A memorial at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Photo/Robinn Magid)
A memorial at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Photo/Robinn Magid)

Back to the source: genealogy gathering goes to Poland

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Robinn Magid of Berkeley has attended a lot of international Jewish genealogy gatherings.

“I’ve been to 20 out of the past 23 conferences,” she admitted.

But this year’s will be different. Not only is she organizing it, but for the first time there’s an added twist: Those interested in tracing their roots at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies conference can do it on-site, so to speak, in Poland.

“We’re going to Warsaw!” Magid said.

headshot of Robinn Magid
Robinn Magid

The conference, now in its 38th year, usually is held in the United States, with a few one-offs in places like Jerusalem and London. The Warsaw conference, opening Aug. 5, will bring together newcomers and family tree experts for a six-day run of more than 250 lectures, panel discussions and workshops.

The conference is partnering with the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw and the Polish State Archives, which are bringing in materials that give a rare glimpse into the past, such as passport applications, or a register of Jews living in Warsaw in 1778.

“To us genealogists, it’s a treasure trove,” Magid said.

Warsaw was about 30 percent Jewish before World War II, and with 350,000 Jews was the second-largest Jewish community in the world after New York.

The idea of holding the 2018 conference in Poland, though, did have some dissenters. In February, Poland passed a law making it a crime — punishable by up to three years in prison — to accuse “the Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust. Magid said they took that into consideration.

“We looked at it from many different sides and consulted the chief rabbi of Poland,” she said.

But in the end, she believes bringing the conference to Poland will not only provide unique opportunities for genealogy buffs, but will increase the friendly bonds between Poles and those in the Jewish diaspora.

RELATED: Poland’s man in SF speaks out against Holocaust speech law

“We also have an amazing opportunity to bring disparate groups together in a really nonjudgmental way,” she said.

This conference isn’t just for people with Polish ancestry. Like the other international Jewish genealogy conferences, it will be full of tips on how to find family roots when there are no records, how to use new computer tools to compile family history and much more. First-timers are welcome, and online registration at iajgs2018.org is available until July 28.

There also will be small-group meetings for people looking to trace their roots in places such as Africa or Scotland. Magid said at least 30 countries will be represented at the conference, although not evenly.

“The largest group is Californians,” she said.

Magid’s personal interest in genealogy started when she first had children.

“When I became a stay-at-home mom in 1991, I really needed some intellectual project,” she said.

A hobby turned into a serious sideline, and now she’s not only a major contributor to local genealogy groups but has been to Poland eight times. Her own family is traceable to Lublin, a large city in Poland, and she even received a medal in 2017 from the city for her contribution to its cultural identity. She’s also worked on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” on an episode tracing the family of comedian Paul Rudd.

For Magid, a retired management consultant, genealogy is fun, a kind of “puzzle-solving.” But it’s also a way of preserving history by giving people names and faces, and stories beyond the simple fact that they were victims of Hitler and the Holocaust.

“What a horrible thing, to be defined by the monster,” she said.

That makes the conference location in Poland, where so many were killed in the Nazi death camps Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, even more meaningful.

“I’ve always had this very strong connection to knowing there were people who were murdered and they were my ancestors,” Magid said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.