Monthly Archives: January 2011

Genealogy Folder Organization: The B&F System

When doing genealogy research one tends to collect a lot of documents and photos. There are birth certificate, census records, naturalization papers, passenger manifests, marriage records, death certificates, etc. Keeping track of everything can be a daunting task.

To make matters worse, most genealogy programs will not manage your files themselves. Even if they could, you wouldn’t necessarily want your genealogy program to manage everything, because you might one day want to switch programs, and you don’t want to lock your files into one program. As such, most genealogy programs will link to documents elsewhere on your hard drive. If you organize them well, it’s easy to find them and link them. What happens when you move files around though? That can cause big problems for genealogy programs that are expecting to find a file in a particular location. Different programs deal with this issue in different ways – some will show you which files are missing, some will help you find the files, etc. but in general you want to minimize such issues by putting your files in a place that will not change very often.

I’ve come up with a system for organizing my files that seems to work pretty well for me. It helps me find things quickly, lets me add new folders for new branches of the family without moving other folders and it is flexible enough for me to mix it up a bit if I need to for different situations.

I start with a main folder for my genealogy documents. Let’s call that Genealogy. You want to put that someplace where you know it will not move. I keep it in my Documents folder (on Windows that would be your My Documents directory).

Inside the Genealogy folders called Surnames, Photos, and Documents. In Surnames I create folders with the surnames of each of my great-grandparents, so eight folders in all.

Photos and Documents are not just to dump all my photos and documents, but are special folders where I keep large collections of photos and documents that are not associated with one person. Thus if I scan a hundred photos from a cousin that covered a large portion of my family, I would put those in a folder under Photos. If I retrieve a large batch of vital records from an archive in Poland, I create a folder for those in the Documents folder. In some situations it’s very helpful to keep these kind of collections together in individual folders not attached to one family.

Back to the Surnames folder. So there are eight surnames each with their own folder. You can of course choose to add more surnames. You might want to add a spouse’s surname, either your own or one of your siblings. In the picture below you can see the folder structure I’m describing, and each surname folder is labeled FFF (for Father’s Father’s Father’s) Surname, FFM (Father’s Father’s Mother’s) Surname, etc. Within each of these folders, I again put Documents and Pictures folders and I add one more called Mysteries. Mysteries is for records you find of people that you think are related, but you haven’t found a connection to yet. I just create sub-folders in there with different leads I’m following on different people, so I have a place to keep research that is not linked to my family tree yet.

This is where I do something that might seem confusing, but I then add a folder which is for the oldest known ancestor with that surname (in the diagram I call him/her OAFFF – Oldest Ancestor of Father’s Father’s Father). Within that folder I add folders for each child, and within each of those folders their children, etc. Within each person’s folder I also add a Documents and Photos folder, although with each person I can change my mind on how to organize the folder. With some people I might have a lot of newspaper clippings so that might deserve it’s own folder called Newspapers, and in some folders I might only have a single photo so I might forgo the sub-folders altogether (except for the children’s folders obviously).

A sample genealogy folder hierarchy

Keep in mind that the advantage of this system is that whenever you discover a new child or a new sibling of someone in your tree, you can add them to the folder hierarchy without having to move any other folder. The only time you will need to move a folder is if you discover a relative that is from an earlier generation than your current oldest ancestor. Hopefully you do find new oldest ancestors all the time, but in the scheme of things, it doesn’t happen so often that this should be a major problem.

I usually label a folder that represents the child with that child’s full name and all the name of their spouse. If the child was born Jane Doe and married John Deer, then the folder would be named:

Jane Doe & John Deer

I always put the name of the child first and the spouse second. Of course when there are multiple marriages this can be complicated. In some cases (even without mutliple marriages) I will only name a folder with the person’s name, and then create a sub-folder for the spouse (or more than one folder if there is more than one spouse).

You might be asking, why do you start with the oldest ancestor and work your way down? Why not start with the current generation and work your way up? That would eliminate the need to move folders once you find a new oldest ancestor. The problem is that what happens when you want to add siblings? If I add a folder for myself, and then underneath it I put folders for each of my parents, where do the siblings go? Also, for each generation that I go up I’m splitting surnames. When I move down everyone is a descendant of a single surname. It only works when you’re moving down, which is why you need to start at the top.

There’s probably more to say on this topic, but I’ll stop here for now. I welcome comments on this system, explanations of your own folder organization systems, etc. in the comments.

Religious marriages, civil marriages and surnames from mothers

For many Jewish genealogists, there is a kind of ultimate brick wall of reaching past the institution of surnames around two hundred years ago. Surnames were instituted in different areas at different times, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, instituted surnames by declaration of their emperor in 1787. When the empire expanded in 1795 absorbing part of Poland, it took in a large Jewish population which were for the first time required to take on surnames. Depending on where they lived, some Jews were not required to take on names for another decade or more after that, so if you have successfully tracked back your family to the point where they adopted surnames, it’s not so easy to reach past that point. There are some patronymic records, which are records that only list the first name of a person and the name of their father, that exist in these areas going further back, and it may be possible to track your family back for a generation before surnames, but that’s really the maximum most people will be able to accomplish if their families did not have surnames earlier (which some rabbinic families did, as did many Sephardim).

Adding to the difficulty of tracking back that far is that many Jews had little use for their assigned surnames in the 19th century. Thus, even though they had assigned surnames which the government used to assess taxes, conscript men into the army, etc., in terms of everyday usage Jews really didn’t care about their surnames. In addition, civil marriage was largely ignored by many Jews, as it generally was expensive. Jews tended to have religious marriages and only got civilly married if they or their children for some reason needed it. This thus lead to many civil marriages long after a couple had their children, something which might seem strange at first glance, but you need to realize thati n most cases these people did get married (religiously) before they had children, they were just not married from the perspective of the state.

So what happened if your parents did not have a civil marriage? In some cases it meant you would need to take your mother’s maiden name as your surname. That’s because even if your father was listed on your birth certificate, he was not legally married to your mother, and thus you needed to take on your mother’s last name for legal purposes. If you parents were legally married at a later date, a note could be written on your birth certificate in the town records showing that your parents were legally married, and thus declaring you as legitimate (and able to take your father’s name).

In the late 19th and early 20th century, civil marriage became easier for Jews, and thus around this time if you look at marriage records you will see a large number of marriages that seem to be relatively old people. In many cases these married couples already had children and grandchildren. As their children and grandchildren became more mobile and wanted to travel out of the small towns they had been in, they needed travel documents, and in some cases this was only made possible if their older parents got married (at least if they wanted to get travel documents with their father’s surname instead of their mothers).

I have a number of examples of children taking on their mother’s surnames in my own family.

In one case two sons took on their mother’s surname when born. One traveled through Europe and eventually ended up in the US, where the passenger manifest for the ship he arrived in the US on shows he and his children still with his mother’s surname. When he became a naturalized citizen a number of years later, however, he had already changed his surname to that of his father (as did his children). The second son moved to Israel, where he kept his mother’s surname. Thus two brothers living in different countries with different surnames.

Another case was utterly confusing for a long time, until I was finally able to put the pieces together. I had the birth record for a woman named Taube Traurig. I had birth records for children of Taube Traurig and a man named Wigdor Kessler. It seemed likely that the Taube Traurig from the original birth record and the Taube Traurig who had children with Wigdor Kessler were the same person. Then I ran into something strange, a death certificate for Taube Traurig (relatively young) before the children were born. This thus indicated either a mistake in the records, or a second Taube Traurig. The problem was that I didn’t have another Taube Traurig in my records that could be the mother (there was another Taube Traurig, but she was the mother of the two sons in the previous example – and a first cousin of the one in this example).

This was a mystery for a long time, until I noticed a notation on the original Taube Traurig’s birth record that had the name Wigdor Kessler on it. That made no sense to me. How could the name of her husband be on her birth record? Not being able to translate the Polish annotation, I posted an image of the birth record to ViewMate, a great service from JewishGen that lets you post an image or photograph and ask for help with translating records or any general problem-solving that you think others can help you with concerning the image. The responses I got indicated that the parents of Taube Traurig had been legally married in 1906, thus making all of their children ‘legitimate’ in the eyes of the state. Wigdor Kessler had signed the records of the couple’s children in 1906 as a witness that they were now considered legitimate by the state.

The person who translated the record for me had said something which stuck with me – he said Wigdor Kessler was not listed as the husband of Taube Traurig in the record. Now I didn’t necessarily think they would require him to state he was the husband, but I also guessed the person telling me this had seen other similar records and if he made the comment, he probably had seen others indicate they were the husband. I also found another record which showed Wigdor Kessler having a child several years later with a Taube Engelberg instead of Taube Traurig. That was utterly confusing since the original Taube Traurig had a sister Sara who had married someone with the last name Engelberg.

So what’s the answer here? The Taube married to Wigdor Kessler was the niece of the Taube in the original birth record. Searching through the marriage records I was able to find a marriage record between Wigdor Schopf and Taube Engelberg after all the children who were born where Taube’s name was listed as Taube Traurig, and before the child was born where she is listed as Taube Engelberg on the birth record. Who is Wigdor Schopf you’re asking? Schopf was Wigdor Kessler’s mother’s name (as shown in the marriage record). Traurig was Taube’s mother’s name. Her father’s name was Engelberg. Thus in all the earlier birth records she had been using her mother’s surname. Wigdor had used his father’s name all along on the birth records of his children, although why he had to use his mother’s surname in the marriage record is not clear.

Thus there were four birth records from 1898, 1900, 1902 and 1904 where Wigdor used his father’s surname and Taube used her mother’s surname. A wedding record in 1905 where Wigdor used his mother’s surname and Taube used her father’s surname. Finally, a birth record in 1910 where Wigdor uses his father’s surname and Taube uses her father’s surname.

What is not clear is why Wigdor was able to use his father’s surname in his childrens’ birth records but not his own marriage record, and why Taube used her mother’s surname in the first four birth records, but then used her father’s surname in her marriage record and in the later birth record. I would surmise that this later Taube’s parents were legally married in between the birth of Taube’s fourth child in 1904 and her marriage in 1905, although I have nothing to indicate that other than her own change of recorded name.

So what lessons have we learned here? If you’re researching your Jewish family in Poland or the surrounding countries, and they were born in the 19th century, don’t assume a person took on their father’s surname. Genealogy programs tend to automatically fill in the father’s surname when adding a child record, thus it’s easy to create a record where you assign the father’s surname even if you have no evidence that the child used the father’s surname. In many cases it might be a safe assumption, but in the case of 19th century Jewish records in Europe it clearly is not a safe assumption.

Two books that discuss some of the issues involved here are Suzan Wynne’s The Galizianers: The Jews of Galicia, 1772-1928 and Alexander Beider’s A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia. If you’re asking why I’m pointing to two books that specifically deal with Galicia (a region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire which currently is partly in Poland and partly in the Ukraine), it’s because the issues discussed here were particularly prevalent in Galicia, and as a big chunk of my family originates in Galicia, it’s also the area I know the most about (and of which I know about relevant books).

If you’ve had similar stories of relatives taking on their mother’s surname, please add your stories in the comments.

Jewish Genealogy Basics: The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF)

If you’re seriously researching your Jewish roots then you already know about the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF), but for those who are just getting started I wanted to point out this critical resource and explain what it can and cannot do.

The JGFF is part the much larger JewishGen web site, and what it does it simple – it lets you find other researchers searching for the same surnames and towns as you. This is particularly important if you have a very common last name (try researching Cohen without knowing which town your family came from) or if you don’t yet know from which town your family originated.

The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) Web Site

Let’s say you’re researching the name Cohen. You know your family lived at one point in Lancut. You go to the JGFF web site, log in (with your JewishGen identity) and from the page shown in the screenshot above, you select Enter/Modify. On the next screen you add the name Cohen and the town Lancut, Poland. When you enter a town that is in JewishGen’s database, a small icon should show up next to the town name indicating it has been found. You can enter a town that is not in their system, but chances are if you’re entering a town it’s in there and you should double-check your spelling. As with all resources on the JewishGen site, all towns are referred to by their current names and countries. Thus even though the Yiddish pronunciation of the town name of Lancut would probably be Lantzut, and the town was once part of the Austrian Empire, it is always referred to but the current name and country, so you should enter Lancut, Poland.

It’s also important to recognize what the JGFF cannot do. It doesn’t list individual relative names, so there’s no way to know right away when searching if the person who has listed a particular name/town combo is related to you. The JGFF is also reliant on the individuals who make up its members to update their information, and sometimes people change their e-mail addresses and forget to update the JGFF. If that’s the case and you try to send them an e-mail, you will not reach them obviously. You will also find that some of the members are deceased, and when a particular member dies, if you know the person, you can tell the people who run the JGFF and they will mark that account as deceased, so the information doesn’t go away, but people will know not to contact the person.

JGFF has several levels of privacy, so you can show you name, your address, etc. or you can just show your researcher number and make the people send you an e-mail to find out who you are. This sounds great, unless the person who didn’t show their name changes their e-mail address or dies, and there is no way to know that they have an account on JGFF to change. In general, I would suggest at least showing your name when setting up your listing, so in case someone wants to reach you, they can google you as well if necessary.

Different people have different strategies of how to use JGFF. You can put I think up to 100 name/town combos into the system, so you have some flexibility. You can stay minimal and just put the names and towns you know relatives were born into, or you can add many different variations for the names, and you can choose to add towns that may wrong, but you think your family may have lived. If you find a reference in your research to a town you didn’t know about, you can add the name/town combo in case someone comes across the same piece of information, even if you have no real proof that your family lived there. Remember that the JGFF is not a definitive listing of where families lived, it is only a list of where people are researching their families. This is an important distinction.

In the same vein, I recommend putting in as many variations of the last name as you’re comfortable with, as it seems some people are very strict with spellings or they may search during ‘exact’ spelling instead of ‘sounds like’ and thus like Cohn and Cohen might be the same family, if you wrote Cohen and they searched for Cohn, they wouldn’t find anything.

As you research your family and find new names and towns, you should be constantly updating your listings on the JGFF. You never know when someone is going to search the JGFF and if you don’t post a connection (like you find your great-grandmother’s last name and birth town) you may miss someone else searching for the same combination. In my own experience, I added a name and town of a relative that I had known about for a long time but had not bothered to post to the JGFF, and within a couple of months I received an inquiry from someone who turned out to be my fourth cousin, and who listed just 2 minutes away from me.

In short, if you’re researching your Jewish family members, use JGFF and use it often.