How would our ancestors choose to be remembered?


03 December 2023
What, if anything, have you recorded about the lives of your ancestors? Do you think your forebears would appreciate what you’ve written, or even recognise themselves? Emma Jolly invites us to take a new look about how we record ancestral lives.

Our recent survey on family history and wellbeing produced some fascinating findings on how and why we trace our ancestors. In this article, Emma Jolly looks at recording the lives of our ancestors.

‘I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger.’

Poignantly, David Berger wrote these words in his last letter at Vilnius (now the capital of Lithuania) in 1941. Berger was born in Przemysl, a town in southeast Poland. When the Germans invaded in 1939, he left his hometown. Shortly after writing his last words, he was shot dead in Vilnius. He was just 19 years old. 

Since the end of the war, David Berger’s simple statement has been the focus of many Holocaust memorial projects, such as Holocaust Memorial Day. The aim is to remember each individual who died as a result of the Holocaust. The basis of this is that each individual life is of value and that no one should be forgotten. As family historians, regardless of our ancestors’ background or heritage, our research serves to remind everyone that each of our ancestors once lived.


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Thus, we should consider whether the stories of individuals ought only to be told by relatives. During the centenary of the First World War 2014-18, for example, many genealogists were involved in related projects such as producing mini-biographies of all soldiers recorded on a local war memorial. A few individuals mentioned had no surviving family members to commemorate their memory. Many historians are now recording memories of the Second World War. For example, Their Finest Hour is a University of Oxford project that aims to collect and digitally archive the everyday stories and objects of the Second World War that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Those who want to be forgotten

This act of remembrance is one of the most significant aspects of family history. Without our research, too many people would be lost to the past. Eventually, there would be no one around to remember them. Some consider this loss of remembrance as the ultimate death. However, there could be those who want to be forgotten. While we family historians keep our ancestors’ existence alive, bring them back to life, and tell their stories, do we ever question whether they would want their stories told, or whether the version of our ancestors we present is one that they would appreciate, or even recognise? In contemplating this, we should also note also that not everyone has direct descendants. 

How do we remember?

Another question this raises is not whether we remember an individual, but how we do so. We may record our ancestor according to occupation or other information from the census but they may have thought of themselves, or been known in their locality, for their musical talent or sporting prowess, for example. In more recent years such detail might be reported in local newspapers but further back in time, this was often not the case. Are we doing our ancestors a disservice in how we write and record our family histories? And what does this mean for the future? 

One way we can ensure the version of ourselves that we would want to be known by our descendants or others in the future is for each of us to write a personal memoir. However, this too has inherent complications and creates further questions.

Emma Jolly MA is an Edinburgh-based genealogist and writer. Her books include ‘My Ancestor was a Woman at War’, ‘Tracing Your Ancestors Using the Census’ and ‘Tracing Your British Indian Ancestors’. An AGRA member, her website is here.

Text extracted from a full-length article on family history and wellbeing by Emma Jolly, in the January 2024 issue of Family Tree magazine. Get your copy here.