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 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.
2) If you use a family tree web site, list what you like best about it – and what you like least. Also, for sites that offer subscription plans, do you pay a subscription or only use their free features? If you don’t use any family tree website, is there a reason you don’t – and is there something that would change your mind (i.e. if they only offered X I would use their site)?
3) How do you interact with other relatives when doing your genealogy research? If through a website listed above, how does that work? If you intact in a different way, such as via e-mail, explain how well that works.
I hope you will share your experiences with the various services available online, so others can learn about how different readers of this blog are using those services, successfully or less so.
If you have a twitter account, please tweet this post to your followers so we can get as many responses as possible. You can find my tweet of this post at twitter.com/bloodandfrogs and re-tweet it.
Please post your answers in the comments to this post on the blog.
Once you’ve built a family tree, it makes sense that you would want to share it with other family members online. There are a lot of good reasons to share your family tree online, including showing it to family members scattered across the globe, which can help you to get updates on your information from those same relatives.
The idea of making your family tree public on the Internet scares a lot of people, however, and for good reason. There are a lot of privacy issues with sharing information on family members online, including legal issues in some countries with sharing any personal information of living persons.
There are also many different ways to share family trees online. You can output a static web site from your desktop genealogy program, you can upload a GEDCOM file to one of the online family tree sites, or you can build one from scratch online. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these approaches.
The biggest family tree hosting sites are Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, and Geni.com. All of them allow some form of free family trees, and all offer subscription services on top of those free options. There are also other sites, like AppleTree.com and WikiTree.com.
I want to start building a chart to compare these sites, from the perspective of hosting a family tree only. Do you use one of the above sites? Do you use another family tree hosting site? Do you build your own site using desktop software? Post in the comments what you like and don’t like about the sites you’ve used for putting up your family tree online.
Based on the input people give in the comments, I will construct a chart showing the features as perceived by users of each site.
I’ll start here by saying what I like and don’t like about the sites I’ve tried.
Geni.comGeni.com probably has the slickest interface of all the sites. It’s flash-based and works fairly well. You can start from scratch and build a tree fairly quickly. You can also upload a GEDCOM file, although I haven’t done that on Geni myself. You can also download a GEDCOM of your tree (although I believe this is a Pro feature). There is no desktop software that can connect to Geni.com, but they have created an API to allow such connections, so perhaps in the future there will be support for connecting via desktop software.
Upside or downside depending on your perspective, Geni is really trying to be one big tree. That means it’s not really possible to have a private tree that only you and your family members can use. On the other hand, since everyone can find everyone, you can connect to distant cousins very easily. Once you find your cousin, you can merge your trees, but you can never un-merge your trees so you need to be careful. In my experience, I’ve found more distant cousins using Geni.com than on any other site. Geni.com also has some interesting features like Surnames and Projects, which let researchers work together on common topics.
Geni.com supports uploading photos and organizing them in albums. You can tag who is in each photo, and select the faces of each person so someone looking at the photo can see who is who. I don’t think there is any kind of limit on how many photos you can upload which is really nice.
Geni.com is big on the social-networking aspect of their site, where you other family members see what you’re doing on the site and can post comments on photos and send ‘virtual gifts’ on birthdays and anniversaries which sounds kind of corny but is actually nice. Of course, in a world where we’ve gone from sending real cards to people by mail to sending e-cards online, this might be an even further decline to sending ‘virtual gifts’ instead. I don’t know, but I get virtual gifts from relatives that never sent me a card, real or electronic, so I guess there’s something to say for that…
One thing which I really do think sets apart Geni.com is their support. I’ve had very good experiences with their customer support, and they’ve been able to fix various problems I’ve had in building my tree there fairly quickly.
Geni.com’s Pro paid account, gets you the following features:
– Tree matches (i.e. while viewing your tree a small icon will appear in the corner of a person’s box showing there is a match with other people on the site)
– Advanced search
– Forest GEDCOM exports (i.e. exporting a GEDCOM of your extended family tree including those people who you did not add yourself)
– No banner ads
– Priority support
– Unlimited virtual gifts
For pricing it seems their Pro account is currently $12.95 per month, $99.95 per year or $149.95 for two years. Geni.com used to offer a lifetime subscription for $299 but I don’t see it now. Perhaps now that they have enough income they don’t need to offer that anymore.
A sample Geni.com family tree
MyHeritage.comMyHeritage.com works a bit differently than Geni.com. There is a concept of separate trees. People sometimes upload multiple GEDCOMs to the site making separate trees in one account. While this can be good, in practice there seems to be a lot of duplicate trees on the site. MyHeritage.com has a feature they call Smart Matching which looks for matches between the people in your tree(s) and other trees on their site. It then gives you a list of trees with matching people, and shows you how many matches there are. Recently they added a way to confirm matches between trees, although I’m not certain what that does considering the trees stay separate anyways. I guess it just lets others know that the people are the same.
MyHeritage.com supports many languages, although in my experience, if you live in a country that speaks a different language than yourself, this can be problematic as the site will always try to use the language of the country you’re in (which it auto-detects). That’s more of a nuisance than a real problem, but a nuisance nonetheless.
MyHeritage.com also supports image uploading, although it is limited on free accounts to 250MB. They have one feature that seems to be unique among all the family tree sites – they can automatically match people in photos to people in your tree using face recognition. Pretty neat.
Speaking of limits on free accounts, however, I forgot to mention the biggest problem with MyHeritage.com’s free accounts – you are limited to 250 people in your tree. You might be able to upload a GEDCOM that has more than 250 people and get it accepted, but then you automatically lock out your account so that you cannot add new people to it. You can, however, get smart matches on the people in your tree. Note that even if you sign up for a Premium account, you are still limited to 2500 people in your tree. You need to sign up for the Premium Plus account to get unlimited people in your trees.
MyHeritage.com also has a free desktop app (Windows only) called Family Tree Builder. There is no limit to how many people you can add to their desktop software. It can also do face recognition on photos, etc. and it can sync a tree to the MyHeritage.com site. I haven’t done this so I don’t know how well it works, and if it is a two-way process. If you have used this, I’d love to hear about it.
MyHeritage.com recently added the ability to print out charts, and added a Memory Game that uses photos of your relatives in the game.
A Premium account adds the following features:
– Tree size up to 2500 people (instead of 250 on free accounts)
– Storage 500MB (instead of 250MB on free accounts)
– Enhanced Smart Matching (not sure what the real difference is between regular Smart Matching)
– Priority Support
– Power feature: Timeline
Their Premium Plus account is the same as the Premium account, except you get unlimited tree size, unlimited storage and another ‘power feature’ called Timebook.
On the pricing side, MyHeritage offers their Premium account for $75 per year (or $120 for 2 years or $225 for 5 years) and their Premium Plus account for $119.40 per year (or $191.04 for 2 years or $358.20 for 5 years).
Overall I would say MyHeritage has more features than Geni.com, but they are less polished.
A sample MyHeritage.com family tree
Ancestry.comAncestry.com is more than anything else a site for doing record research. They literally have billions of records on their site, and if you’re researching family members in the United States, it is a must-use site. Of course, they offer many other features – everything from family tree building to chart printing to DNA testing, etc. I’m going to focus, however, just on the family tree building aspect of the site.
Of course, one of the best features of Ancestry.com’s family trees are the tight integration with its research features. When you build a tree in Ancestry.com, it will show you if it thinks there are records for people in the tree by placing a small leaf icon next to their names. Moreover, you can use the profiles of people in your trees when doing records searching, automatically filling in information on birth and location, etc. to help narrow down searches quickly. These are nice features to be sure, but not something that can be compared to other sites very well.
Ancestry lets you set up unlimited numbers of trees, each with different permissions, so you could have some trees public and some private, etc. You can invite family members to your trees, and give them different permissions on editing the tree.
I don’t host my whole family tree on Ancestry.com myself, but what I do use it for is creating small trees for research purposes. For example, if I find a family that I think is related, but I haven’t found the link yet, then I create their tree to the best of my knowledge and make it public on Ancestry.com hoping someone else will find it in a search and say they are related so I can find the link. I can’t do that in Geni.com, since you only have one tree and I don’t yet know how they are related.
Ancestry.com also has a desktop application that can transfer data to their web site, Family Tree Maker. On Windows, where is has been around for a long time, they come out with new version annually, the current version being Family Tree Maker 2011. On the Mac, they just released a new version after more than a decade out of the market, simply called Family Tree Maker for Mac. It is based on their previous windows release (2010). I don’t believe it is possible to sync data in two directions between the desktop app and the web site, so this functionality is limited. You can, however, see hints on documents that might be relevant to a specific person in the tree from within the application, which is nice.
For pricing, I find the comparison a bit awkward since Ancestry.com is not primarily a family tree site. It’s almost like their free family tree building is a loss-leader to get people to sign up for the rest of the site. I’m not sure what family-tree specific features you gain by subscribing to Ancestry.com, except the obvious which is access to their records. For some level of comparison, however, I’ll list their subscription pricing. The US Deluxe Membership is $19.95 per month, or $155.40 per year. The World Deluxe Membership, which adds access to Canadian, UK, Ireland and other international records, as well as quicker access to new records, is $29.95 per month, or $299.40 per year.
Interestingly Ancestry.com has been beta-testing a new site called Mundia.com which seems to be intended as a direct competitor to Geni.com and MyHeritage.com. As it’s still in beta there is no pricing set up yet, but they do have access to the trees on Ancestry.com, so it will not start out without anyone to match to when they launch. Perhaps when this comes out of beta, it will be easier to compare to Geni.com and MyHeritage.com.
A sample Ancestry.com family tree (note the leaves indicating record matches)
As mentioned, there are many other sites out there for building family trees online, including AppleTree.com and WikiTree.com, both of which look promising. AppleTree.com seems to be going after the Geni.com model of one big tree, while WikiTree.com is free and very focused on privacy concerns. I haven’t used either of these sites extensively so I won’t comment on them now, but if you’ve used them please comment on them.
So go ahead and tell me the best and worst of all the family tree sites you’ve used. What categories do you think are fair to compare against all of them? What is truly unique about any of the sites you’ve used? Feel free to champion the site you use.
If you work for one of the above mentioned sites, I welcome your input as well. Did I make a mistake in describing your site? Are there features I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments.