When we look back over our ancestors’ lives what impression do we have? We see perhaps good times and bad times, but do we see the humdrum everyday times? From our own subjective perspectives we may judge what we see as our ancestors’ obvious high points and catastrophic low points. However we are all too often left guessing what an ancestor felt about those times, since so much of the original context is beyond our reach now.
Despite the obvious differences of historical time period and location, ancestral lives are punctuated by some life events which many of us have also traversed. Sometimes our ancestors’ lives seem a lot like our own in many respects and we feel we can begin to imagine some of their feelings, experiences and situations.
Typically we survey the course of ancestral lives from maybe only a handful of life events or moments which we have gleaned from historical sources. As we hang onto those scant details of course we have to be mindful about the accuracy and truthfulness of the details we find there.
When considering whether our ancestors themselves compiled the details provided, we have to bear in mind that the information could already have been second-hand by the time it was originally noted down, but also our ancestors may have indulged in a little self-editing. To a great or lesser extent these textual snapshots of ancestral life moments were probably dictated by national and legal requirements. Documentation around birth, marriage and death, interspersed with census records of location and occupation being the most common or core records here.
Other historical source materials available to us very much depend on what happened during our ancestors’ lives, ranging across records of migration, taxation, education, crime and commerce. Newspaper accounts are another category of historical sources which can begin to elucidate some of the original context of our ancestors’ experiences. The most immediate source of ancestral information are those records which were actually written by our ancestors, such as letters or diaries which give us some indication of their own narrative view of their lives. Visual clues provided in photographs can be both tantalizing and frustrating but these can also be really valuable in parallel with textual details.
As we try to get inside the lives of our ancestors, it is worth reflecting that there is also a question about how much the type of historical source, its original purpose and author shape and inform our opinion or judgement of the ups and downs of our ancestors’ lives.
It is very easy to pick out what seem to us the ancestral tough times from the details within historical sources which point to illness, unemployment, loss, bereavement, abandonment, poverty, inequality, bankruptcy, displacement, crime, imprisonment, violence, war, persecution and death. Life-limiting and life-threatening circumstances feature quite prominently in the kinds of historical sources which are sometimes the easiest to find.
Historical sources which record harrowing events provide little solace. In particular records created by those who instigated the persecution of others produce in us very conflicting emotions as we read them, knowing for what purpose they were compiled. One example is the Reichssippenamt Volkszählung population census created by the National Socialist Ministry of Internal Affairs for the German Reich through the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung later the Reichssippenamt. This national survey was carried out between 1938-9 to create a database of the ethnic identity of individuals deemed “non-Aryan” by the Reich. Individuals who had Jewish grandparents were listed and these records were used to annul German citizenship and implement racial legislation, persecution and deportation. This historical source shows the poignantly marked absence of families and predominately male family members, who were known to have been resident prior to the worsening of conditions for German Jews around Reichskristallnacht and subsequently.
But historical records which inform us of the fate of victims of persecution and war also have a secondary function which is not lost to us. Yesterday and today, 4th-5th May 2016, our Jewish friends mark Yom HaShoah the annual Jewish day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. Historical records of Holocaust victims serve as a powerful memorial to those who perished. The names of those who perished have been gathered by a number of institutions internationally, including USHMM, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and Yad Vashem. There is a quotation presented at Yad Vashem from one man named David Berger which reminds me of the deep significance of the gathering of victims’ names. David Berger was born and lived in the Polish town of Przemysl. In 1939 at the outbreak of war he fled from the German invasion to Vilna where he was shot in July 1941 aged 19. Before his death he wrote to friend “I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger.” Recalling simply a person’s name is a powerful means to remember and memorialise.
The ancestral life events which we perceive as good times are often less obvious and certainly less frequently reported within the historical sources, such as family growth, celebrations, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, academic, commercial, military accomplishments, promotion and awards. It is harder to see the good times and sometimes they simply seem to be the absence of bad times, such as successfully outliving infancy, reaching adulthood, overcoming illness, having an occupation, finding a new place to live and settle, reaching old age or having had an “uninteresting life” as they say.
The small triumphs of the everyday are lost to us. The details of the mundane and regular activities and emotions are even harder to find in the historical sources and can only be teased out when trying to fill the gaps between the high and low points. But there are sources which can help to give us an impression of the context of home life, work life and leisure time. We can use locational information to look at dwellings and workplaces, educational establishments, faith-community buildings and social clubs. We can study maps to understand the paths trodden and commercial directories to get glimpses of shops and workplaces. We can look at community, society and trade memberships and use newspaper reports to get a picture of the intellectual and political discourse of the time and place, locally and nationally.
Looking at the key life moments of our ancestors’ lives handed down to us through the historical sources is also a bit like contemplating our own social media timelines.
However, whereas the moments we post about often feature the highlights, successes and celebrations in our lives, we also like to share the mundane, the amusing, the disastrous and the sorrows.
We have to remember that the historical snapshots of our ancestors’ lives have been imposed on our knowledge of them for the most part by civil and legal authorities and requirements. The life events they point to may not have been triumphant, self-willed or enjoyed.
How accurate would a reconstruction of your life be from the official records you leave behind? How much more insightful is your own narrative on your life?
We live our lives and in parallel our lives live on on social media. That is where a large portion of our legacy lies. With this is mind we will be looking at digital legacy preservation soon.
Hannah Gill, historytrace, 05/05/2016
Historytrace can help you to explore the ups and downs of your family’s past, through close analysis of historical sources to bring to life your family heritage across Europe. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.
You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Good Times and Bad Times – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: www.freeimages.com / Maria Herrera.
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Reichssippenamt Volkszählung, http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn507380
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, http://auschwitz.org/en/museum/auschwitz-prisoners
Yad Vashem, http://yvng.yadvashem.org
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