blank notebooks, intended as dairies. The endeavor would rarely amount to more than ten entries, with only one exception—a beautiful, japanese style embroidered journal—a gift form my uncle Larry Bogdanow (may he rest in peace). I recently unpacked this ancient relic and reread it for the first time in about thirty years. Reading my diary was like opening a small window into my eleven year old world. Back then, I approached journal writing like many girls my age. I dated each entry and then predictably began: "Dear Diary", proceeding to write to my diary as if I was speaking to a best friend. Anne Frank and Judy Bloom's Margaret clearly influenced my stylistic techniques of journal writing. This prized possession of mine was a very private and the only thing I regretted about this particular journal, beautiful as it was in my eyes, was that it did not have a lock and a key. To protect the privacy of my most inner thoughts, resorted to hiding the diary under my mattress. In the diary, I describe the need absolute privacy was the only way to keep my writing completely honest with myself.
One of Minnie Crane Travel Journals and
my diary from when I was eleven.

How many children today keep a diary? None of my kids ever attempted writing one. Does gender influence journal writing? After all, I am card holding member of the Parents of Three Boys Club. Jeff Kinney's, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, probably boosted diary writing among children today as much as Anne Frank Diary did generations earlier. But did the craze stick? Can diary writing compete with an elementary schooler's aspiration to facebook? For all the obvious reasons, I was thrilled to foment journal writing and purchased two copies Diary of A Wimpy Kid, Do It Yourself, for my for my sons upon their insistance. Sadly, both remain mostly blank and continue to collect dust on the bookshelf. Granted—this could be the equivalent of my own multiple failed attempts at writing a diary—but frankly I doubt they will show interest in writing a diary ever again. As they have grown, facebook has provided an outlet for the need to record what they are doing everyday. Each to a different extent, uses facebook to share with intimate circle of hundreds of friends, what they are up to on a daily basis. Is posting a facebook status the equivalent of a daily? Do one hundred and forty character tweets count as journal entries?

Call me old fashioned, but I believe something very important is being lost. I'm certainly not a technophobe. On the other hand, blogging for the first time in 2012, does not qualify my as a forerunner in the use of new technology. Yet, finding my great-grandmother's journals a few years ago, stirred something very powerful in me. It not only lead me to publishing her memoir, but it rased my appreciation for the documentation of our lives to another level. To find those lost journals, I sent my family on a treasure hunt, to forage crowded attics and dig through overflowing drawers. A hundred years from now, what will my great-grandchildren find as they go searching for clues about their past.  Certainly some may argue, that electronic records, have a better chance to survive, than a diary did a hundred years ago. After all, the cloud will not be destroyed in a house fire, a hurricane, a flood or even a war. Many hard copies of books, documents, photos or precious diaries have been lost to such catastrophes. While ten years ago, electronic files were easily lost as computers crashed or floppy disks became obsolete, today internet giants promise an infinite cloud to store our books, music, photos and documents. But will the cloud save my blog into the next century and beyond? Will my facebook profile be accessible to my descendants once I pass. What will this tell them about who I was?

What legacy will these snippets of our lives leave behind? In my interest in the genre of women's memoir written by their descendants I recently discovered a wonderful book by Barbara Anne Waite,  ELSIE: ADVENTURES OF AN ARIZONA SCHOOLTEACHER 1913-1916. Barbara chose to tell her grandmother's story in the "Wild West" by weaving together Elsie's diaries, letters and her own insights into Elsie's years in Arizona. The resulting book, shares many similarities to my great grandmother's story. One striking difference is how both women Minnie and Elsie, only eight years apart in age, chose to record their lives in a very different fashion. Minnie recorded her memoirs, many years after the fact in a long narrated fashion. Elsie kept a diary, compulsively recording short snippets of her day over a period of three years. Her entries are often not much longer than a tweet. So reminiscent of a facebook update are her entries, that I dare to name Elsie the predecesor to facebook. To get to know Elsie as a woman, one must read between the lines, very much in the same way, my great-grandchildren may have to do, if they are lucky to come across and gain my facebook profile. The difference is, that Facebook updates are meant publicize personal feelings, while diary entries are usually private and intended only for the author's eyes—at least until they die. Studying both will provide a picture into someone's personality. Schools and employers have been known to peek into facebook pages to gain insight into a potential recruit's character. Facebook has a policy to memorialize profiles which they created mostly to help mourners communicate with their loved one's on-line community. I don't believe their intention was to leave a legacy for generations to come, but is reassuring to know the records are maintained.

Diaries did not directly morph into blogs, though blogging may be a fairly closer analogy to journal writing than facebooking. Like journals, blogs come in a large variety of forms and functions. Their purpose though, is certainly different than diary writing. Or is it? Journals were mostly private and personal. At times they were published into books, much like blogs do today. Some blogs are posted publicly—to the world at large—while others are private, accesible by invitation only. While providing some privacy, the virtue of sharing the blog, changes the intention from a look inward to a form of communication. How will generations from now, gain access to these private blogs? Will the internet hosts of these blog understand the needs of family historians hundreds of years from now and declassify them?

Most of us have given up letter writing long ago for the faster more efficient e-mail.  Millions have moved away from books and into electronic readers. As a society, we bankrupted film manufactures, local photo shops since no one prints photos any more. Today photo libraries live in a virtual cloud and are displayed in electronic frames. As a genealogist—who studies personal histories—I worry about the future of all these forms of communication and documenting of our lives. Most of all, I am struggling to let go of diaries. What if facebook goes out of business? What if the cloud is not economically viable. I want to believe that today's younger generations still poses a need to connect with their inner-selves privately. Once, this seemed to be an innate human necessity which was popularly accomplished through diary keeping. Maybe the need for privacy has changed, someone will invent an iDiary and bring it into this rapidly electronic, paperless world. I hope that the internet will permit future generations to sift through its' vast cob webs, making hidden treasures more readily available than ever before. After all, it's the stored treasures of our past we might want to uncover someday.

Are you still writing a diary? Have your kids every written one? Do you think it's important? Share your thoughts! Write a comment!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

How Does Looking Into the Past Help Discover Who We Are Today?

Stored Treasures, a Memoir is my personal quest into the past. Not just any past—my past. True, not exactly my past, but my family’s history. My husband and children, struggled to understand this obsession I developed. Warning! Genealogy is extremely addictive. “Mommy, when are you going to finish your research?” asked the youngest of my three sons, late one evening as he was trying to pull me away form the computer screen. He had a very good point? It was his bed time after all, and instead of spending quality time with him, during his last few waking moment, here I was slapping away a the keyboard. How does one explain to a ten year old, that investigating our past is a never ending project? 
I stepped away from the computer, tucked my son to bed, and thought about how the need to understand the past has changed my life. As far as addictions go, my research into our roots, is a healthy one. The good news for me, I’m not alone in this obsession. Turns out, there are almost twenty million Americans actively researching their roots and a hundred million more have interest in doing so. But why are some of us fascinated with the past, while others focus on the future? Is learning about where you come from truly essential for the present?  I believe it is.
The best way I found to explain my infatuation with the past, was to write a book.
Honestly, the book was not intentional. I set out to make a family tree, as a Bar Mitzvah project with my son. The task seemed simple, yet the more names we filled in, the more I names I realized I didn’t know. I began digging. I removed cob webs from boxes nearly forgotten at the back of attics. I wrote and called long lost relatives, and I learned the cob webs can be removed very quickly on the internet. I made some amazing discoveries. I uncovered much more than names. I found holocaust records, travel documents, photos taken more than a century ago and much more. But the most amazing of all, was my great-grandmother’s journals. 
The first time I read Minnie’s journals I knew that I uncovered so much more than what I was looking for. I found a way to explain to the world, why looking into one’s past, is how we connect to the present and find a direction for our future. 

Are you a genealogy junky? How did you get hooked? Do people around you understand your quest? Do you want to start researching your family history but don't know how? Share your story!