My name is Janet and I’m a genoholic. My obsession has taken me to cemeteries from Brooklyn to Bavaria. I’ve strained my eyes on microfilm in Lower Manhattan. I’ve pored through online ships’ manifests, census reports and newspaper archives. I even drove hundreds of miles to meet a third cousin who lived near the Mexican border with her family of teddy bears.
Eleven years ago, after a third cousin found me, I was propelled by journalistic curiosity. Call it self-interest. But now I’m part of a symbiotic chain with worldwide links.
Believing that all my relatives had settled in New York or New Jersey, I was surprised to learn I wasn’t the first in my family to head west. Now I’ve discovered maternal and paternal relatives who settled in San Francisco in the mid-19th century.
In December, I received an email from Scott London, a photographer and journalist in Santa Barbara. He found me through JewishGen.org, a nonprofit genealogy source, and wondered if we were linked through the Redlich family from Kalisz, Poland. He was pursuing research begun by his late grandfather, history professor Irwin Abrams.
Scott had half the puzzle. I had some missing pieces. My paternal great-grandmother Dorothea Redlich Silver (1842-1881) and his great-great-great-grandfather Ludwig Redlich (1833-1909) were sister and brother.
We were third cousins twice removed, and I had found the smoking gun — a common niece who in the 1861 English census was in Sheffield with her parents and my great-grandmother. Nineteen years later, in the 1880 U.S. census, she kept house in the Pennsylvania home of Scott’s ancestors. Meanwhile, in 1864, my great-grandmother married Henry Silver in St. Louis and later moved to Hoboken, N.J., where my grandfather was born.
Before we had delved into genealogy, neither Scott nor I knew we had English relatives. I didn’t even know my great-grandmother’s maiden name.
“I knew there was a Sheffield connection, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” he told me. “You provided that very crucial clue that helped me to go to the next step.”
Together we put the links together. I pointed out Jewish naming customs to Scott, who isn’t Jewish. After comparing the names of our ancestors’ children, he found their parents in a database hosted by JewishGen. I also gained a California connection. His ancestors later settled in San Francisco, where they Americanized the surname and launched Redlicks furniture store, a Mission District landmark until 1975.
When I got Scott’s scan of an 1883 family photo, I saw that two of Ludwig’s sons resembled my paternal grandfather. He also emailed a photo of a young Dianne Feinstein with Charles Redlick (1914-2008), president of Redlicks and the Better Business Bureau.
Searches take persistence. That’s how I found Constant Vaughn Hopkins, a twice-widowed third cousin who thought she had no living relatives. It took years to find her. Her name was misspelled on one website, her phone number lacked a digit and her area code was incorrect.
Another site listed a Sierra Vista, Ariz., address, but she had moved. Finally, I placed a classified ad in the Sierra Vista Herald, and a week or so later she phoned. As an only child with no children, Constant was ecstatic. “I have a cousin!” she kept repeating.
After spending a night in Constant’s guest room surrounded by teddy bears, I sent her a “forebear” with a yarmulke and prayer shawl. I named him Manny, after our Bavarian great-great-grandfather Emanuel Altmayer. She said Manny was a positive influence on the others.
Unlike Constant, now deceased, I am blessed with children and grandchildren. But my parents were only children and I grew up with only one grandmother. Now I’ve found new relatives and helped them discover their own Jewish past.
“Because so much of our history has been obliterated, it’s our duty to preserve what we have,” said Scott, who is digitizing letters and photos collected by his grandfather. “It’s not just a pastime we do for our own sake.”
Janet Silver Ghent, former j. senior editor, is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at email@example.com.