I was reading Dan Farber's post this morning and was struck by the first line that juxtaposed the title of the Churchill Club panel session he attended -- "Masters of Cybercrime: The Ultimate Battle of Good and Evil" -- against the panelists' consensus on how good is actually faring against evil in that battle. Apparently, it's losing. In memory of a horrific day 62 years ago today -- June 6, 1943 -- and in the face of such bad news about good, evil, and technology, I thought it would be appropriate to counterbalance those findings with a personal account that's a bit more uplifting -- one where, 62 years later, technology is triumphing over evil.
It started rather innocently. "Dad, I need to write a few paragraphs on where my family comes from." When my then 13 year-old son asked me that question last year, all I could tell him was that he's Russian, Austrian, Hungarian, and Polish. Beyond that, I had no details. But four words would not suffice for an essay on one's heritage and thus, a personal genealogical project was born. After 72 hours of on-line database searches, interviews of family members, inspection of images of physical documents, and numerous e-mail exchanges with knowledgeable third parties, I had 90 percent of my grandmother's "branch" of the family tree completed dating back to the late 1800s. The Kleinosphere, as I've come to dub the Klein branch of my family, hails from the old Galician town of Podhajce. Today, Podhajce is in the Ukraine. But, over the years, it has been a part of Russia, Poland, and Austria.
Although my heritage is Jewish, I am not a practicing Jew. But for any person of Jewish descent to attempt an exploration of his or her genealogy, it is impossible for the project not to turn into an exploration of his or her Jewish heritage as well. Among the documents and history books that tell the story of shtetls like Podhajce, perhaps none are more detailed or significant than Yizkor books. According to the National Yiddish Book Center, "Yizkor (memorial) books are a crucial source for research in East European Jewish history, Holocaust studies, and Jewish genealogy. Written in Yiddish or Hebrew or both, most titles include extensive documentation of Jewish life before the war, followed by vivid, first-hand accounts of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Visually, most of the books are extremely rich, featuring detailed maps, photographs and illustrations. Many titles include necrologies – lists of those who died – which make these books especially valuable for genealogical research."
Blogs and wikis had their precedents
I'm sure there are other precedents to blogs and wikis, but Yizkor books strike me as an irrefutable proof-point of the power of citizen's journalism and wiki-like collaboration. In his introduction to the Yizkor book about life in Jewish Podhajce, M. Sh. Geshuri wrote "A common principal in Yizkor Books is that they are written by people whose profession is not the pen." Sound familiar? Geshuri continued, "It is only the feeling of obligation and responsibility to perpetuate their city, so that it will not disappear and be silenced with the passing of the last of this generation that imposed upon them the challenge to take the writer's quill into their non-professional hands." In the spirit of transparency and credibility, Geshuri, who edited the book, even admits to another principle of the blogosphere and the Creative Commons copyright: the remix (with full and eloquent disclosure). Wrote Geshuri, "I succeeded in finding the sources that made it possible for me to edit the time-line, to discover the names of rabbis and scholars who lived in Podhajce. Had I not revived them and placed them into the book, they would have been consigned to oblivion."
Take note if you're a blogger. To the extent that these freely re-publishable and obviously re-mixable citizen-written accounts of life in the shtetl are rife with names of, and stories about, the townspeople, there are millions of people today that would know little of their ancestry had it not been for these Yizkor books. If you're blogging, you could be creating personal accounts of history that, decades from now could end up in the remix (if you publish under the Creative Commons license) and centuries from now, might be the primary source of information for some future 13-year-old middle school student who is writing about his or her heritage.
As I came to learn, it was around the turn of the century that my great grandfather Abraham and all but one of his siblings had the courage and prescience to uproot themselves from the Jewish shtetl of Podhajce (that many generations of Kleins before them called home) to seek a better life in America. They didn't all come together. First, just prior to World War One (as best as I can tell), one scouted the situation out and found a home (most likely with a Galician friend or cousin or other relative). Then, in what became a tradition of hospitality for many immigrants, the rest followed (some after the war), packing themselves into one New York City dwelling until they were able to establish their independence. The spirit of the Spanish phrase Mi Casa, Su Casa -- My House [is] your house -- comes to mind. It was the ethos of hospitality among all Jewish emigres (as I'm sure it was with immigrants of countless other nationalities).
So you think you're facing adversity in your life? Imagine what it must be like to leave everything you know behind. Little did the siblings know of what lay ahead (the Holocaust). If they had dreams of family members traveling back and forth between Podhajce and New York in hopes of keeping the family together, those dreams would be torpedoed. Eventually, in the 1950s, the siblings, along with other emigres from Podhajce, would take solace in the formation of an organization -- the Young Men of Podhajce Benevolent Association (aka the Sons of Podhajce) -- in order to help maintain the unity of their community and preserve its traditions.
Enough of my family members are around today to piece together the family tree that surrounds the Klein siblings who moved from Podhajce. But there was a hole that surrounded the sibling -- a sister -- who stayed behind. From what scant records were available and what family members thought her name was, I could only make guesses at the identity of a long lost aunt. I had some information to go on, though. She wasn't just lost. As best as I could tell from the stories handed down by family members, she, along with her husband and her children were executed at gunpoint. Through the Internet, I learned of the fateful day -- June 6, 1943 -- when the Jews who remained in the Podhajce Ghetto, the ones who were not sent to a death camp in Belzec, were, in a final liquidation, shot to death and buried in mass graves outside the town. But one of the children -- a man named Isaac -- escaped to France, hid from the Nazis, married a Frenchwoman, and had two daughters.
Through two wars, the binds that tied our family together across the Atlantic Ocean were reduced to strands. Strands that decades later have dissolved into the salt water and the time that separates my family from its past. Hitler may not have been successful at wiping out all the Jews, but sixty years later, many families --including mine -- remain deprived of their both their heritage and their relatives. As I interviewed other family members, I heard one request over and over: "If you find the girls, please let us know."
Enter the Internet.
It's been almost a year since that 72-hour quest began. Since then, work (the blogosphere) and family, including a new daughter of my own, have filled my schedule to the point that the search for the missing girls and any descendants of theirs had to be moved to the back burner. But I put my name on a distribution list for updates on any new information from the Podhajce era. Occasionally, I'd get an e-mail with some links, but nothing was filling the hole in my family tree. And then, it happened. After receiving another update, I followed the links to a database where I could enter my name in as someone who was searching for relatives by specific last names. The database apparently existed last year, but somehow, I overlooked it. Not only could I list myself in the database as a researcher of certain surnames, I could see who else had listed themselves, and the surnames they were researching. I searched the database on two key surnames -- the girls' mother's maiden name (Klein) and their father's surname -- and in both cases, the same researcher's name popped up on my screen. Someone else -- someone by the name of Isaac -- was also interested in the same two surnames that I was. Jews often name their children after their parents (in other words, the same names are used every other generation). Could this Isaac be the grandson of the Isaac who escaped to France?, I wondered. If he is, then that would mean he is also the son of one of the missing daughters. His last name was French. But the contact information was old. So, I Googled his name and was lucky enough to locate his current e-mail address.
Coincidence? Not. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be him and to find out in one e-mail that dozens of family members have been looking for you and your parents for decades? Two more e-mails later and the hole in the tree is now filled-in with exacting data. The missing girls are alive and well in France and, while no flights or phone calls have yet been booked or made, rest assured it's only a matter of time. Hitler's vision stretched the fabric of my family to its limits, but could not destroy it. Now, thanks to technology, that fabric is being restored, never to be reduced to strands again. Said Isaac in his e-mail to me "In some sense, I'd like to believe that it is a small victory over the forces of evil that tried to separate and exterminate families in World War II." Yeah. What he said. And then some.