01 April 2009

Facebook: How Haber finds family

Tracing the Tribe just spoke to Jewish genealogist Karen Haber of Israel, whose story appeared in the New York Times' Facebook story the other day.

Karen has been a Tracing the Tribe reader for eight months. Previously, she wasn't interested in genealogy, but is now using Facebook to reunite her far-flung family.

She's been busy today - a story in the Jerusalem Post, another one to be in Yediot Ahranot (Israel's largest daily, which means it may find its way to YnetNews in English), and she was also on the radio. A busy day!

There's more to her fascinating family history, which Tracing the Tribe will soon report. I suggested that she speak about her success at Jewish genealogy society meetings in Israel.

Karen is very happy that her family's story is being told, even though there were some inaccuracies reported.

The Jerusalem Post story ran today.

As the social networking Web site Facebook celebrated its fifth birthday last month, few users were as grateful for its services as Karen Haber, an Israeli and an amateur geneologist who used the site to locate dozens of family members dispersed by the Holocaust.
[One would think that after all my Jerusalem Post genealogy writing, they'd learn to spell the word correctly. Sorry, but this is one of my pet peeves, along with the myth of family names changed by Ellis Island clerks!]

The 34-year-old mother of two grew up thinking she had a very small family, with just one uncle and two step-uncles in addition to her immediate family. Through the Internet alone, Haber has made contact with 60 family members (40 of them through Facebook) - all descendants of the vast and wealthy Bachenheimer dynasty now spread across the globe.

Among the relatives she's discovered is a 92-year-old fifth cousin in Israel whom she now visits once a month; a fifth cousin who is a clinical social worker in Woodstock, New York; a fourth cousin who runs an optometry shop in Zurich; and another fifth cousin who lives in Hong Kong and sells diamonds.

How did she find them? Haber's technique for finding family on Facebook is to send messages to those names that appear on her family tree of 2,500 people. Most responders have been very positive. She's been a Facebook member for a year.

"There was a person I found through Google," she said. "He and his father are big professors in the States and they were very reluctant. But when I contacted other people, like my fifth cousin in South Africa, the first note I received was, 'I love you so much!' Most [replies] are full of love and happiness."
Of course, I was particularly delighted to read about the oral history of the Bachenheimers. Do I see a DNA test in the works? Karen and I discussed this on the phone.

Haber has traced the Bachenheimers back to 1722. One ancestral story she heard from a cousin was that when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, two brothers named Halevi fled to Germany. A few generations later, the family changed its name to Bachenheimer and Rulf, and by the end of the 19th century, the family members in Germany numbered in the hundreds. A famous relation at this time was Rabbi Isaak Rulf, who was a professor of theology and attended the first Zionist congress in 1897.
The story goes on to discuss the family's fate during the Holocaust and her maternal grandfather Kurt Wertheim's escape from Germany.

Haber's research has unearthed many surprises, the most recent being a Facebook message she received just a few days ago from an 81-year-old cousin she'd been searching for.

"He opened an account on Facebook just to reach me!" she exclaimed.
By the way, her cousin, 81, already had a Facebook account before this connection! This makes for some interesting senior demographics. I wonder how many 80+-somethings have accounts.

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