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Anna Milkman: You shouldn’t think that manna from heaven is everywhere here

An employee of the genealogical resource MyHeritage discusses the adaptation of “our” repatriates, differences in office mentality, family trees and the return of confiscated property

Anna, in your childhood you lived in northern Ukraine, but how did you come to Israel?

I moved to Israel with my parents under the program for the return of Jews, their children and grandchildren in late 2000. Essentially, I began to see Israel as something real and genuine, and not just a place on the map, when I was around 16-17. It was a complex experience: the culture, climate, language, lifestyle are very different from ours, and we found ourselves in a completely different reality.

What was the most difficult thing in cultural adaptation? The most unusual?

I came here at an adult age, I didn’t have the experience that the locals had – school, holidays, traditions… We were brought up in the Soviet regime, no one observed any religious traditions – they weren’t kept secret, that was just the way it happened. My grandparents started going to the Jewish community, Chesed, at an advanced age, then my uncle and aunt joined Sokhnut and decided to leave. We also started thinking about leaving…

The shock from the move was enormous. The foreign language, the newness of Jewish traditions, plus… the feeling of the East, and freer socializing. People are very open, even too open, as it seemed to be at the time. This repelled me in some way, but I didn’t have much time to think about it: a month after I arrived I found a job at a small local shop, without knowing the language at all. But this work helped me a great deal – when I wanted to give up, I forced myself to keep going. It was there that I started to learn the language properly – I wrote down what I heard, then I checked it all in the dictionary… I had no choice – the next day I had to go back and help the customers.

Didn’t you feel like abandoning it all and going back?

Yes, I did. Even now, despite the fact that I’ve been here for so long, I still sometimes feel nostalgia. For a long time I didn’t feel that I was at home. But I like Israel very much, there are very good people here and the country in general is worthy of respect. Most importantly, the Israelis took on a responsibility, and in quite a short time they built the country from scratch. But the difference in mentality… This was very hard for me to accept. But now I find things much easier.

Anna Milkman (on the right) with her colleagues

What advice can you give to people who are planning to emigrate? What do they need in order to integrate better into society?

Before moving, it’s important to read something about Israel, to get some basic information. If you have the opportunity to emigrate through Taglit, that’s great. Try to start learning the language, so you can understand the most basic things at the initial stage. Over the last 15 years the country has changed a great deal, now people have a different attitude to emigrants from post-Soviet countries, they are more understanding.

“Our” people who wanted to settle here, who weren’t afraid to work and learn the language, and force themselves to do something – they live here quite well, they’ve found their place. Obviously, you shouldn’t think that there is manna from heaven everywhere here and everyone is waiting for you, but you also shouldn’t shut yourself out. It’s very important not to stew in your own juices – unfortunately, all the conditions here exist for this. I often here the expression “Russian ghetto”. Native Israelis said this about the Russian speakers who after their arrival live in their own world, don’t learn the language, and find jobs where they don’t have to talk much, they watch Russian television, and only talk to “our” people.

In some way they feel comfortable, but they lose the opportunity to learn about the people with whom they live, and problems of a cultural nature arise – you simply cannot talk to other people. Even at my current job, there have been situations, for example, at the dinner table, when I felt uncomfortable in the team, because I didn’t understand what my colleagues were talking about – two or three unfamiliar concepts, and the meaning was lost. Now, either because I’ve been in Israel for a long time, or because I’ve been working in the company for seven years, I already feel at home.

Did you find out about MyHeritage before you started working here?

I didn’t know anything about MyHeritage, or about the Israeli hi-tech sphere generally. I came to the company completely by accident. I started studying at the local university, and I was looking for a job for a few hours a week, and by chance I saw an advertising leaflet for a company that was looking for native speakers of various languages for translation for 2-3 days, which suited me very well by the requirements, the type of work, and the conditions. The leaflet gave the company website, and I had a look at it and I liked the idea. I sent my CV for the position of translator into Russian and Ukrainian, and they accepted me.

Over time I stopped translating myself, and became the manager of the translation department, so now I work with translators, distribute tasks, make sure they are carried out, prepare texts, work with programmers and so on. As a bonus, my work has helped me to gain many skills in working with computers and technical capabilities.

In general, to start with I wasn’t very involved in the high-tech sphere. In Ukraine I studied at the foreign languages faculty at a pedagogical university, and in Israel I studied sociology and pedagogy at the Tel-Aviv University.

When you came to MyHeritage, did you immediately feel comfortable, or was there a moment of adaptation?

There was, and this was connected with language problems, and ignorance of certain cultural subtleties. People who come here from western countries feel better in the workplace. A lot of things here are organized on the American model. Many Israelis go to the USA to live, and in our company there were many employees who had lived in the States for 3-4 yeas with their parents, they spoke English fluently, and they had an excellent grasp of modern culture, unlike the majority of Russian-speaking repatriates. The narrower your worldview, the less open you are, and the harder it is to communicate.

I did not experience situations when someone had a negative attitude towards me because I was a Russian speaker. In our company there are so many people from different countries, it’s so multi-cultural that you feel at home in this diversity. I don’t have the feeling now that I’m a foreigner. There was a period when I was the only one of “our” people, but now there are many more of us. And it’s hard to understand what “ours” mean – many people came to Israel from post-Soviet countries as small children, and although they speak Russian, by their mentality they’re Israelis. But last year Israelis began to pay more attention to the definition of “Russian” (this is how they call everyone here who has come from the former USSR), and now they try not to call all Russian speakers Russians. For example, everyone at my work now knows that I’m not Russian, but Ukrainian. [laughs].

How do you understand your role, your personal mission at MyHeritage? Do you have the feeling that you, as a historian, help to reunite families? That to a certain degree you even help to restore historical justice?

My work has little connection with the studies itself, with developing the tools as such. But I am constantly involved with this. My direct superior (his roots lie in Romania and Western Ukraine) constantly shares findings with us, always very emotionally. A few years ago he went to the homeland of his ancestors to conduct personal research, and he came back with photographs from the archives of Chernovtsy, then we made phone calls to people there together… It’s interesting, but I can’t say that I have a very deep interest in genealogy, and spend a lot of time on looking for someone’s relatives. In other words, I don’t feel that I am a real searcher, but I like the fact that in my work I help people to get a better understanding of their family ties. This gives me a warm feeling inside.

You have enormous coverage – 80 million users and 42 languages. There is also a Ukrainian version of the website. Who works on the localization of the service for languages that are not so popular? How many people work on the team?

There are three of us on the team, and we coordinate the work of around 250 volunteers, who help us with translation into all the languages, especially the less popular ones.

We are constantly trying to expand the number of languages – during the years that I’ve worked on the team, if I’m not mistaken, we’ve moved from 25 to 42 languages, and we are working on adding another 3.

This usually depends on the degree to which a language is in demand from users, and also on the statistics that we receive about what countries the users of the site are from.

MyHeritage offers the opportunity to order a DNA test. What will this provide when applied to your service?

DNA tests help to find and confirm family ties between people who previously did not know each other. Thus, they help us to achieve one of our main goals – to find ties which people do not know about, or which were forgotten for various reasons. So in the global sense, this means studying and preserving family history.

What countries have the most active users in compiling family archives? How popular is MyHeritage in its own country?

Our most active users are in the USA, European countries, Scandinavian countries, Brazil, Australia and Russia.

MyHeritage is also popular in Israel, to a large degree because it is the only resource of its kind which is supported in Hebrew. And additionally, our team is one of the leading high-tech companies in Israel, so we are quite well known here.

You have a search engine for names in newspapers and magazines, voting lists and army recruitment, marriage and divorce archives… But mainly all the sources are archives of Western Europe, the USA, Canada… Will Ukrainian and Israeli archives be included?

It’s all about the presence of digital information. The majority of archives of the USA, Canada, Western Europe provide their data in electronic form, which allows us to work with them and easily add them into the search section. This is of course a huge advantage.

The work is not easy, we must work closely with archives. We immediately take all the new digitalized archives, we are always very happy if there are new acquisitions, and also if we can establish contact with someone and help them. We have ongoing projects on digitalizing archives, but this is a massive project – a few archives are not enough, for a full picture we must include not hundreds, but thousands of archives.

The digital revolution now influences all spheres, databases are digitalized, so I am sure that small archives will also “not have any chances left” – sooner or later they will also enter the virtual space.

If we’re talking about historical archives, we have a lot of different interesting sources now. For example, one of them is the BillionGrave database resource, which contains pictures of gravestones from all over the world. Any person can take a photo of a gravestone, upload it on to the site and add a description with the BillionGraves application, and state whose grave it is and where it is located.

Thus, a “virtual cemetery” is created, where any Internet user can find information about graves without leaving the house.

We do everything we can to add more interesting sources which are especially useful for Jews.

I have heard that MyHeritage helps to restore justice – it gives Jews back works of art and property that was confiscated from their families during the Holocaust.

It so happened that the president of our company, Gilad Yafet, read articles about the fact that the Jewish Claims Conference was looking for people who are entitled to compensation for losses for the property of their ancestors that was confiscated during the war. The article had the names of people who it belonged to.

Yafet decided to enter these names into our search engine. And he found the names of people who were being looked for by their descendents. He contacted them and told them that they could get back the property that was lost by their ancestors. This was what started our charity projects. At present there are two of them: the return of property confiscated in Germany, and also the return of works of art confiscated in France during the German occupation.

I should note that Gilad Yafet treats these projects as a real commandment, which must be observed as a way of restoring justice.

What are the most surprising family archives on the site? The most extensive, the most profound, the most illustrative? How far back can you trace your genealogy?

We don’t usually keep track of data that participants add in family trees, but as far as I know some trees include up to 30-35,000 people.

Participants who have made their own family trees can invite their relatives to join their personal family site where the tree is located, look at the finished result and work together on their projects. Also, there may be matches in the family trees of different participants, and tree owners are able to contact each other to search for more matches.

Any Internet user can enter a surname in the SuperSearch engine and see the results. Although to see detailed information from some collections, you may need a special information subscription.

Research into family history may go back as far as the historical records allow. In some countries and communities, you can go back to the year 1400, say. Some participants can trace their genealogy back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. It’s noteworthy that lines of rabbis are much easier to trace than family ties of ordinary Jews.

Do you have your own tree on MyHeritage? How big is it? Did the service itself help you to add new branches? Or weren’t you able to add more than you knew to begin with?

Of course, like most employees, I have my own tree project on our site. It’s not very big, and only has 150 people in it. Unfortunately, I haven’t found much new information, but I did discover something – I found a certificate from the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum about the execution of the aunt and cousin of my grandfather in Babi Yar in Kiev during the war. It was very moving…

It’s pleasing to see that people get enthusiastic and try to add information they know about to the tree, and start to dig through old photographs, and tell stories. There are incredible cases. There are many of them, in fact, but I would like to talk about a case that happened quite recently. A new employee came to work on our team, and on the first day at work, when she was getting to grips with the site and the tools, she entered data about herself and her parents – not for personal goals, but mainly just to find out what would be working with. When she entered the name and surname of her father, who she last saw when she was a small girl and who she did not know anything about, she got a match for her father’s name with a record in the US census, his data was listed there. And the way the surname was written was slightly different from the way she entered it originally. In this way, she found him and her sisters, who she knew nothing about. When she talked about this, it made you shiver all over…

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