Alan Leeds, our First Vice President and Program Chair, gave the featured presentation on “Tracing the Schoenemans in Pittsburgh and Germany” at the December, 2016 meeting. Allen graciously agreed to be interviewed by Dana Leeds for our blog. He shared about how he got started in genealogy research, some tips to researching in other countries, stories about one of his favorite ancestors, and more.
We hope you enjoy learning more about Alan.
What got you interested in genealogy?
Both my mother and one of her cousins had worked on genealogy, so I must have it in my genes. However, I got my start while attending a convention in downtown Salt Lake City. I stepped outside for some fresh air and, out of curiosity, wandered into a building labeled “Family History Library.” After an orientation at the library, I was hooked.
You are the First Vice President for HGF. Can you tell us about some of your responsibilities as Program Chair?
I am new to this position, so I will know more about the answer this winter as the planning for the 2017-2018 season begins. Right now we have the already planned 2016-2017 schedule, so the work involves contacting the speakers, helping with travel, learning about any special requirements, setting up the projector, advertising the Forum at outside meetings, etc. I have a great team to work with.
You have done genealogy research with ancestors in England, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. How many immigrant families have you traced to their homelands?
I have traced almost all of my own and my wife’s ancestors to their country of origin, but few of the lines go beyond that. Two of my lines lead to London, where synagogue records extend back to the late 1600’s. The rest of my lines lead to Pozen (formerly Prussia, now Poland), Lithuania, and Ukraine. The few Polish and Ukrainian records are in German, but the Lithuanian records are in Russian. I have a few possible links to other families, but no definitive proof yet. Fortunately, there is still plenty more to do filling in the American experiences.
My wife’s ancestry offers more opportunities. I have had good luck in Westphalia, Rheinpfalz, and Bohemia, as well as Pennsylvania. Her brother-in-law’s ancestry even allowed me to work with records from Spanish Florida. I am still afraid to tackle Ireland.
Of the immigrant families you’ve traced to their homelands, which was the most recent and can you tell us a little of their story?
Unfortunately, I am having trouble advancing from a list of names to a story of my ancestors. My great-grandmother from Ukraine did keep a journal of her St. Louis experiences, but she does not mention Europe except for correspondence with her sister. The journal is in German.
You’ve been able to do German research even though you don’t read German. You’ve also done research in both the Czech Republic and Poland. Do you read Czech or Polish? If not, how have you worked around those language issues?
I studied French and Spanish in school, but no other languages. Other than a few documents from the Napoleonic period or early 19th century Florida, these languages have not been useful for genealogy. The records I have needed from mainland Europe have been in German, with some Russian and Latin.
While genealogy dictionaries and translation websites are readily available, the real challenge with German has been reading the actual words. In effect, Germany changed its alphabet in 1941. The problem with early records is not necessarily bad handwriting but foreign handwriting. We must accept that this is a foreign alphabet, just like Russian or Greek. Counting capitals and lower case, cursive and block, we have about 100 new symbols to learn. And yes there is still bad handwriting.
What special tools and/or websites do you use for doing research in the Czech Republic and Poland?
I have found two very useful websites for dealing with Czech records. Portafontium.eu gives free access to the state archives in Pilsen, including both church and census records. This is a shared site between Germany and the Czech Republic, with the interface available in either language. The documents themselves are in their original languages, in my case either German or Latin.
Another useful site has been the Austrian site genteam.at, which is also free. In addition to a gazetteer of Bohemia including parish history, it also gives links to available online records both German and Czech.
Who is one of your favorite ancestor or what has been one of your favorite genealogical discoveries?
My great-great-great grandfather David Abraham was born in Poland in the early 1820’s, possibly in Inowrocław. I have traced him to London, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Las Cruces NM, El Paso, Silver City NM, Clifton AZ, and then back to Silver City. This gives me a wide range of records to search. Silver City was a lively place in the 1870’s. I can find photographs of David Abraham and his family in histories of Billy the Kid. David’s second wife Emilie appears in histories of the Lincoln County range war.