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.

Spelling

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.

Conclusion

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).

How you can help

I want to thank everyone who has already submitted new resources to add to the B&F Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy, and everyone who has shared links to the site. It has been gratifying to see how many people have been using the site, and have been submitting new resources. Since the launch I’ve added hundreds of new resources, many submitted by users.

The encyclopedia is intended to be crowd-sourced, with users submitting the bulk of the information. I look at the 11,000+ links I added at the beginning as priming the pump, and I hope the site will grow through user submissions over time to be much larger. It’s amazing how many resources are out there, and since no one can be an expert on every location around the globe, this site relies on the expertise of its users to fill in the missing pieces. Note that if you click on the Add a Resource link at the bottom of every encyclopedia page, it will actually fill in the Country and Province fields for you based on which page you are on (not cities though).

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Submitting new resources isn’t the only way to help out, however. The encyclopedia was designed to be interactive. For any resource on the site, you can write a comment about your experience using it. If it’s a book you’ve read, write a review. If it’s a site you’ve found information about your family on, write what you found and how you found it. Know tricks for searching a specific site? Share them. Is a site in a language other than English, then you can write instructions on how to use it in English. Let’s share our communal knowledge about all of these resources, and help more people use them effectively.

I also welcome your comments on how to improve the encyclopedia. I have a page set up to allow the discussion of how to improve the site. Please join the discussion.

If you find a mistake on the site, please let me know. I’m thankful for the user that pointed out South Africa was missing (it wasn’t that I didn’t add South Africa, it was a bug that caused it not to show up). I’ve also run across other strange things like books that had the wrong cover images linked to them. Sometimes links from the same resource (such as the web site and its associated Facebook page) show up on separate lines instead of on one line. I want to know about even small problem like that, as I want everything to be perfect (of course), but also sometimes seemingly small problems are really just the tip of a much bigger problem. For problems on the site, send me a message through the Contact page.

Lastly, you can share links to this site. Share it on Facebook, Twitter, in mailing lists, and even on Pinterest (you’d be amazed how much traffic this site gets from Pinterest). If someone is looking for Jewish genealogy resources for a specific country, send them a link to the country page on this site. It’s actually pretty easy to figure out the links even without going to the main page. The site is organized so the link to a country is simply https://bloodandfrogs.com/encyclopedia/ followed by the country name, so the link to Poland is:

https://bloodandfrogs.com/encyclopedia/poland

and the link to the United States is:

https://bloodandfrogs.com/encyclopedia/united-states

Note that spaces in country names are replaced with dashes. Of course, you can just go to the front page and see the list of all the countries and copy the link from there. All encyclopedia pages also have links to all countries in the right sidebar. For links to provinces and states, you need to go to the country that province or state is in to get the list. For Polish towns, you can go to the Polish Cities page, or go to the province pages linked to from the main Poland page.

So thank you again for everyone’s help in making the encyclopedia a success. Let’s keep working together to improve it, expand it, and make it an even better resource for Jewish genealogy.

About those 10,000 Polish resources

When you enter the B&F Encyclopedia of Jewish Genealogy, you are presented with a list of 207 countries. Among them, I’ve seeded those countries and their provinces with over 1,200 resources. Collecting those resources was time-consuming to say the least. At some point I decided, however, to go a step further and look into adding resources at the city level. I knew I couldn’t add resources for every city, town and village in the world, but I thought maybe I could do so for one country. I decided on Poland because I knew there were a number of unique city-level resources available. In general, I didn’t add one resource at a time, but rather hundreds at a time. Otherwise there would be no way to get to the 10,000 resources I added. I wanted to take a look at some of the sources I tapped in putting together the collection on this site.

One detail – I’m not making a distinction between cities, towns and villages – for the most part I use those terms interchangeable. Certainly most of the ‘cities’ for Poland are not more than towns, and in many cases tiny villages.

One of the hardest things in putting together the city-level resources for Poland was making sure all the records matched the correct cities. When trying to connect resources from many different sources, it was sometimes hard to make sure that the towns referenced were the same ones. Many towns in Poland use the same, or very similar names. At first, I thought I could use the Province/County information to identify each town, before I realized there was no place that had a good reference of all of them. JewishGen and Virtual Shtetl had the data for the pre-WWI period and/or the interwar period, but not the modern period. I felt it was important to anchor everything based on the modern province/county information, just as I felt it was important to only collect information on towns currently in Poland. There has to be a frame of reference for collecting all this information, and I wanted it to be the current country/province/county data. After I put together a list of towns I intended on collecting information on, I then did something a bit crazy. I found the Wikipedia pages for every town, in both the English and Polish versions. By finding the Wikipedia pages, I was able to add not only the Province (Voivodeship) and County (Powiat) to my database, but the latitude/longitude coordinates as well. Armed with the administrative divisions and the map coordinates, I had enough information to, in almost every case, match up the records I collected to the correct towns.

The top of the city record for Kańczuga, Poland
The top of the city topic for Kańczuga, Poland

The Wikipedia entries, in addition to the official government sites for those towns, were added to a new section unique to cities, called General. Unlike almost all resources in the encyclopedia, records in the General section are not specifically Jewish. Rather, they are intended as a kind of anchor point for the rest of the records, to insure we’re talking about the correct town. If you find a resource in the rest of the town section that doesn’t seem to match the town in the General section, then let me know. There are bound to be some mistakes. The General records are there, therefore, to help correct those mistakes.

One thing to note about the official town web sites. In addition to Poland having a province (voivodeship) and a county (powiat), there is also a third smaller district called a Gmina in Polish, sometimes translated as a Municipality or a Commune. In some cases the city itself doesn’t have a web site, rather the city web site is part of the Gmina web site. In cases where the Gmina has the same name as the town (very common), and no specific town site could be found, I linked to the Gmina web site. I did something similar with the Coat of Arms for towns in Poland. When I couldn’t find one for the town, if the town was in a Gmina of the same name, I used the Coat of Arms of the Gmina.

JewishGen provided four major groups of resources to Polish cities – the Community Database, the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF), the Yikzor Book Project, and KehilaLinks. The other major resource groups included links from Virtual Shtetl, the IAJGS Jewish Cemetery Project, JRI-Poland, the Routes to Roots Foundation, Gesher Galicia, Geni, and two large Polish sites documenting Jewish cemeteries in Poland – Kirkuty.xip.pl and Złe miejsca dla ślimaków.

In addition to these major groups, each of which contributed hundreds of resources, there were hundreds of other individual resources collected from a variety of sites including landsmanshaft sites, individual cemetery sites, contemporary Jewish community sites, etc. While I tried not to stray off-course too much in collecting these individual records (I hoped rather that these kinds of records would be contributed by users after launch) I found it hard not to add uniques sites that I found.

Let’s a take a look at the major resource groups to help those who are unfamiliar with some or all of them (in alphabetical order):

Geni – While perhaps better known for their World Family Tree trying to connect everyone on the planet, Geni also offers user-created research projects. These projects can cover anything, but many of them cover specific communities that people want to research. Many research projects have been set up to research former Jewish communities, and those projects are what I’ve linked to in the encyclopedia.

Gesher Galicia – Galicia was a region of the former Austrian Empire, which is now split between Poland and Ukraine. Gesher Galicia is a very active group researching Jewish families from that region, and collecting original records from archives in Poland and Ukraine and making them available in its All Galicia Database. Their town listing is automatically generated from information on each town including the pre-war administrative districts and map coordinates, and lists how many Gesher Galicia members have indicated they are researching each town (in their Gesher Galicia Family Finder).

IAJGS Jewish Cemetery Project – Often overlooked, the IAJGS Jewish Cemetery Project is a massive database trying to list every known Jewish cemetery on the planet. There is a huge amount of information contained in the database, although nothing about specific burials (that’s left to the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, although there’s no way to link to information in JOWBR for a specific town). If you want to find out if a cemetery exists in your ancestral town and what condition it’s in, this is a good place to start.

JewishGen Communities Database – This is a database of towns worldwide with confirmed Jewish communities. Unlike the much larger JewishGen Gazetteer which has over a million localities in over 54 countries based on the U.S. Board on Geographic Names database, the JewishGen Communities Database is a curated list of roughly 6,000 towns where there is known to be, or have been, a Jewish community. For each town, the database links to other resources on JewishGen, as well as selected resources on other sites. The town pages have other very useful information, such as a list of the closest towns in the database to the current town, as well as alternate names for the town in different languages.

JewishGen Family Finder – The JewishGen Family Finder, or JGFF, is a significant resource for potentially finding other relatives. The idea is simple, you add a list of town/surname pairs to the database. If someone else is researching the same surname from the same town, then they will find you when searching the database, and hopefully contact you. I wrote about how to get started with the JGFF on the JewishGen blog back in 2011 (JewishGen Basics: The JewishGen Family Finder) and I recommend reading that post as an introduction if you haven’t used JGFF before.

JewishGen KehilaLinks – Originally known as ShetLinks (as in links to Shtetls), the KehilaLinks project is, for the most part, a attempt to create pages memorializing former Jewish communities. In some ways you can think of KehilaLink sites as modern version of Yizkor Books. The difference, perhaps, is that while Yizkor Books were published by former residents of their communities, at this point KehilaLink sites are being produced primarily by descendants of the residents of these communities. The amount of information available for each town varies wildly, as they are solely edited by volunteers for each town. If you have additional information to contriubte for your ancestral town, I recommend contacting the coordinator for your town and sending them your information to be added.

JewishGen Yizkor Book Project – An amazing project that seeks to collect information on all Yizkor Books published, extract lists of the dead (necrology lists) from them, and translate them. Yizkor Books were for the most part memorial books published by the survivors of communities destroyed during the Holocaust. These books were published in the decades following the Holocaust, frequently in Yiddish or Hebrew, mainly in the US and Israel where landsmanshaftn for these communities existed. Many of these books contain lists of those who were murdered during the Holocaust, memories about what it was like to live in the communities, photographs of people, etc. They are incredible resource that many people have not been able to leverage in their research due to their scarcity (they were privately published in small quantities for members of the community) and the language barrier, but this project is looking to make these books more readily available online, and to offer translations of some or all of each book online.

JRI-Poland – Formally Jewish Records Indexing – Poland, JRI-Poland is a decades-long effort spearheaded by Stanley Diamond to index and publish Jewish vital records from Poland (and places that were formerly part of Poland). Working with local archives in Poland and elsewhere, JRI-Poland has managed to index over 5 million records from over 550 towns. While the index can provide most of the information in a record, the records on JRI-Poland also give you the information you need to order copies of the records from the local archives. More recently as many of these records have gone online, JRI-Poland has linked directly to the digital copies of the records on Polish archive web sites. JRI-Poland’s town pages generally includes the map coordinates for the town, and sometimes the province. Links to off-site resources can include links to the JewishGen Communities Database and Virtual Shtetl. In addition to that basic information, the town page shows you what records exist in the local archives as well as in LDS microfilms (which sometimes overlap), and gives you information on fundraising for the various indexing projects for that town. To see what is actually indexed, however, you must search in their database.

Kirkuty.xip.pl – A kind of memorial to the pre-war Jewish community of Poland, this web site documents the current state of Jewish cemeteries across Poland. The site is, for the most part, only in Polish. Information is given on the history of the Jewish community in the town, and there are usually photographs of the current state of the cemetery and sometimes links to other related web sites.

Routes to Roots Foundation – The culmination of decades of research by Miriam Weiner, the Routes to Roots database contains information on what vital records and other documents covering Jewish communities exist in archives in Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine, and to a lesser extent Latvia, Romania and Russia. Originally published in two books written my Miriam Weiner (Jewish Roots in Poland, and Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova), the information is kept up to date on the web site, and has been expanded over the years to include new records that have been found. When looking to see if any records exist for your ancestral town, this database is a good place to start. It’s worth mentioning that I link to the search results for the town, which might include records from other towns with matching names, so don’t automatically assume that records in these search results are from your town.

Virtual Shtetl – A project of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Virtual Shtetl is a large database of information of current and mostly former Jewish communities in Poland. The database of communities consists of 1971 towns, all either currently in, or formerly in, Poland. Basic information like the pre-WWII province/county and the map coordinates are provided for each community, as well as links to some other sites such as the JewishGen Community Database and JRI-Poland. While each town has different information, information can include information on the Jewish community, cemeteries, synagogues, people, landsmanshaftn, heritage cites, sites where Jews were murdered, etc. Most of the information is in Polish, although some has been translated into English. If you look on the English version of the site it will show you whether is in English, and when it comes to a resource with no translation it will show it to you in Polish.

Złe miejsca dla ślimaków – Roughly translated as ‘Bad place for snails’ this blog documents places near the author’s home in Pulawy, Poland. ‘Near’ seems to be a relative term, as the author has documented hundreds of towns. These places include cemeteries (both Jewish and non-Jewish) and buildings such as former synagogues and yeshivas. The site is completely in Polish, but provides information on the places it documents, and includes photos of each place. When documenting a cemetery, the resource shows up in the Cemeteries section. When documenting a building that was once a synagogue or yeshiva, I’ve placed the resource in the Contemporary section. That may be counterintuitive, but if the Synagogue is currently being used as a bar, then that is the contemporary representation of the former Jewish community in that town. I don’t think there are any examples of a town where there is a contemporary Jewish community and the former synagogue is being used for something not connected to the Jewish community, so it shouldn’t be too confusing.

Some examples of individual sites that I added include The World Society of Częstochowa Jews and their Descendants (see Częstochowa in the encyclopedia), the Chelmer Organization in Israel (see Chełm in the encyclopedia), and the Jewish Tarnow Facebook group (see Tarnów in the encyclopedia).

If you represent another site that has a large number of town-specific information, contact me directly and I can share a spreadsheet that can be filled out to allow records to be added easily to the site. Even if you don’t represent a site, but if you think another existing site is worth adding and are willing to collect the information needed, be in touch. If you’re a site looking to utilize some of the information on this site, such as the province/county data I’ve collected, please also be in touch. My goal is to expand access to this information, and if that means helping other sites to improve, I’m more than happy to help them.

I hope people found this information useful, and that you will share this with your friends (perhaps on Facebook or Twitter?) who may not yet know about the availability of these resources. Let me know what you think in the comments below.