Monday, December 05, 2011

A convert to family history

Many professional historians look down on family history and genealogy as somehow not being "real" history. For them, political and diplomatic history is all, that the rest is just amateur fluff. At best, many regard genealogy as an "ancillary science", but still not real history.

Here's a story of how a professional historian changed her mind about family history BBC News - A Point of View: A convert to family history:
For several years, my sister Judith has been researching the family history of the Flattos - my father's mother's family - inspired by the boxes of faded family photographs discovered among my parents' possessions, dating from the beginning of the 20th Century, and inscribed with locations ranging from Lodz in Poland to Kyverdale Road in London.

Her attempts to identify and connect the sitters in the photographs has led her deep into genealogy, and obliged her to learn about European history in the early decades of the 20th Century. She has journeyed intrepidly to the ends of the District and Metropolitan Tube lines, to Jewish cemeteries at East Ham, Rainham and Bushey, to read genealogical data off the family gravestones.

I confess that, as a professional historian, I did not always take her efforts seriously - in genealogy, so much depends on guesswork and surmise, so many of the documents defy interpretation. The outcome, I have tended to feel, is bound to be part romance, part sentimentality, the tale of impecunious wanderers, driven from their homes by persecution, then working their way up to respectability in Britain.

It's a fascinating account of how oral history can draw the threads together and make sense of events that are puzzling and apparently unrelated.

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