Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Remembering Titanic

Titanic. State Library of Queensland. Flickr the Commons.
Today is the anniversary of the tragic sinking of Titanic. There's so much available online to help you learn more about those aboard Titanic but I thought I would share just a few resources.

One of my favorite resource  is Encyclopedia Titanica. Lots of great articles and lists.

If you're interested in the women aboard Titanic, check out the books, Titanic: Women and Children First by Judith B Geller; Women of the Titanic Disaster by Sylvia Harbaugh Caldwell; The Titanic: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography by Eugene L. Rasor

I've had the honor of writing about Titanic for the GenealogyBank blog. My articles include Eating on the ‘Titanic’: Massive Quantities of Food on the Menu and Tracing ‘Titanic’ Genealogy: Survivor Passenger Lists & More. GenealogyBank has other Titanic related articles as well.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Chasing Portraits: An Interview with Elizabeth Rynecki

Elizabeth Rynecki. Used with permission.
One of the reasons I love Twitter is that you can meet people you would never otherwise know in your day to day life. I also love reading about researchers and their projects.

One of my Twitter friends is Elizabeth Rynecki. Elizabeth is engaged in a fascinating project involving her great-grandfather's paintings. I  wanted to share her research project with my readers and the opportunity to help her via a Kickstarter campaign.

Gena: Chasing Portraits is the story of your great-grandfather and his art. Can you tell us a little bit about him and his life?

Elizabeth: My great-grandfather started out life as the son of a tailor in Siedlce, a small town east of Warsaw. He was a student, and while he loved to draw and paint, he did not receive much mentoring or encouragement. His father made sure he finished both his Jewish education at a Yeshiva, as well as a more traditional education at a Russian middle school. Eventually Moshe was allowed to attend the Warsaw Academy of Art, but only for a short time period; his father just didn't see how his son could make a living painting pictures. To discourage his son from pursuing an art career, he married him off to Perla Mittelsbach, a woman from a family of some means. Together they operated an art supply store selling paint supplies, writing materials and books for artists and students.

Perla 1929 by Moshe Rynecki, Used with permission.

Moshe, for his part, never wanted to give up painting and, considering his culture and the times he lived in, he was very fortunate to be able to continue to paint. Perla supported, or at least accepted, the fact that her husband was primarily interested in painting. And so while Perla tended to the store and its customers, Moshe took his keen eye, sketchbook and paints into the world to record what he saw. His paintings reveal a painter whose real skill was visual narration, with a keen eye for exploring and documenting the daily rhythm of life. He painted artisans and laborers, study and worship in the Synagogue and moments of leisure. He was modestly successful, exhibiting consistently in the 1920s and 1930s in Warsaw. His works were featured in Jewish art salons, the Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts and at the Warsaw Art Academy.

Toy Factory, 1937 by Moshe Rynecki. Used with permission.

Moshe was also prolific: By my grandpa George's account, Moshe had produced roughly 800 paintings and some sculptures by 1939. In September, when the Nazis invaded, my great-grandfather became concerned that his life's work would be destroyed. In an effort to safeguard his art, he divided it into bundles and distributed the work to trusted friends in and around the city of Warsaw. He gave lists of the hiding places to his wife, son and daughter, hoping that eventually his oeuvre would once again be whole.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. While his son George begged him to stay outside the Warsaw Ghetto and hide, Moshe willingly went into the Ghetto to "be with his people," and was eventually deported to Majdanek where he perished. My father and his parents miraculously survived the Second World War living in Warsaw with fake papers. They paid bribes, bought and sold goods on the black market and had their fair share of close calls. In fact, my grandpa George spent the last year of the war in a prison, and was being marched to a death camp when he was liberated by American soldiers. Moshe's wife, Perla, survived the war, as did a few cousins. But Moshe's daughter, as well as most of my father's family, did not.

Although the war had left the vast majority of Warsaw in rubble, Perla returned with a cousin to search for the hidden bundles of art. Her husband, her store and the world she knew were all gone, but she hoped to be able to at least retrieve Moshe's legacy. She believed the paintings would tell the story of a community that once thrived in Poland, acting as a testament to her husband's passion for art, to the Jewish people and culture, and a way of life that once flourished. Perla found only a single bundle in the basement of a home across the river Vistula, just over 100 pieces. Many were relatively pristine; others were ripped, torn and stepped upon. She bundled up the surviving works and took them to her son (my grandpa George) who, by that point, was living in Italy awaiting permission from the United States government to emigrate and start his life anew.

Chess Players by Moshe Rynecki. Used with permission.

Gena: At what point did this quest to find his artwork become important to you? How long have you been searching for his paintings?

Elizabeth: I grew up with my great-grandfather’s paintings on the walls of my parents’ and grandparents’ home. I’ve known his work since I was very little. I’ve been actively searching for his lost paintings since the late 90s.

Gena: I’m amazed that you've found some of his paintings. Can you talk about how you have tracked down his art? What resources have you used?

Elizabeth: The internet is a great resource for books, articles, image searches, and access to databases – all of which have led to various finds of my great-grandfather’s work. Social media is a good way to connect to others who might know about (or have access to) resources that aren’t online. Building the Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art website ( was also important because it became a place for people with my great-grandfather’s art to learn more about his larger collection and to find a way to contact my family. Spreading the word (posting on a blog, maintaining an active presence on social media, writing articles, and giving talks) can help make other people aware of your project and can lead to more discoveries. You never know what might lead to what. You need to stay open minded about how a new connection might open new doors. Some of my discoveries have been serendipitous. This is one of my favorite stories:

Gena: When I read about what you’re doing it seems to me it’s the ultimate family history project. You are telling the story of your great-grandfather’s life by finding, displaying, and honoring his work. What advice would you give to other family historians who want to tell the story of their ancestor’s life?

Elizabeth: Passion, dedication, persistence, and perseverance.

Gena: How can we help you make the film Chasing Portraits a reality?

Elizabeth: Chasing Portraits has a new 3 minute trailer based on footage shot in Poland in October 2014. The trailer can be seen on Kickstarter, where I am raising funds to match the $20,000 grant from the Claims Conference to finish filming. In order to access the Claims Conference grant, I need to match it dollar for dollar. Kickstarter is a crowdsource funding platform, so all amounts really do help to make reaching the goal possible! All donations, less the value of the reward selected, are tax deductible because the docfilm has 501c3 status from the National Center for Jewish Film. See the film here on the Kickstarter website.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @erynecki .

Friday, April 10, 2015

Discover Your Roots, Share Your Stories: The Alberta Genealogical Society Conference

I'm honored to have been asked to present at this year's Alberta Genealogical Society Conference. From April 18-19th presenters from the US and Canada will be sharing some great genealogy information.

Courtesy of Alberta Genealogical Society

I'll be presenting five topics at the conference:

  • Finding your Genealogy in Digitized Books
  • Banquet: Once Upon a Time at an Antique Store: Telling the Story of Mrs. E.G. Stetson
  • Martha Proby and her Book: A Case Study of a 19th Century English Woman
  • Five Lessons from Researching Genealogy Roadshow
  • Step Away From the Computer: Using Archives, Academic Libraries, and Museums For Your Research
If you will be there, please introduce yourself. I'd love to meet you! For more information see the Society website.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Women's History Month 2015: Reconstructing Women's Lives

It's March 31st and we are at the end of Women's History Month 2015. Over 31 days of different resources for researching female ancestors. But that's just a small amount compared to all the different sources, repositories, and methodology you could incorporate into your family history.

So want some more resources for researching your female ancestors? Here's some Pinterest boards to get you started.

Look for the links, to the right side of this blog, for posts from past Women's History Months.

Good luck with your research and enjoy your discoveries!


Monday, March 30, 2015

Women's History Month 2015: The Deviled Egg Scenerio

Looks (and documents) can be deceiving. Take for instance this photo.

Now if I were to ask you what is this photo of, you would say "it's a deviled egg on a plate." You would base that observation on the fact that it has the characteristics of a deviled egg (sliced egg with yolk filling and paprika sprinkled on the top) and it's resting on a deviled egg plate. You might even say although the plate it's resting on is an antique,  this is  a more recent photo since it's in color, it was taken with a digital camera, and I added the date 2015 in the caption.

Photo by David Ortega Photography. 2015. Used with permission.

But look closely. Yes, it's a deviled egg but not a real deviled egg.

It's a candy.

Researching reminds me of this deviled egg. We gather documents and we think we understand them but it's through thorough, careful analysis that we can gain a better understanding of the research we have gathered.

Consider this. A cousin of mine pre-planned her funeral. She went to the funeral home, purchased a cremation package and everything that goes with that. They allowed her to fill out some of the information on her future death certificate. This seems like a great idea, right? Afterall, except for the information about her death, she at that point in her life should be a pretty good informant for information about her life.


She happened to incorrectly (on purpose) state where she was born. This had to do with her positive feeling for the city she named. But she wasn't born there. Not even close. Like 3000 miles away.

Now, fast forward a hundred years. If she had been named on the final death certificate as the informant, a researcher may take for granted that the information was correct and not double check that.

Always double check. Don't take documents at face value. Conduct careful analysis.

Need help honing your analysis skills? Here's some links to start you off.

Evidence Explained Quick Lesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Map.
Think Genealogy - Genealogy Research Process Map
Cyndi's List - Evidence Analysis & Evaluation

The National Institute for Genealogical Studies has a series of three courses on Analysis.

What's the take away from the deviled egg? Make sure that you are researching your Mary Smith, Emma Jones, or Jemima Johnson not someone else's.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Women's History Month 2015: Institutions and Your Ancestor

From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega
Let's face it, institutions were a part of our ancestor's lives. Whether its schools, hospitals, poor farms or asylums, you need to consider these types of records.

Institutions have sometimes been a harsh reality for women. Women who didn't fit in or suffered depression might find themselves locked away in an asylum. Girls may have attended school but not for long. So many researchers have a story to tell about that unfortunate female ancestor that ended up in the poor house.

Two tips for researching women and institutions:

  • One, learn as much as you can about that institution, this will assist you in finding and understanding records. Try histories or even research done by academics. To do this use WorldCat, JSTOR and Google Scholar.

  • Two, search archival collections, and area repositories for possible records. Now in some cases you may not gain access to records, like in the case of asylums (hint: try the courthouse, don't just focus on the asylum itself). But you have to at least look. To do this start with ArchiveGrid and Repositories of Primary Sources.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Women's History Month 2015: Cookbooks

You didn't think I could get through a Women's History Month without talking about cookbooks, right?

From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega
Community cookbooks seem to me like an obvious source for researching female ancestors. Community cookbooks also known as charity, church or fundraising cookbooks were published by churches, schools, social movements and non-profit organizations. Community cookbooks have been around since the time of the American Civil War. These cookbooks were generally used as a way for women to raise funds for their causes. These cookbooks still exist and continue to fund the concerns and activities of women.

But, they do have their drawbacks such as difficulty in finding them and not all are archived.

Sure those are some drawbacks but that doesn't mean it's impossible.

What do these directories of women tell us? Like many genealogical sources, community cookbooks are at the very least a “names list.” They provide a name and a place. Community cookbooks vary on what information can be found in the cookbook. The standard is to have pages of recipes with the name of the woman who submitted that recipe. That name may include a notation of Mrs. and a husband’s name or initials, leaving only unmarried women identified by their full given names.

While that type of listing does happen, there are many cookbooks that include additional information ranging from just the name of the recipe contributor to family history information explaining the significance of the recipe to the family. Depending on the group who organized the cookbook you can find occupations, personal histories and even clues to ethnic backgrounds. I’ve seen church community cookbooks that include a detailed history of the church, names and dates of service of ministers and a list of the burials in the church cemetery. In some cases women from outside the community may have been invited to submit recipes.  This can provide you with additional family names.

Your ancestor’s community may be reconstructed from information found in the cookbook. Advertisements may have been sold to help offset the cost of printing. A benefit to both the advertiser and the women publishing the cookbook, advertisements can help you learn more about what existed in your ancestor’s community including ads for funeral homes and physicians.

So where can you find them? Start with digitized book websites like Google Books, Internet Archive and Hathi Trust. Search library catalogs and even eBay

Oh and check out my blog, Food.Family.Ephemera for more about community cookbooks.