I have found there are three keys to success: preparation, persistence, and patience. Preparation of the skills and knowledge that will allow you to reach your aim. Persistence to overcome obstacles on a lengthy journey towards your goal. Patience to endure uncertainty and to wait for your path to triumph to be revealed. These three principles are illustrated in what I consider my greatest success, so far, as a family historian.
When I first got to know my father-in-law, he found I had an interest in history and, so, told me of the grandfather he had never met. Willi Pollak had been a marvellous photographer and had worked for Yousuf Karsh, the esteemed Canadian portraitist. I did not know anything about Karsh, but was presented with a copy of his classic book Faces of Destiny, from which I learned of his skill and fame as the photographer of celebrities ranging from monarchs such as King George VI, to politicians like General Charles De Gaulle and Harry S. Truman, to stars of popular culture such as George Bernard Shaw, Stephen Leacock, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Karsh’s best known photo is of Winston Churchill, taken during the height of World War II and entitled, “The Roaring Lion.” Pressed between the end-pages was an article torn from a magazine, showing Karsh’s photographic process. There, illustrated as “the able technician,” was Willi. A few family documents also existed, but my father-in-law longed to know more.
Over the years, I poked about, gathering clues: a death certificate, newspaper articles, letters, a tombstone photo — little snippets of Willi’s life in Canada. I was building my skills as a genealogist and learning about various places to look for documents. I was also learning who to call and ask for help in my quest to find out who Willi really was.
Trying to research people in our recent history can be difficult. Documents may be too recent to be stored in archives, yet too old to be found online. Privacy laws can restrict access to key facts. I knew that Willi was working in Canada in the early 1940s and had died in 1946. I found he had remarried, but did not know the full name of his wife or what became of her. I knew special documents, like national registration papers, had been created during the war and hoped that if I gathered enough details I would be able to request these from the government.
I waited. I read widely on the topics of history and genealogy and recently became aware of an index to naturalization papers. Out of curiosity, I typed Willi’s name into the index and found enough information to order the file from the government. The cogs of bureaucracy turn slowly, however, and in the bustle of life, I forgot all about the file. Then, during a very trying day last week, it arrived, a bonanza of historical details preserved on faded microfilm. I examined the pages and created a timeline of events. I researched the places mentioned and imagined what Willi had experienced. Then I saw the notation about his wife. Her maiden name was given — at last, more than a first name. But wait, when she married Willi she had been a widow with two children. Willi had step-children! Could they still be alive? Assimilating this new information, I made frenzied searches online, and found yet more data. Overwhelmed and stunned, I paused to clear my head. The next morning, I mulled over the possibilities. I re-examined my newly-found clues, and cross-referenced the facts, and double-checked my logic — and there it was: the phone number.
I screwed up my courage and dialled. And the most lovely woman answered. Success!
This article was originally printed in the BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.