How to be a Forensic Genetic Genealogist

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a Forensic Genetic Genealogist. Dr. Claire Glynn joins me to talk about the field of investigative genetic genealogy, criminal cold cases solved, and the new Forensic Genetic Genealogy certificate program she has developed at the Henry C. Lee (notable for his work on the OJ Simpson case and many others) College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven.

Video: How to be a Forensic Genealogist

This video premiered live on YouTube on January 13, 2022 at 11:00 am CT. Click here to watch the video replayat the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel.  Scroll down to read the complete show notes article. 

how to be a forensic genetic genealogist

Watch the video at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel.

Show Notes 

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Forensic genetic genealogists are continuing to make the news as they’re helping law enforcement solve cold cases. And some of these are really old cases! It’s an emerging career field, and there are courses online that can help you learn what it takes to be a forensic genealogist, and as well how to do it professionally.

One of those courses is the online graduate certificate in forensic genetic genealogy. It’s at the University of New Haven, Connecticut. Dr. Claire Glen is the founder of that program. She’s an associate professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. CT. It’s really the first program of its kind in the country.

Dr. Glynn is a sought-after consultant and expert in this field. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses and conducts extensive research focused on forensic biology, forensic DNA analysis, and forensic genetic genealogy. I’ve invited her to the show today to talk with us about what the forensic genetic genealogist does, how you might be able to become one and what we can look forward to in the future in this really exciting field.

(Please note: This interview transcription has been minimally altered for ease of reading and clarity.)

What is a Forensic Genetic Genealogist?

Lisa:  I think we should probably start at the beginning and answer the question what is a forensic genetic genealogist?

Dr. Glynn: That’s a great question to start off with, because lots of people are always very curious about it, especially because it’s such a brand-new field. We can say that this field was established at the forefront of forensic investigations in early 2018. Now, the term forensic genealogy had actually been around since I think 2002. But forensic genealogy is really a different thing to forensic genetic genealogy.

Forensic genetic genealogy is all about taking everything that we know about genetic genealogy and applying that to a criminal investigation. Either into an investigation of what we call unidentified human remains or UHRs, or as the public more commonly known as Jane and John Doe cases. So, identifying unidentified human remains, or in what we call suspect cases, whereby we have DNA left behind at a crime scene by a perpetrator of a violent crime, such as homicide or sexual assault, and trying to identify who that perpetrator is by using our genetic genealogy skills.

It’s amazing how it just kind of burst onto the scene. And as you mentioned, it is quite different than forensic genealogy. So, this is all about the genetics, the DNA.

Forensic Genealogy used on criminal cold cases.

(3:36) You said that it kind of came out more around 2018 or so. The Golden State killer case really had a lot to do with bringing this to the forefront, didn’t it?

it certainly did. It’s what brought it to the forefront of the media for sure. And it’s certainly the most highly publicized case for forensic genetic genealogy. However, right at the exact same time as the Golden State killer case was announced, there was also the other application of forensic genetic genealogy to unidentified human remains cases.

The DNA Doe Project at that time, right before the announcement of the Golden State killer, had used successfully forensic genetic genealogy as we know it now, to identify the remains of the Buckskin Girl, which was a case from the early 1980s of unidentified human remains. So really, it was the kind of culmination of several people doing this all at once, but independently on different cases. And then it was the announcement of the Golden State killer that really brought it to the forefront of people’s minds. Because I mean, can you think of a more prolific serial homicide investigation in US history? I mean, there are several but that has certainly been one that’s been very high profile over the last four to five decades.

Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 217 Golden State Killer DNA privacy

Listen to Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 217 on the Golden State Killer case and Your DNA

What kind of background should a Forensic Genetic Genealogist have?

(5:15) Lisa: I’d love to hear a little bit more about your background and kind of how you got into this. I know that you’ve worked with law enforcement and things in the past. Tell us a little bit about where you come from.

Dr. Glynn: I was born and raised in the west of Ireland, in County Galway, the most beautiful part of Ireland the most beautiful place you’ll ever seen in the world. I come from a very education focused family. Both of my parents worked at a university. They’re both retired now, my father is a physicist. And so, I grew up on a university campus, essentially going there every day after from a very young age to do my homework. So when it came around to the time for me to be applying to university and things like that, my father actually brought me the front page of the Irish Times newspaper. And on that front page was an article about a brand-new bachelor’s degree program that was being brought into Ireland at BS in pharmaceutical and forensic science. There had never been a forensic science educational program in Ireland prior to that. My father said to me, I think you’d be a great forensic scientist.

Bear in mind, we’re talking 2000, at the turn of the millennium, when CSI had just come out on the TV, right, so it was just out, people were kind of enthralled with the show. So was I. I was like, “what is that? Is that actually a really a career?” Like, do people actually do that? And as the more I looked into it, it is indeed. It has been around for decades, as a career.

And so, I was very intrigued by this. And my father said to me, as well importantly, with his great insight, he said, you know, you should choose a degree program and a career based upon the qualities and characteristics that you have, not just because it sounds cool. He said a forensic scientist should be very good at science, which I was, that was where I was getting all my A’s in school – not many A’s and the other subjects -but also you should be very compassionate and wanting to help people which I was constantly rescuing animals off the street and bringing them home without my parent’s permission. And also, my dad said, importantly, you’re very nosy. So that would lend itself very well to the career as a forensic scientist.

I decided to become a forensic scientist based upon that. Though, coming from Ireland, where university education is completely free – well, it was at the time – my father said, you know, don’t be their guinea pig for this new program, let them kind of find their feet for a few years. Go do another undergraduate degree first, and then do that one. So, I went and did a BA in psychology because I thought it will be important to understand about human behavior, and the human mind and indeed, criminal behavior. That that would lend itself well to my future career as a forensic investigator. So, I did that degree, and then immediately afterwards, I did my bachelors of science in pharmaceutical and forensic science.

During the third year of that program, so in US terms, the junior year of that program, you have to do a six month industrial placement, which is kind of a fancy way of saying internship. For that internship, I went to the UK to a private company called LGC Forensics, because in the United Kingdom, all of the forensic science industry is completely privatized, it’s not government run at all. I managed to get a research position within that within that company. I worked my bought off for six months for them for free working on a research project in the forensic Biology Unit there.

(I went) home and finish my senior year, and then immediately returned to LGC Forensics, where I started working immediately as a full-time forensic biology examiner. That job entails working major crime, investigations of homicide and sexual assault that occur all over England and Wales. It was a very high volume lab. I think the biggest surprise I had in that job was the volume of major crime that comes into one lab. You know, you don’t see them all reported in the newspapers, so whenever you’re actually working in that laboratory, and you see the number of homicides, the number of sexual assaults that do occur, it really is quite shocking.

So then after a couple of years, and after amassing probably working 1000 Major Crimes during that time, I decided it was time to get my PhD because I had always wanted to get one. Because I wanted to kind of be a part of solving a big puzzle. I wanted to help the society in any way possible and, contribute to something important.

With that, there’s not many doctorate programs or PhD programs that are focused on forensic science across the world. It’s really due to a massive lack in funding for research topics such as that. So instead, I decided to enroll in a doctorate program that would teach me a lot about genetics, that would teach me a lot about molecular biology, because all of the skills that I would learn there would be transferable back to the forensic science or forensic DNA industry.

I did my PhD in breast cancer research. I did my PhD and one of the most phenomenal labs in the world. They are really truly making a huge impact in helping patients, patient outcomes and patients diagnosis for breast cancer research.

Then, I said it’s time to return back to the forensic science industry. I was thankfully offered a position at the University of New Haven as an assistant professor at the time. If any of your listeners know about forensic science, they’ll know that the University of New Haven is the number one university in the United States for forensic science education.

The captain of our ship is Dr. Henry C. Lee, one of the world’s most world renowned forensic scientists. And so just having that opportunity to even be associated with Dr. Lee and the University of New Haven, I jumped at it. So, I joined the faculty at the University of New Haven in August 2014. And I’ve been there ever since. I said I would move over across the pond to the United States to Connecticut to New England. I would give it a year, and if I didn’t like it, I’d move on elsewhere. And eight years later, I’m still there. So, it looks like I’m staying for the long haul. I’m very happy in my position there at the University of New Haven.

In terms of forensic genetic genealogy, bear in mind,  I am and was at the time considered a forensic DNA expert. That was where all of my expertise lay and forensic biology. So, body fluids analysis, being able to correctly identify a particular body fluid from a crime scene, or from a piece of evidence, and then extracting a DNA profile from that and interpreting that DNA profile from that with our regular forensic (Short Term Repeat) STR profiling.

However, I had a long running history on passion for genealogy, it was my hobby, right, as many people’s hobby is genealogy. And so I’ve kind of been doing that all along on the side as my hobby. I had also worked several adoption cases and unknown parentage cases, including my own as I am also adopted, I knew who my biological mother was, but I didn’t have any idea of who my biological father was. Then using genetic genealogy, I made that identification. On the high of that I started to help other people do that. I’m sure you’ve felt that as well, in the past, you get those solves, and you get so excited that you just want to help more.

Then in April 2018 when the Golden State killer investigation was announced, and the prime suspect had been identified, I thought, oh my gosh, my two worlds have collided, my hobby of genetic genealogy, and then my career and expertise as a forensic DNA scientist.  I was like, this is the perfect mesh for it. And ever since then, I’ve just been hooked.

So, with that in mind, and having been a self-taught, genetic genealogist, I thought, Okay, well, there’s a massive need out there for a coherent program of study for forensic genetic genealogy. Who better and where better else to establish that than at the University of New Haven?

Lisa: In hearing your background, what you’ve really done I think for our audience is kind of lay out the career path and also show that, to a certain extent, this is all new territory. You can kind of follow your passions and create the situation that works best for you.

The Origins of Forensic Genealogy in Criminal Cases

(15:30) I remember watching a TV series, I think it was on crime TV or something. They were talking about the Golden State killer case, and it was before it was solved. I remember just practically yelling at the television and saying, why don’t you go check the DNA databases! and then very quickly, all that started happening. So, it’s exciting to see these worlds colliding.

Dr. Glynn: Yeah, it really is! I wish I had been the one that came up with the idea to apply genetic genealogy to criminal investigations. I should have because of the industry that I work in, but I didn’t. Thankfully there were trailblazers ahead of me, such as Margaret Price, Colleen Fitzpatrick, CeCe Moore, and Barbara Ray Venter. Those individuals that were already doing it before many of us even had the idea to do it.

Lisa: Well, and we’ve had many of those distinguished women on the Genealogy Gems podcast, and I like you, I had some ideas about it.  I’ve got all kinds of friends in the industry, and yet I never said anything to anybody. So, they all figured it out.

What is a Certificate Program?

(16:36) I love what you’re doing. It sounds like you’re really creating a structure so that more people can enter the field. I’d love to have you tell us about the program. You mentioned it’s a certificate. So, my guess is at this point, there’s not certification available yet, but there is a certificate and a field of study. Tell us about that.

Dr. Glynn: Yeah, absolutely. Well, with certification, and then doing a graduate certificate in anything, there are two very different things.

You can do a graduate certificate, or even an undergraduate certificate in many fields of study. Especially today,  in the last three to five years, higher education has seen a huge demand for what we call micro credentials, which are certificates, because they’re not full degree programs. They aren’t 33 credits, or 120 credits for a bachelors, 30 plus credits for a master’s degree.  A certificate here in the state of Connecticut by the Office of Higher Education, a certificate is 12 credits or more. It needs to be a minimum of 12 credits, 12 University credits. With our graduate certificate, the program itself is 12 credits. So, it’s four courses of three credits. There is an optional elective or additional elective that’s available as well, so could be 15 credits if you want.

How the Forensic Genetic Genealogy Program was developed.

(18:07) With the program, when I sat down to kind of say, ‘Okay, I need to plan a program, I need to develop a program in this,’ we have the infrastructure here at the University of New Haven to be able to do so. We have the Online Learning Management System. Also, we have kind of the prestige in the criminal justice and forensic science field that people would want to take a program like this with us.

So, I said, ‘Well, what would I include in a program such as this?’ What I was seeing, and I have to say a thanks to all of the online Facebook groups and forums and everything surrounding forensic or investigative genetic genealogy. I was reading the comments, and I was reading the questions of what people want to learn and what they’re lacking in their knowledge currently and what they’re hungry for.

I could see that there is a lot of not misinformation but confused information as to what already happens in a forensic DNA investigation. What do we currently do forensic genetic genealogy aside, when we have a crime? What is the physical evidence that is on a crime scene? How do we collect it? How do we preserve it? What do we do with it? How do we say that this red stain is blood, or this whitish stain is semen? How do we tell that what chemical tests do we use to do that?

Then importantly, what DNA information can we get out of that sample? What type of DNA analysis do we perform to either compare it from a suspect DNA profile that has been collected, or run it through our criminal DNA database such as CODIS, here in the United States, (or it’s called something else other countries), and what’s the process for all of that. What are the rules and the regulations and the criteria and the standards that we have to adhere to for analyzing all of those types of samples.

Also, things like touch or transfer DNA analysis, so minute quantities of DNA. Or recovering mean DNA from heavily compromised samples such as skeletal remains, highly decomposed bones, teeth, things like that. I could see that a large portion of the comments that I was seeing was people being curious about. ‘How do we do this? Why can’t we connect Gedmatch to CODIS? And I’m like, oh, no, they’re apples and oranges. They’re two very different things.

Forensic Genetic Genealogy Certificate Program Courses

(20:41) So, I thought the first course in the program should be a fundamentals of forensic biological evidence. (It would include) what do we currently do? What is our regular forensic DNA profiling process? What is CODIS? And what are what are our national criminal DNA databases? Then importantly, this is one people often get confused is, what is familial DNA searching? Because that is not forensic genetic genealogy at all. That is something else that we’ve been doing for years in the forensic community, whereby we’re comparing STR (short tandem repeat) forensic DNA profiles within a criminal DNA database looking for first order direct relatives, so aunts, uncles, parents, siblings.

So that’s the first course. That gets people up to speed of what do we do in a regular forensic investigation. Currently, as the Department of Justice interim policy regarding forensic genetic genealogy, all of that has to happen before and FGG investigation is even begun.

Then the second course is what is forensic genetic genealogy? What can we do with the results from consumer DNA testing? What are the databases that we are allowed to use, such as Gedmatch and Family Tree DNA? What can we do with the genetic data that we can harvest from those databases? What’s a centimorgan, what does share DNA mean, and what tools are out there to help us decipher this information. So, that’s the second course. It’s going through all of that in depth: going through the X chromosome, the Y chromosome, autosomal, consumer DNA testing. Also importantly, the ethical implications and privacy implications of doing this type of analysis.

Then, after the genetic genealogy component – so we’ve put it into our database, into Gedmatch or Family Tree DNA, we find our top 10 matches, we have our centimorgan value, we use our shared cm project tool to infer what potential relationship that is, then we start to build a family tree using that genetic data or genetic information. And then how do we build those trees out further of the non-genetic matches because they’re not in the database? And how do we use traditional genealogy, as I like to call it some people don’t like it when I call it traditional genealogy, though. I understand their reasoning, though, because it sort of makes it sound like that’s the old way of doing it. But it’s not. It’s what we currently do with our regular genealogy of finding those records, and also, importantly, verifying those records and making sure that they’re true and accurate. All of the different genealogy standards, and the genealogy proof standard, and adhering to all of essentially the rules, as I like to call them, from the board for the certification of genealogists. So, you’re taught, what are we doing forensic investigations? What’s genetic genealogy? What’s regular genealogy, so genealogy principles and methods.

The fourth course, the final course in the program, is our Forensic Genetic Genealogy Practicum. That practicum is not a traditional course. There’s no lecture material. There’s no videos to watch each week, there’s no readings for you to do. It’s “here’s a mock case, go solve it.” Everything that you’ve learned over the three previous courses, apply that to this case.

I create mock cases of Jane and John Doe’s or they could be suspect cases. And basically, I provide the student with a Gedmatch kit number that I’ve uploaded. I’ve gotten permission. It’s gone through our institutional review board approval for inclusion in this and the volunteer who gave me the DNA, their DNA dataset has provided informed consent, and I anonymized that sample. I provide the students with the kit numbers and I say, “Here’s your case. This is a Jane Doe, estimated aged 30 to 50 years, possibly Caucasian or possibly Latina or possibly African-American. Then they have to run with it. They have to apply everything that they’ve learned to try and solve the case.

And from this past cohort  the results were phenomenal from the practicum. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed with the excellence of the students from our first cohort and their ability to correctly identify people within their practicum.

We have some internships available because we’ve established very collaborative partnerships with some of the forensic genetic genealogy providers out there. And many of them are reaching out to me now asking, “Can we take some of your students next year?” which is great to see. And so, this past year, we had some students intern with the DNA Doe Project where they were mentored by the excellent people at the DNA Doe Project, I have to give a shout out to Gabrielle Vargas, and also to Margaret Press there, they were truly phenomenal with our students. And they worked actual real cases on identified human remains. They successfully identified at least one, I think there’s been two now.

So, for that type of outcome, I mean, I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that. To know that the students have been trained to a professional level that they’re as successfully able to apply everything that they’ve learned. Similarly, with the mock cases that the other students were given to see that they were able to successfully identify really was just absolutely outstanding,

Lisa: It must have been exciting for you just as the instructor and seeing it all come together.

What type of student applies to the Forensic Genetic Genealogy certificate program?

(27:06) Did you find that the people who were signing up for that course, were they interested in trying to do this professionally,  make a paid career out of it, or were there just lots of people who would give anything just to donate their time and be part of this kind of work?

The short answer to that Lisa is both. What I get asked quite a lot is like what type of student applies to this program? And I was just going through my spreadsheet this morning for the upcoming program that starts in just two weeks. The breakdown is pretty much the same as our first cohort. I like to look at it as there’s the law enforcement affiliated group. Then there’s the non-law enforcement affiliated group.

The law enforcement affiliated group of students are the ones that already work for law enforcement in some capacity or another, be it their death investigator, a DNA analyst in a crime state or federal or private Crime Lab. There are police officers, they’re detectives, they’re intelligence analysts, they’re already working in law enforcement in some capacity. And so, they’re enrolling in the program because they want to add this additional skillset to their portfolio or to their resume, and apply the knowledge that they learned through this program to their current work. They’re not looking for employment, right, they already have it. They’re just looking to add it. This is the whole kind of push that we see massively and demand for micro-credentials. People already in their career that want to add to their credentials to help them move further within the career, the current jobs that they have.

Then, the other side of it, where there’s non-law enforcement affiliated students, they come from such a diverse background, it’s fascinating to see. In last year’s cohort, I had a librarian I had an airline pilot, I had an attorney, non-criminal attorney, a business attorney, I had a lighting specialist.  I remember thinking, I’m a little bit nervous accepting some of these students into the program, because where are they going to go with this? And are they going to be able to keep up with the program because of not already knowing the law enforcement side? I’ll tell you, they were some of the best program. They really were. They absolutely blew my mind away.

I’m seeing very similar backgrounds in the applicants and the accepted students into the program that I have for this coming 2022 cohort. Very, very, very diverse backgrounds. Some of the non-law-enforcement people are already working professionally as genealogists, not specifically forensic genealogists. I have a couple of already board-certified genealogists. I have some people that have been working as search angels for several years or are already working for one of the private forensic genetic genealogy providers. Once again, this credential is essentially to add to their resume.

Employment opportunities for Forensic Genetic Genealogists

(30:22) Whenever I get asked –  I get emails on a near weekly basis – what are the employment opportunities? What are your statistics for employment upon graduation, you can’t really give statistics for a micro-credential such as a certificate program, because not everyone’s in it to get a job at the end. And also, as you mentioned, and this is true for certainly a handful of the students from last year’s cohort and probably for this coming year’s cohort is, people just want to add to their skill set and their knowledge and volunteer their time, as a retiree, or they’re taking a break from work for a while, and they just want to do this on a volunteer basis in the future. So really quite a diverse group.

Demographics of Forensic Genetic Genealogy Students

(31:08) I think it’s fascinating to know, and you probably won’t be surprised about this, but 95% of the students in this coming year’s cohort, 95% are female, and 5% are male. And interestingly, as well, the average age is exactly 45 years of age, with our youngest student being 21 years of age and our oldest being 72. So again, a very diverse demographic of students.

Lisa: Wow, that is fascinating.

Dr. Glynn: One last thing on the demographic, sorry, I forgot to mention. I just pulled it up this morning was going through it. We have nearly 30 states represented of students coming from nearly 30 different states, and then several from Australia, Canada, and also the UK.

Lisa: Not surprised. I know, there’s lots of genealogists down there. I’ve talked a lot of them.

Prerequisites for the program at the University of New Haven

(32:08) It’s an online course.  Tell us a little about logistics.  How long is the course? Do they need to have a particular background or particular degree in order to be accepted?

Dr. Glynn: The prerequisites for applying to the program is that you have a bachelors in anything. We will consider anything. We do prefer a bachelors in a scientific discipline just because it will help you with understanding a lot of the biological terms. We don’t have necessarily the time to explain ‘this is a cell and this is the mitochondria of the cell’. But I find that most adult learners already know all that, never mind what degree they already have. So, a bachelor’s degree is the first prerequisite because it is a graduate certificate. If you don’t have a bachelor already, you can’t be awarded a graduate certificate. It is just as simple as that.

Then I consider anyone with any background. It doesn’t matter if your bachelors was in sociology or your bachelors was in forensic science, everyone is considered for that.

With the application process, it is: submit your application online, submit your resume. Thankfully, we don’t require that dreaded GRE. That’s no longer required. Nor do we require letters of reference or anything like that. It’s resume, transcripts and your brief statement of purpose, the statement of purpose being so that I can get an idea of where you want to go with this. Why do you want to do this? If someone has ideas of ‘oh, I want to work for the FBI and be a DNA analyst for them’. I’m like, okay, but this isn’t your ticket into that, right? Because you need to have a degree in forensic science or traditional science first to do that.

The program is, as you mentioned, fully online. It’s taught asynchronously. I wouldn’t call it self-paced because it’s self-paced is that’s kind of interpreted as you just go at your own pace, and you do the work here and there. It’s not like that at all. It’s very much we have modules published on a weekly basis, the assignments for those need to be completed on a weekly basis.  Each week a new module will publish in each course. That will have pre-recorded lectures. It will have assignments, both written and then practical assignments as well. There’s the usual end of term exam, online exam, or final paper. It really depends upon the course which one we’re doing that for.

I designed the program so that it would be four courses, but it would be sequential semesters that their delivered in. The first course, that fundamentals of forensic biological evidence, that’s delivered in spring one mini term. Many of your listeners may not be familiar with mini terms or accelerated terms, because certainly it’s a relatively new thing in higher education. Most of us there used to that 15 week semester of the fall for 15 weeks in the spring for 15 weeks. Whereas with online education, and especially for micro credentials, such as certificates, there’s much more of a demand for many terms. So, it’s 15 weeks worth of work, but it’s it delivered in seven and a half weeks, so it’s half the time. But the intention is to only take one course at a time, whereas in a traditional master’s program you’re taking four or five courses at one time.

The first course is delivered in the spring one mini-mester every year which runs from mid-January to mid-March. Then the spring mini term is mid-March to mid-May. That’s the second course forensic genetic genealogy. Then we have the summer semester, which makes it a little bit tricky, because the summer semester is typically about 12 weeks long. If you were to do a mini term, that would only be six weeks. And for that, it would be the traditional genealogy course, or we’ve renamed it Genealogy Principles and Methods. Six weeks is too short for that. Plus, it’s the summer, it’s the summer! People have vacations planned, or things like that. We found last year that six weeks was just too short of a time period, people were under way too much pressure, and were too overwhelmed with the volume of information that they were taking in, and just a six week period. So, what we’ve done for the 2022 cohort is that that same core same volume of work, same curriculum is just being delivered in a 12 week period, as opposed to six week period so that it gives people a little bit of breathing room and they’re not overwhelmed.

Then the final course, the practicum, that will be in the fall one mini-mester and it runs from end of August to mid-October. And that’s the completion of the course. You can do the whole program in 10 months, from beginning to end with one course per semester or mini-mester or however you want to call it.

Is a background in genealogy required to become Forensic Genetic Genealogist?

(37:44) Lisa: Did you find that most people had a background in genealogy? Or did you have some people who that was not something that they were into?

Dr. Glynn: No, I had a lot of complete novices. A lot of those people were law enforcement affiliated. The majority of those were.  They had heard a genealogy, they’re a little bit interested that taken a 23andme test many years ago, but had never looked at the results. And they were fascinated by this new forensic field that we have, and so wanted to add it to their skill set.

Whereas it was really the non-law enforcement affiliated group that had already been doing a lot of them, not all of them, a lot of them have been doing genealogy for quite a number of years. So, we really do have quite a wide berth in terms of experience and skill level.

With that being said, for the third course in the program, the Genealogy Principles and Methods, which is kind of all the traditional genealogy stuff, there were a few people in last year’s program who had quite a bit of experience in genealogy themselves already. Some of them had taken Boston University’s certificate course in genealogy research. I was wondering at the time maybe they’re not going to find this extremely useful, but maybe they will. Whenever I asked those people afterwards, they’re like, oh, no, I learned a lot in this! It really supplemented what I already knew. And it really strengthened their foundation in that area. I was delighted to hear that.

How to Apply to the Forensic Genetic Genealogy Certificate Program

(39:24) Lisa: So everybody’s dying to know, where do they find you online? How do they learn more about the program and perhaps even apply?

Dr. Glynn: Sure. If you go into Google, and you type in University of New Haven, and my name Claire Glynn, I should be the first thing that pops up. Or if you just go to the University of New Haven website, which is www.newhaven.edu and in the search bar there, just type in forensic genetic genealogy, the program will pop up. You’ll learn more about the program there and more about the course descriptions, and the application process. On the right hand side of the page there is an Apply Now button, and you can go ahead and apply.

Bonus Video: Phenotyping and the Future of Forensic Genetic Genealogy

There was so much to discuss with Dr. Glynn in the video How to be a Forensic Genetic Genealogist that we kept the cameras rolling. The result is this bonus Premium video on Phenotyping and some predictions about the future of Forensic Genetic Genealogy. 

phenotyping and forensic genealogy

Watch this bonus video

Resources

 

How to Search the U.S. National Archives Online Catalog for Genealogy

Elevenses with Lisa Episode 40 Show Notes

Elevenses with Lisa is our little slice of heaven where friends get together for tea and talk about the thing that never fails to put a smile on our face: Genealogy!

The National Archives is a wonderful resource of unique genealogical records. Though the archives are closed, the website is open, and it’s a great place to search for records and prepare for future genealogy research trips.

The National Archives website and online catalog can be a bit mystifying. If you’ve ever tried to search it and wound up frustrated, you’re not alone. This is often the case because the nature of the archives and the search function of the online Catalog are not genealogically focused. Armed with an understanding of how and why it is set up the way it is, and the know-how to search, refine, and download documents, you’ll be ready to add it to your genealogy toolkit.

In this video episode and article, we’ll be answering important questions such as:

  • What kind of genealogy records can be found at the National Archives website?
  • Which genealogy records are not available at the National Archives?
  • How do I search for records at the National Archives online Catalog?
  • How can I retrieve only digital items from the National Archives Catalog?
  • How can I get better search results in the National Archives Online Catalog?
  • How do I download files from the National Archives Website?
  • What is the Record Group Explorer?

Original Air Date: Jan. 21, 2021

Important Links:
The National Archives Website: https://www.archives.gov
Search the Catalog: https://catalog.archives.gov/

What Kind of Records Can be Found at the National Archives Website?

To understand the types of records we can expect to find we must first understand the role and mission of the National Archives. Their role is preserving and making available only the permanent Federal Government records. Some have genealogical value.

  • These records are arranged as the agencies created them, so there is no master subject or name index.
  • While they have 110 million + digitized pages in the Catalog, this represents just a small fraction of the holdings.
  • The Catalog contains descriptions for their nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area, regional facilities, and Presidential Libraries.
  • The Catalog currently contains descriptions for 95% of the records, described at the “series” level.
  • You can find basic information about the records, including size and location, from the catalog description.
  • The National Archives is regularly adding more file unit and item descriptions, many of which include digital files.

Some traditional genealogy records can be found at the National Archives such as:

  • Census Records
  • Passenger Arrival Records (Immigration)
  • Land Records
  • Military Personnel Records
  • Court records
  • Fugitive slave cases
  • Naturalization records
  • Federal employees
  • Applications for enrollment in Native American tribes

Most if these records are available in person. However, all National Archives locations have been closed since March 13, 2020 and remain so as of this writing.

Genealogy Records You Will Not Find at the National Archives

Because the following genealogy records are not created at the federal level, they would not be cataloged or found at the National Archives:

  • Birth
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Death records
  • Deeds and wills.

To obtain these records, check with the appropriate state or county.

What to do before you search the National Archives Catalog online

Before you begin your online search:

  • Write down your research question.
  • Decide what topic you want to browse.
  • Think of possible ways your ancestor interacted with the Federal Government.

On the National Archives website they provide a great example of a research question that a genealogist might have and how it can lead to records.

QUESTION: Why did my ancestor have a significant decrease in net worth between the 1860 Census and 1870 Census?|
ASK YOURSELF: How might your ancestor have interacted with the federal government that could help explain this discrepancy?
RECORDS TO SEARCH FOR: The Bankruptcy Act of 1867 allowed many people to file for voluntary bankruptcy. The genealogists could search in the National Archives Catalog for bankruptcy AND [state where you ancestor lived during that timeframe] to see if bankruptcy records are available that could help answer the question.

How to Search the National Archives Catalog Online

There are three key types of searches you can conduct in the catalog:

  • Keyword searches
  • Filtered searches
  • Advanced search

Let’s start with a keyword search:

  1. Go to https://catalog.archives.gov
  2. Enter keywords in the search box in the center of the page.
    (If you are looking for an exact phrase using two or more words, put them in quotation marks example: “bounty land”)
  3. Press the magnifying glass button to run your search.
  4. The results will be returned starting with best results at the top.  
  5. To view a description, click on the blue title.  

You can use the filters on the left side of the results page to narrow down your results.

Refine your search results by type if you know the type of material you want. Example of material type include photos, maps, or textual records.

It’s important to remember that just because the item appears in the result does not mean that it is available online. Many of the descriptions don’t include digital images of the records.

How can I retrieve only digital items from the National Archives Catalog?

You can dramatically narrow down your search results to include only digital items that you can review from home. To do this, on the search results page, click on the filter Archival Descriptions with Digital Objects. This will revise your results list so that you will only see descriptions of items with images attached.

How can I get better search results in the National Archives Online Catalog?

It never hurts to try searching by name, although many record descriptions will not name the people who are named in the records. You can improve these searches by using quotes around the entire name, or just the surname. This will restrict results to only items that exactly matches what appears in the quotes.  

You’ll notice that there isn’t a specific search field for names in the National Archives Catalog.  Here are several additional search strategies you can use when searching for the names of people:

  • Search on the person’s full name in first name-last name order.
  • Search for last name – first name within quotes
  • Search on the surname only. Again you can use quotes.
  • Search on spelling variations using the search operator OR. This works well when searching name variations such as: Burkett OR Burkette.
  • Search on variant spellings of the first name, including “Americanized” versions.

Example: Joseph Maggio OR Guiseppe Maggio.

Again, keep in mind that most descriptions in the National Archives Catalog do not include the names of people mentioned in the record. If you know an individual participated in event, search for related keywords and look within the records. You will need to read them to see if your ancestor is mentioned.  

Another way to improve your search results is to shift your focus from people to topics. This is strongly recommended by the National Archives. You are much more likely to get a greater number of results because people aren’t usually named in descriptions. Be sure to read the description carefully to see if the item will be helpful and worth requesting.

When searching topics, think about and make a list of relevant phrases and keywords. For example, when searching for Land Records, try searching for phrases such as:

  • “Bounty Land”
  • Homestead
  • “Land Entry”

Premium Members Exclusive: Downloadable National Archives Topic Search cheat sheet (PDF)

How to Download Files from the National Archives Website

After clicking the description on the search results page you will be on the record page. If there is a digital image, it can be downloaded. Look below to see if there are additional pages. You can click to select the desired page and then click the download icon just below the image.

If you would like to download all of the images, look below the list of images to see if a compiled PDF is available. This will allow you to download and save all of the images in one convenient file.

The Record Group Explorer at the National Archives Website

The Record Group Explorer offers a unique way of visualizing and finding records at the National Archives website:

  • Allows you to browse NARA’s holdings by Record Group
  • Use it to get a sense of the scale and organization of records
  • Explore what is available online via the Catalog
  • Provides an overview of the digital scans available online within a Record Group: textual records, photographs, maps and charts, electronic records, and more.

Records are grouped by specific government agencies. Each group is represented visually in a section. The section is light blue, signifying the total volume of textual records. If a dark blue bar appears in the section, it is an indicator that some of the records are digitized. The percentage or number (depending on the view you select in the grey Record Group Explorer Tools bar across the top) of digital images will be shown.

If the section is green, that indicates that there are records online but they are not textual records. They may be items like photographs or films.

If the section is grey, there are no records available online at all.

Click a section to learn more about that Record Group and explore the records.

Record Group Highlight: Motion Pictures

The National Archives holds a surprising number of motion pictures. As you browse or search, focusing on topic will likely be more helpful than searching by name. Consider looking for your ancestors’ homes, businesses, military service, events and associated locations.

Check out Motion Picture Library Stock Shots, ca. 1953 – ca. 1959

“A series of films: 306-LSS, a group of more than 400 black and white reels of stock footage that ended up in the hands of the United States Information Agency (USIA).”

Answers to Live Chat Questions

One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.

From Sue M.:  Do they hold WPA and CCC records?
From Lisa: Yes to both!

From Steve S.: Can you use the * and ? as search operators in the NARA catalog? Also thanks for de-mystifying this site! you have made it much more understandable.
From Lisa: After the show Steve did some searching and found this handy page providing additional search tips and operators supported by the website. Thanks Steve!    

From Michael R.: Are the Naturalization records in the National Archives different from those in local courthouses?
From Lisa: I haven’t looked lately, but about 15 years ago I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and received my great grandfather’s federal naturalization paperwork. It included a photograph that was not included at the county court level.

From Lynnette B.: I had my parent’s old home movies put on DVD’s several years ago. What is the next step in making them more available? Adobe spark video? YouTube? I want to identify each person on them?
From Lisa: An easy way to get started is by making Adobe Spark Videos (see episode 16)  which is free and easy. Use the Titles feature to add text explaining who is who. Uploading them to your free YouTube account channel is a super easy way to share them.

Resources

Genealogy Gems premium elearning

Click to learn more about Genealogy Gems Premium Membership.

Jewish Genealogy Research

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

Interview Transcript

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.

JewishGen

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.

JewishGen Networking

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

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.

JRI-Poland

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.

Gesher Galicia

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.

Holocaust Research

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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