I believe the first time I even heard about Herbie, my grandmother’s cousin from South Jersey, was the day I asked her to dictate the family tree to me. I was so focused on writing down everything she said – she gave me close to a hundred people in one sitting – that I had very little time to reflect on any of it. I annotated Herbie’s name with her words “killed WWII” and moved on. It wasn’t until a few years after she died that I realized the missed opportunity to ask the right questions. When we cleaned out her apartment, I discovered that of all the letters she must have received over her long life, there were only two sets of correspondence she kept. One was Herbie’s letters to her during his military service. For the first time I realized that Herbie was just a year younger than she, brother to the favorite cousin and son to the favorite aunt she often mentioned. She and Herbie must have been close, too.
This past Veterans Day, Herbie’s niece posted a picture of him on Facebook. It was the first time I saw what he looked like. His cheerful smile raised a lump in my throat. I began to wonder about his death and life. One Google search later, I miraculously had much of what I had hoped to learn: name, short biography, military rank and division, burial, photograph, awards, even newspaper articles, all due to the amazing, volunteer efforts of Phil Cohen in creating his Camden County history site, DVRBS.com. Herbie’s page also contained a couple of surprises about how his path had crossed my own.
[This article first appeared in Chronicles, the Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia (JGSGP), Volume 31-2, Summer 2014. To learn more about the JGSGP, please visit http://www.jgsgp.org/]
I knew that I had grown up near where Herbie’s family had lived because my grandmother had sometimes pointed across a busy intersection near my childhood home to tell me she had visited cousins there, back when the area was in the country. Years later, when I began attending a particular local synagogue,she told me I should ask its rabbi emeritus if he remembered the Goldbergs because they had been founding members. I never did. It seemed too remote. But on Herbie’s memorial page I learned it was that rabbi who had buried him, the synagogue’s library was named for him, and its memorial wall contained a plaque with his name. How had I never noticed either?
I was most startled to learn from Phil’s site that Herbie’s name was on two war memorials in our shared hometown, neither of which I had even known existed. One was in the neighborhood where he had grown up and his parents remained after he died (much of which was obliterated by theAshland PATCO station built in the ’60s). It was hard to believe all this family history was just a breath away from where I grew up.
So, in a short period of time, I turned a name and “killed WWII” into a trove of information. Plus, from my uncle I learned the history of the battle in which Herbie was killed, from the synagogue archivist I received a moving account of the library’s dedication, and most importantly, from Herbie’s niece I heard memories of the life he had led. What could I do with all these fragments to share with my family the full story of the person Herbie had been? Enter my own web site, Treelines.com, which I created for just this purpose.
Treelines is a new kind of genealogy web site focusing on the stories of people’s lives. Other genealogy programs help you organize names, dates, relationships, and sources into a tree. In contrast, Treelines uses that tree as a starting point and proceeds to add memories, photographs, anecdotes, and historical context, all of which conveys the true measure of a person’s life. The results are part digital scrapbook, part multimedia story, generating a potentially more enriching, accessible, and fun experience for your entire family.
If you’re an experienced genealogist, you can get started on Treelines by uploading your family tree in the GEDCOM format, which is what I did. When I first looked at Herbie’s page on Treelines, it was very clear that it didn’t do his life justice. That big green plus sign beckoned: there were so many more pages that needed to be added to Herbie’s story.
Using Treelines’ storybuilder (which won the RootsTech Developer Challenge), I started entering the information I had piece-by-piece. Some of it was genealogical, like census and military records, while other parts were a mix of genealogical and narrative, like the newspaper articles and synagogue records. Even more meaningful were photographs of Herbie, his grave, his tombstone, and his memorial in the synagogue. Most important of all, however, were the letters he wrote my grandmother while deployed and the family stories his niece recalled, which had little research value, but immeasurable family worth.
As I watched the timeline of his life emerge from all of these artifacts, I made sure to add what historical context and personal color I could – how he struggled during training to fit in with his raucous fellow soldiers, how his regiment faced fierce, almost non-stop fighting from the moment they arrived in Italy, and, of course, how tragic it was that this cheerful young man, with such love for his fiancée, had to go to war at all. The emerging story also gave me a place to explain to my family what it meant to me to discover that his life resonated so close to home.
Herbie’s story wasn’t only mine to tell, though. My own uncle and Herbie’s niece had family and historical context to share as well. Fortunately, Treelines is designed for just this sort of collaboration. After inviting them to our private family tree and giving them access to edit Herbie’s story, they could add their own pages, too.
The best part of having Herbie’s biography online is that his story will continue to evolve as we learn new things about him. For example, his deceased personnel file is still on order, and the synagogue archivist continues to turn up more information about the family’s involvement for me. Whenever these findings arrive, I can easily add them to the story and alert my family. The relatives whom I’ve invited to edit the story can also add information as they dig up pictures or recall memories. After importing my GEDCOM file, Herbie’s life story on Treelines consisted of just two pages. After adding all of this information, Herbie’s life story begins to take shape in the Treelines story builder. Chronicles – Volume 31-2, Summer 2014 9 In short, Treelines makes your family tree the basis for a digital scrapbook to which you and your relatives can add anything, whether a sourced genealogical fact or a priceless family anecdote.Connecting the details into a story, as we did for Herbie, is optional. It’s enough just to use the site as a gathering place for everything worth remembering. Treelines’ effective tools make it easy for you and your relatives to work together, no matter how far apart you all live, to preserve in one place the most meaningful aspects of your family’s history.
If you’ve already been working on your tree elsewhere, you may question the value of working Treelines-style. The benefits go beyond just collaborating more easily with your relatives and recording information that doesn’t have a place in traditional family tree software. Treelines creates an inviting experience for those relatives who need convincing about why family history is so important. The design is meant to engage them not only so they enjoy perusing the scrapbooks or stories you put together, but also so they can easily add their own contributions.The whole point of making genealogical discoveries is to find a way to pass them down, and Treelines is designed with that primary goal in mind.
On Memorial Day I invited my family to read Herbie’s story to commemorate his service. Whether they read every word or caught the gist from the pictures, they were connecting with the past in a way my original tree with its plain facts and sources would not have permitted. It is gratifying to me as a family historian to know I’ve managed to compile and share an important story. What is even more important is that the life and ultimate sacrifice of our cousin, Staff Sergeant Herbert Goldberg, who grew up just down the road, are still being honored two generations later.
Everything in your tree is private by default on Treelines, but I chose to make Herbie’s story public so you can read it at https://treelines.com/herbie/.
❖ Tammy A. Hepps is the creator of Treelines.com, a family story-sharing website and winner of the RootsTech 2013 Developer Challenge. She has a degree in computer science from Harvard as well as sixteen years of experience in digital media, leading a diverse range of technology initiatives. She has been working on her family tree for more than twenty years and combines the depth of her knowledge in genealogy, technology, and storytelling into her Treelines website. She serves on the boards of directors of JewishGen and the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center (PJAC), and the board of advisors for the Rauh Jewish Archives.