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During the Pandemic, I Used the Library to Discover My Family’s Tragic – and Inspiring – History
By Mike Roth
Editor’s Note: Mike Roth is the brother of ProQuest blog editor Alison Roth, who learned about her brother’s genealogy project via a family Facetime call and asked him to write about his experiences.
The declaration of a worldwide pandemic – and the closure of schools, workplaces, houses of worship and even parks and playgrounds – can force us to make interesting choices for our leisure activities. I felt this firsthand after binge-watching some educational, and not-so-educational, streaming content in the early weeks of stay-at-home orders in my home state, Maryland.
And, as most of us have learned, contact with real, authentic people is at a premium these days — not counting, of course, the personal friendships I’ve built with Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin and Governor Cuomo. It was in this context that I decided to explore all the stories I’d heard from my parents about my Jewish family’s arrival in the U.S. from Germany, Russia, Poland, and who-knows-where-else in the early 1900s, and during the rise of Nazism in Western Europe.
I had absolutely no clue where to begin. So I tried the library.
I have library cards at a few Maryland library systems: Baltimore’s vaunted Enoch Pratt Free Library, and Anne Arundel and Howard County’s systems. Because library buildings across the state are closed, many systems are providing temporary at-home access to Ancestry Library Edition for their patrons. Once I was off and running on Ancestry, I realized I had only a small amount of seed information on which to launch some searches — and that is where Ancestry excels. With just a few names, and without even knowing how those names are related to me, I was able to view troves of information within seconds and keep it organized and accessible throughout my research.
I found record of my maternal grandmother’s arrival at Ellis Island, and learned that her family was detained for a few days for a “special inquiry” because their ethnic group was listed as “German Hebrew.” She and her sister and parents all left Germany in 1941, but her uncle and aunt did not. Their quota numbers — the system used by the U.S. government to control and modulate immigration to the U.S., both back then and today — never came up in the lottery, and they never got visas to come to the U.S.
Both of them, Karl and Rosa Sitzmann, were killed in the Chelmno death camp in 1941. With a few side-searches, I found their stumbling blocks (stolpersteinen), placed in cobblestone streets by the German government to commemorate those murdered by the Nazis.
I found record of my dad’s grandfather’s census response in Brooklyn in 1920. He listed his job as a foreman in a children’s clothing factory and provided an address. A quick Google Maps check reveals that the location, on Astor Ave. in Manhattan, is now…a Sweetgreen restaurant.
I found that my mom’s father escaped Poland after his sister was killed by the Nazis in 1937, and that, because borders were closed to the west, he went east — through Russia, and ultimately to Japan, where he boarded a boat in Kobe and sailed to California. When he arrived in California, he headed to Ohio, where some others from his family were waiting. He bounced around the Great Lakes a bit, doing odd jobs and building work. I found his draft card, showing that he lived in Detroit for awhile in a boarding house. The house itself isn’t there anymore, but the record of his residence and my family’s tiny slice of history – coming to America at a time of global struggle – still exist thanks to Ancestry Library Edition.
I found many other pieces of my family’s history, including the names of the ships everyone arrived on. I saw the amounts they paid — for visas, for passage — and where they lived in those early days after arriving in the U.S. The changed names (“Sitzmann” in Germany became “Seitz” in the U.S.). All of this brought the history to life for me. But what really focused me, made me blink, my eyes welling with tears, were those census sheets.
Scrawled in rushed government employee shorthand, there for all of us to see, is a record of how this country accepted our families, brought them in, and gave them the chance to succeed. Sometimes the acceptance was reluctant, and, no doubt, life was bleak at points for these poor, afraid, and, at least at first, illiterate immigrant families. But the U.S. counted them, gave them a chance, and let them succeed or fail with what they had.
After I finished collecting this sizable bit of information, I spoke on the phone with my 94-year-old great aunt in New Jersey. She filled in some of the blanks for me — how the family got to Genoa, Italy, where they boarded the SS Manhattan to the U.S. from Unterriedenburg, Germany. The names of their German neighbors who sustained her family with food after the Nazi SA and SS emptied their house and stole their possessions on Kristallnacht. And the names of those in our family who could not escape Germany in time and were murdered in death camps by the Nazis. She remembers them, and now I can remember them. And, thanks to my 94-year-old great aunt, I have new assignments to complete during the remainder of my furlough.
This is the power, and the sanctity, of genealogy — and the irony is not lost on me that, during a pandemic, when we are separated from each other, accessing virtual library resources has helped me connect with my family.
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