Growing a family tree out of online connections

Nashuan's Net skills turn him into a source for other's families, too

The online world is famous for connecting people, but few have connection stories like Nashua's Steven Zedeck. He not only made friends of a crowd of strangers, he found a family.

"Through (online connections) I met third and fourth cousins of mine I didn't know existed," says Zedeck. "I found a sixth cousin in Georgia, and a fourth cousin in New York." He also talked with a first cousin of his father, to whom his family had not spoken in decades.

All this was possible due to the combination of the online world and genealogical research, a connection that blossomed early and has grown by leaps and bounds. The ability of connected computers to share and distribute data has proven to be a huge boon to people seeking their roots.

Zedeck, 39, became one of those people a few years ago, after his two daughters were born. (That is a common scenario: I, for example, only became interested in my family history after my kids came along and the specter of middle age settled on my shoulders.)

It was second nature for Zedeck to take his new interest online. The software developer for Cascade Communications in Westford, Mass., got his first e-mail address in 1979 while working for Raytheon. This makes his the online version of Methusela.

Poking around in genealogy discussion groups led Zedeck to the Church of Later Day Saints - the Mormons - who for theological reasons have built up the world's greatest genealogical archives.

Zedeck knew his paternal grandfather came from Poland, and so he was delighted to find that the Mormons had vast records of Jewish populations in that region - some two million names worth.

There were some problems, though. For one, most of the records were in Russian ( the region was frequently controlled by Russia). For another, they were on microfilm, which is a handy way to store lots of data in a small space but not very easy to search through.

So Zedeck found himself taking on the unpaid job of moving these names onto the World Wide Web, where they are accessible to the myriad of search engines that have sprung up in recent years. He joined forces with a man named Michael Tobias in Scotland, and REIPP (Russian Era Indexing of Poland Project) was born.

Their goal is to create a searchable database containing all available vital record indexes for Jews of Poland. It does not contain the actual records - not every piece of information on every birth certificate or will - but is an index through which you can quickly hunt for names and other connections. If you find a connection, you can get all the data from the Mormons' records.

Creating and building REIPP is no easy task. Zedeck estimates that most nights he spends two to three hours at it, and says his wife, Shari, "would like it if I spent less time at it." Shari has not, he notes, been bitten by the genealogical bug.

So far, about 96,000 names have been put onto the Web site: A huge number, but not 5 percent of the total.

Zedeck and Tobias aren't alone in their work. They have joined forces with a Texas-based nonprofit group called JewishGen, which is sponsoring several projects involving putting Jewish genealogical information on the Web. One of those has the daunting goal of building a database with every name of every Jewish cemetery in the world.

Also, as is common online, they have built up a network of people scattered throughout the world to help, some as volunteers, some as paid translators. (He notes that those in Siberia work very cheaply.)

Zedeck communicates reigularly with these folks but has met very few of them. In fact, he had met almost none until earlier this year, when he attended the 15th annual Jewish Genealogy Seminar in Boston.

"That was the first time I met Susan King (who runs JewishGen)," he says, "even though I had been talking to her by e-mail for two years."

Aside from connecting faces to e-mail accounts, Zedeck found at the meeting that his Web site had spread his name farther than he thought.

"People would say, 'You're Steven Zedeck ?' and shake my hand. I met people who were in tears," he says, still sounding amazed. "One man said he had been working (at his family history) and done very little, 'But after 15 minutes (in Zedeck's Web site), I found my great-grandfather.'"

Zedeck has made discoveries of his own, some disturbing. He found, for example, that some family members were killed in the Holocaust, as was so horribly common for Jewish families in Poland a half-century ago.

On a happier note, he has traced the Zedecks back to the 1760s in a region near Warsaw, and hopes to visit there some day.

In a more general sense, he says, his discoveries have not only helped connect him to his namesakes, but to broader historical streams.

"It started out as a family thing, but it is more," says Zedeck. "It gives me a sense of how life was back in the Old World."

In other words, he has made connections he wouldn't have made otherwise. And that's the way the online world works.

Reprinted from "The Nashua Telegraph", Sunday Sept. 15, 1996, "Living Online" column by David Brooks. Pictured above is Steven holding an 1864 marriage document of his great great grandparents and a copy of the recent book, "The Zedeck Family History", published in 1995 by Steven, Morris, and Murray Zedeck.