Genealogical serendipity (when lightning strikes)

Poor neglected blog. I’m prompted to get back to it, thanks to a recent run of what us family history dorks sometimes call ‘genealogical serendipity’. This will perhaps ring most bells with more experienced family historians but it has relevance for beginners too.

Genealogical serendipity tends to strike when a brick wall you’ve previously encountered in your research suddenly crumbles before your eyes with the discovery of a new record, a story or even a photo. Genealogist Christine Sievers says “If you have been doing genealogy for any length of time you will have experienced that wonderful chance happening that has opened up a whole new world.”  Some people attribute this to some sort of guidance from above. Some to some other sort of extra-corporeal or supernatural guiding spirit. Susan Soyinka speaks very powerfully about it in her extraordinary family memoir A Silence that Speaks.

Me – I’m perhaps a bit more pragmatic, a bit less mystical about it. I put it down to sheer personal brilliance, or rather more accurately, tenacity!

It is perhaps a truism that, like everything else in life, there seems to be a direct correlation between the work put in and the happenstance of genealogical serendipity. For me, it happens when I’m completely engaged and immersed in a subject.  When, by dint of thinking through all scenarios, probabilities and likely places to search, the evidence I’m looking for seems to miraculously appear before my eyes.  To cannibalise that seminal Kevin Costner line, “If you build it, they will come…”.

I hope this serves as a message of hope for those just setting out on their family’s story, but also for those who have been grappling with certain brick walls for more years than they care it remember!

It’s also about experience, I suppose.  Sometimes it’s not possible to be as entirely logical or rational in our research as we would hope to be.  Sometimes a cognitive leap is required to get at the answers we are looking for. This is a conundrum I encounter all the time as a specialist in Jewish family history where names families regularly migrate from one place to another, and names are changed again and again – often with no apparent rhyme or reason.  The usual rules simply don’t apply (see our post about chucking out the rule book in Jewish family history here).

It has been thanks to certain leaps of faith – based on hunch, but limited evidence – that some of my most steadfast brick walls have come tumbling down. And being able to make such jumps often requires a level of experience and immersion in the subject matter that comes with time. So, there’s cause for optimism for you more experienced researchers – it’s all been worth it, the answer is out there – yours for the taking…!)

I sometimes describe my job as ‘joining up the dots in the universe’.  It often feels like that.  I realised recently that I have been working for two completely independent clients whose families lived next door to each other in the East End 100 years earlier. On more than one other occasion, two independent clients were actually related via an ancestor in the old country. Perhaps it is no surprise, given that my chosen subject is a relatively small diaspora, geographically limited not just in their countries of origin but often in the places they came to call home.

Nonetheless, despite all my scepticism, it sent shivers up my spine when I discovered that the ancestors of a new client I began working with (who lives near me in a village of 2,000 people in the Sussex countryside) were neighbours of my own great-great-grandparents in a shtetl outside Lodz in the 1880s.

Isn’t that spooky?

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