Category Archives: Research

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 (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 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 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.

For each town that stamps exist for I have posted each stamp. If the same stamp repeats (which happens often) I only show it once. If the stamp changes, I show the new stamp. The same for the rabbi’s stamps, which also change occasionally.

Continue reading Communities tied to Rzeszów (Reisha), Poland via marriage
Burials in the Okopowa St. Cemetery from 1804 to 2010

Okopowa St. Cemetery Maps and Statistics

To make it easier to decide which section of the Okopowa St. Cemetery that volunteers will photograph (as part of the Okopowa St. Project), I’ve been looking at the maps and existing data, to see if I could provide information that would be helpful.

While most cemeteries that existed before WWII in Poland have little in the way of maps to guide you around the cemetery, the Okopowa St. Cemetery has a glut of them. The problem is that these maps are not always consistent. Take for example, the following maps I located online:

Okopowa St. Cemetery Map found on Gesia Okopowa St. Cemetery Map found on JRI-Poland Photo of Okopowa St. Cemetery map on location, found on Wikimedia Commons Okopowa St. Cemetery Map designed by JHI
Gesia JRI-Poland Wikimedia JHI

These are just four maps, and there are several more available. The three on the left are all fairly similar. They all leave out sections 1A and 1L (sub-sections of section 1), and they have two section 8s, instead of an 8 and 8A.

The map on the right, which is what I initially used to set up the section groups for this project, was designed by the Jewish Historical Institute, and is posted on the web site of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. Unlike the others, this map has a single section called 105, which on on the other maps is divided among 105, 106, and 107. This map has a section 8A replacing one of the two section 8s in the other maps.

None of these maps show section 7, which is actually in the lower portion of section 15, above where section 8A is on the JHI map.

The largest source of information on the burials in the Okopowa St. Cemetery in in the online database created by the Foundation for the Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (FDJCP). If you take a look at the database and the information on more than 82,000 burials, you can get overwhelmed. As I mentioned previously (in The challenges of online cemetery research) the FDJCP database has very strict searching, so for example searching for Cohen returns nothing, but Kohen has several hits. The database has a lot of information, but also does not match up with any of these maps.

While all of the maps shows sections 2A, 2B, and 2C, the database is completely missing section 2B. It’s also missing any data on Section 5A (which is in all of the maps), has sections 12A and 12B (not on any map, although there are 2 section 12s, so presumably they’ve divided those into A and B), is missing section 16 (but does have 16A), has a 17A which is not on any map, has sections 64, 64A, and 64B, while the three maps on the left show two sections called 64, the JHI map shows those two sections labeled 64A and 64B, but does not have a third section called 64, and lastly the database is missing sections 101, 102, 103, 104, 106 and 107 altogether.

Taking a look at the data, you can extrapolate some interesting statistics. Keeping in mind that the data is not complete (gravestones that are damaged, sunken, or missing cannot contribute their information), sometimes has inaccuracies (such as the wrong gender assigned to a burial record), I’ve put together some information on burials, which will be useful in choosing a section to photograph. To start, when did the burials take place in the cemetery? Here’s a chart showing the number of burials per year, starting in 1800 and going to 2010. The first burial is actually 1804, although older stones are less likely to be in readable condition at this point, so the chart is probably skewed to more recent burials. This chart is what is known according to the FDJCP database:

Burials in the  Okopowa St. Cemetery from  1804 to 2010

What you can see in the chart is that the burials are low in number up until about the 1850s, and then they rise dramatically until there’s a huge peak during WWI and the subsequent Spanish Flu outbreak. There’s another small peak about 10 years later (any have a theory as to what that is?), then a large drop in 1938-1940, followed by a big spike in 1941. In 1942 there are still over 500 burials, but after the war the cemetery will never see more than 25 burials a year (while before the war it averaged well over a thousand a year).
Continue reading Okopowa St. Cemetery Maps and Statistics

The challenges of online cemetery research

I’ve fielded many questions about the Okopowa St. Project I announced yesterday. Many of the questions have centered on the need for doing this, considering there is an existing database of photos from this cemetery, with tens of thousands of photos. While the goal of this project is not primarily to document the Okopowa St. Cemetery, but to experiment and learn from the process, I do think addressing the broader issue of doing cemetery research online is worth tackling.

Cemetery research is an important part of any genealogy search, even more so for Jewish genealogy, where Jewish gravestones usually provide the first name of the father of the person buried. That ability to jump a generation back can be very important when researching Jewish families.

There are many resources for doing cemetery research, but on a global scale for Jewish genealogists, there are only a few.

FDJCP Warsaw DatabaseIn the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, the primary resource is the aforementioned database, which is published by the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (FDJCP). This database has 82,325 entries. I’ll get to the photos in this database in a moment, but one downside to this database is a lack of phonetic searching. If you search for ‘Cohen’ you will get no results. Search for Kohen and get results. That’s an obvious one, but considering many of the graves were in Hebrew and transcribed to English, there is no way to know if the spelling guessed by a transcriber was the same one known by a relative.

The largest database of Jewish burials is the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) which has information on over 3 million burials worldwide. JOWBR is an amazing project, but like any volunteer effort is dependent on what its volunteers can produce. In the case of the Okopowa St. Cememtery, it has information on less than 200 burials, and no photographs.

There are two large burial databases that are not specific to Jewish burials. The first one is, which was originally an independent project, but is now owned by Ancestry. FindAGrave originally had a focus of documenting celebrity graves, and built a community of people to photograph and manage profiles of buried people. FindAGrave says they have information on 480,840 cemeteries in 240 countries. In the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, however, they only have profiles of 121 burials, of which only 47 have associated photos. Of those 47 burials, many of the photographs are not actually of the gravestones, but photos of the people themselves that have been submitted by people online.

The second and more recent online database was created by the company BillionGraves. BillionGraves took advantage of the fact that the new smartphones coming into the market had cameras, built-in GPS, and Internet access. That allowed them to write an app that could capture photos of gravestones with their exact location, and upload them straight to their web site without needing to document anything about the graves. The information could be transcribed later on the web site. This allowed volunteers to rapidly build databases of entire cemeteries. Not long ago MyHeritage, the commercial genealogy company, partnered with BillionGraves to use their technology to collect photographs of all the gravestones in Israel (something IGRA also participated in by proving volunteers to take the photographs). BillionGraves flipped FindAGraves’ model on its head, as instead of creating a profile of a person and then adding photographs of their grave (which needed to be located), BillionGraves starts with the photographs and adds the information later. Concerning the Okopowa St. Cemetery, BillionGraves only has 216 burials documented.

I think it’s useful to take a look at the varying quality of photos across these sites, but as you may have figured out by now, that’s almost impossible. JOWBR has no photographs of this cemetery, and FindAGrave has only about 20-30 gravestone photos. What are the chances that among those 20-30 photos, the same graves were documented on BillionGraves? It turns out there is at least one.

Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig died about ten years ago. Here are three photos of the her grave site from the three databases that have photos:

Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on FindAGrave Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on BillionGraves Wanda Sieradzka de Ruig on FDJCP

Now, this gravestone is not the best example, because unlike many graves in the cemetery, it is not densely covered in text. It’s also relatively recent, so the text is not worn down. What we can see, is that even with that being true, the FindAGrave photo of the gravestone is hard to read, as it’s perhaps taken too far away. I always like a wide shot of a gravestone to give some context, but that shouldn’t be the only photo. There should always be a close-up photo of the text of the stone.

BillionGrave’s photo is actually closer up, and easy to read. Unfortunately, you can’t see the spouse’s information, and you can see there is some text on the surface closer to the photographer, but it’s cut off. It’s worth noting that in the FindAGrave photo this text was covered in fallen leaves, so it can’t be seen at all.

The FDJCP photo is wide like the first one, but still closer and of better quality. It’s still difficult to read the text facing up on the stone, but overall this is probably the best image.

Let’s take another example. In this example, the grave is only on two sites, BillionGraves and the FDJCP site:

Izrael Frenkel BillionGraves Izrael Frenkel FDJCP

At first glance, the BillionGraves photo is superb. It’s well framed, the text is clear, and the lighting is even. Of course, looking at the second image, one realizes that the Polish text in the BillionGraves photo is only one side of the gravestone with text, and there’s a whole different side with text in Hebrew. However, looking at the FDJCP image, the angle for both sides makes it much harder to read. The Polish is readable, but the angle, the uneven lighting on the Hebrew side, and the small size of the Hebrew text relative to the whole image, makes it very difficult to read. Better than not including it at all, but difficult to be sure what you’re reading. The photographers working for the FDJCP may have photographed the text closer up for indexing purposes, but FDJCP only includes one photo, and in this case that makes it hard to read. I wonder what they do in the case where text is on opposite sides of the stone?

When I photograph gravestones, I like to take at least three photographs, and in some case more, per gravestone. These photos include a wide photo showing it in the context of its location, a photo of the entire gravestone without the wider area, and a close-up of the text on the stone. If I need more than one photo to capture all of the text, such as when it is on different sides, I always take extra photos getting all the text. For those who have read my article on Jewish Gravestone Symbols, you also know I like to take photographs of the symbols on gravestones. The Okopowa St. Cemetery is particularly rich in these symbols.

For the above gravestone of Izrael Frenkel, for example, I would have taken one wide shot of the entire gravestone, probably showing both sides of text. I might take a closer image showing both sides as well, but I definitely would have taken one straight in front of each side of text, and cropped to include only the text. Probably then I would have four photos of this gravestone.

Let’s take one last example that is only on the FDJCP site:

Gavriel Horowic FDJCP

I have no way of knowing why the above photo is angled the way it is, or why the bottom is completely cut off. Maybe there’s something out of the frame that blocked the photographer from taking a picture straight in front of the gravestone. Maybe the bottom part of the gravestone is blocked by something and photographing the bottom wasn’t possible. While these things are possible, I don’t know if any of those are true since there is no photo to provide context. Even if all of that was true, it seems from what you can see that it should have been possible to get a photo of the text closer up.

So to be clear, while the primary goal of the Okopowa St. Project is more about experimentation and learning than it is about photographing gravestones, it will still be nice to have new high-resolution photos of many of the graves.

An experiment in collaborative genealogy

While making my plans for the upcoming IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Warsaw, I came up with an experiment I’d like to try. This experiment needs dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers to pull off successfully.

The short version is I’m organizing volunteers to photograph and geocode all the gravestones in the Okopowa St. Cemetery in Warsaw, and then upload those images to both BillionGraves as well as to special groups on Flickr when they will become available to everyone to use.

There are probably over 80,000 gravestones in the cemetery, and while I don’t expect we’ll be able to get to all of them by the time the conference ends, the simple effort to do so will be an incredible experiment in collaborative genealogy.

For full details on this experiment, and how to get involved, please go to the Okopowa St. Project page.

As of August 31, 2018, I’ve moved the original text of the Okopowa St. Project page to this post, so we can keep it for future reference. The Okopowa St. Project page itself will continue to point to all related articles, and give the status of the project as we seek to improve the collection of genealogy data in cemeteries.

Original Project Text:

An experiment in collaborative genealogy

Like many people planning to attend the upcoming IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Warsaw this August, I’ve been trying to figure out my schedule, see when I’ll be at the conference, and what else I can do to take advantage of the fact that I will be spending a week in Warsaw, Poland.

Okopowa St. Cemetery

One place I have been planning to visit is the Okopowa St. Cemetery, which I last visited 25 years ago while visiting Poland as part of the March of the Living. Most of the photos from my popular article Jewish Gravestone Symbols come from the Okopowa St. Cemetery, and I’ve long wanted to re-visit it.

The Okopowa St. Cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, and certainly is the largest surviving cemetery in Poland. As I contemplated my visit I realized that there was an opportunity to attempt something that might not be possible again any time soon. What if large numbers of conference attendees, many of who may already be planning to visit the cemetery, could collaborate in documenting all the gravestones in the cemetery? BillionGraves only has 226 photographs for the entire cemetery. Yes, I know there’s an excellent database on the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries (FDJC) site for the Okopowa St. Cemetery.

  • It’s probably best to think about this as an experiment in collaborative genealogy.
  • You can also think of this as an art project.
  • We don’t need to complete the project during the conference, it’s enough to see how far we can get. Part of the experiment is seeing exactly how much can be done.
  • Other visitors and locals in Warsaw can finish the project if we make a dent in it during the conference.
  • In the end, if we’re lucky, we’ll have geocoded high-resolution photos of all the graves, and the photos will be available for everyone to use in whatever projects they want to use them in. If the FDJC wants to add these photos to their site, they can. If JOWBR wants to include them, it can also do so. I’ve set up a series of steps, outlined below, which will make these photographs accessible and useful to the most people. If this succeeds, I hope people will use this model for other genealogy projects.

    Some of the things I’m hoping to find out include if the tools are the best ones to accomplish these tasks, if leaving the groups open to all, and the Google Sheet editable by all, works, or if people will abuse those freedoms. Is it too complicated to upload photos to two different sites? This will be a learning experience, whose lessons we will be able to apply to future projects.

    Okopowa St. Cemetery Map
    Okopowa St. Cemetery Map

    Here’s how this will work. Volunteers will install two apps on their smart phones – BillionGraves and Flickr. They should also make sure they have accounts set up for both BillionGraves and Yahoo (the owner of Flickr), and configure the apps so that they are connected to their accounts. For BillionGraves, make sure to have the Save to Camera Roll option selected in your preferences if you use an iPhone. You’ll need that later to allow you to upload the photos to Flickr. For Flickr, log into your account on the web and set the default license to “Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons”. This is important, as it will allow these images to be used by anyone who wants, but still requires them to attribute the photograph to you.

    Volunteers will choose one section to photograph (larger sections will need multiple volunteers). There is a Google Sheet to coordinate volunteers. Take a look and add your name to a section. The volunteer should join the group on Flickr for the section they’ve chosen (the links to those groups are in the Google Sheet, and below). For larger sections with many volunteers, the volunteers should use the discussion area of the group on Flickr to figure out when they will be photographing, and try to divide up the work.

    When volunteers go to the cemetery, they will go to the section they’ve selected, and photograph all the graves in that section, or whatever part of it they can. They will photograph the graves using the BillionGraves app, and upload all the images to the site (this can be done later at the hotel using the free WiFi. In this first step, all the photos will be accessible via BillionGraves. In addition, when you’re done, you will go to the Flickr app and upload your photos to Flickr, and when they’re on Flickr, you will then share them to the appropriate group for the section they were taken in. You should then go to the discussion area for that group, and post how many photos you’ve shared to the group, if it was all of the graves, or if there is still more work to be done (and to the best of your ability describe what areas still need to be photographed).

    At this point, if you want, you can delete the photos from your phone. Make sure, however, that the photos have been uploaded to both BillionGraves and Flickr before deleting them.

    Let’s go over this once more, in clear order:

    Before going to the cemetery:

    Join our Facebook group Okopowa St. Project to discuss the project, and share your experiences with other volunteers.

    Set up BillionGraves:

    • Set up an account on BillionGraves. If you already have an account on BillionGraves, login through this link so they know you’re involved in this project.
    • Sign up for the BillionGraves Event for this project.
    • Download the BillionGraves app for iPhone or Android.
    • Connect the BillionGraves app on your phone to your account.
    • If you use an iPhone, go to Preferences in the BillionGraves app on your phone and turn on ‘Save to Camera Roll’.

    Set up Flickr:

    • Set up a Flickr/Yahoo account.
    • Set your default license for photos to “Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons”.

    • Download the Flickr app for iPhone or Android.
    • Connect the Flickr app on your phone to your account.

    Select a section to photograph:

    • Look at the map above (click to zoom in) to get an idea of where the sections are in relation to the entrance, and how big they are.
    • Go to the Google Sheet and see which sections already have volunteers. Select a section that has no volunteers and add your name in the left-most volunteer cell for that section.
    • Click on the section name in the Google Sheet, or find it below, and go to the Flickr group for that section and join it. All discussion for that specific section will take place in the Flickr group.
    • In the Flickr group, post an introduction in the discussion list, and explain when you plan to photograph the section.
    • Print out a copy of the map, and circle the section you will be photographing. Make sure to bring it with you to Warsaw.

    Preparing to go to the cemetery:

    • Double-check that BillionGraves is properly configured.
    • Make sure you have enough room on your phone to fit all the photos you’re about to take. If you need to clear up your phone to make room, do so.
    • Charge your phone fully. If you have an external battery, make sure that it charged as well and bring it with you. You don’t want to be in the middle of a section and have your battery die.
    • Check the group on Flickr for your section, and see if there is any discussions you missed. Did someone already photograph that section? Is there part this is incomplete? Check before you go because you may or may not have Internet in the cemetery.
    • Bring paper and pen so you can take notes, sketch the layout of the section if you want, etc.
    • Make sure to wear pants and appropriate shoes. The cemetery is overgrown, and you don’t want to hurt yourself.

    At the cemetery:

    • When you arrive at the cemetery, make your way to your section, and figure out an appropriate path to photograph all or as many graves as you can. Take extra photos that show the paths, the lines of gravestones, whatever. You can take these photos using your standard camera app.
    • Make your way to each gravestone, and take multiple photos of each. Get one that shows the whole gravestone, and another that frames just the text on the stone. If you think you need more than one photograph of the text for it to be clear, take more than one. Don’t limit yourself. Check the back of each grave in case there is more text.

    After the cemetery:

    • Upload your photos to BillionGraves. Try to group the photos of each grave together. Skip the general photos of the area, as those are not useful for BillionGraves. Make sure all the photos fully upload to BillionGraves before leaving the app.
    • Upload all your photos to Flickr, and then Share them to the appropriate group for your section. If you photographed more than one section, make sure to upload the photos to their appropriate sections. Make sure everything fully uploads before leaving the app.
    • Post to the Flickr discussion area for your section’s group and explain how many gravestones you photographed, how many photos you uploaded, and if there is anything more for others to photograph. Do this even if you’re the only person in the group, as it will be there for future reference. You can even post immediately after taking the photos, and then follow up after you upload them (in case there’s a significant gap between those events). That will keep everyone informed as to what is going on.

    The table showing the links to the Flickr groups for each section is below. I hope if you’ve made it this far, you are considering joining this collaborative effort.

    Thank you.

    Flickr Groups for Okopowa St. Cemetery Sections
    Section 1 Section 1A Section 1L Section 2
    Section 2A Section 2B Section 2C Section 3
    Section 3A Section 4 Section 4A Section 4B
    Section 5 Section 5A Section 6 Section 7
    Section 8 Section 8A Section 9 Section 10
    Section 11 Section 12 Section 13 Section 13A
    Section 14 Section 15 Section 16 Section 16A
    Section 17 Section 18 Section 19 Section 20
    Section 21 Section 22 Section 22A Section 23
    Section 24 Section 25 Section 26 Section 27
    Section 28 Section 29 Section 30 Section 31
    Section 32 Section 33 Section 34 Section 35
    Section 36 Section 37 Section 38 Section 39
    Section 40 Section 41 Section 42 Section 43
    Section 44 Section 44A Section 44B Section 45
    Section 46 Section 47 Section 48 Section 49
    Section 50 Section 51 Section 52 Section 53
    Section 54 Section 55 Section 56 Section 57
    Section 58 Section 59 Section 60 Section 62
    Section 63 Section 64A Section 64B Section 65
    Section 66 Section 67 Section 68 Section 69
    Section 71 Section 72 Section 73 Section 73A
    Section 74 Section 75 Section 76 Section 77
    Section 78 Section 79 Section 80 Section 83
    Section 84 Section 85 Section 86 Section 87
    Section 88 Section 89 Section 90 Section 91
    Section 92 Section 93 Section 94 Section 95
    Section 96 Section 97 Section 98 Section 99
    Section 100 Section 101 Section 102 Section 103
    Section 104 Section 105 Section 106 Section 107

    For photos that are not in one of the above sections, there is a general group for this project here.