Pamela was one of the smartest, friendliest, most energetic, and most versatile people in genealogy, period. One of the greatest tragedies of her untimely death is that this statement is not only not an exaggeration, but widely shared. She filled her short life with lifetimes of contributions to the genealogy community, and yet everyone agrees she left lifetimes more undone.
Like so many I was blessed to call her a friend. When I was first peeking into the organized Jewish genealogy community, I singled her out because her spring 2011 talk at JGSNY about Gesher Galicia’s cadastral map project seemed a step ahead of what everyone else, myself included, was doing. Of course I was pleased that she chatted with me afterwards to consider the mystery of my possibly Galician ancestors, but what really delighted me was the interest she continued to take afterwards. Her friendship was part of the encouragement I needed to brave my first IAJGS conference that summer and my first RootsTech that winter. Between those two conferences she opened her enormous circle of genealogy friends to me, and Pamela and these new acquaintances soon became my closest friends in the genealogy community and some of my favorite people in my life. As the years passed she always kept my ancestors’ maybe-shtetl in mind as she collected records from all over Poland and Ukraine. She cheerleaded me through my other, unrelated research expeditions and the launch of my genealogy start-up, whose initial iteration was tested by a focus group she convened without my even asking (though at that time I had known her less than year!).
If you knew Pamela, you’re nodding in recognition. Pamela, the world-traveling genealogical lecturer and record collector. Pamela, the big-hearted super-connector who never met a person she wasn’t eager to introduce to a hundred more. Pamela, the juggler extraordinaire, who remembered all the small research questions of her hundreds of friends in the midst of her enormous research expeditions. Pamela the tireless, who did all these things and more with her famously effervescent demeanor. And if you didn’t know Pamela, what follows isn’t a proper memorial, so please read one of these to get to know her better. This post is a call to action in memory of a friend who was all action.
How can such a vibrant person be gone? In the many painful conversations that followed on the heels of this news, we kept repeating this question, I and the dear friends I met only because of her. And in response: Who can possibly carry on the work she cared so passionately about? It’s not just that she was dedicated and enthusiastic—it was that she had the instinct for ground-breaking work in so many areas, and somehow accomplished so much with a smile.
First of all, Pamela was a master at creatively using records. More than most she recognized potential in underutilized and previously unknown resources. She began lecturing on newspaper research years before other genealogists began to take it seriously, and all of her clever lectures, from “Chutes and Ladders: Innovative Approaches to Genealogy” to her latest, “Holly Golightly was a Nice Jewish Girl: Our Ancestors Reinvented” demonstrated a mesmerizing blend of sources from the genealogical to the archival to the personal to uncover mysteries others would have given up on. One of her biggest achievements, the Galician Archival Records Project she helped oversee, includes a startling diversity of sources ranging from the usual vital records (though often from the most unusual places) to esoteric lists of leaders and teachers and donors. So many names in pages others overlooked as useless! And those cadastral maps – did you ever in your life imagine it would be possible to gain such vivid insights into the places where generations of our ancestors lived? She did, putting to work some of the best researchers in Eastern Europe to bring to us all this invaluable data.
The emergence of all these buried sources and their linkage into improbable discoveries demonstrate her second great strength, her perseverance in chasing down a lead. She knew how to phrase a question, she had a nose for where the answers might be hidden, and she was always up for the challenge. She never left a source behind, ever, whether it was a manuscript in a hard-to-access Ukrainian archive, a newspaper in a distant library in Australia, or the memories of a stand-offish celebrity who couldn’t help but warm to Pamela’s insistence that reconstructing his scandalous family history mattered. I once watched her go toe-to-toe with the sort of ill-tempered city archivist who thinks his job is to make sure his records don’t budge from their spot, and where I would have lost my cool, she seemed to think it was all rather amusing and took selfies of us brandishing her hard-won Xeroxes before forbidding signage and a succession of broken microfilm machines.
The reason why I am able to tell you about any of this work is not because of our friendship, but because there was a public component to everything she did. Small discoveries became case studies for her always-entertaining and widely sought-after lectures. Larger repositories were destined for her beloved Gesher Galicia so all of us could benefit, too. She looked for opportunities to share her research in non-genealogical circles as well, as when a contingent of Gesher Galicianers presented their cadastral map work at Icarus: International Centre for Archival Research, or when she gave introductions to Jewish genealogy at various conferences of Limmud, a Jewish learning organization. And it was always on her mind that non-Jews from Galicia had no idea how broad the materials on Gesher Galicia really were. At the general conferences we attended together I never saw her pass a table for a Polish or Ukrainian genealogy group without her rushing over to introduce them to the website.
The fact that she could point any of us to this website with its many, stand-out features is evidence of her most unlikely strength of all, her fearless embrace of technology to advance genealogy. And this quality is what made her perhaps most unique, because today, two decades after genealogy went online, there are still extraordinary barriers even for technologically-savvy people to digitize records, but despite having no particular background in technology, Pamela saw technical challenges as no different than any other obstacle she stared down. She understood, as few do, that merely collecting all this wonderful data could not be the endpoint of her efforts. As always, she made the best people her partners, she learned as she went, and she refused to settle for second-rate solutions. Today Gesher Galicia is the gold standard in Jewish genealogy for its clean, straightforward design, and it’s better than many subscription sites of for-profit companies.
Bringing together all of these strengths is, of course, the one I started with: her welcoming nature. When we first met I was just a random, confused person waiting in her receiving line, but she listened to my inquiry respectfully at a time when I was seeing too many examples of the opposite reception of newcomers. She treated everyone she met like she was the one who had something to gain from the encounter, she delighted in dispensing advice and solving problems, and as a result she made the sometimes-curmudgeonly genealogy community more hospitable. Her big-tent outlook extended to her programming work at JGSLA, where she brought in an exhilarating range of researchers, authors, and filmmakers, often from outside of the genealogy world, to attract a broad audience, as well as her decade of work to inaugurate and sustain the film festival component of the annual Jewish genealogy conferences. For her genealogy was fun, and whether in planned meetings or informal conversations, she found a million creative ways to spread that energy around the world (literally, given her frequent travel around the U.S. and Europe).
One of the many, many unfair aspects of Pamela’s untimely passing is that the suddenness of her illness left her with no time to transfer her legacy. Pamela was very much of the “if you want it done right, do it yourself” school, so on the one hand it’s impossible to imagine her willingly handing off any of the millions of things she had on her plate, but on the other, it’s impossible to think that under different circumstances she wouldn’t have managed even this unwelcome task with the same zest as everything else she set herself to. I do not envy her colleagues on the boards of Gesher Galicia and JGSLA, let alone all the many conference organizers who will miss her entertaining lectures and programming in the coming year. They have immediate concerns.
All the same, my call to action is that all of us must take responsibility for Pamela’s wider legacy. As none of us is as multi-talented or inexhaustible as she was, let’s each find an area where she made a difference where we could, too, if only we thought bigger. Some of us are talented researchers whose family-based work could be widened to impact whole communities. Some of us are storytellers and sleuths who have more to teach than we realize. Some of us are just hard workers, and there is always a need for volunteers to plan and organize. If you’re reading this online, then you’re digitally-savvy enough to recognize good technology when you see it. Direct your efforts and resources to projects that may not be about exciting discoveries at all, but the tools that improve the day-to-day of what we do. And while most of us cannot evince even one-half of her unflagging good cheer, we can all remember how good she made us feel even in the smallest of encounters and pass that along.
Pamela is irreplaceable, but her work can and must go on. It’s going to take all of us, each in his or her own niche, to advance all the areas in which this one indefatigable woman made an indelible difference.
Donations in memory of Pamela may be made online at GesherGalicia.org/donate/ or mailed to the Pamela Weisberger Memorial Fund c/o JGSLA, P.O. Box 55443, Sherman Oaks, CA 91413. This fund, to be jointly administered by JGSLA and Gesher Galicia, will support Jewish genealogical projects and programming. It is anticipated that the fund’s first activity will be a lecture at the 2016 Jewish genealogy conference in Seattle.