Welcome to a book club just for those who love family history! Here we share our top picks for fiction and nonfiction from authors around the world. These books all have something for us to love: stories about the search for family and identity, stories about family relationships, stories about fascinating periods in history. These books inspire us to keep discovering and writing our own family stories. Follow our Book Club blog posts and hear from the authors on The Genealogy Gems Podcast. Join in the conversation on our Facebook page (#genealogybookclub). Looking for how-to books? Check out our companion list of how-to genealogy titles.
We thank you in advance for purchasing our book recommendations through the links on our site. When you do, you help support the FREE Genealogy Gems Book Club and podcast.
Nathan writes a genealogical crime mystery series starring forensic genealogist Morton Farrier. We originally featured his book The Lost Ancestor, in which Morton is hired to find out what happened to his client’s great-aunt Mary, who disappeared without a trace a century ago while working as a maid at a grand English estate (gotta love the Downtown Abbey-style drama!). The author has joined us on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 180 and in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episodes 124 and 159. Other titles in the series: Hiding the Past, The Orange Lilies: A Morton Farrier novella, The Spyglass File (reviewed briefly in the Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #196) and the two-in-one publication, “The Suffragette’s Secret” short story with his newest book, The Wicked Trade.
Grappling with Legacy by Sylvia Brown. A descendant of the prominent Brown family, connected to Brown University, traces her family’s involvement in philanthropy, Rhode Island history and the institution of slavery hundreds of years. Her purpose, she writes, was to come to terms with “two seminal events which may seem diametrically opposed: my father’s decision to give his inheritance (and mine) to Brown University, and the transformation of the Brown family into the poster child for the evils of the slave trade.” She also hoped to bring her living Brown descendants closer to each other. A Kirkus review of this book calls it “an often riveting history of a family that left an indelible impact on the nation.” Lisa Louise Cooke interviews Sylvia in the upcoming Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 155 (available to subscribers in late January 2018). Hear a short clip of that conversation in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 213. Her story is included in a New York Times article on inherited wealth, “Keeping the Family Tree Alive.”
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. “You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.” So says the Prologue to a new novel by best-selling novelist Christina Baker Kline, whose novel Orphan Train has been loved by millions around the world (and a lot of Genealogy Gems Book Club fans–we featured it in 2014). A Piece of the World is a unique and irresistible story about a woman whose physical disabilities and family’s demands keep her adventure-loving spirit firmly homebound. Granted, her home is a fascinating place: a 1700s-era home on the coast of Maine that has been passed down for several generations. But the noble legacy of the home instills a sense of obligation in those who live there now: do they stay on the family land at all costs, even the cost of their happiness and health? What happens when a family’s heritage becomes a burden, not a blessing?
Those who love American art will love that the main character, Christina, was inspired by the subject of the Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. (You can see an image of the painting here.) Christina was a real person who lived in this home. Andrew visited her and her brother and painted them many times. So the characters and setting are real, and the house is actually a National Historic Landmark now. Christina Baker Kline’s “fictional memoir” gives this historical Christina a powerful, honest, and insightful voice: the voice of a person who sees and tells it like it is–except the parts she just can’t see for herself.
It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree by A.J. Jacobs. You could say A.J. Jacobs is famous for asking questions that seem both important and inane, and then pursuing the answers and writing about it. That’s what he did with his best-selling book The Year of Living Biblically, a chronicle of the time he tried to obey every rule in the Bible. Now he’s done it again in his new book. The questions A.J. set out to answer here were, “Who is really my family? And what would happen if I tried to host the world’s biggest family reunion?”
A.J.’s voice is witty with lots of digressions, pop culture references, and a definite urban beat (NYC, specifically). He meditates on what genealogical connections mean to him and the larger story the world’s family tree tells us. Like, we’re all related, and therefore shouldn’t we get along better? But with the quick disclaimer that he’s not inviting us all over for New Year’s brunch. He did that already at the Global Family Reunion–which he reports on in detail.In the appendix, he recommends all kinds of genealogy how-to resources, including Genealogy Gems. If you yourself are somewhat relaxed and perhaps even a little irreverent about your genealogy hobby, you’ll likely really enjoy this book. What about the more earnest family historians? It’s still worth a glimpse into how others see us. A.J. comes peeking into the world of genealogy ready to crack jokes. And he does plenty of that. But he also comes away with a great deal of respect for the stories and relationships that can–and should, he says–bring us closer together.
Shannon by Frank Delaney is a stunning tale: Father Shannon, an American Catholic priest of Irish descent, has serious “shell-shock” trauma after serving in the trenches of World War I. His archbishop sends him on a respite trip to Ireland to travel up the Shannon River looking for his family roots. He lands in the middle of an Irish Civil War—but also encounters person after person who helps him rediscover his faith in humanity and the restorative balm of daily life. Meanwhile, intrigue is afoot within his home archdiocese. A killer, who has his own traumatic backstory in Ireland, is dispatched to make sure Father Shannon never returns home. Their stories converge in a place of love, but also far too close to a place of pain. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about it.
I only recently discovered Frank Delaney’s books and can’t recommend them more enthusiastically! Frank Delaney is a MASTER storyteller. He crafts every sentence, every image. You can practically see the story lines unfold, hear every action, smell it. I listened to the audiobook version, which the author narrates himself with great skill. As I listened, I gasped, I cried, I laughed–all out loud in the car. So read or listen–and then clear a spot on your reading list for his epic novel, Ireland, which I read immediately after this one and also loved.
Murder in Matera: A true story of passion, family, and forgiveness in Southern Italy by Helene Stapinski. The subtitle to this family history murder mystery promises a LOT–and it delivers! As a child, Helene Stapinski heard about her great-great-grandmother who fled Italy–with young children in tow–after being involved in a murder. Parts of the story were vague: who was killed? Why? When? How? Nobody knew. But other details were startlingly precise and consistent. She had to leave her husband behind. A man named Grieco helped her escape. A child was lost on the way to America. Years later, Helene embarked on a 10-year quest to learn the truth behind this family legend. Her journey took her to Matera, Italy, and eventually to a 600-page criminal court file from 1872.
There was a murder. But it wasn’t exactly as the family had said. Helene gradually leaned that her family was not who she thought they were. And that meant Helene herself was not who she thought she was. The rest, you can read for yourself in Helene’s new memoir, Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy. The noted journalist continues to unravel a past that she explored in her fantastic first family history memoir, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History. This new book is part history, part re-imagined family story. It’s a story of poverty and power, love, tragic decisions, and a courageous and desperate woman’s leap to a new life across the ocean.
Watch below as Helene introduces us to her genealogical journey:
In The Whole Town’s Talking by internationally best-selling novelist Fannie Flagg, you’ll read about several generations of a small Midwestern town settled by Swedish immigrants–and its cemetery, gradually populated by the town’s residents as they die. The dead continue to take a healthy interest in their descendants and comment on their lives. Fannie Flagg first thrilled us with her storytelling power in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. We also highly recommend The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, in which a lively, lovable leading Southern lady searches for her biological roots and uncovers a fascinating story about the World War II female pilots, the WASPs. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can hear our conversation with Fannie Flagg in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast, episode #148. Everyone else can catch an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, episode #204.
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows. It’s the summer of 1938, and wealthy young socialite Miss Layla Beck is now on the dole as a WPA worker, assigned to write a history of the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. As she starts asking questions about the town’s past, she is drawn into the secrets of the family she’s staying with—and to a certain handsome member of that family. She and two of those family members take turns narrating the story from different points of view, exploring the theme that historical truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can hear our conversation with Annie Barrows in the March 2017 Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast (episode #145). Everyone else can catch an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #201. Annie Barrows is the co-author of the popular novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the beloved children’s book series Ivy and Bean.
Books by Sarah A. Chrisman. This fascinating author is a living icon of the Victorian age. She and her husband Gabriel live like it’s about 1889. They wear Victorian-style clothing and use a wood-burning stove and antique ice box. Sarah wears a corset day and night; Gabriel wears 19th century glasses. No TV, no cell phones—and Sarah isn’t even a licensed driver. Take your pick of Sarah’s books to read! Catch Lisa’s conversation with Sarah about her memoirs in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode # 142. Holiday bonus: everyone can hear Lisa Louise Cooke’s conversation with her about Victorian holidays in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #198.
- This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion and Technologies, a memoir of setting up housekeeping in Victorian fashion and Sarah’s everyday life.
- Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present and Myself;
- True Ladies and Proper Gentlemen: Victorian Etiquette for Modern Day Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives, Boys and Girls, Teachers and Students, and More;
- First Wheel in Town and Love Will Find A Wheel: These are Victorian Cycling Club Romances, from Sarah’s series of light-hearted historical fiction set in an era Sarah knows well!
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by British novelist Chris Cleave begins in London in 1939. War is declared. Wealthy young Mary North “leaves finishing school unfinished” and signs on for the war effort without telling her parents. What ensues is war beyond her naive imagination. A love triangle, a long-distance romance, the London Blitz and the bombardment of Malta. It’s intense, eye-opening and compassionate about living and loving in a war zone and its aftermath. The book is inspired by love letters exchanged between the author’s grandparents during World War II. Author Chris Cleave joined us on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 139; catch an audio excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 195 and a short video narrative here).
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. Beatrice Nash has grown up traveling the world with her father. Now he’s gone, and she’s in East Sussex, England, fighting to keep her new job as a Latin teacher, meeting the locals (both gentry and gypsy) and trying not to fall for handsome Hugh. Then the Great War breaks out, and Beatrice joins the village in the war effort, hosting refugees and sending the men off to fight (including Hugh). This novel follows Helen’s NYT-bestselling debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can hear our exclusive interview in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 136; others can catch an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 192.
Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow by Tara Austin Weaver, author of the internationally-acclaimed blog Tea & Cookies. This memoir is one part food, one part gardening and two parts family drama, liberally seasoned with humor and introspection. Tara’s mother moves to Seattle to be near her. Together they purchase a home with a wild garden. The challenge of reinvigorating the garden is nothing compared to the challenge of renewing their troubled relationship. It’s an honest (and mouthwatering) story of planting, cultivating and harvesting the fruits of family and garden. Genealogy Gems Premium website members can access the full interview in Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 133. (Click here to hear a free excerpt.)
Citizens Creek, a new novel by New York Times best-selling author Lalita Tademy. Some of you have probably read her previous novels, Cane River and the sequel Red River. Cane River was an Oprah Book Club selection. Citizens Creek is a novel based on the lives of “a once-enslaved man who buys his freedom after serving as a translator during the American Indian Wars, and his granddaughter, who sustains his legacy of courage.” This book is all about family, relationships and legacy. Click here to hear a clip from our interview with Lalita; Genealogy Gems Premium website members can click here to listen to the entire exclusive conversation.
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, is the “grown-up” version of the Little House children’s books. This never-before-published autobiography Laura wrote in the 1930s is packed with detailed recollections of pioneering in an American West that was fading away. Her stories will intrigue–and sometimes stun–any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. Tons of background research is impeccably cited in source notes. Hear our exclusive interview with Pamela Smith Hill in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 127 (Premium membership required to access) or hear an excerpt in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 183.
The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer. This book–the basis for a PBS documentary–tells the story of a handpicked group of young GIs who landed in France to conduct a secret mission in 1944. These 1100 men had one goal: to fool the German army into believing they were an American army thousands strong, and draw their attention away from the actual fighting troops. Hear the interview with the author and filmmaker in the free Genealogy Gems podcast episode 182.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline spent five weeks at the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestselling list and made the top of The Bestsellers List in Canada. The novel intertwines the stories of Vivian and Molly. Vivian is an Irish girl who lost her family in New York City and was forced to ride the ‘orphan train’ to find a new home. Decades later, the aged Vivian meets a teenager, Molly, who is struggling to find identity and happiness in the modern foster care system. Click here to catch highlights of our interview with Chistina Baker Kline on the Genealogy Gems podcast. Genealogy Gems Premium members can click here to listen to the full-length interview.
Update: Christina Baker Kline has released a young reader’s version of Orphan Train. Orphan Train Girl tells the story of a young foster girl who forms an unlikely bond with a ninety-one-year-old woman, who had been an “orphan train” rider as a young girl. Adapted and condensed for a young audience, it includes an author’s note and archival photos from the orphan train era. It’s written for ages 8-12, or grades 3-7.
She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me by Emma Brockes. An award-winning journalist tells the story of her discovery of her mother’s tragic childhood in South Africa. This is a genealogical journey, complete with trips to archives, poring over old court cases and dramatic reveals. But it’s so much more than that! It’s also about learning the past from living relatives. This is the ultimate how-to book for exploring and sharing sensitive family stories because she shows you how it’s done. Listen a meaty excerpt of our interview with Emma Brockes on the Genealogy Gems podcast episode 174 and the full-length interview in Premium episode 118.
Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. One of Lisa’s all-time favorite interviews was with Steve about this book. Based on listener feedback, this was an audience favorite, too! “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading Annie’s Ghosts,” says Lisa. “This book inspired me, gave me concrete ideas for pursuing my own family history research, AND kept me on the edge of my chair. What could be better? Steve is such a riveting writer and speaker, and it’s fascinating to hear how someone who is not a genealogist–but rather a journalist–approached his family history search in an effort to find the answers to mysteries in his families.” Listen to the interviews in Genealogy Gems podcast episodes 120 and 121. This book and interview planted the seed for this genealogy book club!
The Journey Takers by Leslie Albrecht Huber. Here’s another book Lisa profiled on the podcast awhile back. Leslie is a professional genealogist who spent thousands of hours researching the stories she tells about ancestors who left homes in Germany, England and Sweden for new lives in the United States. She writes about their experiences but also her feelings about it, in a book about both a family’s history and the effect it has on the present. Check out Lisa’s interview with Leslie in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 98.
Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters by Jennifer Wilson. “In this book, Jennifer takes us on a once-in-a-lifetime genealogical journey,” Lisa says. “She walked in her ancestors’ shoes and lived among their descendants.” Lisa profiled this book in Episode 129 of the Genealogy Gems podcast and was so inspired by the story that she created this YouTube video on the book.
More Titles We’ve Talked About
The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans by Julienne Osborne-McKnight. Recommended by a Gems fan. Begins in deep history with the Celts and Vikings, explains events that led up to the great potato famines and follows the Irish exodus to the U.S., where she then explores Irish-American life.
Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem, a memoir by Paula Williams Madison about the author’s journey into her family history, which resulted in a documentary by the same name. “Spanning four generations and moving between New York, Jamaica, and China, [this] is a universal story of one woman’s search for her maternal grandfather and the key to her self-identity.” Suggested by a Gems fan.
The Forgotten Garden, a novel by Kate Morton. Recommended by a Gems fan. The premise was apparently inspired by Kate’s own family history: “A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book—a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, ‘Nell’ sets out to trace her real identity.”
The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. Recommended by a Gems fan. The story of the only midwife in a small Colorado mining town on the Rocky Mountain frontier. A baby is found dead and Gracy is accused as murderer. She’s kept lots of people’s dark secrets over the years–and a few of her–and as the trial looms, she has to decide which of those secrets to give up in order to clear her name.
These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden by Nancy Turner. This series of novels is based on the life of Sarah Agnes Prine, a relative of the author who lived on the Arizona frontier. The frontier isn’t so violent anymore, but Sarah’s struggles with men, raising children, drought and natural disasters (the San Francisco earthquake shows up in the second book) are still relevant today. Sarah’s tough-and-tender voice is so perfect for recounting the life she lives.
The Homesman: A Novel by Glendon Swarthout. The most startling book I’ve read in recent years. I’m not going to tell you every reason it was so startling or it will give away the plot. I will say that this is a sweaty and intense and gritty and face-paced story. You get the dark side of braving the frontier. A more mature read.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, another novel of a couple’s lives on the frontier. Because it’s such a powerful treatise on marriage, it made me wonder: when you are a couple with no modern distractions and survival depends on your cooperation, does the relationship really does become as wide and consuming as that wide horizon?
Family by Ian Frazier. In this tale of a genealogical journey, the best-selling author explores his small-town, middle-class roots in the U.S. He explains a purpose that arose from loss: “I wanted my parents’ lives to have meant something. I hunted all over for meanings of any kind–not, I think, simply out of grief of anger at their deaths, but also because the stuff they saved implied that there must have been a reason for saving it….I believed bigger meanings hid behind little ones, that maybe I could follow them to a source back tens or hundreds of years ago. I didn’t care if the meanings were far-flung or vague or even trivial. I wanted to pursue them. I hoped maybe I would find a meaning that would defeat death.”
Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History by Helene Stapinski. An unforgettable personal narrative! The author tells her family history within the criminal and blighted culture of Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A. She interweaves the stories of more infamous personalities from her hometown with those of her grandfather and other relatives. She seamlessly weaves her own memories with her research and shares how she has come to terms (or not) with her “crooked family history.”
The Marriage Certificate by Stephen Molyneux. This novel opens with a scenario we sympathize understand: Peter, a genealogy buff, buys a marriage certificate he sees on display at an antiques gallery. He begins researching the couple with an idea of returning the certificate to them. Eventually he uncovers several secrets, one with some money attached to it, but others are also chasing this money. Surprise twists bring the story into the present day and Peter becomes a genealogical research hero.
Mordecai: An Early American Family by Emily Bingham. A beautifully-written history of several generations of a Jewish family in the United States. Draws on an astounding 10,000 original documents and letters. It’s a fascinating story on faith, religious and culture identity and assimilation, family dynamics and intergenerational identity. Also an inspiring read for anyone wishing to write a strictly factual, third-person account of their family history.
My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours by Melissa Gilbert. “Little House on the Prairie” is coming back to life in the form of a cookbook by the actress who played young Laura Ingalls in the NBC television series (1974-1983). Melissa dishes up prairie breakfasts, picnic lunches and treats inspired by Nellie’s restaurant (from the Little House series). The book is garnished with memories and memorabilia from the television show. Click here to read a full post about the cookbook and Lisa’s “Little House” family history tour on Google Earth.
Nick Herald Genealogical Mystery series: Deadly Pedigree, Jackpot Blood and Lineage and Lies by Jimmy Fox. Recommended by a Gems fan. The hero is an American genealogist who lives and works in New Orleans, one of the most colorful and historical parts of the U.S. Give it a try and let us know what you think!
Out of the Shoebox: An Autobiographical Mystery by Yaron Reshef. In this memoir, Yaron gets a phone call about property his father purchased in Israel years ago. He and his sister can inherit it, but only if they can prove that man was their father. He goes on an international paper chase into the era of World War II, the Holocaust and the making of Israel. A forgotten bank account surfaces and more surprises happen during Yaron’s two-year quest to understand the tragedies of his family’s past and recover some of its treasures.
Three Slovak Women, Second Edition by Lisa Alzo. You may know Lisa as a popular speaker on Eastern European genealogy at national conferences. This is her nonfiction account of three generations of Slovak women in the steel-producing town of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, and the love and sense of family binding them together. It will inspire your own family history writing projects! Click here to hear Lisa in the free Family History Made Easy podcast talk about her reasons for researching her family history and what she’s learned along the way, including in her travels in Eastern Europe.
When the Cypress Whispers: A Novel by Yvette Manessis Corporon. We haven’t read this novel by Greek-American family historian and Emmy award-winner; we just noticed it in the news. It’s based on true stories gathered from her grandmother. Read here about the true decades-old secret she uncovered and helped share with descendants of another family who survived the Holocaust on the island.
The Worst Country in the World: The true story of an Australian pioneer family by Patsy Trench. This memoir-style account tells of a researcher’s efforts to
document and re-imagine the life of her ancestor, Mary Pitt, a widow who migrated to New South Wales in 1801 with five children. It’s a less-formal way of writing family history that we recommended in a podcast episode talking about different styles of writing.
Looking for how-to genealogy books? Check out our companion list of great titles on how to research! We’ve featured many of the authors on the podcast or in blog posts, and we include links to these.
- 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,
- Gesher Galicia, and I’ll define that for you.
- 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.
Ancestry actually 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.
LitvakSIG really 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!
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The Genealogy Center: Elevenses with Lisa Episode 31
If you’re looking for a wide array of free online genealogical records for your family history, look no further than then Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’s the second largest genealogy library in the country. In addition to the in-house collection, the Genealogy Center offers a vast amount of free digitized resources through their website and partnerships with other websites.
I invited Allison Singleton, Senior Librarian at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana to the show. She is taking us on our tour of the website and sharing her tips and strategies for finding genealogy gems. Watch the video and follow along the highlights with the show notes below:
What is the Genealogy Center?
The Genealogy Center has one of the largest genealogy research collections available, incorporating records from around the world. The staff specializes in genealogy and is always available to help. Visit the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne Indiana.
About the Genealogy Center Brochure
What Does the Genealogy Center Website Offer?
There’s a lot to explore at the Genealogy Center website. Let’s start with the top-level menu on the Home page. Here we’ll find links to important resources such as:
- Genealogy Community
- Life StoriesPathfinders
Let’s take a closer look to a few in addition to other free resources available through the large colored buttons on the home page.
The Genealogy Community is the place to ask questions, sign up for their e-newsletter, and follow them on social media. They are extremely active on Facebook. You can also learn more about and get in touch with the staff of seasoned family history librarians.
PathFinders is a great place to start your family history search. It provides very small snapshots of what the Genealogy Center has in their collection for any given location or topic. Snapshot categories include:
- State Snapshots
- Subject Snapshots
- International Snapshots
Click on the logo from any page to return to the website’s Home page.
Free Databases at the Genealogy Center Website
The Genealogy Center does not interlibrary loan materials. Their collection is reference only. The website is the perfect place to plan your next visit. That being said, much of their invaluable collection has and is being scanned by Internet Archive and FamilySearch. If it is out of copyright, they work to get it online. So there’s plenty to find from the comfort of your own home.
You can find their Free Databases by clicking Resources on the home page and then Free Databases. These are all searchable and include digitized images that can be viewed from home.
In the Free Databases section you’ll find gateways to other specific areas including African-American and Native American. These provide an excellent place to start your research.
Family Bibles at the Genealogy Center Website
Navigation: Our Resources > Free Databases > Family Bibles
The Genealogy Center actively collects scans of family bible records pages.
Learn more about researching family Bibles for family history in Elevenses with Lisa episode 29.
You can donate more than just money to the Genealogy Center. They are also looking for research donations. Donating is a great way to make your genealogy research materials easily accessible to your family and other researchers. You’ll find Donations in the main menu on the Home page.
- Donated digitized materials are freely available online on their website.
- They are actively digitize records.
- You can even bring your materials into the library and they will digitize them. You can then keep the originals.
- You can also send in your own digitized scans.
Military Records at the Genealogy Center Website
Navigation: Our Resources > Free Databases > Our Military Heritage
They are actively collecting military information for inclusion in their collection. The collection includes many unique items donated by other family historians.
Copyright and Usage
The materials on their website are under copyright. You can view one page at a time. However, you can copy and print like you would if you were visiting the library. Include a source citation including the donor name. If in doubt about usage, contact the Genealogy Center.
Searching for Genealogy Center Content
The website is new (in 2020) so Google may not pick up everything in search. Use the website search field to search the entire collection.
Allison’s Catalog Search Tips:
- When search the Allen County Public Library catalog, don’t use common words such as county and city.
- Also, don’t use the plural form of words. For example, use directory not directories.
- After running the search, on the left side of the page under “I only want” filter your results to only the Genealogy Center by clicking Branch and then
- If an item is digitized, you will see a Web Link under More Info.
Lisa’s Search Tip: Use Control + F (PC) or Command +F (Mac) to quickly find words in a long list on a results page.
On-Site Databases at the Genealogy Center
You can only access on-site databases while in the library. No library card is required. The library does not offer an online subscription service.
Getting Help Online for Offline Resources
Navigation: On the homepage click Genealogy Community > Ask a Librarian. Here you can send brief questions and requests.
Family History Archives
Navigation: Click Family History Archives on the Home page and you’ll find links to other websites hosting Genealogy Center digitized content. Partners include:
- FamilySearch (Public Access)
- The Internet Archive (over 110,000 items)
City Directories at the Genealogy Center
City Directories are a wonderful way to fill in information between census years. The Genealogy Center has the largest collection of city directories in the country. They are in both book form and microfilm.
The city directory collection cover across North American and even includes some international directories.
Compiled Family Histories at the Genealogy Center
Compiled family histories help you stand on the shoulders of other accomplished researchers. They have approximately 70,000 physical books. There are also family histories digitized and on the website. Search for the surname and include the word family. On the results page, filter down to Branch > Genealogy.
Free Consultations and Paid Professional Services
Navigation: Home > Our Services > Consultations.
The Genealogy Center offers free (yes, you read that right!) 30-minute consultations with a Genealogy Center librarian. Consultations are held by Zoom, phone or email. You don’t even have to be a library card holder! Prepare well to get the most from your consultation.
You can also hire staff at the Genealogy Center to do more extensive research for you. Another option is to request a list of local professional researchers. Visit Our Services > Forms > Research Form
PERiodical Source Index (PERSI)
Navigation: Home > Our Resources > Onsite Databases > PERiodical Source Index (PERSI)
PERSI offers a very wide range of periodicals, some of which are very unique and niche. The PERSI index is hosted by Findmpast. Search the index for free from home at Findmypast. Some of the items require a subscription.
Allison provided some excellent insider strategies for searching PERSI:
- Articles are indexed by title.
- Don’t search by keyword or “Who”.
- Most people aren’t named in the article titles. Focus on location.
You can order the articles from the Genealogy Center. $7.50 for each form which includes up to six articles. Go to Our Services > Forms > Article Fulfillment.
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