Some Advice on Researching Your Family History

Interested in recording your own personal history? If the idea of throwing on a ‘detective’ hat and digging up pieces of your ancestral past seems daunting, I promise you, it’s easier than you think—and worth every ounce of effort. When I first took on the task of unearthing my family history, I was terrified. I spent two years wondering where do I even begin? before I finally mustered the courage to dive in. If you’re in the same boat, here are a few tips that might help get you started:

Start interviewing. Put together a list of questions and sit down with the folks in your family who might be able to share some answers: your parents, your grandparents, your great aunts, your second cousins. Buy a digital voice recorder and record your conversations (I find face-to-face interviews are a lot more productive than phone calls, but if your relatives are spread out over the globe, chatting over the phone or via Skype is okay, too). Don’t be surprised if you’re met with some resistance. If your family history involves, say, surviving a war, or (as mine does) the Holocaust, you’ll learn quickly that it may not be an easy subject for family members to talk about. Be respectful, and be patient.

*For tips on exploring Jewish genealogy, scroll down—I’ve  listed several resources at the bottom of the page.

A map highlighting the cities I visited while researching my family history

Get creative. If key family members are fuzzy on the details or have passed away, look to close family friends for insights. Thanks to the lovely World Wide Web, I was able to track down my grandfather’s one-time Czechoslovakian fiancée, Eliska, whom he met aboard a ship sailing for Brazil in ’41. Eliska was 88, and living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I wrote her a letter explaining my project and asking if she a) remembered my grandfather, and b) would be interested in chatting. She called me a few days later, ecstatic (apparently she and my grandfather were, in her words, “quite an item!”). She insisted that I come for a visit. My mother and I spent two days with Eliska, learning priceless details about my grandfather’s voyage to Brazil, and about what a character he was at the young age of 28.

Another way to get creative in your research is to search the Web for people or groups with similar interests. In my early research of Radom, Poland, I came across this Kehilalink (a virtual community) on—I contacted the author, Susan Weinberg, who not only helped me navigate the site, but who put me in touch with a survivor from Radom as well as with a young man from the city’s cultural center, who later gave me an extensive tour of Radom when I visited. To read more about how much Susan influenced my work, click here.

When I learned I had two relatives who’d been sentenced to a year in Stalin’s Siberian labor camps (which I knew very little about) I began digging around online—turns out there’s a whole community of folks interested in the same topic—many of whom are survivors (or children of survivors). I can’t tell you how many members of the Kresy-Siberia Yahoo Group (and now Facebook Group) have helped me along the way in my research, not only pointing me in the right direction regarding how/where to track down records, but also providing invaluable first-hand accounts. The Virtual Museum is a wonderful resource, as well.

Put Together a Family Tree. Since by now you’ve designated yourself the family historian, take it upon yourself to start a tree. My family uses the online tree-builder, Geni. The basic version is free, easy to navigate, and includes fun features like the ability to send birthday or anniversary wishes. You can also use Ancestry. Basic searches and tree building are also free, and if you’d like to dig deeper into Ancestry’s record base, you can sign up for a free 14-day membership trial. I haven’t tried it, but I’ve heard good things as well about both FamilySearch (also a free service – be sure to check out their Learning Resources and FamilySearch Centers) and RootsMagic’s Personal Historian, which claims to make creating a complete, publishable document on your personal history easy by breaking the research process into small, manageable pieces. The Brigham Young University Family History Archive has produced a valuable collection of scanned historical books, as well, including several how-to’s on genealogy.

This very basic family tree lives at the start of my book, as a tool to help readers keep track of who’s who

Connect locally. If you feel like your research has hit a dead end, or you’ve exhausted your personal connections, reach out to others in your community who may share a piece of your family history. In an effort to learn more about my Polish heritage, I did a little sleuthing online and discovered the Polish Home Association. Turns out there’s a tight community of first-generation Poles in Seattle! I emailed the head of the Polish Film Club, Aleksandra, who invited me to a screening of The Lost Requiem, a documentary depicting the fate of the Stalin’s Siberian exiles. Not only was the film extremely educational (my grandfather’s brother, Genek, survived a Siberian gulag), I had the privilege of meeting several living gulag survivors. You’d be amazed at how willing complete strangers are to share their experiences, if you ask nicely and explain why you’re interested.

Incidentally, Aleksandra later became a good friend, an advocate of my book, and an excellent translator (Polish and Russian!) when the need arose.

Immerse yourself in the work of others. Whatever your personal history, I guarantee with a little digging you’ll find a library of related books, articles, essays, and films. Authors, academics, and screenwriters pride themselves on being experts on their topics of interest, often spending years learning everything there is to know about a certain event, period, or era, in order to paint an accurate picture in their prose. Reading or watching their works can prove incredibly helpful, especially if you weren’t alive to experience those events/that era first-hand.

Don’t be afraid of contacting said authors/academics/screenwriters directly (okay Spielberg probably won’t write back, but others just might!). When I discovered a book on the Brazilian Ambassador Souza Dantas—the man who, I learned, was responsible for granting my grandfather a Brazilian visa in ’41—I emailed the author. Fábio and I correspond now about once a month—he’s been remarkably helpful in answering my questions, and was even kind enough to track down some of my family records at the National Archives in Rio. How about that? All because I sent him a nice email, explaining my project and telling him I’d like to learn more about his book.

Fish for Records. Whatever your interest—birth, death, or marriage certificates, old addresses, military records—spend a couple of days researching the archives, indexes, magistrates, memorials, ministries, and embassies in your cities/states/countries of interest. Many of these archives (e.g., the U.S. and U.K. National Archives) are searchable online and some are even happy to do the searching for you if you send an email with the appropriate information (I will forever be grateful to Irena from the Hoover Institution at Stanford, who helped me track down a hand-written account of my great-uncle’s, and to Ms. Kroll at the UK Ministry of Defense, who sent me stacks of military records pertaining to relatives who fought for the Allies in conjunction with the British Army). Read the fine print—typically these organizations post instructions on their sites on how best to contact them re: acquiring records. Pay close attention, and note that some institutions abroad may require emails/letters in their native language.

Ask a librarian. Local librarians are wonderful resources. They know where the information’s hiding, and can save you loads of time. Keep in mind museums often have libraries, too—I searched for days trying to track down the number of Jews from my family’s home town in Poland who survived the Holocaust. In a last-ditch effort, I contacted a librarian the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. A gentleman named Jonathan wrote back right away, and voilà—I had my statistic. Librarians can be contacted in person, or by telephone, email, and often via live chat (look for a link on your library’s website called “Help/Research” or “Ask a Librarian”).

*Exploring Your Jewish Genealogy

There’s a growing body of resources available to folks researching their Jewish Heritage. Here are a few sites I found especially helpful:

  • JewishGen (powered by Ancestry and affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage): a collection of databases, resources, and search tools that currently hosts more than 20 million records and provides a myriad of resources and search tools.
  • Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center): the ultimate source for Holocaust education, documentation and research; based in Jerusalem.
  • American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (“The Joint”): The JDC aided hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust; archives include over 3 miles of text documents, 100,000 photographs, a research library of 6,000+ books, 2,500 videos, and 1,100 audio recordings including oral histories.
  • The United States Holocaust Museum’s Holocaust Survivor & Victim Resource Center lists several helpful resources (some of which are available at the museum, others online), including the International Tracing Service (ITS) and the Holocaust Name Search Database; you can also find a list of Library & Archival Collections here.
  • The Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center (HWVTC): a national clearinghouse managed by the American Red Cross. The HWVTC taps into a wide variety of resources beyond the ITS collection.
  • The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) is an umbrella organization that coordinates the activities and annual conference of more than 70 national and local Jewish Genealogical Societies (JGS) around the world.