When I started to get serious about seeing what I could learn of the early days of our family, I set about creating a jigsaw puzzle of the JewishGen records. I printed out as many as I could find and spread them across the floor. Then I tried to combine children with parents and eventually grandparents with grandchildren.
As it turned out, I was repeating the efforts of several distant Holdengraber cousins who were attempting the same thing. By the time I crossed what I had with the compilations from Dean Echenberg, Sherri van Wyke, Bruce Katkin, and a handful of others, we had a shared family tree with 18-20 of what Dean called “islands,” separate families from Câmpulung, Suceava, and Gura Humora.
In a few cases, we could trace those islands forward. Dean, Sherry, and Bruce all determined that they are descended from Solomon ha-Levi, or Schloime, Holdengraber – as indeed are more than half of the 1200 Holdengrabers we know about. In others we hit dead ends, learning the name of someone like Mordecai Holdengraber, a much older brother of my own great-grandfather Simche/Leibisch – an uncle my grandmother seems never to have known – but learning nothing of his wife or children.
Still, the more we knew, the more the JewishGen records told us. Once I had a solid tree of those early generations, I went back and looked for clues about new names. It could take a handful of searches before I found children under the married names of the daughters and granddaughters of Holdengrabers, but each one seemed to fill out a further part of the overall puzzle.
Those records end around the turn of the 20th Century, but by that point civil records often pick up. Many Holdengrabers found their way to Vienna, a natural destination for an ambitious young man from the provinces, and those Austrian civil records are available at other places in JewishGen as well as in slightly different form at Austrian genealogy sites.
For family members who came to the United States, we can search census and civil records through sites like familysearch.org, Ancestry, and MyHeritage. For those who found their way to Israel, there are good pre-state and early state records available through the Israel Genealogy Research Association.
Most painfully, there are the Holocaust records with several dozen, maybe even hundreds, of Holdengraber descendants recorded at the United States Holocaust Museum or Yad Vashem.
Probably the biggest innovation in tracing the larger family, though, comes from the dozens of relatives who have made their family trees available on-line. Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch all have thousands or even tens of thousands of individuals who have mapped out what they know of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
JewishGen itself began a focused project along those lines with its Family Tree of the Jewish people, a collaborative project encouraging people to work together by connecting and correcting each other’s records.
And Geni, available largely for free, is attempting the same thing without ethnic, national, or religious boundaries. Once you share your information, it becomes part of a vast database, one that organizers now claim has as many as 140 million records.
Imagine, then, those two sets of records shaking hands, or more effusively, leaning in to hug each other. The ones from JewishGen start in the past and reach forward. The ones from the various individual family tree-makers begin in the present and reach backward.
Genealogy happens when they meet in the middle.
I know of at least a dozen different Holdengraber descendants who have independently set out to trace a part of their family history. And, for each of those, there are at least a handful of siblings, parents, or children who are just as interested in the project, who add their memories and impressions to the descriptions that eventually make it on-line.
We can trace our Holdengraber family history as we do in large part because of the strangeness of the name itself. Several generations after the first ancestors we can glimpse – eight generations for me and nine for my children – many of us seem to have in common at least one trait: we want to know where we came from.
I recognize there’s a logical flaw in that claim. If I’m looking for people who’ve expressed an interest in family history, then the people I find are more likely to be curious about it.
Still, it’s odd to find there are so many of us.
Maybe it’s one of those traits that crops up in something like a quarter of all populations. Maybe someone in most families starts wondering about deep history and sets out to explore it.
Still, I can’t help thinking there is something particular in the way the urge strikes people from our Eastern European world, and perhaps even our Romanian world in particular.
Maybe it as simple as that we are two generations removed from a Holocaust that tried, as part of its more horrifying crimes, to erase that history.
And today, with our new technologies, we have the capacity to undo a small part of those crimes. When we look for our family history in our separate ways, we reach back to reclaim something deliberately taken from us.
When we do it together, even if just in correspondence – even if just by reading through some of the materials here – we defy (in a modest way) the forces that tried to tear us apart.
As a result of all that collaboration, we separate family historians have found more than 1200 members of the family. And, with that, we find new ones all the time.
Two of my first-cousins’ children have recently had children. When I connect Wyatt, Paige, and Maverick Schechtman and Mia and Benjy Sher to the tree, it marks ten generations from the first ancestors we can glimpse.
There’s a lot we don’t know and a lot we will never be able to recover.
Still, when we come together, when we collaborate and make the different records and family memories talk to each other, we make it all the easier to look further back.
This is a family story – one that now spans ten generations – and it has taken a family to tell it.