Proof is Possible

In her 2008 National Genealogical Society Quarterly article called “The Myth of Impossible Proof: Modern Genealogy Methods and a Holocaust Fraud,” author Sharon E. Sergeant wrote “Researchers always fail when they believe proof is impossible or when difficulties stop them from persisting.”[1]

Every genealogical research problem comes with a set of complications. Sources may not be available due to restrictions or destruction. Those that are available may be difficult to use because of accessibility, cost, legibility, or language barriers. Information might be incorrect, whether due to error or complete fabrication. Data found in multiple sources might not agree. The answer to the research problem might not be stated directly in the sources, but might lie in a collection of clues requiring skillful analysis and correlation. Researchers who challenge long-standing or popular traditions may face resistance. Successful genealogists, like Sergeant, are undeterred by complications and difficulties. They craft strategies to work around the roadblocks.

Sergeant’s article recounts her investigation into the veracity of a dramatic story of a woman who was born in Belgium on the eve of World War II—a tale that was published and later put on film. Although the story was incredible, few people questioned it. Some were deterred because of the scarcity of sources illuminating the era; others believed that questioning the story would be disrespectful to Holocaust survivors. The woman and her supporters repeatedly affirmed that the events had occurred, lulling some into blind acceptance. Many people believed that proof was impossible, but Sergeant—a skilled genealogist—knew better. She designed and executed a strategic plan to uncover the facts.

Determining the truth was complicated but certainly not impossible. Sergeant dealt with difficulties frequently encountered by genealogists. Privacy laws restricted her access to vital records. Other sources had been lost or destroyed during the war. Names, ages, and other details had reportedly been misstated because the woman had assumed another person’s identity. The accuracy of information provided by the woman was questionable given her age at the time of the events as well as the potential impact of her traumatic experiences. Many of the records sought by Sergeant are in Europe, while Sergeant resides in the United States.

When sources are restricted, missing, or destroyed, successful genealogists look for alternatives. Sergeant could not access vital records so she sought other sources that could provide similar information. She used evidence found in city directories, necrology notices, and church registers to learn about the woman’s origins. She discovered misstatements about the woman’s adoptive family and located a baptismal record for the girl whose identity the woman supposedly assumed. And Sergeant discovered a record of that same child—or someone pretending to be her—registering for school in Brussels in September 1943.

Establishing proof requires more than just looking at records and reading information. Analysis and correlation are crucial parts of the process. Using timelines to track events mentioned in the story as well as those documented through research, Sergeant saw discrepancies. For example, the woman telling her story claimed to have left Brussels in November 1941, when she was about age seven, but someone using the name of the child whose identity the woman claimed to have assumed registered for school in Brussels nearly two years later. The woman asserted that her Jewish parents had been arrested and sent somewhere east of Belgium in Spring 1941, but the timing does not correspond with historical events relating to Jews in Belgium. Sergeant unsuccessfully combed the “extensive documentation for Belgian Jews”[2] in an attempt to find a match for the woman’s birth family. Piece by piece, she used the shreds of evidence to capably build a true account of the woman’s experiences. As the facts began to align, the woman’s truthfulness was questioned—and she came forward to admit that her tale had been a fabrication.

Successful genealogists know that proof is never impossible, despite the difficulties and complications associated with any given research project. Successful genealogists work around the difficulties. They are creative, persistent, objective, and analytical. They work to genealogical standards even when doing so is challenging. They appreciate sound research.

Sergeant exposed cracks in a story that had been drawing a great deal of attention. Her persistence gradually widened those cracks until the truth was revealed. Her excellent article illustrates her techniques and teaches us that proof is only impossible for researchers who give up.

[1] Sharon E. Sergeant, “The Myth of Impossible Proof: Modern Genealogy Methods and a Holocaust Fraud,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 96 (September 2008): 177–91; PDF, NGSQ Archives (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngsq_archives : 17 April 2017). For the quote, see page 191.

[2] Sergeant, “The Myth of Impossible Proof,” 183.

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