Nonprofit Toledot offers genealogical database
Anyone who can turn their hobby into a day job must be doing something right. Former molecular biologist turned genealogist Julius Müller has done just that.
An interest in tracing his family’s genealogy led Müller to found a nonprofit Jewish family history center based in Prague called Toledot, the Hebrew word for “descendents.” The organization’s goal is to coordinate genealogy projects, develop Jewish genealogy databases and preserve Jewish heritage for future generations. The center offers research tools for people looking for information on their Moravian and Bohemian ancestors.
“I was doing my own genealogy, and there weren’t many records online, but there were many discussions in online forums with complaints about nothing being online,” Müller told The Prague Post. “In doing it for my family, I learned how to read and access the records; that was my motivation to set up Toledot, to help people overcome the difficulties I had faced.”
Toledot’s main activity is digitalization. Müller is currently putting a collection of books online from the genealogical organization Jewish Familiants of Bohemia, which contains three generations of descendants from the Czech Republic. There are 170 books from Bohemia and 50 from Moravia. Müller is about halfway through the Bohemian project and has received support from the Jewish Museum in Prague, among other organizations.
Müller was moved to start Toledot after seeking his own roots.
“Digitization is an excellent way of presenting documents and artifacts to researchers and the broader public; it also helps to protect the cultural heritage,” said Michal Frankl, deputy director of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Simplifying the search
Toledot’s online system allows one to click on a region in the Czech Republic and bring up scanned pages from the Jewish Familiant. Müller also gathers copies of archives from seven regional and about 60 district archives. His goal is to have these resources online so people doing ancestral searches will be able to find information and then perhaps be moved to make a visit to the area where their ancestors lived.
“Most enquiries are from the U.S. – it’s a service mostly for foreigners. Their ancestors came from here; most clients have family who left around 1850 for the U.S.,” he said.
Müller adds that most people relocated from west Bohemia as the economy at that time was not prosperous.
“For Americans who are trying to reconstruct their history, it’s tough. People who came over wanted a new life; now the descendants want to know the history, what the villages looked like. We can meet those needs.”
Several times a year, Müller assists people who come to the Czech Republic for a genealogical visit. Recently, he assisted the Mandelik family, who came from all parts of the world. About 35 family members spent two or three weeks visiting Italy, London and Prague, tracing their family’s history.
“The family was from Kolín, so I rented a bus and took them to Kolín,” Müller said. “We visited the cemetery, looked at records, and they even met their Czech second cousins.”
This type of adventure and interaction is what Müller finds so rewarding about his genealogy work. Müller previously spent 15 years as a scientist doing cancer research in Prague. He says he began to consider a career change as his interest in genealogy increased. At first, he thought only his family would be interested in his hobby, but as he found more public interest, he began to devote more time to tracing family histories.
“Sitting in the archives is one thing, but seeing the people is very enriching. I couldn’t do it without that,” he said. “I sat in my lab with my microscope, but this is lively. People are enthusiastic, and they want to learn.”
Müller encourages people who want to research their own genealogy to first search Toledot’s database. It is important to know the village or city name where the family came from. Then, interested persons can contact the local archives; Müller says they are quite open to assisting people with research.
“I tell people where to go and what questions to ask,” he said. “But I would like to bring more people to the country … [and] enrich their experience with information on where to go to learn about their family.”
Müller doesn’t think his new career is all that different from his old one. He still does research, writes articles and lectures at conferences, he says. He doesn’t foresee another career change in the future, but wouldn’t mind completing the task he has set out to do.
“If I accomplish my task, people will know where to go to get information,” he said. “If the website works perfectly, then I am no longer needed.”
Jewish Family History Center