A genealogist in her 20s sounds like an oxymoron. After all, doesn’t the word evoke a white-bearded bespectacled professor surrounded by dusty books and a quill?
Rivka Goldblatt of Manchester boasts neither, and while at 25 she might seem like a rookie, the wealth of her knowledge dispels any such notion.
Her passion for genealogy was kindled in high school, when she was only 15 years old. The inquisitive teen wanted to know who her great-grandparents were and how they had lived. Three of her four grandparents were still alive so she had whom to ask, but they couldn’t see a point in exploring the past. “It happened already, so it doesn’t matter,” said one grandfather. When she uncovered several revelations about his parents on her own and brought them back to him, he merely shrugged. “Yeah, I knew that.”
Everyone believed that her newfound curiosity would pass, and if they didn’t roll their eyes, they played along with feigned interest. But her passion soon became an obsession. “Genealogy is an addiction,” Rivka admits, “and the websites warn visitors. One stated in bold red letters, ‘If you came across this site by mistake, leave now because it’s an addiction and you’ll never leave.’”
Rivka never left, and her inquisitiveness ultimately turned into a livelihood. She prides herself on being the only heimishe genealogist in England, and doesn’t even mind that her family didn’t whoop with joy at her ancestral findings; at least the five years she spent drawing up a comprehensive family tree gave her the experience she needed.
Rivka has no academic qualifications. Still, she is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and trained under a woman has been working with DNA tests for 20 years. Thanks to her varied work experience, Rivka has become a pro.
For example, one time the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who could never bear to hear her mother’s stories about the war approached Rivka in a panic. Her siblings had already passed on and she wanted to know her history.
Another client gave her the name of his grandfather in America to research. Her searches yielded 20 people with that name, all from the same town, some of whom were not even related. Through old records, such as censuses and official documents, Rivka had to figure out which ones to concentrate on before delving further.
“Censuses provide a lot of information,” she explains, “but they only become available to the public 100 years later, so the latest one I can refer to is 1911.”
Rivka tells me that genealogists across the UK are waiting with bated breath for 2021, when the 1921 census will be made public.
“What’s the big deal?” I ask. “What can a census offer besides dates and figures from yesteryear?”
“They tell us how people lived. The questionnaires ask how many rooms and windows are in a house, and what those rooms are. If a family of six lived in a two-room apartment, where one room was the kitchen and there was only one window, it indicates poverty, which was extreme at the turn of the last century.”
The census also records how many children were born and how many actually survived, which was commonly a lower number; life expectancies were also significantly lower than they are now. Then there are the faded grease stains and coffee marks on the yellowed pages, which speak volumes.
“What kind of eye-opening discoveries have you made for clients?” I probe.
“I once discovered that someone’s parents were first cousins, which he never knew.” The man’s father had sailed to New York to live with his uncle, but she couldn’t tell if he was already engaged or if the cousins had met in America.
She also once debunked a family legend.
“We know that people changed their names for various reasons, such as to evade military conscription, which is easy to figure out because there’s usually a paper trail. They also lied about their age, but more for personal reasons, like getting a license. Lying about your age was easy in those days because hardly anyone had a birth certificate, so it came down to people’s word. In fact, in order to obtain proof of age one could go to the birth registrar whenever one wanted, but even then it was possible to change the date.”