Researching Family History
In the Spring of 2020, not long into the first lockdown, I received a phone call from my cousin who explained that he had started to research our family tree. Thus began the start of a joint effort over the past 14 months to track down our ancestors and their offspring, resulting in a family tree that now contains almost 300 names for just this one branch of my family. We have discovered scores of relatives we never knew existed in places as far afield as Belgium, New Jersey and Hendon.
My late mother was the eldest of two children. Her parents, my maternal grandparents, were married in the Great Synagogue in 1924. I knew that my grandfather, Samuel Wilson (Woolfson), had been born in “Russia” and had emigrated to England as a child but I didn’t know the precise date. We have a copy of an old family photo, which I believe was taken in Russia around the turn of the century and which shows my great-grandparents and seven children. I only knew the names of three of the children including my Grandpa Sam.
It turns out that my grandfather was, in fact, one of ten children. We discovered this from the 1911 UK census which names several other children and states that one child had sadly died by that date. We were given this information by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, after I emailed them to ask for help in tracing our ancestors. They also very helpfully provided the names of several researchers, and we chose to work with a charming couple who run Brother’s Wish Genealogy Service which is based in the Wirral. Saul Marks and his wife, Leanne, were extremely helpful and they managed to uncover some very exciting finds from various sources. Up until this point, we had very little information and scarcely any contemporaneous photographs or correspondence. Moreover, it seemed that our Grandfather preferred not to talk about his childhood in Russia. We were therefore starting with pretty much a blank slate.
One particular source that we hoped would tell us a lot more about the family were the naturalisation files for our grandfather and two of his brothers. We found the dates of their naturalisation from searching the National Archives online, although it took several months for the papers to arrive, due to delays as a result of the pandemic. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to read all the correspondence and official reports, including from the CID. Fortunately, they all had clean records.
Another valuable source of information was the various death notices in the Jewish Chronicle archives. From these, we ascertained that our great-grandparents were buried in Edmonton cemetery. I had no idea that they had emigrated to the UK so it was very moving to be able to visit their graves last Summer. We also discovered the addresses of each of their children in 1931 when my -grandmother passed away. Back then, it was customary to include the home addresses for each of the mourners. It turned out that one of my great-uncles lived literally round the corner from where I currently live!
During a conversation with Saul and Leanne I happened to say that my late mother had once mentioned to me that she had had distant cousins living in Belgium who had all perished in the Shoah. They became quite excited by this revelation and in hardly any time they discovered that a man called Aron Woolfson, a first cousin of my mother, had been arrested in Liege, deported to a transit camp and subsequently taken to Auschwitz where he had been killed in August 1942. He was just 36 years old. Remarkably, it transpired that his wife and baby daughter, who was only three weeks old when her father was murdered by the Nazis, had survived the war. From information held by Yad Vashem I discovered that I have a cousin living in Belgium. We are now in touch with each other and I am looking forward to meeting him soon.
Going back to the family’s origins in Russia, we found out that our great-grandparents hailed from a shtetl near Bobruysk which is not far from Minsk in modern-day Belarus. In the first decade of the 20th century a few members of the family seem to have moved to Ekaterinaslav (now called Dnipro) in modern-day Ukraine. Tracing what happened to these relatives and their descendants has proved much harder but we have recently retained the services of a student in Minsk and an academic in Dnipro. Hopefully they be able to help us find the missing pieces so that we can complete the fascinating jigsaw puzzle we have managed to put together from a wide variety of sources including online birth, marriage and death records, 120 year old books containing Russian Army draft lists, ship manifests and UK naturalisation records..
In conclusion, we have made some amazing discoveries during the course of the past year. At the start of 2020 I knew hardly anything about my mother’s family. I now know the names of her great-grandparents (who would have been born at the start of the 19th century), found the graves of my own great-grandparents in London and discovered a long-lost cousin in Belgium whom I never knew existed.
Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain