18 January 2009

Lost forever: Family stories not passed down

If you're the creative type, you might win a free registration for the 29th IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy (Philadelphia, August 2-7).

The winning design in this year's Jewish Genealogy Month Annual Poster/Flyer Competition will be unveiled at Philly 2009. The artist receives free conference registration. The design must reflect this year's theme: "From One Generation to the Next: Passing Down our Family History in the Oral Tradition."

There is one catch, however. Only member organizations of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies may submit, or rather sponsor, each entry for either JGS members or non-members; no age requirement. If you're interested, contact your local JGS (see the list at IAJGS).

Learn more about the competition here, including last year's winner and necessary forms. All work should be sent by the April 1 deadline to poster committee chair Steve Lasky; subject field: Poster/Flyer Competition 2009. Questions? Contact Steve.

Stories not passed down are lost forever

Steve and I have often discussed the importance of passing down a family's oral history. Each story is a precious gem that must be recorded in some way or be lost forever.

According to Steve, this year's poster theme recognizes that understanding family history extends far beyond the acquisition of paper documents providing dry facts about our ancestors' lives. Sharing stories and memories among the generations provides first-hand experiences as well as an opportunity to improve communication and family bonds.

My first word of advice to any beginning researcher has always been: If you have senior relatives, RUN - do not walk - to talk to them, to record their experiences and their knowledge. I always repeat the African proverb: When an elder dies, it is as if a library has burned down. That knowledge, unless recorded in some way, will be lost forever.

Most researchers, myself included, always talk about the Curse of Genealogy - the fact that we didn't ask our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents about our family while they were alive. Most of us caught the bug after no one was left to ask - this happened to me and many others. It is up to us now to plan how to transmit this knowledge to our children and to their children, whether they are interested right now or not.

Many researchers say their kids aren't interested. That's not a problem. Perhaps they will be - someday - and the information will be available to them. Perhaps one of our children or grandchildren will be the next great creator of a genealogical resource, technology or other innovation because a family story inspired them to get involved.

Personally, I find that the younger generations I meet are very interested in the past. They love the stories of individuals and how they lived, traveled to different countries and experienced life. They want the stories of their ancestors to come alive.

Over the centuries, historical events around the world have impacted us as a people as well as our individual families. Our children and grandchildren must understand collective Jewish history to gain a greater identity of who they are as links in the chain of time.

What better way is there to reinforce Jewish identity than by transmitting family history by passing this precious information to the younger generations, as some of us heard those stories from our own grandparents and older relatives. Stories not passed down are lost to the future.

Oral tradition passes down the stories of real people and real experiences. A paper document provides facts and is essential to good research, but the story of the real person behind that record is just as important.

When generations can share these experiences, family bonds are strengthened. Steve suggests that local genealogical societies organize oral history workshops for multiple generations, where grandparents, parents and children interview each other, with help from experts.

On another front, such workshops are a good method of encouraging active participation as they help strengthen and grow local society membership - particularly among the younger generation who currently are in the minority of the active genealogy world.

For years, I have told anyone who would listen - and many who did not want to hear it - that new blood is the lifeblood of Jewish genealogy, and indeed of all genealogy sectors. It is needed to sustain, grow and inspire our societies and our passion.

Getting back to the poster competition, Steve says, "It would be great to have an attractive visual image to stir the viewers' imagination, to inspire them to ask questions."

I agree.


  1. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Oral tradition, and the passing down of stories and events is imperative to preserving the ancestral histories of every Jewish family.

  2. I'm a 27 year old Jew from Toronto, and fotunately, I "caught the bug" early, and was able to interview many family elders before they passed away. However, I seem to be running into some dead ends in my research, and I guess I'm just not experienced enough to know where to look. Also, often the stories I gathered conflict with each other between elders, so I try to find the truth somewhere in between.

    1. Anonymous1:31 AM

      It is very common for oral tradition to conflict with each other, this is the proof of the different perspectives those people looked at the incident from. First you will need to clarify what these have in common- They all say Uncle Bob went to Auschwitz from Vienna. Similarities are your starting point from them you move on to an examination of the incident in accordance to the time period, and in the end you will find you have successfully uncovered the truth.

  3. I "caught the bug" early. I'm 27 now, and was able to interview elders before they passed away. The problem is, many of the stories held conflicting facts, so now I have to sort them out. I also run into a lot of dead-ends these days.

  4. Thank you, JewWishes and Lindsay. We all need to record every scrap of our oral history, even if the story or event seems implausible. Every story has a kernel of truth, despite its embellishment over decades and even centuries. The scrap that we think impossible may be the clue to the truth. Stories will always be conflicting, depending on who told them and who heard them. It is like the kids' game of Telephone. What comes out at the end of the line is usually nothing like the original message! Lots of oral history is like that, but since we don't know where the truth lies, each bit is precious. If we can't solve the problem, maybe our descendants can when time machines become common household appliances!

  5. Anonymous6:01 PM

    Remember in every story, there is almost always a grain of truth!

  6. Anonymous6:48 PM

    As a 30-year old New Yorker, I'm glad I became interested in family history while both of my grandmothers are alive and there are others on various branches who remember a good deal. I feel that I am on a holy mission to preserve whatever is possible. I'm amazed and appreciative of every kernel of history i discover.