Whether you're dabbling in finding your Jewish roots or you're a serious genealogist, the online world offers a wealth of resources to make your search much more fruitful.
The Internet can help with the two critical problems facing amateur researchers: locating repositories around the world with the historical records you need, and networking to find people who can fill in some of the blanks in your search.
If you're looking for information about your great-grandparents' extended family in Bialystok, what better way to tap the memories of Jews around the world with Bialystok roots than Internet newsgroups and the World Wide Web, which reach up to 20 million cybernauts across the planet?
The easiest starting point is JewishGen, the World Wide Web home page of JewishGen Inc., a nonprofit organization that began in 1985 with genealogy forums on primitive computer bulletin board networks. Set your browser to http://www.jewishgen.org and you're on your way.
For you novices, "browser" isn't the name of a dog; it's a piece of software on your computer, like Netscape, that enables you to jump from Web site to related site, and to get your information gussied up with cool pictures and, sometimes, sound.
Every site has an address — or a "URL," in cyber-lingo — beginning with that queer-looking http:// heading. You don't have to know what it means but you do have to remember to copy the URL carefully; computers are stupid, and they are very unforgiving when it comes to typographical errors. Type the URL into the "go to" box, hit return and go.
The JewishGen home page, like most other sites on the Web, is filled with information, but it's also a gateway to other Web sites around the world with related information. Click on a link — an underlined word or phrase — and you shift to that site in a matter of seconds.
JewishGen "fulfills our vision to bring together Jewish genealogy researchers from all over the world," the JewishGen moderators write in their home page.
"Over 2000 researchers gather to share information, ideas, research, research problems and family histories. They want to know more, and they willing to help others along the way."
JewishGen offers dozens of files you can download into your own computer, including articles on how to begin genealogical research, a listing of Jewish genealogical societies around the world, a file on resources available through the American Jewish Historical Society, and a genealogical bibliography.
You'll also find pointers on using specific sources of information, including concentration camp records, family newsletters, cemetery directories and government information.
Or you can use the Jewish Genealogical Family Finder, a database of towns and family names. Type in your family name and town of origin, and there's a good chance the JGFF will quickly offer up some information to start your search.
Another mouse click and you can check out a directory of individual families that have set up home pages to facilitate their own genealogical quests, and help others with theirs.
Daniel Loeb's home page, for example, begins with an index of last names with connections to his family.
"Are you related to me?" asks Loeb, who lives in France. His short, sophisticated home page, with its chronicle of a family spread across the continents, offers a different and fascinating slant on the word "diaspora."
The JewishGen home page also has links to sites operated by local Jewish genealogical societies. Check out the Jewish Genealogical Society of Rochester and the Dallas Jewish Historical Society.
And you can shop at the Avotaynu Inc. home page, which offers information and products useful to Jewish genealogists, including books, microfiche, maps and video tapes.
Now, let's jump over to another part of the Internet for a different kind of help in the genealogical realm.
Usenet newsgroups are open forums for the discussion of every topic under the sun. There are almost 15,000 of them.
For Jewish genealogists, the place to be is soc.genealogy.jewish, the companion newsgroup to the JewishGen web site. Here you'll find experts who can answer questions about the techniques of genealogical research, and a huge audience of Jews who may be able to provide information about your own family.
"Seeking information on the Goldenberg family of Beltsy," one participant wrote recently, and then provided some details about her great-grandmother, who died in 1939.
In another, a novice genealogist seeks advice on how to track down his grandfather's place of birth in Eastern Europe using social security information.
Another writes plaintively: "I've lost contact with a Chicago branch of my family. I recently learned that the party had moved and, as far as I am concerned, disappeared. Below is information about them…"
Another seeks information about early Jewish colonies in Argentina, where she suspects some of her family settled.
At least 2000 Jewish computer users regularly participate in soc.genealogy.jewish; the tone of the conversation is generally friendly, and the hard-core genealogists appear eager to help the neophytes.