Genealogy more than just your roots

LONDON — Jewish genealogy is no longer about collecting family names like stamps or butterflies, says Saul Issroff, co-chair of the 21st International Conference on Jewish Genealogy.

The conference, held earlier this month in London, has been proving him right.

There have been the expected lectures on how to trace your ancestors, of course, but the program also included sessions on everything from the Holocaust and restituted art to genetic diseases and Palestine under the British Mandate.

There were explorations of Jewish culture from Wales to China, speeches on Jews in the armies of the French Revolution, and truly ancient history: "Babylonian Jewry from Abraham to the Present Day" is perhaps the most ambitious lecture title.

The conference's massive syllabus required 10 full pages to list the names of the sessions.

"It's a whole cultural event," says Sally Roter, who spent the past two years helping to organize the conference.

With more than 160 speakers and close to 1,000 registrants, it's the largest event of its kind ever held in Europe, and rivals the largest held in the United States, the 1999 Jewish genealogy conference in New York.

The conference has a Web site, but much of the publicity went out via word of mouth, Roter says.

"We had people knocking at the door wanting to speak," she says.

An anthropologist friend of Issroff's phoned him out of the blue, the co-chair says, to say he wanted to speak at the conference.

That's how a session on the marriage of cousins in the Rothschild family found its way onto the program.

Not all of the speakers are Jewish, or even have direct Jewish connections.

Lt. Col. Colin Fairclough of the Salvation Army spoke about the charity's family tracing service.

The conference included amateurs researching their own family histories and professionals meeting to exchange ideas.

Jordan Auslander, a genealogist from New York, spoke about a resource that few Jews think of when researching family history: criminal records.

"They give an enormous amount of information," he says.

Like many disenfranchised immigrants to the United States, Jews were indeed involved in criminal activity, he says.

One of the advantages of such records is that they are kept for many different reasons.

For example, Russia's Tsarist secret police, the Cheka, kept records of people who showed up at meetings of the Socialist Bund — and of their relatives, an invaluable resource to genealogists.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 made many eastern European archives available for the first time, Roter says, and they have proven to be a gold mine.

Issroff went to Lithuania to do research in 1994 and discovered that the Historical State Archives of Vilna go back to at least 1520. Contrary to what had long been assumed, little had been destroyed by the Germans or Soviets in the 20th century.

A number of state archivists came to the London conference, including one from Belarus.

"That's a real coup for us because Belarus has been slow to open up," Roter says.

Judith Frazin, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois, led an introductory workshop that involved much less exotic research.

Plowing her way through census records, city directories, birth and death certificates, wills, citizenship records, World War I draft records, and, ultimately, a Chicago graveyard, she tracked down the connection between her great-aunt and a trio of pawnbrokers who lived in the early 20th century.

"You have to be very plodding and methodical and organized," she says. "You have to try everything."

And she warns that, although the Internet is a boon for genealogists, it does not replace old-fashioned legwork.

"The Internet is not going to produce your family tree for you," the no-nonsense genealogist says. "There is no substitute for doing your own research."