Can I discover my familys history with a handful of genie nuts

Rosanne Leeson, an “ostensibly retired” Los Altos librarian, calls herself a “genie nut.””It’s the worse virus in the world,” she said. “Once that bug bites you, you are hooked. You are done for life.” That “virus” has taken her to family reunions in Alsace, France, and Richmond, Va., not to mention visits to Germany, Holland and Latin America, where she encounters new relatives, and to cemeteries, where she discovers forebears.

It all began when her son, Barney Dryfuss Leeson, was 8 and “asked the first fatal question.” He wanted to know if he was related to Barney Dreyfuss, the original Pittsburgh Pirates owner.

Thirty-five years after she first began tracing the Dryfusses — a common name among Alsatian Jews with myriad spellings — Leeson is vice president of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society. Now she helps others with their searches, something that is far easier since resources became available online.

Leeson sympathizes with my own frustrations with traveling down blind alleys, visiting foreign cemeteries with illegible gravestones and straining my eyes over reels of microfilm in Lower Manhattan. “I have lots of dangling, unfinished branches,” she says.

But on the plus side, “There’s nothing like the emotional thrill of holding a record in your hand and you can see your great-grandfather’s signature. That is a very emotional moment.”

My own eureka moment came while sorting through old family papers and photos. Tucked in a box was a 1911 menu from my great-grandparents' 25th anniversary celebration at Reisenweber's on Manhattan's Columbus Circle. Not only did I discover that the first course was Blue Points — that's oysters; the Levy family was old-style Reform — but I finally got to the bottom of a couple of family mysteries.

First, after seeing the signature of Rose Adelson on the menu, I did a trace and learned that she was the grandmother of Alan Jay Lerner. Not only that, she was great-grandfather’s Harry Levy’s sister, making the “My Fair Lady” lyricist a second cousin once removed. I knew we were related, but no living relative knew how.

Then, after a night or two on and the Mormon site, I found out why I couldn’t find Harry Levy in the 1870 or 1880 census, even though the family arrived in 1867. It seems Harry was born Chaim Bablewski, son of Levi, and his name metamorphosed to Herman Babelhoff and eventually Harry H. Levy. Go figure.

“Name changes are the bane of genealogy,” says society president Jeremy Frankel after a recent meeting at Beth Am.

How much time does Frankel spend on his searches? “Twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week,” he says.

Everybody at the meeting has a story. Don and Jan Tuerk of Palo Alto found a distant cousin, Richard Marowitz, who was with the 42nd Rainbow Division that liberated Dachau. Then Marowitz stormed Hitler’s Munich apartment, found a hat with Hitler’s initials, stomped on it in rage and took it home.

Hy Ramm, from Los Gatos by way of Liverpool, wonders if he’s related to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, since his ancestors came from Lyubavichi in Belarus.

Meanwhile, my own journey continues. In the 1861 British census, I discovered that a great-grandmother had lived in Sheffield with her older sister before immigrating to America. Who knows? I may have English relatives to visit this summer while I’m in Yorkshire for my son’s wedding.

Leeson says her own search has certainly made history “so much more alive.” But on a personal note, she has been “tremendously enriched by some deep and very loving relationships that have developed with family members I have discovered, and whom I would never had had the privilege of knowing without my genealogical research.”

Beyond the personal, she says, “the events of the Holocaust made this imperative” by helping Jews reclaim what might otherwise have been lost.

“In a way, we’re remembering every day when we do this kind of work,” she said.

.Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at [email protected]

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].