Longtime Potrero Hill resident Judy Baston’s passionate commitment to Jewish genealogy earned her the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, awarded at the Association’s annual conference in Jerusalem last summer.
Baston was born in Oakland to parents who encouraged her to pursue a professional career. Her father suggested that she become a doctor. Her mother disagreed, “No, she’ll be a writer.” Mom was right: in 1965 Baston was awarded a degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was arrested during the Free Speech Movement.
“When I left college I went to work for the People’s World, a surprisingly independent left wing newspaper. Amazingly, in the seven years I was on that staff, no one ever told me what to write!” Baston quit the paper in 1973, after former editor Al Richmond was expelled because of his memoir, A Long View from the
Left. “I left because I didn’t want to be part of an organization that didn’t allow for the kind of questions that Al was raising.”
Baston has lived on the Hill for more than forty years, or as she puts it, “three cats worth.” She first resided on Utah Street, then Vermont Street, landing at De Haro and 19th streets in 1981, where she’s been since. “When I moved to the Hill it was like a village on the edge of the City. Housing was affordable, and I knew quite a few people who lived here then through anti-War and other activism that was taking place in the early ‘70s.”
Baston is passionate about the color purple. “I have loved purple since I was at least one year old,” she said, offering an early memory of filling the bottom drawer of a knick-knack shelf with patches of purple fabric, violet tissue fruit wrappers, and “other purple debris.”
Baston served on the staff of The Potrero View for twenty years, twelve of them as associate editor, during which she wrote all the editorials, laid out the paper, and penned articles on political and land use issues. She was also the West Coast Public Affairs Coordinator for the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.
For the past 23 years Baston has volunteered at the Jewish Community Library. Over the last 12 years she’s run a monthly genealogy clinic there, “Help With Your Family Tree: Brainstorming with the Mavens,” and served as president of the Friends of the Jewish Community Library. She also was a board member and librarian at the San Francisco Bay Jewish Genealogical Society, and moderates four Jewish Genealogy discussion groups, including Jewish Records Indexing-Poland and the Litvak Special Interest Group.
Baston believes that the Holocaust distinguishes Jewish genealogy because many family members who could have provided information were killed. Finding long lost relatives assumed to have been murdered and learning the names of those previously consigned to oblivion “gives a certain moral imperative to Jewish genealogy.”
According to Baston, Jewish genealogy experienced a growth spurt in 1990, for two reasons: the fall of the Iron Curtain enabled increased access to Eastern European archives; and the growth of the Internet allowed for the dissemination of electronic information.
In the course of investigating her family Baston discovered that three young cousins had been patrons of the Vilna Ghetto public library. “I would give anything to know the titles of the books that my cousins checked out,” she said. Further research uncovered additional archival documentation, including lists of readers, library workers, and even of borrowers who’d failed to return volumes. Books in the library’s reading room had to be requested by scholars and paged by staff; otherwise they could be taken and used for fuel. On January 31, at 1:30 p.m., Baston will present a program at the Jewish Community Library, “Documenting the Vilna Ghetto Library”.
Baston’s May 1993 article about her family research is accessible, along with all back issues of The Potrero View, through the San Francisco Public Library’s recent digitization project: https://ia601404.us.archive.org/22/items/potreroviewmay1904unse_5/potreroviewmay1904unse_5.pdf. For more information on Baston’s January 31 presentation, visit http://www.jewishlearningworks.org/ jewish-community-library/.