Sunday, June 30, 2013

Starting in Genealogy--for Free

Genealogy has changed significantly since I started researching in the 1990s.  Instead of having to travel to an archives branch to try to find boat records and census records on microfilm, you can find many of those documents sitting at home.  The internet has made a lot of basic genealogy doable from home, which is wonderful.  Many people have heard of because of their advertising campaign, but Ancestry costs money (unless you cancel before completing an initial 14-day free trial), and until you have the basics down on your family, it could be overwhelming.  Ancestry is great (and I do have a subscription), but wait on it until you exhaust some of the other free sites.

A better starting place is FamilySearch.  This site is entirely free (although they do ask that you set up a free account to see some of the original documents).  They have a lot of records, and they add more all the time.  You can search for family members in census records, boat records, and more.  Many states (Ohio is one I've used a lot) have all of their vital records (birth, marriage, death certificates) on FamilySearch; these are great resources for finding parents' names and helping to move back another generation.  You can also search their catalog for additional (not online) documents that they have on microfilm and can be delivered to a local Family History Center for you to peruse.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sheva Beitch - Ancestor Deep Dive

My great grandmother was Sheva Fine Beitch (also spelled Bajcz in Polish).  I'm named for her (my Hebrew name is Sheva Esther).  She was born on May 12, 1895 in Shklyn in what is now Volhynia, Ukraine, just to the northeast of Horochiv.  Her parents were Moshe Dovid and Devorah (nee Garber) Fine, and she had two sisters Sara and Baila and a brother Mordechai.

She married Avraham Beitsch and had three children.  The oldest was my grandmother Sonia (originally Sara Etta), followed by Malia (emphasis on the first syllable), and then the baby Herschel.  Herschel died as an infant.

Beitsch Family.  (L-R): Malia, Avraham, Sheva, Ronia (Avraham's mother), Sonia.  This picture was saved by Sonia from a pile of garbage after the ghetto was destroyed
Although Sheva was from Shklyn and Avraham was from nearby Huben, the Beitch family lived in the bigger town of Horochiv (also Horochov or Gorokhov).  The town regularly switched between Russia and Poland--until the Germans arrived.  Then the Beitch family was moved into a ghetto in nearby Senkevychivka.

Life in the ghetto was difficult.  But then on October 14, 1942, rumblings were going on about a large deportation.  Sheva had Sonia and Malia sneak out of a hole in the ghetto's fence; they ended up hiding in a barn where Malia would be murdered.  That day the ghetto was liquidated.  Among those killed in the ghetto was Avraham Beitch, Sheva's sisters Sara and Baila, Baila's children Cheike (and husband Mendel) Wollich Chechman and Moshe Wollich, and Cheike's daughter Devorah Chechman.  Sonia believed her mother was dead as well.

Shortly after, Sonia (who was hiding wherever she could) met up with Pesach Dimant, who she vaguely knew from before the war.  He told her that he believed her aunt had survived.  He took her to an attic--where she found her mother Sheva!  (Pesach knew it was her mother but wanted to break it to her gently.  And yes, he later married Sonia, but that's another post to write.)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Deciphering History

I'd already determined that the Tolchinsky family which I thought was from Shpikov was not.  But I knew that the Supkoffs were.  My great grandmother was Malka (Mollie) Supkoff who married Isadore Tolchin after they both had immigrated to Pittsburgh.  Mollie's and her sister's Elka's boat record confirmed they were from "Spikow."  So Isadore's involvement in Pittsburgh's Shpikov Society must have been through his wife.
Mollie & Elka Supkoff's boat record (lines 8-9), 1906
Mollie's parents, Yeshaya and Zlata Tzipra (nee Sanshuck) Supkoff also came to America along with their younger children (besides Mollie and Elka, son Leib/Louis had come earlier).  Yeshaya and the children were listed as having been born in "Spikoff" and "Schpikoff," but Zlata Tzipra was from "Krosny."  With the help of JewishGen (which will list other towns with Jewish populations near a given one), I discovered that Krasnoye was only 11 miles from Shpikov.

Nice!  I then started investigating if any documentation existed of these towns' past.  Perhaps I could find documents on microfilm like I had used to learn about the Tolchinsky and Lefand/Marienhoff families in Nezhin.  I looked on familysearch, but unfortunately they had not microfilmed either of these towns' records.  I then looked at Miriam Weiner's excellent Routes to Roots, which catalogs many of the existing Jewish records in eastern European archives.  My heart sunk.  Both towns had listed documents, but they were followed by the following disclaimer:
I contacted Ms. Weiner to see if many of the remaining records were available, but at that time they were being preserved and protected and were not available to the public.  Drat.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Minnie Joshowitz Tolchin, in her own words

In the mid 1990s, I had an MSDOS-based program called (I think) Biography Maker.  I believe it was by the same company that made Family Tree Maker, and it would give prompts that would help you to write an autobiography.  My grandparents Lou & Minnie Tolchin were in town, and I used it to interview my grandmother.  Unfortunately we never got around to finishing, but it did get a really good feeling of her growing up during the Depression in McKeesport, PA.

Here is Minnie Joshowitz Tolchin's story, in her own words.
My Yiddish name is Mindel, and they called me Mindel or Minnie.  I was named after my father's mother.  I was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania on February 19, 1922.

Minnie Joshowitz as a baby with her parents Josef and Esther (nee Rutner) Joshowitz and brother Izzy, 1922
When I started school, I was only five years old, and the starting age was six.  But my father went to the principal and told him that I had to go to school because there were three younger children at home. I could not even speak English, only Yiddish, because that's what we spoke in the house.  But I learned fast.  It was located in McKeesport [Pennsylvania] on Walnut Street.  It was called Walnut Street School.  It was a big red brick building three floors high.  If I remember correctly, there were two buildings; one was the old one, and then they built the newer one.  The higher grades, of course, went to the newer one.  The school went from first to eighth grade.  It was a public school, and the name of the principal was Mr. Snyder, an elderly gentleman who we all liked.  My younger sisters and brother went to the same school.  Mollie was one year behind me, and the other two, Herbie and Ruthie were five years behind me.  We didn't play with them at recess, but we had to go home for lunch every day which was three blocks away.  Every once and a while we got a penny for candy.  School was easy for me, and I didn't have to struggle.  Another girl and I took first honors when I graduated eighth grade.  We took sewing in school, and we made our own dresses.  We wore them in the May Day dance, and we graduated in them.  My teacher in eighth grade was Miss Newhouse, and she sent me to an elecution teacher to teach me how to give my speech for graduation.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


I've been playing around with Treelines recently.  Treelines is a new site that allows you to tell a story.  It takes genealogy from being all about dry ancestral charts and helps to tell the stories behind the names.  It won the Developers' Challenge at this year's RootsTech conference, and I can see why.

Treelines gives a way to integrate photos, documents and text, showing a timeline that spans the lives of players in the story.  It's very user-friendly, and you can quickly build a visually pleasing book of family stories.
Screenshot from one of my Treelines stories
As can be be seen in the screenshot, people who appear in the story are displayed underneath the current page, showing when various parts of the story occurred as well as those participating in the current page.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Lefand by any other name....

I'd mentioned earlier how I discovered a potential Liffond connection to my family, the fact that the family lived in Nezhin, and that there were Nezhin documents available on microfilm.  I ordered many of these microfilms to be sent to my local Family History Library (FHL) and started going through the records.  The FHL has most of the metrical documents (birth/marriage/divorce/death records) for Nezhin's Jewish community from the 1850s through the early 1900s.  The documents are written in Hebrew and Russian, with identical information in both languages.  At this point, the Russian looked like pretty scribbles to me, but I could read the Hebrew easily.

My great grandfather was Yitzchok Tolchinsky (later Isadore Tolchin).  I knew that his parents were Hillel and Pesha Riva.  My grandfather had always told me that Pesha Riva's maiden name was Marinoff.  I found Yitzchok's birth record from December 1889.  It had his father as being registered in Lubny and being Hillel the son of Shimon.  The mother was listed as Rivka the daughter of Yehoshua Wolf.
Yitzchok Tolchinsky's birth record, 1889
Shimon and Yehoshua Wolf were new names--my great-great-great grandfathers!  But was Rivka also Pesha Riva?  I tracked down Hillel's marriage record--and sure enough, he married a Pesha Riva early in 1889.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Aunt Shaindel was Lost -- and Found (A DNA Success Story)

Genetic genealogy is relatively new.  Basically, you send in a sample (cheek swab or saliva in a test kit) to a company, they sequence your DNA, and they then compare similarities in your DNA to others who have taken the test.  They then give you potential matches with a predicted relationship based on shared DNA.

Genetic genealogy with Ashkenazic Jews is known to be...interesting.  And frustrating.  Because Jews married within the Jewish community with little outside DNA being introduced, we're not a very genetically diverse community--we are what is called an endogamous population.  On the genetic genealogy front, this means that closeness of relationships is amplified.  In the general population, if someone is predicted to be your fourth cousin, they're probably your fourth cousin--or maybe your third or fifth.  In the Jewish community, you're probably related multiple ways, so you will share a surprising amount of DNA.  Your predicted fourth cousin may be a tenth cousin (and an eleventh cousin 3 different ways).  My parents are predicted to be fourth cousins, but I have documented their families on paper living quite far apart at least back to the early 1800s.  But in some way, I'm my own cousin.

So anyways, I have a ton of predicted third and fourth cousins.  And in general, I haven't managed to figure out the connection to most of them, since they're likely much further removed.  I was able to verify known relationships when known cousins have tested.  I also showed that I was not a princess switched at birth, since I genetically match close relatives on both my parents' sides.
My second cousin match

But then a prospective second cousin match popped up on familytreedna.  The match's name was completely unfamiliar to me.  I have a stock message that I send to the closer DNA matches with my family names and the towns that they lived in, so I send them to this guy Dave, asking if he saw a connection.  He quickly responded that his great grandmother's maiden name was Jenny Diamond.

Who Is Itze Liffond?

(Continued from previous post)

So where was Isadore on the manifest?  I reviewed everything I had on him and ran some more searches. Ancestry had his naturalization papers (to which I hadn't paid a ton of attention since I had the version from the archives which was way more clear).  But this version also had an extra card on top. 

Isadore Tolchin Declaration of Intention--with a bonus feature on top!
This card is often seen and is the record of the authorities checking that the immigrant actually came to the US on the date they stated. But while this one had "Talchin" hand-written over it and had a boat name and date that matched Isadore's naturalization papers, what was with the name?
Closeup of the Itze Luffand mystery card

Who was Itze Luffand?  Could he be my great grandfather?  I had never heard anything about Luffands.  I found the actual boat record:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tolchinskys from Shpikov? Tulchin? Nope!

My grandfather Lou Tolchin always thought his father was from Shpikov, a small town south of Vinnytsia in what is modern-day Ukraine, in the Podolia region. After all, his father Isadore Tolchin (formerly Yitzchak Tolchinsky) was an active member of Pittsburgh's Shpikov Society.
Isadore Tolchin

But when I found his father Hillel's naturalization papers, it said that his birthplace was "Luben, Russia." 


I've been researching my family since I was in high school.  In the early 1990s, my mother humored me, driving me to the National Archives to search for census records and boat manifests on microfilm.  She also brought me to the local Family History Center where I pored over more microfilm.  I spoke to my grandparents and recorded all the names they told me in the MSDOS version of Brodebund's Family Tree Maker.  I updated it on and off through the years but didn't really do more research.

Then in the summer of 2011, I helped to organize a family reunion.  My great-great grandfather Yechiel Suttleman was married three times (including to two sisters) and had twelve children.  I bought the new Family Tree Maker (and unbelievably it was able to take my decades' old file) and started exploring with the free subscription to  And in 5 minutes I found all the documents that I'd spent weeks looking for on microfilm, including some I'd searched for but never found.