Genealogy Ethics: What and Who Do You Tell the Things You Learn?


question (Photo credit: cristinacosta)

This past Sunday the New York Times ran an article about a reporter who learned that his great-great-grandfather, a New York City police officer, had killed a man under questionable circumstances, but had never gone to trial.  The reporter tracked down the descendant of the victim and told him the story.  That descendant had never known that his great-grandfather had been killed.  I found this story interesting, but it also raised a number of questions about the ethics of uncovering a family secret.  What lines should I draw when I learn something that might be upsetting to a descendant?

It doesn’t even have to be something involving criminal conduct.  It could be learning about financial troubles, medical issues, family issues—all of which can be discovered in public sources like newspapers, census reports, vital records, wills, court documents, and other records that anyone, whether related or not, can find.  Does the fact that these are publicly available facts make a difference in terms of disclosure and privacy?

Is there some point in time when revealing that information is clearly appropriate?  Is there some point in time when those events are not remote enough in time?  Does it matter whether the family involved never even asked you to do the research versus a situation where they asked but had no knowledge of the troubling information? Are there times you definitely should reveal information? Are there times that you definitely should not?  What about putting things on a publicly accessible source such as a blog? What are the proper lines in that context?

I am seriously interested in these questions and what others think about them.  Whether you are a genealogy person or not, I would really like to know what you think.  Please leave your thoughts here.  I really think this issue merits serious discussion.



I am sitting in North Truro on the Outer Cape, looking out at the bay and Provincetown.  The Pilgrim Monument stands tall above

English: The Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown,...

English: The Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts from the north. The Pilgrim Monument Museum can be seen in the foreground. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

everything else on the horizon, reminding us that this was the place where the Pilgrims first landed before making a permanent settlement in Plymouth, just across the bay.  I have often walked near the steps where those first immigrants first walked on American soil.  I have spent time trying to imagine what it must have looked like back then—before all the roads and houses and cars and tourists were here, when it was just open land, sea, forests, dunes, and the local tribe who lived here first.  How magnificent it must have seemed, how frightening as well.

My own ancestors made their pilgrimages over two centuries later, and their first visions of America must have been far different from those of the Pilgrims—a crowded, dirty city, thousands of people, noisy streets, a jumble of different languages they could not understand.  It must have been magnificent, but in a far different way, and certainly it was just as frightening.

I woke this morning, filled with gratitude. This has been a transitional week for me.  I have not had much time to focus on research, and I am also in a holding pattern, waiting for documents and for some clues from relatives to help me make some breakthroughs.  I’ve been busy with the end of the semester tasks, and I’ve been concerned about a dear friend.  But this morning I am taking a moment to be grateful.  My friend is feeling better. My students left me some wonderful gifts, including a large poster signed by them, wishing me well on my retirement.  My exams are written, and the students are preparing to take them.  And I am in the place I love best with the person I love best, staring at a scene that always brings me comfort and perspective. So I am grateful.

When I think about my life compared to the lives of my ancestors, of those who came to America back in the late 19th, early 20th century, how could I not be grateful? I get to travel to places out of choice, to see those places for pleasure, to experience the beauty in the world for the sake of that experience.  They traveled because they had to—to escape from a difficult place and to attempt to create a better life somewhere else.  I get to live where I want to live.  In all my adult life, I have only lived in five different homes.  One thing that has struck me as I’ve done my research is how often my ancestors moved.  One cousin explained this by saying that every time a landlord raised the rent, the family would move, often not paying any rent due because they had no money.  When I have moved, it has always been out of choice—to a bigger home, for a better job, for a better location—not because I had to move.

My ancestors probably never knew the concept of leisure time.  Life was hard work all the time.  Although my grandparents were able to take some time away in the country during the summers when my mother was a young child, those were short vacations, a brief respite away from the hot city.  I have the luxury now of retiring and choosing every day how I will spend my time:  Will it be yoga or the elliptical at the gym today? Will I take a class or tutor a child?  Will I write my book or research my family? Should I do the NYTimes crossword puzzle or read a book?  I still cannot fully grasp what that will be like on a daily basis, but I am so grateful that I will have that opportunity to figure out how to spend my time.

Often I take all my freedom for granted and forget how lucky I am.  But today, sitting here, looking at the Pilgrim Monument, thinking of those Pilgrims and of my own ancestral pilgrims, I am filled with gratitude for all that those pilgrims and Pilgrims did, for all that I have, and for all the people I love.DSCN0396


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Where they lived: East Harlem in the Early 20th Century

One of things that puzzled me when I started looking at the census reports for the Goldschlagers between 1905

English: Looking from 96th Street in the south...

English: Looking from 96th Street in the south, northward along Second Avenue towards Spanish Harlem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and 1915 was where they were living.  I had always assumed that my grandfather, like my Brotman ancestors, had settled in the Lower East Side when he arrived in New York.  I thought that was where all poor Jewish immigrants had settled in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Yet at the time of the 1905 census, my grandfather was living at 2213 Second Avenue, near the intersection with 115th Street, in the neighborhood we know as East Harlem or Spanish Harlem.  He was living by himself (at age 17) in a building with some families with Jewish names but mostly families with Italian names.  What was he doing there? Why was he living up there and not on the Lower East Side?

When Moritz arrived, they remained in East Harlem on 109th Street, and after Moritz died, Betty and Isadore moved in with Tillie on 109th Street.  In 1915, all of the surviving Goldschlagers were still living on 109th Street.  Eventually, Isadore moved to Brooklyn, and David, Betty and their mother moved to the Bronx, until Betty and Gisella moved to Bayshore, Long Island in the 1930s.  But why had they started and stayed in East Harlem?

330 East 109th Street today

Some quick research revealed that East Harlem was a huge Jewish community in the early years of the 20th century, but that that community had disappeared and was for the most part forgotten.  As David W. Dunlap wrote in The New York Times in 2002, “On the map of the Jewish diaspora, Harlem is Atlantis. That it was once the third largest Jewish settlement in the world after the Lower East Side and Warsaw — a vibrant hub of industry, artistry and wealth — is all but forgotten. It is as if Jewish Harlem sank 70 years ago beneath the waves of memory, beyond recall.”  Dunlap then described the many signs that Jews once lived in East Harlem in the churches that were once synagogues.

Former Temple Israel Jewish synagogue, now Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. Detail: Star of David.

Mount Olivet Baptist Church in East Harlem, originally Temple Israel

The neighborhood had been rural until the subway and elevated trains arrived around 1880.  Soon after tenement buildings were constructed, and immigrants moved in, first German and Irish immigrants, then Jewish and Italian immigrants.  According to Wikipedia, there were 90,000 Jews living in East Harlem in 1917; however, the neighborhood was predominantly Italian and came to be known as Italian Harlem or Little Italy.  That is consistent with my study of the names in the 1905 census.

Photograph shows 105th Street between Madison and Park avenues in 1929, with traces of Jewish Harlem, including the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Harlem <i>(left)</i> and the synagogue called Beth Hamridash Hagadol of Harlem.

My mother remembers that her father spoke several languages and was quite fluent in Italian.  He must have learned Italian living in East Harlem in his first ten years in New York.   He was not a religious person and had left Romania at least in part to escape the anti-Semitism there.  Perhaps living in a mixed neighborhood made him feel more American, although obviously there was a well-established Jewish community there as well with many synagogues and other institutions.   Maybe it was cheaper than the Lower East Side, maybe the Lower East Side was already filled beyond overcrowding, or maybe East Harlem was a better neighborhood, not a cheaper neighborhood.  I don’t know what drew my grandfather there or why he stayed.

It’s always good to learn something new.  Now I know not only something new about my family, but also something new about the history of New York City and the Jewish immigrants who settled there.

2287 1st Avenue, East Harlem, New York.

2287 1st Avenue, East Harlem, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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The Brotmanville Brotmans

One of the questions raised early on by several of the Brotman cousins was whether and how we were related to the Brotmans of Brotmanville, NJ.  The history of Brotmanville is quite interesting and something I knew nothing about until I started this project; in fact, I’d never heard of Brotmanville at all.

Brotmanville was established by Abraham Brotman to provide jobs to the Jewish community that had settled in nearby Alliance, New Jersey.  Alliance was founded to be an agricultural community for Jewish immigrants and funded by the Baron de Rothschild.  As The New York Times reported:

In the 1880’s, pogroms and anti-Semitic laws in Russia caused a historic exodus of Jews. Most ended up crowded into tenements in American cities. But some Jewish thinkers urged their brethren, as one of them wrote, “to become tillers of the soil and thus shake off the accusation that we were petty mercenaries living upon the toil of others.” And so hundreds of Jews established agricultural colonies on land bought for them by charities and philanthropists.

As Richard Brotman, Abraham Brotman’s great-grandson, reports in a film he made in the 1980s about Brotmanville, the land was difficult to farm, and many people needed an alternative way to earn a living.

Abraham Brotman, himself a recent immigrant from Galicia, had established a successful coat factory in Brooklyn, NY, and decided to relocate it near Alliance to provide jobs for the people who lived there.  Abraham moved with his wife Minnie and their children and his father Moses and his wife and children to southern New Jersey, where eventually a portion of the community was named in his honor.

Many of the Brotmans descended from Moses and/or Abraham Brotman stayed in the southern New Jersey/Philadelphia area, including Judge Stanley Brotman, Rich Brotman’s father, who recently retired from the federal bench at age 89.  In addition, Moses’ granddaughter (through a child of Moses’ second wife), Elaine Ashin, still lives in nearby Vineland.  I spoke with Elaine last week to try and find out more about her grandfather, but unfortunately he died when she was just a few months old so she knew very little about him or his background.

Moses Brotman (photo courtesy of Elaine Ashin)


Bruce and Dennis Brotman remembered meeting with Judge Brotman many years ago and attempting to trace some family connection.  Although they cannot recall finding anything specific, they all left believing that there was some family tie.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find anything that reliably demonstrates that tie.  Moses Brotman was born in Austria in 1847, making him a contemporary of our Joseph Brotman.  Elaine Ashin sent me this photo of Moses’ headstone last week, and I was very excited when I saw it because Moses’ father’s name was Abraham.  I thought perhaps Moses and Joseph were brothers, making us all closely related to the Brotmanville Brotmans.

Photo courtesy of Elaine Ashin


I ordered a copy of Moses’ death certificate from Trenton, NJ, and it arrived the other day.  It confirmed that Moses’ father’s name was Abraham.  However, it listed Moses’ mother’s name as Sadie Bernstein, not Yetta as listed on Joseph’s death certificate.


So I see four possibilities: one, Moses and Joseph are not related at all, but it’s just coincidence that they both had fathers named Abraham Brotman.  Two, either Joseph’s death certificate is wrong as to his mother’s name or Moses’ death certificate is wrong as to his mother’s name, and they are brothers.  Given that we have seen that so many records, even death certificates, have errors (Frieda’s birth year,Hyman’s place of birth, etc.), it certainly is possible that one is wrong, that both are wrong or that both are right.  Three, it could be that Moses and Joseph are half-brothers and that Abraham had two wives and children with both, just as Moses and Joseph both did.  Four, perhaps they are distant cousins sharing a common ancestor named Abraham for whom both their fathers were named.

Unfortunately, we may never know.  In order to learn more, I would need to find documents from Galicia that would trace the history back further.  So far I am still not even sure what town our family came from nor where Moses’ family came from, so that is a difficult task.

So at the moment, the lawyer in me says there is just not enough evidence to conclude with any degree of certainty that we are related in any direct way to the Brotmans of Brotmanville.  But I have not given up, and I will keep looking or find someone in Poland who perhaps can search for me.