For the past year and a half or so, I have been lucky enough to have been volunteering with Gesher Galicia, one of the foremost Jewish genealogy associations. The organization is devoted to studying and preserving the history and genealogy of Jewish families from Galicia, the former north-easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As part of my volunteer work, I have helped research and transcribe important documents in Kurrentschrift. Additionally, I helped co-edit the World War 1 series for the Galitzianer, Gesher Galicia’s research journal.

A Happy Invitation

About a year ago, I was approached by Dr. Andrew Zalewski, who serves on Gesher Galicia’s board. Having worked with Gesher Galicia for several months by that point, I had decided to meet Dr. Zalewski in person in Philadelphia while on a trip to visit my parents in New York. During the course of the meeting, Dr. Zalewski invited me to speak about some of my recent research at the Gesher Galicia Symposium at AGAD in Warsaw, set for August 2018. The symposium would gather representatives and members of Gesher Galicia and various archives from Poland and Ukraine. I was extremely excited for this amazing opportunity.

In the course of my own research, I have worked with an extremely important genealogy record called “Family Evidence Books.” The books are a set of records for the Jewish community of Lemberg, Galicia (now L’viv, Ukraine). Started in the year 1795, they cover a period that begins several years before the earliest metrical records for the community. Moreover, they contain vastly more detailed information than the metrical records commonly used in genealogy research. I wrote an article about this source and the significant breakthroughs it led me to in my genealogy research, which was published in the June 2018 issue of the Galitzianer. My invitation to the symposium was to speak on this topic.

A Full-Day Symposium

Gesher Galicia’s symposium was held at AGAD, one of the main historical archives of Poland. The archive itself was established in 1808, and holds primary research documents and historical treasures dating back to about the year 1200. For Jewish genealogical purposes, the archive holds approximately three thousand books of birth, marriage, and death records. Mainly from towns, villages, and cities in eastern Galicia, they are primarily from regions that were part of Poland during the inter-war period. This eastern part of Galicia was transferred to the Soviet Union after World War 2; the books were transferred to Warsaw in the 1950s. The reason for their transfer from the USSR to Poland is unclear.

AGAD is located just outside of Old Town Warsaw in the so-called “New Town” area. (“New” is a relative term; the area, in Renaissance and Baroque architectural styles, dates to around 1400 and completely surrounds the 13th-century medieval Old Town.) The archives are currently housed in a magnificent Baroque palace dating to the early 18th century. The building’s exterior survived World War 2 and its interior, which had burned during the Warsaw Uprising, was reconstructed in 18th-century style after the war. The AGAD archive holdings were moved into the palace in 1951.

AGAD archive building, Warsaw

Warsaw New Town

The symposium itself took place in the palace’s grand ballroom. As soon as I walked through the formal French-style double doors into the magnificent hall, I couldn’t help feeling like I had been transported into a scene out of the movie Amadeus!

AGAD auditorium

Joshua lecturing at AGAD

Joshua lecturing at AGAD

Joshua lecturing at AGAD

A Week-Long Conference

Gesher Galicia’s symposium was held concurrently with the IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies) conference. Also held in Warsaw, the IAJGS conference took place during a five-and-a-half-day period in the Hilton Hotel and Conference Center. The conference was a great opportunity to meet other scholars, researchers, and interested people from all over the world. It was also an amazing experience to hold a convention on Jewish genealogy in what was once the very center of the European Jewish world.

The conference setting could not have been any more different from that of the symposium. In place of the Baroque splendor of the AGAD ballroom, the Hilton Hotel is a sleek business-modern structure. About two miles from Warsaw’s Old Town, it is located in the midst of the hotel and conference district of Warsaw. As is the case in much of the modern city center of Warsaw, ultramodern skyscrapers predominate the cityscape, interspersed with the occasional Communist-era or pre-war building.

Warsaw street scene

Warsaw street scene

Warsaw street scene

The six-day convention with hundreds of speakers, ranging the complete gamut of topics, was an almost overwhelming experience. Some of the highlights for me included:

  • a session on tracing rabbinic ancestors far past the 1800 boundary—the speaker used special rabbinical sources documenting his family’s history back hundreds of years

  • JRI-Poland’s presentation outlining their operations and plans for the upcoming year

  • Avraham Groll’s talk on Jewish history in Europe, expanding on some of the fascinating differences in cultural practice between medieval Jews in Spanish and German lands

  • Logan Kleinwaks’s lecture on his unique website Genealogy Indexer, which offers indexed and searchable treasures such as city directories, phone books, etc. These documents can provide unparalleled insights into our family’s histories, and are usually not available anywhere else.

All-in-all, it was a fascinating and amazing experience that was well worth it.

The Journey Home

After the conference finished, I stayed in Poland for an extra day to do some research of my own. I was led to some astonishing discoveries about my family history and had a chance to visit several of my ancestral towns and villages. After an exciting and emotional week, I set out for New Jersey.

What an amazing week-long journey this was! Three months later, I still feel immense gratitude for the opportunity to learn so much, visit some of the locations that hold so much meaning to our people’s history, and to share some of my own insights and discoveries with others.

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