My family really gets around (a mostly happy genealogical tale - long)

For a couple of years, I’ve subscribed to several listserves for Jewish genealogy covering various geographical areas, since my great-grandparents are from several different places. (You can find these through my shameless plug for the 800-pound gorilla of Jewish genealogy sites, I’ve posted on the site what little I know of my family tree so far, and it’s been a really neat experience; I’ve gotten e-mails from several of my mom’s cousins, from people my grandparents grew up with, and a complete stranger even sent me a microfilm copy with the copy of the ship ticket my great-grandfather bought to bring my great-grandmother and oldest 5 great-aunts over from the Old Country. (My grandmother was in tears when I sent it to her; a child was listed who she didn’t know had existed, apparently an older sister of hers who had died in early childhood. My grandmother was the youngest child by far, and her mother died suddenly and young, so much family history is a mystery to her.)

But last week’s coincidence really takes the cake so far. One of the listserves is for southern Africa, where a branch of my paternal grandfather’s family emigrated from Latvia around the turn of the century, around the same time he came to the U.S. as an infant. My grandparents had kept touch with a couple of the South African cousins all these years, and a couple of them had even come to the States to visit. I met one of them, a non-Jewish relative by marriage (her husband, the blood relative, passed away probably before I was born), when she visited my grandparents some 10-15 years ago.

Last week, a message popped up on the listserve from a gentleman in Amsterdam. He was searching for the burial place of a relative of his, my grandfather’s cousin, the late husband of the lovely non-Jewish South African lady I had met. When they married, apparently there was a split within the family, and they moved away and had distanced themselves from the Jewish relatives. The gentleman in Amsterdam had been unable to locate any record of a Jewish burial, so he was hoping to avoid having to search every burial record in Natal, since he’s in Amsterdam and all.

Naturally, I e-mailed him, offering to help in any way I could and exchange information. Unfortunately, when I called my grandmother to tell her, she told me that my South African relative had just passed away a couple of months ago, but gave me the name and address of the old family friend who had written to inform her. I’ve begun a quite fruitful correspondence with my (apparently) distant cousin in Amsterdam, who has been extremely generous in sharing information, of which he has much more than I do (he’s been researching our family’s genealogy for more than 20 years, and has been much more thorough than I have so far. But then he’s retired, so he has more time for this sort of thing). He sent me a 60-page narrative history of the family…and it’s fascinating! I knew I had relatives in South Africa, but I also have family in Australia, all over the U.S., Israel, Canada, the U.K., and even some in Spain, Malaysia, and at one point even a branch in Iran of all places! (They’ve since gotten the hell out of there, as you might imagine.) Apparently, I’m not the only member of the family with some serious wanderlust.

This is soooo cool! My grandfather’s family has been a mystery, because he used to make up the craziest stories, so we never knew how much was true. (One story involved us being descendants of the Delaware Indians, who migrated across North America, over the Bering Strait, through Siberia and European Russia, to Riga, where they then took the boat for Philadelphia.) But I think I’ve been inspired to write the Latvian State Historical Archives in Riga and finally request a genealogical search from them. Dad has offered to bankroll the search, if I do the legwork, and others have said the Latvian Archives staff are extremely helpful and knowledgeable, and will correspond via e-mail in English. Woohoo!

Go for it! Learning the genealogy of one’s family is a great way to learn history at the same time. I hope to hear the results of your search in Latvia. Say, I once corresponded with a guy in Riga, as we are both collectors of the National Geographic magazine. If you would like I could get in touch with him again. Maybe he could offer advice. And he speaks several European languages, as well as being fluent in English.

Well, I’m reasonably up on the basics of Latvian and FSU history, so I’m OK in that regard. And the other listserve members are extremely friendly and helpful. Maybe I’ll go there sometime myself! That would be fun; I even have the address of my grandfather’s family’s old house, but the fun part would be figuring out where it is now, as the street names in Riga have changed a number of times depending on who was in charge.

Never a dull moment! Any ideas where I could find an old Riga street map?

It’s so great when you have a breakthrough in this type of research. I had nothing on my great-great-grandfather except his name. Then I found his Civil War pension record, which had a 10-page affidavit from his wife! She had to give a deposition because she had no proof that they had ever been married and she was trying to collect his pension. The deposition included their entire history together including where they had lived and the names of relatives. What a find!

There are some websites that have old maps, but I can’t cite one off the top of my head. Try Cindy’s List first and see what you find.