Friday, August 18, 2017

How a DNA match + great German records = Blum family breakthrough!

Lena Blum is my father's father's mother. For years, the only information I had about her parents came from census records. Her father Robert died between the 1860 and 1870 censuses, which is too early for most kinds of death records that might have provided information about his parents.

The 1860 census for Detroit, Michigan shows that Robert is a pedlar, and that he and his wife were both from Hesse Darmstadt. Their oldest child - my great grandmother Lena -  is the oldest of four children. The younger three were all born in Michigan. Lena was born in New York, which provides a hint about their port of arrival when they immigrated from Germany.

Robert Blum Headstone
Woodmere Cemetery
Detroit, Michigan
Robert is buried beside his wife Regina (sometimes also called Gina or Lena) in a historic Jewish section of Woodmere cemetery. His headstone is large, with lots of text that is both foreign and faded. I have long felt that it must hold important details about his life that could help me discover his parents. (I was right!)

Last year my husband and son took a Spring break road trip to Michigan, stopping in Detroit to take high resolution pictures that would hopefully be clear enough to have translated. I posted the images to the Tracing the Tribe group on Facebook, and a kind soul was able to make out the words "Rephoel, son of Zissel." So Robert in Michigan = Rephoel in Hesse Darmstadt. And his father's name was Zissel.

In January, I took the SLIG DNA Bootcamp class with CeCe Moore. Students were required to have DNA results from AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, and 23andMe. (MyHeritage announced their entry into the DNA market in late 2016, and so were not included in the course materials or testing requirements.) I tested twice with 23andMe and "failed" both times! Not enough DNA in my saliva to do the test. With some coaching on how to increase the DNA in my saliva, I purchased another kit and repeated the test a few months after the class.

On a Tuesday in late July, I logged into 23andMe. I don't check there often because it has (in the past) been the least useful (to me) of the DNA testing sites. That Tuesday evening just before I went to bed, I messaged three of my matches. The next morning when I got up, I had a reply! My match's brief email (I provided direct contact information) included four key pieces of information:
  • Her father's name (Ludwig Blum).
  • His occupation (doctor)
  • Birthplace (Pfungstadt, Germany)
  • Google Maps Satellite view of
    Pfungstadt (lower left) and Darmstadt (center top)
  • Approximate date of immigration (shortly before World War II)
Family and census records say that my Blum ancestors came from Darmstadt, so I next checked Google Maps to check the distance between Pfungstadt and Darmstadt. (Less than 10 km.) The geography works.

Using my DNA match's information, I searched immigration records for a Ludwig Blum arriving in the late 1930s. Ancestry's index returned several possibilities.

Snippet of search results for
Ludwig Blum with arrival year 1935 +/- 5 yrs.
Notice that the New York passenger lists index only gives the country of birth. But Illinois Naturalizations provides country and city. That combination of name (Ludwig Blum) and place of birth (Pfungstadt) lead me to his naturalization, which in turn gave me his arrival date (21 Sept 1938). I was then able to select the right passenger list, review the actual manifest, and confirm the connection: the Ludwig Blum that arrived in 1938 was a surgeon.

I then created a Blum family tree on and let the "shaky leaf" hints do their thing to help me rapidly build the tree back in time. Using a combination of hints; targeted database searches of Ancestry's fantastic Hesse, Germany birth, marriage, and death records; and the Central Database of Shoah Victims, I was able to connect the dots between Blum generations.

The key piece of information to connect my Robert Blum in Detroit with my DNA match's family came from the death record of a man named Löb Blum who was born about 1831 and died in Pfungstadt in 1889. The record names his father as Süßel Blum.

While I have no record that definitively states that Löb and Robert Blum are brothers, I believe they are for the following reasons:
  • Zissel (Robert's father, according to his headstone) sounds suspiciously like an Americanized version of Süßel (Löb's father, according to his death certificate).
  • Robert Blum was born about 1828 and Löb Blum in about 1831 (a very reasonable gap between siblings). 
  • My match and I share .71% of our DNA - 3rd - 4th cousin range. If Zissel/Süßel is our MRCA, then my match and I are 3C1R.
  • My match's ancestors can be traced to Pfungstadt, which is within 10km of the place my ancestors are believed to have come from.
  • The Blum family in Germany included store clerks. Robert was a pedlar.
  • Robert had a daughter named Jetta and a daughter named Rose. The names Jetta or Jettchen and Rose appear repeatedly in the Ludwig Blum line. 
There are important things I need to research further. Löb and Robert may or may not be sons of the same mother. Löb Blum's death certificate gives his mother's name as Jeanette Meier. There is a Maier Blum, born about 1821, whose father's name was Süßel Blum, but his mother's name is given as Zerlina. (But his given name is very close to Süßel Blum's wife's maiden surname, which makes me wonder...) I need to get a full translation of several marriage and death records, which may (or may not) answer these questions.

The 23andMe results that took three test kits to glean were key to discovering the connection. Testing with AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA, and uploading results to GEDMatch and MyHeritage would not have connected me with the woman who was key to this puzzle. As far as I am aware, she has not tested with other companies and has not downloaded her results to any other DNA site.

I just knew that old headstone was important! It's time to make a trip to Detroit to gently clean the stone and try again...

Sunday, March 26, 2017

School projects and family history serendipity

Marion Taylor Bird driving "Shiwea"
29 March 1924 - Citronelle, Alabama
My son is reading The Great Gatsby at school and has an assignment to do a major project relating to that era. He is a car buff and so chose 1920s cars to research. Last week our family watched the PBS documentary on Henry Ford. Great program, and particularly interesting because my dad was born in Detroit.

 As my son was working on his project yesterday, I had a very clear memory come to mind of a photograph of my grandfather (mother's father) driving a very interesting car. I found the photo and was pleased to see that it was taken in 1924: perfect for the project! We will have a nice print made to go on his project board. 

The serendipity gets better! Later that day I was documenting descendants of one of my dad's mother's ancestors, hoping to help an adoptee that is one of my closer DNA matches. After exhausting all the usual databases and coming up empty, I googled the woman's name and got a hit that was a snippet view of an obituary available on I signed up for the 7-day free trial and read the obituary (which turned out to be full of wonderful details about her siblings and children - score!). 

As I studied the obituary, I realized it was from a Detroit newspaper. My dad's ancestors have lived in Detroit since the 1870s. The Detroit Free Press via is a gold mine in you have Detroit ancestry! I quickly found obituaries for many Berger family members, as well as a variety of interesting news stories. (Might just need to add another website to the annual genealogy budget...)  Then I stumbled across this gem:

It seems clear Adolph Berger was kind of a character. My dad never knew his father, and he wasn't raised in Detroit, but there must be some of Detroit in the family DNA! Cars were important to my dad. My son (who carries his name, which is also Adolph Berger's middle name) has a passion for cars that would definitely make both my father and his father smile. 

If I hadn't been trying to help someone else find something, I would never have learned about my grandfather's connection to my son's Great Gatsby project!