Conversation thrives on JewishGen discussion group

Just as the medical profession has debated the ethics of using data from horrendous Nazi medical experiments, the Jewish genealogical community recently discussed the ethics of using a Nazi census of “non-Teutonic” people in Germany in 1938-39.

For the most part, the medical community has wisely branded the Nazi’s medical sadism as completely inadmissable to true medical science. The ethics of using the Nazi census for genealogical purposes was likewise the subject of a recent public exchange in the JewishGen discussion group on the internet, with a different but equally wise outcome.

The documents that comprise the German Minority Census of 1939 are located in the Bundesarchiv in Potsdam, Germany. In 1991 the Mormon Family History Library microfilmed them, thus making them easily accessible via 292 reels of microfilm (encompassing 474,464 individual frames) to researchers in North America. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC also has a set of these microfilms.

Despite the Nazi’s reputation for clerical perfectionism, the records are not always easy to use. Although the returns for some large cities such as Berlin are arranged alphabetically by surname, the census is organized geographically by census district and there is no overall alphabetical index to simplify genealogical research.
Recently genealogist Harry Stein posted an item on JewishGen seeking help in finding the census return for Koln, Germany, and used the occasion to question the appropriateness of using such a source in the first place.

“I can understand the desire to use any source of information that comes to hand in obtaining information about one’s forebears,” he commented. “All the same I would have thought that there are limits and … that using a Nazi census that seems to have had as its purpose not the enumeration of the Jewish population but their identification for future ‘action’ (would be highly inappropriate).”

Several participants of the JewishGen forum were quick to defend the use of the Nazi census for family tree research. Perhaps the most succinct rejoinder came from Julia Bonem of New York: “Are you suggesting that we should not use a valuable piece of information that is out there because it was used to destroy the German Jewish population? I for one have frequently used the Nazi deportation lists, among many other sources, as a way of tracking what happened to my family in Germany in the 1930s.

“It is simply wild to think that we should only use ‘untainted’ sources for our research. One of the ironies of the Nazi era is that these murderers kept meticulous records on their victims. I will take every available research item to reconstruct the generation they wiped out.”

This exchange and many others are delivered daily to my desktop computer via the Jewishgen discussion group. Even when I am facing a tight journalistic deadline, I usually cannot resist a glance at the contents list at the top of each JewishGen transmission. Occasionally the questions of other researchers seem picayune, as though they are too lazy to write a genuine letter or flip through an encyclopedia for themselves.

However, whether the talk is of Jewish cemeteries in remote lands or the brief residency of Leon Trotsky in the Bronx, the diversity of issues raised parallels the breadth of Jewish history down the ages. Jewishgen increases our awareness of how the personal histories of a multitude of people and individual families can meld into the collective history of a people. As a forum for sharing techniques and information, Jewishgen can help participants learn about almost any aspect of family tree research, or help them find missing branches.

One correspondent recently cited what he described as the Murphy’s Law of Genealogy No. 10: “The relative who had all the family photographs gave them all to her daughter who has no interest in genealogy and no inclination to share.”

Another wanted a modern translation of the Hebrew expression, “Nin v’neched,” a phrase translated from the Bible as “kith and kin” which sometimes pops up in 19th-century documents. The answer: while the word “neched” when used alone means specifically “grandson,” the phrase “nin v’neched” means “descendant.”

Yet another correspondent wondered about the significance of theh three little circles that sometimes appear beside the father’s signature on old birth certificates. According to one respondent, the tiny circles indicated illiteracy: circles were used instead of the crosses that were used in Christian records. The three circles, another respondent added, “(are) alleged to be the source of the American derogatory name for Jews — kike. Kikel in Yiddish means “circle” and it is claimed that immigration officials coined the term to describe Jewish immigrants.”

For instructions on how to subscribe to the JewishGen discussion group, visit the website ♦

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