eBio Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships 2009


Judaic Studies

#1. Emigration versus Immigration? Much research is underway in the area of Jewish genealogy. The core archival starting point for most American Jews is the collection of on-line Immigration Arrival records available at www.ellisisland.org. Invariably, they tell little more than their originating country and perhaps the transit port. The objective of this research project is to identify archival sources in Europe of emigration so that emigration records on the European side may be linked with immigration records on the American side to allow for much richer genealogical endeavors.

Our sample census is German Jews who emigrated during the period 1930-1940. In 1930, there were roughly 500,000 Jews living in Germany. By 1940, the number was about 250,000. In 1939 alone, roughly 80,000 German Jews emigrated – mostly to the US and UK. We know that there are extensive records relating to the mass emigration from Germany during this period, which often required an extensive state department application process.

The primary research objective is to identify these and other archival resources and make them more accessible, if necessary, so that these emigration records with detailed family data may be linked with immigration or other records in the destination country. Through whatever means necessary, the objective is to identify what became of the 200,000+ German Jews who emigrated during the period 1930 to 1940. In addition to their own biographical details, we want to identify their descendants with supporting documentation of each link to successive generations.

A premium is placed on the use of archival material that is not currently available in digital form. Identifying archival materials in Europe relating to emigration and devising a method to make them accessible in a digital format is one of the major objectives of this work. We would also want to identify archival materials that may exist in the US, but in a form that makes access impractical on this scale. For example, the Mormon Church maintains extensive microfilm records of birth, marriage and death records from Eastern Europe, but they might need to be digitized with OCR performed to generate meaningful metadata tags for researchers.

#2. Exploring the Yad Vashem Archives. Recently, Yad Vashem, the primary Holocaust memorial museum in Israel made available on-line digitized copies of the millions of “Pages of Testimony” that have been filed by visitors as a record of family members who perished during the Holocaust. In theory, these should be a rich source of data.

In practice, they have many limitations. The pages were often completed in different languages with instructions given by non-native speakers. The nature of transliterated names for both people and places also makes the association of victims with surviving relatives difficult at best. We are looking to explore ways of linking these victims to survivors in a more meaningful fashion. For example, one of the often overlooked pieces of data on the form is who submitted the form and their relationship to the victim.

For a sample census of forms – a single town in Northern Romania which was predominately populated by related family members, the research fellow would explore how to link the victims to surviving relatives who may know little of their history or simply establish the relationship between the victims. The researcher would also explore how to generally link victims together in communities so that they can possibly be matched with other archival resources like the 1000+ Yizkor books that were produced by the survivors of many small communities after the war. These matches would facilitate many more links between the current generations of American Jews and their pre-holocaust family history – most of which is believed to have been lost.

#3. Exploring the World of Yizkor Books and Landleit. After World War II, the survivors of nearly every small vanished Jewish community in Eastern Europe produced memorial books containing their collective memories of the town’s history. Known as Yizkor books, they are a treasure trove of genealogical and historical information that we would like to mine, enhance and preserve. The New York Public Library recently completely scanning 750 of the books and made them available on-line. Additional sources are available elsewhere.

The project is first and foremost exploratory. First, we want to identify the data available in a sample of books. They may include everything from town maps, to lists of survivors, to the genealogy of all families going back to the town’s settlement. Photographs with individuals identified by their position in the photo are of particular interest to us. Perhaps the most valuable data are the lists of contributors to the volumes, as they tie this history to subsequent generations of descendants who know little of their history. It was often not discussed by the survivors. Matched with the Yad Vashem records, the two archival sources may yield some remarkable results in creating a virtual reconstruction of vanished communities. Even more, the Yizkor books invariably lead to organizations of “Landsmannschaft”, groups of survivors who kept the town’s memory alive amongst themselves. Many of these groups have records which we would like to identify and preserve before the last members pass away.

The books are problematic because portions are often printed in Hebrew, Yiddish, or another native language, and English. Unfortunately, each language’s section may contain different content. One objective would be to develop an automated OCR process that would recognize the various languages and translate the book’s contents into a single language – English. While OCR of each section is easy to do manually by specifying the language, it is not a scalable solution for the number of books involved. The quality of the OCR is less important in this case, since anything would be a vast improvement.

Once the contents are accessible in a single language, we would like to create meaningful metadata tags to aid in our own work and that of future researchers. Using our data matching technology, we are often able to create remarkable metadata far beyond current practices. For example, if we have identified the surviving great grandchild of someone who perished, having that survivor's metadata attaches the document and our supplemental content to a much wider audience. Search engines doing queries on unrelated topics may suddenly connect American Jews with a past of which they are unaware because the enhanced document with enhanced metadata will have been indexed to reflect many more connections.

While a reading knowledge of Hebrew is an absolute requirement for this project, proficiency in additional languages – even partial proficiency to identify the nature of the content would be a big plus. Any level of proficiency in Yiddish or other Eastern European languages should be noted on the application if this project is of interest.

#4. Rabbinic Lines – Exploring a Hidden Genealogy Treasure. For one group of Jews, genealogy is a much easier task – those who are descended from Rabbinic lines where Rabbinic posts were typically passed from father to son. As these Rabbis often published Talmudic tracts, there is a surprisingly well documented trail of these family lines. Whenever a Rabbi published a commentary, the dedication normally included a listing of the Rabbinic line from which he was descended in precise detail. Much work has been done linking American Jews to their genealogic past by tagging onto a few select Rabbinic lines.

This project would use that model on a vastly expanded scale. eBio possesses a directory from 1940 of nearly every American Rabbi who claimed to have been descended from a European Rabbinic line. The first objective would be to translate the volume from Hebrew and attempt to verify the lineage through other archival resources. Once that lineage has been verified, the next step would be to identify all the descendants of this particular set of American Rabbis with their successive generations documented with supporting material. In addition, an attempt would be made to expand upon the direct Rabbinic lines in prior generations (e.g. siblings) so that their descendants could potentially be identified and traced. The overall objective is to connect as many American Jews as possible with their pre-Holocaust roots.

#5. Exploring Migration and Detachment - The Jews of Cleveland 1952-2009. eBio has a list of everyone in the Cleveland Jewish Community who donated $5 or more to the Cleveland Jewish Welfare Fund. It represents a nearly complete census of the Jewish Families in Cleveland at that time – a long established, close knit community. The community has since declined as children have moved away in search of better educational and employment opportunities.

The primary research objective is to build a genealogical model of the Cleveland Jewish community in 1952 and bring it forward to its current generations of descendants in 2009. Each link must be documented with appropriate source material. While the donor list is a good starting point, the data has some drawbacks. First, wives are typically listed by their husband’s name (e.g. Mrs. Abraham Cohen). Second, the family relationships among the donors is unknown, so even the genealogical relationships in 1952 must be constructed.

eBio possesses other archival source materials relating to Cleveland at that time and has identified additional resources in Cleveland which could help address both of these limitations and also address the issue of tracing descendants. In addition to gathering biographical details of ancestors and descendants, the project also attempts to measure the level of religious attachment in subsequent generations. Specifically, we are interested in tracking the religious affiliation of spouses and children. A questionnaire has been developed to assist in the gathering of this data and the research fellow will do some preliminary analysis of the results.

As with the other eBio research projects, the intent is to develop non-conventional methods of approaching these research issues that can be replicated across other communities.

Note: This research area requires that the eBio SURF research fellow be located in Cleveland for the duration of the research term.

#6. Your own Topic. Pick a topic of your own interest that illustrates some of the issues described above, including:

  • Proposing a methodology for deriving genealogical relationships that ties American Jews together and/or back to their European roots.

  • Identifying archival sources that relate to the census

  • Remotely gathering the archival material.

  • Making the archival material more accessible through digitization at the lowest cost.

  • Making digitized archival material more accessible with better metadata.

  • Track the genealogy of the census – both forwards and backwards.


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