Tag Archives: jgff

Genealogy Basics: Up, Down and Sideways

Genealogy humor: “Only a Genealogist regards a step backwards as progress”. While amusing, it also points to an interesting issue faced by many people interested in genealogy.

Many people who research their family are very focused on going back as far as they can. Perhaps the thought is that if you go back far enough you’re bound to find someone famous (or infamous) you’re related to, some royal blood, family that lived in a famous town, or lived through famous events in history.

There are actually a few different directions you can research your family. You can, as mentioned, research up your tree. You can also research down your tree, taking your oldest known ancestor in one line and researching all of their children, grandchildren, etc. (not just the line that leads to you). You can also research sideways, researching collateral ancestors, like the siblings and spouses of your known ancestors. Each of these techniques is useful, and indeed you will likely need to try all of them when doing your research if you want to be successful.

Let me give a good example of why researching your non-direct lines is important. Let’s say you’ve tracked back to your great-grandfather who lived in Poland or Russia in the 19th century before moving to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. That fits the profile of a large percentage of American Jews. Now if you’ve been able to find out about the great-grandfather but haven’t been able to get back further than that, we call that a brick-wall.

Maybe you only have information on your great-grandfather from after he arrived in the US, and you haven’t been able to find the name of the town where he was born in Poland.

Maybe you know which town he was from, but it’s a large city and he has a common last name, which makes research nearly impossible.

In this case you’ve researched up your tree to your great-grandfather. The next step is to research down your tree from your great-grandfather to find all of his descendants, your aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Even if your goal wasn’t to document these branches of your family, you need to realize that just like you have certain information on your family and where they came from, your extended family likely has different information, some small piece which might help you in your search. Mapping out all of the descendants of your most-distant-known-ancestor can frequently lead you to additional information about that ancestor.


Section of birth record of my grandfather’s
aunt, showing the birthplace of her father,
my great-great-grandfather – Kanczuga.

In my own family research I was looking for records in the wrong town for many years because that’s where my grandfather said our family was from originally. It was partially true. His siblings had been born in that town, as had some of his father’s siblings. It was, in fact, one of his father’s siblings’ records which led me to the town my gg-grandfather was from originally. If I had only been searching directly up my tree, I would never have discovered this fact, since my great-grandfather’s birth record (which took much longer to find in any case) did not name the town where his father was born. Even though it might seem a waste to look for records on all the siblings of the people whom you are primarily searching for (you can think of this as searching sideways), remember that they share the same parents and grandparents, and thus any information you find will help your search.

An important point is that it turns out that cousins of mine knew the town my gg-grandfather was born in long before I discovered it. Had I been in touch with these distant cousins earlier, it would have saved me a lot of pointless research.

Another way to search sideways is to contact cousins that you may not have figured out quite where they fit in your tree. In the case above, it was actually a cousin whom I knew was related, but wasn’t sure how they were related. If I had in fact pursued the question of how we were related and asked where their branch was from, it would have led me straight to the town from which my branch also originated.

Also, if you find references to relatives in family letters and don’t think it’s worth figuring out who those distant relatives mentioned are, think again. If you’ve hit a brick wall, those distant cousins, or their descendants, may be the ones that can help you knock down that wall.

Those distant relatives may also have photographs of your common ancestors. Another example from my own family concerns family photographs. I received portrait photographs of ancestors of mine, but without labels showing me who they were. After contacting a distant cousin and having him send me family photographs in his possession for me to copy, I found other copies of the same portraits with the names labeled on the back. They were, in fact, my ggg-grandparents, the in-laws of the gg-grandfather mentioned above. Many years later, someone contacted me through the JewishGen Family Finder (read my earlier article on JGFF if you’re not familiar with this amazing resource for Jewish researchers) and he turned out to be a 4th cousin of mine, descended from the same ggg-grandparents. Now, because I had received the portraits, and another cousin had labeled alternate versions of the same pictures, and this cousin from the other side of my family (he was a descendant of the sister of my gg-grandmother) had found me through JGFF, he now had photographs of his ggg-grandparents. This is why it’s so important to seek out your distant cousins, because you never know who has what information (or what photo).

So when searching for your relatives, even your direct ancestors, always remember to look for other descendants, some of which may know much more (sometimes just that one tiny important detail more) about your ancestors than you. Feel free to share your stories on finding information from distant cousins in the comments.

Jewish Genealogy Basics: The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF)

If you’re seriously researching your Jewish roots then you already know about the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF), but for those who are just getting started I wanted to point out this critical resource and explain what it can and cannot do.

The JGFF is part the much larger JewishGen web site, and what it does it simple – it lets you find other researchers searching for the same surnames and towns as you. This is particularly important if you have a very common last name (try researching Cohen without knowing which town your family came from) or if you don’t yet know from which town your family originated.


The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) Web Site

Let’s say you’re researching the name Cohen. You know your family lived at one point in Lancut. You go to the JGFF web site, log in (with your JewishGen identity) and from the page shown in the screenshot above, you select Enter/Modify. On the next screen you add the name Cohen and the town Lancut, Poland. When you enter a town that is in JewishGen’s database, a small icon should show up next to the town name indicating it has been found. You can enter a town that is not in their system, but chances are if you’re entering a town it’s in there and you should double-check your spelling. As with all resources on the JewishGen site, all towns are referred to by their current names and countries. Thus even though the Yiddish pronunciation of the town name of Lancut would probably be Lantzut, and the town was once part of the Austrian Empire, it is always referred to but the current name and country, so you should enter Lancut, Poland.

It’s also important to recognize what the JGFF cannot do. It doesn’t list individual relative names, so there’s no way to know right away when searching if the person who has listed a particular name/town combo is related to you. The JGFF is also reliant on the individuals who make up its members to update their information, and sometimes people change their e-mail addresses and forget to update the JGFF. If that’s the case and you try to send them an e-mail, you will not reach them obviously. You will also find that some of the members are deceased, and when a particular member dies, if you know the person, you can tell the people who run the JGFF and they will mark that account as deceased, so the information doesn’t go away, but people will know not to contact the person.

JGFF has several levels of privacy, so you can show you name, your address, etc. or you can just show your researcher number and make the people send you an e-mail to find out who you are. This sounds great, unless the person who didn’t show their name changes their e-mail address or dies, and there is no way to know that they have an account on JGFF to change. In general, I would suggest at least showing your name when setting up your listing, so in case someone wants to reach you, they can google you as well if necessary.

Different people have different strategies of how to use JGFF. You can put I think up to 100 name/town combos into the system, so you have some flexibility. You can stay minimal and just put the names and towns you know relatives were born into, or you can add many different variations for the names, and you can choose to add towns that may wrong, but you think your family may have lived. If you find a reference in your research to a town you didn’t know about, you can add the name/town combo in case someone comes across the same piece of information, even if you have no real proof that your family lived there. Remember that the JGFF is not a definitive listing of where families lived, it is only a list of where people are researching their families. This is an important distinction.

In the same vein, I recommend putting in as many variations of the last name as you’re comfortable with, as it seems some people are very strict with spellings or they may search during ‘exact’ spelling instead of ‘sounds like’ and thus like Cohn and Cohen might be the same family, if you wrote Cohen and they searched for Cohn, they wouldn’t find anything.

As you research your family and find new names and towns, you should be constantly updating your listings on the JGFF. You never know when someone is going to search the JGFF and if you don’t post a connection (like you find your great-grandmother’s last name and birth town) you may miss someone else searching for the same combination. In my own experience, I added a name and town of a relative that I had known about for a long time but had not bothered to post to the JGFF, and within a couple of months I received an inquiry from someone who turned out to be my fourth cousin, and who listed just 2 minutes away from me.

In short, if you’re researching your Jewish family members, use JGFF and use it often.