Slowly and groggily I awoke early Sunday morning and made my way to LaGuardia airport. I would be flying to Chicago in advance of my attendance at the IAJGS Jewish Genealogy conference. Who would have thought that I would arrive at the airport at 5:36AM, yet not check my bags until 7:00AM?
As I was commiserating with the rest of my “line mates” upon the terrible misfortune of waiting in such a long line at such an early hour, it suddenly occurred to me that so many of our ancestors – many of whom have only been discovered as a result of JewishGen – would have been happy to simply make it to these shores alive, counting whatever personal belongings that remained as a blessing. It was with this thought that I traveled to Chicago.
I finally made it to the hotel, and soon found myself involved in talking to a multitude of people who all shared the same goal of researching genealogy. Hailing from all regions of the world, including Israel, Germany and even right here in the ‘windy city’ (aka Chicago), conference attendees have gathered here to participate in this conference and help other researchers in their quest to discover their family roots. It is truly amazing to be part of a group of people whose sole purpose is to perform research on their family while helping others research their family as well.
Being here reminds me of the JewishGen Discussion groups (expertly run by Dick Plotz) which provide thousands of researchers throughout the world the opportunity to connect, ask questions, exchange information and learn from others. The only difference is that in this case people can offer blistering criticism without any moderation! (Note: Compliments are also accepted, in fact preferred!)
Being that the participants are so motivated to “help and be helped,” the conference schedule itself has been jam packed. Beginning at 7:00AM until the late hours of the evening, approximately 700 people are participating in classes, speeches and workshops that shed light and offer assistance on genealogy research. As I have spent most of my time in the JewishGen booth, I have had the fortunate and fascinating opportunity to talk with many of the conference participants – many of whom have been kind enough to share some of their, often personal, stories with me.
While often humorous, these people shared with me the stories of how they put in an overwhelming amount of work into preserving our heritage. Specifically, they explained how valuable JewishGen has been in assisting in this research.
One woman explained to me that she had traveled to Eastern Europe some twenty years ago in search of her relatives. She had no idea where to begin and spent years searching, with varying degrees of success and failure. Then, a couple of years ago, she registered on JewishGen’s Family Finder (JGFF) and she received an email from a person who said that their grandfather’s were brothers. Overnight, after years of searching, she had discovered her cousins!
At the JewishGen booth (or the “JewishGen conference headquarters,” as we like to call it), we have displayed a number of books. Among them is “Dominican Haven” which accompanied the museum’s recent exhibit about the Jews who were able to escape to Sosua during WWII.
A particular couple stopped by the booth and picked up the book. I immediately used the opportunity to let them know that not only are we offering free shipping to all conference participants, but we are also offering a 10% discount on all books.
After I saw that I had not yet scared them away, I began explaining how Jews first came to the town called Sosua in the Dominican Republic. They immediately stopped me and began to look excitedly at the pictures in the book, for their very close friend was born in Sosua during the war. In fact, this friend recently made a wedding and decided to hold the wedding in Sosua! This couple told me that they traveled to Sosua for the wedding and that it was an incredibly emotional experience. Unfortunately they were not able to gain entrance into the Shul, but I was able to show them a picture of the Shul in the book, as well as a picture of the Menorah which was on display at the Museum.
Another woman, who happened to be a first time conference attendee, was so excited when she finally came over to the JewishGen table late this afternoon. After spending a day immersed in lectures and workshops she flatly declared “wow, everyone here is as enthusiastic about genealogy as I am!” Someone else remarked: “Now I understand why JewishGen is always slow, because everyone is always on it!” (Note: Stay tuned for marked and significant website improvements!)
A book which elicited much emotion was the recently published “Belzec” book. From the jacket cover: “On a conveyor belt, thousands of Jews entered into the camp and after just two hours, they lay dead in the Belzec pits, their property sorted and the killing ground tidied to await their next arrival. Over a period of just nine months, when Belzec was operational, Galician Jewry was totally decimated: 500,000 lay buried in the 33 mass graves.”
But for many, the day was one of optimism and hope. Perhaps the greatest line of the day was: “I am sorry, but I will be unable to join you tonight because I am having dinner with family I have not yet met.”
All this within the first 24 hours!
There are many more stories to tell, but the hour is late (or early depending on your perspective) and there will be many more people to meet and share experiences with tomorrow.
In the meantime, please enjoy these pictures from the conference (stay tuned for more) and be sure to stop by and say hello at the JewishGen booth. We would love to see you.
Ps. Don’t forget to leave your stories and experiences in the comments section below. You can sign your names or choose to be anonymous, there is no preference.