Jewish families appeared in a variety of records throughout their time in Eastern Europe. When conducting ancestral research for Jewish families, the following resources for their town, district, and region should be considered:
Civil Registration: government-kept records of births, marriages and deaths.
Synagogue Records: Jewish-specific records of child naming and circumcision (at 8 days old), marriages, and burials.
Census Records: some censuses were for the general population, others were specific to the Jewish community.
Church Records: when a Jewish community was in an area where the church and government were intertwined (areas with a state church, for example) the predominant church in the area sometimes recorded vital events for the entire local population, including those not of their faith. This was an early form of Civil Registration.
There were also some city directories, guild and occupational records, land records, emigration permission records, and various others in which these Jewish ancestors might be found. These record types have not been the primary focus of microfilming and digitizing efforts by FamilySearch, JewishGen, or other such genealogically-minded organizations because they generally cannot be used to trace ancestry from one generation to the next. Thus, the majority of these other types of records are only available in the regional and state archives of Central and Eastern Europe.
Once you have identified one or more possible hometowns for your ancestors, it is necessary to find out the location, condition, and availability of any pertinent records from these towns and their affiliated synagogues. There is a great database called Jewish Records in the Family History Library Catalog that has been created by the FamilySearch team.
This resource provides information about Jewish-specific records that are available through the Family History Library. However, you should still check the regular FamilySearch Catalog as well, since Jewish families also appeared in non-Jewish record types.
Due to the efforts at FamilySearch to make more records more easily accessible, you may find that the records you want to use are available online, or at least indexed in the “Record Search” section of the FamilySearch website. If the records you need are on microfilm and you don’t live in the Utah area, a copy can be ordered for use at your local Family History Center, a process similar to inter-library loan.
Please note that while the Family History Library does not loan out books, they are working to digitize them, making these resources more accessible for those who cannot come to the library and read them on the premises as well. Find an already digitized book here! You can search by title, author, family surname, or location.
The Family History Library has many important records for Jewish research in Europe, and their collection is always growing. However, they do not have every record from every location. (This is common to genealogy in general and is not unique to Jewish research.) Some records were destroyed or lost during wars or natural disasters. Some are housed in archives that are so disorganized that the extent of their collection is not known. Others simply have not been microfilmed or digitized, but they are available on-site in archives and synagogues in Europe.
JewishGen.org, an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, is also actively working to make these records more accessible. Similar to MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and others, they accept Jewish family trees and include them in an online database. If you have distant relatives who are researching the same ancestors, you may find that they have more information than you do. And best of all, it’s free!
There are many other public resources to aid you in locating records for your Jewish ancestors, but most of them have some affiliation with JewishGen. These include Jewish Record Indexing-Poland, Avotaynu (Jewish genealogy publications), and Routes to Roots.
Reading the Records
Once you have determined the location of the records for your ancestors, you or an on-site researcher (if needed) can search them to find your ancestors and extend your family lines. Synagogue records were usually kept both in Hebrew and in the official local language. The other record types discussed here were typically only recorded in the official language of the country or region. Since many people in the United States do not speak the necessary languages to research their ancestors onsite themselves, it is often the case that a little help is needed. If you find yourself in this situation but still want to tackle the project yourself, a genealogical word list would be very beneficial. While you may not be fluent in the foreign tongue of your ancestors, these resources contain keywords that you will frequently encounter in records, enabling you to recognize them and comprehend what the record was described in a general way, if not exactly. FamilySearch.org has published such lists for many languages pertinent to Jewish research. In a pinch, Google Translate can also be useful.
Latin Genealogy Word List
German Genealogy Word List
Poland Genealogy Word List
Russian Genealogy Word List
Hungary Genealogy Word List
Czech Genealogy Word List
Slovakia Genealogy Word List (available soon!)
As always, we welcome your comments and shared experiences. Do you have further questions? Have you had success implementing any of these techniques? Comment below!
The scope of this article series could not hope to include every resource out there for Jewish research. Each family was and is unique, so they require individual research efforts to find them and learn about them. If you’d like help, contact the professionals at Legacy Tree Genealogists.