Thursday, May 6, 2010

When you least expect it ...

If you've been reading along (and I know you have), you know that I am hopelessly behind in my reading challenge and probably on the road to failure, at least to the extent that success or failure is defined in terms of books read in a 12-month period.

But I have been making progress on my genealogical research, and sometimes it's hard to concentrate on a regular ole book when there's so much discovering to be done.

Some time ago, I mentioned that I had started to discover some of the lost history of my father's family. To quickly recount, my grandparents on that side were Latvian Jews, who emigrated to South Africa in the mid-1930s. I won't recount the entire history for you (there is an excellent account here), but suffice it to say, this story does not have a happy ending. My grandmother was relatively lucky: two of her three brothers survived, and one of those brothers' three children also survived. For my grandfather, the outcome was unfathomable: his entire family was destroyed. 

He never spoke of them. 

When I learned from a historian of the town that my grandmother's surviving nephew was still living, I attempted to contact him, only to discover that he did not speak English. Of course, this should not be a surprise, but being American, I blithely assume everyone speaks English until they tell me otherwise. He sent me a stream of seemingly random emails with oddball attachments (example: a powerpoint of some animal-shaped topiaries in Florida) and I sent him a stream of photos and questions, optimistically written in English, which he did not answer. Hint: typing in all caps doesn't help people understand English any better than shouting at them.

Finally, after several months of trying to decide what to do, I looked through his seemingly random attachments, and latched onto the name of someone I thought might help me, and sent a pleading email for help.

An incredibly kind woman replied to me, and generously served as interpreter for us. I gathered up the grim facts, and answered questions in turn, as he had questions for me as well. I cannot say it shed a tremendous amount of light on my history, but it certainly felt good to reach out to this man, and have him reach back in his own way.

Buoyed by my small but hard-won accomplishment, I decided to try my luck with the Latvian State Historical Archives, whose genealogy department the historian recommended to me for my research. So I wrote to them, explaining that I had really very few facts about my grandfather, except I knew his name and approximately when he emigrated, and could they please help me? I mailed it off to Latvia with the thought that when they don't have anything and probably don't even reply to tell me so, well, at least I can say I tried.

I am quite sure you cannot imagine my surprise to receive the following email less than two weeks later:

"In reply to your request please be informed that some information about the family of your grandfather including even pictures of him and some of the family members is available. So it means that the genealogical research is possible."

And then instructions for transferring funds to pay for the research, which will take a year to complete.

Just so you know: It is really hard to type a blog post when you are jumping for joy.

My cousin on that side of the family lives in Johannesburg, and so although we email from time to time, I am a lousy correspondent (as she often reminds me), so we don't communicate nearly enough and she's been on me to set up a Skype account so we can chat. Now I'm all MUST HAVE SKYPE NOW.

Download. Install. Test. Hm ... no sound. 

Shout at computer. Still no sound. 

Read instructions: Ah! It recommends using a microphone.

I have a test call with my friend Tod. He can hear me. He walks me through conference calling. Explains how to set up groups. Skype can do many things, all of which are lost on me at the moment because all I want to do is call my cousin in Johannesburg and it's the middle of the stupid night there! 

I call my friend Charlotte who's all fancy-schmancy with the webcams and shows me that, good gracious, the future has arrived and Hello! You can buy it at Best Buy for about the price of a manicure. I am tempted to call her a young whippersnapper but such is my mood that I refrain. 

My husband gets wind of this and starts lecturing me about computer security and (lengthy, acronym-filled technical something-something-something) and all I can do is wait for him to stop talking and ask, Can you pick me up a webcam on the way home?

I didn't get the webcam*  but the next day, over my morning coffee and her dinner, I did get to hear the lovely accented voice of my cousin, and shared the news with her, and she shared the news with my Aunt, and we are all excited at the prospect that we might finally learn our shared history.

Now, I was raised to be wary of things that seem too good to be true, but I have a hard time picturing some Nigerian scammer putting together an email informing me I have won a genealogical lottery jackpot ... because if such a scammer exists, he's smart enough to realize I'd pay far more than $100 (plus bank transfer fees) for this information. So I wired the money to someone I truly hope is the lead researcher at the Latvian State Historical Archives. 

And in 9-12 months, I hope to tell you how it turns out.

* I did, however, get another lecture about the dangers of viruses and could I please be careful what I download?

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