RootsTech 2017 is the biggest genealogy conference of the year, and Genealogy Gems will be celebrating in a big way! Here’s your chance to win fantastic prizes, and join in even from home through our live-streaming, as we celebrate 10 years and 200 episodes of The Genealogy Gems Podcast.
RootsTech is being held on February 8-11, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is sponsored by FamilySearch International and is a conference that brings together family history lovers and technology innovators for a truly one-of-a-kind event.
Free 30 Minute Sessions Join us for our famous power-sessions at our booth #1039, very close to where we were located in the hall last year!
Not able to make it to Rootstech in person? Join us for a selected classes via live-streaming via the free Periscope app, or on our Facebook page.
Look for the Periscope symbol next to the live-streamed sessions on the schedule above.
(All time listed are Mountain time)
As part of our 10th year & 200th episode celebration, you will have a chance to win fantastic prizes at every session in our booth. This is thanks to the generous genealogy community and our podcast sponsors! Here’s what you can win:
12:15 PM – 5 Ways to Jog Memories with Sunny Morton Story of My Life workbook ($19.99) Famicity Premium Subscription ($95.88) This is a brand new, private family social network. Think of it as your family’s Legacy Center!
12:40 PM – Naturalization Records with Amie Tennant RootsMagic 4 CD Set ($119.80) includes RootsMagic Software from our long-time and valued sponsor, the spectacular RootsMagic!
10:15 AM –Creating Family History Videos with Lisa Louise Cooke Animoto Subscription ($96.00) You’re going to flip for this tech tool! Click here to learn more right away.
12:15 PM – Your Ethnic DNA Pie with Diahan Southard Exciting DNA themed prize to be announced soon!
12:45 PM – Genealogy Jackpot with Sunny Morton SnagIt Software by Techsmith ($49.95) Lisa uses SnagIt constantly, and you’re going to love it for genealogy! TechSmith tools are tops! Ultimate Family Tree Chart Templates CD ($29.99) Every genealogist needs this from the #1 genealogy magazine, Family Tree Magazine.
2:05 PM – Google Earth Strategies with Lisa Louise Cooke Google Earth for Genealogy Video Series ($24.00) This series will help you go into the genealogy geography stratosphere after learning the basics from Lisa’s session. Genealogy Gems Premium Membership ($39.95) 7 of the 30 video classes included are on geography and genealogy, like Time Travel with Google Earth! Sweet!
Saturday Starting at 12:15 p.m. Pick up an entry form, fill it out, and bring the completed form to our booth starting at 12:15 on Saturday for a chance to win our GRAND PRIZE and get our FREE syllabus e-book with all of our booth session handouts. No purchase necessary, and you must be present to win.
2nd Grand Prize: Discovery Research Package from Legacy Tree Genealogists ($350.00) Hit a brick wall? These experts will help you bust through! The winner will receive 3.5 hours of research in a digital format which includes: preliminary analysis on your family tree or DNA; discovery of what records are available for the area and time period of interest; development of a research plan; and some work towards your research goals.
1st Grand Prize: 1 Year Ancestry.com World Subscription ($298.00) AND Ancestry DNA Autosomal Test Kit ($99.00) An amazing duo from our friends Ancestry.com.
Lisa Louise Cooke and her regular Genealogy Gems team members will be teaching several sessions:
3:00 p.m. Lisa Louise Cooke: Google Books: The Tool You Should Use Every Day! Location: Ballroom C
3:00 p.m. Diahan Southard: DNA: The Glue that Holds Families Together Location: Ballroom J
11:00 a.m. Lisa Louise Cooke: Organizing All This Stuff (Beginner) Location: 155D Getting Started Pass
1:30 p.m. Lisa Louise Cooke: Eliminate the Eye-Rolling with These 7 Awesome Apps! Location: Ballroom C
3:00 p.m. Diahan Southard: From Click to DNA Connection (Lab)
5:00 p.m. Lisa Louise Cooke: 5 Amazing Things Google Earth Can Do for Genealogy (Rootstech Demo Theater, Exhibit Hall)
3:00 p.m. Sunny Morton: Comparing the Big 4 (Ancestry, Findmypast, MyHeritage, FamilySearch; Location: Ballroom B 3:00 p.m. Amie Tennant: Crowdsource with Social Media Breaks Through Walls; Location: Room 251D
3:00 p.m. Lisa Louise Cooke: Google Search Power Strategies (Rootstech Demo Theater, Exhibit Hall)
4:30 p.m. Diahan Southard: From Click to DNA Connection (Lab)
11:00 a.m. Lisa Louise Cooke: How to Create a FreeGoogle Earth Map Collection; Location:Ballroom G
11:00 a.m. Diahan Southard: Let Your DNA Tell the Story
11:00 a.m. Amie Tennant: Troll Virtual Cemeteries & Using Cemetery Records; Location: Room 254A
1:30 p.m. Sunny Morton: Relatively Recent Relatives: the 20th Century Search; Location: Room 150
We can’t wait to meet as many of you as possible! We hope you have a marvelous experience at RootsTech 2017.
Just about every major genealogy website these days lets you build your family tree from scratch right on their website. But you may wonder what will happen to millions of carefully-constructed trees if the company goes out of business or the site goes down.
Before the days of internet genealogy, researchers organized family history findings on their home computers in specially-designed software. These programs generated .GED files (called GEDCOMs), a universal file type that allowed researchers using different software to share their findings. Software like this still exists. These days it can communicate your research to any genealogy sites you care to share with–by using those same GEDCOM files.
If you do choose to build your family tree online, make sure you can download your tree anytime as a GED file. Keep this file as a backup both on your computer and in a second location (like cloud storage). But my recommendation is to build your tree at home, in your own software. Then you can upload or synch your data to your favorite genealogy websites whenever you want–and you never lose control of your research.
Choosing the Right Software
There are lots of family history programs out there, and all of them will serve your basic needs. But you only need ONE. What’s the best genealogy software? It depends on how much you want to spend and how sophisticated you want your database to be. In many cases, you can order the product or purchase a digital download. I really don’t think you need the physical boxed product. All the help you need is online. All of these products offer a free demo that you can download to try it out before you buy.
FREE AND EASY: Family Tree Builder by MyHeritage helps you stay organized with streamlined screens to work in and doesn’t require a lot of startup time. Family Tree Builder offers lots of family history charts; custom reports; helps you share your data and pictures on a CD or DVD; allows you to back up your files to CD or DVD; and includes genealogy apps for mobile devices. Download the software FREE at the above link.
PC (and NOW MAC) OPTION WITH GREAT REPORTS: If you’re looking for great printed reports that you can share, and loads of free online help videos, then RootsMagicis a great choice. (and we are honored to have RootsMagic as a sponsor of The Genealogy Gems Podcast.) And they now have an iOS app.
Some of the differences you’ll find between these products is the types of reports and charts they produce. So if that’s important to you, you can try the demos and see which you like. But again, I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of these products. They are all well established and supported. (Update: There have been many updates since the post was first published, including a Mac version. Click here for a series of article by date on RootsMagic updates and their app.)
POPULAR PC AND APP PROGRAM:Legacy Family Tree is also an extremely popular program and solid choice. To give it a test run, download the free version. Then check out its strength in regards to source citations: you can now record the quality (original vs derivative, primary vs secondary, etc., direct vs indirect) of each source as you work on proving your conclusions. And they have an app called Families for your mobile device. Learn more about the app here.
AFFORDABLE MAC OPTION:iFamily for Leopardis the most affordable at $29.95. There’s a free demo you can try before you buy.
TOP-SHELF MAC OPTION: Reunion 11 by Leister Pro is fairly pricey at $99.00. We’ve featured Reunion in the past: listen to Episode 51 of The Genealogy Gems Podcast. In that episode you can listen to a review of Reunion 9 by Ben Sayer, the MacGenealogist. And if you want to compare iFamily against Reunion to see what you’re getting for your money, you can also listen to Ben’s review of iFamily in Genealogy Gems episode 53.
Each area of genealogy research comes with a unique set of challenges. Jewish genealogy is no exception, but thankfully there are fantastic websites and online resources available to help. Even if you don’t have Jewish ancestors, these resources may prove very helpful for researching Eastern European branches of your family tree. Many provide detailed maps and information about towns that have long since vanished.
In this week’s Elevenses with Lisa episode professional genealogist Ellen Shindelman Kowitt (Director of JewishGen’s USA Research Division and National Vice Chair of a DAR Specialty Research Jewish Task Force) joins us to share:
unique features that JewishGen.org has to offer
the best regional websites
what you need to do before you dig into these websites
You can watch here, or click “Watch on YouTube” to watch at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel where you can also view the live chat by signing into YouTube with a free Google account.
Episode 57 Show Notes
Lisa Louise Cooke: When I think of Jewish genealogy, immediately my mind goes to JewishGen.org, and I was hoping you could start us off with an overview of that. I know that you’re involved with them and boy, do they have a lot to offer!
Ellen Kowitt: JewishGen is really the premier main source for Jewish records on the internet today.
It’s run as a non-profit and it’s actually a part of a museum on the lower side of Manhattan called the Museum of Jewish Living Heritage. It’s run by a professional executive director, Abraham Grohl, but then there are thousands of volunteers that participate as research division directors, who help to identify records, index records, and translate records because language is a big issue in Jewish genealogy.
They’ve developed some really great data sets that can be searched for free by anyone. There is no charge to search JewishGen. Similar to FamilySearch, they ask that you register for a username and a password, but they don’t sell your name and it’s not going to go anywhere past accessing that website.
They have different tools they have developed that are unique to searching Jewish records.
I think there are a lot of entry points into JewishGen. For a novice, particularly beginners who have not done a lot of research anywhere on the internet, it can be a little overwhelming. They have a unified search, which combines the data sets from hundreds of records into one search function, because you can search each of these data sets separately. But if you’re just browsing and curious, and just want to throw your names in, the unified search is a great place to start.
Something that is really exciting about it is that they’ve had these special algorithms developed that are unique to Jewish names and Jewish languages. I’ll mention the Jewish languages in a minute, but it’s similar to the National Archives in the United States, which developed what we call the Soundex, which is an alpha-numeric code assigned to your name. It helps you navigate other spellings to your name that are similar, but maybe your family didn’t spell it that way, but it could be found in a record that way. The American Soundex doesn’t always work on Jewish or mostly Eastern-European names, so these special Soundexes were developed on JewishGen that are now used throughout the Jewish genealogy world on other databases as well. One is called the Daitch–Mokotoff. Another is called the Beider-Morse, but JewishGen doesn’t call them that. When you go in, it’s blind to you.
You’ll put your name or your town name into the search engine and there is a form with fields that you can populate. It doesn’t matter if you’re spelling the names of your given name, your surname, or your town name correctly, because you’re going to be able to pick a couple of different ways to search in a drop-down menu.
The first one will be called “Sounds Like,” the second is “Phonetically Like,” and then it goes into “Starts With,” “Is Exactly,” “Fuzzy Match,” “Fuzzier Match,” and “Fuzziest Match.” My recommendation is always search on “Sounds Like” and “Phonetically Like” because those are Daitch–Mokotoff and Beider-Morse Jewish algorithms for Jewish names and places. So that’s really, really helpful.
Many times people coming to Jewish genealogy are just hung up on names, where they come from, and figuring out an immigrant’s place of origin. Because, think about it: nobody spoke English in the Russian Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is where a majority of Jews came from after 1880. So, they’re speaking languages like German and Russian, Lithuanian and Polish, and even Yiddish, which is linguistically more like German although it is written with Hebrew letters.
These immigrants come to American ports and there could be an immigrant from another part of the world with a different kind of accent, like an Irishman. So, an Irishman in America listening to a Yiddish speaker from Russia – of course they’re going to butcher spelling the names. It’s just par for the course.
People can’t get hung up on the spellings of Jewish names, particularly the surnames and the towns of origin where they are emigrating from. Of course, those towns are important to narrow down and understand where they were, because that’s where you’re going to look for the records.
JewishGen’s Communities Database
That’s a second point about JewishGen that’s so helpful. They have a Communities Database, and that lists over 6,000 places where Jews mostly lived in the largest populations around Eastern Europe. In many of those places, Jews don’t live there anymore, but they will outline for you in different time periods where the records are or where they were.
We always refer to Jews coming from Russia because we see that on passenger manifests or census records. But a lot of times when you see Russia as a place of origin for a Jewish family, if they came before 1917, that was Russian Empire. The Russian Empire doesn’t exist anymore, and what was the Russian Empire pre-1975 is not Russia-proper today.
There are a lot of countries where your family could have come from, including Poland, because part of Poland was in the Russian Empire. Your family might actually be from Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, or Ukraine, or even some places in the south that don’t exist anymore. There used to be an area referred to as Bessarabia, and another one, Bukovina. These don’t exist anymore. Even Prussia, when you talk about the German Jews who came over, and this is true for non-Jews, too. There is no Prussian Empire anymore, and what was the Prussian Empire is now largely Poland, parts of Russia, and Germany of course. But it’s misleading that if your family spoke German and said that were Prussian, that they were German the way we think of Germany today. A lot of Jews came from Prussia, so that’s why I mention it.
Those are the key things about JewishGen. It helps with you the name complications and determining what other spellings there might be in records. It also helps you with locating these towns and what the administrative districts today would be.
How to Get Started in Jewish Genealogy Research
If you’re researching a Jewish family, it’s no different than any other American family, if you’re starting in America. You start with the civil records, the vital records, the census records, and the passenger manifests. None of these American records are divided by faith or ethnic group. So, a Jewish person, or if you’re researching a Jewish branch, should be starting the same way as any other American research. Start with yourself, work backwards, go through and exhaust all of the American records that you can, which will help you determine what those original names and place they came from are. That’s where JewishGen really helps you. It’s kind of like a 102 class. You have to do the American 101 records, and then when you’ve exhausted all of that, you jump to the Jewish records, which are largely available through JewishGen.
And the big point about JewishGen is the networking, because there’s this huge discussion group. They are now on Facebook with a group.
They have something called the JewishGen Family Finder, where you can register the names you’re looking for and/or the towns. Likewise, you can search to see whom else is researching the same names and towns that you are.
Through the messaging on JewishGen, you can get in touch with them and say, “Hey this is my story. Can I see your tree?” or “Do you have any family photos?” or “Have you had any success finding records for the little town in the middle of Ukraine?” Or even, “Have you hired a researcher that was helpful in pushing your research back in this particular archive in Lithuania?” It’s a fantastic way to find people researching the same obscure, small areas of the world that you are.
Lisa Louise Cooke – That’s an amazing resource, and you’re so right that we still have to follow the basic genealogy methodology. We still need to go through those records here. It’s tempting – I know people will say, “Well I know they were Jewish” so they’ll want to jump into that, and yet you miss so many clues that would probably come in super handy once you get over to JewishGen and you’re ready for that.
Ellen Kowitt: Absolutely…I find people who come to Jewish genealogy as beginners have not done that. I’m often backtracking and teaching American research before I ever get to a single Jewish record. I think that it’s really important that people take a look at (American records).
If they’re not in the United States and they’re listening, Canadian records or British records, wherever you might be starting from. You need to start in the country where your person that you’re researching is located, with those records first.
JewishGen Research Divisions
Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s a great point. I know for my own Sporowskis who were German-East Prussians, really they’re out of Belarus. I’m pretty sure that even though my great-grandfather later was going to the Lutheran church in America, I think they were a Jewish family back in Belarus. JewishGen has been one of the few places to find information about some of these locations that have changed names and boundaries. It’s just an amazing resource in that way.
Ellen Kowitt: Belarus is a good example. JewishGen has maybe over 20 research divisions. I happen to be the director for what’s called the USA Research Division, and just to define that, it’s not census records and passenger manifests. It’s looking at records held at Jewish repositories that are in the US, like the American Jewish Archives or the Southern Jewish Historical Society.
There are research divisions geographically all throughout Eastern Europe and there is one for Belarus called the Belarus Research Division. If you click on their link from JewishGen’s drop-down menu, they have their own website and they give a lot of maps, from now and then, of what Belarus was, and lists of towns divided by province, or what was gubernia. There are ways to connect with people and search what their records are.
Here’s a little tip I have about Research Divisions and any project on JewishGen. If you don’t find what you’re looking for and you really think it might be there, or you’re spelling it wrong and it’s not showing up in the Soundex, contact whoever the person is on that record set or who the Research Division director is, or who the town leader is.
In Ukraine, there are hundreds of town leaders for these little towns and what we find is that the town leaders and the Research Division leaders often know or are holding onto records that are not online. If you’re not finding something, it’s free to send an email! Just inquire and say, “Do you know anything else about Grodno, Belarus in 1854? Or the name Cohen?” or whatever it is, and you just never know what these folks have because I have found there are a lot of offline lists that the experts know about.
Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s very good insider information. It’s true, as you go into your genealogy research you get more and more daring and send that email. All they can do is just not be available. But it sounds like those folks are more than happy to help. What a wonderful idea.
Regional Jewish Genealogy Resources
Lisa Louise Cooke: We were talking about specific regions and I’m sure there are all kinds of different things here, but what other types of websites might be out there for regional Jewish genealogy?
Ellen Kowitt: It’s a little confusing. There is kind of a hierarchy. It’s not coordinated by any organizing body, but there are three independently run Jewish database sites. When I say the names, sometimes people say, “Oh that’s part of JewishGen.” They’re not. They are run independently. The three are:
JRI-Poland which stands for Jewish Records Indexing Poland,
And what we used to call LitvakSIG, and SIG stands for Special Interest Group.
All three of these groups kind of have roots in JewishGen and then for different organizing reasons all wanted to organize as independent non-profits. But they share their data. Now, do they share all of their data? Do they share their data at the same time? Are they sharing it in the same place? The answers really vary. This is why, I always say, if you’re brand new, check out Unified Search on JewishGen.
Ancestryactually has some of LitvakSIG, some of JRI-Poland, and some of JewishGen’s records. Just recently LitvakSIG released some of their records to MyHeritage. So, there is some overlap back and forth on the data sets. But if you’re from these three particular geographic regions, I would not only be looking on Ancestry, FamilySearch, and JewishGen. I would always go to their original databases on each of their original websites.
LitvakSIGreally stands for Lithuania, but Lithuania today is really different than the geographic borders of Lithuania a hundred years ago. When you look at modern-day Lithuania on a map, if your family is coming from a part of Latvia or Belarus or an area of Russia that surrounds that area, you might want to look there. I have this corner of southwestern Lithuania that part of my family came from, but it has also been Prussian, it has been Suwalki, Poland, and it’s right near Belarus, but yet I found records in Lithuania in LitvakSIG. I have also found them in Suwalki from JRI-Poland. So, loosely when you define your location, consider what’s geographically around the modern-day borders. But LitvakSIG is predominantly Lithuania and a lot of Jews came from Vilnius and Kaunus and all these places up there.
The second one is JRI-Poland. They are fantastic in their records acquisition. They’ve had partnerships with the Polish state archives. They give locations of microfilm that are for Polish municipalities at the FamilySearch digital collection. They have tons of volunteers who have worked there for 30 years. It’s extremely extensive.
For listeners who don’t know, the Polish State Archives has largely gone online, so a lot of vital records are digitized and you can go right to the record. Now, it may be in Polish or Russian, but you can get to those records for free, just like you can on FamilySearch sometimes.
JRI-Poland is just a powerhouse for getting access, using their indexes first to locate if there are records for your family in a town, using the Soundexes that are the Jewish Soundexes, and then getting to the original record. I just love JRI-Poland.
And be loose on those borders because it’s going to include Suwalki and those areas north on the Lithuanian-Russian border. Even the Belarus border and that Prussian border on the other side. For JRI-Poland, ‘cast a broad net’ is areas that were ever considered Poland, even on the southern side, too.
The third one is called Gesher Galicia, also run independently, and also shares data with JewishGen. Galicia does not exist anymore. It was a designation for an area that today you would think of on a map as western Ukraine and eastern Poland, and a lot of Jews lived in Galicia. Unique to that area is that it was Austro-Hungarian Empire at one point, so the records are in German, not so much in Russian or in Polish.
But Gesher Galicia has got a fantastic search engine on their database, and they are another powerhouse that is just continuing with their volunteer army of adding so many great data sets.
They’re really good, too, at allowing you to list what towns you’re researching if you join, and I think they have a small membership fee. In fact, each of them have a membership fee that they’ve added on, and I think that just gives you access to records maybe a little bit sooner.
These three are often lumped in with JewishGen but are really organized as separate organizations and they acquire records and index them in a different way.
Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s a great overview and it reminds us, like with all genealogy, that when you see partners working together and they end up with records on multiple sites, I find myself wanting to look at those records, even if they’re the same, on every site. You never know what the nuances are. You never know if their image is clear. There are so many different possible variations.
Jewish Records at Ancestry.com
Ellen Kowitt: There are! I have taken a deep dive on Ancestry’s records of JewishGen. They started an arrangement awhile back, I think in 2008, and JewishGen gave them a bunch of records in return for Ancestry housing their servers. So a great business arrangement for a little non-profit like JewishGen, but confusing for people like researchers that only use Ancestry and never look any further.
Certainly if you’re finding things on Ancestry (Jewish Records at Ancestry)that are JewishGen, you want to go to JewishGen and search also because JewishGen has not updated all the records that they sent to Ancestry ten or more years ago. There are unique records that were never sent to Ancestry, and you pick up those Jewish Soundex search capacities on JewishGen.
Now, Ancestry’s search has definitely advanced in recent years but it’s not the Beider-Morse the Daitch–Mokotoff Jewish algorithms for searching Jewish names. If you can’t find somebody on the JewishGen collection at Ancestry, go to JewishGen and try running the search there.
Lisa Louise Cooke: Another area I can think of as a roadblock area for folks in their research is around the Holocaust. What kinds of resources do we have to conduct research when it comes to the Holocaust?
Ellen Kowitt: I started doing this about 25 years ago and it used to be that either the records were not released by some of the archives in Russia or in the East, or they weren’t in English, or they weren’t indexed. You would put in these requests and it would take literally years for certain repositories to answer a basic inquiry with “Yes” or “No” if they have a card on your family.
I think there was a lot of mythology build around ‘you can’t document the Holocaust and what happened to people’ and what we’re finding all these years is later is that there are so many records. Plenty of people are documenting their families. We are continuing to find more resources available online, even from repositories that are traditionally not in English.
It’s hard to say where to start, because the story of the Holocaust has also evolved. It used to be we learned in school, if we even learned at all about the story of the Holocaust, that it was the story of the concentration camps and the Jews being gassed, and that’s certainly true. But there are so many other elements of the Holocaust like the story of the 1 ½ million Jews killed in Ukraine before anyone ever was killed at Auschwitz. We call this “the Holocaust by bullets” (and the story and most of what was the Soviet Union at that time), was the Jews were rounded up and, this is gruesome, but they were executed and left in mass graves that are unmarked, largely, throughout what was the Soviet Union.
Even Jews who knew their family was tied up in those kinds of stories thought there was no way to figure out what happened to their family or the town. But we do have records. The Russians kept records. It turns out the Germans kept records. A lot of this has become available online that you can search in English.
It really depends, for a family that knows they have a Holocaust story, where they were, what country they originated in, if you know the story that they went to a camp, or if they were in a small town where there was a mass grave. You’re going to be looking at very different resources.
I would say, if you only had to look at one and you wanted to just start this process, Yad Vashem’s website in Israel, in English, would be the place to do a general top-level search. The reason is because Yad Vashem is like the US version of the (United States) Holocaust (Memorial) Museum in DC, and they have resources too, but the one in Israel is called Yad Vashem and it has a larger collection.
They have also collected these pages of testimony from survivors who talk about their family members and where they last saw them, or if they know the exact story about what happened to them or their whereabouts throughout the war. Thousands of these pages have been submitted and they’re searchable. You can see the original pages that people submit and you can even get in contact with the people submitting them. It’s a great networking opportunity for people looking to connect. Yad Vashem has these great success stories, less and less because the survivors are aging out, where they connected people who still had living relatives in Argentina, Australia, or in Europe, and they’re just fantastic renewal stories.
But yes, complicated topic. It is possible to learn what happened to a community, hopefully to an individual. Records are at Bad Arolsen, the Arolsen archives in Germany, in addition to Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Museum.
JewishGen does have a Holocaust collection worth searching, although it’s smaller than these other larger repositories. There are all kinds of things on the internet – webinars, speakers, and even books that have been published on how to track down victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
And non-Jewish, too. I recently was looking into someone who came from a Ukrainian Orthodox family and they were shipped out of Ukraine to what would be now the Czech Republic, and they were in a work camp. Sometimes these repositories you think of as Jewish record repositories for Jews in the Holocaust also tell the story of the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Lisa Louise Cooke: I so appreciate your vast knowledge on this. I know you teach people about genealogy, Jewish genealogy – tell us a little bit about you got started in genealogy and then into it professionally.
Ellen Kowitt: I guess like everybody out there, I just have that gene. Even from a young age, I was the one who just gobbled up the stories at the holiday tables and remembered the names and connected the relationships and just kept track of it in my head, long before I realized that was not normal, it was unusual and not everyone does that.
There is a woman, Sallyann Sack, who writes a lot of books on Jewish genealogy and she’s one of the publishers of Avotanyu, which is both a journal on Jewish genealogy and also a publishing company on books about Jewish genealogy. In my twenties, I happened to go to a lecture she gave at a synagogue in Washington DC, 25 or more years ago. She said “Hey we have this club! It’s a Jewish genealogy society and we’re doing a beginners workshop. Do you want to come?” I went and there was no looking back. I just got the bug. I started interviewing relatives like we all are taught, to talk to the oldest people first and the records can wait.
It just went from there. I got super involved as a volunteer. I actually think volunteering is a great way when you’re a beginner to learn about record sets. I have seen probate records, naturalizations, and Jewish records that I would never have found in my own family by helping index through a project with a local society. That was fascinating to me.
Then one day a friend insisted on paying me money to do some research on his mother, and I actually liked it. I thought, wow, if I can make a few extra dollars to pay for my genealogy obsession – and these websites can be expensive, the conferences cost money – but if I can make money and help to pay for my obsession, then I’m going to be a professional. So, that’s how I fell into that and it’s grown from there.
Lisa Louise Cooke: I think those of us who caught the bug when we were young are really fortunate because we got opportunities and I think had a focus on talking to and recording some of those stories. I know that’s probably people’s biggest regret, when they didn’t think about it back when they had an opportunity to interview some of the older relatives. I know in my case I just treasure the few interviews that I did do and I still have.
Ellen Kowitt: Me too.
Lisa Louise Cooke: I really appreciate you sharing all these wonderful resources. And of course, folks can visit you at your website at EllenKowitt.com, and I know that you do lecturing and all kinds of professional work on genealogy, and the wonderful article, Find Your Jewish Roots Online, in the May/June 2021 issue of Family Tree Magazine. Ellen, it’s been a delight to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us here on the show.
Ellen Kowitt: Thank you so much for having me, I enjoyed it!
“Which big genealogy website should I use?” Genealogy Gems takes on that ambitious family history question in ongoing comparative coverage of the “Genealogy Giants,” Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com. (Disclosure: this article contains affiliate links. we will be compensated if you make a purchase. Thank you for supporting this free blog.)
millions of historical records from around the world;
powerful, flexible search interfaces;
family tree-building tools;
automated record hinting (if you have a tree on the site);
Help/tutorials for site users.
But each has unique strengths and weaknesses, too. You may determine that one or two of these sites meets your needs now. But your family history research needs may change. For example, you may discover an Irish or Swedish ancestor whose records may be hosted on a different site than the one you’ve been using. Or you may find that you need DNA to push back further on your family tree. It’s critical to which sites offer what records and tools, so you know your options when your needs or interests change.
Comparing the Top Genealogy Websites
There are so many features on each site–and an apples-to-apples comparison isn’t easy.
Here’s one example: how many records are on each site? Some sites include DNA results and user-submitted family tree profiles in their total record count. Others don’t. One site has a universal family tree–ideally with one record per person who has ever lived–and the others host individual trees for each user, leading to lots of duplication. Does a birth record count as one record? FamilySearch thinks so. But other sites may count a birth record as three records, because a baby, mom and dad are all named. So it’s not easy to compare historical record content across all the sites.
Click here to read what Genealogy Gems loves about MyHeritage.
Reviews of “Genealogy Giants”
“You may have asked, ‘Which is the best online genealogy service for me to use?’….I suspect this video [presentation by Sunny Morton at RootsTech 2017] will answer most of your questions. Topics covered include cost, record types, geographic coverage, genetic testing, DNA matching, search flexibility, languages supported, mobile-friendly, automated matching, and a lot more. Sunny provides the most information about these four sites that I have ever seen in any other one document or video. This is a keeper! I have been using all four of these web sites for years and yet I learned several new facts about them, thanks to Sunny’s online video presentation. I suspect you will learn some things as well.” – Dick Eastman, Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter
“We want to tell you how much we enjoyed the presentation about the comparison of the four major websites. [Sunny] did an excellent job and we were so thrilled with her presentation. She was so prepared and presented it in such a manner as to be understood. Give her our best.” – Eldon and Dorothy Walker
“I am incredibly thankful for your Big 4 session. I’ve never had interest in Findmypast or MyHeritage as I felt FamilySearch and Ancestry had it all…and hadn’t heard of PERSI either. With newly found Irish roots (via DNA), I’m excited to extend some lines that have gone cold.” – a FamilySearch employee
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