1 of 3
Twila Van Leer
Todd Knowles, a church family history specialist, displays a copy of an elaborate Jewish pedigree donated to the church.

"When the Nazis rounded us up, they took away our names and gave us numbers. We genealogists are involved in taking away the numbers and giving back the names." — Arthur Kurzweil (at the 1995 International Conference on Jewish Genealogy).

What's in a name? Shakespeare was the first to ask the question, and he concluded in "Romeo and Juliet" that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But for genealogists, the name is, in the modern vernacular, "the name of the game," the all, the one kernel for which they search among the bushel baskets of information they sift. The names, one by one, are the jewels that keep genealogists focused as they search out their ancestors.

When a group of people has a different pattern in naming offspring, the challenge to the genealogist can be daunting. This is the case for those who are researching Jewish ancestry.

Todd Knowles, a researcher and consultant at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, is well aware of the peculiarities that such research entails. For many years, he has focused on Eastern European and Jewish genealogy. His interest was born when he was 11 years old and found, while researching his family, that he had Jewish ancestry. His great-great-grandfather was Morris David Rosenbaum, a resident of Forden, Poland.

Knowles keeps Kurzweil's quote prominently displayed in his office as a focal point for his work.

Several factors contribute to the difficulty in tracing Jewish kin, Knowles said. The Jews are a historical oddity, a conquered nation that has never assimilated fully into any other group. They have managed to maintain a cohesive identity despite the fact that they were conquered, without a homeland and scattered throughout the world after A.D. 70, a historic reality known as the Diaspora.

Over time, they separated into two main groups, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, with different languages and religious practices. They had different ways of naming their children.

In cemeteries, Knowles said, a flat marker stone usually indicates a Sephardic burial. The Ashkenazi preferred upright stones. Such little clues are a great help to those Jewish researchers who can associate their families with one of the main branches (and there are many groups within those groups).

Historically, the Jewish custom was to give a child a name, often honoring a relative or connoting a particular quality. Then followed the terms "ben" or "bar" for males, "bat" for girls, followed by the father's given name. Thus: Simon bar Jonah, the official name of the Apostle Peter in the New Testament. The lack of consistent surnames created the challenge for Jewish genealogists of later generations. Unless a family record was kept, there were few other documents that could supply the generation-to-generation data.

During the summer of 2016, Knowles said, he was thrilled when a woman presented him such a Jewish pedigree, an elaborate and detailed chart that was compiled in 1905. It details the family Jacobi and goes back at least four or five generations.

"We're still working on the history," Knowles said. He keeps a copy of the original, which is being prepared by church preservationists for permanent storage.

The traditional Jewish naming customs were also an annoyance to the officials of countries where the Jews settled. Identifying Jewish persons for taxing purposes and other official business was difficult, Knowles said. Beginning in the 1500s and for the next few centuries, those countries began to demand that Jewish families adopt a surname. If they chose not to do so, a name was arbitrarily assigned to them.

"Most Ashkenazi are hard to trace back beyond the 1700s because of the name change," Knowles said. Genealogists who reach that point are facing a brick wall.

A second historical event that complicated Jewish genealogy resulted from Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution," the dictator's horrendous decision to eliminate Jews, as nearly as possible, from the world. Beginning at the end of the 1930s and continuing through World War II, the maniacal edict sent an estimated 6 million Jews to destruction in the death camps created under the Fuhrer's orders.

Among the victims were all 39 of the people on a list of Forden residents, created in 1939. Every one of the 39, including Knowles' ancestor, went to the death camp in Theresienstadt. None came out. In his research, Knowles has found the names of many other kin who did not survive the Holocaust.

Ironically, the Holocaust encouraged Germans to keep careful records so they could prove they had no "taint" of Jewishness, so those researching German ancestry reaped a benefit, he said.

The dwindling numbers of death camp survivors has given the search for Holocaust victims a sense of urgency, Knowles said. Groups that have accumulated the names over the past seven decades are beginning to release them. Several years ago, some Jewish groups objected to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints using the names gleaned from Holocaust records for proxy temple work. An agreement was reached that only Jewish names that naturally emerged as individuals searched their families could be used for that purpose.

Several sources exist for helping genealogists working with Jewish lines, including the International Tracing Service, a collection of Red Cross data which was contributed by all of the Allies with the exception of Austria; the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.; and Knowles' knowlescollection.blogspot.com. FamilySearch.org also can supply sources.

Jewish genealogy, Knowles acknowledges, is hard, but worth it.

"It's the most honest genealogy you'll see," he said. "Latter-day Saints share so much with the Jews. They both love their families."

Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.