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Three Ways to Learn More About Your East European Roots This Summer

Ellis Island Wall of Honor Entry for John and Elizabeth Fenchak Alzo
Ellis Island Wall of Honor Entry for John and Elizabeth Fenchak Alzo
Lisa A. Alzo

The Fourth of July has come and gone, but there is still plenty of summer left. Summer is also the perfect time to squeeze in some genealogy research. Here are three tips to learn more about your East European roots.

  1. Reach out to relatives. Summer is the time for vacations and reunions. Perhaps you have plans to attend a formal family gathering. If so, remember to take plenty of photos, and use your smartphone or tablet to interview your relatives. You can try the app Saving Memories Forever to ask the right questions. Bringing along a printed or digital copy of your family tree, old family photographs or heirlooms can often help to jumpstart the conversation and help family remembers names, and dates and locations for specific events. And if you really want to dive into the past, consider bringing along some DNA kits for relatives who might agree to be tested. (Learn more about DNA testing from The Genetic Genealogist, and “How-To DNA”). If you don't have any formal reunion plans, it’s not too early to start organizing one for next year. Find tips at Reunions Magazine. You can also organize a virtual reunion with far-flung family members using technology such as Skype, Facetime or Google Hangouts.

  2. Walk in your ancestors' footsteps. A visit to an ancestor's hometown can open up many doors for your research. Check out the neighborhood, visit the church (if still open), explore the local cemeteries, and other key places. If you are near New York City, plan a day at Ellis Island to learn more about the immigration experience. Official walking tours may be offered so check with the local visitor's center, library, or historical society. Perhaps you have always wanted to visit your ancestral homeland. You can start planning by searching for the town or village online, then investigate airfare, lodging, activities, and if possible, try to make contact with any relatives still residing in the area. I like to call this experience “immersion genealogy”--the process of discovering where your ancestors lived, worked, and worshipped, and experiencing those customs and traditions they passed down through the generations.

  3. Attend Summer School. Want to learn how to read Russian Script or how to get started with Polish genealogy? Explore the free Learning Center at FamilySearch. Here you will currently find 11 courses on topics for the Czech Republic, eight for Poland, three for Russia, and one for Slovakia, in addition to the hundreds of other courses on many other subjects. There are also some new East European blogs to read, including The Carpatho-Rusyns of Pennsylvania—a project over two decades in the making to write the history of the state's Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant communities, and Czech Genealogy for Beginners–a blog for those interested in Czech genealogy who have ancestors in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. Family Tree University offers a number of online courses including Czech and Slovak Genealogy 101, Hungarian Genealogy 101, and Polish Genealogy 101. The National Institute for Genealogical Studies has courses for Polish, Slovak, and Ukrainian research. Webinars provide additional learning opportunities. Most are offered for free and you can even watch them sitting on your deck or lounging by the pool if you have a reliable internet connection and a laptop, tablet, or mobile device. Check the Geneawebinars calendar for a listing of dates and topics.

Research in Eastern European can be a challenging process. Sorting out surnames, trying to identify ancestral hometowns, and deciphering old country records to connect families are just a few of the obstacles often encountered along the way. But spending a little time on summer learning opportunities could possibly lead you to some excellent East European research discoveries!