Interview: Neville Lamdan

The former diplomat is spearheading an innovative genealogy project that will aid families to trace their ancestors


Neville Lamdan: inspired by delving into his own background

Neville Lamdan: inspired by delving into his own background

The internet has revolutionised our lives in any number of ways. But aside from social networking, Google Earth and YouTube, there has been one significant growth area. People have always been interested in where their families came from but the advent of the web means this current generation are able trace their ancestry at the click of a mouse.

For Glasgow-born Israeli diplomat Neville Lamdan, it was trickier, however. He started to research his own family back when the only way to obtain information was through multiple visits to dusty archives. Lamdan, who in the 1980s was ambassador to the Vatican, had his interest sparked by a bestselling paperback. He recalls: "In 1977 I read Roots by Alex Haley. I reckoned that if an African-American could successfully search for his roots, I could do mine. I had nothing to go on. My father had already died by that time so it was pure research."

Lamdan, who is now the director of the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy, was not helped by the fact that the Soviet Union was a closed society which made information hard to come by. This is not a problem that today's amateur genealogists have, and the opening up of eastern Europe has caused something of an explosion of research into Jewish family trees.

But although it has been important and revealing for Lamdan to research his family, he also has a huge interest in the big picture. The institute, which has been running for five years, has set up various genealogical projects around the world to attempt to get to grips with how and why Jews moved, and where they came from. To that end he was recently in Britain to initiate two such schemes. The first in association with historian Sir Martin Gilbert, is to trace 50 British-Jewish families, which came to this country in different waves. The second is one that is close to Lamdan's heart.

"We are proposing to the Scottish Jewish community that we try to do a demographic survey of Scottish Jewry since its origins. We couldn't do this for the whole of British-Jewry because the numbers are too big, but with Scottish Jewry we are talking about a total of 50,000 individuals."

The story often told by Scottish Jews about their ancestors is that they arrived in Dundee on boats from eastern Europe believing that they had landed in New York. This, Lamdan, believes is a myth. "I think it's anecdotal. There may have been on or two naïve individuals but Glasgow was a boom town in the 19th century. Population movement was not just motivated by the pogroms; there were also strong economic pressures."

Lamdan is able to bring in his own family experience to support his point. "I have a letter written by my grandfather to his sister-in-law in 1913 about whether it is worth her coming to Glasgow, and he says 'yes you can make a living here. It's tough but you can live'."

Indeed, when Lamdan came to research his eastern European background he discovered plenty more of general interest. "There is a general assumption that most Jews lived in a shtetl - in small towns where there was a relatively large Jewish community which, for better or worse, was self-contained. That assumption is false. My family were village Jews, like a third if not more of the Jewish populations in eastern Europe. Their circumstances were very different from those who lived in the towns. In villages of 300-400 people there might have been two or three Jewish families. They couldn't live within their own community and would have had to learn the local language. They were there to collect taxes, which wouldn't have made them popular, or in many cases to sell alcohol. In my case, my ancestors were publicans. These Jews left less of a trace so it wasn't easy to track them down until recently."

Part of the work of the institute is to attempt to make things easier for those who do want to research into their family roots. To this end, one of the most important projects involves names. Jewish names can have a huge variety of spellings depending on where they originate from, which can make tracking down ancestors insanely difficult. "We are trying to produce tools and technologies to help the family historian and one of these is a project to produce a soundex -[a phonetic system] - to identify Jewish names."

He illustrates the problem by talking about names which start with the sound "sh" and end with the sound "ski". The beginning of the name might be spelled "sh", or "sch" or even "sz". The ending could be "ski" or "sky", and the same name could have been spelled differently depending on whether the family moved from Russia, Poland, or Germany. Lamdan explains: "Our people are working on the names of people from communities which were destroyed during the Shoah, We needed a system to identify names because people were shuffled from their home town in one country to a concentration camp in another, then shuffled again to a death camp in another. They are the same people but appear on different spelling lists, so we needed a phonetic system to enable people to find their relatives."

So what is the first step for people to take if they want to track their own roots?

Lamdan says: "Well that starting point is not us. We don't look at individual family trees, we are more interested in the 'forests' rather than the trees. I would recommend a site called. www.jewishgen.org which offers lots of help on getting started. It is really important to know the original family name, rather than the Anglicised version, and one has to have a reasonable idea about the town your family came from. For example, if your name is Cohen, and you don't know where your family originated from, your chances of tracking anything down are slim."

Lamdan is himself a migrant, from Britain to Israel, although this was not a route he planned to make. He was a career diplomat in the British Foreign Office who, after a couple of years working in Whitehall, was posted to Israel. After four years in Tel Aviv, he decided that diplomacy was not for him and he returned to Oxford University. However, he later returned to diplomacy, this time in Israel's service. His highest profile job was as ambassador to the Vatican, where he developed a great admiration for Pope John Paul II. "I not only met the Pope but went to mass regularly," he laughs. "There were a number of masses that the diplomatic corps were required to attend. John Paul was an incredible man with huge charisma."

    Last updated: 10:44am, April 21 2011