Sunday, September 1, 2013


About four years ago, I was contacted by an attorney in the UK who was looking for two heirs of a woman named Margaret, with a distinctly non-Jewish-sounding surname. She wanted me to find a man named Ziv and a woman named Miriam, both with common surnames.

She had addresses for Ziv in the Tel-Aviv area and for Miriam in Haifa and there was a provision that if Miriam had predeceased Margaret, her portion was to go to her husband Dubie, a common nickname for Dov. There was no such provision regarding Ziv.

She had no other identifying information.

Of course, I found neither at the suggested addresses. If I had, there would be no story to tell.

I did find a Miriam with the correct surname at another address on the same street, but her husband was Yitzhak. There was no answer at the telephone number that was in the book.

I telephoned someone else the apartment building and was told that they had retired and moved to somewhere in Tel Aviv. Eventually I found someone in the building who had a phone number and I called and spoke to Yitzhak, a retired professor of (I think) chemistry. He told me all I needed to know.

They were indeed the couple I was looking for. Ziv was actually Zvi and he was Miriam's late brother. Zvi's wife had died some years before, so Margaret - he called her Peggy - had not mentioned her. (Ziv and Zvi look similar in Latin letters, but in Hebrew, צבי and זיו are not similar at all.)

It seems that Peggy had come from England to their native Hungary as an au-pere before the War and had worked with them as children. She did not know what had happened to them, but eventually found them here in about 1968 and they renewed their friendship. They visited each other more than once. Miriam had been wondering why she had not heard from Peggy recently.

Zvi had predeceased Peggy, so his share of the inheritance returned to the estate.

All that remained for me to do was to get a death certificate for Zvi and to report all this to the client.

Oh, and the bit about Yitzhak's being called Dubie? That came from the pajamas he had as a child. They had teddy bears on them.

This is part of wrapping up my trip to the US. The one clear failure of the trip.

When I was young, I tried to gather information on my family history. But I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't speak to the available elders, including my grandfather's brothers. (I knew them, but not to have an actual conversation.) And when I did speak to the elders, I never really knew what I should be asking.

Nonetheless, I acquired the reputation among the family as the one who knew something.

Twenty years ago, we all met in Pittsburgh to celebrate my grandmother's ninetieth birthday. Among those there was my first cousin Karen, who lived (still does) in Alaska. Needless to say, we didn't see much of each other and I didn't know her kids at all.

But Karen's nine year old daughter Merissa had none of the reservations that I had had at her age (and beyond) and she spoke to me about getting a copy of the family tree I had supposedly done. I didn't want to tell her that I hadn't done anything in the preceding twenty years and that all I had were some old hand-drawn charts and a packet of notes collected over the years, so I told her that I would get it in order and get back to her.

Once home, I got a copy of Brothers' Keeper from a neighbor and began what has become my life's work. And my profession.

Everything I have done regarding genealogy came from that one request from Merissa, whom I have not seen since. Without her, maybe I would have taken up genealogy. More likely not.

My recent trip to the US included a Sunday evening bus from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis, with a fify-five minute stopover in Columbus Ohio, where Merissa now lives. I told her I'd be coming through at ten-thirty and she said she'd come to meet me. (She was to be returning from Alaska that morning, so a night meeting was no easy thing.)

I was really looking forward to this. Bought something to give her. And some pictures. And sandwiches - figuring I didn't want to deal with food service at Greyhound Columbus. And I wanted a picture of us together, so I had my camera in easy reach.

The bus was more than an hour late leaving Pittsburgh and the driver split the passengers into two groups. Our group would not be stopping in Columbus. I don't think I ever stood up a date before and this was a really painful experience telling her we'd have to cancel.

Eventually we did stop in Columbus, but it was way too late to drag her out. So I ate both sandwiches.

Next time we'll do it better.

Merissa turns twenty-nine on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, this Thursday. Happy birthday, girl. I owe you.

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DNA Notes

A few hours ago, we received autosomal DNA results from at least five seven Pikholz descendants. It will take me a day or two to analyze, but two things are clear.

1. Joanna's story has legs.

2. The Rozdol and Skalat families are totally cross-matched, to the point that the idea of two separate families is obviously wrong, the idea that there are two distinct branches of the Pikholz family is probably wrong and the axiomatic belief that all the Rozdolers are descended from one couple may well be wrong.

There is much work to be done.