Category Archives: WDYTYA

Who Do You Think You Are?

WDYTYA – Episode 6 – The Nitpicker’s Version

I know it’s been a while since these last two episodes aired, but I wanted to get them in before the second series starts. In case anyone has forgotten from my saying them in previous Nitpicker’s Versions, I do love this show. But as a genealogist, there are so many things I think they could do better, certainly to educate the general public about genealogy research.

The sixth episode of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on Susan Sarandon seeking information about her grandmother, Anita. From the introduction, it sounded like Susan had already done some research, but her grandmother’s information had always escaped her. She recalled some family stories and headed to Virginia to interview her mother.

Meet the Family

This is the typical beginning to this show and is the correct beginning for genealogical research. Then again, had she ever tried asking her mother about her Anita before? Her mother was “apprehensive”, so maybe that had stopped her in the past.

To New York City

Susan met with Megan Smolenyak in a cafe. There’s something about this show that everyone meets the genealogist in cafes. Megan produced Anita’s birth certificate, the 1920 US census, and Anita’s marriage certificate. They carefully examined some of the information on the records, including Anita’s parents’ information, the number of siblings she had and how many were still alive, and that her father was widowed by the time she was 12. Though her marriage certificate said she was 15, she was really only 13 and was already six months pregnant.

Susan mentioned her regret of not having talked to her grandfather while he was still alive. This is also typical of genealogists. Many find the urge to trace their ancestry when they are already part of the eldest generation still alive in their families. Even those that start young often don’t know what they should be learning from the older relatives and miss opportunities.

Susan met with Dr. Mary Brown, an expert on Italian immigration, and she produced Anita’s parents’ marriage certificate.

Get the Family Involved

At the New York Public Library, Susan brought her son to do some research, where they searched surname distributions in Italy, finding both of Anita’s parents’ surnames in the same region.

There was no indication in the episode if proper research was done to find the city of origin in Italy. Did they check ship lists, naturalizations, or any other US documents or did they just jump to the surnames in Italy?  It may have been their only chance to find her roots in Italy, but the show didn’t mention if it tried any other methods.

Going to Italy

In Florence, she met Cinzia Rossello at the Riccardini Library who had found some records proving that Susan’s great-grandfather, Mansueto Rigali, was born in Tuscany and a conscription document showing that he owned land in the small town of Coreglia.

At the Loppia Church in Coreglia, Cinzia found records of more of Susan’s ancestors baptized in the church. She kept flipping to bookmarked pages and moving down the assembly line of books laid out on the table, tracing straight back to 1640. Of course, this line went straight back on the Rigali surname with no indication if they searched for siblings or up the family lines of the spouses.

This is another place where they have gone wrong and many amateurs will not realize it. Not only do you have to trace siblings — often because there will be missing records on ancestors and their siblings will be the link to the next generation — but you have many more family lines than just going straight back with one surname. Did they search for siblings? Did they search for spouses and their families? Or did they get lucky and just go straight back? Some people only want research on a certain name in their family, and nothing about siblings or other lines. If I were to do research like that, I’d rarely get anywhere.

Local guide, Gabriele Calibrese, told Susan more about her great-grandfather Mansueto and others of his profession, showing the passenger ship list and telling the story about how many statue makers went to America from the small village.

Back to New York

Susan visited the Rigali family plot in a cemetery but didn’t say how she found it. This is another bit of research that was completely skipped over and didn’t even get a mention. How did they find it? Whose death led them to the cemetery? She had a list of nine people who were buried with no marker. I was glad when she said she should put one up. I hope she did.

To another restaurant, Susan met historian Burton Peretti. After discussing a bit of history about night clubs, he produced a marriage license for Anita when she was 25, where she claimed no previous marriages. Susan knew that her grandfather had not divorced her until years after.

Back to the NYPL, Susan again brought her son, Miles, and searched city directories to find Anita under her newly discovered married name. Finding the names of Anita and her husband listed at different addresses, Susan started a sentence with, “If that’s them…” instead of assuming she had found the right people. This is how many genealogy sentences should start. Sometimes you can’t be sure you’ve found the right people until you verify with more documentation.

Turning to the obligatory search on Ancestry, they searched for Anita’s death record. Miles suggested searching for Anita using her given name and birth date and skipping her surname. This was clever advice. When you’re not sure of some of the information, and you’re faced with a searchable database, you have to try different combinations of the information that you know to find the record you need. I have often searched for records using given names, ages, other family members, without using surnames. Sometimes information needs to be left out of the search because you don’t know the correct information (Anita’s final surname) or because it was transcribed incorrectly or spelled differently.

At the New City Library in Rockland, Susan followed up on the death information and found Anita’s obituary. Visiting the address from the obituary, Susan met a neighbor and learned about Anita. From there, she visited nieces of Anita’s last husband who lived nearby. They were able to tell her more about Anita and share pictures.


As with other episodes, there were some great comments when discovering details in the records, excitement at verifying information, and there were huge gaps in the genealogy research. However, looking at the genealogists involved, seen in the episode and listed in the credits, I can only assume that the proper research was done and simply not shown on screen. Unfortunately, that’s what gives viewers the wrong impression about what can and should be done to find this much information and how much work and time went into it.

As Susan learned more about Anita, she connected to the grandmother she never knew. She found more compassion for the woman, learning about her shortened childhood and short marriages, but finally finding happiness for her last 35 years.

Every time I see these episodes that dig deep into a single person’s life, it makes me want to know more about the individuals in my ancestry. I know many details but I’ve never really connected with their life stories. With so many, sometimes I feel like I don’t know which one to start with.

This article is the six in a series:

WDYTYA – Episode 5 – The Nitpicker’s Version

From the previews, we already knew that Brooke Shields was going to find that she was descended from royalty. Reading some of the articles that have been written recently by people who don’t like genealogists, this is what they think the field is all about: finding where your family intersects with the royalty of Europe. Although Brooke has this on one side of her family, the majority of genealogists do not. Or maybe many of them do, but not in Jewish families. Either we run out of records to trace, or Jews were simply so isolated from the rest of the population that our families don’t intersect with the European royalty that everyone else is trying to find in their families.

Why Do The Research?

I think that most people find an interest in genealogy because they inherit old items from parents or grandparents, or are involved in helping someone downsize from the old family house to a smaller place.

For Brooke Shields, it was the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. I didn’t really understand what it was about that event that made her suddenly interested in her family history based on what she said, but I can understand that people reacted very strongly to that moment in time and that was simply her reaction.

No Family Visit

Brooke started by going to New Jersey, where her mother was born. Apparently she had no family to talk to in the way all the other episodes started. There was no mention of any other relatives. Were there none alive or did she not have contact with them? Either way, sometimes you have to start without.

Michelle Chubenko was her first contact, a genealogist who worked in New Jersey. They searched through microfilms for the birth record of her grandmother and sister. Can regular people do that if they go to the archives? I have never been to the New Jersey archives but I’ve been to others, and such things didn’t happen. You have to request the record, giving specific details, often the details you are trying to learn, in the hopes that they will find the record for you. Oh, the privilege of celebrity and a camera crew.

Looking up her grandmother and sister, they saw that there were four children in the family, which Brooke didn’t know about. She was “in shock” that there were two more siblings, but Michelle found the records of the other births. Just because she hadn’t heard of them, why would she be surprised to find there were more?

Come to think of it, my grandfather was one of twelve. When I was told there were two others that had died in infancy, I was surprised. Not because I didn’t think it was possible but just because I hadn’t been told about them before. Watching the first time through, I didn’t think of this and took her shock at the revelation to be wrong, but now I see that it was probably the same kind of reaction I had.

From the birth records, they determined that of the two brothers, one died in infancy while the other was still alive when the fourth child was born. Brooke suddenly wanted to know everything about him, saying she felt like a detective. That is exactly what genealogy research is about.

To Newark

Going back to the old neighborhood, historian Tom McCabe showed her a 1910 picture of the street where the family lived and pointed out the buildings where they lived and where two of the siblings were born.

Meeting with Michelle again, now in a restaurant, Michelle “did additional research”. I always like when they mention that they did research and didn’t just produce all kinds of information out of thin air. She found Brooke’s great-grandmother’s death certificate, when her grandmother was only ten years old. She also found the death for Edward when he was 13, along with a newspaper article about his drowning.

Why do they meet so many genealogists in restaurants? Are there no better places? Just seems odd to me. Sure, that may happen in real life when you’re meeting a stranger and need a public location, but that’s not the case here. Maybe they just like the bad lighting conditions for the episodes.

From Mom to Dad

Once Brooke had discovered enough to understand more about her grandmother, she switched to her father’s side. When I look at how far back in time the research went for her father’s family, I can only hope that they did more on her mother’s side but didn’t find anything TV-worthy.

At the New York Historical Society, genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts unrolled a family tree scroll going back to the early 1700s.  (We later see the other side of it goes to the 1600s.) This is one of those moments that I don’t like, where they skip over far too much of the research and just suddenly produce all kinds of results. Not only that, but he traced that far back and all she could ask about was what came before.

Of course, she may have asked questions about every person in the chart and none of that made it into the episode, but not only does this show that genealogists can magically produce detailed charts going back several hundred years, but that the person receiving the information should only ask what came before that and expect to find more going even further back in history. Usually, when time and money aren’t an issue, whatever information is found is all that can be found. This also suggests that no matter what information is available, if you get on a plane and go to another country, you’ll find so much more when you get there. Is that true? If so, I need to start racking up more frequent flyer miles.

To Rome, Italy

Daniela Felisini, a professor at the University of Rome, who had written a book about the history of the Torlonias, brought Brooke to the location of the original textile shop and bank where her ancestor began building his businesses.

Villa Torlonia was one of the palaces that her ancestor bought for the family’s summer home. Wouldn’t we all like to find a place like that in our family’s history?

Once again, she wanted to know more about where Giovanni came from, which was her original goal. That family tree scroll went back to Marino, Giovanni’s father, and that was who she wanted to know more about. Going back to his birth in 1725 wasn’t enough.

From the wedding certificate of Marino, they discovered a French origin for the family.

Not the Best Part of the Show

Before the commercial break, a clip is shown where Brooke is standing in front of the house and says “This is where it all began.” (This is not shown later in the episode but just in the previews.) She is not the only celebrity to say this in the show previews. Each part of this particular episode was about finding what came before whatever research she was given, so why does it begin at that house and not several generations before? Is that as far back as the research went in that family so it became the beginning of it?

This is like when people say they are finished with their genealogy. No, they probably aren’t. They may be finished with the records that are available, but their genealogy goes back a lot further.

The narrator’s voiceover after the commercial was also disturbing. “She thought her father’s side was Italian, but now she’s just discovered she may have very strong French roots.” I remembered this a little differently after the first viewing, but it still sounds a bit wrong. To me, it sounded like her family could be traced back to the early 1700s in Italy, but she wasn’t really Italian?  If you can trace your family back 300 years in a country, I think your family is from that country. Just because they came from somewhere else before that doesn’t negate your link to that country. After all, we’re really all from Africa, if you trace back far enough into the history of the species, but we don’t all claim African roots.

Augerolles, France

On the trail of Marino Torlonia, she went to France. Historian Carene Rabilloud showed her the baptism, where he was born in France. Next, she visited the house where the family lived 300 years earlier.

Brooke felt “linked” to the family and it was repeated a few times that she studied French literature in college and she was amazed to find that France was part of her ancestry. Moments like that are some of the bonuses you get from studying your genealogy; finding specific connections to your ancestors.

Again, The Chart Was Not Enough

After tracing beyond one side of the scroll, she wanted to go back on the other branch that went back to the early 1600s.

“Not being satisfied without the least bit of royal blood in my veins, I must find out about her.” As I stated before, this is what some people think genealogy is all about. Brooke sounded like she wasn’t quite so serious as that may read in this blog, but it was what several writers have complained about recently in those anti-genealogy stories.

This is where finally got their plug. What train was she on that had Internet access? I want to take that train when I go to Europe.

Paris, France

Charles Mosley, a genealogist who specializes in royal families, was her contact at the Louvre. Christine Marie’s father was Henry IV. This seems like a pretty important bit of information. Why did the genealogist in New York not have this information on that fancy scroll? Hopefully only because they wanted to break this information later in the episode.

At Saint-Denis Cathedral, she got to touch the actual heart of Henry IV, which seemed macabre. (Borrowing that word from David Tennant in his BBC episode, when he handled a skull found under the church floorboards.) Charles said that the heart was her property more than anybody else; well, hers and all the other possibly hundreds or more descendants, right?

Of course, once you get to European royalty, it all traces back to Charlemagne, so Charles was able to tell her more about her royal ancestry going back even further.

Considering how far back in time you have to go to get to Charlemagne, it makes me wonder about the so-called Borg Tree on Is that tree based on descendents of the royal lines? A cousin of mine married into a family that also traced back to those royal lines. I was sent a file of the genealogy that just went straight back until it got to Charlemagne’s grandfather. If you combine all the information including siblings, cousins, and descending down the families, how many people alive today would be connected to that family tree?


“Being able to sort of find your place in the grand scheme of things, there’s something empowering about it.” That’s a nice way to sum up genealogy research. There are lines like this in each episode. We are all the sum of the people who came before us, whether we inherited something from them in our appearances, our talents, or if it’s just a matter of a change of geography that changed the course of our family forever.

I was kind of disappointed with this episode the first time I watched it, with perpetuating the search for royalty in her family and constantly asking what came before that family tree scroll instead of showing that she could be satisfied just knowing that much. I think it was done that way deliberately to continue the story and show her searching for her ancestry beyond what was written there, but when you take that much care to put together a large scroll in fancy calligraphy that way, you don’t stop at the interesting parts.

Rewatching the show, I was not as disappointed as during the first viewing, but I think this was my least favorite episode so far. And considering how much I enjoy watching every episode of this show, saying it’s my least favorite isn’t really saying anything bad.

This article is the fifth in a series. Previous articles:

WDYTYA – Episode 4 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Matthew Broderick had a similar problem to me. His father’s side of the family was the big mystery; my paternal grandfather’s family is the biggest mystery to me, with the earliest record being my grandfather’s passenger ship list to America.

Start with the Family

Matthew started by visiting his sister Janet. Together, they carried a huge trunk of old photos and possibly other items. The part I missed from this scene was the big “Oh wow, this stuff is amazing!” No such trunk exists in my family, certainly not for my paternal grandfather’s family. Any genealogist would love to find such an item.

I like when Janet told the story about the card joke, how their grandfather called a bad poker hand a foot, and how their mother thought it was a dumb joke but used the same expression her whole life. Even little bits like that are interesting to learn about our ancestors.

Matthew hoped that he found nothing embarrassing, hoped it was a good story, but said he was “ready for anything”. That is a good attitude. Studying your ancestors’ lives, you never know what you might find.

National Archives in NYC

Matthew read from the military record of his grandfather, James Joseph Broderick, seeing that he was in the medical department, transferred to Le Havre, and therefore headed to France to find out what happened. Again, someone watching might think that the only way to find out about your ancestors is to fly across the world, when that is rarely ever the case. It is certainly interesting to go to the places where our ancestors lived, but how many people ever get to do that?


On the Meuse-Argonne Battlefield, Peter Barton, a World War I historian, explained to Matthew what the battle was like, further explaining what the medical personnel’s job was like, and how important his grandfather was to every man on the field.

Producing a copy of a document, Matthew learned that his grandfather was awarded a purple heart. He was wounded in 1918 and received the medal in 1933. What they didn’t explain was the large gap in time. Do all medals take that long to be awarded? I would like to know.

Going to the cemetery, they visited the graves of men from his grandfather’s division. Producing another document from the file, Peter handed Matthew a letter that recommended James Broderick for the Distinguished Service Cross. Another missing point: did he get the medal? The letter was a recommendation, but they failed to state if it was awarded. The previous document stated that the medal was awarded.

Switching Families — to Connecticut

Changing his focus to his grandmother Mary, Matthew went to the Connecticut State Archives, where he met with Richard Roberts, the archivist. got their usual plug when they searched the census.

They found that Mary was living in an orphanage which Matthew was shocked to learn. It almost seemed like he realized that that could have been the end of the line for that family’s research. But Richard told him that there were more clues. They looked through the coroner’s records to find what happened to Mary’s parents.

“These cold, little facts get more and more human. As you put them together, you get a story of a life of a human being and it’s just fascinating.”

We all learn about history in school, but when you find that it’s your own ancestors who lived through the events, it makes it more personal. This is part of the beauty of genealogy and family history research. I wonder if I would have been more interested in learning about history in school if I had also researched how my family played their part in events.

“It’s funny to know things about your parents’ parents that maybe your parents didn’t know.”

I can relate to this as well. When I began my own research, my father could not even tell me the names of his grandparents. He had his parents’ ketuba (the Jewish marriage contract) which listed both his grandfathers’ names, and he was named for one of his grandfathers, but he didn’t know.

Who Has Seen the Census on Paper?

Mel Smith, an archivist at the Connecticut State Archives, brought out books of the 1870 census. Has anyone ever seen census pages on paper? I didn’t even know they had such things. Did they do this because they already plugged in the previous section? They were searching for William Martindale, Matthew’s great-grandfather.

Mentioning that the 1870 census does not define the relationships in the household or specify whether someone is single, married, or (in this case) widowed would have been a nice addition to the voiceover. Someone who doesn’t normally work in these records would not know that. I had to look it up myself, as the research I usually do rarely goes back that far in American history. But these kind of details are usually skipped over in the show, and this one is insignificant compared to many other things I mention that are overlooked in the final cut of the episodes.

Back to the 1850 census, they found the same family again, including William’s father, Robert. Why did they skip the 1860 census? The voiceover soon explained that the family was missing from that census. I’m glad they explained it, and so quickly. It’s good to point out that not everyone can be found in every census, just as not everyone can be found in records even where you expect them.

By the age on the census, Matthew determineed that his great-grandfather, William Martindale, probably fought in the Civil War, so they followed up on that.

More Paper Records

Breaking out more boxes of old paper records, I wondered why I didn’t notice so many genealogists on Twitter freaking out because neither Matthew nor Mel were wearing white gloves.

Matthew read from the enlistment papers of Robert, stopping to revel in seeing his signature and then looking at his physical description.

They continued by looking through muster rolls. The pages were folded and looked delicate. Did Matthew open each page to see where the regiment had been? They found a page that showed the regiment fought at Gettysburg. In a voiceover, Matthew said that the muster rolls showed the regiment went from Tennessee to Savannah, Georgia, but how did they know that Robert’s trail ended in Atlanta? Another fact skipped over in the episode. Obviously the research was completed, but as usual, not explained.

To Atlanta

Gordon Jones, curator of the Atlanta History Center and Civil War Exhibit, brought Matthew out to the location of the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Another document was produced for Matthew to read, stating that Robert died in that battle.

Brad Quinlan, a Civil War historian knew more about what happened to Robert after he was killed. They visited the original burial location then went to the Marietta National Cemetery where the bodies were later moved. Robert was buried as an unknown soldier. Brad created a list of all the men in the regiment who were buried there and found only one that was unknown, thus finding Robert.

The preview from the show stated that Matthew’s search helped to solve a 160 year old mystery. It sounded like it could have been solved if someone had really tried before, since Robert was the only one who was missing from the list, but it was very touching to see an unknown soldier mystery solved, especially noticing in the scene how many small stones there were, clearly more unknown soldiers.


“We’re all related to the generations that happened before us. What they went through shaped our time.”

They’re really good at getting the right sound bites from the celebrities in these episodes. Matthew had quite a few good ones.

This was another great episode of Who Do You Think You Are? filled with important events in American history. I find these episodes fascinating because I learned about these events in history classes in school, though I may not have paid much attention back then. Even so, they are not so much a part of my history because all four of my grandparents were born in Europe. Nevertheless, I think I’ve learned more about history from movies and documentaries than I ever did in school. This episode just brings those same stories to life even more. By learning about what happened to a single person, and going through the emotional ride with that person’s descendent, it just makes it seem more real and more personal, like it was something that happened to real people and not just something that was written in history books.

This article is the third in a series. Previous articles:

Additional: By email, Roger Lustig informed me that the Purple Heart was reinvented for George Washington’s bicentennial in 1932, which was when World War I vets could apply. Thanks Roger.

WDYTYA – Episode 3 – The Nitpicker’s Version

I knew going into Lisa Kudrow’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that it would be a little depressing. Any time you research the Holocaust, that’s where it goes. It was a bit in parallel with Jerry’s Springer’s BBC episode, which I will likely refer to in this review. His quest, as I recall, was to find out what happened to his grandmothers, both of whom were killed in the Holocaust.

Meet the Parents

As usual, the episode started with a visit to her parents’ house. I loved that Lisa recognized the old pictures. What wasn’t mentioned in the episode, but some of us learned in other interviews, was that her father had already researched the family history. In which case he had probably shown her the photos or had them around the house where she had seen them.

Recalling the story from her grandmother when she was young and asked about her parents was interesting. I think a lot of us have those random stories floating around in our minds. Maybe we don’t think of them, but they just resurface sometimes when we don’t even expect it. Then her father, Lee, shared a similar story, one that he had held on to for so many years, about Yuri Barudin visiting and telling them that the family had been killed. Lee remembered the name of the ship and that Yuri had been a witness to the massacre. He remembered the visit clearly but may have pictured what happened and changed some of the story in his mind. (Of course, I’m writing this article after having seen the entire episode.)

Lisa stated that she wanted to find her great-grandmother’s final resting place. It didn’t seem likely to me that such a place could be found; possibly a memorial for the Jews in the town, but not anything like a gravesite.


Lisa headed to Belarus to meet with Tamara Vershitskaya, a Jewish historian. Tamara was her guide all through her visit to Belarus.

“It would be amazing if I could find any documentation.” Lisa knew that documents were lost and destroyed and she could only hope to find some. With statements like this, hopefully amateur genealogists watching the show will realize that not everyone will be able to find documentation like Lisa did.

Tamara said that Jewish communities were reduced to 5% of their populations, 10% at most. Was that specific to Belarus? I thought some were eliminated entirely, possibly just because no one returned home to the towns. Often, that may have been because the Nazis convinced the locals to act out against the Jews. Who would want to go back to live with those people again?

Zonal State Archive

Natalia Ivanova, the archive director, had a book they had copied from Moscow with lists of people who were killed. That was an amazing find. It made me think that I need to go to Europe and find out if documents like that exist for my family, because I can’t get access to them from America.

Now, I know that the show does the coming up next and just a minute ago previews, but why did they have to repeat the entire conversation between Lisa and Natalia? Were they so short on content that they had to fill extra time with so much extra repetition?

Ilya, Belarus

Next, Tamara and Lisa went to the place where her family lived in Ilya, walking past a building without mentioning it. Was the house gone? It took the next scene to find out.

They visited Maria Aleksiyonok, who knew her family and remembered the massacre of the Jews. Maria mentioned the houses were burned down. She had a lot to tell Lisa and it was very emotional for both of them. I can only hope Lisa learned more from Maria off camera, because she was clearly a wealth of information.

The Holocaust

They headed to the center of Ilya that used to be a market square. The Jews were brought there in 1942 for selection. David Rubin wrote about the event and Lisa was given a translation to read. A quick search online to JewishGen revealed that it was taken from the Yizkor book. That chapter is not translated online.

Lisa, Tamara, and Alexander Gavrilik, a resident, walked down the street where the Jews were marched and killed, to find the memorial that is apparently placed exactly above where they were buried. Thinking back to the Jerry Springer episode, he did much the same thing; he wanted to walk where his ancestors last walked.

“You make people afraid enough of something completely manufactured, and you can drive them to become murderers.” That is exactly what happened. Except in some cases, the Nazis were able to put that fear into the town residents and they turned on the Jews themselves. From this story, it sounded like the Ilya residents were witnesses but did not participate.

Mention the Sponsor

Lisa headed to to look for ship records for Yuri Barudin and found him listed Boleslaw, finding him employed on the Batory, as her father remembered. The ship name made it more credible that Yuri was Boleslaw, but Lisa still carried a bit of skepticism with her about it, which was perfect for genealogy research.

Gdynia, Poland

Lisa went to Poland, where the ship list stated Boleslaw had been discharged to.

She met with researcher Krzysztof “Chris” Dzieciolowski, to learn more. He found Boleslaw in a record of people who settled down in Gdynia, which listed his wife and son. I loved this scene. I love how she asked if there was a census or voter registration, and he brought out a phone book. Then when she found Boleslaw Barudin listed in the phone book, she kind of freaked out with excitement. She was too scared to call and wasn’t sure if he would speak English.

I think I can safely assume that the family had been contacted previously, so the call was not completely unexpected, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Lisa’s surprise was genuine.

It was great when her cousin mentioned that she was in his house and not on his TV. Did these Polish relatives know that they were related to her? At least one of them remembered pictures taken with her grandmother, but no longer had them. The story of Boleslaw’s visit was cleared up, that he had reported what happened to her family in America, but he just delivered the message and was not an eyewitness.

Standing by the water, Lisa was still raving about meeting her cousins, saying that she couldn’t wait to tell her father. She couldn’t wait to tell him, she repeated, then pulled out her cell phone and called. Fantastic.

Technology is Great

Returning to her father’s house, they used the Internet to contact the Polish cousins by video. I was glad when Lee mentioned that his mother was Boleslaw’s aunt, which solved that mystery. Obviously it wasn’t a mystery to them how they were related, but it was a gap in the show.

As emotional as learning about the fate of relatives in the Holocaust is, I find the reuniting to be more emotional and I understood what Lee was feeling after that conversation with his cousins. Having only read a bit on Twitter and one quick review of the episode, I didn’t think it was a bad thing to show him getting emotional after finally being reunited with his cousins.


I guess there’s not a lot of nitpicking in this article. Instead of this episode being a full-on genealogy search for the family, it was mostly just to fill in a couple of gaps in her father’s research: was there more to know about the fate of his grandmother in Ilya and what had happened to Yuri. So the things that I nitpicked about other episodes weren’t really in this one so much.

I knew this episode would probably be my favorite even before it aired. This story is the one closest to my family’s story. Watching this just makes me want to go to Eastern Europe even more, to see where they lived and maybe to find that elusive document that tells of their fate. As far as I know, I don’t have any relatives still left in Poland, Ukraine, or Moldova, where my grandparents were born, but maybe I do and I need to look for them. For most families, they are all accounted for, either by knowing where they went after the war or that they were killed. But there is one elusive family where all we know is that the Jews in that town were all killed. But what if they weren’t in that town when the war started?

This article is the third in a series. Previous articles can be found at Episode 1 and Episode 2.

Addition March 21: I received an email today (from someone apparently named Lucy) who pointed out something that I missed in my critique, but it is also relevant. One element not addressed in the episode: does the Barudin family identify as Jewish? Many survivors who remained in Europe abandoned their religion, largely out of fear. She also wondered about the fate of Yuri’s family, since his parents and other immediate family were possibly in Ilya as well.

I would think that if they identified as Jewish, that it might be only in more recent times. After all, Yuri changed his name to Boleslaw to not sound Jewish, so he clearly wouldn’t have practiced outwardly. There have been many Jewish families who do not pass down the traditions or even the knowledge of their religion after being forced or frightened into converting. (This goes for Jews in other locations and times as well.) So that family may no longer consider themselves Jewish. Or perhaps they used this new connection to their Jewish American cousins to rediscover that part of themselves. I and other Jewish genealogists are often contacted by people who believe that they are descended from Jews who were forced to convert, in an effort to prove that Jewish heritage. But those are more often Americans, Canadians, or British. I’m not sure if anyone would want to be openly Jewish in Poland even now. Sometimes I read that it is a better time, but then I read something else about some act of anti-Semitism.

As for the fate of Yuri’s family, he probably already knew it, since he was the one who relayed the message to the Kudrows in America.

WDYTYA – Episode 2 – The Nitpicker’s Version

After the first watching of this episode, I could only think of a couple things to nitpick about it, and some of those things were actually positive items in the episode. As an African American, Emmitt Smith set out to trace his ancestry to places and historical times where I’ve never researched, so just like the previous episode with Sarah Jessica Parker, I learned new things about genealogy research and history. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

Before he began the trip for his research, his wife mentioned that he had missed some family reunions over the years. He also took a DNA test.


Emmitt began by visiting his parents. I recall the BBC version of WDYTYA also usually starts with visiting family, as did SJP’s episode where she visited her brother and her mother. This is always the best advice for any genealogist just starting out and it’s good how they show that it is the first step.

His father directed him to the web site his cousin had created. Hopefully the work done there was checked to be sure it was correct before continuing back in history.

Burnt Corn, Alabama

Emmitt said he felt like a detective, which is exactly what genealogy research is. I thought that was a great comment.

He stepped into a store to ask about his great-great-grandparents, Bill and Victoria Watson, showing their photos. Did they plan that he would find himself talking to a cousin? Very entertaining for TV, but probably not likely for anyone else, though such serendipity has happened before for genealogists.

While the East coasters were watching the show (and posting spoilers to Twitter), I noticed that a few thought it was nice that Emmitt was seen taking notes. SJP was shown doing that at least once in her episode also. It’s necessary just to keep track of all the new information you gather.

Monroe County Archives

Dawn Crook, an archivist, showed him a book of Marriage Licenses for Colored, which he had never seen before. She suggested that the easiest way to find more was by using the census, naturally going to the sponsor’s site, By their dates of birth, they determined that the couple were both born as slaves.

The next help he got was from genealogist Marjorie Sholes who said that she was “able to do a little research”. She probably did more than a little, but at least research was mentioned. She found the marriage license for Bill and Victoria, discovering her maiden name was Puryear, which was more rare and would be easier to research than Watson. She sort of guided him to seeing that they should follow up on that particular line of his family. If only we could all know which line would prove most interesting and findable.

Emmitt mentions that if they didn’t find anything about the Puryears that they may be at a dead end. This is very true in genealogy research. In anyone’s ancestry, there will always be a brick wall somewhere. There are plenty of records that don’t exist or were lost in a fire or a flood, or you research back to the beginning of the record-keeping in a location and there’s just nothing more to be found. But even so, if the Puryears were a brick wall in his ancestry, it would still just be one small part of his ancestry. The Watsons were his great-great-grandparents and everyone has sixteen great-great-grandparents.

Going back to, he and Marjorie searched for another census for his family in the first census where blacks were listed by name. Finding Prince Puryear (Victoria’s father), they also noted Mariah listed. He asked if that was Prince’s mother and Marjorie said “possibly”. That was the perfect answer. More of interest in the episode, they pointed out that the family were listed as mulatto, meaning that a white slave owner may have been an ancestor.

An earlier census showed a white Alex Puryear and family and the research continued to them. Marjorie found his will and the will of his wife, Mary, listing Mariah and her children, verifying that Mariah was the mother of Prince.

“Now we know that Prince’s mother is Mariah.” Before that record was revealed, it was only a possibility. This is another great part of the episode, where they didn’t seem to just jump to that conclusion but found some documented evidence and showed it to the viewers.

Mecklenburg County, Virginia

Searching for more information about Mariah’s slave owner, Emmitt headed to Virginia, where Alex Puryear was from, as some documents had stated. He saw Puryear on a few business names while he was driving through. He met with John Caknipe, a local historian, who told him more about the Puryears and the slave trade.

At the county courthouse, they skipped back one generation, with no details as to how, to Alexander’s father, Samuel. Emmitt made a big deal out of the fact that John reached for Deed book 22, which Emmitt made a big deal over having worn that jersey number. I suppose some of the shock there was taken away by the previews of that scene, though some East coasters were amazed at the coincidence.

In the document, Samuel gave Mariah to his son. Emmitt figured that she was about 11 years old at the time. It was noted earlier in the episode that Mary Puryear had kept Mariah and her children together, when giving them to her son, which was significant also.

Meeting with Steven Deyle, an expert in American slavery, he said that “we can only suspect” when he told Emmitt more information about Mariah. Without evidence, sometimes that is all we can do in genealogy research. Emmitt said he had a “hunch” that Samuel was Mariah’s father when asking Steven’s opinion. All of these small bits just show that we can’t always know everything, but knowing the history might give us an idea of the lives of the people we’re researching even if we can never find anything to prove it.

Steven told Emmitt that Mariah was probably the end of the line because there were no more records. As I stated eariler, that is just the way it is. However, Samuel was Emmitt’s 5g-grandfather. Emmitt wanted to know why, if they could trace horses back to England, why he couldn’t trace his family back to Africa. Even without finding that connection, he was lucky to have traced as far back in history as he did. There are so many other families who can’t go that far back.


Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak was the DNA expert that he met with, telling him that he was partly Native American and probably had several European ancestors, leaving 81% African, which was one of the highest she had ever seen. From the DNA, she was also able to tell him what part of Africa his ancestors were from, Benin.


The big spoiler, for me, came when the East coasters on Twitter said he was going to Africa; that wasn’t in the previews. He couldn’t trace his own genealogy there since the paper trail had ended already, but he learned more about the slave trade that his ancestors were caught up in.

Ola Falola, guide and translator at the Ouidah Museum of History, with help from guide Madame Loucress, told Emmitt about the history of the slave trade.

At a more remote village, he met Mede Nicasse at the Sanctuary of Moses School, who explained that the children at that school were usually sold by their parents so that the parents could survive. To me, that didn’t sound much better than what his ancestors went through, and maybe it was worse. Instead of Europeans coming and stealing away people to turn them into slaves, their own parents were responsible for the act.

His wife arrived in Africa and they sat on a boat to talk. What did he say to her off screen? She was crying before he even said anything to her in the episode.

Final Thoughts

Emmitt had a hard time dealing with the slavery part of his ancestry; even being a bit surprised by a book marked Colored, having not been witness to segregation. Being an African American, he obviously knew that he would come from slaves, but maybe he just didn’t really face it before. Or perhaps because he didn’t know the particulars of his ancestry, this suddenly put him in touch with the reality. He now knew the names and a couple of faces of his slave ancestors so he had to really delve into their lives.

This is not all that uncommon from Jewish ancestry, where we all know that we lost people in the Holocaust, and it’s taught in school, but it isn’t talked about much in the family. In the next episode, Lisa Kudrow will follow up on that part of her family history. I’m looking forward to watching that and the rest of the series. It’s been a few months since I was so excited to see a TV show.

This article is the second in the series. The first can be read here: WDTYTA – Episode 1 – The Nitpicker’s Version.

WDYTYA – Episode 1 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Don’t get me wrong, I thought the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was great. I enjoyed watching it and look forward to future episodes. But I also know that genealogy is about the details. So now that I’ve had a chance to rewatch the episode, I am going to break down the details and ask more questions. Warning: this will be a long blog post, so I’ve tried to break it up a bit with headers. I also hope that in my nitpicking, I haven’t gotten anything wrong. I confused even myself while I was writing this, so I hope I didn’t mix up any of the details.

No Lineage

At the beginning of the show, Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) visited her brother, I think as an introduction to her and her family. He made an unusual comment that he thought “there was no lineage”, referring to his thinking that both sides of the family were recent immigrants. There are people who think that once your ancestors are no longer from America, there is nothing else to do. I wonder why people think that? True, for some locations, you may never get a single bit of information, but he wasn’t speaking of a specific ancestral line, rather the whole family in general. In my experience, if you’re searching for any of your ancestors, there is at least one familial line where records can be found, and usually more than one.

SJP mentioned that her father’s side was Eastern European Jewish. Her mother, Barbara, mentioned that all she heard about was German ancestry. Obviously, they couldn’t follow her entire ancestry in the 42 minutes allotted, but I would have found those interesting too.

New Jersey

When SJP visited her mother in New Jersey, she just walked in the door without knocking or using a key. Some people (other bloggers) thought that was very sweet, how they had that kind of close relationship. But really, does she not lock her front door? And it was interesting how her mother was always just around the corner. Maybe it was a small house. :-)

Prime Time TV

Sitting at a microfilm reader for hours is too dull for a prime time TV show, but sometimes the traveling across the country puts some people off. In fact, Friday night, one of my non-genealogy tweeps was talking about watching Friday night TV and I suggested WDYTYA. She thanked me afterwards but said she doesn’t “have the money to fly back & forth across the country” though she did find the show interesting. That is an unfortunate effect of the show. Do people think that they really have to do that much traveling to research their genealogy?


SJP’s first stop after visiting her mother was Cincinnati where she met with Natalie Cottrill. Natalie produced a death certificate, an 1860 census page, and an obituary. SJP’s ancestor John Eber Hodge was born in September 1850, while his father died in 1849. Can anyone count how many months that is? Here’s a fun voice-over from SJP: “I’ve asked Natalie to pull the California census information from…” Really? I doubt that SJP actually asked for that but more likely Natalie had already done the search and they needed a segue to show the result. Maybe the sponsor wanted an extra plug in the show? He showed up in the 1850 census, but one of the possibilities was that he abandoned his family. Did they look for him in the 1860 census? They did check that to narrow down their search for him, I hope. Trying to find out what happened to him, that seemed the logical and easy thing to search for next.

I like that Natalie mentioned that the 1849 death was a mystery, though not necessarily because it was more than nine months between his death and the birth of his son. I wish she had mentioned that mysteries and inconsistencies were a normal part of genealogy research, or had pointed out that the obituary is not a primary source for the deceased’s father’s death and that more research needed to be done. In all likelihood, she did mention those things, but they just didn’t make it into the episode.

Stephen Aron at Cincinnati’s Museum Center produced another document, showing that John Hodge teamed up with several others and went to El Dorado, California, sending her across the country to find out what happened.

El Dorado

Jon McCabe, the local historian in El Dorado, showed her where he may have mined, eventually producing a letter written by John Gish, his business partner, that mentioned his death. This entire sequence, I believe, was more for entertainment than for research. There was no real reason for her to go there as I think the letter was found in Cincinnati. But that’s prime time TV: it’s for entertainment.


SJP then headed to Boston, almost on a whim if you go by the voice-over, to see if her Hodge family was part of the old New England Hodge family, as Natalie had mentioned to her earlier.

She met with Josh Taylor of the New England Historical Genealogical Society. This was one of the parts I really didn’t like. Again, I sincerely hope that everything important was cut from the show for time. He told SJP her genealogy going back for several generations, without any mention of how he found the information. John S. Hodge was the son of Eber Hodge, born just after the Revolution, his mother was Abigail Elwell, her father was Jabez, son of Samuel, son of Samuel, and son of Samuel born about 1635 in New England. What kind of documents did he use to find that? There wasn’t mention of a single source.

Checking the Great Migration Study Project of immigrants from 1620-1635, they searched another new name, Robert Elwell, who was Samuel’s father. Why didn’t he just mention that person before? Was that few seconds of dialogue cut for time? The computer showed that Robert Elwell immigrated in 1634, but this wasn’t stated aloud. Further computer details revealed that his first three children were Mary, Samuel, and Josiah, and there were many more details that I don’t feel the need to mention.

When SJP read the name of Salem on the record, of course the Salem Witch Trials came to mind for her and probably most people who were watching. Taking place in 1892, Josh said that Robert died around 1670 or 1680 but that his son Samuel would have been alive at that time. The computer screen stated the exact date of 18 May 1683 for Robert’s death. Maybe he just didn’t remember that when he mentioned it.

Actual Research Shown

SJP went on to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, where librarian Elaine Grublin helped her. In these scenes, they showed SJP doing her own research for Esther Elwell, wife of Samuel, looking at the computer database, copies of a document, and one original document. Many people complained that, with an original document, they were supposed to wear gloves and that the pencil shouldn’t have been anywhere near it. Another genealogist friend of mine told me that the gloves are not to protect the document but to protect the hands from the 300 year old grime that is on them. As for the pencil, well, I agree with that one.

Also, I don’t doubt that these documents were found and probably waiting for her to arrive. Really, would they travel to a library, film crew and all, if they didn’t know ahead of time that they would find something?


After reading the warrant about her 10th great-grandmother, Esther Elwell, being accused of witchcraft, SJP went on to Danvers, Massachusetts, where she met with historian Mary Beth Norton. Mary Beth pointed out that SJP’s ancestor was lucky because the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which convicted and sentenced every person who was accused of witchcraft, was dissolved on 22 October and the accusation came on 8 November, so her ancestor was not tried.

The biggest part about this whole section of the show that bothered me was, when was Samuel born? I mean the Samuel who was the son of Samuel and Esther. That is kind of an important point. The details were not stated or shown on the computer screen. Was the next generation of SJP’s family already alive or not when Esther’s life was put at risk with the accusation? That would certainly change the course of her family’s history. Samuel was born in 1635 and Esther in 1639 (as seen on the earlier computer screen). It seems to me that they may have already finished having all their children by 1892. Or maybe by then they had already skipped on to the next generation Samuel? This is where skipping details is problematic.

The final part of her journey before returning home was to visit the memorial in Salem. But SJP was told that Esther lived to be 82. So why not visit that grave since SJP was so emotionally involved in learning what happened to her?

Strange Comments

SJP made a few comments during the show that I thought were odd. She said that she didn’t really feel American until she found that her roots in this country went back to 1635. Why did she need to trace her family back to feel like she belonged in this country? All four of my grandparents were immigrants, as is my mother. I am an American and I’ve never felt otherwise. That just seemed odd. She also thought, at the beginning of the show, that she wasn’t connected to anything historical. But why did it have to be American history to be historical? There is history in other countries as well.

After the commercial breaks, there were recaps of what came before, and before the commercials there were previews of what was coming up. Was that video montage at the end really necessary?


One other curiosity came in the credits. I have listed in this blog the names of the people who appeared on screen with SJP, but only one of those people was listed as a genealogist in the credits: Natalie Cottrill, Megan Smolenyak, Krysten Baca, and Allison Aston. Did those four do work for the entire series and some of the others were just specific to the episode? OK, so some of them were credited as historians during the episode and not genealogists.


As I stated at the beginning, I really did enjoy the episode. As Lisa Louise Cooke stated in her Genealogy Gems News this morning, the show is for entertainment and not as a how-to for genealogy, referring to so many blogs that pointed out genealogy research omissions and such. And I know this blog entry is exactly what she was talking about. But I’m just a good nitpicker and used this opportunity to put that skill to use. Genealogy research is in the details and some that seemed to be important were skipped over.

I think there was room in the episode to mention how many people were involved and how many hours of research it took to find so much information. People watching might get the mistaken impression that everything can be found indexed on the computer, historians and librarians have plenty of free time to be at your disposal, one must travel across the country to find a single document, and that all you have to do is find the right genealogist and they will already know all about your family.

Then again, the BBC version doesn’t do any of that either.

Who Do You Think You Are? – Episode 1 – Initial Thoughts

I just finished watching the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC with Sarah Jessica Parker. After seeing Faces of America (FoA), I definitely prefer the format of this show. It is very much the same as the BBC version, even using similar graphics.

It was exciting to see Sarah Jessica’s reactions to learning things about her ancestors. FoA seemed to be lacking in that a bit, probably because each of those people were simply sitting at a table where they were handed a book. There were some reactions, but it seemed like not quite enough. Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) travelled to the locations and looked at some of the documents herself.

Of course, she didn’t really do the research herself. As some of us know, several celebrities were ruled out of having their own episodes because their stories weren’t interesting enough for a TV show. Clearly the work was done before the filming even began, as was evidenced when she visited with each professional genealogist and historian. In almost every instance, the professional produced documents they had already found or simply told her the names of generations of her ancestors until they reached the one with the interesting story. The celebrities are sometimes shown looking through books or searching databases, but they have already been searched by someone else to know that there was something to be found.

I don’t doubt that the research was done thoroughly, and hopefully it was shown and explained to SJP, but it’s something that is always lacking from these shows. Exactly how much time is spent tracking down all of those ancestors and the documents to prove it? It might give some people the false hope that if they call a professional, that person will already know everything there is to know about their family history, when in reality, it takes many hours of research sometimes to find just the smallest clue. And sometimes nothing is found at all.

Naturally, and possibly in part because it had to be interesting for TV, for every location that her ancestors lived, SJP had to travel there. There was no looking at microfilms or ordering documents by mail, which is what most people tend to do. She was at the location where her ancestor mined during the gold rush, she was in Salem to learn about her ancestor who was accused of witchcraft. So many genealogists would love the opportunity to travel to each location. All four of my grandparents were born in Eastern Europe, so it could never be as simple as a quick flight or a long drive across the country. I look forward to the day when I can go to Europe, but until then, I have to make due with microfilm and snail mail.

However, even without showing all the research that was conducted, not showing all the details of how so many generations were found, not finishing up and visiting the grave of her ancestor accused of witchcraft (though she visited the memorial for other victims), not explaining all the details of that ancestor (is SJP descended from a child born before or after the accusation?), it’s still a good show. I’ve enjoyed every episode that I’ve seen of the BBC version and I look forward to the rest of the NBC run.

Lisa Kudrow and Who Do You Think You Are?

Last night, I listened to Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast which had an interview with Lisa Kudrow about the upcoming NBC show, Who Do You Think You Are? I am excited about seeing this show. I’ve seen several episodes of the BBC version, but many feature British celebrities whom I don’t know.

After watching my first two episodes (David Tennant and Stephen Fry), I let Pamela Weisberger guide me to several others of interest by checking which ones she had aired at the film festival at various IAJGS conferences; the episodes featuring those with Jewish heritage.

It was interesting to listen to Lisa Kudrow speak about how she viewed her Holocaust history. What Lisa Louise Cooke seemed not to realize is that many Jewish families just don’t talk about it. While we know we lost relatives, and some even grew up knowing parents and grandparents who were survivors, it was not something that they wanted to relive. Lisa’s reaction to not really wanting to know the details about how her relatives perished seemed normal to me. In Jewish genealogy, everyone gets to a point where they lost relatives in the Holocaust, and it becomes really depressing if you start thinking about the details. We know what happened, we know what they had to endure, and now we’re trying to move beyond that and live our lives, in part to honor them. At least, that’s how I see it and I think others do too.

I do have one even more personal reason for wanting this show to be a success. Sometime last year, possible future subjects for BBC’s WDYTYA were announced and David Schwimmer was among them. When the official list was released, he wasn’t there. As someone with Schwimmer in my family (my great-grandmother Ester Malka Schwimmer from Fogaras, Hungary, now Zubovka, Ukraine), I was really curious to see his episode. My mother has been waiting for years for me to tell her that he is our cousin, so with Lisa Kudrow at the helm, maybe we have the chance to still see that story.