04 October 2009

Ancestry Magazine: Technology triggers memories

A journalist and a genealogist for some three decades, Howard Wolinsky's "When Genealogy Tech Triggers Memory" appears in the current issue of Ancestry Magazine.

In his story, Howard's story discusses the Holocaust and his personal quest for family history.

My grandparents left the Russian Empire two generations before Adolph Hitler’s “Final Solution” killed off two-thirds of the Jews in Europe.

But my parents never told me anything about family members killed in the Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust. We all assumed there were family members who died, but we never had names, details, or records to support our assumption.

I was a teen before I learned that my father’s father and mother’s mother came from Lithuania, a Baltic country about which my parents knew little. For first-generation Americans such as my folks, that was the past and best left behind. Still, I was curious, which led me to research my family roots starting in the late 1970s. It drove me to search the archives in Lithuania and ultimately to visit the “old country” in 2007.
On their trip, they wanted to visit the places where their grandfather Henry Wolinsky (who was born Hillel Sragan) had walked. Guide Simonas Dovidavicius took them to the Ninth Fort outside Kovno, where 5,000 Jews were marched from the ghetto and executed. They also visited Ponar, where 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews, were killed.

Technology got involved when Howard took a random digital shot at a Kaunas pedestrian mall that made the Shoah "personal and real" for him. He posted the photos he took with an audio slideshow to the internet.

One photo was the building where his Israeli cousin's mother had grown up.

Avi had obtained a family tree I had constructed 30 years earlier and sent to Maxim Schrogin, a cousin I discovered in the late 1970s. Maxim passed the tree on until somehow it found its way to Avi. Avi and I became research partners, unearthing records in Lithuania. Each time we purchased a record, we felt as though we were liberating a relative. We found our grandparents in census records and eventually brought our tree back to sometime around 1720.
Howard also details the WWI family dispute that separated the family until a 2003 reunion reunited three family branches in the same place since the mid-1880s.

Avi saw the photo of his mother's home and told Howard additional stories of his family, including those who died in the Holocaust. Howard learned about his father's first cousins in Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem.

Howard, who has been involved with DNA genetic genealogy since FamilyTreeDNA.com began operations, also signed up to test with the DNA Shoah Project, whose goal is to match relatives and provide orphans and lost children with biological family data and to assist in forensic identification of Holocaust-era human remains.

Read the complete story for more on the DNA Shoah Project.

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