Planting A FAMILY Tree

The seeds of family history began with a genealogy fellowship.

Ihad known that my mother lived in Russia until the age of 11, but I had never known any of the details. So when I began to write the application essays in the spring for the Samberg Family History Program, she told me her story about leaving Russia. She and her mother, father, brother and grandmother had only 10 days to prepare for their departure (other families had several months); they arrived in America with only two suitcases per person.

I never really thought about my family’s history, where my family came from or who my ancestors were. It was only when I applied for the program at the Center for Jewish History that I gave the matter some thought.

This summer 48 high school students were fellows in the Samberg Family History Program. All but two of us lived in the New York metropolitan area; the others came from Memphis, Tenn., and Allentown, Pa. The Samberg Program was created in 2001 to help Jewish teenagers connect with their Jewish identity through researching their ancestry.  It was originally sponsored by the Samberg Family Foundation but over the years other foundations such as the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the Morris and Alma Schapiro Fund provided additional funding for the program.

The Samberg Family History Program is housed at the Center for Jewish History, which maintains the largest archives of modern Jewish history outside of Israel. As a fellow, I was given access to these archives and used them to conduct my research.

When I started I was expecting to research my mother’s side of the family. However, as I began to conduct my research I found that I was actually discovering more about my father’s side. Instead of researching recent Jewish immigration, I found myself researching immigration that occurred three generations ago when my great-great-grandfather Joseph came to America from Kiev.

Tracing my ancestry was no simple task as I soon found out. I looked up names of people whom I knew were my ancestors on various databases. I also looked up names on microfilms stored at the center. The archives came back with census records, naturalization records, birth and death certificates, marriage certificates and social security records. I checked names against the pedigree chart of my family and re-checked the names on other records to make sure that they were consistent. Some names appeared, others didn’t. Some names appeared on the 1910 and 1920 censuses, but not on the 1930 census. It was then that I realized that I had to ask some other family members what they knew — namely my paternal grandfather and grandmother.

I had previously asked my grandfather, Stan Altzman, about his father David (my great-grandfather after whom I am named) but I was never really told anything in detail. When I called my grandfather and asked him about my great-great-uncle, whose name I came across in my research, I had an impromptu conference call with my father and his father. I learned two things that night: I had a rich family history that was waiting for me to discover and it was indeed going to be more difficult than just plugging names into a computer and watching it spit back results.

Through my research, I learned about parts of my family I never knew had existed. I discovered that my father’s side of the family originally came from either Kiev or Germany. I also learned that I had a whole branch of distant relatives living in California. My great-great-grandfather had three other children whom I had never known existed.

As the program swung into full gear, we did more than just research. The program was run by young and energetic facilitators, one of whom was a teacher, and some of the others were pursuing doctoral degrees in various fields. Some were previous fellows or had worked at the Center for Jewish History.  At the center we had workshops where we discussed the Jews of Sing Sing, a jail outside of Ossining, New York; learned about the Jews of India; and attended mini-lectures about the Jews of other communities such as Argentina and Australia.

We learned about the poor conditions in the late 19th century garment industry where many immigrants — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — worked. During our lunch breaks we were free to conduct additional research, wander around the Yeshiva University Museum or take in the sights and sounds of Union Square. We went on a trip to Ellis Island and walked through the very same rooms that many of our ancestors once walked through upon entering this country.

We also made several trips to the Lower East Side: one to the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country, one to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and one of the highlights of the four-week fellowship — a scavenger hunt through Jewish landmarks. During the scavenger hunt, we saw the building where the offices of the Forward (a famous Yiddish newspaper) were located and the Tenement Museum, where people can learn about the conditions under which immigrants lived. We also stumbled upon the Streits’ matzah factory, where we were treated to a stack of warm, fresh matzah.

The Samberg Family History Program lasted only four weeks, scarcely enough time to gather enough information to complete the projects that we had chosen at the beginning of the program. I chose a family tree. Other fellows are working on documentary films, songs or photo collages. The completed projects will be displayed at the graduation ceremony, which will be held at the Center for Jewish History on Nov. 1. I hope to be able to continue my research outside of the program and learn more about my roots.

Amram Altzman is a freshman at the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan.

This article is reprinted from October 30, 2009.