Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Coincidence? Think again.

"Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous."
~~Albert Einstein~~

We all experience coincidence in our daily lives.
  • You're thinking about a long lost friend, when out of the blue that friend calls you.
  • You make a wrong turn while driving and discover later that a bad accident occurred on the street where you should have been at the time you should have been there.

When we research our ancestors, coincidence seems fairly common. Virtually all lifetime genealogists will tell you there is a common theme that threads its ways through most family history discoveries. Some people call it luck, serendipity, synchronicity, intuition, good fortune, or coincidence.

Call it what you will, but there is clearly something beyond our control at work and genealogists experience it all the time. How else can you explain the following?

  • Distant cousins, living thousands of miles apart who have never met, coincidentally meeting at the grave of their common ancestor.

  • Family treasures--old photos, Bibles, journals, letters--which are coincidentally reunited with descendants of the original families under inexplicable circumstances.

The Edward Eardley Family circa 1914

After my grandfather's death in 1957, my grandma Olive sold their home of fifty-four years and moved away from the neighborhood. Five years later in 1962, a former neighbor was cleaning leaves and trash from behind her fence when she discovered the above photograph of my grandparents and three of their five children.

How did it get there? How long had it survived the harsh elements, the hot dry summers and cold, snowy winters? No one can explain it. Yet there is was in perfect condition. No one else in the family had a copy of this photograph. It's the only known copy--a priceless treasure which made its way back to our family. Coincidence? I call it a miracle.

One evening while working on a family history, I was writing about a distant cousin's family, a family I had never met and knew little about. The phone rang and I was about to ignore it, but something told me to answer. It was the very cousin calling from hundreds of miles away. The hair on my neck stood up! After my initial shock, she had plenty of wonderful information for me.

It seems to me that when we honor our deceased ancestors, they return the favor two-fold!

Many difficult genealogical problems go unanswered for years on end then curiously they are solved through amazing coincidences.

I once researched a friend Jane's Jewish grandfather, David Grudzinsky, who was born in Kibarty, Lithuania, then part of Polish Russia. In the 1880s when David was a child, his family fled the pogroms which forced the Jews from their homes (i.e. Fiddler on the Roof). When the Grudzinsky family arrived in America, their surname was Americanized to Lewis (go figure).

The family with two son and four daughters settled in Evanston, Wyoming along with other Jewish Russians. The daughters married in the Jewish faith and moved with their husbands to the large cities on the East coast. The two sons married Mormon girls and remained in the west.

In 1987, one hundred years after the Grudzinskys had fled Russia, I was asked to do research on this family. At that time, the Family History Library did not have any Jewish records for Lithuania, Poland or Russia. The Internet was very young and information was scarce.

Through contacts with various family members, Jane located a cousin who lived in Tel Aviv who made a tape recording telling about what happened to family members, including names and approximate dates. I listened carefully to the tape jotting down clues. After transcribing the recording, I finally had tangible data to work with.

I located the names of the family members in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 census records, and then was able to find marriage records and death certificates. But I couldn't find a death date or place for the father Isaac (Grudzinsky) Lewis. His wife died in Boston, but where did Isaac die?

On the tape recording from Tel Aviv, Jane's cousin had mentioned a family named Gottstein. I had been unable to find a connection between the Gottstein and Grudzinsky family and was stumped.

One day I was driving through the Jewish section in the Salt Lake City Cemetery when suddenly I noticed a headstone with the name Gottstein! I got out of the car and went to the grave and began reading the stones around it. There in the midst was the headstone of Isaac Lewis. Coincidence? Minor miracle to me.

Now with his death date and place I could find his death certificate and an obituary.

Isaac's obituary on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune in 1906 outlined the life of a remarkable man, details which census records could never reveal, details which Jane's cousin didn't know about.

In Russia, Isaac had been a Rabbinical and Talmudical scholar who spoke seven languages fluently. He had worked as a customs official on the Polish-Russian border. The obituary even gave the name of the tiny town where Isaac was born. All these details because I literally tripped over his grave!

After the fall of Communism, Lithuania and other former Communist nations were opened up to the LDS Church for missionary work and filming of vital records in archives. I was able to contact through e-mail a new member of the LDS faith in Lithuania, a women interested in genealogy who understood English. She did research for me in the Vilnus archives and sent me photocopies of the vital records of over one hundred forty of Isaac Grudzinsky's ancestors and relatives. (She also translated the records for me!)

The story doesn't end there. Jane's cousin in Tel Aviv said that Isaac's father Noah Grudzinsky had gone to Palestine in the 1870s and was buried in the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. A friend of mine, on a visit to Jerusalem, was able to find Noah's grave and headstone! The names and dates were of course in Hebrew, but when translated the information provided two additional generations to the family.

A set of unusual coincidences made the research on this Jewish family possible. I saw each coincidence as a miracle.

Have you experienced similar coincidences in your research? I'd love to hear about them.


TravelinOma said...

Dee has sometimes been hired to do research by people who subsequently don't seem very interested in his findings.

Usually Dee tracks down information on several ancestors and then one particular great-great somebody jumps out and grabs him with fascinating details. That person becomes the star of the story just because of the spirit Dee feels. I always figure that person is the real client--the guy that hired Dee is just paying the bills.

Olive's Granddaughter said...

I definitely agree, Marty. My friend Jane wasn't as interested in the details of her family as I was! I was fascinated by Isaac.

Olive's Granddaughter said...

Amen, Marty!