Jewish identity in a digital age

| March 5, 2009
Lukasz Biedka is a psychologist, author and researcher of history and Jewish genealogy. He is also a contributor to the Jewish blog, Przemysl. For 15 years, he has been part of a team of psychotherapists who work with Holocaust survivors and the second generation in Poland.

He knows many stories of people who discovered their Jewish roots late in life. Usually, they came from mixed marriages or had survived the Holocaust as children, and were raised by Christian families. What stood out for him about Roma Baran's story, featured on the Przemysl blog, wasn't just the lifetime of secrecy.

"I never heard of such a story that someone was living in America, where both parents were Jewish and they did not identify themselves with the Jewish world. This was something special," he says.

Family secrecy is an issue that comes up often in his psychotherapy sessions with children and family members of Holocaust survivors. In Poland, it is typical for children to first learn of their Jewish roots at the age of 12 or 13, he says. That is when the children are considered mature enough to keep the secret from going outside of the family. That is when his mother told him.

"People are hiding here," he says. "The Jews are. They do not share their identity outside. And it's part of the problem that belongs to the survivors and the second-generation."

Biedka's mother discovered she was Jewish a year after the war ended, at the age of 14. She was born in Warsaw and survived the war in Siberia with her father. Her parents were both from Przemysl.

Biedka has become an expert on the Jewish from Przemysl -- collecting things like databases, memories, testimonies, documents and photos and connecting with people online to help piece together a shared history.

He's like a human database. Years of research has enabled him to associate the names of people and places and to recollect details and make connections.

Soon after he met Baran on the Przemysl Blog, he realized that he knew a man who hid in the same place as her father during the Holocaust. He knew this man from testimonies he was collecting for research on the ghetto in Przemysl. He confirmed it with the man, now in his eighties and living in Israel. The man had known Roma's father during and after the war, and Biedka put Baran in touch with him so she could get to know another side of her father.

But Baran isn't the only one who has reconnected with her past because of Biedka. He says he's helped people trace their genealogy on several occasions, usually starting with the Internet.

"It's their access to the databases that are online," he says. "You can contact people all over the world who search for a certain place or a certain name. This is the power the Internet has, that one can associate the facts more quickly."

Jewish genealogy sites are an empire, he says.

Searching, he says, is a Jewish speciality, especially in countries like Poland, where much of the now fragmented Jewish population has few close relatives.

"It's not like American-Jewish families, with five generations living a normal life untouched by the (Holocaust)," he says. Jews here have no families, they have no grandparents, they have no cousins ... they are trying to rebuild the whole network. So the distant cousins from across the globe in Latin America, in Australia, become close relatives."

When someone is searching for her Jewish ancestors, especially from a culture of secrecy or in light of a recent discovery, it's more dramatic than just curiosity, says Biedka. It's searching for identity.

The bigger the mystery the larger the quest for meaning -- and it's a puzzle Roma's still working on. "I don't think we have an answer, not yet. We'll find it," says Biedka. "Every week we learn something new."

Discovering a Jewish past in the digital age

Roma Baran celebrated Christmas 60 times before she found out she was Jewish.

This August, Baran, 61, received an e-mail from a genealogist making references to her Jewish past, a past she was unaware of.

The e-mail struck her. She had been told as a child she had no extended family, let alone one that was Jewish. Her father had told her that her extended family had died during the war, and that non-Jewish Polish civilians who lived in the Warsaw ghetto were killed.

In reality, Baran had left Poland with her parents in 1949. They travelled around Europe under alias names, and lived in abandoned military barracks in Israel before immigrating to Montreal when Baran was four years old. Although she never considered herself a Christian, Baran had been enrolled in a Protestant school where her parents had registered her as an Episcopalian Anglican.

Baran, now living in New York City, flew to Montreal and showed her uncle Zygmunt the e-mail.

"My uncle told me first about my father, and that was the one I had had a couple of suspicions about. I said to him, 'But not my mother,' and there was a pause, and that pause was so pregnant, and he said, 'Yup, your mother too.' And in that moment I just knew it all; I knew 100 per cent that I was a Jew, and he was a Jew, and it all kind of happened in a second."

Baran was surprised not so much at being Jewish, but at the great lengths that her family took to conceal their Jewish identity. "My mother carefully went through our photographs and took out anything that had to do with all these relatives, or that had anything to do with Jews or Israel," she said.

With this new knowledge, Baran began scouring the Internet for information about her past. She used websites such as JewishGen and Jewish Research International Poland.

"The first thing I did is start putting kind of random things into the Internet. I've never done any genealogical research," said Baran. "I would enter names into the Internet in all their variants and different spellings, and see what I came up with. Like one of my grandfathers, as I knew him was Joseph Karas. His real name was Bernard Kluger, and I started finding out about the Kluger family."

On JewishGen, Baran used their Jewish Family Finder tool to find a third cousin. "[My cousin] and I have been corresponding ever since and she's working on a giant Kluger family tree. It goes back to the 12th century, so it was great to be able to plug my stuff into her family tree -- all done on the Internet."

Baran discovered that her extended family had changed their surnames during the war. They went back to using their Jewish names when they lived in Israel, but adopted Christian names when they moved to Canada.

Baran recalled a time when she used the Internet to find out information about an old photo. The picture featured her as a child with her parents on a boat. She stumbled upon www.shipsnostalgia.com, and posted the photo on their forums. "I immediately got [a lot of] responses, 'Boom boom boom boom boom,' and by two or three responses they'd identified it as this SS Kedmah, which was the first ship to actually fly the Israeli flag. I looked up the SS Kedmah, and I found a whole bunch of stuff on the Kedma."

Baran's online research also led her to find out her mother had grown up in the Polish city Przemysl. She soon discovered the Jewish genealogical blog www.przemysl.blogspot.com. The blog, created by David Semmel, aims to bring together descendents of the Jewish people who were driven out of Przemysl during World War II.

Semmel visited Przemysl with his grandparents as a child, and was interested in learning more about his family's roots there. A tech-savvy Semmel thought using the Internet to help other people with their genealogical research was an obvious choice.

After learning about Baran's story, Semmel began helping her. He devoted so much of the Przemysl blog to her story that in November, he created a separate blog for Baran to post about her discoveries.

"The Roma (story) was interesting mostly because it's a very compelling human story when someone makes a discovery of that gravity so late in life," said Semmel. "I'm proud to just be a small part of (her discoveries). It's a great story."

For Semmel, genealogy is interesting because it is more than just who is related to whom. "What were these people actually like and what were their lives like?" he questioned. "What motivated them, and were they like me, were they not like me, were their kids like my kids?"

"Occasionally I get to make first time contacts between people who didn't know they knew each other or that their parents knew each other -- I love doing it," he said.

Semmel's interest in genealogy stems from his own research about his family. As in Baran's case, the Internet was instrumental in bringing Semmel into contact with his past.

Four years ago, Semmel got an email from a woman called Janet Metzger, who said she stumbled upon his website and realized she has the same last name as Semmel's grandmother. She said she lived in Miami, but her family is from Peru. Metzger realized her grandfather, Jacob Metzger, was a brother to Semmel's grandmother.

"That's an Internet story, if there ever was one."

"My grandmother, Fanny, died without knowing whatever happened to her brother. Because of the Internet, some 20 years after her passing, I get this e-mail from the clear blue and that story completely unravels. Now I have this family that lives in Lima, Peru," he said.

"I'm grateful that something like the Internet exists, and that we can kind of keep alive something that would die otherwise. (The Internet is) an opportunity to relive and make people's lives more full and complete and have a better sense of history," said Semmel.

Through his blog, Semmel helps people doing genealogical research to re-establish a Jewish identity once lost or unknown, as in Baran's case.

Baran, like so many others, is discovering a shared sense of belonging through the Internet. She is not only reconnecting with her blood relations, but also with the larger Jewish community. Jews refer to this community as mishpochah.

"It's like a sort of greater family, you know more than your biological family," she said. "People have just been enormously generous with their time and helping, whether for translating stuff or making contacts for me or letting me look at documents. [I've] definitely met a lot of interesting people already, most of them not in person, but I hope to meet them."

In December Baran travelled to Israel to visit two cousins, to see the place where she lived, and for the first time, to enter her familyís names at the Yed Vashem memorial for victims of the Holocaust.

Jewish outreach and the Internet

Donna Halper has been teaching Americans about Judaism for years. But she didn't know her teachings would reach around the world, to the Congo. And it was all thanks to the Internet.

"It has just made things possible that wouldn't have been possible in any other time in history other than the era of the Internet," said Halper, who teaches communications at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Two years ago, Halper read an article written by her friend, a journalist at The Washington Post. The article detailed the problems people were facing in the war-torn Congo.

"I read this story and read about all these poor kids that have no school to go to and people in refugee camps and there was something about the story that just bothered me," she said.

She said told her friend she wanted to help.

Halper got in touch with Fidel Bafilemba Bienda, a 37-year-old translator for English-speaking journalists in the Congo. Bienda and Halper began exchanging e-mails, and Halper found herself helping Bienda with everything from finding a job with the International Rescue Committeee, to sending his daughter, Cindy, to school.

The communication did not stop there. After months of emailing back and forth, Bienda asked Halper a question a different kind of question.

He asked her what religion she practices. "I am Jewish," Halper replied.

Bienda, a non-practicing Christian, expressed how he had always wanted to know about Judaism, and because he didn't know any Jewish people in Congo, his desire to learn about the religion remained unfulfilled.

"The fact that he became interested in Judaism is very surprising to me. I thought he was just saying that because he felt grateful that I helped his family," said Halper.

It was then that she told Bienda about the Abayudaya, a Jewish community in Uganda.

Halper encouraged Bienda to get in touch with the community. She also began sending him links to various websites for him to learn more about Judaism.

As freelance writer and author, Halper has been directing interested students to various websites about Judaism for many years.

"Thanks to the Internet [Bienda] has been able to e-mail other Jewish people of colour. They've been able to find out about Jewish philosophy in their native language, which is French," Halper said.

Halper sends journal and newspaper articles to Bienda over the Internet on a regular basis, so that he feels connected to the Jewish community in America. She is happy that the Internet has given him a chance to expand his knowledge about the subject. "It's making information available," she said.

Linking the Holocaust to the Internet and Jewish genealogy

Gary Mokotoff always knew he was Jewish, but he didn't always feel a connection to the Holocaust. His grandparents had come to the United States from Poland before World War II, and for Mokotoff, "the Holocaust was something that happened on the other side of the Atlantic.î"It didn't affect him -- or so he thought.

Then Mokotoff traced his roots back five generations, and from there he found 1,700 descendants of his great-great-great grandfather.

"Of those 1,700 people, about 400 of them were murdered in the Holocaust," he says. "When I saw the Mokotoff name in print, associated with the Holocaust, it upset me terribly."

Now an award-winning genealogist who specializes in Jewish genealogy, Mokotoff says his case is typical of Jewish people tracing their roots.

"Tragically, virtually every Jewish family has been impacted by the Holocaust," he says. "Every Jewish genealogist goes back as far as they can -- which is not more than seven, eight generations -- comes forward, and finds all the aunts and uncles, and the great aunts and uncles, and the great-great aunts and uncles. Suddenly, they find that a significant portion of their family was murdered in the Holocaust."

The Internet, Mokotoff says, is playing a significant role in helping Jews makes such discoveries about their family history.

Websites like Ancestry.com, JewishGen and Yad Vashem allow people to search archives of historical data and communicate with other users on message boards.

"The Internet has cut down the amount of time that is necessary to find information by 90 per cent," Mokotoff says.

These days, Mokotoff says, he can access records without leaving his home or office. But when he first began to do genealogical research 25 years ago, he usually had to request information by mail or travel somewhere to find it. Even if documents were stored locally, it was at least a half-day effort to find them," he says.

Now, he describes the research process as "instantaneous."

For example, he says, before he had the World Wide Web at his fingertips, he had never managed to trace his paternal grandmother's family back in history. With the Internet, he traced them back to around the year 1800 in the space of an hour.

Mokotoff says the Internet is also helping Jews create a lasting record of family members lost in the Holocaust.

"There was an attempt to eradicate that they (Jews) ever existed," says Mokotoff. "The Germans destroyed Jewish records as well as Jewish people. What happens in Jewish genealogy is virtually every Jewish genealogist will say, 'The work I am doing is a memorial to the members of my family that were murdered in the Holocaust.'"

Mokotoff is among those genealogists. The record of his 1,700 relatives, he says, is "not just a bunch of names."

"I know the names of their parents and their great-grandparents, and exactly how they're related to me in the vast majority of the cases," he says. "My work perpetuates that they once existed."

 

 

Britt Aharoni, Natalia Halec, Michelle Higgins, Natasha Marar and Shobhita Sharma are students in the MA Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario.

Who R U? An Exploration of Identity at the Edge of Tech, is a collaborative feature series created by the students of the 2008 Online Journalism class at the University of Western Ontario, Instructed by Wayne MacPhail. The series looks at how technology is changing our identities and our idea of identity. Each of the nine episodes includes a feature article, a podcast (part of the rabble podcast network) and a video segment on rabbletv. We'll feature one episode a week, each Thursday here on rabble.ca. Hope you enjoy Who R U? We welcome your feedback, as do the great students who produced the series. Thanks to all of them for sharing their work with the rabble audience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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