As a child, I was drawn to an old sepia-toned pho­to­graph tak­en in Rus­sia (an area of present-day Ukraine) that stood proud­ly on my great-grandmother’s shelf. The image of my beau­ti­ful ances­tor hold­ing up my infant grand­moth­er ignit­ed with­in me a life­long desire to learn every detail of their past.

Soon after, with the pub­li­ca­tion of Alex Haley’s Roots in the mid-1970’s, inter­est in fam­i­ly his­to­ry research soared. Ever since, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty has been enam­ored with the idea of dis­cov­er­ing their roots. As a young girl dur­ing this time, Haley’s work inspired me to tape record my grand­moth­er Channa’s bed­time sto­ries. When I couldn’t sleep, she drew on sto­ries from her own youth, detail­ing a har­row­ing account of sur­vival dur­ing the pogroms. I was hooked on doc­u­ment­ing the past.

Four and a half decades of Jew­ish genealog­i­cal research came to a high point for me this past year, in two big ways. One was the pub­li­ca­tion of my book, Tears Over Rus­sia: A Search for Fam­i­ly and the Lega­cy of Ukraine’s Pogroms (Pega­sus Books, June 2022). I final­ly fin­ished what I set out to do — I record­ed my grand­moth­er and her family’s sto­ry of sur­vival. I then cou­pled it with archival research about a lit­tle-known geno­cide in Jew­ish his­to­ry-the pogroms in Ukraine in 1917 – 1921.

My sec­ond accom­plish­ment — per­haps almost as dear to me as my book — was help­ing Bernard Bolek” Krutz, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, dis­cov­er the fam­i­ly he was born into by using genealog­i­cal skills that I acquired over a life­time. Bernard was a hid­den child sur­vivor from Poland who knew noth­ing of his birth fam­i­ly. Now in his ear­ly eight­ies, he can say, with cer­tain­ty, that he is a part of a once large, thriv­ing Jew­ish fam­i­ly from Lodz. Sad­ly, almost all per­ished in the Holocaust.

Even more impor­tant to Bernard was the recent dis­cov­ery of and emo­tion­al meet­ing in Israel with his first cousin, the only bio­log­i­cal fam­i­ly mem­ber he has ever met, aside from his offspring.

The mirac­u­lous reunion between Mr. Krutz and his cousin made inter­na­tion­al news back in Novem­ber 2021, but only one out­let called to inter­view me about my genealog­i­cal sleuthing behind the reunion.

When younger and old­er fam­i­ly mem­bers work togeth­er in search of the past, a spe­cial bond and con­nec­tion is formed.

The next day, over one-hun­dred emails and mes­sages flood­ed my inbox. Almost every per­son was inter­est­ed in dis­cov­er­ing their Jew­ish roots, or want­ed guid­ance on how to solve a fam­i­ly mystery.

Where do I begin?” they all asked.

My answer: start with what and whom you know. Whether you are a teenag­er or a grand­par­ent, begin research­ing and record­ing now; it’s nev­er too late. If you are a younger per­son, reach out to old­er fam­i­ly mem­bers — and not just your par­ents and grand­par­ents. Don’t over­look their sib­lings or cousins from the old­er generations.

When younger and old­er fam­i­ly mem­bers work togeth­er in search of the past, a spe­cial bond and con­nec­tion is formed; some­times the inter­est will also reunite wings of a fam­i­ly dis­tanced by the pas­sage of time.

Any­one — even a wid­ow of an old­er fam­i­ly mem­ber or a child of some­one who kept every­thing — could be sit­ting on old fam­i­ly pho­tos or records. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for copies. You know what I am talk­ing about — those pho­tos we all have with the Yid­dish writ­ing on back and doc­u­ments in oth­er lan­guages that peo­ple don’t quite know what to do with; they often end up sit­ting in a box in the attic.

As a girl, long before the Inter­net, I wrote let­ters to elder­ly fam­i­ly mem­bers. Two ladies sent me pack­ages filled with genealog­i­cal trea­sures. One mailed me pieces of what I would lat­er dis­cov­er was my ancestor’s Russ­ian pass­port from 1904.

If you are the old­er mem­ber of your fam­i­ly, write down what­ev­er fam­i­ly sto­ries you remem­ber — even rumors might have a ker­nel of truth behind them. Who was your old­est ances­tor to step foot on North Amer­i­can soil? There will be some type of record on that per­son, wait­ing to be found. Pas­sen­ger records will reveal where your ances­tors trav­eled from. Mar­riage and death cer­tifi­cates are like­ly to reveal the names of their par­ents. Social secu­ri­ty appli­ca­tions, mil­i­tary draft records, and his­tor­i­cal news­pa­per arti­cles can add to the narrative.

Take pho­tos of the Hebrew on the grave­stones of your fam­i­ly mem­bers — Jews will often inscribe the name of the decedent’s father on a headstone.

There are numer­ous sites that you can join (some free, oth­ers by sub­scrip­tion) that can be invalu­able in your search. Jew​ish​gen​.org has a fam­i­ly find­er where you can con­tact oth­er researchers inter­est­ed in your sur­names or towns. The Yizkor Book Project on their site (Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Books) can be an invalu­able tool. Ances​try​.com has the US cen­sus as well as oth­er vital records.

On Yad Vashem’s web­site, there is a Shoah names data­base. Many sur­vivors and fam­i­ly mem­bers sub­mit­ted Pages of Tes­ti­monies on those mur­dered, which often includ­ed invalu­able genealog­i­cal infor­ma­tion. I used dozens of these tes­ti­monies when cre­at­ing a fam­i­ly tree for Bernard based on a mem­o­ry that he had of a sur­name; it turned out to be his own.

DNA tests have become pop­u­lar. Ances­try DNA is my favorite to work with, as it will show (with a sub­scrip­tion) the fam­i­ly trees of your DNA match­es. This was anoth­er tool that I used — with much suc­cess — to help recon­nect Bernard with the cousin that he nev­er knew. It can also help you recon­nect with rel­a­tives whom you’ve lost touch with, or to intro­duce you to new ones who might already be sit­ting on an arse­nal of fam­i­ly doc­u­ments, or, even bet­ter, an exist­ing fam­i­ly tree.

While research­ing Tears Over Rus­sia, I joined many free Jew­ish geneal­o­gy groups on Face­book, and shared infor­ma­tion with oth­er researchers study­ing my grandmother’s shtetl. Jew­ish fam­i­lies have migrat­ed all over the world, but inter­est in our shared roots keeps our research com­mu­ni­ty connected.

It is nev­er too late to start dig­ging into your own roots — so get start­ed. I can admit now that back in 1972, at the age of nine, I was the one who took that intrigu­ing ances­tral pho­to off of my great-grandmother’s shelf after she died and chased his­to­ry. Now, a half cen­tu­ry lat­er, it graces the cov­er of my book.

Lisa Brahin is an accom­plished Jew­ish geneal­o­gist and researcher from New Jer­sey. A grad­u­ate of George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty’s Columbian Col­lege, she is a two-town project coor­di­na­tor for’s Yizkor Book Project (Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Book Project). Lisa hopes that her book, Tears Over Rus­sia: A Search for Fam­i­ly and the Lega­cy of Ukraine’s Pogroms, will inspire con­tin­ued inter­est in fam­i­ly his­to­ry research. She also hopes that it will shine a light on an under­rep­re­sent­ed peri­od of Jew­ish his­to­ry — the 1917 – 1921 pogroms in Ukraine — that pre­fig­ured the hor­ror that was to come. Lisa Brahin is a Jew­ish geneal­o­gist and a JBC author. Invite her to speak vir­tu­al­ly at your event on the JBC Authors Net­work Tour 2022 – 2023, and learn how to uncov­er the secrets of your family’s past.