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Aggressively and Strategically Breaking through the Brick Wall


The majority readers of this article are relatively well experienced genealogists so there will be no need for me to define or explain the basics of proven and trusted research techniques. However, how does one innovatively employ alternative methods in breaking through the proverbial brick wall?

I started researching my WIENER family (traditionally of Levite descent) in northern Germany some 40 years ago by writing letters of enquiry (yes, in the days of “snail mail” when they were posted “par avion” from South Africa) to the archives in the cities of Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen where my ancestors had lived – I received excellent cooperation and was able to corroborate the information which my late aunt had imparted to me and also to go back another few generations.

I need the reader to refer to the chart I have provided at the beginning of this article:

My most recent generations resided in Altona/Hamburg and fairly good records were available from both The Museum of the Jewish People in Jerusalem as well as the Jewish archival resources in Hamburg. Having a fair collection of private documents of my father’s and with the assistance of my close friend and well-known genealogist Paul Cheifitz I had no problem in obtaining a paper trail for Grandfather, GGF1, and GGF2.

I found in my researches good information about GGF3, ELIAS NATHAN WIENER who was born in 1786 and died in 1866. The trail ended with him. Eventually I commissioned a respected German researcher, Jens Muller, to hunt NATHAN ELIAS down. Using Altona address books, census reports and other archival information Jens found that Nathan did indeed exist and at which addresses he resided at in the area but there there was no evidence of who his father was. After some years I recommenced the search for Nathan hoping that some new information might have turned up. Negative. Eventually I heard that a batch of Jewish records from the time of Nathan had disappeared. The consensus is that just before the commencement of World War II a decision was taken by certain leaders of the Hamburg community to move their archival records to Amsterdam for safekeeping, having of course no idea that the war would engulf all of Europe. The information I sought was in these records which to this date has never been located. I had to accept that this was as far back as I could go. I remained discontent about this and decided to approach different avenues.

I commenced searching in and for any possible WIENERS who may have lived in Hamburg prior to 1760. There were indeed very few people bearing that surname at the time but none were revealed as HaLevy. What I did discover was that there was a Elias Elijahu (Model Ries Elias Riess-Wiener Elia Model Wiener-Riess) Wiener-Riess a.k.a. as Elia and that he had sired several children in Altona.This looked interesting and worth investigating. Examining his profile my attention was immediately drawn to the name Elia(s). As you see in the chart the name Elias is common in all the previous generations excepting for my father and myself – strangely though when my son was born in 1976 I named him Elian for my late grandfather Elias (my parents were both still alive). The question was of course whether or not this new found discovery was a Levite. I clicked on Elias Eliyahus’s father and came up with Rabbi Mordechai Model Ben David Ha-Levi Öttingen Riess.There was the Levite connection.

Following north on the lineage on enabled me to discover that the progenitor, Abraham Ha-Levy Öttingen 1, was born in approximately 1440 and lived in Oettingen/Bavaria. It was also evident that they were a Rabbinical dynasty from that time. I was, as you can imagine, quite astounded. I always had a feeling that I was the scion of a special family but in my wildest dreams I would never have guessed it would be a line of Rabbis.

Being an engineer by profession I knew full well that at this point the above was only conjecture. There was no hard proof of any relationship to this family on the other side of the wall.

After much consideration I decided that the only possible way of finding the answer was to go the DNA route. I investigated a few of the well-known DNA companies and elected to do my testing with FTDNA, a Texas based company who have a large number of Jewish clients end therefore a large Jewish database. I ordered y67 and Family Finder. Of course this was going to also be a huge learning curve for me. Within two months I received the results, the most important being as follows:

  1. My haplogroup was R1a1a which is known to be that of the Ashkenazi Levites – this meant that I was no longer only a Levite by tradition, but this was now scientifically proven.

  2. I had a close yDNA Genetic Match Distance of 1 with a Dr. Harold Lewis Atkins of New York who had tested y111. His known most distant paternal ancestor was Leiba Eitingon born in about 1820 in Orsha, Belarus.


The needle in the haystack – the connection: Oettingen/Eitingon

I made contact with Meir Gover in Israel and Jeff Wexler in the USA and asked them for guidance. They advised me to upgrade to y111, the highest number of markers which at this time is tested. Shortly thereafter the results showed a Genetic Distance of 2 on y111 and that Harold and I shared 110 out of 111 markers which is remarkably close.

I must inform the reader that I am not going into the technical intricacies of DNA in this article but am only demonstrating its use as a tool.

The FTDNA’s TiP calculator revealed that Harold and I have a probability 100% in sharing a Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) some 16 generations ago. However, TiP calculation results are known not to be entirely accurate so Jeff and Meir advised that Harold and I upgrade further to BigY, costing some $500, to enable us to get more accurate and focused results.

At this point I contacted Harold to discuss the matter. I discovered that he was a retired well-known nuclear radiologist and had done his DNA testing some 13 years previously but had never until now found a close match. Unfortunately he was suffering with advanced ALS disease and was wheelchair bound. Nevertheless he was extremely excited by this find and without hesitation agreed to upgrade to BigY – he also shared his conventional research data with me, which was meticulously set out. Sadly he died a few weeks later but I was consoled by the fact that he had finally discovered his roots before passing away.

Jeff and Meir now analysed all this information and Meir wrote me as follows:

Assuming that this Abraham lived say 65 long years so that his lifespan was 1500-1565 and assuming 30 year generation gap to his father Israel and additional 30 to his zeide Abraham Segal than your earliest known by now is Abraham Segal from Ottingen born C1440 or maybe a bit earlier.

Following what I told you the other day and as per the Snips 150-160 year average (avoiding the unreliables) we may highly assume now that Snip 18700080 (under YP3939, not yet assigned a Common name by YFull) does actually evolve when Abraham Segal from Ottingen b.C1440 was conceived…

You’re now the first non Horowitz surname that can be assigned a specific Snip and a 15th-16th cen. matzeva.

It is also obvious now that your pre Wiener-Ottingen-Ettinger surname was SEGAL written in Hebrew as ל “ס proving that Levites were written as S”[ega]L due to their religious chore.

Your ancestor’s surname on our R1a-Y2619 Tree should be amended now to Segal-Ottingen,

This is an important find since the only matzevot we have from that era are Levi, Horowitz in Prague and Vienna, and Ish-Horowitz in Germany and Poland.

Going back some 650 years on my lineage and using, I trace back to ABRAHAM HA-LEVY ÖTTINGEN who was born in Oettingen in about 1440. He or one of his sons (or grandsons) was Harold and my MRCA. Harolds family migrated to eastern European countries whilst mine went to Vienna, Berlin and Hamburg.

Having established 100% certainty that this Oettingen family were my direct paternal ancestors I now needed to do some “backward genealogy” to see how the pieces fitted together. Here I reverted to with corroborating information from various additional sources such as known established family trees, most of which I found through Digibaeck.

Again referring to the chart the salient points are as follows:

GGF12: Born about 1440 and lived in Oettingen/Bavaria

GGF11: Born about 1480 and lived in Oettingen/Bavaria

GGF10: Born about 1520 and died in Vienna in 1565 – some of the family had relocated to Vienna

GGF09: Born in Oettingen and died before 1620 in Oettingen

GGF08: Born in 1590 and died in Vienna 1667 – in Vienna they were known as Oettingen-Riess, the city and area of their origin

GGF07: Born in Vienna in 1623 and died in Berlin in 1675 – was amongst the Jews exiled from Vienna in 1671. He had several sons.

GGF06: Born in 1650 in Vienna and died in 1713 in Hamburg – exiled in 1671 from Vienna – known in Hamburg as Wiener-Riess (Wiener = Vienna). He was the only son of GGF07 to relocate to Hamburg.

At this point comes the brick wall which we bridged using DNA. Elia Wiener-Riess had several children, mainly sons. There comes a time when there is no hard evidence available and one needs to take a calculated risk based on strong circumstantial evidence. I am not 100% certain which son is in fact GGF05 but I have reason to strongly suspect that it was ABRAHAM ELIAS RIESS-WIENER HALEVY and that his son was ELIAS ABRAHAM RIES-WIENER HALEVY, GGF04, who was the father of NATHAN ELIAS WIENER HALEVY GGF03. We must take note that at this time emancipation took place and Jews had to take a fixed surname, so the Riess was dropped in favour of Wiener. From this point on the paper trail is hard evidence to present time. Should I be incorrect in my assumptions GGF05 would have to be one of the other sons of GGF06.

Interestingly I have traced 3 other direct descendants of GGF06 Elia Wiener. Alan Ehrlich lives in Geneva. Cary Aufseeser and Alan Hill(desheim) both live in the USA. Cary has tested through FTDNA and he shows up in the autosomal results as a 5th to remote cousin of mine which is in fact correct. As far as I can ascertain my son and I are the sole surviving paternal line descendants of Elia Wiener.

I firmly believe that DNA testing will become a standard tool used by genealogists in the future. Already is integrating the facility of downloading DNA results to its members web pages. In fact some DNA analysts have produced basic family trees using DNA results only. Technology will empower us in making remarkable discoveries.

In conclusion, as in life generally, luck plays a pivotal role. I was lucky in finding my DNA match with Harold Atkins who had done intense family research, with being descended from a well-known Rabbinical line who had documented their lineage (probably for “yichus” purposes) and by living in an era where the technology for scientific research is affordably available. Mostly I was lucky in having the expert and generous assistance from experts in their fields – Paul, Meir and Jeff. But don’t forget – most often you make your own luck through hard work and persistence.


Dennis Weiner

Dennis Wiener was born in 1947 and grew up in Pietersburg, South Africa. The son of a German Jewish refugee and mother of Lithuanian roots, he is a qualified Industrial Engineer. For several decades he managed the family’s engineering business in what is now Polokwane, Limpopo. He simultaneously established a property investment company and pioneered a personal computer business in the early 1980s. After retiring, he and his wife Charlotte made Aliya in 2003 and now live in Netanya. He has three children and five grandchildren. Dennis has been researching his family roots in Germany for almost 40 years. During that time he has made numerous visits to that country, retracing the steps of his ancestors and locating their final resting places. He broke through the proverbial genealogical “brick wall” in 2015 as a result of DNA analysis.

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TAGGED WITH → Abraham Ha-Levy Ottingen • Abraham Segal • Alan Ehrlich • Alan Hill • Altoona• Amsterdam • archival records • Ashkenazi Levites • Bavaria • Belarus • Berlin • braham Ha-Levy Öttingen • Cary Aufseeser • DNA • Dr. Harold Lewis Atkins • Elia • Elia Wiener • Elias Elijahu (Model Ries Elias Riess-Wiener Elia Model Wiener-Riess) • FTDNA • FTDNA’s TiP calculator • Geni • HaLevy• Hamburg • haplogroup R1a1a • Jeff Wexler • Leiba Eitingon • Levite • Meir Gover • MyHeritage •Nathan Elias Wiener • Oettingen • Orsha • Paul Cheifitz • Rabbi Mordechai Model Ben David Ha-Levi Öttingen Riess • Segal-Ottingen • Vienna • Wiener-Riess • yDNA

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