The challenges of online cemetery research

I’ve fielded many questions about the Okopowa St. Project I announced yesterday. Many of the questions have centered on the need for doing this, considering there is an existing database of photos from this cemetery, with tens of thousands of photos. While the goal of this project is not primarily to document the Okopowa St. Cemetery, but to experiment and learn from the process, I do think addressing the broader issue of doing cemetery research online is worth tackling.

Cemetery research is an important part of any genealogy search, even more so for Jewish genealogy, where Jewish gravestones usually provide the first name of the father of the person buried. That ability to jump a generation back can be very important when researching Jewish families.

There are many resources for doing cemetery research, but on a global scale for Jewish genealogists, there are only a few.

FDJCP Warsaw DatabaseIn the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, the primary resource is the aforementioned database, which is published by the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (FDJCP). This database has 82,325 entries. I’ll get to the photos in this database in a moment, but one downside to this database is a lack of phonetic searching. If you search for ‘Cohen’ you will get no results. Search for Kohen and get results. That’s an obvious one, but considering many of the graves were in Hebrew and transcribed to English, there is no way to know if the spelling guessed by a transcriber was the same one known by a relative.

The largest database of Jewish burials is the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) which has information on over 3 million burials worldwide. JOWBR is an amazing project, but like any volunteer effort is dependent on what its volunteers can produce. In the case of the Okopowa St. Cememtery, it has information on less than 200 burials, and no photographs.

There are two large burial databases that are not specific to Jewish burials. The first one is FindAGrave.com, which was originally an independent project, but is now owned by Ancestry. FindAGrave originally had a focus of documenting celebrity graves, and built a community of people to photograph and manage profiles of buried people. FindAGrave says they have information on 480,840 cemeteries in 240 countries. In the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, however, they only have profiles of 121 burials, of which only 47 have associated photos. Of those 47 burials, many of the photographs are not actually of the gravestones, but photos of the people themselves that have been submitted by people online.

The second and more recent online database was created by the company BillionGraves. BillionGraves took advantage of the fact that the new smartphones coming into the market had cameras, built-in GPS, and Internet access. That allowed them to write an app that could capture photos of gravestones with their exact location, and upload them straight to their web site without needing to document anything about the graves. The information could be transcribed later on the web site. This allowed volunteers to rapidly build databases of entire cemeteries. Not long ago MyHeritage, the commercial genealogy company, partnered with BillionGraves to use their technology to collect photographs of all the gravestones in Israel (something IGRA also participated in by proving volunteers to take the photographs). BillionGraves flipped FindAGraves’ model on its head, as instead of creating a profile of a person and then adding photographs of their grave (which needed to be located), BillionGraves starts with the photographs and adds the information later. Concerning the Okopowa St. Cemetery, BillionGraves only has 216 burials documented.

I think it’s useful to take a look at the varying quality of photos across these sites, but as you may have figured out by now, that’s almost impossible. JOWBR has no photographs of this cemetery, and FindAGrave has only about 20-30 gravestone photos. What are the chances that among those 20-30 photos, the same graves were documented on BillionGraves? It turns out there is at least one.

Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig died about ten years ago. Here are three photos of the her grave site from the three databases that have photos:

Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on FindAGrave Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on BillionGraves Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on FDJCP
FindAGrave
BillionGraves
FDJCP

Now, this gravestone is not the best example, because unlike many graves in the cemetery, it is not densely covered in text. It’s also relatively recent, so the text is not worn down. What we can see, is that even with that being true, the FindAGrave photo of the gravestone is hard to read, as it’s perhaps taken too far away. I always like a wide shot of a gravestone to give some context, but that shouldn’t be the only photo. There should always be a close-up photo of the text of the stone.

BillionGrave’s photo is actually closer up, and easy to read. Unfortunately, you can’t see the spouse’s information, and you can see there is some text on the surface closer to the photographer, but it’s cut off. It’s worth noting that in the FindAGrave photo this text was covered in fallen leaves, so it can’t be seen at all.

The FDJCP photo is wide like the first one, but still closer and of better quality. It’s still difficult to read the text facing up on the stone, but overall this is probably the best image.

Let’s take another example. In this example, the grave is only on two sites, BillionGraves and the FDJCP site:

Izrael Frenkel BillionGraves Izrael Frenkel FDJCP
BillionGraves
FDJCP

At first glance, the BillionGraves photo is superb. It’s well framed, the text is clear, and the lighting is even. Of course, looking at the second image, one realizes that the Polish text in the BillionGraves photo is only one side of the gravestone with text, and there’s a whole different side with text in Hebrew. However, looking at the FDJCP image, the angle for both sides makes it much harder to read. The Polish is readable, but the angle, the uneven lighting on the Hebrew side, and the small size of the Hebrew text relative to the whole image, makes it very difficult to read. Better than not including it at all, but difficult to be sure what you’re reading. The photographers working for the FDJCP may have photographed the text closer up for indexing purposes, but FDJCP only includes one photo, and in this case that makes it hard to read. I wonder what they do in the case where text is on opposite sides of the stone?

When I photograph gravestones, I like to take at least three photographs, and in some case more, per gravestone. These photos include a wide photo showing it in the context of its location, a photo of the entire gravestone without the wider area, and a close-up of the text on the stone. If I need more than one photo to capture all of the text, such as when it is on different sides, I always take extra photos getting all the text. For those who have read my article on Jewish Gravestone Symbols, you also know I like to take photographs of the symbols on gravestones. The Okopowa St. Cemetery is particularly rich in these symbols.

For the above gravestone of Izrael Frenkel, for example, I would have taken one wide shot of the entire gravestone, probably showing both sides of text. I might take a closer image showing both sides as well, but I definitely would have taken one straight in front of each side of text, and cropped to include only the text. Probably then I would have four photos of this gravestone.

Let’s take one last example that is only on the FDJCP site:

Gavriel Horowic FDJCP

I have no way of knowing why the above photo is angled the way it is, or why the bottom is completely cut off. Maybe there’s something out of the frame that blocked the photographer from taking a picture straight in front of the gravestone. Maybe the bottom part of the gravestone is blocked by something and photographing the bottom wasn’t possible. While these things are possible, I don’t know if any of those are true since there is no photo to provide context. Even if all of that was true, it seems from what you can see that it should have been possible to get a photo of the text closer up.

So to be clear, while the primary goal of the Okopowa St. Project is more about experimentation and learning than it is about photographing gravestones, it will still be nice to have new high-resolution photos of many of the graves.

An experiment in collaborative genealogy

While making my plans for the upcoming IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Warsaw, I came up with an experiment I’d like to try. This experiment needs dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers to pull off successfully.

The short version is I’m organizing volunteers to photograph and geocode all the gravestones in the Okopowa St. Cemetery in Warsaw, and then upload those images to both BillionGraves as well as to special groups on Flickr when they will become available to everyone to use.

There are probably over 80,000 gravestones in the cemetery, and while I don’t expect we’ll be able to get to all of them by the time the conference ends, the simple effort to do so will be an incredible experiment in collaborative genealogy.

For full details on this experiment, and how to get involved, please go to the Okopowa St. Project page.

As of August 31, 2018, I’ve moved the original text of the Okopowa St. Project page to this post, so we can keep it for future reference. The Okopowa St. Project page itself will continue to point to all related articles, and give the status of the project as we seek to improve the collection of genealogy data in cemeteries.

Original Project Text:

An experiment in collaborative genealogy

Like many people planning to attend the upcoming IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Warsaw this August, I’ve been trying to figure out my schedule, see when I’ll be at the conference, and what else I can do to take advantage of the fact that I will be spending a week in Warsaw, Poland.

Okopowa St. Cemetery

One place I have been planning to visit is the Okopowa St. Cemetery, which I last visited 25 years ago while visiting Poland as part of the March of the Living. Most of the photos from my popular article Jewish Gravestone Symbols come from the Okopowa St. Cemetery, and I’ve long wanted to re-visit it.

The Okopowa St. Cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, and certainly is the largest surviving cemetery in Poland. As I contemplated my visit I realized that there was an opportunity to attempt something that might not be possible again any time soon. What if large numbers of conference attendees, many of who may already be planning to visit the cemetery, could collaborate in documenting all the gravestones in the cemetery? BillionGraves only has 226 photographs for the entire cemetery. Yes, I know there’s an excellent database on the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries (FDJC) site for the Okopowa St. Cemetery.

  • It’s probably best to think about this as an experiment in collaborative genealogy.
  • You can also think of this as an art project.
  • We don’t need to complete the project during the conference, it’s enough to see how far we can get. Part of the experiment is seeing exactly how much can be done.
  • Other visitors and locals in Warsaw can finish the project if we make a dent in it during the conference.
  • In the end, if we’re lucky, we’ll have geocoded high-resolution photos of all the graves, and the photos will be available for everyone to use in whatever projects they want to use them in. If the FDJC wants to add these photos to their site, they can. If JOWBR wants to include them, it can also do so. I’ve set up a series of steps, outlined below, which will make these photographs accessible and useful to the most people. If this succeeds, I hope people will use this model for other genealogy projects.

    Some of the things I’m hoping to find out include if the tools are the best ones to accomplish these tasks, if leaving the groups open to all, and the Google Sheet editable by all, works, or if people will abuse those freedoms. Is it too complicated to upload photos to two different sites? This will be a learning experience, whose lessons we will be able to apply to future projects.

    Okopowa St. Cemetery Map
    Okopowa St. Cemetery Map

    Here’s how this will work. Volunteers will install two apps on their smart phones – BillionGraves and Flickr. They should also make sure they have accounts set up for both BillionGraves and Yahoo (the owner of Flickr), and configure the apps so that they are connected to their accounts. For BillionGraves, make sure to have the Save to Camera Roll option selected in your preferences if you use an iPhone. You’ll need that later to allow you to upload the photos to Flickr. For Flickr, log into your account on the web and set the default license to “Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons”. This is important, as it will allow these images to be used by anyone who wants, but still requires them to attribute the photograph to you.

    Volunteers will choose one section to photograph (larger sections will need multiple volunteers). There is a Google Sheet to coordinate volunteers. Take a look and add your name to a section. The volunteer should join the group on Flickr for the section they’ve chosen (the links to those groups are in the Google Sheet, and below). For larger sections with many volunteers, the volunteers should use the discussion area of the group on Flickr to figure out when they will be photographing, and try to divide up the work.

    When volunteers go to the cemetery, they will go to the section they’ve selected, and photograph all the graves in that section, or whatever part of it they can. They will photograph the graves using the BillionGraves app, and upload all the images to the site (this can be done later at the hotel using the free WiFi. In this first step, all the photos will be accessible via BillionGraves. In addition, when you’re done, you will go to the Flickr app and upload your photos to Flickr, and when they’re on Flickr, you will then share them to the appropriate group for the section they were taken in. You should then go to the discussion area for that group, and post how many photos you’ve shared to the group, if it was all of the graves, or if there is still more work to be done (and to the best of your ability describe what areas still need to be photographed).

    At this point, if you want, you can delete the photos from your phone. Make sure, however, that the photos have been uploaded to both BillionGraves and Flickr before deleting them.

    Let’s go over this once more, in clear order:

    Before going to the cemetery:

    Join our Facebook group Okopowa St. Project to discuss the project, and share your experiences with other volunteers.

    Set up BillionGraves:

    • Set up an account on BillionGraves. If you already have an account on BillionGraves, login through this link so they know you’re involved in this project.
    • Sign up for the BillionGraves Event for this project.
    • Download the BillionGraves app for iPhone or Android.
    • Connect the BillionGraves app on your phone to your account.
    • If you use an iPhone, go to Preferences in the BillionGraves app on your phone and turn on ‘Save to Camera Roll’.

    Set up Flickr:

    • Set up a Flickr/Yahoo account.
    • Set your default license for photos to “Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons”.

    • Download the Flickr app for iPhone or Android.
    • Connect the Flickr app on your phone to your account.

    Select a section to photograph:

    • Look at the map above (click to zoom in) to get an idea of where the sections are in relation to the entrance, and how big they are.
    • Go to the Google Sheet and see which sections already have volunteers. Select a section that has no volunteers and add your name in the left-most volunteer cell for that section.
    • Click on the section name in the Google Sheet, or find it below, and go to the Flickr group for that section and join it. All discussion for that specific section will take place in the Flickr group.
    • In the Flickr group, post an introduction in the discussion list, and explain when you plan to photograph the section.
    • Print out a copy of the map, and circle the section you will be photographing. Make sure to bring it with you to Warsaw.

    Preparing to go to the cemetery:

    • Double-check that BillionGraves is properly configured.
    • Make sure you have enough room on your phone to fit all the photos you’re about to take. If you need to clear up your phone to make room, do so.
    • Charge your phone fully. If you have an external battery, make sure that it charged as well and bring it with you. You don’t want to be in the middle of a section and have your battery die.
    • Check the group on Flickr for your section, and see if there is any discussions you missed. Did someone already photograph that section? Is there part this is incomplete? Check before you go because you may or may not have Internet in the cemetery.
    • Bring paper and pen so you can take notes, sketch the layout of the section if you want, etc.
    • Make sure to wear pants and appropriate shoes. The cemetery is overgrown, and you don’t want to hurt yourself.

    At the cemetery:

    • When you arrive at the cemetery, make your way to your section, and figure out an appropriate path to photograph all or as many graves as you can. Take extra photos that show the paths, the lines of gravestones, whatever. You can take these photos using your standard camera app.
    • Make your way to each gravestone, and take multiple photos of each. Get one that shows the whole gravestone, and another that frames just the text on the stone. If you think you need more than one photograph of the text for it to be clear, take more than one. Don’t limit yourself. Check the back of each grave in case there is more text.

    After the cemetery:

    • Upload your photos to BillionGraves. Try to group the photos of each grave together. Skip the general photos of the area, as those are not useful for BillionGraves. Make sure all the photos fully upload to BillionGraves before leaving the app.
    • Upload all your photos to Flickr, and then Share them to the appropriate group for your section. If you photographed more than one section, make sure to upload the photos to their appropriate sections. Make sure everything fully uploads before leaving the app.
    • Post to the Flickr discussion area for your section’s group and explain how many gravestones you photographed, how many photos you uploaded, and if there is anything more for others to photograph. Do this even if you’re the only person in the group, as it will be there for future reference. You can even post immediately after taking the photos, and then follow up after you upload them (in case there’s a significant gap between those events). That will keep everyone informed as to what is going on.

    The table showing the links to the Flickr groups for each section is below. I hope if you’ve made it this far, you are considering joining this collaborative effort.

    Thank you.

    Flickr Groups for Okopowa St. Cemetery Sections
    Section 1 Section 1A Section 1L Section 2
    Section 2A Section 2B Section 2C Section 3
    Section 3A Section 4 Section 4A Section 4B
    Section 5 Section 5A Section 6 Section 7
    Section 8 Section 8A Section 9 Section 10
    Section 11 Section 12 Section 13 Section 13A
    Section 14 Section 15 Section 16 Section 16A
    Section 17 Section 18 Section 19 Section 20
    Section 21 Section 22 Section 22A Section 23
    Section 24 Section 25 Section 26 Section 27
    Section 28 Section 29 Section 30 Section 31
    Section 32 Section 33 Section 34 Section 35
    Section 36 Section 37 Section 38 Section 39
    Section 40 Section 41 Section 42 Section 43
    Section 44 Section 44A Section 44B Section 45
    Section 46 Section 47 Section 48 Section 49
    Section 50 Section 51 Section 52 Section 53
    Section 54 Section 55 Section 56 Section 57
    Section 58 Section 59 Section 60 Section 62
    Section 63 Section 64A Section 64B Section 65
    Section 66 Section 67 Section 68 Section 69
    Section 71 Section 72 Section 73 Section 73A
    Section 74 Section 75 Section 76 Section 77
    Section 78 Section 79 Section 80 Section 83
    Section 84 Section 85 Section 86 Section 87
    Section 88 Section 89 Section 90 Section 91
    Section 92 Section 93 Section 94 Section 95
    Section 96 Section 97 Section 98 Section 99
    Section 100 Section 101 Section 102 Section 103
    Section 104 Section 105 Section 106 Section 107

    For photos that are not in one of the above sections, there is a general group for this project here.

    טֹפֶס יוּחֲסִין

    Hebrew Genealogy Forms

    As I mentioned in my post Hebrew family and genealogy terms, I have wanted to translate my English genealogy forms into Hebrew for some time. I’m happy to announce the first version of my Hebrew genealogy forms are now available.

    There are currently three forms in Hebrew:

    טֹפֶס יוּחֲסִין
    טֹפֶס יוּחֲסִין
    טֹפֶס אַחַאי
    טֹפֶס אַחַאי
    טֹפֶס מִשְׁפָּחָה
    טֹפֶס מִשְׁפָּחָה

    These forms are designed to work together. You could start, for example, by filling out an Ancestor Form (טֹפֶס יוּחֲסִין), and then filling out similar forms for each of the grandparents, using them as source persons at the bottom of the forms. You could also add a sibling form (טֹפֶס אַחַאי) for each of the parents, and then for each sibling on those forms you could add a family form (טֹפֶס מִשְׁפָּחָה) showing their spouse and children.

    The forms are PDF format and can be printed out and filled out by hand. At a later date I will be updating them to allow them to be filled out on the computer. The reason they do not currently support editing on the computer (like the existing English forms) is that the software I am using to make the forms editable has a problem using the Hebrew font I used in the form. The company that makes the software is aware of the problem and is looking into it. Hopefully they will resolve the issue soon, and I will be able to update the forms at that time.

    I welcome comments and constructive criticism in the comments below. There has been some debate with people I showed these forms to as to exactly what words and phrases to use in each case. I’m sure not everyone will agree with what I have chosen, and I’m willing to revise some of the terms in the future if I’m convinced they need to be changed. Once thing that is clear from putting these together, and in putting together my earlier Hebrew family and genealogy terms list, is that not all genealogy terms that exist in English have been set in Hebrew, and it is my hope that by starting the conversation on these terms, and using them in forms like this, we can come to a consensus on what terms to use in Hebrew. So if you might find Hebrew genealogy forms useful, then check out the Hebrew Forms page, and download them.

    101 Most Common Surnames in Israel

    I’ve been posting the 101 most common Israeli given names for both boys and girls for the last few years, as the data has been released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. Recently the data for 2016 was released, and I posted the lists for girls and boys. While going through the data, however, I noticed something I had not noticed in previous years – a link to information on Israeli surnames.

    The data consists of over 50,000 surnames, and the number of people with that name in Israel. The smallest number of people with a name is 9, so the least common surnames do not appear (including mine – I guess I need a few more kids to break through, or get my cousins to make aliyah). In theory this data is current as of 2016, although I suspect the top 101 names out of over 50,000 probably don’t change significantly from year to year.

    Something significant worth noting is that the list is only in Hebrew, and like any other government data, has no nikudot (diacritical marks used as vowels in Hebrew), so many times names that would be considered different in English are spelled the same in Hebrew.

    Sometimes those names have a common origin, such as פלד which could be Feld or Peled. Peled is actually a Hebraization of Feld, so that’s not such a big deal, although many times changes in spelling are useful in genealogy research in detecting different branches of the same family. Sometimes the same family uses different spellings, but many times different families used the same spelling for many years, and this merging of names can be frustrating when researching one’s family history. Consider the most common name כהן which in English could be spelled Cohen, Kohen, Cohain, Cohn, Kohn, Cahan, etc.

    When I publish my lists of given names, I add nikudot to the names, since even those fluent in Hebrew might not be able to decipher the name if they’re not familiar with it. Reading without nikudot requires some familiarity with the words you’re reading. If the name is not familiar, it’s not possible in some cases to figure it out. Some given names also use the same spelling, such as אורי which can be Uri or Ori. The problem is significantly worse for surnames, however, where many more variations exist.

    As officially names in Israel are written without nikudot, it creates a genealogical problem that documents with names don’t actually reflect what a person called themselves. If you are researching someone whose name is recorded as אורי פלד, is their name Ori Peled, Uri Feld, Ori Feld, or Uri Peled? That’s not a problem I can solve, but what I’ve done with the following list of the 101 most common Jewish Israeli surnames is added nikudot for one common pronunciation, added a few possible English spellings, and linked to all the surname articles at Beit Hatfutsot (in English this was formerly called the Diaspora Museum, but is now called the Museum of the Jewish People) that are for names that use the Hebrew spelling, as well as the English versions of those articles.
    Continue reading 101 Most Common Surnames in Israel

    Kańczuga, Poland in the Yad Vashem Shoah Names Database

    Yad Vashem Shoah Names Database

    Updates to the Compendium were delayed for several months while I was upgrading the server. Today, in addition to a number of smaller updates, there are now links from all 1350+ Polish towns in the Compendium to the Yad Vashem Shoah Names Database.

    Kańczuga, Poland in the Yad Vashem Shoah Names Database
    Kańczuga, Poland in the Yad Vashem Shoah Names Database

    The links for each town generate a search of the database for people with a connection to the town. Whenever researching Jewish families, particularly those from Poland, searching the Yad Vashem database is critical not only for finding information on one’s family members who died in the Holocaust, but also for seeing who submitted Pages of Testimony for one’s relatives, and seeing who else they submitted Pages for, as that frequently allows one to make connections to other family members.

    Finding all the Pages submitted by the same person recently became much easier, as Yad Vashem added a link on the details page for each Page of Testimony that automatically generates a list of the Pages submitted by the same person. In the past you have to do an Advanced Search using the name of the submitter, but now it’s as simple as clicking a link.

    Keep in mind, however, that sometimes people in the database, including the submitters, have more than one name for various reasons. See my article Tracking down a couple that disappeared during the Holocaust for an example of an incorrect submitter name due to a typo or transcription error, as well as two whole sets of Pages of Testimony submitted by the same person a few months apart under different names (one time using his legal surname which was his mother’s maiden name, and one time using his father’s surname).

    I hope everyone finds these links useful. Let me know if you find information on your family that you didn’t know.