Category Archives: Research

Deciphering Jewish Gravestones

My 2011 article on Jewish gravestone symbols has long been one of the most popular posts on this web site. In that article, I discuss the symbols found on Jewish gravestones, but not the text. I wrote in the first paragraph that I will likely write about the text at some point in the future. Unfortunately, I waited nine years to do so, but here’s a look at some of the Hebrew text you might find on a Jewish gravestone, and how to decipher it.

We should get some terminology out the way. We’re talking about Hebrew inscriptions on gravestones. In Hebrew we call the grave a קבר kever, and the gravestone itself a מצבה matseva (lit. monument). There isn’t a particularly good Hebrew word for epitaph (the inscription), it’s just הכתובת על המצבה the writing on the gravestone. We do use the word הספד hesped for eulogy, and you can think of some of the inscription to be a eulogy. As this is intended as an introduction to this topic, I’ll simply use the English terms most of the time.

For those who want to print this out, I’ve created a parallel version that will print nicely, and you can download it as a PDF.

As this is a long article with lots of sections, I’ve added a table of contents below that will let you jump to a particular section if you want. The sections generally follow the order that these items would show up in the inscription.

Continue reading Deciphering Jewish Gravestones

Figuring out the Polish State Archive changes

After my earlier post Changes at the Polish State Archives about the closing of several important record databases at the Polish State Archives, it was pointed out that the database I directed people to use instead, szukajwarchiwach.pl, is also going to be shut down.

szukajwarchiwach.pl on left and szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl on right

It has been announced that that site will be replaced by szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl. The date for that transition has not been announced yet, but hopefully they will not do so before you can do everyone on the new site that you can do on the old site. I’m going to discuss two issues I have with the new site, one very significant, and one perhaps less so, but that still bothers me quite a bit.

You can’t get the same search results

As it currently stands, the new site cannot do the same kinds of searches as the old site. I pointed people to szukajwarchiwach.pl because I was able to show the exact same results from searches on both PRADZIAD and szukajwarchiwach.pl, even if the results were in a different order and format. It does not seem possible to do the same kind of searches on szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl.

For example, in my earlier article, I wrote about searching for all Jewish civil registers (birth, marriage, divorce, death, etc.). Both PRADZIAD and szukajwarchiwach.pl returned 3303 results:

3303 results from both PRADZIAD (left) and szukajwarchiwach.pl (right)
Continue reading Figuring out the Polish State Archive changes

Polish State Archives Contact List

It’s great that so many records in Poland are being scanned and put online for everyone to access, but sometimes it’s necessary to contact an archive directly. I’ve created a list of archive locations with their contact information, which you can view on the new Polish State Archives Contact List page.

You can get an idea of what it looks like above. Each archive has their archive number, the name in both English and Polish, the physical address, the phone number, and a series of links which include e-mail, web site, the list of records for that archive, a description of that archive, and (if it exists) the Facebook page.

You can search through the list using the search field on the top right of the table.

Go to the Polish State Archives Contact List page now to check it out. If I’m missing anything, let me know.

Changes at the Polish State Archives

There are changes afoot at the Polish State Archives (PSA). Most of the databases of archival records hosted at the main archives site, which included ELA (population registers), SEZAM (combined search of PRADZIAD and ELA) and IZA (search of archival inventories) are gone, and they will not be returning. The only database remaining there, the PRADZIAD database of vital records, may not be there too much longer either.

Instead, you are expected to use the szukajwarchiwach.pl (search the archives) site. There are many advantages to this new search engine, although there are some disadvantages as well.

On the plus side, if the archival files have been scanned, you can in most cases see that and access the scans directly on the site. This is very convenient. Not all archives share their scans with the site for some reason, however. Archives that come to mind with their own pages hosting their scans include AGAD, Przemyśl, and the Bydgoszcz and Toruń archives which jointly have files on the Genealogia w Archiwach site. So if you’re searching the szukajwarchiwach.pl site for records in one of these archives, don’t trust the indication of if scans exist for the records, but rather try to find the files on the above archive sites.

Another plus is that there are many more options for advanced searches, although figuring everything out is complicated. You can reproduce the same search as on PRADZIAD, but you need to figure out what to configure. I don’t know yet if it’s possible to set up the same searches as on IZA and ELA, as its a bit of a learning curve with the new system.

My main criticism of the new search interface, besides the steep learning curve, is how it displays its results. The old databases displayed search results in a simple tabular format, while the new search interface gets too fancy for its own good, making it harder to see at a glance what records are available.

PRADZIAD vs. szukajwarchiwach search results
PRADZIAD vs. szukajwarchiwach search showing same number of Jewish vital record sets

If you take a close look at the comparison image above (you can click on it to load a larger version) you’ll notice that while the SA results show a bit more information, the PRADZIAD results are organized alphabetically by town, and allow you to click on any column title to sort the results by that column. The SA results also show two results from the same town, which might lead you to think those are the only ones from that town, but when in fact there are four results. On the plus side, both systems return the exact same number of results, 3303, which means at least the data is currently in sync.

All in all I’m hopeful that the focus on a single database will benefit everyone by giving the PSA a single place to focus on the technology. The old databases had an annoying problem whereby you could not reliably offer a link to a results page, since every time they updated their database (several times a year) the links would change. As far as I can tell that is not a problem with the new system. I wish the Polish State Archives the best of luck, and hope they’ll work out the kinks as soon as possible. If you have experience using szukajwarchiwach.pl and want to share your tips on finding specific types of records, please share them in the comments.

Rzeszów - 1899

Communities tied to Rzeszów (Reisha), Poland via marriage

You might be wondering how communities could be tied to a town via marriage. I’ve gone through about a dozen years of marriage contracts for the Jewish community of Rzeszów, Poland (in Fond 533 in the Rzeszów Archives) from about 1898 to 1910, and looked for towns that were represented by official stamps used in the documents. Rzeszów was known as Reisha (in Yiddish among the Jewish community), and it was a major community in the Austrian province of Galicia, which was later split between Eastern Poland (where Rzeszów is located) and Western Ukraine. Much of my father’s family lived in the town during this period.

In the wedding files, there are frequently also birth certificates, showing which community one or more of the couple getting married came from originally. Thus if a man from outside of Rzeszow was marrying a woman in Rzeszów, his birth certificate would generally be included in the file. The birth certificates were stamped with a special stamp representing the Jewish community of the town the record was from (to confirm its authenticity), and those stamps are the basis of this post. Keep this in mind when searching for birth certificates from towns that have no records – did the person get married somewhere else? Did you find that marriage record yet? The marriage certificates would generally be stamped as well, but by the officiating rabbi. Over those dozen years there are close to a hundred towns represented, and over 50 rabbis. Obviously many of these towns (and rabbis) repeat. Not surprisingly, the towns that are larger and closer tend to repeat more frequently.

Below you’ll see all the stamps. Click on any image to load the full size image so you can see it better (you’ll need to go Back to get back to the list). For towns in Poland, I’ve linked the town name to the page for that town in the B&F Compendium of Jewish Genealogy. Keep in mind that this list is in no way comprehenive. It is just suggestive of which communities the Jewish community of Rzeszów were most connected to via marriage during those years. It might be possible to do a more scientific study of the records and generate statistics on which communities married which other communities, but that’s for someone else to do. It was also very common in Galicia during this period for Jews to marry religiously without a civil marriage, and these records only show the civil marriages, so these are not the only towns, but the towns in which people married someone in Rzeszów that a civil record exists.
Continue reading Communities tied to Rzeszów (Reisha), Poland via marriage