In genealogy research, a cardinal rule is: work from what you know. Paper records and family members’ recollections will get you further than hunches and what-ifs.
In my life, a cardinal rule is: ask for help. Even if you’re afraid that no one will respond, or that their responses will be disappointing, or that you’ll look stupid for asking. Truly the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll come up empty — the same place you’ll be if you don’t ask.
When I recently learned these lessons — again — they produced the breakthrough I’ve been searching for.
Since I began researching my family history about 10 years ago, I’ve been unable to trace the origins of my father’s maternal grandfather, Bernard Akerman.
I followed that cardinal rule, working from what I knew. From family recollections, I knew that he was born somewhere in Austria-Hungary and lived in Germany before coming to the United States with his wife and 19-month-old daughter, my future grandmother. I knew Grandma was born in Germany, and I knew her birth date. I also knew my great-grandmother’s birth name, Pauline Fritsch. This information led me to the family’s arrival record, at the port of Baltimore, in 1903. From there, U.S. records were relatively easy to find.
None of those records, however, revealed the birthplaces of Bernard and Pauline.
They both died long before I was born. But Grandma had a cousin, whom we knew as Great-Aunt Margaret and who I knew was on the Fritsch side of the family. Digging deeper, I found Margaret’s Pittsburgh marriage license, which gave her family name and birthplace — a town in what’s now Slovakia. The Catholic Church registries for that area were so thorough and well-preserved (and available online, for free!) that I could locate Margaret’s baptism record, and then my great-grandmother’s, and then generations’ worth of Fritsch family baptism records.
I checked those same Slovakian church records for Bernard’s birth and baptism. Nothing, no Akermans at all. I checked nearby towns. Still nothing. I didn’t know of any Akerman relatives whose immigration I could trace, as I did with Pauline’s cousin. My dad, who was living when I began this research, couldn’t remember exactly where his grandfather came from — maybe the Czech Republic, he thought. I never heard Dad mention any siblings or cousins of his grandfather, and I didn’t think to ask while he was living. Mom, who knew a surprising amount about Dad’s family, also didn’t know of any such relatives.
I gathered every bit of information I could find about Bernard, Pauline, Grandma. I ordered their Social Security applications. I combed through newspaper archives. I looked for German records and quickly found that they are generally not online, at least not in the places I was looking. Every trail was a dead end.
Bernard Akerman, man of mystery.
Time to follow Rule #2: ask for help.
* * *
I’m a relatively skillful researcher, very persistent, willing to (eventually) learn from my mistakes. Asking for help, however, is not one of my strong points.
Why? Partly it’s my inner toddler, insisting: “I do it self!” Partly it’s the feeling that I’m supposed to figure stuff out on my own. Otherwise the work not is really my own, my inner perfectionist tells me, and neither is the triumph when I eventually solve the problem.
There’s also fear of failure: I ask and still can’t figure it out. And fear of being let down: I ask and don’t get the help I need, reinforcing the belief that it’s better not to ask.
And that’s what happened several years ago, when I looked for assistance. A friend who had done a lot of German genealogical research wasn’t able to help. I posted queries on a couple of genealogy message boards, to no avail. German genealogy resource pages online talked about writing letters — old-school — to individual municipal archives. In German. I felt stymied.
Meanwhile, the mystery deepened: I took a DNA test and discovered I have a bit of Jewish ancestry, previously unknown. No one in the family had any idea where it came from. Further testing and the process of elimination made me almost certain that Bernard Akerman was the Jewish ancestor in question. Maybe that’s why his origins were so obscure: he didn’t want people to know.
My grandmother’s Social Security application said she was born in Munich. About a year ago, I finally found someone on a Facebook genealogy page who supplied an email address for the Munich archive, and said it would be okay to write in English. I did. Weeks later, I got a reply saying a search would cost 30 Euros, regardless of whether it produced anything. I agreed to pay it. More weeks went by. Finally, the archivist wrote back, saying she had found nothing for my Akerman family: no birth record, no marriage record, nichts.
I concluded that the only way I would solve this mystery was through genetic genealogy. I began scrutinizing my many Jewish DNA matches, looking for connections and especially for Akerman/Ackermans. I enlisted Dad’s youngest brother, my Uncle Paul, in the DNA effort; he turns out to be approximately one-quarter Jewish, genetically speaking, and so his DNA matches are one generation closer to our Jewish roots. I built a separate family tree based on these descendants of Jewish Ackermans. I took a deep breath and plunged into a trove of records that volunteers are unearthing from Ukrainian archives — unindexed, and with a table of contents in Ukrainian. The records I wanted to examine are in Hungarian and German, in which I can at least read the alphabet. Google Translate allowed me to identify the records I wanted, and I spent countless hours poring through them, looking for Ackermans.
* * *
Last fall I wrote a blog post about this hunt. I called it “Wild Geese Chase,” a nod to the Mary Oliver poem that inspired this blog, and to the possibility that all this DNA research was yet another dead end.
On New Year’s Day I emailed the blog post to several family members, including Uncle Paul. He and I started corresponding, and I asked, almost as an afterthought: “You don’t have your mother’s birth record, do you?”
Turns out he had something almost as good: a baptism certificate. It was not the original, but a certificate issued in May 1903, just days before the family embarked for the United States. But it confirmed her birth date in October 1901. And it specified her place of birth: Sodingen, Germany.
Doh! [Slap forehead with heel of of hand.]
I’d had the Sodingen name for years, ever since finding the Akermans’ arrival record. In 2017, after my mother died, I found confirmation of their residence there in the form of a family photograph that said on the back: “Ackermann Sodingen No. 101.” From Wikipedia, I knew that Sodingen was in western Germany near Dortmund, formerly an independent municipality but now part of the city of Herne.
Yet I had never requested records from Sodingen. Sure, the Akermans lived there, but they wouldn’t necessarily have birth or marriage records there. So I told myself. Truth is, I didn’t know how to make a request. Email or snail mail? German or English? Most important, where to direct it? And I didn’t know how to find out.
Now, with the baptism certificate showing that Grandma was born there, I had no excuse. Come on, I told myself. You’re a reporter. You know how to find information.
That meant asking for help. Again. Even though previous attempts had come up short.
I know how to do this. It’s simple and yet so hard sometimes, psychologically. You find someone to ask, and if it doesn’t work, find someone else. Keep trying until it does work.
There’s a Facebook genealogy group that has been enormously helpful in researching a different branch of my family. Not all such groups are as willing and able to help. But, I reasoned, there must be a German genealogy group that will help. So I poked around until I landed on the page of the International Germany Genealogy Partnership. As I was began to explore the page — still looking for information that would let me solve this on my own — my eye fell on a box in the upper right corner. It offered two choices: “Is anyone available to chat?” and “I have a question. Can you help?”
Well, yes. I do have a question. If not for that overt encouragement, however, who knows how long I would have kept trying to “do it self.”
So I wrote a message explaining that I wanted to find my grandmother’s birth record from Sodingen in 1901, and also to see if there was a marriage record for my great-grandparents. An incredibly helpful person wrote back with links and an email address for the city archive. She said it would be fine to request the records in English.
I did. Right away. And then I waited.
A couple of weeks later I got an email from Martina at the Herne city archive — auf Deutsch. I ran it through Google Translate, and while the part about fees was ambiguous, the important thing was clear: she had my great-grandparents’ marriage record. I wrote back immediately, saying I would pay whatever they asked. The next morning, a PDF of the marriage record was in my inbox. No charge, Martina said.
[Cue screams of excitement.]
The handwriting on the document was hard to read. I mean really hard to read. Because I knew my great-grandparents’ surnames, I could make them out. But the most legible entry on the whole document was Bernard Akerman’s birthplace: Benk, Hungary. Also legible: his mother’s family name, Spira.
Quickly I Googled “Benk Hungary” and found that it is, indeed, a tiny village in the country’s far northeast, very close to the parts of Ukraine, Slovakia, and Romania that were Hungarian territory until after World War I. That was not far from the Jewish Ackermans — ancestors of my DNA cousins — whom I’d been researching in western Ukraine.
From there I went to a Jewish genealogy site and quickly found abstracts of two birth records for Bernath Ackerman, born in Benk on 21 September 1874, to parents H. Ackerman and Debora Spira. The same birth was recorded in two different locations. Using the abstracted information, I found one of those original birth records in a Jewish registry from the nearby town of Mandok.
And there it was, in beautiful 19th-century handwriting: Bernath Ackerman. Father: H. Ackerman. Mother: Debora Spira. Benk. My mysterious great-grandfather, and his mysterious parents. My Jewish roots.
And now I had a new surname to research: Spira.
I jumped from the databases and records to my DNA matches. They’re listed on five different websites, since I tested with both AncestryDNA and 23andMe, and also uploaded the raw DNA to several other sites so I could see as many matches as possible. Searching for Spira/Spiro produced a couple of promising leads, to whom I sent messages. Two of them replied with information about their Spiro ancestors, who came from Hungarian villages not too far from Benk. One furnished a link to a Spiro family website created by a distant cousin, Peter Spiro.
There I learned about the name: Spiro is a more common spelling than Spira. As a Jewish surname, it’s a variant of Shapiro, Shpero, Saphir, and others. There were many Jewish Spiros in Germany, but not many in Hungary. And I learned about Peter’s Spiro ancestors, from the town of Gemzse in northeastern Hungary, less than 12 miles from my great-grandfather’s birthplace.
An 1848 census shows a 7-year-old Debora Spiro living in Gemzse with her father, Elias. That would make her about 33 years old when my great-grandfather was born to H. Ackerman and Debora Spira. The column for sandek, or godfather at the circumcision, listed “Spira Eliasz Moses.”
The last part was puzzling. The Debora Spiro from Gemzse was the daughter of Elias — seemingly connecting that Debora to Bernard’s mother. But what about Moses? I assumed it was part of the same name: Elias Moses Spiro. But Peter reported that Elias Spiro of Gemzse had a brother Moses. Not likely that Elias would share his brother’s name, so Peter inferred that there were two godfathers: Debora’s father, Elias, and her uncle Moses. But it’s not typical to have two godfathers.
Still, there’s no record of another Debora Spira/Spiro anywhere in that area. Based on all the available evidence, both documentary and genetic, my new friend and presumptive cousin Peter estimated at least a 90 percent chance that “my” Debora Spira, from the 1874 birth record, is the same as “his” Deborah Spiro, from the census 26 years earlier.
But some basic questions remain unanswered.
For example, what was the first name of Bernard’s father? I mean, “H.”? C’mon. Why was Bernard’s birth recorded a second time in Kisvarda, a larger town some ten miles away from Benk? And what became of Bernard’s parents, Debora and “H,” before and after his birth? I can’t find a record of their marriage, births of other children, or their deaths. Bernard’s birth and Debora’s appearance in the 1848 census are the only traces of these people.
With help from Peter and my other DNA-linked Spiro cousins, I’ve been able to fill in quite a bit of information on that side of my great-grandfather’s family. But Bernard’s father is proving to be every bit as elusive as his son.
It turns out that my year-long excursion into genetic genealogy was a bit of a wild goose chase. My DNA-based Ackerman family tree contains nearly 1,700 people. I still don’t know how I’m related to any of them. I found my Jewish roots by following those two cardinal rules: working from what I know and asking for help.
That’s not to say the DNA route is worthless. If not for my Spiro-descendant matches, I would have made much less progress. And I hope my work on the speculative Ackerman tree will pay off eventually.
Meanwhile, my Akerman research is once again stuck. I have asked for help with research strategies; so far, no new ideas have emerged. I keep reminding myself to work from what I know — for example, not plunging into an entry-by-entry record search of some new town, based only on hunches. My guess is that Bernard’s father came from outside the Benk/Gemzse/Kisvarda region and that the family lived in that region only briefly. I’m assuming there must be records of this family somewhere. The question is where.
Time to invoke another rule: be patient.
What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.