Ruby Family History Project Blog

Betty Katz Wohlgemuth record in a Nazi card file

The Nazis kept a card file of German Jews called Reichsvereinigung der Judes in Deutschland. Here is the index card record of the death of Betty Wohlgemuth in February 1942. It includes her given, maiden and married names, and dates of birth and death. I don't believe there is any notation of the cause of death. In any case, there will be one less Jew to deport to Theresienstadt. 

Family Story:

Julius Wohlgemuth death certificate

I will give a full translation later. 

Family Story:

Leopold Wohlgemuth went to Brazil

Having updated Ancestry with the name of Julius Wohlgemuth's son, I next ran a search on Leopold Meyer Wohlgemuth. The first hit was definitive. 

He received a immigration permit from the United States of Brazil in September of 1960. The permit was issued at Brazil's consulate in Beunos Aires, suggesting that Wohlgemuth had been living in Argentina before that. His nationality is listed as German; perhaps he has already reclaimed German citizenship under the post-War administration.

It is definitely our relative because his birth date and location are right, as are the names of his mother and father. His professional is listed as merchant. He has no wife or children

I wonder what kind of life he made for himself in Brazil. I will dig deeper to see what else I can learn. Meanwhile, it is thrilling to look at the picture of Elly's first cousin as he begins life in 1960 as a Brazilian immigrant.  

Family Story:

New Wohlgemuth discoveries

If I travel to Germany and Poland this summer, one of the subjects of interest will be the history of the Wohlgemuth family in Starogard, Danzig (Gdansk), and Berlin. I am plotting an itinerary that would give me two days in Gdansk including a sidetrip to nearby Starogard Gdansk, from where the Wohlgemuths originally came. One question that I had was the address of the moving company that the two Wohlgemuth brothers, Julius and Isaak, operated in Danzig. 

I knew I had that info in my files at home, contained in several Danzig telephone directory listings that I saved some time ago. But I was away from home just on my mobile and I tapped in Wohlgemuth to the Danzig Database on JewishGen. I don't think I had ever seen these results before. 

(Maiden Name)
Record Type
Residence Community
Leopold Meyer 
Poggenpfuhl 73 [Poggenpfuhl73]  Danzig 
FHL 1184407/2, p 33, l 258, r 3336 
Betty KATZ 
Abbeggasse 1 a [Abbegg1a]  Danzig 
FHL 1184407/2, p 08, l 57, r 534 

The second one is Aunt Hilda's birth record, showing the names of her parents, Isaak and Betty Wohlgemuth, and their address, as well as a record locator/identifier. The first one gives the name of a wife and son of Isaak's brother and business partner Julius Wohlgemuth. Previous to this, we have not had any information about Julius' family. 

I got home and checked the old phone directory images. Yes! Both the business location and Julius' residence were at the same address at Poggenpfuhl 73, right in the heart of the commercial district near to the wharves. Today Poggenpfuhl is called Zabi Kruk, and it remains a busy thoroughfare. Abbeggasse has been harder so far to place. There were several Jewish neighborhoods in 1910 Danzig were Isaak's family might have lived. I'll keep working to locate that address. 

So then I popped over to Ancestry in order to update my tree with the new names. I navigated to Julius and noticed there was a new Ancestry hint (leaf) showing for him. Many times these don't check out but I clicked and was immediately shown a February 1912 death certificate from Stettin, Prussia. My German is getting better and I could read the names of his parents and wife on the document. I'll post it in a separate file so it doesn't take up too much space here.

It is too bad that Julius died young, age 41, leaving a widow and young child. The place of death is interesting, Stettin being another Prussian commercial center. Perhaps he died there while on business. It also helps to explain why the moving company in Danzig was sold to a German buyer the following year, and that was when Isaak moved his family to Berlin.

Quite possibly, the widow Rosa Wohlgemuth and her young son Leo also went to Berlin at that time. One of the Wohlgemuth gravesites at the Weissensee Cemetery in Berlin is for Rosa Wohlgemuth, and we were never sure who that was. Now we know it was Julius's widow. And what became of young Leopold Wohlgemuth? Read on in the next post. 

Family Story:

Toolbox: Sources and download

  • Access books, articles and organizations referenced in the It's Legendary! article.
  • Download a PDF of the published article 

Resources referenced in the It's Legendary! article


Patti S. Borda, "Myth buster’ uncovers family's real Civil War story," Frederick News Post, April 2013. 

Connie Lenzen, "Heritage Books and Family Lore: A Jackson Test in Missouri and Idaho," NGS Quarterly, March 1998

Kimberly Powell, Family Legends - Fiction or Fact?, Genealogy web site

Daniel Ruby and Walter Ruby, Spektor-Rabinowitz blog postings, Ruby Family History Project on Family History Machine web site <>

Walter Ruby, “A Few Things Are Illuminated: A Wild and Crazy Roots Trip to the Old Country,” archived at from an original publication in Long Island Jewish Week, Jan. 22, 2008, “To Hatch a Thief,” 

Lindsay Swadling, “Family Legends - can they be trusted?,” archived on RootsWeb from an original publication in Descent, December 1984 

Rabbi Meir Wunder, "The Reliability of Genealogical Research in Modern Rabbinic Literature,” republished at Rav-SIG Online Journal from an original publication in Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Winter 1995.


Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Ancestry Inc., 2000)

Robert Todd Carroll, Becoming a Critical Thinker (Prentice Hall, 2000)

Robert Todd Carroll, Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed (James Randi Educational Foundation, 2011)

Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (National Genealogical Society. 2013)

Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to 

Cyberspace (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007)

Milton Rubicam, Pitfalls in Genealogical Research (Ancestry Inc., 1987)

Ephraim Shimoff, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor—Life and Letters, (Sura Institute, 1959)


Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, The Story of RIETS video

Board for Certification of Genealogists, The Genealogical Proof Standard

National Genealogical Society, Genealogical Standards and Guidelines


Download a PDF of the Family Tree published article

Demo Home | Main Article | Sidebar | Tutorial | Sources

Sidebar: Getting down to cases

With so many opportunities for error, either accidental or deliberate, every family legend gets distorted in a unique fashion. You have to dig into the facts to learn where on the scale from substantially true to flat-out fictitious your legend lies. Most likely it is somewhere in between. Three cases in the genealogy literature bear this out. 

This sidebar is part of an article originally published in Family Tree Magazine's special issue "Discover Your Roots" in Summer 2014.

¶ In 2013 during the lead up to the 150th Gettysburg anniversary, Marcia Hahn of Frederick, Md. submitted her family heirloom—a Confederate cavalry officer's sword that had belonged to her ancestor—for display in an exhibit. Based on the sword, the family legend was that the ancestor was a horseman and Southern officer. The experts pointed her to military pension records that showed that the ancestor was actually an enlisted infantryman on the Union side. He had probably scavenged the sword as a battlefield memento.

“My quest to discover the story of my Civil War ancestor proved to be a fascinating journey. Along the way I unwittingly refuted almost every element of the story as it had been told for generations,” Hahn told a reporter.

¶ Conversely, when Australian genealogist Lindsay Swadling set out to document an elderly relative's story about an ancestor's role in the colonial history of New South Wales, she found that the basic points of a legend passed down by word of mouth for 160 years were mostly accurate, except for modifications to conceal convict ancestry, common in Australian genealogy. Her investigation did not contradict the legend but flushed out details that yielded a richer understanding of what had happened and why.

"Our culture, unlike many others, places very little trust in oral history.…We are told that family legends are unreliable, as they can in fact be. The lesson I have learned is that such stories should not be discarded without investigation—there may be more than a grain of truth in them,” Swadling concludes in her journal publication.

¶ Most often, an investigation will reveal at least some basis in truth but with many key points distorted, as in genealogist Connie Lenzen’s detailed study of an Idaho settler family. Contrary to three separate accounts published in a 1992 “heritage book” covering a county in Missouri, the George W. Jackson that came to Idaho from Missouri in 1862 did not strike it rich as a gold miner. She found that after several failed mining ventures he left Idaho in 1870 but returned years later to support his family as a butcher and small-time rancher. Several other points referenced in the heritage book—a divorce, a snowbound accident—turned out to be inaccurate when fact-checked against other sources.

"Traditions are one of the oldest sources of family history and one of the least reliable,” cautions Lenzen. She found that the accounts in the heritage books displayed “typical errors and discrepancies — claims to descent from famous people, conflicting and incomplete lists of children, and erroneous citation of birth order.”

Demo Home | Main Article | Sidebar | Tutorial | Sources

It's Legendary! Separate fact and fiction in family lore

Natural story tellers are subject to a particular bias: They want their story to be concise and coherent. In service of a good yarn, they may make too much of a particular detail or overlook contradictory evidence. And if a story can go wrong on any single telling of it, how reliable can it be after being passed down through generations? 

This main bar is part of an article originally published in Family Tree Magazine's special issue "Discover Your Roots" in Summer 2014.

My brother Walter had what he described as his “Alex Haley moment” when he figured out the connection between our great grandfather and a renowned 19th century Russian rabbi. 

He was at Yeshiva University's research library in New York boning up on the life and teachings of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor, the chief rabbi in the Russian city of Kovno (now Kaunas in Lithuania) for whom Yeshiva's theological institute is named. Walter had recently written a narrative family history in honor of our parents, which included the legend that our ancestor Joseph Rabinowitz was related in some way to the great man. Now Walter was preparing to walk in Spektor's steps on a roots journey to Kaunas and surrounding districts, with an article assignment to write about his experiences.

Paging through the primary English-language source on Spektor, Walter sat up when he read a biographical detail he had not seen elsewhere in the literature. According to the author, Spektor had a grandson by the name of Joseph Rabinowitz who had lived with and studied under him in Kovno in 1874. That was the year before our pious ancestor of the same name and age arrived from the Russian Pale to begin a new life in New York.

The text explained that Joseph came under Spektor's care following the sudden death of his father, Spektor's first son Chaim Rabinowitz. (All of Spektor’s children used the surname Rabinowitz, meaning son of the rabbi.) The author wrote that Joseph studied with the rabbi “until he became highly proficient in Talmud and Jewish codes.” Walter conjectured that Spektor also made arrangements for his marriage and then sent him off to America as a sort of emissary.

This would become the premise of Walter's article, “A Few Things Are Illuminated: A Wild and Crazy Roots Tour to the Old Country.” The rollicking account of his adventures, including a surprising criminal assault to which he attached symbolic meaning, ran in a New York Jewish weekly in 2008 and is hosted online at a journalism review site. Now our family legend was in the public record, fully fleshed out with colorful detail and sweeping reflections. 

And it was wrong. Several years later, after an extended search for our ancestor's very common name in the New York City vital records, I finally identified the 1917 death certificate for our Joseph Rabinowitz. It listed his father's name as Abraham, which was a problem since the father of Spektor's grandson was Chaim or more formally Aryeh.

This discrepancy, combined with doubts about the plausibility of the emissary theory given that Joseph Rabinowitz was not among Spektor's American followers who founded the seminary, led to the conclusion that our great-grandfather was not, in fact, the grandson of Rabbi Spector. 

Distortion field

Sometimes intuition fails us. Natural story tellers like my brother are subject to a particular bias; they want the story to be concise and coherent. In service of a good yarn, they may make too much of a particular detail or overlook contradictory evidence. They are more interested in the arc and perhaps the moral of the story than they are in precise verisimilitude.

This kind of narrative bias is just part of the problem. If a story can go wrong on any single telling of it, how reliable can it be after being passed down through generations? 

Experts have a name for this phenomenon: retrospective falsification. Robert Todd Carroll, an advocate of skeptical thinking, includes it in Unnatural Acts among a rogue’s gallery of 59 biases and logical fallacies that can beset the unwary. 

“Stories get distorted and falsified over time by retelling with embellishments, including speculations, conflating events, and incorporation of material without regard for accuracy or plausibility....The distorted and false version becomes a memory and record of a remarkable tale,” writes Carroll. 

Legend embellishment isn’t always accidental. One of the main motivations for mistaken legends is a desire for family aggrandizement, as I have learned since becoming a minor expert on the life and career of Rabbi Spektor. I have been contacted by no fewer than nine other family researchers claiming a family relationship with the rabbi. Only two of the claims had merit.

In my family's Spector case, deeper investigation revealed a more plausible though still-unproven explanation for the legend—that the mother of our Joseph Rabinowitz was related to the wife of Rabbi Spektor. That would be a less impressive relationship but still one with some cachet among Jewish American immigrants. 

The desire for reflected glory inherent in our Spektor claim is a common phenomenon in Jewish culture. In “The Reliability of Genealogical Research in Modern Rabbinic Literature,” Rabbi Meir Wunde notes the importance placed on the Yiddish concept of yichus (lineage) and how that led to many misrepresentations. He writes:

“Poverty was rampant and one way [for rabbinical researchers] to put bread on the table was to research and edit yuchsin scrolls for the wealthy who had money but lacked the prestige of great lineage. Thus, if the facts were shaky or uncertain, one might build castles in the air without a solid foundation.” 

Such castle-building was hardly unique to Jews. In the classic case of the Smalley-FitzRandolph pedigree, described by Milton Rubincam in Pitfalls in Genealogical Research, it was shown that several scholarly publications in 1908 fraudulently asserted a genealogy claim in order to qualify family members for eligibility in the Mayflower Society. Years later, when the claim was questioned, the society instituted a project to reinvestigate all Mayflower families and adjudicate contested cases. 

With so many opportunities for error, either accidental or deliberate, every family legend gets distorted in a unique fashion. You have to dig into the facts to learn where on the scale from substantially true to flat-out fictitious your legend lies. Most likely it is somewhere in between. Three cases in the genealogy literature bear this out (see sidebar). 

On top of all the reasons that family stories go wrong, now add the ability of the Internet and social media to propagate erroneous information far and wide. We know from the urban legend chronicler how rogue informational memes propagate on the Internet without regard to accuracy. One such from the Snopes files, an oft-recycled legend about prominent politicians whose ancestor who was hanged as a horse thief, shows how genealogy legends can grab the interest of the general public. 

Critical thinking

So what is an honest and diligent genealogy researcher to do? How are we to evaluate claims that are made, pick out the nuggets of truth, and shed the embellishments and outright fictions? How do we use our abilities not just to puncture sacred cows but to honor the legend by discovering its heart and writing its history?

Your mission as a genealogy investigator is to seek the truth. You want to describe the reality of past circumstances so as to illuminate the lives of our ancestors and ourselves. It does no good to perpetuate stories and legends that are untrue or misleading. 

We investigate genealogy mysteries using the same critical thinking skills used in any field that seeks to discover the truth from a set of facts. The experimental scientist, investigative journalist, diagnostic doctor, homicide detective, and you all face the same challenge: to make sense of partial information and arrive at a logical explanation that fits the evidence.

"The most distinctive features of the critical thinker’s attitude are open-mindedness and skepticism,” writes Carroll in Becoming a Critical Thinker. “These characteristics may seem contradictory rather than complementary. On the one hand, a critical thinker is expected to consider viewpoints different from his or her own. On the other hand, a critical thinker is expected to recognize which claims do not merit investigation."

In genealogy research, the scientific method has been encapsulated in a professional standard called the genealogy proof standard, which specifies a five-element methodology for establishing proof. In 2000, the Board for Certification of Genealogists distilled the field's best practices for determining accuracy and published a comprehensive standards manual to support the overall proof standard.

The recently published Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones offers a practical program for learning and practicing exemplary research methods. (Elizabeth Shown Mills is the author of several other books on the same topic.) Jones describes the research reasoning cycle as comprising five phases that correspond to the proof standard elements: framing a question, gathering evidence, testing hypotheses, establishing conclusions, and documenting proof. Genealogists must practice critical thinking skills at each stage in order to succeed in their work.  

Achieving the full genealogical proof standard as done by Lenzen in her heritage-book investigation is a high bar for non-professionals, and is probably beyond the ambition of most hobbyist researchers. Still there are minimum standards that anyone with a serious interest should follow when evaluating sources, interpreting data, and presenting a case.

These 12 investigative techniques, gleaned from my years of hard knocks doing family history research, may not get you all the way to a gold-plated genealogical proof. But they will serve you well as an investigator’s toolkit as you work to separate fact from fiction in your own family legends.

Demo Home | Main Article | Sidebar | Tutorial | Sources

Family Story:

Promising Yezersky lead

I mentioned that I have been collaborating recently with Shirley Portnoy on sundry Rabbi Spektor genealogy matters. Today, she forwarded to me the report prepared for her in 2013 by Yuri Dorn, the Jewish genealogist from Minsk who had once guided my brother Walter on a roots tour to Rabbi Spektor's birth village. Yuri's research for Shirley proved her connection to the rabbi's lineage through the Yezersky family. It had been long known, as covered on this blog in 2008, that the young rabbinical scholar Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor had been married at age 13 into the family of Eliezer Yezersky, a merchant of Volkovisk in the Grodno province. Liezer's 14-year-old daughter Sora Reisel was the bride, but the whole Yezersky family benefitted by its association with the promising scholar. 

The family included two older twin brothers of Sora's and two other younger boys. The twins were Yudel-Movsha and Abram, born in 1800. Yuri found the vital records to show that Shirley's Harkavy family line descended from the daughter of Yudel Yezersky, Sara-Taibe Yezersky, who married into the Harkavy family. Sara-Taibe was the niece of Sora Reisel, though she was just six years younger. Shirley has family lore that the Kovno Rav visited the Harkavy family in Volkovisk and selected one of the Harkavy family to study in his Kovno yeshiva. This story seems to be borne out by the proven connection between the families. 

All this I knew already. What happened today is that Shirley sent Yuri's research papers including an extensive Yezersky family tree. His chart shows the family of Yudel's twin brother Abram Yezersky. He married Sora Leya and their four children included Berta, born in 1828. This Berta would have been a first cousin to Sara Taibe and a niece to Sora Reisel. The families lived together in the same household in those years. Two years after Berta's birth, the auspicious marriage between Sora Reisel and the future rabbi took place. Yitzhak Elchanan then lived with the Yezerskys for the next six years while finishing his studies under the eminent rabbi Benjamin Diskin. 

Is this Berta Yezersky the same person who appears as Bertha Yezersky Rabinowitz on my great-grandfather's death record? Her name, age and location fit the facts as we know them, and most importantly she provides a believable source for the family legend of a Rabinowitz relation to Rabbi Spektor. At this point, I believe that this Berta Yezersky is, indeed, my great-great grandmother, and that she did grow up in her early years together in the household with the future Gaon. I believe it, but I won't officially claim it to be true until more evidence comes in to confirm it. 

The rest of the fax

I wrote in the previous posts about pages 1 and 4 of the five-page fax from Shmuel Elchonan. What about the other pages? 

According to Shirley Portnoy, who was so good as to decipher the text, page 3 is substantially similar to page 4, but missing one section. As for pages 2 and 5, I will let Shirley describe them. 

Page 2 is a poem written in Yiddish by Y. Schwartz (?) who visited R' Yitzchak Elchanan when he was a child. It was written to mark some anniversary (print is unclear). The poem was translated into Hebrew by Aaron Zeitlin. It appears to have been included in a piece about R' Yitzchak Elchanan written by Yitzchak Rifkind for the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Doar (hard to read the year-either in 1962 or 1982). The poem describes the elderly Rav and the impression he left on the memory of the young child

Page 5 is the preface to the genealogy that Shmuel's [maternal] grandfather, R' Yehoshua Mordechai ben R' Moshe Avraham Rosenblum, z"l, compiled. The grandfather's name, place and date of birth and death are written at the bottom of the printed page, along with those of the grandmother (?), Itta Marya (unclear), daughter of R' Avraham Shmuel Shlomo Horvitz.  Both appear to have died in Tel Aviv.

He opens with two quotations from the Tanach:

  1. from Isaiah, 51:1, "Look to the rock from which you were hewn."
  2. from Proverbs, 17:6, " The crown of elders is grandchildren, and the glory of children is their parents."

To summarize, he states that in the past there was little change from one generation to another, and families lived in the same countries, in the same towns, for decades and even centuries. In those times families handed down the stories of their families from parents to children, and even recorded them. In the present, he says, after the horrors of World War II, Jews were uprooted from their homes and dispersed far from their ancestral homes and from those people once familiar to them. Even those who were fortunate to come to Israel have been distanced from their familial origins. And so, he says, he has written this ancestral history for his children and grandchildren, based on what he has found in various writings and books (sefarim) and what he recalls from his own memory, so that the new generations will find glory in their family's past. 

Family Story:

Spektor genealogy according to Yitzhak Elchanon Rabinowitz

Page 4 of the 1996 fax from Shmuel Elchonan contains the Spektor family genealogy as recorded by his father Yitzhak Rabinowitz. The translation by Shirley Portnoy follows. 

R’ Yitzchak Elchanan was born in the year 1817 (?) in the small town of Rus in the district of Grodno (in Russia).

He was the son of R’ Yisrael Isser, (son of Elchanan)  and his wife Rachel, the daughter of R’ Yitzchak.

He was the third-born of his brothers: 

R’ Moshe Yosef
R’ Avraham Aharon, died young, left no children 
R’ Yitzchak Elchanan
R’ Yaakov David, born in 1827,  died in Jerusalem in 1898 (?)

The surname of the brothers was Spektor.

At the age of 13, R’ Yitzchak Elchanan married Soro Reizel, the daughter of R’ Eliezer Yezerski and Bluma in the city Volkovisk (in the district of Grodno).

R’ Yitzchak served as rabbi:

in Zabelin, 1836/7 (?)
In Baraza, 1838/9
In Nezvizh,  1846/7
In Novogrudok, 1850/1
In Kovno, 1863/4

The children of R’ Yitzchak Elchanan and Soro Reizel were:

R’ Chaim, 1834-1874
Daughter, Rachel, born in Baraza, married R’ Chaim Sultzovsky, died in 1876
R’ Tzvi Hirsh, born in 1847, took over the rabbinic position in Kovno after his father’s death. He died in 1910.
R’ Binyamin, born in 1852, was murdered in Kovno at his home in 1900.

The Rabbanit Soro Reizel died in 1882.

The surname of all the sons of R’ Yitzchak Elchanan was Rabinowitz.

In the year 1883 R’ Yitzchak Elchanan married Chana Davidson (Meizlsz).

R’ Yitzchak Elchana died in Kovno on the 21st day of Adar 1896. 

R’ Binyamin was born in Navahradak on the 27th of Elul 1852.  In 1870 he married Devora, the daughter of R’ Eliyahu Behr. Dvora was born in (?) in the year 1851, and she died in Kovno the 20th of Iyar, 1929.

The children of Binyamin and Devora were:

Meshulam Fishel,  born 1871, died in Kovno on Hoshanah Rabbah in 1940.
Yisrael Isser,  born 28th of Iyar 1873, died 28th of Iyar 1933 in Kovno.
Daughter Yettel, born 1875, married Yaakov Kahanov from Lovni (Ukraine). She died in Kharkov.
Daughter Bluma, born 1881, married Louie Solomonson from Riga. 

Yisrael Isser Rabinowitz married Fruma Frankel on the 1st of Nissan 1899.

Fruma was the daughter of R’ Shimon and his wife Esther (Preiss). She was born on the 15th of Elul 1879 and was killed by the Germans at the beginning of 1944 in the Stutthoff Concentration Camp.

The children of R’ Yisrael Isser and Fruma were:   

Yitzchak Elchanan, born in Kovno on on the 27th (unclear) of Shvat, January 1900.
Shlomo, born the 16th of Kislev, 1901.
Daughter Miriam, called Mira, was born in 1904 and died in Stutthoff in 1945. Her child Isser, age -?, was killed in the Aktion against the children in the Kovno ghetto in 1943.
Daughter Bella, born 1909, was killed together with her son Daniel in Stutthoff. Her husband, Zelig Volotzky, was killed in Kovno in 1941.

May G-d avenge the blood of all our family and of all the children of Israel who were murdered at the hands of the wicked Germans.

Family Story: