Category Archives: Research

Tracking down a couple that disappeared during the Holocaust

This is a story of memory, and how looking to find information on a specific person or persons, especially when they died in the Holocaust, can be very difficult.

I was recently contacted by a man in Germany who told me he was involved in arranging the installation of Stolpersteine for a couple that was related to me. The wife, Mindel Traurig, came from Kańczuga. The husband’s name was Aron Salzmann. I’ll refer to them below as Mindel and Aron.

Photo source: @stolpersteine Twitter account

Stolpersteine (Stolperstein is the singular form), for those unfamiliar with the term, are concrete blocks with brass plates that commemorate people killed during the Holocaust, that are generally installed in the sidewalk outside the last place a person lived before being murdered. Stolperstein in German means ‘stumbling block’, and the idea is that people living in these place now will stumble upon these memorials which start ‘Here lived…’ explaining that someone who lived in that very spot was murdered during the Holocaust. Started as an art project by Gunther Demnig in 1992, over 50,000 of these memorials have been installed in 18 European countries.

The person who contacted me was indirectly connected to this couple, had found me through the family tree on Geni, and wanted to find out more information about the couple before their Stolperstein was installed in a few months time. I knew a bit about the couple, although I had some open questions from past investigations. For one, while I knew the couple had live in Cologne (Köln), Germany before the war, I didn’t know what happened to them during the war, or how Aron had died. What I knew about Mindel was that she had actually survived the war, only to be murdered upon returning to her hometown of Kańczuga in 1945. The story is that she was participating in the second Passover seder there, when Polish men (possibly soldiers) came and killed all the Jews. It’s worth pointing out again that this was after Poland was liberated.

I wrote last year about a planned memorial for Jews murdered in Kańczuga, including the 13 Jews murdered at this Passover seder, in Memorial for Jews murdered in Kańczuga in 1942 & 1945 and More info about the massacre of Jews in Kańczuga in 1945 on the web site. In the memorial Mindel is listed as Mindla Saltzman.

Let me back up a minute. My knowledge about this couple comes from a few places.

Vital Records

It’s always a good idea when doing research to start at the beginning and what’s more of a beginning than one’s birth? I have a copy of Mindel’s birth record from 1885 in Kańczuga. I retrieved this record many years ago through a record request to the archive in Poland.

1995 birth record of Mindel Traurig
1995 birth record of Mindel Traurig

What can we learn from her birth certificate other than her birth date? It gives the name of her father (Markus Thurm), as well as the name of her mother (Taube Traurig), and additionally the names of her mother’s parents (David and Feige Traurig).

Family Letters

Another source of information is a letter from a cousin written over 30 years ago outlining what he knew of our family history.

The letter was written to his nephew (who shared it with me), and had the following line:
Excerpt from family letter
Excerpt from family letter

Just in case that isn’t clear, here is the text:
    “Minna, married Kesstecher-Salzman, and they had 2 sons and one daughter all in NY.; check with Leo Thurm for more details, Minna K.-S. husband Urisch managed to hide in Poland during the Nazi occupation but was shot down in the street by Poles when after the liberation he came out of hiding.”

There’s a lot to dissect in that sentence.

  • First, it gives the husband a hyphenated last name, Kesstecher-Salzman.
  • It mentions they had two sons and one daughters “all in NY” which sounds like they were born in NY, or at least that they all lived in NY.
  • It mentions another relative who might know more information, Leo Thurm.
  • It says the husband’s name was Urisch;
  • and that he survived the war only to be shot when he came out of hiding.

So let’s dissect these statements one at a time.

  • The surname of Kesstecher-Salzman was not really hyphenated, but rather at different times he used the Kesstecher and Salzman surnames. I haven’t been able to confirm the exact connection, but I suspect that like many Jewish families in Galicia, his parents had a religious marriage and not a civil one, and he and any siblings he might have had were forced to take his mother’s surname. That doesn’t explain which name is which, but I would guess that Kesstecher was his mother’s maiden name, and Salzman was his father’s surname. Mindel herself had a similar situation, which I can confirm, as her mother’s maiden name was Traurig and her father’s surname was Thurm (as shown in the birth record above). She and her siblings were all born with the Traurig surname, although at least one (the father of the above-mentioned Leo Thurm) later changed his surname to him father’s surname (after arriving in the US).
  • “All in NY” is a very misleading statement. As it turns out, the two sons were able to make it to the US as refugees, although the daughter was killed in Europe. The parents, Mindel and Aron, never made it to the US.
  • Leo Thurm, as mentioned, is the son of Mindel’s brother. He’s actually 100 years old now and living in Brooklyn.
  • It was certainly confusing to see the husband’s name listed as Urisch instead of Aron. A grandson of Mindel and Aron has said, however, that a copy of a yizkor notice sent to his father, lists their names as Minja and Ourish. It took me a little time to figure this out, but Rabbi Shmuel Gorr lists (in Jewish Personal Names) Arush and Orush as diminutive forms of Aron, pointing out that -ush, -ash, -ish and -esh are all diminutive suffixes.
  • This last part of the statement is questionable. We know, of course, that Mindel was killed when she came out of hiding. Was Aron similarly killed? One grandchild heard he died while in hiding of a stomach complication. If that the case then this may simply have been conflated with the death of Mindel.

Pages of Testimony

Another source of information on this couple are Pages of Testimony submitted to Yad Vashem.

Since the 1950s Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, has collected forms filled out to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. Generally filled out by family members and friends of the victims, these forms give a general outline of the person – the name, the names of their parents, where and when they were born, who their spouse was, where they lived before the war, and how and when they died. Not every form has all of the information, in fact most don’t. Another important piece of information on the forms is who filled the form out, how they were connected to the subject of the form, and where the submitter lived. While the submitter information was likely not intended to be so important, the submitter information does two critical things. First, it gives us as researchers a potential connection to a surviving member of one’s family. The second thing is it connects the Pages submitted by the same person (although there are problems with this, see two below). You might be looking for one cousin’s Page, but by looking at all the Pages submitted by the same person, you might find information on dozens of common relatives. Page of TEstimony make up the bulk of Yad Vashem’s Shoah Names Database, searchable on their site.

As I looked into this couple and communicated with other researchers and family members, I realized there were three sets of Pages of Testimony for this couple. Different ones were sent to me from different people. At first glance these would not be the same people, but taking a closer look revealed them all to be the same. Here are the Pages of Testimony:

Mina KesstecherAron Kesstecher
David Turm
PoT submitted by David Turm of Mina KesstecherMaiden Name: Turm
Parents: Morechai and Feige
Born: 1897
Birth town: Kanczuga
Residence: Köln
PoT submitted by David Turm of Aron KesstecherBorn: 1891
Birth town: Sanok
Residence: Köln
Mindel SalzmannAaron Salzmann
Alex. Vogel
PoT submitted by Alexander Vogel of Mindel SalzmannResidence: Köln PoT submitted by Alexander Vogel of Aaron SalzmannResidence: Köln
Winna SalzmannAron Salzmann
Alex Salm
PoT submitted by Alex Salm of Winna SalzmannMaiden name: Traurig
Born: 1885
Birth town: Kanice
Residence: Köln
PoT submitted by Alex Salm of Aron SalzmannBorn: 1885
Birth town: Graditzk?
Residence: Köln
The first column shows you who submitted the Pages, the second column shows you what was submitted for Mindel and the third column shows you what was submitted for Aron. Key data-points, if submitted, are shown next to the image of the Page. The name above each image is the name submitted on the Page.

First things first. There is only one detail that all Pages agree on – which is that before the war, they were living in Köln (Cologne), Germany. Seriously, that’s the only thing that is consistent.

Let me step back for a moment to give some advice and to point out a problem when looking at Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem. One thing I always like to do when I find a Page submitted is to click on the link of the submitter’s name, to see what other Pages they submitted. It’s common when submitting Pages to submit many Pages from the same family, so even if you were not looking for other relatives specifically, you might find relatives in the list of other Pages submitted. What I discovered is that one of the above Pages, the Page of Mindel Salzmann submitted by Alexander Vogel, was listed as submitted by Alexander Jogel, and thus not linked to any other submissions (compare the search of Pages by Alexander Vogel and Alexander Jogel). If you find a single submission (like for Jogel) it’s worth trying to figure out if there is a spelling mistake like this, so you find other submissions from the same person. In my experience, it is rare to find a person that submitted only one Page.

So back to the Pages.

  • All essentially agree that the husband’s name was Aron (Aaron is a form of the same name).
  • For the wife, we have Mindel and Minna (a shortened form of Mindel), so far so good, but then out of nowhere Winna. Presumably this is just a mistake and he wrote Winna instead of Minna.
  • Two of the sets of Pages agree that their surname was Salzmann, but one has Kesstecher. I’ve already written above about this inconsistency, but to be clear I believe they were known by the Kesstecher name when they lived in Poland (and were in contact with David Turm) and when they moved to Germany, switched to using the Salzmann name.
  • Only two of the Pages list Mindel’s maiden name, but they disagree on what it was – one listed Turm, and one Traurig. This is easy to figure out, however, as I mentioned above Mindel’s birth surname was Traurig, although her father’s surname was Turm/Thurm.
  • One of the biggest oddities of all the pages are the birth years given in David Turm’s Pages. He lists their birth dates as 1897 and 1891, although both were apparently born in 1885. Alex Salm actually listed them both as being born in 1885, although he duplicates the birthday of Aron for both Aron and Mindel.

It’s a pretty big mess. Now let’s look at who wrote these Pages of Testimony.

  • The first set was written by David Turm, a nephew of Mindel. They were written in 1957, 12 years after the war, and perhaps 20 years since he had last seen Mindel and Aron.
  • The second set was written by Alexander Vogel, a son-in-law of Mindel and Aron. Alexander Vogel has married Toby Salzmann, the daughter of Mindel and Aron. It’s not exactly clear when Toby Vogel died, although perhaps it was before the war because Alexander Vogel didn’t seem to submit a Page of Testimony for her (at least that I could find), even though he did for her parents. Both Aron Salzmann and Alexander Vogel were deported from Germany to Zbasyn, although not at the same time. I’m not sure if they would have overlapped there or not. Concerning his Pages, they were submitted in 1977, more than thirty years after the war.
  • The third set was submitted by Alex Salm, a researcher seemingly not connected to Mindel and Aron. Interestingly he submitted almost 7500 Pages of Testimony. The two for Mindel and Aron were submitted in 2000, some fifty-five years after the war. Doing some research into Alex Salm I discovered that he was a survivor himself, and he passed away in 2004.

So which of these three sources would you consider the most reliable?

  • I think we can clearly discount Alex Salm, who had probably had no direct knowledge of the family, and seemed to have worked from public documents. One can find the birth date and location for Aron Salzman in several places, including a list of refugees in Zbasyn between 1938 and 1939, the German Gedenkbuch (which lists the JDC Archive as a source), and the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolson, Germany which has a card on Aron Salzmann with the same birth date and location. Since Salm lists the wrong birthday for Mindel, and gets her first name and birth town slightly wrong, it’s not clear what source he was using for this information. Presumably there is something that lists her as living in Köln, Germany that he found. Maybe there is a typo in that document that uses the Winna spelling.
  • Alexander Vogel submitted the least amount of details on his Pages. Either he didn’t know, or he had forgotten where they had been born, his mother-in-law’s maiden name, etc.
  • David Turm gets the birth years off by more than a decade, and didn’t even know that in Germany his aunt and uncle had changed their surname to Salzman. He also lists Mindel’s maiden name as Turm, even though everyone else lists it as Traurig.
None of these are particularly compelling.

Let’s take a step back for a moment to look at something interesting about these Pages of Testimony. The ones submitted closest to the war were those by David Turm in 1957. As I’ve noted above he was a nephew of Mindel, the son of her brother Simon. David’s immediate family were all killed in the Holocaust, with only him surviving because he had gone to British Mandate Palestine. He had the same naming issue as Mindel, that their surname should have been Turm (I know this name as Thurm because another brother of Mindel made to America, where he changed him name back to his father’s name, and spelled it Thurm). Yet in these Pages, he lists his own name as Turm, and the maiden name of Mindel as Turm as well. According to David’s daughter who I spoke to a few years ago, her father never changed his name from Traurig. For whatever reason, he submitted those Pages under the name Turm, and said Mindel’s maiden name was also Turm (which if her parents had had a civil marriage it would have been).

As I usually do I looked at the full listing of Pages submitted by David Turm, and noticed something odd. His immediate family wasn’t listed. Thinking back to what his daughter told me about his name, I searched instead for the list of Pages submitted by David Traurig. Sure enough there is a whole different batch of Pages submitted by David Traurig, just a few months earlier. This includes his parents Szymon Turm and Miryam Traurig. Note that he uses the Turm surname for his father, and the Traurig surname for his mother. That’s a bit confusing.

So we see a bit of conflict in his use of the names Turm and Traurig. In his first batch he uses the name Traurig, but names his father Turm and his mother Traurig (presumably because while his father’s name should have been Turm, his mother’s married name was always Traurig). For his siblings he used the surname Turm, even while filling it out with his surname Traurig. What seems to make sense is that while their legal name was Traurig, they considered their surname to be Turm. A few months later when filling out more Pages, he used the surname Turm, and similarly assigns the Turm name to his aunt Mindel, even though she never used it legally.

I think we have a pretty good idea of why David Turm used the maiden name Turm in his Page of Testimony for Mindel, but we still don’t know why the birth dates are off. Whether all of this convinces you that three sets of Pages without almost nothing in common all refer to the same couple, I don’t know. When I sent these six Pages to Yad Vashem to ask them to link them without the explanation above, they thought there were too many contradictions to link them. I haven’t heard back from them yet after sending them more or less the same outline as above to convince them they are the same people, but they’re pretty good about responding so we’ll find out soon enough.

In case you’re wondering how I know that the two batches of Pages submitted by David Turm and David Traurig were submitted by the same person, in the Pages in both batches where he lists his address, they are the same. I suppose one could do handwriting analysis as well, but I think the address is enough evidence.

So what other sources are there out there to find out about this couple?

German Gedenkbuch

The couple lived in Germany before the war, and therefore if they were killed by the Nazis they should show up in the Gedenkbuch (Memorial Book) that is continuously updated on the web site of the German Federal Archives. As pointed out above, indeed Aron shows up in the Gedenkbuch, listing the date of his deportation from Germany to Zbaszyn, Poland, as well as his detention there. It also says he was declared dead, but doesn’t give any details.

Gedenkbuch entry for Aron Salzmann
Gedenkbuch entry for Aron Salzmann

Mindel does not, however, show up in the Gedenkbuch. Even though she lived in Germany before the war, she was not killed by the Nazis, but rather local Polish people, and therefore doesn’t make it into the Gedenkbuch.

American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Archives

The JDC was, and still is today, a major relief organization operating wherever Jews are in need. Many Jewish refugees were helped by the JDC on their way out of Europe, and records were kept by the JDC are now available online their Archives site. The JDC helped many refugees make it to places like Australia, China, Cuba, and basically wherever there were places willing to accept Jewish refugees. They also helped refugees wherever they were, including as it happens the Zbaszyn internment camp where Aron was sent. Searching the JDC archives brings up a file listing those assisted in Zbaszyn by the JDC, which includes an entry on Aron.

JDC Archive Record of Aron Salzmann
JDC Archive Record of Aron Salzman

The listing give his birth town and date, his profession, his address in Germany, as well as the name and address of his son who was in New York. If you compare the details to the information in the Gedenkbuch above, you’ll notice they are largely the same, and indeed it turns out that the JDC records were used to help build the Gedenkbuch. Just looking at the Gedenkbuch wouldn’t have given you the name and address of his son, however. It also wouldn’t have given you the exact date of his deportation from Germany.

International Tracing Service (ITS)

The ITS in Bad Arolsen, Germany is an organization that was set up in the wake of World War II to collect all the documentation related to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators, including concentration camps, forced labor, and documenting post-war displaced persons. The archive contains more than thirty million documents, and for decades helped people trace what happened to their relatives who they became disconnected from during the war (as well as providing survivors the documentation they needed to receive restitution and compensation). Overseen by 11 member nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, and the United States), the ITS traditionally made it fairly difficult for people who were not survivors or direct descendants of survivors to access their information, especially if you were not going to travel to the archive in Germany. Over time, those rules have been loosened, and the ITS has made major progress in digitizing its archive and making those digital copies available to institutions in the 11 member nations. In the US the recipient of those digital copies is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Israel the recipient is Yad Vashem, etc. These institutions have begun efforts to index these records and make them available to researchers in their own countries. In fact, you can request information from ITS through these organizations, such as through the Research Services page on the USHMM web site.

Before the digitization and indexing of their records, the primary way that ITS researchers would search for information on people in their records was through a card catalog. For those too young to have used such a system in their local library (where file cabinets were filled with cards with details of the books available in the library), at the ITS this consisted of having a single card with information on each person for whom they had information on in their archive. The cards were presumably organized alphabetically, and each time they found information on a person, they would find the card on that person, and add the information they found, which would hopefully point them back to the document they found that information when needed. It was, clearly, a very labor-intensive process.

I was able to locate two of these cards for Mindel and Aron, through a source other than the ITS. I have actually submitted a request to the ITS for information on Mindel and Aron, so at the very least I should receive the same cards from them, but hopefully some supporting documentation as well.

ITS Card for Mindel Traurig SalzmannITS Card for Aron Salzmann

There’s not a whole lot of information on the card. It has their names, Mindel’s maiden name (Traurig), their birth dates and towns (which matches the information in the JDC file for Aron), and that they were deported from Germany to Poland in either 1938 or 1939. Note that we haven’t run into any evidence previously that Mindel was deported with Aron to Zbaszyn. Indeed the next piece of information seems to call this into question, as it seems to say they both died in concentration camps (K.Z. on the cards). We have no story nor evidence that either of them were in concentration camps (other than Zbaszyn which was a kind of internment camp), nor that they died in them. Indeed, we know that Mindel did not die in a camp, but in a massacre in her hometown.

This tells us that while the ITS archive is immense, that it is not always accurate. When the ITS responds to my request for records on this couple, maybe they will send associated documents that explain why the card says what it does.

Another detail of the cards is that they show a name on the bottom left – RA Weinberg, Köln. RA is an abbreviation for Rechtsanwalt, the German word for lawyer. This seems to indicate that a lawyer with the last name Weinberg in the city of Köln was researching this couple for restitution claims. Could this have been a lawyer hired by the couple’s children? It’s unlikely we’ll ever know, as their children have passed away and their grandchildren were not told very much about what happened during the war (nor anything like restitution claims that their parents may have filed after the war).


Starting with very little information, we went through available sources:
  • Vital Records
  • Family Letters
  • Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem
  • German Gedenkbuch
  • JDC Archives
  • International Tracing Service (ITS)
We’ve at least been able to put together the beginning of an outline of what happened to this couple. We know where and when they were born (Kanczuga and Grodinsk, both in 1885), where they lived before the war (Cologne, Germany), when Aron was deported from Germany (October 1938) and where he was sent (Zbaszyn, Poland), and where and when Mindel was killed (Kańczuga, Poland in 1945).

The next step would probably be to research available records in Cologne, Germany to find information on their when they lived there. Contacting more relatives whose families knew them and might have other letters and documents that reference them is also a good idea. Finding out which Grodinsk Aron was born in (there are several in Poland), and if there are other Salzmann descendants that came from there would also be important, as they may have been in touch with Aron before or during the war.

I don’t know if we will ever get a complete picture of this couple’s life (or their deaths), especially where and in what conditions they hid during the war, but as the above shows, it’s possible to find some information when you know where to look, and you are willing to spend the time to reach out to people and organizations. I hope this research effort is helpful to others. If you have more information on this couple, please share it either in the comments below or send it to me directly.

Don’t get stuck inside the box

One of the most common problems I’ve seen when helping people with their genealogy is needing to get past their own assumptions. For example, a common assumption for people researching their family that came to the US is that their names were changed at Ellis Island (they were never changed there, see my article Name Changes at Ellis Island on that topic). Once you get someone to understand that name changes were not done at Ellis Island, you can then get them to start researching other places that the name change might have been registered (such as courts in NYC) or other places where the original name might make an appearance (such as in naturalization papers). While finding these kinds of sources can be difficult, I’ve found convincing someone that their assumption about when their family’s name was changed can be significantly harder. One of the keys to successful genealogy research always needs to be to keep an open mind. Don’t get stuck inside a box just because family lore passed down a story and it must be true.

In Jewish genealogy, there are some common areas where people in my experience seem to get stuck. Here are a few of them.


Most people don’t realize that a hundred years ago and more, the spellings of names were a lot more fluid than they are today. This certainly varied by country, but remember that people moved around and between countries that even used different character sets. Sometimes when someone moved to the US, they found their relatives used one spelling and they had chosen a different spelling. Sometimes they changed their names to match their already established cousins, but sometimes they didn’t.

One example in my family was a relative who was born with his mother’s surname (Lichtman) and continued using that name after moving from Poland to Germany, but when he moved to the US he wanted to take his father’s surname (Berl) but found his cousins had already taken the name Berlau (because it sounded better to them) and he thus took the name Berlau to match his cousins. If you were researching this family, and knew they lived in Germany you wouldn’t find Berlau, because they lived under the name Lichtman, and if you knew they were originally from Poland you also wouldn’t find they because his family’s name there was Berl. For more information on why it was fairly common in some areas to take one’s mother’s maiden name instead of your father’s surname, see my article Religious marriages, civil marriages and surnames from mothers.

That might be more of an extreme case, but I’ve seen people insist that their family was always something like Horowitz, and the record showing a Horovitz couldn’t be the same family. I’ve also seen records in my research where the same family had their records listed with many different spellings, including starting with different letters altogether – such as Cellerkraut and Zellerkraut, or in my own family Zylberman and Silberman (and later in the US Silver).

So keep an open mind about spelling. Even if you found a document in the old country that has the spelling you think is right, that doesn’t mean every document will share that spelling, or that every family member used that same spelling. One of the most famous rabbis of the 20th century in the US was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (referred to by many as The Rav). His brother Ahron spelled his last name Soloveichik (without the t). If you were researching that name you would need to be flexible on spelling.

‘Jewish’ Names, Nicknames and Kinnui

Given names are also a source of much confusion. It wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Europe to be known by at least three different names simultaneously. They had a ‘Jewish name’, a nickname and a secular name (kinnui). For example, my grandfather’s name at birth in Vienna was Jakob. As a child in Poland he was known as Yankel (a pet form of Jakob). He later moved to Antwerp, Belgium where he spelled his name Jacob, but was known professionally as Jacques (the French form of Jacob). When he moved to the United States his name was listed as Jacob, but he quickly started using the name Jack (which is phonetically similar to Jacques, but derived form the name John, not Jacob). So within a string of about 15 years (and 4 countries) he used the first names Jakob, Jacob, Yankel, Jacques, and Jack. That doesn’t include the Hebrew form of his name Yakov, which is what he used in a religious context. That also doesn’t take into consideration variant spelling that might show up in documents, such as the common spelling Jakub instead of Jakob in Poland.

My grandfather's business in Antwerp in the 1930s
My grandfather’s business in Antwerp in the 1930s

Imagine researching my grandfather knowing nothing more than his commonly-used first name Jack. Jack in English is derived form John. Maybe you’d recognize that John is an uncommon Jewish name, and look for something else. Maybe you would guess Jacob (or find his Hebrew name Yakov and derive Jacob from that), but would you think to look for the French form Jacques in the capital of the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium? Would you look for variant spellings Jakob and Jakub in Poland or Austria? This is a real example of the kinds of variations in given names that occurred very frequently. So keep an open mind as to the variations in given names.

Russia, Russia, Russia

This section should really be called “Location, Location, Location” but most times I’ve run into this, it’s involved Russia. The reason Russia is such a problem is that Russia the country was preceded by Russia the Empire, which was considerably larger than Russia is today. It was more or less the size of what the Soviet Union was in its heyday for those who remember somewhat-more-recent geography. In addition to the size of Russia, there was also an uneven distribution of Jews in the empire. That’s because in 1791 Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement, a large region on the western side of the Russian Empire which was the only region in the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live. This was because Russia had acquired these territories through a series of wars and diplomatic maneuvers and there were too many Jews to expel (that had been tried, but without success). The Pale consisted of the region that today includes most of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine, and small parts of western Russia. That is, Jews lived in all of these countries, and for the most part didn’t live in the great majority of what today is Russia.

That’s not to say some Jews didn’t live in Russia itself. There are always exceptions to the rule. However, if you’re researching your family which came to America in the 19th or early 20th century from “Russia” then it’s far more likely that they did not come from what is Russia today, but rather one of these other countries. When researching your family who you’ve been told came “from Russia” you need to keep an open mind as to where they actually came from, and look at all of these countries as possibilities.

One interesting hint you can find is to look at census records and passenger manifests and see if they list the language spoken. The country of origin may be “Russia” but if the language is “Latvian” it’s a good bet they were not from Russia. Other records like naturalization papers, military draft records, and historical newspapers can all be useful to help piece together where your family originated. For more information on these sources of information, see my article Finding Information on US Immigrants.

This advice applies to all countries, even if Russia is the best example of a source of confusion. Poland is another good example of a place with confusing boundaries. Poland was divided up among the major powers of the past few centuries several times. Parts went to Germany, Austria and Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century it became independent after WWI, only to be occupied by Nazi Germany in WWII. After WWII, parts of Germany were transferred to Poland, while parts of Poland were transferred to the Soviet Union. In short, it’s possible for one person to have lived in easily four different countries over their lifetime without ever having moved. The borders just moved around them.

Take for example, Brest (Brisk in Yiddish – the home of the Soloveitchik rabbinic line), which had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before the third partition in 1795, when it was transferred to Russia. During WWI, the city was captured by Germany, although Germany lost it when they lost the war. After brief stints in the short-lived Belorusian Democratic Republic and Ukrainian People’s Republic, Brest became part of independent Poland in 1921. Poland was of course invaded by the Germans, although it was initially divided with the Soviet Union, who took control of Brest in 1939. In 1941, Germany broke their pact with the Soviet Union and invaded, taking Brest (along with a lot more territory). In 1944, the Soviet Union re-took Brest, now from Germany, and after the war it became part of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Brest became part of an independent Belarus. If I’m counting correctly, someone born on the eve of WWI in Brest, and still living in the 1990s, would have lived in seven different countries.

JewishGen’s Locality Pages (reachable by searching their Communities Database) can be useful for determining the history of where a town was located. Although they won’t give the granularity of the above description for a town, it does, for example, show that Brest was part of the Russian Empire, Poland, the Soviet Union, and now Belarus (see the Brest, Belarus page). It also shows some of the variant names of the town, has links to many resources for the town, and shows towns with Jewish communities that are near Brisk.


In genealogy we talk frequently of brick walls – those insurmountable challenges, finding one more generation back, finding that one piece of information that links one family to another. Sometimes those brick walls take years to break through, until a new database gets indexed and posted online, you find that one document in an archive, or you find that distant cousin with the last piece of the puzzle hidden away in an album or desk drawer.

My advise is simply not to add more bricks to your walls. Make you research easier by not limiting the avenues you pursue. Always be willing to check variations in names and places, and never take any story at face value without multiple supporting documents. Even with multiple documents, if you’re hitting a dead end, double-check everything. If you received information from relatives without supporting documentation, then research it all from scratch, and add sources to your records so you know what is accurate, and what still needs more research.

I liken genealogy to detective work, and just like a detective needs to document all of his sources, you also need to document what you do, and make sure everything is linked to multiple sources. If you do discover that your family’s ancestral town is in Ukraine, not Russia, or that your family name in Europe was Zylbersteyn, not Silver, you’ll then have all the supporting documents you’ll need to convince your family members, close and distant, of what you’ve found.

You’ll also, and this may seem silly but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this, be able to convince yourself at a later date that the information you have on a specific person or family is accurate. The earliest research I did, probably twenty years ago, had no sources at all. I just entered what I found and wrote who I got the information from, but didn’t link to any sources. When I research the same people today and find conflicting information, I have nothing to compare to from twenty years ago, which is a problem.

In short, step out of the box when researching your family, and be open to your relatives having been wrong about some aspect of your family history (my grandfather told me our family was from one town in Galicia, which we were, but just one generation earlier had come from a different town that had much more information on our family). No name has a set spelling, and no information should be considered the truth without multiple sources to back it up (and even then be open to conflicting information).

The Israel State Archives are heading online

The Israel State Archives has announced that they are close to launching a new web site with digitized versions of some of the millions upon millions of documents they hold from the history of the state. As part of the process, they showed that they’ve installed a Google Search Appliance in their computer rack to help index everything:

google box

They also said the new site will launch sometime this year with millions of records in the first collection released, with subsequent releases over time. This was presumably made possible by their move last year into new facilities, which probably had scanning equipment installed as part of the upgraded facilities.

I did some research in the old building where the Israel state Archives were located. I’m happy they have better facilities and that new technology and is going to allow many more people to access the records they have. Some years ago I posted an index to the publications in the Israel State Archive that were from the British Mandate Palestine government. This was a 111-page printout listing the documents in the archive’s possession that were published by the British Mandate government that controlled what is now Israel (and briefly what is now Jordan) for nearly 30 years from about 1920 to 1948. I was able to copy the document in 2011, but if you look at it you can see it was printed in 1993. It was so old they didn’t have the computer file anymore, or perhaps didn’t have a computer capable of reading it. I seem that now under the leadership of State Archivist Yaacov Lozowick (see him on Twitter) that they’ve finally getting their act together and will be bringing their 19th and 20th century records into the 21st century of technology. While many records are not necessarily relevant to genealogy, there are a tremendous amount that are, including early census records. For anyone researching family in Israel (which is pretty much anyone Jewish) the Israel State Archives site will certainly be an important place to look when doing your research. Looking forward to its launch later this year.