Category Archives: Genealogy

Beginner’s Guide to the Family History Library – Part 2 – The Building


The Family History Library is conveniently located in downtown Salt Lake City, near the Trax line within the Free Fare Zone, across the street from Temple Square, and down the street from the Salt Palace Convention Center.

The library has five floors, two of which are basement floors. When you walk in the entrance — using the door on the right — there will be someone immediately to your left who will likely greet you. Don’t be surprised and just say “hello” back. Also, if someone greets you walking down the sidewalk, don’t be suspicious; people are just really friendly in SLC sometimes.

Straight ahead from the door is an information desk. I believe this is where you get the “First Timer” sticker (they didn’t have them my first time) and they can direct you to an orientation session if you want to go. The orientation room is to your left when facing the desk. There are also stairs up to the second floor on the left. To the right of the entrance is another stairway and the elevators.

The main floor has the orientation room, lots of computers, family history books, a break room (with food and drink machines), and some classrooms.

The second floor is the US/Canada floor, with computers, microfilm, microfiche, microfilm readers, and a printing/scanning area.

The third floor houses US and Canada books, with several photocopiers and one digital scanner. There are also extra tables, many with electrical outlets built in, where you can spread out to work or organize. They recently expanded the number of computers on this floor.

Downstairs, B-1 is the International floor. This floor houses both microfilm and books and has computers, readers, printers, and scanners.

B-2, the lowest level, is the British Isles, which includes Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other areas.

When you look for items in the FHL catalog, they will state whether they are US/CAN, INTL, or BRITISH, which tells you on what floor of the building you will find them. Remember that US and Canada books have their own floor separate from microfilm and microfiche.

This is the second part in a series. The first part can be found at Beginner’s Guide to the Family History Library – Part 1 – Plan Ahead.

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.

Beginner’s Guide to the Family History Library – Part 1 – Plan Ahead

My first visit to the Family History Library, I was completely unprepared. I have a vague recollection of going through their standard orientation, but I didn’t know what I was looking for or what I was doing. I can’t even remember if I found any records or not. I do remember being shown how to write a certain surname in Russian. (And I’m certain that Margarita Choquette was the one who showed me; I befriended her after I moved here.)

A few years later, I made it back. By then, I had been doing genealogy research for a few years (not counting what I did in my childhood) and had a better idea of how to do things.

Now, I live in Salt Lake City and the Family History Library is my second home. (Seriously, I’ve got a cot in the back corner of B-1, but it’s got a perception filter so you won’t see it.)

I can go to the FHL whenever I want, but if you’re making a trip to Salt Lake City, you want to be prepared before you get here.

And that is the most important thing to do before visiting the Family History Library: Plan Ahead.

Know what you want to research. Choose a family to search, print out the charts with the information you need (or bring it on a flash drive), and figure out what you want to learn. Search the FHL Catalog to see what records are available. Make a list of sources that you want to check, and what you are hoping to find, and write down the film and call numbers. You don’t want to waste time doing that when you get here, so do it at home.

When you’re writing film numbers, make a note of what else the catalog says about it. Some of your research will be obvious, but each film has a number and a “code” that will say US/CAN, INTL, or BRITISH. In case you’re not sure or you forget, this will tell you where to find the film when you get to the building.

If the film says VAULT, then you will need to request the film. Not every microfilm in the catalog is at the Family History Library. Some are only in the Granite Vault. It usually takes a day or two for the vault to send it over to the FHL, so you will want to request those films before you leave. The FHL has a form online specifically for requesting films. In my experience, they can take a couple days to answer your email request, and probably a couple more days to fill the request.

Knowing what you hope to accomplish before you arrive will help a lot. Instead of spending time figuring out what to research, you can just jump right into the research.

Faces of America – Inspiration

I just watched the third episode of Faces of America on PBS and was inspired. I meant to write a blog entry about the second episode which dealt with immigration and naturalization, two topics I deal with a lot in my research, but instead, this third episode has given me a revelation.

Of course I was interested in the stories of the families who were in America before it was the USA, but the story that hit me the hardest was that Yo-Yo Ma. It was that book, the one that literally fell out of a wall. What genealogist wouldn’t do anything to find a book like that?

He is incredibly lucky to now have such an item in his possession, but the only way most of the rest of us are going to get a book like that is to make it ourselves. We probably won’t be able to go back as far in the lineage, and we certainly won’t have first-hand accounts of anyone who lived more than 100 years ago, but we can take what we know now and begin the book.

It’s the old adage of “publish or perish” that most genealogists have heard time and time again. We need to create the book ourselves so that future generations will have the information to look back on.

Can you imagine how the genealogist of your family in 100 years’ time might feel when they want to know more about their family history and they find the book that you create today?

So I have a new idea in mind for how to go about this. It’s an old project that has had a few starts, but maybe this will be the one that works out and finishes. (Not that genealogy research is ever finished, but the others never came very close.) I want to combine a blog, the coolest features from my genealogy wiki, and hopefully incorporate the genealogy database I already have to create a new web site. I want to entice my relatives to leave their own stories as comments, and be able to reasonably easily publish all of the information in a printed book or PDF. Oh yes, I have a lot of programming to do.

Ron Arons – The Jews of Sing Sing

I met Ron Arons in New York at the 2006 IAJGS conference. I’ve been to a few of his presentations and they are always thoroughly entertaining as well as educational. When he spoke about his upcoming book (this book) I was especially impressed and intrigued.

At the 2005 conference, I was in the room next door to where he was giving a lecture about Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, two of the characters who appear in this book, and that crowd was quite disruptive with bursts of laughter.

Jews of Sing SingI purchased “The Jews of Sing Sing: Gotham Gangsters and Gonuvim” from Ron at the 2008 IAJGS conference in Chicago. He signed it, “Stay away from this place!”, more evidence of his sense of humor.

The book started as a memoir to his great-grandfather, Isaac Spier, but when no one wanted to publish another personal memoir, his research took him much further into the histories of many Jewish criminals who spent time in Sing Sing Prison in New York.

Ron goes into great detail about their histories, sometimes a bit too much. I’m the kind of person who reads every word and every number in a book, so it got a bit tedious to read all the dates, addresses, census information, and other details. There are parts of the book where Ron fills in details about who was in each household in each census, their address, ages, professions, and such. While important to the research and to genealogy in general, it made it a little harder for me to read.

I’m also a bit of a casual reader, enjoying stories where I don’t have to concentrate much, and some chapters he introduced a plethora of characters. The stories were good, but I couldn’t keep all the characters straight.

My favorite chapters were the ones about Ron’s own family. Providing those same kinds of details, he also seemed to delve more into the narrative of the people, as well as giving more details about his quest for the information, mentioning each time he found a new clue or hit a brick wall. It seemed more casual and more personal, which better suited my reading style preference. Plus, I enjoy the hunt in genealogy, so reading about Ron’s research process was enthralling.

I found the last two chapters to be most enjoyable — the only time I read more than one chapter at a time. He wrote three chapters about Isaac Spier, including the penultimate one. The final chapter was about Ron’s visit to Sing Sing.

Lots of families have tales about the black sheep relative, the criminal, the person in the mafia — including mine — but Ron researched and learned the truth about his ancestors as well as many others. Once I got through the paragraphs of census facts, I enjoyed reading the stories. I look forward to checking out his second book, “Wanted: U.S. Criminal Records”, so I can research my own family mafia story.

Ron’s books can be purchased on his web site at

Disclaimer: Apparently there was some stuff going on before I started blogging whereas people were paid to write good reviews about products and such and didn’t tell their readers that is was moreĀ  of a paid advertisement than a personal opinion. Well, I wasn’t paid for this. If I was, I probably would have skipped over the less-than-favorable comments, don’t you think?

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.

Faces of America

The new PBS show Faces of America (FoA) is helping to bring genealogy and family history to the masses just a bit more. I watched the episode online at Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it examines the family history of twelve celebrities. After having seen many episodes of BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA), my review is going to compare the two shows.

I really like WDYTYA. My first exposure to the show was the David Tennant episode (I’m a Doctor Who fan), which was soon followed by several other episodes with Jewish or Eastern European backgrounds, as that is where my research tends to go. To me, that show defines the distinction between genealogy and family history: genealogy is the pursuit of information whereas family history is about trying to gather the stories. Each episode follows one celebrity on their quest to learn more about their family history. It looks to me like most episodes have professional research done beforehand and the celebrity is usually guided through their history, although they are occasionally shown looking through documents, and some clearly do at least some of the work themselves.

In FoA, all of the work is done for them. Some documents and photos are presented to each celebrity in a book and Gates is shown visiting the ancestral locations, so it shows that work has to be done to do the research. (As opposed to those old TV commercials where someone types their name into a web site and the whole family history just magically pops up.) But it also completely removes the celebrities from the research themselves. In one case, Kristi Yamaguchi’s father was taken back to Poston, the internment camp where he was located to during the war, but Kristi didn’t go to see it. In WDYTYA, she would have gone herself.

Another thing I liked less about FoA was the jarring effect of pursuing the histories of twelve different people in one episode. Not all twelve were pursued in this episode, but keeping track of whose family was being talked about required a bit of extra attention to not be confused. This might be good for the general audience, to keep it interesting and dynamic, but the genealogist in me would rather see one history pursued at a time. As a professional researcher, keeping track of multiple avenues of research for myself and my clients is one of the biggest difficulties, and this show tossed me around in that way.

Overall, I did enjoy the show, learning a bit about different bits of history that I don’t usually pursue because they are not in the stories of my family or my clients. I look forward to the rest of the series.