By: E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Hudson County, NJ
Most people do not meet their grandmothers in the town hall archival records room in a foreign country.
But Secaucus resident and former private investigator Miriam Weiner did.
Weiner, who knew she had been named after her grandmother but never met her in person, had to piece together family lore, oral history, and government documents before she had a sense of the woman named Miriam Odnopozov who emigrated to the U.S. from Priluki, Ukraine, in 1897.
"I cried when I finally found Miriam's birth certificate," she said last week.
It was a moving moment for a genealogist who usually helps other Jewish-Americans piece together their own family histories.
"People have these three conceptions: All the documents were destroyed in the Holocaust, the town was wiped off the map, and the third is, 'My family changed its name when they immigrated to the United States so you can't find anything on my family.' "
Weiner said last week that people are constantly amazed by what they can find - if they have the diligence, patience, and skills to comb through birth and marriage records in Eastern Europe.
If they don't, they can hire Weiner to do it for them.
Discovery and analysis
Although proud of her heritage, Weiner, who was born in California and raised in Iowa, says she is not particularly religious.
When asked how she became interested in genealogy, she started by discussing her career - in law enforcement. Since she was too physically short to be a police officer, Weiner took a job as a secretary for the Orange County Sheriff's Department and later, for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
Weiner was the person who took down crime reports. During this period, she enrolled in police science courses at a local university.
Eventually Weiner married a private investigator. After she got her own P.I. license, they opened their own detective agency.
"What I loved about law enforcement was the process of deduction and discovery and analysis," she said. "That's part of what also draws me to genealogy."
Many of the archivists and government bureaucrats who have assisted Weiner along the way are not Jewish themselves. That fact that they helped her anyway demonstrates the power of family and genealogical research.
"No matter where people come from, or what your cultural background is, people reach a point in their lives when they begin to reflect back on their lives and think about the past," she said. "And this is when many of us tend to think about our families and who we are. It's a universal feeling that we all share. Whether you're black or Jewish, or Irish, family heritage resonates with everybody."
Fall of the Iron Curtain piques interest
"Genealogy research is one of the most popular hobbies in this country," Weiner noted last week.
And certainly there have been moments when genealogy has benefited from trends taking place in the larger culture. The rise of the Internet and the fact that many governmental documents are beginning to be put online has given a boost to genealogy research, as has new interest in DNA testing to determine which gene pool a person may be related to.
"For African-Americans, the publication of Alex Haley's book 'Roots' [in 1977] is what got many of them interested in looking into their family histories," Weiner said. "For American Jews, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union, since some many of them have families who came out of Russia and Eastern Europe."
Some documents were considered "secret" or "classified" for decades.
"Many of the documents were not taken care of, so a lot of things are in bad shape," Weiner noted. "Things might be crumbling; pages may be missing. There may be water damage. The documents may have been exposed to smoke or fire damage."
When working with a client, Weiner - who only specializes in families who originated in Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus - starts by doing a detailed interview with the client to find out everything they know about where their family is from.
She encourages clients to do interviews with older family members, paying special attention to names and dates.
Weiner will then search U.S. archives to flesh out information that was obtained through interviews.
Usually she can find the family's name when it emigrated - "most people who changed their names did so after they came to the U.S., not before," she noted.
Armed with local information, Weiner will then travel to the town when the family originated to search government records.
This can be a tricky process, since records were not kept consistently in Eastern European towns. Also, town names have been changed, and national borders were not necessarily stationary during the Cold War period.
Despite this, Weiner is often able to find marriage, birth, and death certificates and other documents.
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