The Past, Present & Future of a Time Capsule

My good friend Don Falk was just telling me a goosebumps-inspiring tale about researching his family’s history.

He and his brother now have 56,000 names, and many stories, on their family tree; clearly theirs is not a casual endeavor, but an intense one filled with travel and heavy research. His brother Stephen Falk’s History of Genealogy blog details their research.

One of the goals is to keep a running account of new discoveries — discoveries which are as likely to be new interconnections between the Jewish families (or families of Jewish ancestry) of Breslau, towns in Silesia (e.g. Brieg, Namslau, Staedtel, Zuelz, Kreuzburg, Cosel, Kieferstaedtel, Myslowitz, Tarnowitz, Beuthen, Oppeln, Krappitz), and towns in Posen (e.g., Posen, Lissa, Rawitsch, Kempen, Inowroclaw), as discoveries of new ancestors or distant cousins. 

Don told me about visiting an archive in Berlin in 2011 and discovering at the very last minute – as the offices were about to close, on their last possible visit there before leaving Germany – that a distant, previously unknown half-great-great-uncle had given a multi-generational family tree to the archives.

He and his brother were so excited, he said. They were like excited little kids. They stayed up late putting newly-found ancestors onto their computerized family tree, saying each name aloud in an act of remembrance.

He says that it was as though Uncle Curt left them a time capsule.

A time capsule! This Uncle Curt from the past took what he held as important, and left it with an archive for – well, he did not know for whom he was leaving it. But he left it anyway, and generations later it was received with joy and delight and thanks, more than he probably ever would have imagined.

Leslie Lang Talk Story Press
Ida Jacobsohn (1857-1939), Liebstadt

When he did this, Uncle Curt didn’t know there were people yet unborn who would think about him because he’d done this. He didn’t know they would be so excited and so grateful. He didn’t know that, because of clues he left in this “time capsule,” his descendants would finally be able to locate their great-grandmother’s grave – to push back 70 years of ivy from atop her gravestone and find her.

All because of his information. His time capsule.

This is what happens when you go a step beyond. When you gather your family stories into a book that then sits on bookshelves in several homes, each volume being passed down through the generations, you are creating a time capsule for people not yet born.

You might never know them, but because of the gift you’ve left behind, they will know you – and your family, and your parents and grandparents and beyond. They will know what you know about how your family got to this point, knowledge that ordinarily dwindles with each generation. They will learn about your values, if you want to share those, and even what you hope for them, the ones to come after.

Leaving a written, family history “time capsule” is a way to leave a significant legacy, even if you are unable to pass along a monetary inheritance. It will probably last longer than most anything else you could leave behind, and be more valued.

Have you heard the saying that people die twice? One time when they leave this earth, and a second time when there’s no one left alive that knows their name.

Creating a “time capsule” – organizing what you know about your family’s history and leaving it behind for those to come – means that someday, your grandchildren’s grandchildren will know your family’s stories.

They will know your name.

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Swabbing My Cheek For Deep Ancestry

There’s family history and then there’s family history. I’m going deep.

I just swabbed the inside of both my cheeks, put the swabs into a vial, and stuck them in a package, ready to zip it off to National Geographic’s Genographic Project.

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 1.23.34 PM

A short description of this project is that they are using cutting-edge DNA analysis to study how people populated the earth.

Here’s a longer one:

The Genographic Project is a multiyear research initiative led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells. Dr. Wells and a team of renowned international scientists are using cutting-edge genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand our human genetic roots. The three components of the project are:

• To gather and analyze research data in collaboration with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world

• To invite the general public to join this real-time scientific project and to learn about their own deep ancestry by purchasing a Genographic Project Participation and DNA Ancestry Kit, Geno 2.0

• To use a portion of the proceeds from Geno 2.0 kit sales to further research and the Genographic Legacy Fund, which in turn supports community-led indigenous conservation and revitalization projects

The Genographic Project is anonymous, nonmedical, and nonprofit, and all results are placed in the public domain following scientific peer publication.

Soon I will receive analysis of my DNA that reveals my “deep ancestry.”

Since 2005, the Genographic Project has gathered DNA data from more than half a million people (577,000!) from more than 140 countries.

This book, Deep Ancestry, Inside the Genographic Project, is by the study’s director Spencer Wells (that’s him above). I want to check it out.

In this concise and well-written work, Wells (The Journey of Man) provides an accessible introduction to genetic anthropology, the study of human history using genetic evidence. Wells is the director of the Genographic Project, which collects DNA samples from a wide array of world populations to better understand human history over the last 200,000 years. Wells does a fantastic job distilling both genetics and genetic anthropology into straightforward topics, presenting sophisticated material accessibly without oversimplification. He gives the reader the basic concepts (Y chromosomes, mtDNA, haplogroups, genetic markers) and then proceeds to step through genographic research from its 19th-century origins to the present day. In so doing, he takes the reader back to the 170,000-year-old female genetic ancestor of every person alive today: the so-called African Eve. It is a remarkable journey that will appeal to readers of all backgrounds interested in exploring the science and research behind human evolution, although those with more experience in the sciences may find some of the material elementary.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

While helping scientists understand how humans populated the world, we learn more about our own family’s migration route out of Africa. I find this all fascinating.

Because really, we know so little about our histories. True, a royal family might know, what?, several hundred or a thousand years of information about its forebears. Maybe a little more? And then there are cultures like the Polynesians and others who have very strong oral traditions and can tell the story of their people going extraordinarily far back in time. Which I also find fascinating, by the way.

But most people don’t know the story of their ancestors over the last 60,000 years. Harper’s magazine once estimated there have been 7,500 generations of people since the first Homo sapiens. Once many of those people left Africa, which way did they go, where did they settle along the way, and what brought us here?

Most people, groups, cultures, just do not hold on to that kind of information over that period of time! But it turns out our cheeks do.

For a woman, the Genographic Project analyzes thousands of genetic markers on her mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down each generation from mother to child.

But that would tell only part of my story, so guess what my brother got for Christmas? Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 1.05.55 PM

I got him his very own Geno 2.0 kit, and he swabbed his cheeks today too. Since his DNA includes the Y chromosome passed down from father to son, his results will tell us about the paternal side of our ancestral migration story.

Everyone’s DNA is analyzed for more than 130,000 other markers, too, which reveal “regional affiliations” of your ancestry (“insights into your ancestors not on a direct maternal or paternal line”).

Including — how interesting in this — our hominid cousins the Neanderthals and the newly discovered Denisovans. As we modern humans were first migrating out of Africa, more than 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Denisovans were still living in Eurasia, and we (okay, “scientists”) now know that they met and mingled. Most non-Africans, according to the Genographic Project, are about 2.5 percent Neanderthal. Anyone with solely sub-Saharan African ancestors is not, because their ancestors did not migrate through Eurasia.

You can follow the Genographic Project on Facebook, if you’re interested in learning more. Or read about the Genographic Project here. Or buy your own Geno 2.0 kit here.

So I’m off on an adventure. I am really looking forward to hearing the results of my DNA analysis (and my brother’s). This modern technology! I tell you.

Here’s an interesting article about DNA genetic testing: Genealogy enthusiasts mine DNA for clues to evolutionary history.

Have you done DNA analysis, whether with this sort of migration study or one of the ancestry ones, like Genetic Genealogy or 23andme? I’m really interested in that, too, and you know I will probably end up doing one of those someday, too.

Please comment below if you have participated in any of these DNA studies and tell us about it. Which project? How did you choose? What did you find out? I’d love to hear.

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Post-Hoopla Report

Leslie Lang, Talk Story PressThe hoopla of the holidays has died down, the week-long flu my family “enjoyed” shortly after New Year’s has ended, and here we are.

I enjoy the holidays, but am always ready to get back to Real Life when they are over. (I did not much enjoy the flu.)

We’re on to a new calendar with what always feels like a new, fresh start. The fireworks are over and now it’s about sitting down and achieving. Anything is possible!

I started the New Year – or ended the last one, actually – by reorganizing. I repurposed a couple rooms in my home and switched them, meaning my Talk Story Press office ended up in a new spot and got a major restructuring at the same time. It’s a better situation and I like it.

As I moved things, I cleared through all my office files, while also rearranging them so they are more organized for how my work has evolved. I’m happy to have done this. When my space and work is well-organized, so too is my head.

And now I’m back to it. My plate is filled with:

  • Writing/editing/consulting for businesses (for instance, I still manage and edit the active Hamakua Springs blog, and do ghostwriting/social media/other writing for businesses, as well),
  • Editing (at present I’m editing a memoir for an interesting, long-time Hilo resident, and a small self-help book for another client)
  • Writing the occasional magazine article, and
  • Working on personal and family history projects.

The personal and family history projects are always so interesting and satisfying. I’ve just finished interviews with an older woman whose son and daughter-in-law have commissioned a book about her life. Interviews with her reveal that her father had fought for Japan in the “Russo-Japanese war” before immigrating to Hawai‘i during sugar plantation days; and that her parents always worried about being shipped off to a concentration camp during World War II (fortunately, they were not).

Another project in the works is a book I’m doing for a client whose father died unexpectedly. By interviewing his siblings, mother and daughter, I am creating a narrative of her father’s life; put together with photos, it will end up as a lovely, printed book.

I have a couple projects for my own family in the works, as well. For decades I’ve gathered family stories and pictures and done genealogical research, but it’s no good to anyone if it’s just scraps of paper in a file drawer (or two), right?

That’s why I’ve gone into this personal and family history business with such delight. I find it very satisfying to help a family capture the stories that tell how it all unfolded to get them where they are now.

Because otherwise, anything you know about where your family came from, and how your grandmother came to be the person she is, and all the rest of it, it all just sort of poofs into the air and is gone when you are.

Maybe your father has told you a handful of stories about his childhood; but how many stories? Four? How many of those you pass down? One? None? It’s not too late.

Do you know where your grandparents came from, and why? Maybe your children aren’t interested now, but they might be later in their lives, when there’s no one around anymore to tell them. Or their (future) children or grandchildren might want to know – and even if you never meet them, they will know you and love you for having preserved that information for them.

Taking raw material and turning it into a published book that can sit on a shelf, available to anyone who’s interested as it passes through the generations – this is a delight. Whether it’s for my family or someone else’s, it feels so good to preserve these stories of ours.

If you’d like to hear more about my writing, and maybe read an occasional bit from a current project (shared with permission), please sign up for my quarterly newsletter. There is a Talk Story Press newsletter coming out soon. And never fear, your email address is always safe with me. I’ll never share it.

Also, once in awhile I offer a special deal on a personal history project through my newsletter, so sign up at right to keep in the know.

How about you – are you all organized and rejuvenated for a new year? Is it time to work on a part of your family history, or the story of a parent or grandparent, that needs to be preserved and printed? I’d be happy to discuss how we could work together in 2013.

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Memoir Reunites Cousins Separated 70 Years Ago

This story, from the Miami Herald, is an amazing one — and it all happened because one of these first cousins, separated by the Holocaust when they were young boys, wrote a memoir that the other one happened to see. What a dramatic illustration of the power of writing down your family history!

Do you have a family story you need to preserve? Contact me and we’ll brainstorm about it.

Cousins who survived Holocaust reunite in Broward after almost 70 years

The two men, who last saw each other in a concentration camp, fulfilled a dream Sunday in Tamarac as they met again, thanks to a memoir that one wrote.

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Leo Adler, left, looks at a picture of his mother with Leon Schagrin. Adler recently found his first cousin, Schagrin, after Adler saw this photo of Schagrin’s mother in a memoir that Schagrin wrote and realized their mothers were sisters. On Sunday they met for the first time in 70 years during the South Florida Holocaust survivors Purim party in Tamarac. Photo by Joshua Prezant

BY ELINOR J. BRECHER

For almost seven decades, Leo Adler looked for the cousin he knew only as Lemel, last seen in a Nazi death camp in 1944.

This Lemel, the son of his mother’s sister, would be Adler’s only living close relative. Everyone else died in the Holocaust.

Adler, a Hallandale Beach/Long Island snowbird, couldn’t remember his cousin’s last name, so his searches always hit a dead-end.

But in late February, a friend gave Adler a copy of another South Florida survivor’s memoir. She figured he would be interested because the author, Leon Schagrin, hailed from a town in Poland close to Adler’s native Tarnow….

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