Excerpts of a talk delivered on 22 October 2006 in New York City:
Most genealogical researchers try to accumulate the largest possible number of civil records such as birth, marriage and deaths certificates, and then use sophisticated software to arrange them in elaborate graphs representing family trees, often the size of giant sequoias of the West Coast. But these trees are often lifeless. This is why it is so important to go beyond these simple dry facts and try to discover the environment, the circumstances, the background, the historical facts of the time, the looks registered on old photographs, the untold stories and the remaining artifacts in ancestral towns.
You never know what you may find. You have to be curious and constantly ask the archivists “is there anything else?”
In the branch of the State Archives in Bochnia I reviewed the local Book of Residents dated 1901 and found the following listing of my great-grandfather’s family: Wolf JASSEM, 44, b. 1857 in Boguchwala near Rzeszów, Galicia, owner of the property; Cyrla JASSEM nee Schneeweiss, 45, b. 1856 in Słocina near Rzeszów, Galicia, followed by the same set of details about their five children Mojżesz, Aron Arnold, Emilia, Rebeka and Kalman Klemens. The heading had the street address “ulica Gazaris 417”.
I asked the archivist whether they had anything else pertaining to the property. In a few minutes he came back with a folder containing a building permit application for putting zinc roofing over the house and building a new stove and a brick chimney. The application was filed in 1900 and included a floor plan, a cross-section and an elevation of the house. I was thrilled as I could now picture how this family of seven lived in a tiny house, squeezed like sardines in a can. But I was glad my great-grandfather Wolf at least made sure the house was dry and warm.
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Another document revealed that my great-grandmother was not happy with the neighbor’s septic tank that was not properly sealed and released a bad odor. I hope her complaint resulted in town intervention and that the five children could breathe clean air again as they studied at the kitchen table. And they did study hard. The three boys became graduates in law from Jagiellonian University years later, records of which were available in the archives of the university. But as I was still in Bochnia then and I bought the town’s map and found out that Gazaris Street still existed. I walked towards it as fast as I could and as I got there I realized that the houses on both sides of the street were not old enough to have witnessed the turn of the 19th century and that the street numbers had likely changed.
Suddenly I noticed a small house offset from the street, furnished with a new porch and a later addition on the side. The roof displayed neatly clad zinc sheets and it was topped with a brick chimney. It was the only really old house around. I recognized it instantly! Good job Wolf, the new roof protected it well for over 100 years. I looked at the kitchen window and tried to imagine a glimpse of Cyrla preparing dinner for the family while the smoke would have drawn spiral lines over the chimney. Bearded Wolf was perhaps shaking mud off his boots as he entered the door on the left and the aroma of his favorite pickle soup greeted him at the threshold. This was my priceless moment of virtual reality. Had I not asked the archivist for additional documents I would never have had this experience.
I would like to encourage everybody of Galician roots to go where their ancestor lived and look for their traces creatively. Don’t limit yourselves to basics. Think in terms of modern times. Are there building department documents? Are there education department documents? What about the Chamber of Commerce records? And why not legal papers? Is the State Archive the only repository of old documents? What about museums or schools of long history? You may leave your iPod but take a notebook, a camera and a tape recorder and use them all the time.
In addition to basic genealogical resources such as civil records:
- Census records (for example in Rzeszow)
- Conscription lists (for example in Rzeszow)
- Books of residents (with complete street address)
- Property records (example: floor plans and elevations filed with application for building permit led to locating my great grandfather’s home in Bochnia)
- Cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions (names of some 25 Holocaust victims related to my great grandfather added to his tombstone in Krakow cemetery right after the war)
- Interwar Polish ID application forms with beautiful sepia photographs
- Nazi ghetto registration forms for Jews in Krakow with photographs attached
- Oddity: war-time passport application by a Jew
- Austro-Hungarian school records found in Bochnia archives
- Pre-war school records (father, uncle) found in archives of 209 years old elementary school in Krakow (in a new building now) – Krakow
- Graduate and doctoral students records at the archives of 642 year old Jagiellonian University of Krakow.
- Jewish student organization records with lists of members and activists in the same archive
- Professional development files in Krakow archives (my relatives who were lawyers)
- Business registration cards with lots of information
- Legal documents pertaining to businesses and properties
- Chamber of commerce records
- Inheritance proceedings
- Registration cards of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)
- Post-war registers confirming Polish citizenship include name changes
- Judenrat Zakopane file (Muzeum Tatrzanskie, Zakopane) with lists of Zakopane Jews and war-time documentation
- Lists of Jewish orphans of Zakopane orphanage and documentation (subject of a book and a film “My Hundred Children”)
- Postwar statements and legal proceedings to prove and declare death of a Holocaust victim
- Address and phone books, business directories – consecutive addresses and business can be found as well as commercial ads
- Pre-war newspapers and magazines may include personal info as well as wealth of knowledge about socio-historical background
- Buildings – synagogues and communal buildings frequented by ancestors
- Articles and documents about the history of these buildings
- Interviews with local historians (I did that in Zakopane and Bochnia) – take tape recorders and notebooks everywhere
- Maps – facsimiles of old (such as “Mapa Galicyi” and new very detailed maps and atlases of Poland
- Excellent travelogues such as “Where the Tailor Was a Poet” an illustrated guide published by Pascal.