Genealogy: The Gift of Stories

Guest Post By Anna Olswanger 

My father, Berl Olswanger, was a wonderful storyteller. When he died in 1981, I longed to hear his stories again about growing up in the 1920’s in the neighborhood of Goat Hill in Memphis, Tennessee.  Maybe I couldn’t hear his stories again, but I could learn more about the background of his stories and who his parents and grandparents were. That was when I started genealogical research.

I went to St. Louis, where my grandparents had lived before coming to Memphis, and discovered through synagogue records, wills, and newspaper articles that my great-grandparents Elias Olschwanger and Dora Sacks had arrived in St. Louis from Varniai, Lithuania; that Elias had taught Talmud in the Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol synagogue; that he had given money to help Jews in Europe suffering in World War I; and that when he died, he had left a tzedakah box for what was then Palestine. From his ship's passenger list, I discovered that he, and later his sons, then his wife and daughters, had each come to this country with one piece of baggage.

Those early years of genealogical research deepened my connection to Judaism.  I decided I wanted to learn more about the religious traditions of my ancestors.  I wanted to become observant and say kaddish for them because no daughters or sons remained alive to preserve their memory.  And, I wanted to publish my research about my ancestors for my own family and for other researchers.

So, in 1983, I published the first issue of the Olschwanger Journal, a magazine that included interviews, documents, photographs, letters, family news, a yahrzeit list, and a family directory.  The magazine won a Certificate of Award at the first International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies (IAJGS) Conference in Jerusalem, Israel.
After publishing the second, and then the third issue, of the Olschwanger Journal in 1993, I began to lose my enthusiasm.  I was finding the research tedious and I had become bored spending long hours in front of microfilm readers in libraries and in public records offices.  Those pre-computer days meant that collecting the information and editing it for publication were time-consuming and expensive.  Still, I wanted to continue to pay tribute to the ancestors I had discovered through my research.

It occurred to me to write a children’s book about them. I had started my writing life as a playwright, so I could have written a play about them  But during graduate school, when I was pursuing an MFA in playwriting, I went to London to try to find a group of actors to write for.

While I was in England, I made a trip to one of the university towns and visited a large bookstore (this was before Borders and Barnes and Noble).  Wandering throughout the store, I found myself in the children's book section.  There, I discovered picture books and between the covers of each book were the script, costumes, lighting, and stage set, everything in the theater that I thought I had needed to produce a play.  However, I didn't need a theater.  My tribute to my great-grandparents could be a children's picture book.

What would this children’s picture book be about? I had the kernel of my story in the second issue of the Olschwanger Journal, which I had published in 1984. That issue contained a reproduction of a Yiddish newspaper article about the attempted robbery of my great-grandfather’s kosher liquor store. 

This is the English translation of the article:
Reb Eliyahu Olschwanger Almost Robbed

Shlimazel crooks, their work was unsuccessful. Last Thursday at 3:00 a.m. in the middle of the night, several men drove to the saloon of Reb Eliyahu Olschwanger at the corner of 14th and Carr Streets. They opened the saloon and removed several barrels of brandy and beer. Mr. Mankel who lives on the second floor, upon hearing what was going on in the saloon, opened the window and began shouting for help. Benjamin Resnik from 1329 Carr Street, hearing the shouting, shot his revolver from his window. The band of crooks got scared and left everything, including their own horse and wagon and ran away. Police immediately came and took everything to the police station.
What could be funnier than this for a children's book?  Crooks, who left with less than they came with!  From that Yiddish article, I created Shlemiel Crooks (not Shlimazel Crooks like in the article, as I suspected that "shlemiel" was a more widely known word).  After adding the ghost of Pharaoh, the prophet Elijah, and a talking horse to the story, I was in business.

I submitted Shlemiel Crooks to over one hundred publishers and subsequently, I received over one hundred rejections.  Along the way, the magazine Young Judaean published the story and it won a "Magazine Merit Award" from the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, but no offer came from a book publisher.  What I didn't realize at the time was that as I continued to research book editors and send out the manuscript, I was learning the children's book publishing business.

In 2003, frustrated by all the rejections, I decided to self-publish Shlemiel Crooks as a miniature book for collectors.  Almost immediately (the universe has a sense of humor), I received an offer from a publisher to publish Shlemiel Crooks as a children's picture book.

The offer came from a small publisher in Alabama with, as far as I knew then, no Jews on its staff.  This was not the big New York publisher I had been waiting for, but I said yes, and it turned out to be a happy choice.  The book became a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and a PJ Library Book.  It opened the door for me to visit schools where I met hundreds of students. It resulted in offers to adapt Shlemiel Crooks as a puppet show and as a musical for children.  The musical, by the way, will take place in New York on April 10, 2011 in Merkin Hall at the Kaufman Center.

Best of all, Shlemiel Crooks allowed me to pay tribute to my great-grandparents. Although I don’t have my own children to give their story to as a gift, the way my father gave his stories to me as gifts, I can give the story of my great-grandparents to any child who reads or hears Shlemiel Crooks.

Because of the interest I developed in book publishing while submitting Shlemiel Crooks to editors, I moved to the New York area in 2000 and enrolled in the Certificate in Book Publishing program at New York University.  In 2005, I interned with Liza Dawson Associates and soon joined the agency, where I now specialize in picture books like Shlemiel Crooks.  I am delighted to have a job helping to bring children's books into the world.  Writers can visit my agent page by clicking here.

My genealogy journey isn't over. I put some pages of the Olschwanger Journal on the Web, so that I can more easily share my research of the family name with others.  Also, a listing of family names associated with the Olschwanger family starting with the first of eight generations of Rabbi Yehoshua Olschwanger is available here.

As a well-known musician in Memphis, my father, Berl Olswanger, had been dubbed "Mr. Music" by the local press.  However, I never knew he had written music until I found over thirty blues and jazz compositions in his office file cabinet after he died.  With the skills I've gained as a genealogy researcher, self-publisher, and website editor, I've been able to promote his music online, including on YouTube (below).

My father started me on this journey, and it feels good to be doing something for him in return—promoting the music he created, and which could have been forgotten.  All of us who do genealogy research know that joy of rescuing information and people from obscurity.

So, genealogy has led me along many roads. It made me want to honor my ancestors, including my father and his music, and it led to gratifying careers as a children's book author and as a literary agent.  Although it intensified my desire to have children and continue the line of my ancestors, it also deepened my sadness when that didn't happen.

So, this year, I have gone in yet another direction and created one more website. Yerusha (Hebrew for "inheritance") is a website for Jews like myself, women or men past the usual childbearing age, who are childless not by choice and believe that they may never have children biologically or by adoption.  I hope the site will bring these Jews together, both online and in the real world, to explore the meaning and experience of being a childless Jewish adult.  I also hope that Yerusha will help these Jews find ways to create an inheritance for future generations. 

As for my own inheritance, I am still creating that.  I know that it will have everything to do with my ancestors and genealogy, my father and his music, my Jewish heritage, and most of all, with stories.

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