Procrastinate Better

To Do This Weekend: Investigate Your Family Tree

The beach situation—at least for East Coasters—is looking pretty grim this Labor Day weekend, as Hurricane Earl makes his way north . But if you’re stuck inside, there’s still fun to be had over at : The family-tree building Web site is offering up its entire archive for free through September 6 . The site provides a treasure-trove of data, including passport applications, naturalization records, Ellis Island oral histories, and passenger and immigration lists.

In less than five minutes, using the site’s Immigration Collection , I discovered the exact date that my Viennese grandmother arrived in New York City: February 9, 1939. She was on a ship called the Ilsenstein, which had departed from the Netherlands two weeks earlier. I could see an image of the Ilsenstein’s passenger log, along with a photo and a brief history of the ship, which was sold to Great Britain and then sunk a year after my grandmother arrived in NYC. The black and white shot of the Ilsenstein shows a long, slightly shabby freighter; a man in a trench coat and cap is in the foreground, looking out at it. What appears to be a machine gun is sitting behind the man’s back. The image is mysterious and menacing, and inspires me to do even more digging about the ship and my grandmother’s journey away from Nazi Austria. I could fall down this rabbit hole of historical and familial information for days—or at least until I have to return to work on Tuesday.