The Complete Visual Guide to Jewish Headstones

Jewish headstones in cemeteries can provide a large number of clues for researchers of family history and genealogy. Over the years, trips to cemeteries in New York have helped me solve family puzzles, while they’ve also often presented more questions and inspirations for further research.

A little knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish has made this research a little easier for me, as I need to go back only a few generations to reach ancestors who did not speak English. But linguistic knowledge often isn’t enough to decipher the information on headstones.

There is a fair amount of symbolism that requires interpretation, including engraved designs as well as abbreviations. I’ve assembled a nearly-complete guide to the symbols, abbreviations, and words found on Jewish headstones, as well as some information about numbers and codes.

Hebrew and Yiddish symbols and abbreviations you might encounter on Jewish headstones.

Abbreviations will have the caret mark or two hash marks between letters, usually before the last letter in an abbreviation.

Description Meaning and Explanation
פ׳נ or פה נקבר or פה נקברה “Here Lies.” This appears on many headstones as a preface to the name of the individual interred. po nikbar (nikbarah)
נפ׳ or נפטר or נפטרה “Died.” This prefaces the date of death. niftar (niftarah)
ב״ר or בן ר׳ “Son of Mr.” Preceded by deceased’s first name, followed by first name of deceased’s father. ben rab or ben rev
בת ר׳ “Daughter of Mr.” Preceded by deceased’s first name, followed by first name of deceased’s father. bat rab or bat rev
מרת or מ׳ “Mrs.” This is a polite title for a woman. marat
ת׳ נ׳ צ׳ ב׳ ה׳ Abbreviation for “May his (or her) soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life,” from the first book of Samuel.
ז״ל Abbreviation for “of blessed memory.” The Hebrew is זיכרונו לברכה for a man and זיכרונה לברכה for a woman.
ע״ה Abbreviation for “may he (or she) rest in peace. The Hebrew is עליו השלום for a man and עליה השלום for a woman.
The six pointed star (Shield of David or מגן דוד) is the most recognizable symbol of the Jewish religion. It’s more of a modern custom for this symbol to appear on the headstones of Jewish men.
The menorah is the symbol of Judaism and represents the candelabra that was housed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The symbol represents pious or religious Jewish women.
The hands represent the caste of the Kohanim, descendants of the high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Kohanim are identified through the father’s lineage, and the hands represent the Kohanim gesture for the priestly blessing. Actor Leonard Nimoy used this as inspiration for his salute as Mr. Spock on Star Trek.
Below the Kohanim in the priestly order were Levi’im or Levites. The water pitcher is their symbol because one of their functions was to wash the hands of the Kohanim.
The compass and square with a “G” in the center is a symbol of Freemasonry. This could mean that the deceased was a member of a Masonic lodge. Does the G mean God, Grand Architect, or Geometry? You decide.

More common symbols on Jewish headstones.

In the bible, many prominent individuals were named after animals. The practice returned with Jews in Europe, where Yiddish words for animals were used alongside Hebrew.

With names referring to animals, there is a strong opportunity for artistic interpretation in engraving. Common symbols include more than animals, though.

Symbol Meaning and Explanation
Lion The lion is the symbol of the descendants of Judah. A lion might appear on the headstone of someone named Judah, Lieb, Levi, Aryeh (Herbew meaning “lion”), Loew, or Loeb.
Deer It is generally thought that the name Tzvi in the bible referred to deer. The Yiddish word for deer is Hersh, so that became a popular name in the last couple of centuries. You might find the image of a deer engraved on a tombstone for someone with the name Tzvi and/or Hersh (or Hirsch).
Bear The name Dov Ber — a common combination name, with Dov being Hebrew and Ber being Yiddish — is symbolized by the Bear.
Wolf The wolf was the symbol of the house of Benjamin, but the symbol also represents the common Jewish names of Zev (Ze’ev) in Hebrew and Wolf (Vulf) in Yiddish and other languages.
Birds Birds could have several meanings. The names Zipporah (Hebrew) and Fayge or Feige (Yiddish) are represented by birds, but birds have also indicated the freedom of souls upon death.
Broken tree branch or stump These concepts symbolize the idea of a life cut short. When the deceased was a child or a young person at the time of death, you might find this symbol on the headstone.
Books If you see books engraved on a headstone, you might assume the deceased was a student of the Bible. If there are five books, the deceased would have been learned in the Torah, the five books of Moses.
Charity box Charitable living is an important tenet of Judaism, so families may wish to honor a deceased’s charitable nature. The symbol of a hand in a charity box may indicate that the deceased was a philanthropist or otherwise prioritized giving.

Common Hebrew words on Jewish headstones.

English Definition and Explanation Hebrew
The beloved (m/f). Used to described the deceased with praise. ha-yakar, ha-y’karah היקר / היקרה
Father, my father, our father. av, avi, avinu אב / אבי / אבינו
Mother, my mother, our mother. im, imi, imanu אם / אמי / אמנו
Brother, my brother, our brother. akh, akhi, akhinu אח / אחי / אחינו
Sister, my sister, our sister. akhot, akhoti, akhot shelanu אחות / אחותי / אחות שלנו
My husband. ba’ali בעלי
My wife. ishti אשתי
Man. ish איש
Woman. ishah אשה
Unmarried woman. b’tulah בתולה
The Levite. ha-levi הלוי
The Kohen (Cohen). ha-koheyn הכהן
Year. shanat שנת

Understanding dates on Jewish headstones.

The letters of the Hebrew alphabet are used to represent days of the month and the year, and the name of the month on the Jewish calendar is often spelled out. Here’s the Hebrew alphabet with each letter’s numerical value, the gematria.

Translit. Value Letter Translit. Value Letter
Alef 1 א Lamed 30 ל
Bet / Vet 2 ב Mem 40 מ
Gimel 3 ג Nun 50 נ
Dalet 4 ד Samekh 60 ס
Hay 5 ה Ayin 70 ע
Vav 6 ו Pay / Fay 80 פ
Zayin 7 ז Tzade 90 צ
Khet 8 ח Kuf 100 ק
Tet 9 ט Resh 200 ר
Yud 10 י Shin / Sin 300 ש
Kaf / Khaf 20 כ Tav 400 ת

Letters can be combined to form numbers. For example, י״ב would represent 12 because י is 10 and ב is 2. Years in the Jewish calendar are similarly represented by letters. The example below shows how that is calculated.

These are the months in the Jewish calendar.

Translit. Month Translit. Month
Iyar איר / אײר Nissan ניסן
Tamuz תמוז Sivan סיון / סיװן
Elul אלול Ab אב
Marcheshvan / Cheshvan מרחשון / חשון Tishrei תשרי
Tevet טבת Kislev כסלו / כסליו
Adar I (leap year) אדר א׳ Shvat שבט
Adar or Adar II (leap year) אדר שני / אדר / אדר ב׳

Here’s how you would “decode” a date and the rest of the information on a Jewish headstone.

First line: “Here lies.”

Second line: “Rakhel, daughter of Mr. Yeshiah.”

The third line is the date. First, נפ׳ is the abbreviation for “died,” so we know we’re coming upon a date. Next is the day of the month, כ׳ג, which represents the 23rd. Next is the name of the month, חשון (Kheshvan).

The next “word” is the year in Hebrew letters, תש׳ח. Add up the values of those three letters, 400 + 300 + 8, or 708. Add 5,000, because it’s shorthand to drop the first digit in dates. It helps save space. So the date in the Jewish calendar is 23 Kheshvan 5708.

Use this Hebrew calendar date converter to determine the corresponding date on the Gregorian calendar. The result is November 6, 1947, which you can see is also engraved on the headstone. (It works!)

Sometimes, instead of a date of א׳ or the first of the month, the inscription will say ראש חדש — head of the month. The inscription may also reference holidays instead of the specific date.

Word play.

Acrostics are fairly common on Jewish headstones. Here’s an example from my own family. The first letter of each line (after “Here lies”) spells out the full name of my 2nd great grandmother, Rebecca Kashowitz Nachamin (Neckameyer): רבקה בת אברהם משה נאכאמין.

Although I’m still hoping for a translation, I understand the inscription is a poem.

Interesting reading for further knowledge about Jewish headstones, tombstones, and epitaphs.

New York City marriage affidavits and licenses

Thanks to the work of the Reclaim the Records organization, indexes to marriage licenses are now available online for the New York City, and the information in the index can be used to order documents from the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS). These documents tends to be more complete than the marriage certificates, whose index has been available online (for a more limited range of years) for some time.

Reclaim the Records was awarded the index in two parts. Records from years 1908 through 1929 were obtained from the New York City Municipal Archives. Records from 1930 through 1995 are housed with the New York City Clerk’s Office. The former have been available since April 2016, and the latter group was made public earlier this year.

A couple of months ago, I tested the waters by ordering four documents. I expected to wait several months for delivery, but I was pleased to receive them within four weeks.

Here’s what the documents look like. Continue reading “New York City marriage affidavits and licenses”

FamilyTreeDNA’s My Origins offers a glimpse of geographic ancestry

Where do I come from? The DNA analysis aspect of genealogy keeps trying to answer this question. By comparing an individual’s DNA with the same from a number of control groups, science is trying really hard to come up with an answer. The more I look into these DNA analyses, the less I think they hold any relevance to identity. And the explanation for this lack of relevance is completely clear, and if more people understood this, they’d probably stop using DNA as a gateway to how they are composed as an individual.

The problem is that every human inherits about half of his or her DNA from each of his or her parents, but it’s impossible to predict which half, or what DNA markers are included in that half. This is how this problem manifests itself over two generations in an incredibly simplified example.

Let’s say you know the birth locations of your four grandparents, and they happen to be Germany (father’s father), England (father’s mother), Lithuania (mother’s father), and Romania (mother’s mother). If you were to describe myself with just this information, taking the notion of Jewish heritage out of the mix, you would say you’re quarter German, quarter English, quarter Lithuanian, and quarter Romanian.

This assumes that each of these grandparents are completely “full booded” in their geographic make-up — and that’s not just unlikely, but impossible, and is yet another fault with searching for some kind of genetic explanation of geographic heritage.

Even if the grandparents represented some kind of perfection, your genetic makeup would more than likely not contain four equal components. Your father inherited roughly half his DNA from each of his parents, so he is roughly half German and half English. Your mother did the same, so she is roughly half Lithuanian and Romanian. That’s only because in this strange hypothetical example, the grandparents are each homogeneous. The succeeding generation, everything falls apart.

You inherit half your DNA from your father, who is half German and half English. But the half you inherit is not necessarily split evenly between your father’s German half and his English half. The DNA you inherit — your admixture — could be only his English DNA, it could be only his German DNA, it could be precisely 50% each side, but it most likely is some kind of unbalanced mix. So half of your DNA is most likely an unbalanced mix of German and English, and the other half is most likely an unbalanced mix of Lithuanian and Romanian. Your sibling could have inherited a different mix from each of your parents, and could thus have a significantly different geographical genetic fingerprint than you. But why should your sibling be different? He or she had the precisely the same family history through the centuries and the same migration patterns.

By the time you look back to your sixty-four fourth great grandparents, the chances are high that one is not reflected at all in your DNA today. I increasingly believe that while ancestral maps based on autosomal DNA tests are interesting to look at, they can’t really tell you the full story people really want to see.

FamilyTreeDNA My Origins
FamilyTreeDNA My Origins

Above is what FamilyTreeDNA’s new My Origins analysis has determined for my geographical make-up based on my autosomal (FamilyFinder) DNA test. It’s not terribly different from the analysis provided by AncestryDNA with that company’s autosomal test.

AncestryDNA
AncestryDNA

These might reflect an accurate approximation of the geographic locations some of my ancestors lived at some point in their lives, but it doesn’t tell nearly the complete story of my ancestors. Some might be completely missing from the calculation. The geographic regions may only extend to several hundred years ago. The genetic material that represents a focus in Poland may come from a different century than the material that represents Afghanistan. There is no way to turn this information into a description that has a strong relevance to who I am.

So if you decide to take a DNA test looking for some sort of insight into your genetic composition, keep these caveats in mind. These results seem to exist only to satisfy curiousity with a scientific “answer,” even if that answer doesn’t exactly answer the question people really have about who they are.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives are available for free

With so much of my family history throughout the last century and a half having taken place in Brooklyn, New York, the Brooklyn Eagle, the borough’s hometown newspaper, has been a valuable source for me as I try to piece history together.

And technology has made research so much easier. If I were taking on this project a decade ago, I’m sure it would require long nights at a library, shuffling the pages of newspapers, or scrolling through microfilm. Luckily, I’ve been aided in my research through the Fulton History website, a collection of New York newspapers. The collection includes the Brooklyn Eagle and other newspapers that would be relevant to New York researchers. The pages of the newspapers have been scanned and run through optical recognition software, and that makes the text of the paper searchable.

The search functions on the Fulton History website are fairly robust, but the interface isn’t the easiest to use. It does, however, provide close match results, and that’s important when dealing with scanned and machine-interpreted text. That means I can use “Sturmwald” as a search term, and the Fulton History website will provide results that are almost Sturmwald.

I prefer using Google to search the Fulton History website. This makes the results easier to view, but because this method of searching will provide different results than the search form on the site itself, I usually do both.

Now, however, there is a new collection of old Brooklyn Daily Eagle issues. The Brooklyn Public Library has teamed up with Newspapers.com to offer the archives of the Brooklyn Eagle for free. The library’s scans seem to be much cleaner than those on the Fulton History website, making the searchable index somewhat more accurate, and the Newspapers.com website is a lot faster and more responsive than the other.

This doesn’t replace the Fulton History website. First of all, Fulton History has more newspapers in the website’s database than he Brooklyn Daily Eagle, including other newspapers that cover issues in Brooklyn. The Newspapers.com search form does not allow close matches, so if I were looking for “Sturmwald,” I’d also have to construct queries that include “Sturnwald,” “Strumwald,” Strunwald,” “Sturmwalt,” and an infinite number of varieties just to try to ensure I’m getting everything I’d like to see.

Herbert Landes [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

Herbert Landes [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

The Daily Eagle archives from the Brooklyn Public Library seem to be more complete. I was able to find this photograph of my grandfather, Herbert Landes, using the new, free site.

In the photo, readers get a view of part of Herbert’s face, and not much else. But the caption says those in the picture are signing a petition in a drug store at the corner of 41st St. and 5th Ave., and in 1931, that would just happen to be the location of the Landes Pharmacy, operated by Herbert’s widowed mother at that time.

While an item like this is interesting, it doesn’t add much to my family tree. But the Brooklyn Daily Eagle has still been very helpful in identifying vital records, with death notices, as well as birth and marriage announcements.

For saving these articles as newspaper clippings to my personal finance tree, I generally copy the screenshot of the article. With Newspapers.com, I can continue to do this, but the site also offers a “save to Ancestry.com” option, which saves a link to the newspaper page as a genealogical source.

Thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library and Newspapers.com for providing this feature for free; I’m hoping it remains free for the foreseeable future.

Reverse research: A technique for finding missing pieces

I work on two separate family trees. The first is my official tree, maintained on Ancestry.com and in Family Tree Maker, that contains all confirmed relationships. Everyone in this tree is somehow related to me, although some relationships are through marriage to a blood relative. And in very few cases, there are some branches who I am sure (at about a 95% level of confidence) that there is a relationship — someone is noted as being a “cousin” — but I haven’t found the missing piece to tie that household into the larger picture.

The second tree is also maintained on Ancestry.com, but this is a tree where I record other individuals and families. I have a much lower level of confidence that there is a relationship in recent times, and it includes many families unconnected to each other thus far. Because Ancestry.com shares at least some of the information stored on their servers, even if you mark a tree “Private,” I label this tree as “for research only.”

I use this tree to store information that might eventually lead me to discovering a connection.

Here is one example. It is family lore that my paternal ancestors — the Landes family — emigrated out of Romania in the late 19th century, traveled across Europe, made their way to England, and departed over the Atlantic Ocean to North America. Along the way, some Landes family members settled in locations throughout Europe. Two Landes family members from Romania appeared in the London area around the same time that my second great grandfather, Moses Landes, was passing through on his way to Canada and New York.

Jean Landes (1860-1943) married Bertha Reicher in about 1887 in England. Jean was born in Iași, Romania. They had three children, Henry, Frederick, and Ruth. The family moved to New York, but Frederick returned and married Mildred (Minnie) Surfin. Also in London, the Sufrin family. According to Jean’s death certificate, his father’s name was Abraham and his mother’s name was Natalie. Natalie is not a likely Jewish name at the time — maybe it was Nettie or Ethel.

Before Jean Landes’s family moved to the United States, they lived close to another Landes family from Romania, headed by Max Hersch Landes (c1852-1922) Max Hersch married Rachel Finestone, while Max’s sister Netty married Rachel’s brother Julius. Max and Rachel did not appear to have any children; Julius and Netty had a daughter, Gertrude Finestone, who died unmarried in 1927.

I have two segments of Landes families living in London at the turn of the 20th century, and because records from Romania are not online, I haven’t been able to whether and how these pieces fit together. But at some point, more records from Iași will be online. By keeping track of my findings so far, even though there’s no confirmed relationship yet, will save me a significant amount of time later on if I can eventually find a connection to the various Landes branches leaving Romania.

In addition to Jean and Max Hersch, there have been other Landes households from Romania or Russia living in New York.

Naturalization Petition, Samuel Landes
Naturalization Petition, Samuel Landes

Samuel Landes (1883-1964), the son of Abraham Landes and Scheine Leah, was born in Iași and married Frieda Schatz. They had seven children: Alfred, Augusta Theresa, Edith, Mae, Isadora, Esther, and Joseph. They lived in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. Could Samuel be a brother or half-brother of Jean Landes, whose father was also named Abraham? Could Samuel be the Sam Landes who was listed on Moses Landes’s ship manifests from England to Montreal?

Joseph Landes (1873-1945), the son of Yitzchak Yehuda Landes, was born in Russia or Romania (most likely the Bessarabia region) and married Frieda Feuerstein. They had ten children: Harry, Joseph, Isadore, Meyer, Rebecca, Nathan, Sidney, Fanny, Abraham, and Isaac. The family resided in and around New York City before several of the children moved away from the family center. For another interesting connection with this family, two of these Landes children, Isadore and Rebecca, married two Hershenovs, Minnie and Joseph.

My great grandfather and third great grandfather were also named Joseph Landes, as were many other Landeses in New York.

Lena Hershenov — perhaps a different branch of this Hershenov family, but I haven’t been able to confirm that yet — married Jacob Margareten. Jacob appears in my confirmed family tree as the father-in-law of the stepson of the stepdaughter of my second great grandmother. It’s not a real family connection to me, but if Lena is related to Rebecca and Joseph, it would bring Joseph Landes’s branch of the Landes family into my family tree in one location.

There are other Landes households who lived in Romania in the latter half of the 19th century, and I’m passively tracking them in my “research only” tree. I’m doing the same for the Kashowitz families that lived in New York in the 20th century as I try to find a connection between them and Rebecca Kashowitz, my second great grandmother.

The drawback is that there is not enough time in one person’s life to research all of these tenuous but somewhat likely family connections. Normally, the research I’ve done is from the inside out — I start with confirmed relatives and expand the families outward as I find new information. This process of researching from the outside in — starting with likely relatives and using new information to, I hope, get closer to my confirmed relatives is more difficult and time-consuming, but it can be rewarding in the few cases where I do find that missing link.

Otherwise, reverse research can be a huge waste of time. At least I can share information I’ve found with other researchers who are in fact related to these individuals, and someone might be able to benefit from the time and money I spend looking through information and purchasing copies of records.

Ancestry.com adds 14 million New York records to database

Ancestry.com New York Records
Ancestry.com New York Records

The New York City Department of Records and the New York State Archives have released 14 million records to Ancestry.com. This includes birth, marriage, and death records for New York City, which were and are still indexed by the Italian Genealogical Group and the German Genealogy Group. Previously, these records were searchable by visiting the websites of these two groups or through one of my favorite genealogy websites, stevemorse.org.

The 14 million records also include the index to the 1855 and 1875 New York state census populations, which have been available at FamilySearch.org.

I’ve already found many records for my ancestors and relatives within these indexes outside of Ancestry.com, and I’ve ordered many record certifications of vital statistics from the Department of Records, but having these records completely incorporated into the family tree might provide some new hints towards details that I haven’t yet noticed.

Here’s the entry for the family of my second great grandfather, David Sturmwald. The Sturmwalds are likely my only ancestors to be living in the United States as early as 1875. David Sturmwald arrived in the United States from Bayern (Bavaria) in 1849, but I haven’t found him in the earlier 1855 New York state census.

David Sturmwald and family in the 1875 New York Census
David Sturmwald and family in the 1875 New York Census

Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org working together

It’s no secret in the genealogy and family research community that this particular industry is led by the Mormon church. One Mormon mission is to extend membership, and one way to accomplish this goal is to posthumously baptize people who never had the chance to convert to this particular religion. PBS explains:

The Mormon interest in genealogy is closely linked to their doctrine of baptism for the dead and their belief that the family unit will continue to exist beyond mortal life. Mormons trace their family trees to find the names of ancestors who died without learning about the restored Mormon Gospel so that these relatives from past generations can be baptized by proxy in the temple. Once baptized, if the ancestor’s spirit has accepted the Gospel, they will be able to be together with the rest of their baptized Mormon family in the celestial kingdom. For the Saints, genealogy is a way to save more souls and strengthen the eternal family unit.

FamilySeach loves Ancestry.comFor anyone who is not a Mormon, this concept is incredibly disrespectful. I have no interest in Mormon theology; when my vital records and family tree become known to the Mormons after I pass away, will a church leader convert me to his religion? But even if a Mormon individual performs some kind of ceremony after my death, does it even matter? My family will know my religious intentions — and if God exists, He knows I have no interest in Mormonism, so does it matter what someone in some church I’ve had no connection with does?

Regardless, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as they’re formally known, LDS for short, pretty much own the genealogy and family history industry. They have spent a lot of resources finding genealogical records from all over the world, compiling them into a massive library in Utah.

The only way to efficiently and affordably index and digitze billions of records is to enlist the assistance of volunteers, and that’s exactly what the Mormon Church has done. Making these records available to everyone via the Church’s Family History Library and the FamilySerach.org website has greatly benefited the world of genealogy. Much historical information pertaining to individuals would be lost if they hadn’t been preserved by the Mormons.

Ancestry.com has announced the company will be forming a partnership with FamilySearch.org, bringing millions of records currently available only through the LDS to paying Ancestry.com subscribers. Currently those records are available for free to the public on the non-profit FamilySearch.org; soon, they will be available to Ancestry.com’s paying subscribers. Ancestry.com is not saying whether the records will remain freely available to the public via the LDS.

In addition, Ancestry.com is investing $60 million in a project to improve the records held at the Family History Library. The improvements will come in the form of digitizing (scanning documents and photographing microfilm) and indexing items already owned by the Mormons. It’s safe to assume that these improved records will be accessible only through a paying membership to Ancestry.com.

The one thing I don’t like about this news is that the volunteers who helped transcribe millions of documents obtained by the Family History Library were under the impression they were doing their work for a non-profit organization. Now their work will be owned by Ancestry.com, a company with roots in the Mormon Church but is now owned by a European private equity investment firm that has no interest in the organization other than a financial return on their investment.

There’s nothing wrong with capitalism, but the value of these records is based on the work of volunteers who were not aware that their work would used for profit. Many volunteers would not have given hours of their life had they thought the information provided would be the direct source of profit for a massive company rather than be offered as a benefit to the world. In 2011, the last year Ancestry.com filed public financial statements, the company generated revenue of $400 million; this is not a company in need of volunteer recruitment.

It’s also wroth pointing out that Ancestry.com is already having difficulty with its infrastructure. The site’s technology can’t seem to withstand the volume of records and traffic it currently tries to support, with frequent site outages encouraging frustrated users to demand refunds or cancel subscriptions. It’s unclear whether Ancestry.com is prioritizing the infrastrucutre necessary to support the addition of millions of records from FamilySearch.org over the next few years.

The end result of this partnership will be a great benefit to the world of genealogy, but it’s unclear right now how much of that benefit will be reserved for paying Ancestry.com subscribers, how much information will be lost for those who don’t wish to or can’t pay the annual fees, and how volunteers will feel about continuing to dedicate their time producing information of value that only benefits paying customers, a small portion of the population of family history enthusiasts.

Preparing stories to engage family in history

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society magazine included a feature article this month about storytelling. As a long-time blogger, I’m quite familiar with the power of storytelling in conveying a message and in getting others excited. Genealogy and family history can be pretty boring, and while some people might get a kick out of flipping through old birth certificates and immigration documentation, that doesn’t have a lasting effect. But providing stories about the people in the tree can build that connection from one generation to another. Suddenly, the great grandfather is alive, and his struggles become relatable.

But I haven’t done a good job of uncovering these stories in my family. I’d like to be able to piece together a narrative about the lives of my ancestors, but I’ve found so little information about their lives prior to arrival in the United States that constructing these stories has proven impossible so far. The one notable exception is the Holocaust discovery, wherein two distant relatives perished in Thereseinstadt and Auschwitz. But I don’t know how they found their way to Thereseinstadt in the first place and what their lives were like in Germany before their removal.

I can contrast this with my girlfriend’s family research, with which I am assisting. Even just a small amount of digging led us to discover dozens of her relatives who perished in the Holocaust, all unknown to her current living relatives but easily confirmed with various records. A prominent writer has published books and stories with information about this family’s abduction from Amsterdam to the concentration camps.

Besides the Holocaust, branches of her family who were in the United States earlier are full of entertaining stories, like a murder-suicide (which was obviously a serious event at the time, and I don’t mean to reduce something like that to “just a story” today) allegedly performed by a distant cousin. I have no desire to find anything that dramatic in my family, but some kind of memorable story would make it easier for me engage others as I continue this quest.

Stories seem to be today’s genealogical theme. A new website makes it easy to create presentations based on the text entered, which presents an animations using photographs and relationship tables from family trees. I’ll take a look more carefully at Treelines when I’ve constructed a story to share. This sample story makes the service look promising.

Even Ancestry.com has jumped on the story bandwagon by adding a life narrative page to individual profiles.

Thanks to Google Books, I’ve discovered relatives in the Holocaust

Until yesterday, I hadn’t been aware of any relatives who experienced the Holocaust in person, whether they ultimately survived the horror or not. My first discovery came yesterday, and it’s due to Google Books.

If Google did not make the effort to digitize rare books from around the world, it would have taken me a lifetime to discover references to my relatives, and that’s assuming I would discover it at all. Because Google has made the text of these books fully searchable, even if the full book isn’t available for viewing online, it can point researchers in the right direction, towards information that would be buried otherwise.

It also makes sense for researchers to continue searching. I’ve searched Google Books for references to Sturmwald before, but yesterday’s new result provided new information about my relatives in Germany.

Stadtführer zu Orten ehemaligen jüdischen Lebens in Rheine
Stadtführer zu Orten ehemaligen jüdischen Lebens in Rheine

The first result new was several pages from the book, Stadtführer zu Orten ehemaligen jüdischen Lebens in Rheine [City Guide to Former Places of Jewish Life in Rheine]. The pages referred to Babette Sturmwald, born in 1856 in Laer, which is near Steifurt and Münster in Germany. The book contains a record of her family: her husband, Sigmund-Samuel Heinbach, and their four daughters, Ida, Frieda, Sophie, and Bertha. The book notes that the first two daughters, Ida and Frieda, emigrated to the United States, and even offers the dates they departed.

According to the book, Sigmund-Samuel Heimbach died at the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1942 a few years before Sophie, who had also been moved initially to the Theresienstadt ghetto, perished at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

After discovering this, I turned to Yad Vashem to see if there were any additional records or documentation of Sigmund’s and Sophie’s experiences in Theresienstadt or Auschwitz. Their names appear in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names had more information that helped with the research, both sourced from a book called Victims of the Persecution of Jews under the National Socialist Tyranny in Germany 1933 – 1945. Sigmund’s entry also included a Nazi death certificate, included here.

Sigmund Heimbach Todefallanzeige
Sigmund Heimbach Todefallanzeige

Until this point, I knew that Sigmund and Sophie, as well as Babette’s other children, were descendants of a Sturmwald, but I wasn’t sure about how they fit into the family tree. By tracing Ida Heimbach’s journey to the United States, I found exactly what I needed.

In the ship manifest, Ida indicated her destination was her aunt in the United States, Bertha Freitag. I took this at face value. I had already understood that Bertha Sturmwald Freitag had two siblings who remained in Germany. This information places Babette Stumrwald Heimbach, Ida’s mother, as Bertha Sturmwald Freitag’s sister. As a result, Ida and Sophie are both second cousins, three times removed.

Now Babette and her family, some of whom perished in the Holocaust, have their places in my family tree. It’s distant, but considering I still expect some of my closer ancestors to have siblings, who I’m not aware of, and who remained in Europe.

I’ll just keep searching, and maybe an obscure book somewhere, newly scanned by Google Books, will reveal new details. Typically, the only way to discover detail like these is to visit libraries around the world and read thousands of books. That’s certainly not a guaranteed method of research; I could read tens of thousands of books and never find anything pertaining to my family — or I could read something unrelated and not know until later that some of the information did in fact pertain to my family.

Grand efforts to digitize and index historical libraries is the only hope most people have for discovering information that would ordinarily be lost to history.

Babette Sturmwald Family Tree
Babette Sturmwald Family Tree

FamilyTreeDNA offers some insight

This summer, I ordered a DNA testing kit from FamilyTreeDNA. Having already completed autosomal DNA testing with AncestryDNA, I opted to order a Y-DNA 37 test from a different company. Testing the Y-chromosome offers different results than autosomal testing. The latter helps you carve a picture of your entire genetic composition, roughly equal parts from each ancestor in each generation. That is, each of your eight great-grandparents contributes roughly 12.5 percent to your genetic composition with these tests.

The Y-chromosome test and the mitochondrial DNA test are different. The Y chromosome provides clues only to patrilineal ancestry, your father, your father’s father, his father, and so on, back through time, through only the male contributions. The test uses mutations in the genes to determine ancestral heritage, and through this information, can classify every male into a migration group. Any males with matching genetic markers has a good chance of being related through a recent common ancestor.

I enrolled in FamilyTreeDNA and provided the details of my furthest confirmed paternal ancestor, Moses Landes. While I do have one document indicating Moses’s father’s name was Joseph, I don’t have any birth or death dates for him, so I didn’t include that information in my profile. I joined a group on the website where other Landes (or Landis) descendants meet online to discuss their findings.

My genetic composition does not fit with the other members of this Landes group. It’s not surprising, given that our surname does not extend very far. From what I’ve been told, this family did not go by the name Landes in Romania.

Haplogroup G Migration Pattern [FamilyTreeDNA]
The DNA indicates I am a member of haplogroup G2c, a branch of haplogroup G. This haplogroup represents Ashkenazi Jews, and some evidence suggests that the G2c branch reflects a migration out of Sicily to northeastern Europe in the Middle Ages.

FamilyTreeDNA links me to others who have had their DNA analyzed and whose DNA markers are similar to mine. There are no exact message for all 37 markers tested, but when limited to 12 markers, the site’s database offers me eight exact matches and 131 matches one step away. Evaluating 25 markers, I have two matches two steps away, one of whom is also two steps away when evaluating all 37 markers I’ve tested. There is a 91 percent chance according to FamilyTreeDNA than he and I share a common ancestor within 12 generations.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure where to go from here.

The Family Finder service, another autosomal DNA test, might provide me more insight into my relatives, considering FamilyTreeDNA’s database is more extensive than AncestryDNA’s at this time. The Mitochondrial DNA will provide migration information for my maternal ancestors. I’m not prepared at this time to spend more money on testing until I can glean more value for the tests I’ve already purchased.

AncestryDNA results mildly interesting

Less than five weeks after returning my AncestryDNA kit to the lab via mail, I was notified that my results have been processed. With AncestryDNA, the results are a moving target. As more samples are analyzed, they will be able to provide more accurate information. As the test offered by AncestryDNA is an autosomal test, analyzing the entire genome rather than just the Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA, the results paint a picture of my full genetic make-up (rather than just patrilienal or matrilineal heritage).

AncestryDNA provides two types of results: my genetic composition and potential relatives who have genetic markers similar enough to mine. My genetic composition isn’t too surprising.

AncestryDNA Results

If there’s anything to be surprised about, I suppose it would be the 17 percent component of Scandinavian descent. I’m not aware of any ancestors from Denmark, Norway or Finland, but my knowledge only goes back four or five generations. Most of my ancestors lived in Russia or eastern Europe before coming to the United States and are, from what I can tell, Ashkenazi Jewish, so the assumption is that they arrived in Europe centuries ago in an early migration from the middle east. The Sturmwald family arrived in the United States a generation or two prior to most of my other ancestors, and they came from Germany. My guess is that I might be more likely to find a Scandinavian background by tracing that family back, just because it is geographically closer than Romania, Lithuania and Russia.

The 2 percent of my genetic composition that is identified as “unknown” could perhaps be identified in the future after AncestryDNA collects more samples.

AncestryDNA also includes in these results a list of potential relatives. My results presented one possible third cousin and many probable distant cousins. Many of the users on this list provide public family trees, but I was unable to find someone who shared an ancestor with whom I am familiar. There would be hundreds to look through, so I focused only on the first few pages of results. There was only one tree that included a surname I recognized from my tree, Stein, but that is an incredibly common name, and the location didn’t match up with the location of the Steins in my tree.

Here’s the closest identified relative based on DNA.

DNA Matches

AncestryDNA match Info
Again, this is early in AncestryDNA’s life cycle. Many users have not received their invitation to participate, let alone have had their results processed. Over time, it’s possible my list of possible distant cousins will grow. There’s also some concern that DNA matching programs have difficulty avoiding false positive family matches among “European Jewish.” AncestryDNA warns:

Are you surprised by the number of matches? Well, there’s a good reason. It’s a little complicated and science-y, but the bottom line is that it appears our system returns inaccurate matches for people of European Jewish descent. The good news is that our match predictions will improve over time as we grow our database of DNA signatures. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to reach out — you may just discover that distant cousin you never knew you had.

When a reason is complicated and “science-y,” it would be nice if there was some kind of link where I could learn more information. I’m not afraid of a little science.

What would have been nice would be if AncestryDNA’s matching results gave me new clues for researching my heritage, particularly the surprising Scandinavian component. Perhaps now that my information is in the system, a potential distant cousin will find my information and contact me. But, even if that does happen, what is the real value in connecting with someone who may be a fourth, fifth or more distant cousin? We might be able to identify a common ancestor — but then what?

In terms of value, I’m not convinced that AncestryDNA is a great deal for the price. It’s not that the results didn’t meet my expectations. In terms of genetic composition, there were no surprising discoveries, just a new question about the Scandinavian component. At this time, the matching section of the results hasn’t been fruitful. Even if I were presented with obvious cousins, the price is still high.

A few days before receiving notification that my results were available, I also enrolled in FamilyTreeDNA. From reviews I’ve read, FamilyTreeDNA is preferred for discovering details about Jewish ancestry. FamilyTreeDNA has many more options in terms of DNA test types, and the cost can be much more expensive than the AncestryDNA test. Overall, the value of expensive DNA tests for genealogy is suspect, but the only way to know is to participate.

Autosomal DNA analysis

In addition to my family history, I’m curious to find out what my genetics have to say about my ancestors. A few weeks ago, I ordered Ancestry.com’s new DNA analysis service. There is a dizzying array of different types of DNA tests available from many vendors, but I chose the new AncestryDNA test because I had already been using Ancestry.com for my primary family tree maintenance for the past year.

I also liked the theory behind autosomal DNA testing. Unlike Y-chromosomal testing which analyzes only patrilineal genetics or mitochondrial testing which analyzes only matrilineal genetics, autosomal testing looks at the genetic information inherited by all ancestors. This is the same type of testing featured on the popular television programs Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots.

Unfortunately, DNA analysis is not an exact science. The ability for Ancestry.com to be able to provide accurate results insofar as geography, it needs to have a wide enough database to compare users’ DNA results. In theory, Ancestry.com will update users’ test results automatically in the direction of accuracy as the comparison database continues to grow. Ancestry.com might also be able to match you with relatives you didn’t know you’ve had — if you and they have also agreed to connect DNA results to family trees hosted on the website.

To get a more complete picture of my ancestry, I will likely follow these results up with other types of DNA tests from other vendors. With Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial testing, I will be able to determine a selection of my ancestors’ migration patters.

As I mentioned, I ordered Ancestry.com’s new DNA kit a few weeks ago. It arrived fairly quickly, and within a few days of delivery, I followed the instructions for taking and preserving a sample of my DNA. Unlike many other test that require a cheek swab, this test required saliva. I spent a minute or two depositing saliva into a plastic tube. By closing the tube, a preservation chemical was released into the tube, and mixed with the saliva. I placed the tube into a biohazard bag, sealed the self-addressed envelope, and dropped it off at the post office. In a few weeks, I should see the results online.

I’m disappointed that Ancestry.com does not currently allow users to export their genome data. This information could be useful. Other services allow data imports in place of providing additional samples. The idea of a company owning rights to someone’s DNA fingerprint is a little frightening, too. You never really know what a corporate entity would do with this type of personal information. Even if their terms and conditions currently say one thing, there is often a clause allowing the company to change its terms and conditions at any time.

When I receive the results in a few weeks, I will certainly share them, and I’ll write more about my experiences with DNA testing for genealogical research. Keep reading to see Ancestry.com’s entertaining instructional video explaining how to prepare the DNA sample.