We will discuss what led to this moment of limited access to historical immigration records and the unclear future regarding preservation. Genealogists and genealogy societies play a vital role in influencing Federal records management and participants will come away with new information and key action steps targeting both the USCIS Genealogy Program and the National Archives.
I also have an on-demand talk, The Alphabet Soup of Naturalization Records: Meet the P-File. This session introduces researchers of 20th Century immigration to the Petition File, a document that exists (or once existed) for immigrants who started the naturalization process between 27 September 1906 and early 1950. P-files, created by US Naturalization Examiners for every Petition for Naturalization filed, can provide a good deal of information on the applicant, sometimes information available nowhere else. These files, accessible only via a complicated FOIA request, are in the custody of USCIS, and scheduled for destruction in 2050.
These sessions are available to all conference attendees. The live panel will also be available as part of the conference recording package.
No one knows why my grandfather chose Odessa for his place of birth. Like many children who immigrated to the United States at a young age, Max knew little of the place he left behind. Yet unlike his three other immigrant siblings, two older, one younger, he somehow knew something they didn’t – a specific place of birth – Odessa. How Max summoned the name of that fabled city to put on various government documents remains an unsolved mystery.
A scrappy deal-maker, Max would have fit into Moldavanka like a glove. His Prohibition-era experiences would have served him well in the underground markets. His love of being well-dressed, and standing out in a crowd, despite his diminutive size, would have found him strolling Derybasivska on a warm spring evening.
It’s hard to prove a negative, but I’m pretty certain Max was not born in Odessa. His origins are probably in Volhynia, near his father’s city of Novohrad-Volynskyi, or his mother’s town of Sudylkiv. With the essential help of an historian, genealogist and expert on Odessa, we scoured the vast archival records of Odessa, marking each Karol birth and death, looking for a connection. We even found a boy named Mordkho born at the right time, with parents who were originally from Volhynia, but those parents, and their patronymics, did not match the names for Max’s mother and father. Maybe they are cousins.
I traveled to Odessa in 2018, taking in the romantic, gritty city on the Black Sea and pondering why my grandfather chose Odessa. I walked to the Brodsky Synagogue, home of the Odessa State Archives and thought about the lives and the secrets held inside. Now I think about the lives and the people trapped in Odessa, and across Ukraine, while this madman wages war from the east.
Historians say write it down now, while the history is happening. To that I say, it’s complicated being two generations removed from a place I’m not from and feeling such strong emotions about it. The branches of my family who left Ukraine are the branches who survived WWII. But Odessa, the place my grandfather never saw, is a place I also chose. And while history is happening, I feel helpless.
It wasn’t easy, but he managed to banish his memories. Then, livening up, he began where he’d left off, telling the Chekists who’d been sent down from Moscow about the life of Froim the Rook, about his shrewdness, his elusiveness, his contempt for his fellow man – all those astounding stories that have receded for ever into the past…
–Isaac Babel, from “Froim the Rook” in Odessa Stories, translated by Boris Dralyuk
The two-hour panel session will introduce researchers to Certificate Files (C-Files), Visa Files and Registry Files, Alien Registration Forms and A-files. We will work to untangle the misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding the records created by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The session will help participants understand the fee-based USCIS Genealogy Program, what might be found duplicated in court records, and what might be at the National Archives. We’ll discuss the content of the records, value to genealogical research, and unclear status regarding preservation and future researcher access. Despite the interest in these records, and advocacy for them, future access to USCIS records remains in jeopardy if the community does not continue to work to protect the records.
I also have an on-demand talk, Three is Not the Magic Number: Better Ways to Add Up Evidence and Improve Analysis. Finding three examples of a piece of information equals a fact is a genealogy myth. This presentation breaks apart the notion of three, and replaces it with using documents to learn definitions of primary and secondary information, original and derivative source documents, and direct and indirect evidence – all part of using the Evidence Analysis Process Map to weigh and analyze the evidence before making a conclusion.
Examples of how the “rule of three” can result in incorrect conclusions will be discussed in case studies, which will also help participants understand how to build research plans, equaling better research, better conclusions and fewer genealogy “do-overs.” The records discussed in this presentation will focus on those easily available for a newer researcher: vital records (birth, marriage, death), headstones, Census records, immigration and naturalization records, Social Security number applications, and military draft cards.
US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) currently holds millions of records that should be accessible from the National Archives. The USCIS Genealogy Program, begun with the best of intentions, no longer functions, resulting in a difficult, time-consuming and very expensive process for genealogists, historians and everyday researchers to access immigration records of the late 19th and 20th century.
Previously, we fought back on the USCIS proposal to hike fees to access the records. Now, USCIS wants to hear from the public to identify barriers between their services and our satisfaction. The window of opportunity to tell USCIS about all the problems with the Genealogy Program closes on 19 May 2021.
Effective comments require specific feedback. Comments must address one or more of the 17 questions posed by USCIS. Comments must include reference to the Code of Federal Regulations. This sounds difficult, but it isn’t. The team at Records, Not Revenue (of which I am a part) outlined three steps to help you provide effective comments on the USCIS Genealogy Program.
If you are ready to take action now, click here. Remember, the deadline is 19 May 2021
If you want to know a bit more, continue reading….
USCIS focuses on citizenship and immigration services. Before it was USCIS, it was the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and before that, the Bureau of Immigration. These agencies created heaps and heaps of records that provide important and interesting details on our ancestors’ lives.
The Genealogy Program at USCIS, created to help genealogists, historians and researchers access these old records, no longer effectively services the records nor the community. In fact, historical records and records management are not mentioned in the USCIS Mission Statement, nor is the Genealogy Program, historic records or records management listed in the USCIS Core Values.
Anyone who tries to order records from the USCIS Genealogy Program knows that the program currently exists as an afterthought, a burden, as illustrated in this info graphic
I experienced this process while working to obtain files on my grandfather. I submitted an index request, and then had to submit a FOIA request, after paying for the index search. Then, I received the documents, poorly scanned, redacted and delivered on obsolete technology. This is just one example of the challenges researchers face in obtaining the records.
The home for historic records is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). USCIS has signed legal agreements to transfer many of their historic records and accompanying index to NARA, but has so far failed to uphold these agreements.
There is a solution: USCIS must transfer the historic records (and accompanying index) of our ancestors, as they are legally bound, and do it without further delay. The records that are not subject to transfer and are open for research must be serviced by trained professionals who understand the complicated history of the agency and the records under its care.
Brickwalls, the figurative ones, exist to torture genealogists. I talk about them a lot. Why they exist, strategies to break them, condolences when it appears the brickwall might stay standing. In early 2021, I presented a virtual talk for the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington, with a focus on methods a hobbyist genealogist can use to get to the next level. I push them to think about how they research, and what they do with the information they find.
In the talk, I point out that just like in real life, our genealogy trees need pruning and routine maintenance. Perhaps incorrect information got added during a late-night research session, or a clue missed on a previously reviewed document. Or maybe a brickwall can be broken with a genealogy “do-over,” because the information needed is now accessible, or more easily available.
Work on one of my brickwalls traces back more than a decade. I wanted to determine the relationship between my great-grandfather, Samuel Brand, and Harry Brandt. Samuel Brand traveled to the United States with Harry’s family, lived with them, and bought a house with Harry. They shared a surname, kind of, but how were they related? Sam was about 18 years younger than Harry. Was Harry an uncle, cousin, much older sibling, or no relation at all?
I needed to know Harry’s father’s name, and the most likely place to find that was on a death certificate or a headstone.
Harry Brandt and his son Aaron vanished from St. Louis about 1913, and I could not figure out what happened to them. Did they go back to Russia? Did they relocate? Another of Harry’s sons moved to Chicago, and I could find a suitable Harry Brandt there, but not with enough information to prove a match. Parts of the family spelled the surname Brand, and I could find men named Harry Brand, too, in St. Louis, Chicago and other locations. But the right one? No clue.
A lot less was available online when I first began work on this problem. I ordered Harry’s naturalization documents from the National Archives in Kansas City, and the copies were sent to me on a DVD. I scoured the St. Louis Public Library’s obituary index, ordering any Brand or Brandt, and the library sent me photocopies in the mail. I visited the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds and using both microfiche and microfilm, got copies of the home ownership papers. I photographed every Brand or Brandt at Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery. I tried to make use of digitized newspapers at Chronicling America, but their OCR search combined with the last name Brand(t) gave me thousands of hits for every advertisement of “Brand Name” or “Brand New” and trying to find Harry in that haystack of hits was not possible.
I traced Harry’s other children, and where they went. I contacted some of their family members. No one knew what happened to Harry. I needed Harry’s father’s name to try and place him within my family’s Brand(t) lines. And I could not find it.
Fast forward to March 2021, and a project I am a part of with a group of other professional genealogists who focus on late 19th and 20th Century immigration to the United States. As part of the effort, we collected examples of naturalizations from different courts around the US. I pulled up Harry’s file, but no new revelations came from reviewing the documents, and a naturalization doesn’t have the one piece of information I needed to include him in the project – his date of death.
I typed Harry’s name into a genealogy database search, wondering if anything new might show up. And there it was. A death certificate in Los Angeles, from 1914, for a man born about 1862, named Harry Brandt. I clicked on the thumbnail to open the image. At first glance, it seemed to be another record that might not give me enough information to form a conclusion, as the name of the informant was helpfully written as “son.” But Box 18 offered literally,
SPECIAL INFORMATION …. Former or Usual Residence: St. Louis
I was on to something. I obtained a photograph of the corresponding headstone, and finally solved this brickwall. Now, I can welcome my great-grandfather Samuel Brand’s older brother, Nachman Tzvi son of Mordechai Leib, to the family.
Figuring this out opens a lot of research doors for this line, but for now I will sit and ponder if the answer had been there all along? Probably not. Genealogy website search engine algorithms are funny things. But why did I decide to check again, and why did it show up right away? Our brains are funny things, too. We see information we might have missed the first time, we interpret and analyze documents differently with fresh eyes. New data is added to genealogy sites daily. It’s hard to keep up, but important to remember that trees need occasional maintenance. A spring cleaning, if you will.
 St Louis Recorder of Deeds Archives, 1909, book 2255, page 423.
 This was a feat unto itself. A researcher has to start with the name of the present owner of the building, then work their way back in time, from grantee to grantor, charting the numbers of each transaction, until the name of the people in question are located. This information is on microfiche. The numbers located are then used to pull up, on microfilm, the copies of the deeds.
 The Library of Congress’ free digitized newspaper collection. This was before any other online newspaper search engines launched.
 “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” database and images, FamilySearch. Death Certificate #1778, 1914.
Just before the National Archives closed to the public in March, I was able to finish gathering the information from records to tell the story of my great uncle Irv’s WWII experience, and confirm his participation in the Liberation of Ohrdruf.
The following links are to previous blog posts that trace the research steps I took, and the documents and photos I uncovered. The process could be used for research on your WWII Army soldier.
While the research tells Irv’s story, this post is dedicated to the United States Armed Forces veterans I have known: my father, a captain in the US Air Force, my uncle Nate (US Army), my uncle Sandy (US Navy), cousins and friends.
Your family’s name was not changed at Ellis Island. And yet, again and again, the response to that factual statement is a retort of “well, in my family it was.” I understand. No one wants to call their grandparent a liar.
Grandpa said his grandpa was called Schwartz and now our name is Black. It was changed at Ellis Island.
Grandma said our name was Weiss and now it’s White. They were given that name on color day at Ellis Island.
I’ll tell you what is black and white – records. The documents have the facts, which are not always the same as the oral history. Previously, I documented the evolution of the surname on my paternal side. Let’s break down the myth again looking at my maternal line.
Growing up, I was told that this document was my great-grandfather’s steamship ticket – in reality it is an inspection card. The inspection card, issued to immigrants and steerage passengers, was filled out in Southampton, England. It bears the stamp of the US Consulate in Southampton.
This little card provides multiple points for cross-referencing:
the ticket number (upper right – 20600)
the ship and date of departure
page of the ship manifest (stamped “AA”)
number on the page AA of the ship manifest (5)
and, of course, the name in the center – Solomon Gotcher. That’s not his signature. This was filled out for him. How do I know it’s not his signature? Other documents required his signature, such as his Declaration of Intention to become a US citizen.
But this signature says “Solomon Ketcher” not “Solomon Gotcher.” How did the name change happen?
A look at the ship manifest shows a mirror of the inspection card. Solomon Gotcher appears on sheet AA, line 5, with the ticket number 20600 penciled in. That’s not his signature, either.
How did Solomon get from Gotcher to Ketcher? Well, it was more of a return. In February of 1904, Solomon married in Daugavpils, Latvia. The surname, written in Cyrillic, Кацерь, is underlined. It transliterates to “Katsher,” which is pretty close to Ketcher. And it has nothing to do with Ellis Island, or baseball.
I never thought I’d write about the documentation of a tragedy while living in the midst of another. It is hard to write about concentration camps at any time, and it’s harder now with the world currently facing Covid-19. This post continues the series on researching World War II service, recalling the efforts and sacrifices of the past, and presenting the evidence that tells us what happened. The past must be documented, and we, and succeeding generations, must learn and remember.
The 89th Infantry Division, of which the 914th Field Artillery Battalion was a part, has been commemorated by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the US Army Center of Military History as a Liberating Unit. Their guidelines define a Liberating Unit as
Recognize units only at the divisional level;
Accord the honor of liberator status on the basis of unit records housed at the National Archives and Records Administration, not oral testimony; and
Accord liberator status to those divisions arriving at the site within 48 hours of the initial division’s encounter.
I knew from reading the history of the 89th that some units were attached to the 4th Armored Division during a couple key dates, specifically 3 – 6 April 1945. These units were
The 4th Armored Division, like the 89th, was recognized as a Liberating Unit of Ohrdruf. It seemed from the general history of the 89th that my great uncle Irv Carl would have been a witness to the atrocities of the Ohrdruf camp. The unit histories of both the 4th and the 89th also document their presence at Ohrdruf, as does the history of the 914th. To learn the daily movements of each company of the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, and access every possible record available, I needed to review Morning Reports.
Morning Reports are the most granular of the documents available to WWII military researchers – they were created the morning after events took place. The reports are omission-based, meaning that if nothing happened to a soldier that day, his name would not appear, just some descriptive details of what the company did and experienced. Reports only show the names of men wounded, sick or who arrived/departed the unit on a particular date, meaning that the vast majority of soldiers’ names were not in Morning Reports.
Morning Reports vary in detail, and in preservation quality. Morning Reports were microfilmed by the National Archives and are housed in St. Louis. Some reels have fared better than others. The 914th Field Artillery Battalion reports have some gaps – days when the “buck slips,” the small slips of paper on which the reports were filed, were not received. The data was input on later dates.
The Morning reports for the 914th Field Artillery Battalion – for all Batteries – are missing buck slips for many days of the first two weeks of April. Even so, the Morning Reports for Battery C – the Battery to which Irv Carl belonged – provide details on exactly where and when. On 4 April 1945, after traveling more than 200 miles in less than three days, Battery C arrived 2 miles southeast of Meteback, Germany at 1130. The next morning, 5 April, it was onward to take Gotha. Battery C arrived at Ohrdruf in the rain, at 1600 on 6 April 1945. They remained at Ohrdruf for several days, departing at 0630 on 10 April 1945.
A few days after the 914th Field Artillery Battalion departed Ohrdruf, General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived, along with General George C. Patton. In a letter to George C. Marshall written on 15 April 1945, Eisenhower described the experience
 A Combat Team is a temporal fighting force, depending on the tactical situation. In the case of a Regimental Combat Team, it stays in the base unit (Infantry Regiment), allowing the Commanding Officer (Regimental Commander) to add heavy weapons, antitank assets etc. as needed for the situation. Many thanks to Patrick Brion, Förderverein “Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Walpersberg“ e.V., Sitz Kahla for assistance with the abbreviations and definition of a Combat Team.
 There is more than one Meteback. The one mentioned here is located at 50.9698, 10.6091
 Eisenhower, Dwight D: Papers, Pre-Presidential, 1916 – 1952. Principal Files, 1916 – 1952. File Unit: Marshall, George C. (6), Letter, Dwight D. Eisenhower to George C. Marshall, 4/15/1945. Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas. To view the entire letter, see here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/12005711.
On 26 March 1945, at 0200 hours, the 89th Infantry Division began crossing the Rhine on its march eastward. Imagine the coordination between the divisions, brigades, battalions, batteries to make this happen. As the crossing began, the 914th Field Artillery Battalion provided support to the 355th Infantry Regiment. The crossings were made near St. Goar and Oberwesel. My great uncle Irwin Carl, a corporal in the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, was there. He was one of 88 men in Battery C, positioned 1500 yards east of Niederburg. 
How do I have such detail, down to his exact position? After Action Reports.
After Action Reports typically comprise a narrative, plus S-3 and S-2 Reports and a Unit Journal. The “S” stands for “Staff.” The “3” refers to “Operations,” and the “2” to “Intelligence.” The After Action report is a high-level narrative, written in the weeks after events. It does not give names. For the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, the 10 – 31 March 1945 report was submitted on 1 April 1945.
Reading through the After Action report for 24 – 29 March provides much detail on the Battalion, and each Battery within the Battalion. It details the locations, and exact timing of movements of troops – even the type and amount of ammunition expended.
From reading the primary source material, I know that the Rhine crossing took days – the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, Battery C started crossing at 0130 hours on 28 March 1945 – 48 hours after the first troops headed across – and they finished at 0400 hours on 28 March 1945.
Primary source materials, and drilling down into the details, tells the soldiers’ stories. These documents helped inform this blog post:
Many thanks to Eric S. Van Slander, Archivist at National Archives, College Park, for his assistance locating a mislabeled box, without which this research would not be possible. See also:
 Allied Forces. Army Group, 1. E. S. & United States Army. Army Group, 1. H. (1944) HQ Twelfth Army Group situation map: Battle of the Bulge–France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany. 26 March 1945. [England?: Twelfth Army Group, to 1945] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2001628569/, 26 March 2020.
How do you tell a soldier’s story? By telling the soldiers’ stories.
Most documents available rarely provide more than a name on a list, and many don’t even have that. The majority of the documents available focus on a soldier’s unit, and once that is determined, the story can be traced.
My great uncle Irwin “Irv” Carl was a member of the 89th Infantry Division. During WWII, the size of an infantry division was about 15,000 men. Within an infantry division, there are infantry regiments, artillery battalions, medics, reconnaissance and other special troops. I could research and understand the story of the 89th Infantry Division, but learning what a soldier did? For that I needed a name on a unit list.
The 89th Infantry Division Historical Board published a history in 1947, and the book included Rosters of Personnel. The 89th Infantry Division of WWII website alphabetized the lists, making it easier to find soldiers’ names: Carl I.; Cpl; 914th Field Artillery Battalion; Battery C. Telling the story of the 914th Field Artillery Battalion tells the story of 520 soldiers, 88 of whom were in Battery C.
In March 1945, the 914th Field Artillery Battalion entered combat. The Unit History, page 3:
III. GERMANY. It was on 10 March 1945 that a long awaited event occurred. Underfoot was enemy soil. The town of Wilschbillig was the first German town to be occupied by the battalion. It has already been captured in the previous fighting by the Third Army. Patenburg was the next stepping stone toward the enemy. It was about 35 miles travel from Welschbillig, being occupied on 11 March 1945. The next day was one of rapid movement. 3rd Bn 355th Inf was assigned the mission of capturing the towns of Litzerath and Driesch. The 914th F.A. Bn. displaced to positions in the vicinity of Gillenfeld to support this action.
Order of Battle of the US Army, World War II, European Theater of Operations, 89th INFANTRY DIVISION. Office of the Theater Historian, Paris, France, 1945. Placed online by U.S. Army Center of Military History, https://history.army.mil/documents/ETO-OB/89ID-ETO.htm accessed 8 March 2020.