(No. 4/2003 - August 2003)
Editor: Fran Bock
A journey home: Search for family roots turns revolutionary on the Internet
Dr. Sallyann Sack's first attempts at Jewish genealogy 25 years ago could hardly be considered success stories.
"In those days, if you called the Russian embassy, they would say, 'You want records? Call the Red Cross.' And they would hang the phone down in your ear," said Sack, a 66-year-old psychologist in suburban Washington, D.C. "There was no access at all."
When she finally penetrated the Soviet embassy, Sack was quickly visited by an FBI agent the helpful Russian turned out to be a top spy for the KGB, Russia's infamous secret police squad.
These days, Sack edits "Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy," and is considered a pioneer in a field experiencing explosive growth thanks to two factors: the demise of the Iron Curtain and the rise of the global information superhighway.
No longer does Sack have to write letters to distant relatives halfway across the globe and wait months or years for a reply. And rather than rely on a double-dealing apparatchik, she can send e-mail research requests directly to historians and archivists in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and other former Eastern bloc countries.
"We've seen exponential growth because of the Internet," she said. "Before, we were really scrambling just to get information."
Family-tree researchers often wind up at sites such as www.jewishgen.org, home to an extensive network of genealogical databases and search tools. The effort started in 1985 as a technologically primitive computer bulletin board, said Susan King, 52, president and founder of Houston-based JewishGen Inc.
Now the nonprofit Web site attracts 6 million hits each month, with more than 360,000 different users logging on monthly to seek their roots, she said. Those efforts have led to a new affiliation with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, a move that will allow JewishGen to hire permanent staff and help load reams of now-idle data onto its site.
"We wanted to provide a central place for those who are researching their ancestry," King said. "I had no idea it was going to get this big. . . We felt the Internet had the opportunity to connect the Jewish world."
The explosion of Web-based genealogy isn't confined to Jewish family researchers, both Sack and King noted. The Mormon church has an extensive collection, and several for-profit services offer specialized access, such as Ancestry.com, which sells federal Census records.
But online Jewish genealogy in particular has fostered virtual communities, King said, connecting distant relatives and like-minded researchers from South Africa to St. Louis.
"There's a lot more to it than names, dates and places," she said.
Marco Island resident Maury Atkin, 84, used his computer to track down his cousins Sima and Abram Mazo, children of his father's sister. The Atkins in America hadn't heard from their Belarusian relatives since 1946, but with the help of an Internet-savvy American researcher in Moscow, the reunion quickly became a reality.
In 2001, Atkin and his wife, Flora, visited their relatives, now living in Russia. Last year, the Mazo siblings, ages 79 and 84, took their first trip to America.
Atkin laughingly recalled Abram Mazo's first reaction when the American researcher called with news about their long-lost relatives. Although global in its reach, the Internet had yet to make its way to their corner of Moscow.
"His first reaction was very suspicious," Atkin said. "Daniel Kohn (the researcher) had to explain to him about computers and e-mail. He couldn't believe it."
Though fueled by a modern innovation, the genealogical boom speaks to a fundamental human need, Sack suggested.
"Everybody wants to know more about who they are," she said.
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