The Jewish Museum Hohenems has been always been committed to maintaining a relationship with the descendants of Hohenems Jews. This constant engagement is one of the reasons that it was possible for me to visit and work here this summer.
Of course, engaging with descendants requires knowing who they are and where they live now. The museum keeps a database of the relatives and descendants of Hohenems Jews dating back to the 17th century.¹ However, the museum’s research is incomplete—over the last several centuries, people have moved and married, crossed borders and had children. It’s impossible to track all these changes, and the database (despite including over 27,000 people) is riddled with dead ends and stories lost to the depths of time.
One of my tasks this summer has been investigating these dead ends and seeing what lies behind them. I sort through birth, death, marriage, and immigration records, trying to discover where descendants might have moved and where their families might be today. I read a lot of old digitized newspaper clippings and even more obituaries.
At times, the work can be difficult. Some people have really common names; some people changed their names when they migrated or married; some cultures follow different naming customs; some countries have strict privacy laws; a lot of records are in languages I don’t know.²
Many of the dead ends in the database are not attributed to poor record-keeping but to persecution. I’ve stumbled across a fair number of my distant cousins who died in Theresienstadt or Auschwitz.
At the same time, there is also a lot of beauty in the scattered history of Hohenems descendants. I’ve encountered crazy news of carjackings,³ miraculous tales of escape, love stories, adoption stories, and narratives of migration and persecution that still feel relevant today.
There’s a greater purpose to this research. When the museum “discovers” new descendants, we try to contact them. If they’re interested, they can visit the museum and learn more, attend a reunion, or get in touch with other distant family members. Some descendants now live in faraway places like Australia or Chile, the United States or Israel, while others are still in Austria—a man I met during my time here was born in Bregenz and now lives in Hohenems but didn’t know he was a descendant of Hohenems Jews until quite recently. Obviously, not everyone is interested in learning about Hohenems or their family history, but the museum wants to be a resource for people if they decide they want to discover more.
For anyone interested in searching through these records themselves, a public version of the museum’s database is available online (in both English and German) at http://www.hohenemsgenealogie.at/. Information about living people is omitted from the public version for privacy reasons.
¹ With the database, I can trace my own family history to Urban Veit Rosenthal, born in Hohenems in 1765.
² I prefer to read records in English or Spanish, so most of my research has been of descendants living in the UK, the US, or Latin America.
³ Don’t worry, everyone made it out OK.