How to write your family history, part 2: deducing your ancestors’ motivations

Your family tree and the fact of your ancestors’ professions and places of residence are interesting enough… for starters.  But your ancestors’ motivations are the more compelling story, with implications for your family’s current generation and many generations to come.  Sleuthing your ancestors’ motivations can be one of the most rewarding genealogical efforts.  Unfortunately, few genealogists take this extra “deductive” step.

One of our favorite examples of this deductive effort is our research into the Novom family.  It has lessons for all family historians.  When Narratio Vitae began its research into the Novoms, the current generation knew little about its past beyond a great-grandfather, and most of its historical information was based on family legacy.  This isn’t unusual for the children and grandchildren of recent immigrants, who often seem to focus more on developing a new life than on re-adjudicating the past.  But with time and establishment, families begin to wonder about their deeper history.

For the Novoms, as for so many other American Jewish families, there was an unspoken dread of digging too deeply into the harsh reality of their departure from Europe to America.  But they wanted to know where they came from and why they left their original home. They knew their grandfather had arrived to New York in the early 1900s, but not much else.  Family tradition held that their grandparents had fled the Russian pogroms – organized massacres of Jewish communities.

Narratio Vitae dug.  And dug.  And dug.  By reverse-transcribing into English the transcribed and misspelled Russian place name of great-grandfather Joe Novom’s original home town as recorded on his naturalization petition, we found that he had lived in Panevezhys, Russia (now Lithuania).  This gave us a starting point for homing in on the conditions of his departure.

Joe and Bessie Novom, with their son David, shortly after their arrival to America.

By consulting numerous obscure historical records and narratives from the time, available on passionately committed genealogical sites like JewishGen and the National Archives, we were able to contextualize their departure.  We found that Joe Novom’s motivations were probably similar to the motivations of the thousands of other Jews who fled Russia at the same time.  Joe and his wife Bessie grew up under the tough conditions of pre-Revolution Russia, where as Jews they were singled out in a violent game of retribution between the Czarists and their detractors.   Panevezhys in particular had a high population of Jews and was a center of discontent.  Joe and his wife Bessie fled Russia shortly after the Revolution of 1905, along with about 80 percent of the Jewish youth of Panevezhys.

Beyond confirming the Novoms’ family legend of their grandparents’ distressed flight from Russia, Narratio Vitae was able to describe the specific conditions of their departure and to help the family understand the emotions behind the Novoms’ decision to leave Lithuania behind.  It could not have been easy.

While each family is different, the basic process of deducing ancestors’ motivations takes a similar line.  With the Novom case, Narratio Vitae established the fact of the Novoms’ geographic residence during a specific time period, and conducted a broad “lateral” investigation into the environmental conditions at that time.  We spent a lot of time doing a literature review to find descriptive primary sources.  The pressure of Czarists was the consistent topic of those sources, and that pressure was felt by all Jews in Panevezhys.  The Novoms were no exception.

Revealing ancestors’ motivations may be beyond many amateur genealogists’ scope of effort because of the time and complex research required.  But it’s probably the most important story a genealogist can hand down to later generations.  As always, Narratio Vitae is standing by to help.



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