I’ve said that the more we know of individual records, the more we can untangle the picture of the whole family history. As consistently true as I have found that, it’s difficult to share with anyone who hasn’t swum in those records.
Unless you dig up and organize those records yourself – and then often, after realizing some mistakes, organize them again under a new theory – it’s hard to get a sense of just what they’re telling us.
Maybe my first major breakthrough came as a result of going back for the umpteenth time to the records dealing with my great-grandfather, Louis Holden(graber).
With the possible exception of his brother Bernard – remembered within the family as Benny – I don’t know that any of the relatives of his American life knew that he’d been called Simche, or Simche Leib (or Leibisch) at his birth.
Maybe some of his relatives back in Gura Humora called him Simche, but from all we know – and my father and aunt grew up in the same house with him – he went by Leibisch until, in the United States, he became Louis.
That birth name must have meant something to his parents – my great-great-grandparents – but it wasn’t something that expressed itself in the way they interacted with him on an everyday basis. It came through in the official records, but it seems like it was no more than a secondary fact of his life as he lived it.
I suppose I should have seen the possibility sooner. That is, it took me a long time to ask myself the question: why would parents name a child something they did not end up using in their everyday lives.
To be fair, there are multiple reasons. Jewish historians and genealogists report that Jews often had names for the home that differed from official names and sometimes even from professional ones. Our Bukovina relatives likely spoke Yiddish at home, filed reports in German for official purposes, and dealt in Romanian in the marketplace.
That meant they needed to be fluent in multiple languages –my grandmother spoke all three as well as English and a little Hungarian – and that they must have had different identities in each context.
There’s another more obvious reason, though. Jewish tradition calls on us to name our children after our deceased forebears.
As I reflected, it made sense that “Simche” was likely named for someone who’d died not long before he was born, that he’d been given a name his family chose to use more for formal, official purposes than day-to-day. If so, that meant the possibility of extending my tree in the hardest direction to go, another generation into the past.
The earliest death records at JewishGen don’t tell us much. We get a name, a place and date, and an age at time of death, but we don’t have any family connections. With few exceptions, each record sits like a lonesome headstone with nothing but that strange name of Holdengraber to suggest it’s connected to our larger family.
When I went back to look, though, I found a record for a Simche Holdengraber, who died in Câmpulung on May 1, 1868 at age 66. For comparison, my great-grandfather was born in 1871.
By that point, I had assembled a fairly wide tree of the third, fourth, and fifth generations, and I noted that my great-grandfather had a nephew, Simche Leibisch Davidowicz – son of his much older sister Ruchel – born a year later.
The different pieces clicked: it seemed likely that my great-grandfather named his youngest son after his just-deceased father, a Simche Lieb for a Simche, just as his daughter named her son after her just-deceased grandfather.
I couldn’t be certain, but, once I rubbed all the different JewishGen records together, it fit the facts more fully than any other explanation: the first Simche Holdengraber was my great-great-great-grandfather.
That kind of breakthrough comes slowly. It’s not a ‘eureka’ but rather a hunch. It takes tugging on a single thread and pulling it from the tangle. It suggests itself quietly at first and seems reasonable when you come back to it days and weeks later. Over time, you realize it squares with most of the evidence, and finally, if you’re lucky, you find that it explains everything we know better than any alternative.
In other words, it’s research that adds one more piece to the overall puzzle. Like sudoku, the answer to one square makes it that much easier to solve other squares next to it.
From a personal standpoint, it meant a lot to discover my grandmother’s grandfather. From the perspective of the Holdengraber family as a whole, it meant moving a step closer to the original, shared ancestor.
Simple math tells us that if a 66 year old Simche died in 1868, he was born in 1802. That meant he was three years older than the previously oldest Holdengraber, Solomon or Schlomo, whom we could attach to larger threads of the tree.
(Solomon appears as the father and grandfather in several of the birth and marriage records, and then he appears as well in a death record from Suceava on June 21, 1865 when he was 60 years old.)
That meant that we could trace at least two lines from the present day back to just short of the 18th century. Given that the Austrian Habsburg empire began requiring surnames in 1787, it looked as if we’d managed to find at least a couple members of the second generation to have the name.
We weren’t there yet – we still didn’t couldn’t see the first married couple to adopt the name – but it felt that much closer.