06 January 2010

Family History: Getting relatives involved

"How to entice relatives into family history" was the simple question asked by Alberto Guido Chester of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

His JewishGen Discussion Group question elicited numerous answers. With Alberto's permission, here's a summary of the responses with added personal notes from Tracing the Tribe.

This question and similar others have been addressed previously through the years on the discussion list; a search of the JewishGen Discussion Group archives will produce other responses.

Wrote Alberto:

I have received a dozen plus of answers on my post: How to entice relatives into family history. Needless to say, that is more answers than from my own family. (grin here).

If I were a shrink, I'd made some good money on the disappointment most of us feel at poor feedback, ignoring and even aggression from some relatives.

But, as someone pointed out, a couple of thank yous, making cousins to meet for the first time or helping a child get an A with his genealogy school project outweigh the latter.
Alberto listed the suggestions received, added some of his own and also suggested that someone get this organized as a handbook to help other genealogists. Tracing the Tribe reworked the suggestions, adding some personal notes. We wish we had time to write up a handbook as Alberto has suggested.


-- Send a basic tree to relatives. Include younger people even without correct names. Even if you don't have birth dates, infer them and write them on the tree. Make sure that everyone (especially women) appear a couple of years older than they are - an error that is sure to elicit a response and correction!

-- Family Tree Builder (and other software) can produce descendant reports and charts as PDFs which anyone can read using Adobe Reader, even if the recipient doesn't have genealogy software.

-- Assume recipients will not download a program to see what you sent them, even if it's free. Also assume they will not print out 30 pages of a chart and paste them together in some way. The sender should do the pasting! Send the chart by snail mail or email a small chart.

-- Make sure the recipient can understand the data even if they are not genealogists. NOTE: when Tracing the Tribe sends genealogical information, the envelope includes a chart, a descendant report and sometimes the index of people (with their relationships to the common ancestor).

-- Include photos in the chart, or send some photos of interest individually.

-- Phone later to check that the information has been received. Ask if there are any corrections or additions. Use Skype for low-cost calls to other countries.

-- Knowing the local language is a plus. If you cannot speak (or write) the language needed, ask someone to do it on your behalf. Language can be a barrier to communication. NOTE: Posting to JewishGen's discussion or SIG groups and asking for help in making a phone call in a certain language often produces offers of help from people who live in the country you are trying to reach, or from native speakers who live elsewhere.

-- Practice the art of cold calling. Have your notes ready to entice the recipient in a conversation. Mention a surname from two generations ago that only the person would know - one that isn't in the phonebook - and it might open a magical door. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe has had great success with "cold" snail mails. Sending a large batch of very short letters to one city to the relatively rare surname being researched produced excellent results. Two letters reached people who knew the family for whom I was searching. Although most produced no response, there were some responses from unrelated individuals who said they were sorry they didn't know the family I was looking for and hoped I eventually found them.

-- Make sure to convince the person you are not doing this for money, and are not selling magazine subscriptions or other items. People are suspicious and generally for good reason, particularly seniors.

-- Before calling, determine the time zone of the recipient. NOTE: You really don't want to call people at 2am their time - they generally won't be happy, friendly or responsive to your genealogical questions.

-- When someone answers, ask s/he if it is a convenient time to speak. Imagine that the person is in the middle of cooking dinner, the grandchildren are visiting, the dog is barking. In the middle of this, a stranger calls and wants the date of birth for Great Aunt Chaya.

-- In general, people often prefer answering questions on the phone, once they believe who you say you are. It puts the responsibility on the caller to record the details, and they don't have to sit down to write a letter. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe finds that people often respond via snailmail or email after a good phone call.

-- If the person is not cooperative (there could be many reasons for this), ask if anyone else in their family might be interested, or perhaps has already done some research. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe has experienced this often enough. The call recipient doesn't want to get involved, but you may find the best possible contact - perhaps another passionate researcher of your family's lost branch.

-- Make sure you give your phone number and email to the person you are calling. Once a person's memory banks are stimulated, there's no telling what can happen. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe has received calls at 2am from senior cousins who say "Quick, write this down now before I forget it again." I don't mind these particular calls!

Sharing Information

-- Upload trees to sites like MyHeritage.com and produce a periodic update. People become interested when they see the site is moving forward with new information.

-- Be constant and patient with regular contact and updates that these sites provide.

-- If you plan to eventually publish a book on the family, send proofs to relatives asking for corrections or additions, with a deadline. NOTE: Be prepared for those relatives who will not want anything published about their immediate families.

Young People

-- Collect the emails of the younger generations, open a Facebook account for your family project and invite them. Many use Facebook as their only source of information.

-- Remember that uncooperative cousins may be the parents of cooperative young people. NOTE: Excellent advice! There are many reasons that the parents may be uncooperative, but the children may not be carrying that baggage!

-- Many young people will not be interested in your project, but if you can interest just one of them, Tracing the Tribe gives you permission to do a Happy Dance. We never know from where the next family historian will come.

-- Many schools - public, private, Jewish - include genealogy projects in their curriculum. Make sure people know that you will be happy to provide the information when their children need it. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe likes to include a large envelope with the family tree and descendant report with life cycle gifts (weddings, baby gifts, bar/bat mitzvah). Only last week, I provided an updated chart to the bride and groom at a family wedding. The bride's sister had received a similar chart a few years ago, at her bat mitzvah.

Social Networks

-- Another way to use Facebook is to open a family history page, add photographs of deceased relatives and restrict access to invited individuals. Make Facebook friends by asking something like "If you are the son of so-and-so and the grandson of so-and-so, then we are cousins. Come see the family album of ancestors on my Facebook site." People will respond, "How did you find me?" NOTE: Tracing the Tribe was "found" by several lost relatives during our first week on Facebook!

-- Dialogue is opened in a non-threatening way.

-- Pick up foreign genealogy buddies

-- Contact a person in a country of interest who is willing to help you research your family in exchange for your help in researching his or her family in your country. You will find family info, new adopted cousins and someone to share your interest via email.

-- If you can't find an appropriate buddy, think about hiring a professional researcher.

-- Using a professional researcher to fill a specific gap your own relatives cannot (or don't want to), may be the fastest way and perhaps less expensive than waiting for relatives to help.

Family Issues

-- Be prepared to expect hidden relatives, bad branches, skeletons in the closet that no one wants to talk about. Perhaps they just don't want to talk to you about the issues. Do not take sides on these problems of the past, just try a professional objective approach. An article clearing the air in the family newsletter, bulletin or website you are periodically sending and updating, can help bring the sides together. Remember that our ancestors lived through different and difficult circumstances, which we cannot grasp. NOTE: Tracing the Tribe once had to introduce several branches of the same family to each other on a visit to one Massachusetts town. They never knew they were related because of a problem with an uncle's wife who didn't like the nephews who immigrated later. We all spent an enjoyable evening together and none of the "kids" (who were many years older than Tracing the Tribe) had a clue as to why they hadn't known their cousins. They were sad that their parents and grandparents had issues that kept them apart.

Major Projects

-- Organizing a family reunion or raising communal funds to hire a researcher in the old country are additional steps. These projects can take place only after initial contacts. The projects have the added bonus of being an extraordinary push towards the integration of the "team" or "founders" who are already interested in the family tree. Once such a team is in place, major projects can be attempted.

Alberto thanked many who provided responses to his question.

If you have additional ideas, suggestions or experiences, add a comment to this post.


  1. Anonymous4:43 PM

    This is my problem. Thank you for the great tips.

  2. Alas, I wish I had such a problem. The branch of the family that I'm writing about largely disappeared during the Holocaust -- or at least records of them did.

    After being sentenced to death in Russia 4 times, my grandfather escaped to the US and went to, of all places, Shenandoah, PA, where I didn't even know there were any Jews, let along orthodox ones! I asked my mother, who was born there, to find out from hew older sister how my grandfather and 2 of his brothers ended up there, and she didn't kno9w. For some reason, she said, that sort of thing wasn't talked about. Huh?

    I tried to do some sleuthing of my own through Jewishgen, zchor, and even the mormon databases and can only find a death record for one person. I also checked Polish town hall records (at least what was available online). It's as if these members of the family never existed...