Have you been asking yourself when you are finally going to get around to researching your Jewish family roots? The opportunity to jump-start your genealogical quest will be available at the Feb. 21 re-opening of Tucson’s Holocaust History Center on the Jewish History Museum Campus. Joel Alpert will have a computer logged onto the Jewish Gen website (jewishgen.org), where he will show visitors how to tap into their Jewish ancestry. Alpert’s genealogical research skills have been honed by more than 15 years of actively tracing, recording and publishing his own family’s history as well as the histories of several Jewish communities of Eastern Europe destroyed in the Shoah.
Alpert knew in 1965 that the time had come to sit down with his maternal grandfather to draw out the family tree that until then, his grandfather had committed to memory. No simple accomplishment, says Alpert, 71; between his two maternal grandparents there had been 16 siblings. Alpert’s maternal grandparents left Yurburg, Lithuania, as teenagers in 1903. They immigrated to Altoona, Penn., and eventually settled in Milwaukee. Little could Alpert have known that his curiosity 50 years ago about his family roots in Yurburg would open windows to Jewish life in Eastern European villages whose history could easily have been lost forever.
Alpert grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a master’s degree in electrical engineering. In the late 1960s he continued his education at Tel Aviv University. He spent over 30 years of his professional life at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, where he analyzed performance of missile guidance systems. When he retired in 2008, Alpert and his wife, Nancy, became winter residents of Tucson. He continues to work a “retirement career” in Jewish genealogical research.
While growing his family tree to nearly 4,000 entries, he discovered that many towns where Jews had lived in Eastern Europe had been memorialized in what have come to be called Yizkor books — formally known as Memorial Books of Destroyed Jewish Communities of Europe. “People from the landsleit (“old country” in Yiddish) reconnected in the lands where they had resettled in Israel, the U.S. and other countries,” says Alpert. “From the 1950s through the 1970s, they began to collect stories and histories of their families, and the institutions of their birthplaces. Many included details of what had occurred in their towns during the Shoah.” The Yizkor books project was organized in 1994 by Jewish Gen, an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Jewish Gen volunteers helped bring these books to the public in an online data base.
“In 2001,” says Alpert, “I found out from Warren Blatt, a friend who heads Jewish Gen, that a Yizkor book from my grandparents’ town of Yurburg in western Lithuania (today known as Jurbarkas, Lithuania), had been published in Hebrew in 1991.” When a colleague of Alpert’s wife brought the Yurburg Yizkor book to him from Israel, he knew that his next step was to get the book translated into English, but this was going to be an expensive next step.
Alpert approached his extended family, whose reunions had grown to about 100 participants, to ask for support for the translation. His fundraising was successful. Once translated, the Yurburg Yizkor book revealed ancestors from as far back as the early 1800s. Alpert raised more money and got the book up on the Internet. “A 500-page book is too long to read on a screen,” explains Alpert, “so I decided to publish our Yurburg memorial book myself in the publish-on-demand platform.” It took him about two years to complete that project. “If I had sold 100 copies I’d have been happy,” he says, “but to date the book has sold 400 copies.” That success motivated Alpert to initiate the Yizkor Books in Print project in 2012.
To date, the Yizkor-Books-in-Print Project has published 44 hardcover editions. Alpert remains the coordinator of the project and has edited several editions in the collection. Almost 3,000 books have been sold and hundreds donated to museums, libraries and Holocaust memorial centers, including Yad Vashem. Alpert says that there are currently nine more books “in the works.”
“As a history museum, we answer questions all the time from folks who want to explore their heritage and genealogy more deeply,” says Julie Lauterbach-Colby, director of operations at the Jewish History Museum. “We’re grateful that we will have Joel’s expertise in genealogical research as well as a display of hardcover Yizkor books as a part of the re-opening events at the Holocaust History Center.”
Search all the memorial books of the Yizkor Books Project at jewishgen.org/yizkor. View those in print through the Yizkor Books in Print project at jewishgen. org/yizkor/ybip.html.
Renee Claire is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.