In this article, Legacy Tree Genealogists Kathryne Thorne helps you understand three key ways to find your Hungarian Jewish ancestors.
Depending on when your ancestors were born, “Hungary” may have looked very different than it does today. Before 1918, the Kingdom of Hungary included not just the modern country of Hungary but also Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, parts of Romania, Ukraine, and Montenegro. Between World War I and II, these borders shifted, with Hungary losing and regaining land only to lose it again at the end of World War II.
It wasn’t until 1946 that Hungary became what we think of and know today. As a result, our Jewish ancestors often reported their birthplace in Hungary when the current location was in a different country. This is important because the modern country affects the location and accessibility of records related to ancestors.
With so many factors at play, how do we trace our Hungarian ancestors and seek answers to our European family history? Here are three tips to help you find your Hungarian Jewish ancestors.
Determine the Time Frame of Your Hungarian Jewish Ancestor’s Arrival
In many cases, knowing when your ancestor left Hungary can give you clues as to what types of records may exist for them. There are four primary periods of Jewish emigration from Hungary:
Between 1880-1918, many Hungarians left, seeking economic opportunity, including about 100,000 Hungarian Jews.
Between 1919-1944, a rise of antisemitism began to sweep across Hungary, and while many Jews attempted to leave before 1939, only about 8,500 Hungarian Jewish immigrants arrived in America before that date.
An additional 10,000 Jewish refugees managed to flee between 1939 and 1944.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, 15,000-20,000 Jewish emigrants left to settle in Palestine/Israel, and an additional 4,000-5,000 settled in other places, including America and Australia.
The final wave of mass Jewish emigration occurred in 1956 in response to a political revolution that resulted in many antisemitic incidents and attacks. Roughly 20,000 Jewish emigrants left at this time.
If your Jewish ancestors arrived before 1900 in America, it will be important to carefully review records related to the approximate date of their naturalization. Many immigrants who arrived before 1900 naturalized before the standardization of the naturalization process in 1906. Before this date, naturalization paperwork and passenger lists often don’t include as much information regarding immigrant ancestors, reducing their birthplace to the country they were born in.
If your immigrant ancestors arrived between about 1939-1956, it might be worthwhile to review Holocaust-era documentation. Worthwhile research areas include placing a request with the Arolsen Archives in Bad Arolsen, Germany. A request for an archival search can be made for free online for information regarding a specific family member believed to have lived in Europe during the Holocaust.
Arolsen Archives is the largest holder of records related to both the Holocaust and the post-Holocaust refugee effort, which redistributed survivors around the world. Another option is to search for family members in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. This database, created by Yad Vashem in Israel, is a collection of pages of testimonies that include details of those who died during the Holocaust. Sometimes these records can provide critical information regarding siblings, parents, and other extended family members, which can help locate more information about the family in Europe.
Review Domestic Records, and Don’t Forget the Graves of Hungarian Jewish Ancestors
As with most research into immigrant ancestors, research should begin in domestic records, gathering information about your ancestor’s life in their destination country which may hold clues to their life before immigration. Key record sets to review include the usual suspects of research: draft registration forms, censuses, passenger lists, and naturalization paperwork. Our blog post, “Family Tree Research and Jewish History,” covers these resources in depth. But another key source exists for Jewish ancestors that can sometimes hold the key to locating your ancestor in Europe: their gravesite.
An often-overlooked resource, Jewish mitzvot (sing. mitzvah, gravestones), can contain clues regarding the Hebrew or Yiddish name that our Jewish ancestors may have arrived under in America and lived under in Europe. Many Jewish tombstones include an inscription written in Hebrew with their names and their fathers’ names. For example, Philip Schalet was an immigrant who arrived in America in 1927; he died four years later in 1931. He arrived separate from his family, and locating his passenger list, and birthplace proved more difficult than typical. However, he was buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens.
His mitzvah, when translated, read: “Here lies Shraga Feivush son of reb (Mr.) Hersh Melech, died 27 Tishrei 5692”. Using this information, the passenger list of Philip was able to be located under the name Feivush.
Aside from your ancestor’s pre-immigration name, many first-generation Jewish immigrants were part of a burial society. Burial societies are organizations that assist with reserving and, in some cases, paying for burial plots for Jewish immigrants. Burial societies are often formed by a group of people with a similar background; this can be an individual extended family, a labor union, a synagogue, or, most importantly, a hometown. Burial societies formed by immigrants from the same location are called landsman shaft.
As these are internal societies, immigrants are often much more specific about their birthplace than they will be on other documents. The Jewish Genealogical Society of New York reports 94 burial societies associated with a particular hometown in Hungary and 179 for Romania. The burial society for a specific ancestor can sometimes be located on online gravesite databases like Find a Grave or BillionGraves.
Still, often you will need to contact the cemetery itself and ask if your ancestor’s burial was part of a specific society. Once you have this information, you can search databases like the burial society database of the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York to learn more about the burial society your ancestor was part of.
In the case of Philip Schalet, he was buried in the section reserved for members of Congregation Machzikei Hadas Anshei Złoczów, a burial society associated with Złoczów in the Galicia region of the Austrian Empire. This location is now Zolochiv in Ukraine.
Review Digital Records, But Don’t Forget Archival Resources
Now that you know where your ancestor originated from, and you are ready to hop into research in Europe, a new set of challenges awaits. Depending on where your ancestors originated from, the accessibility of records will differ.
For digital records, consider looking at Hungarian censuses. Hungary took regular censuses of the population, and the entries for Jewish ancestors are indexed on JewishGen. The available years for the census include 1828, 1848, 1857, and 1869. These censuses cover most regions of the Kingdom of Hungary, with some exceptions due to record loss.
The second form of records you’ll want to seek are synagogue and civil registration. Hungarian Jewish records were kept somewhat irregularly from 1788 to 1840, although it was required by law. However, as taxation and conscription depended on these registers, many people avoided registration. Despite this, by 1855, records were kept almost universally. Initially created by the rabbi in the synagogue under Catholic supervision, these records were the standard until civil registration began in Hungary in 1895. The synagogue and civil registration records will likely be kept in the regional archive associated with your ancestors’ location.
Some locations formerly part of Hungary, such as Ukraine and Slovakia, often have digital records available online through FamilySearch. However, they are often not indexed and will require a bit of digging to locate your family member.
Research in Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Romania, and Montenegro is often much more difficult because the majority of records are not digitized, and research must be done directly in the archives of each country to make progress. Depending on the region, requests directly to the archives for an individual document may be successful. Still, research with an onsite researcher able to visit the archives in person is typically much faster and more effective. Legacy Tree Genealogists work with onsite researchers who access archives in the countries formerly a part of the Kingdom of Hungary and can assist with uncovering your ancestors’ stories.