Saturday, November 28, 2009

Finding My British Family

I am often as fascinated with the process of solving a puzzle as the resolution itself. I love the way it evolves over time and the way each new piece of information moves me along a path of discovery.

For many years I have been exploring a link to British relatives. A cousin of my father’s spoke of family by the name of Kodish and recalled receiving boxing gloves from them for a holiday gift. My parents went to England many years ago and copied down the Kodish names from the phonebook. Not quite sure what to do with the list, they held onto it until I started my genealogy research years later.

A few years ago my father’s cousin died. Without children or a spouse, there was no one to take responsibility for his photos so I was “bequeathed” them in my role as family historian. I went through them with my mother and identified many. Others remain a mystery, fodder for future artworks as they are interesting photos even if unknown subjects. One photo stood out however, for on the back of it was signed, “Your cousin, Louis Kodish”.

I still wasn’t sure if the Kodish family was related to my side of the family, but decided to see what I could find. Over time I stumbled across an immigration record for Louis Kodish and his wife Katherine. They immigrated in 1929 to Louis’s cousin Abraham Singer in New York. Through my research in Dunilovichi, Belarus, I now knew that Abraham Singer was related to me. In genealogy speak he is a first cousin twice removed which means my grandparents were cousins to him and I’m two generations removed.

My father recalled his cousin saying something about Louis working on a ship and in fact he immigrated before Katherine and worked as a waiter on the ship. He was born in London, but lived in Glasgow prior to immigrating. His father’s name was given as Marks Kodish, along with his address in Glasgow. One other detail that may prove helpful; Louis had a visa issued in Glasgow, for which I can try to find the file from the US Citizen and Immigration Services. I had previously gotten a copy of the visa file for my great-grandmother and it was quite extensive including a birth record with parents’ names. My longer-term objective is to tie Louis back to Dunilovichi through his parents’ records so this may help me do so.

Katherine followed Louis to his cousin’s address in Brooklyn. By 1930 they had made their way to Chicago where I found them in the US Census. Louis' parents were noted as being from Russia although he was born in England. Here he worked as an insurance salesman, but I would guess that the Depression didn’t treat them kindly as they returned to Glasgow in 1934.

On a recent visit to the Family History Library I was able to access the 1911 British Census which was newly released. The library offers access to many pay databases for free so I made use of Here I found a Marks and Chai Kaddish from Russia who would have been born around 1866, but no son listed named Louis. A few Kodishes were listed as being from Vilna which sounded promising as my grandmother referred to being from Vilna even though she was actually from the nearby shtetl of Dunilovichi. The larger area was known as Vilna so these families likely came from the same region. Unfortunately there was no tidy solution to my puzzle. My hoped for discovery of a listing for a son named Louis and a father named Marks from Vilna didn’t prove out….yet.

I decided to check one more avenue called the B-M-D index. This references birth, marriage and death records by each quarter of a year. Here I enlarged my search to include another mystery traveler from England. Annie Singer, niece to Abraham Singer, came over from London via Palestine in early 1929 to stay with him. I was never quite sure what happened to her after immigration, possibly she married and without her new name I lost the trail, the perennial difficulty in tracing women. In looking at birth records, I found one Lewis Kodish in 1903 and several Annie Singers in the expected timeframe. For a small cost I can order the birth records from which I will likely identify the parents’ names.

While I was in the B-M-D Index, I decided to take a look at the Kodishes who might have immigrated from Russia. As I wanted to locate an earlier generation, I pulled up the death records for each year from 1904 to 2005. From these records, I also have the birth date and in some cases the mother’s name. Just as with my Radom database, I don’t know what they tell me yet, but as I get more information they may click into sharper focus.

So what was my process? It began with oral histories which revealed the existence of a Louis Kodish as well as his experience working on a ship. It further solidified with a photo. Immigration records for both Louis and Annie tied them to relatives of mine who originated in Dunilovichi and gave me an estimated birth date. It then lead me to my next step of ordering visa records which should tie to their parents and hopefully back to Dunilovichi. Along the way I had some dead ends and collected information which may prove meaningful as I learn more. I also had to wait several years before I could seek the visa for Annie Singer. The Office of US Citizen and Immigration Services will only release records if the person's birth date is over 100 years ago. An appreciation for the process is what keeps me on the trail.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Genealogist Personality

In talking with my fellow genealogists, I realize that it takes a certain personality type to savor a week of research. Twelve hour days at a microfilm reader are unlikely to appeal to most people. Many of us bring a professional background such as finance, law or psychology that translates well into this pursuit. The common element is an inquisitive mind that enjoys the process of solving puzzles. One had better enjoy the process as there is often a lengthy period of research between discoveries. My financial background lends itself well to genealogy as I use spreadsheet analysis in my approach. I started building databases of information so I could recognize patterns that linked information. Before long I was using analysis tools to manipulate the spreadsheets to help them spill their secrets. In Utah I often do impromptu workshops for others on my approach and out of that taught a course on this topic at the international conference.

Other skill sets prove equally valuable. My friend Fran is a therapist and has an innate curiosity that serves her well in her search. Her questioning mind and gregarious nature help her unlock genealogical puzzles. I’ve learned to be more gregarious in my research as part of the process is connecting with others to gather information. Fran tells me she is contemplating using some of the database tools to which I’ve introduced her.

Before I left on my trip I obtained a missing piece to one of my longstanding puzzles. If you’ve read about my research in Dunilovichi, Belarus you know that I located a sister to my great-grandfather as well as my great-great grandfather’s tombstone (Pesach Mordechai). Both are residing in the Dunilovichi cemetery. My latest missing piece came in the mail in the form of tombstone pictures I had ordered from New York. The tombstones revealed that my great-grandfather has another sibling, a brother, buried in the United States.

The process of genealogy can often unfold over several years. In this case I was first tipped off by my father’s late cousin that my grandmother’s family name was originally Reichel. When my great-grandfather came to the US in 1904 he followed the lead of a Brooklyn relative who had changed his name to Rothchild. They had heard it was a prominent name and could help them do better in the Golden Medina. That piece of information unlocked the Ellis Island immigration records where the original name was necessary to find them. I later found the name change confirmed in the naturalization records where they have to state the name under which they immigrated.

Some years later I made a discovery in the Ellis Island records. In 1923 Awsaj Reichel, born in Dunilowicz, was going to his son Morris Rothchild. Aha! This must be the lynchpin that proved the transition from Reichel to Rothchild. Despite extensive searching I never was able to find a record of Awsaj after that date. By the 1930 census he was not listed with his son. Years went by as I continued to research Morris Rothchild and his family. A year ago I went to the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Chicago. There I located the obituary for Morris Rothchild in a database that was available to attendees. I filed it away in my records and it was yet another year until it dawned on me that the obituary said where he was buried. Perhaps his father would be buried there as well. As it was a cemetery that had an on-line database, I plugged in the names and up popped Israel Rothchild who died in 1927. That would explain why he never showed up in the 1930 census. Before I left on my trip to Lithuania, I sent off to the cemetery for photos of the tombstones. Several months later I received them in the mail.

Genealogists form hypotheses and then collect data to test them. In this case, my hypothesis was that this was a sibling to my great-grandfather. He was the right age and based on the report of my father’s cousin, Awsaj’s son Morris was a cousin. Jewish tombstones always have the father’s name so that would either prove or disprove my theory. Upon ripping open the envelope, I was able to quickly confirm that Pesach Mordechai was clearly carved into the tombstone.

I turned my attention to the name Awsaj. The on-line database gave the name Israel. His tombstone spelled out his name in English as Osias. The Hebrew translated to Isaiah. But a new puzzle soon arose. One would expect to see this same name as the father on Morris Rothchild’s tombstone, but here the name translated to Joshua. In researching the two names I learned that they are derived from the same Hebrew root. They both literally mean “Jehovah saves”. One uses the full form of Jehovah, while the other uses a contracted form. Given the immigration record and the fact that he is buried in the family plot, I think I am safe to assume we are talking about the father of Morris.

Genealogy research unfolds, often over many years. It requires patience and an appreciation of the process. It is very much a process of pattern recognition. That means that we may have the information, but have not yet recognized the pattern. For this reason it is always valuable to review past research as old information may make sense as new information develops. Clues can be lurking in our data that a fresh set of eyes will recognize. As in life, it helps to develop a broad range of skills that build on our natural skill set, but sometimes go against type. Thus introverts learn to be gregarious and the gregarious learn to use databases.