For Sol Sylvan, it all started with a party. A family reunion, that is.
In the process of preparing for the 1995 event, “a first cousin of mine wanted to find members of the family we hadn’t heard from in a while,” explains Sylvan, who tried to find two cousins who hadn’t been heard from since the 1950s.
Even though he is retired from a career in building development and management, Sol has a graduate degree in history and anthropology and always enjoyed research.
“I wasn’t able to find [the cousins], but the process inspired me,” he says, spawning a voracious pursuit of genealogy.
Between two subsequent family reunions, Sylvan, 73, continued researching, presenting the results to his family in 2001 and proposing that they visit their ancestral village in the Ukraine. “Nobody wanted to go except my cousin (Boomi Silverman of Michigan) and me.”
Undeterred, they contacted JewishGen (www.jewishgen.org) and were put in touch with a Ukranian woman who researches archives for Jewish descendants, and with Shtetl Shleppers, a travel service which arranged the trip. Their tour left from Lviv (Lemberg) and the researcher — who found Sylvan’s ancestors in five different villages going back to 1750 — came along as the guide.
Researching genealogy in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is challenging, so Sylvan was fortunate to find so much information. Aside from language difficulties, records were lost or destroyed during Cossack attacks 100 years ago, or during World War II. Soviet bureaucracy further complicated things.
“The Soviets were great centrists,” Sylvan continues, moving documents from their original locations to central archives in larger cities.
Sylvan has traveled to the Ukraine four times in the last five years with another trip planned in April. He has gone a couple of times with his wife Katherine, twice with his cousin, with his son Michael, and will take two of his daughters and a granddaughter on the upcoming trip.
Ukranians have, he reports, a “strong general attitude that’s just wonderful. People bend over backwards to help you, go out of their way to help you. Complete and total strangers on the street go out of their way.”
Since starting this avocation, Sylvan has also given a number of talks to Jewish genealogy groups about his experiences and has sat on panels at national meetings. He’s spoken for our local Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State (www.jgsws.org), of course, as well as in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.
“Its become an avocational vocation, trying to motivate people to visit their roots while there are still people to talk to who were alive when your parents or grandparents were there, who were there when the Holocaust took place,” he says.
Sylvan interviewed one elderly woman who witnessed a Nazi massacre of her town’s Jewish residents and another in her 90s who remembers Sylvan’s grandfather, one of the town’s three blacksmiths.
Sol enjoys dog agility training and competition, which he does with his dog Andy, a Belgian Malinois. He and his wife also belong to an organization called Pet Vacations, taking care of people’s dogs while they are on vacation.
For Woodway resident Carolyn (Puddin) Cox, helping to repair hurricane damaged New Orleans reconnected her to her past.
Cox attended Tulane University there after growing up in Ada, Okla. Last month, she and 14 alumni of the Jewish sorority Sigma Delta Tau — all 1969 or 1971 graduates — returned to the city to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity.
Puddin did finish work on a new house in Musicians’ Village in the hard-hit 9th Ward, as well as more major construction, including building the outside steps, completed just in time for the arrival of former President Jimmy Carter. On their day off the group worked at a First Harvest food bank warehouse. Then, “we would end each day by helping the economy” at a local restaurant.
“If I can do this, anyone can,” says Cox, who would like to see more volunteers and tourists in her beloved city.
Although visitors may see many reminders of the tragedy, residents are begging people to come visit.
“Every storekeeper said, ‘please go home and tell the world we’re open.’” The Garden District is “still lovely,” she continues, with many of its big oaks “mostly there,” and French Quarter restaurants are open.
Cox was most impressed by the young people she met working for Habitat and other relief organizations.
She was equally impressed by her sorority sisters. “We were supportive as coeds and meeting 35 years later we were even better as women,” she states, adding that most of the group wasn’t ready to leave after a week. “I needed another week to hammer and help,” concludes Cox, who is trying to arrange for SDT to sponsor the family who moved into the house she helped finish.