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What’s Different about Jewish Genealogy?
By Barbara Ellman
Under the hood, the nuts and bolts of genealogical research is very similar for all ethnic groups. Generally, research begins with identifying family in their current country, and working backwards through time, connecting the dots of vital records, censuses, and other name-centric documents and evidence left behind by others. At some point, a genealogist may need to make the leap — pinpointing those names in ancestral towns in far away places in order to explore the family’s roots in the “old country.” For many, ship manifests are the key pieces of evidence used to identify the country, province, and town or village from which the family came. What is especially challenging for those researching Jewish genealogy is finding family names in databases in order to make these vital connections.
It’s all about, and Not about, the Name
What’s in a name? Goldshetyn, Goldstajn, Goldsztejn, Holdstein, Gildstein, Gelschtein, Goldstein. With Jewish genealogical research these are all the same name!
The problem of handling the unique sounds of Eastern European names is not a new one and the Standard Soundex, is notorious for not handling Eastern European names well.
In 1985, the Daitch-Mokotoff (D-M) Soundex was created to better deal with Eastern European phonetic naming, but it also has its failings. In 2008, the Bieder-Morse Phonetic Matching system was launched as an improvement.
These tools will give different results, so both the Daitch-Mokotoff and Bieder-Morse should be tried. Many sites now include an option to search “phonetically.” When researching ship manifests, use Steve Morse’s “Gold Form” and use “sounds like” and/or “phonetically” ( www.stevemorse.org/ellis2/ellisgold.html ).
Another common naming issue regards the first name that appears on the ship’s manifests. Grandpa Louis was almost certainly not named Louis! Most Jewish immigrants Americanized their names and the given names that appear on the manifest would have been the Hebrew name by which the person was known — not the name they adopted once they came to America. I’ve even seen records where a father who never left Europe is listed on the son’s American marriage certificate as “Charles” when his given, Hebrew name was “Betzalel”!
So, how can you find the Hebrew name? A good source for the person’s Hebrew first name is the headstone (matzeva). Traditionally, Jewish headstones contain the given name of the deceased and the name of the father. For example, “Leib, son of Jacob” or “Golde daughter of Abraham.” So, in addition to identifying the given name of your ancestor, this will identify the father’s Hebrew name as well.
Naming Patterns Mattered
When researching in European Jewish records, the Hebrew names are used in searching for family records. In addition, researchers should be aware of the naming patterns of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jewish families.
With these naming patterns, children are named after a relative who has passed away and births within a few years of a death with the given name(s) of the deceased will indicate a family relationship. For example:
- Machla Devora Luchs Hassmann died in 1887
- Machla Dvora Sternbach was born in 1888 — daughter of Chaje Hassmann (daughter of deceased)
- Machla Dwojre Hassmann was born in 1892 — daughter of Beile Hassmann (daughter of deceased) and Ruben Hassmann.
Most people had two given names, e.g. Machla Devora, but common usage could be the second name, e.g. Devora.
A relation would name the first girl born after the woman who died. If the next three births were male, the naming pattern would wait, sometimes for quite a few years, until the next girl came along. Each of the children of the deceased person would most likely do the same and if there were no children, a niece or nephew might pick-up on the naming. For example, in my family, my great-grandfather died before 1910. Children were named after him in 1910, 1912, 1920, 1924, and finally in 1931 — only one of his children didn’t name a child for him as this daughter did not give birth to a son after her father’s death.
Also, some names have a formal name and a familiar name, e.g. “Osias” vs. “Schie.” Documents could contain any of these names.
When You’re Looking for an Ancestral Town — Look beyond the Name
Another obstacle is often correctly identifying the town from which the ancestors came. Finding a town name on documents in the U.S. such as the ship manifest, naturalization papers, or other documents is often not enough to correctly identify the location of the ancestral home. Town names are frequently repeated in different districts and countries, for example, the town of Maidan (in its various spellings) appears more than 60 times in Eastern Europe alone! Also, upheaval, wars, and unrest affected many jurisdiction and border changes in Europe, and a town that you are searching for in Poland pre-WWII may be
in Ukraine today.
Luckily, there are tools to help. JewishGen offers a Town Finder Communities Database ( www.jewishgen.org/Communities/Search.asp ) that applies soundex to mapping and will help identify all locations within Europe that have similar sounding names. The Communities Database provides the names of the current towns in various languages, the GPS coordinates, and the country of jurisdiction during different time periods.
For example, my grandmother came from “Janov” and my aunt had always said that Janov was near Lviv. Based on this, I had worked under the assumption that the town was now called Ivano-Frankove as it was the most similarly-sounding name to Janov which was close to Lviv. I later learned that our ancestral town was closer to Tarnopol, not Lviv, and no longer existed as “Janov” but was now called Dolyna — a town more than 100 miles away from my original location assumption!
In addition, immigrants often referred to the district center or the nearest big town rather than refer to their actual home town. This can be an important clue when you know to look for it.
Divining Ancestral Town Names from Burials
On arrival in the U.S., many Jewish immigrants, working with other immigrants from their town or region, created mutual aid organizations called, in Yiddish, “landsmanshaften.” These societies provided mutual support for those from their community, offered aid, in a time before unemployment benefits or health insurance, for those out of work, injured, elderly, or ill. One of the additional services was to provide burial plots for members within a society-owned plot.
If your ancestors are buried in landsmanshaften plots, it is likely that they came from the Society town or region. The cemetery may help identify the Society and advise if there is a current manager for the Society, who may have additional information.
The Jewish Genealogical Society hosts a database of Burial Societies in the New York Metropolitan Area on its website ( www.jgsny.org/ny-burial-society-database ).
Town Records Do Exist
All records were destroyed during the war… NOT TRUE. While it is true there are some towns for which few or no records survive, many still hold excellent records, and many towns with lost records had copies stored in other places. Through the efforts of various organizations, records are being rediscovered, acquired, translated, and indexed.
And while this is great news for researchers, it can come with a price. Many of these organizations require membership or donations towards their efforts. These donations are an important vote of support towards preserving these records, and a portion of the money may help provide jobs for researchers, archivists, and translators in the “old country.” Projects can also demonstrate to local government how important preservation is to their economy.
Some organizations doing great work in this area are:
- Routes to Roots Foundation ( www.rtrfoundation.org ) —
Provides a town-by-town database listing of surviving Jewish and civil records for towns in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland (and districts/regions formerly known
as Galicia, Bukovina, Bessarabia, Silesia, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and White Russia).
- JewishGen ( www.jewishgen.org ) —
Provides country-centric databases, e.g. All Poland, All Ukraine, etc.
- Litvak SIG ( www.litvaksig.org ) —
Focus on the Jewish communities of Kovno, Suwalki, and Vilna guberniyas of Russia, which today are in Lithuania.
- Jewish Records Indexing — Poland ( http://jri-poland.org ) —
Records found in the Warsaw archives (Archiwum Główne Akt Dawnych, or AGAD) have been indexed and linked to images. This index also includes many records for towns located today in the Ukraine.
- Gesher Galicia ( www.geshergalicia.org ) —
Conducts historical research and map digitizing and indexing for Galicia, a region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is today part of eastern Poland and south western Ukraine.
- FamilySearch ( www.familysearch.org ) —
The LDS has filmed metrical books for many Eastern European Jewish records. Check the catalog for what microfilms are available for the town(s) you need and have the rolls delivered, for a small fee, for use at your local Family History Center (FHC).
I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to Jewish genealogy and will find the tips and links helpful to your research.
If you would like to learn more, there is a wealth of information and help available online through the InfoFiles on JewishGen ( www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/ ) which covers all aspects of research. Additional assistance is available through membership on the discussion groups of JewishGen where you can search the archives of the discussion group or post new questions.
Or, for some one-to-one help, you can book consultation time with a GSBC Genealogy Consultants researcher (including the author of this article) who can help with ethnic- or location-specific research and offer brick-wall-breaking tips and techniques ( www.njgsbc.org ).
All are welcome to the ever expanding community of Jewish genealogists!