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Jewish Genealogy Basics: Ancestral Town (Shtetl) Information

One of the first steps to doing genealogy research is to find the town that each person in your tree was born. For most Jewish researchers, this means tracking back to towns that may no longer exist or have not had any Jewish population for generations. Certainly the Holocaust was the cause of many of these disruptions.

A Jewish ancestral town is sometimes generically referred to as a shtetl, which in Yiddish simply means town. Shtetl is sometimes used more specifically to mean small towns in Europe with large Jewish populations. Finding your ancestral town is a different topic (or rather there are many topics related to finding one’s ancestral town), and an important one, but for the purposes of this article I will assume you already know the name of the town from which your family originated.

So you’ve found the name of the town, now what? I think the first step in doing research on the town your family came from is to find out where the town is, and what it is/was near. This might seem simple, but many of the towns Jews lived in in the past had the borders switch around them amid the wars and dealings of the empires (Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Prussian/German) that ruled them.

There are several resources that can help you find out more about your town. Two important databases on JewishGen are the Communities Database and ShtetlSeeker. These two databases are not the same, and I’ll explain the differences.

JewishGen Communities Database

The Communities Database contains information on known Jewish communities across the globe. If your town is in the database, there is a page that contains a lot of basic information on the town, as well as links to other data on the town. The resultant page is largely generated automatically. It will show you which country and region the town existed in during different time periods, as well as which towns are nearby. Knowing which towns were nearby is very important, because while you might only search your town, your relatives might have moved to the town nearby and there might be records in that town for your family that you could miss. It’s always worth looking into the nearby towns, searching the JGFF and searching for records in the nearby towns, as you are likely to find you family didn’t all live in one town.

The Communities Database does not let you search using an exact match, so it will show you results on all similarly sounding towns. If you’re searching for the first time and you don’t actually know the modern spelling of the town’s name, this can be very useful. If you know the exact current spelling of the name, then you’ll just need to scroll through the results until you find the correct name.

For example, if you were to search for ‘Kanczuga’ you would get results like the following:

JewishGen Communities Database Search Results

There are six results, from several countries. If I had specified Poland as the current country then there would only have been two results. Of course, you may not know which country the town is in currently, so if you are not sure then do a broader search to see all the possibilities. Only one result has the exactly spelling I searched for, which if you know the spelling means it’s easy to figure out which one is correct. Also note the other information shown in the results. It gives you the district the town was in during different periods and the number of listings in the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) database.

If you move your mouse over each town name, you’ll see a pop-up box giving you basic information on the town:

Mouse-over pop-up details

This can be useful if you’re not sure which town is the correct one. When you click on a town name, it will take you to a page summarizing information on that town:

JewishGen Community page for Kanczuga

If you click on the image above it will load it full size and you can see my annotations showing what to look for on the page. The key things you should notice are the alternate names for the town (useful when searching for records in databases that don’t know alternate names – like on Ancestry.com), the country the town was in during different periods (so that while you know the town is now in Poland, you now know for example to look for ‘Austria’ as a country in records because it was in the Austrian Empire), a direct link to the JGFF search, a list of nearby towns ordered by distance, and a list of other resources. Some of these pages will also link to the town’s ShtetLink page if one exists, although for some reason this Community page does not. ShtetlLinks is discussed below.

JewishGen ShtetlSeeker (Update: as of Aug 2011 this is the JewishGen Gazetteer)

The ShtetlSeeker is a bigger database that contains information on towns everywhere, even if there is no known Jewish community that existed there. It also contains geographical names, such as the names of mountains and streams. Whereas an open search above for ‘Kanczuga’ returned 6 results, an open search on ShtetlSeeker returns 303 results including Kamchikha, a section of a town, Konchuga, a town, and Kunzhuga, a stream. If the place in the list is also in the Communities Database, it will have a small flower icon next to the name of the place, and you can preview the town info with a mouse-over and click on it for more information like in the Communities Database search itself. In this case only four results have the icon next to them. Why aren’t there the same six results from the Community Database before? I have no idea.

The information in the search results is also a bit different in ShtetlSeeker. For example, this is a portion of the Kanczuga results:

Part of ShtetlSeeker search results for Kanczuga

If you take a look (you can click on the image to enlarge it) you can see the flower icon next to Kanczuga, indicating that it is in the Communities Database.

After the name is a column defining the name as a ‘populated place’, or as a stream, mountain, etc.

Next is a column showing the map coordinates for the location. This is actually a link that will take you to a Resource Map for that location. The Resource Map is a very useful map that shows you what resources (such as records in JRI-Poland, names in JGFF,  etc.) exist on the JewishGen site for everyone in the immediate area. This is very useful, even more so if your town is not in the Communities Database, as you will be able to see what towns with known Jewish communities existed nearby, and you can then see what resources exist for those communities.

Kanczuga-area Resource Map

In the map above, I’ve selected Kanczuga and it has popped up a bubble showing what resources exist for Kanczuga. If I had selected any of the other little tree icons around the map, it would show me similar information for those. If you look along the top of the image, you can see that you can select what type of resources you want to see on the map, although the default is to show everything.

Going back to the search results page, the next column has links to various mapping web sites, showing you the location on each site. The mapping sites include Expedia, Mapquest, Microsoft Bing Maps and Google Maps.

Next the search results who you the current country the town is in, it’s distance from a reference point (usually a large nearby city) and a bullseye button that will take you to a new set of search results that show all towns within a 10 mile radius of the town on whose line you press the button. 

JewishGen ShtetLinks (Update: As of Aug 2011 this is now KehilaLinks)

ShtetLinks is a large collections of town-specific web pages developed by real researchers who know about the town. You can think of them as the hand-made version of the Communities Database. Depending on who worked on the ShtetLink page for your town, it might be a simple one-page site with a few links, or it could be a full-blown web site with multiple sections, photo albums, historical documents, etc. It all depends on how much time and effort were put into the site by the volunteers who put together the pages. Sometimes a page was developed by someone who is no longer involved, and it hasn’t been updated in years. In these cases sometimes the administrator of ShtetLinks will post that pages need new administrators to the JewishGen e-mail list.

If you town does not have a site as part of ShtetLinks, you can of course volunteer to create one yourself. This is a great way to give back to the genealogy community.

Virtual Shtetl

JewishGen is not the only organized source for information on Jewish communities. Another site is the Virtual Shtetl, a project of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is currently under construction and planning to open in 2012 in Warsaw. The site contains basic information on over 900 towns, but is meant to be a collaborative effort to collect information on the towns. Users can upload documents on the towns to share with others, and they can ‘like’ a town, similar to how someone ‘likes’ a page on Facebook. Users with interest in the same town can communicate anonymously through the site.

As the site is intended to be used both by Polish people, as well as their descendants, it is available in several languages. Some content is not yet translated into all languages, so you might find a town’s information only in Polish. Information on towns can include history, synagogue info, cemetery data, places where people were killed in the Holocaust, legends, stories, memories of the town, as well as contemporary information such as transportation, hotels and restaurants.

The Virtual Shtetl is a work in progress, and most of the resources are not yet in English, but by the very nature of its location in Poland and the attempt of the hosting museum to attract many local Poles to the site, it has a lot of potential to be a unique resource on towns in Poland.

Other Sites

There are many many other sites online with information on specific towns, regions and countries. Many people have created their own web sites with information on their ancestral town, or started a Yahoo Group or Rootsweb mailing list for their town. Try searching for your town name and seeing what you find. Use the alternate names from the Community Database in your searches as well, as you never know which version of the name a person used online. Keep in mind that some of these groups and mailing lists may not have a lot of people, or a lots of message traffic in them. That could be good or bad depending on your perspective. As long as there are knowledgeable people on the lists, it doesn’t really matter how often people post to it, as long as there is someone who knows how to answer questions posed on the list.

Figure out which region your town was in, as there may be regional sites as well. Kanczuga, the town I used as an example above was in the Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before WWI. That means the Gesher Galicia organization is a great place to look for information. Gesher Galicia even has a sub-group for the specific region of Galicia Kanczuga was in, the Kolbuszowa Region, which has its own web site. On Rootsweb there is an Austro-Hungarian-Jewish list, and on JewishGen there is a Gesher Galicia mailing list.

Google, beyond the straight web site search which you should do has two other sites that you can use to research your town. Google Books contains the scanned contents of millions of books from all over the world, and will show you which books mention your town. If the book is out of copyright, you may even be able to download the whole book. If it’s still in copyright, you still might be able to search inside the book and find out information, depending on what the publisher allowed Google to do. Google News Archive is a site for searching news sites including some that you will need to pay for if you want to read the whole articles. Again, this is useful just for seeing where your town may have been mentioned.

There are also some web sites with lists of location-specific Jewish genealogy links. Some of those sites include Cyndi’s List, Jewish Genealogy Links, and Genealogylinks.net (for some reason the Europe link isn’t working right now but here are links for Poland, Belarus and Hungary).

Helping Out

Once you find which sites contain information on your town, see if there’s a way that you can help. Do you have photos or documents from that town that your can contribute? Are you a web designer that can improve the look and function of one of the sites?

If there is no site for your town, consider starting one. Starting a group on Yahoo is a good way to organize researchers from the same town, and allows you to share photos, documents, links and other information is a neat organized way (and doesn’t require any web design skills).

Genealogy Basics: Historical Newspapers

There is a wealth of genealogical information buried in the stacks of old newspaper stored in various libraries worldwide. Depending on whether you live in the same place as your ancestors, accessing these archives could be exceedingly difficult, and of course physical newspapers don’t have a search button. Nowadays, however, there are a number of initiatives to digitally scan and make accessible newspapers large and small from across the world. Some of these efforts are commercial and require payment to use, while some are funded through non-profit organizations or universities and are free to access online. In the past there were efforts to index obituaries, and while obituaries can contain many genealogical clues inside, these new fully searchable newspaper databases can contain much more information.

It’s been my observation that if you had family living in a small communities, then these searchable newspapers can be even more useful. Small community newspapers tend to cover a lot more of what is going on with people in the community than larger community papers that cover news on a much smaller percentage of people in the community.

GenealogyBank.com

On of the best resources I’ve found for searching newspapers across the US is GenealogyBank.com. It is a commercial service, but they earn their money by constantly adding new content to the site. They currently have over 4500 newspapers online. It costs about $56/year for the service (go to their subscribe page, then try to close the page and it will offer to a 20% discount bringing the annual price from $70 to $56) which I think is quite reasonable. You can also try it out for 30 days for free. In addition to newspapers, they also have some historical books, documents and their own version of the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).

A newspaper with red box around relevant article

Annotating a PDF

The best part is once you find a newspaper page with something relevant to you, you can simply down the page as a PDF to your computer. What I do when sharing a page with relatives is I open the PDF and use the built-in annotation features of the program I use (I use Preview on the Mac, but Adobe Reader should be able to do the same thing) to create a red box around the part of the page that contains information on my relative. The reason this can be important is that if you’re sending a large newspaper page it can be hard sometimes to find the part of the page that contains the information you’re trying to relay, especially with older newspapers that can be very dense and hard to read. See an example to the right.

Naming Newspaper Images

Another tip when dealing with organizing these pages is to prefix the file name with the date it was published. I use this technique on many types of documents, but it is particularly useful for newspapers. In the case of one family group, I found about 50 newspaper articles that mention them over a span of 70 years. When I download the newspaper page I name it something like:

19171119 Aug Chron – Pinkey Silver app for citizenship.pdf

First you have the date, formatted as YYYYMMDD which is easily sortable. I then add the newspaper name – in this case the Augusta Chronicle (from Georgia) and then a short summary of what is in the article. Thankfully we’re not restricted to something like FILENAME.PDF like in the old days. As you collect newspaper articles from different sources, you can put them all in one directory and see them easily sorted by date of publication, see which papers they came from and who is mentioned in them. It makes finding the article you’re looking for much easier later on when you want to send that one relevant article to a relative.

Other Newspaper Sources

GenealogyBank.com is not the only game in town. There are other commercial services, some larger genealogy websites like Ancestry.com also have newspaper archives included in their databases, but more interesting I think are the smaller initiatives that you need to really search for in small towns and on the state level. For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is a project in the state of Georgia called the Digital Library of Georgia run by the university system of Georgia. The site contains digital archives of several local Georgia newspapers, searchable and viewable using the DjVu plug-in. You need to install a DjVu plug-in for your browser in order to use these archives, but once you install it it’s fairly easy to use. It’s not as easy as being able to view the newspapers online and then download a PDF, however. You can download the DjVu files (which are very small) or convert them to TIFF files (which are absurdly large in this case). If you do have the DjVu plug-in convert the image to a TIFF, keep in mind that it does not use compression. Simply opening the TIFF in an image editor and activating LZW compression for the TIFF will save a lot of space, and won’t affect the quality of the image.

Selecting LZW compression for a TIFF

In Preview on the Mac all you do is open the file, select Save As… from the File Menu, select LZW from the Compression menu as shown in the image on the left.

You can also save the image as a JPEG or whatever format you want. I would suggest perhaps converting the image to a JPEG when e-mailing the image to a relative, but you may find it is not as readable asit is as a DjVu or a TIFF image, because the DjVu is highly compressed (much more than JPEG) and when you expand it out to a TIFF you still have all the artifacts left from the DjVU compression. When you then re-compress it as a JPEG you get new compression artifacts, which mix with the DjVu ones.

Another similar newspaper archive effort I’ve come across is the Northern New York Historical Newspapers project run by the Northern New York Library Network. I’m sure there are many more.

Wikipedia has a List of online newspaper archives which is worth checking out.

Google operates a newspaper archive search where you can many articles, some of whcih you need to pay to read.

The Library of Congress has a project called Chronicling America where you can search historical newspapers between the years 1860 and 1922.

You should also try searching for newspaper archives on your favorite search engine. New ones seem to pop up all the time, so if you don’t find one now, try again another time.

Jewish Newspapers Online

For Jewish researchers I will point out a few interesting examples of newspaper and magazine archives I’ve come across.

There is the Southern Israelite, covering the year between 1929 and 1986, part of the previously mentioned Digital Library of Georgia. Note that while it was published in Georgia, it does cover some other southern states, so if your Jewish family lived down south, you might find some news listed in this paper.

There is also the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, which includes three different Jewish community newspapers published between 1895 and the present.

The Ohio Memory project has put up The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, covering the years 1922 until 1994.

For Chicago, there is a local Jewish paper called The Sentinel, covering the years 1911 through 1949.

One very interesting project is run at the National Library of Israel, called the Historical Jewish Press. This project currently includes twenty newspapers, some going back to the mid-19th century, including over 400,000 pages. The languages of the papers include Hebrew, French, Hungarian and English. The only English newspaper in the project right now is the Palestine Post, the original name of what is now the Jerusalem Post, and it covers the years 1932-1950 (the years before it changed its name to the Jerusalem Post). The French papers include one from France, but also papers from Morocco and Egypt. The Hebrew papers include ones from Israel, but also papers from Tsarist Russia and one published in Prussia, Poland and Austria.

Please add what you know or what you find to the comments

Please, if you know of other good online newspaper sites, mention them in the comments. You can also share your success stories in the comments.

For an example of how the information in these types of records are not always reliable, read my earlier post People lie, and so do documents which discussed confirming information found in two obituaries which I found through one of these online newspaper archives.

Jewish Genealogy Basics: Yizkor Books

It is a bit sad to have to include Yizkor Books under my ‘Jewish Genealogy Basics’ category on this blog, but unfortunately most Jewish people have relatives who perished in the Holocaust, and there is no getting past that fact. Yizkor Books are an important resource for those people whose relatives came from the towns and regions covered by these books, mainly because these towns don’t exist anymore or have no Jewish remnants in any case. These books are the last memories of the people who lived in these communities.

Yizkor Books were generally books put together by survivors of a specific community, usually a town or city, although sometimes books were put together for larger regions. These were Holocaust survivors who wanted to share what their community had been like before the Holocaust, and what happened to it during the Holocaust. In most cases the Jewish communities described in these books completely ceased to exist after the war, and the survivors made their way to different countries including the US, Israel and various South American countries. Thus these books were published in the years following the war, in the 50s, 60s and 70s mostly (although some were published even in the 80s and 90s), in a mix of languages that may include Hebrew, Yiddish, English and more. Many of the books list the names of those people from the town that were killed during the war (these are called necrologies).

It’s important to remember that Yizkor Books were put together by members of the destroyed community, usually only for members of that community. They were generally printed privately in small quantities, and thus most of these books are not widely available. Some libraries have made an effort to build collections of Yizkor books, to preserve them and to make them available to the public. JewishGen keeps a list of libraries with Yizkor Book collections, and lets you search for specific towns and see which libraries hold their Yizkor Books. I don’t know if any library has every Yizkor book published, although it’s a good bet that Yad Vashem (which lists 1040 Yizkor Books in their collection) is about as comprehensive a collection as you will find. I suspect the publishers of these books all donated copies to Yad Vashem to insure there was at least one copy available there.

In the US, one of the largest collections of Yizkor Books is at the NY Public Library, in their Dorot Jewish Division. The library has over 750 Yizkor Books available for viewing, but more interestingly for those who do not live in NY (or even for those who do), is that they have digitized some 650 of those books and made them available for viewing online. On the web site you can choose a book and browse through the pages of each book, but they are not searchable. Keep in mind most of these books are in either Hebrew (if published in Israel) or Yiddish (if published in the US). Some of the books have small English sections, but usually the majority of the books are in either Hebrew or Yiddish.

Some of the Yizkor books can be searched via the GenealogyIndexer.org web site, which indexes many books and makes them searchable online, including directories and Yizkor Books. Keep in mind that this search is based on computer software which tries to automatically transcribe each page, so it is not perfect, and although it indexes Hebrew and Yiddish, you will need to search in Hebrew or Yiddish to find those words in the index. If you’re searching for a last name, you can search in both English and Hebrew, for example, by including both the name in Hebrew and English and eparating them with the Boolean OR, for example:

Traurig OR טראוריג

Keep in mind that even if you know the spelling of a name in Hebrew, it may have been different in Yiddish.

In addition to the NYPL and GenealogyIndexer.org, JewishGen has an ongoing project to transcribe (English sections) and translate all (non-English sections) of Yizkor Books and place the text online. In addition, as books are transcribed and translated, all the names listed in the books are added to their Necrology Database which is searchable on their web site. Keep in mind that not all books have been fully translated, so even if your relative is mentioned in one of the books on their site, their name may not yet show up in the database. You can see which parts of each book have been translated so far, and which are still let to be translated. If you have a lot of family from a particular town that has a Yizkor Book, you might consider donating to the translation expenses for that Yizkor Book to help get it translated faster.

Lastly, I should mention that although many of the books are hard to find, it is possible to buy many of these books, either in used book stores or as reprints. Some specialist booksellers like Dan Wyman Books in Brooklyn, NY, Broder Books in Waterbury, CT, Henry Hollander Books in San Francisco, CA and Book Gallery in Jerusalem carry Yizkor Books, or can help you find them. The Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, MA, which saves Yiddish books of all kinds has, with the help of Steven Spielberg, created on online library of 11,000 scanned Yiddish books, and also offers a specific service that sells reprints of the Yizkor Books in their collection for $48 each.

Jewish Genealogy Basics: The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF)

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

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

The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) Web Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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