Virulent Word of Mouse

June 21, 2009

Ancient maps meet the romance of modern IT

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Maps,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 11:47 am

Modern IT helps many people figure out the location of old places, peeling back the cloud of lost history. Even if you do not care about history, this stuff is cool. If you do nothing else, go look at these maps. This cool program is called “Schtetlseeker.

There is a story that goes with this. It is sort of romantic, but only at the very end.

A little context. Everybody in North America is from somewhere else, by definition. Even the people we call native Americans today came from the northeastern parts of Asia at one time, crossing over the Alaskan straights. My ancestors are from central Europe, part of the large wave of migration from central Europe that began before World War I and continued after the war until the US Congress put limits on it.

As I have gotten older I have become more curious about where my ancestors came from.  Mapping software can help answer such questions. I found their old home using “Schtetlseeker.

Let me illustrate with personal background. I am descended from several clans, but let me start with my father’s parents, or, more precisely, his mother’s father (one of my great grandfathers). Known as the “Red Rabbi of Prosgurov”, he was a member of the Rabin clan. He was killed in temple one Sabbath in a pogrom. His widow and two of her children (my grandmother) came to the US after that, while two other children went to (then) British Palestine, joining other Rabins (including Yitzhak, the eventual Prime Minister and peace maker).

Prosgurov — and villages like it — do not exist on any map today. Why? Lots of reasons. World War I, the collapse of the Hapsburg empire, the rise of Soviet communism, and the Nazi-led Holocaust remade the local landscape. Many village names have changed. A lot of them disappeared altogether.

How to find an old village? Some cartographers and historians took the old maps of Europe, put them on-line, married it to language software, and — presto! — out comes “Schtetlseeker.” It is supported by a Jewish organization but nothing in particular about the mapping software is ethnic.  There are a couple tools to use. It is a cool way to look at old maps on line.

Here is a description of what I did. I went to “search for places by name“, narrowing the search to eastern Europe, then I typed in “prosgurav”, which is the best spelling I could come up with. A piece of language software gave me 18 options of cities that sort of come close, and it was obvious that one is the right one. There it is: proskurov. Today the city is called Kamelnitskyi (there are several different spellings). It is named for Bhodan Kamelnitskyi, who was a significant figure in Ukrainian and Russian history — though he was not likely a friend of my ancestors.

I recommend “Schtetlseeker” to anyone trying to trace a bit of the past. Go try it on any parts of the globe they have mapped.

I promised a little romance, so here it is, as part of an epilogue. In the midst of doing this search I looked up other ancestors, as well as my some on my wife’s side. Her mother is descended from a Hassidic Rabbi, Levi Yitzhak of Beredichev, considered the second most important Rabbi in that tradition. That city held onto its name, and so it was easy to locate with the same software.

Once I found it, there was the surprise — Beredichev is 60 milies from Prosgurov.

These are just places on a map, but it suggests a bigger theme of connections. Two Jewish families from the same parts of central Europe left within a few years of each other. Two generations later some of their grandchildren married. Why? Who can say why any two people marry?  We hit it off on the phone immediately when we first spoke, and that level of comfort has never gone away.  Perhaps, many subtle cultural cues mattered — how we spoke to one another, how we valued certain principles for raising a family, and so on. Besides, I also think my wife is cute (Alright, maybe even that is culturally programmed).

Since the day I looked at those maps I say the following: While some men marry their mother, that is not exactly so in my case. The maps suggest that I married my grandmother.

Enjoy the software!


    === Soviet anti-semite, a guy named Kamelnitskiy
    Khmelnytskyi I think — although he was there way before the Soviets 🙂
    Lots of things were named after him as he was the one to lead Ukraine into the so-called “union” with Russia ^^

    Comment by aj — June 24, 2009 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  2. Ukrainian wiki page also lists famous people borh there 🙂 eg.

    Comment by aj — June 24, 2009 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

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