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This is a scholarly work which will help researchers identify the history and etymology of Jewish surnames. The area includes the Ukraine, Belorussia, Bessarabia, Lithuania, and Russia


Jewish and Eastern European Treasures
– Curt B. Witcher

For the person tracing both eastern European and Jewish family history, there is a wonderfully robust collection of sources available for obtaining both specific family data and sound genealogical research strategies. Many sources are also available to assist one in finding particular types of records and identifying record repositories.

A "must-use" source for Jewish and eastern European research is a quarterly publication entitled Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, Inc.) This work represents the best in information offerings for genealogists pursuing research in these areas. While the title may tempt one to believe it is solely for Jewish research, such a belief would be quite incorrect and most inappropriate. Many have called Avotaynu the most important source for conducting any type of historical research in eastern Europe.

A quick review of 1996 article titles reveals such gems as "Russian Books of Residents as a Genealogical Resource," "The Current State of Archival Research in the CIS (former Soviet Union)," "On-Site Research in Germany," "Archives in Bohemia and Moravia," "Mandated Family Names in Central Europe," "Research On-Line or in Person at the Library of Congress," and "Alternate Surnames in Russian Poland." Jewish-specific topics include lists of Jewish genealogical societies and interest groups, special Jewish resources and collections found throughout eastern Europe and the United States, Jewish records being filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and those currently available through the Family History Library, various recently discovered lists and censuses, and reviews of significant books in the field.

In addition to the above-mentioned types of feature articles, the magazine boasts an "Ask the Experts" section (monitored by true experts), as well as a query service called "Family Finder." The information one can gain from the more than 270 pages of Avotaynu data each year is most impressive. If the goal is to know what is happening genealogically in eastern Europe, which records are located where, and how to gain access to them, this magazine is a must. The sound research methodology espoused and the sage bits of wisdom are simply the icing on the cake.

One of the most exciting and widely available sources of Jewish and eastern European data is the JewishGen home page. It claims to be one's "guide to Jewish genealogical research." And it certainly delivers! One could spend many hours exploring all the data linked at this particular site.

Upon arriving at this Internet site, the researcher is offered an opportunity to search the "JewishGen Family Finder" and the "JewishGen ShtetlSeeker." (Shtetl is the Yiddish word for "small town," but to genealogists it has come to mean "town of ancestry.") The online version of the "Family Finder" query system allows the researcher to quickly determine whether others are researching individuals of the same surname or from the same place of origin. This database contains more than 45,000 entries of 17,000 unique ancestral surnames, as well as 6,500 town names. Several thousand researchers have contributed to this compilation, which was started in 1982. In like manner, "ShtetlSeeker" is an ingeniously constructed database, using data gleaned from the Geographic Names Database to enable one to search for the locations of potential ancestors in eastern Europe. One can even get a list of all the towns within a certain distance of given latitude and longitude coordinates if one's research calls for widening the geographic search area.

Before going off to the two Internet links mentioned above, however, the very first link a visitor to the JewishGen Web site is tempted with is a link to the site's new database offerings. And what offerings they are! That particular link provides the researcher with access to fourteen different data files and a couple of additional search engines, besides the "Family Finder" and the "ShtetlSeeker." The data files are of such consequence that those not mentioned previously warrant being listed here (see sidebar) for a better understanding of the large amount of information being provided.

Each one of these data files, depending on one's area and time period of research, could contain important keys to unlocking tremendous amounts of ancestral data. The best way to understand and utilize them is to visit the JewishGen Web site and try them out. The JewishGen Webmasters provide quite concise and very useful descriptive detail to assist one in effectively searching their data files.

There are additional features of the JewishGen Web site that are worthy of mention. They include the International Jewish Cemetery Project, numerous informational files on various aspects of genealogical research, numerous family data files, linkes to other worthwhile eastern European sites, and the JewishGen College-an exemplary mentoring program.

The JewishGen Mentor Programme was designed to give beginners a more effective way of tapping the knowledge and experience of others. While FAQ (frequently asked questions) files are standard in the Internet world and quite popular, the valuable Mentor Programme offers personal guidance through a variety of special mailing lists. The "college" even offers special e-mail courses on various aspects of Jewish genealogy. Along with the other JewishGen links, this one makes surfing the 'Net for eastern European ancestors fun and productive.

Biographical collections can be sources rich in genealogical data for family historians. In many respects, these collections resemble the genealogical vignettes we are accustomed to finding in published town and county histories. Collected biographical works are frequently overlooked by genealogists because they are typically housed in general collection areas or are a part of reference collections. If we venture beyond what we might traditionally find in genealogy and local history collections, we will likely encounter a rich source of Jewish biographical data, the Jewish Biographical Archive (Judisches Biographisches Archiv-JBA).

The Jewish Biographical Archive, available in a microfiche format, provides, in an alphabetical sequence, the full text of a wide variety of informative sources. These sources include, but are not limited to, lexicons, handbooks, yearbooks, bio-bibliographies, who's-who books, and, of course, biographies. This extensive set of microfiche is not limited to one country or region, but rather, gathers its data from a global representation of sources. One hundred and twenty-three works are included in this archive, listing more than 150,000 individuals in nearly 300,000 biographical entries.

The time period covered by the Jewish Biographical Archive spans a very few early citations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to far more plentiful citations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As noted in the explanatory materials of the collection, with few exceptions, most publications containing extensive biographical information on Jewish individuals have been published since the end of the eighteenth century. The compilers have attempted to include biographical articles from both general encyclopedic works and smaller, more regional or specialized works. Because of the relative ease of access to its contents, this is a "must-check" source for those researching Jewish ancestry.

The Death Books from Auschwitz, published in three volumes by K.G. Saur and available from University Publications of America, Inc., represent another source of information for individuals researching their Jewish ancestors. This unique work provides a painful but informative look at the tens of thousands of Jews who died at Auschwitz. Besides providing much vital background data about the camp, these volumes also provide a lot of personal data.

Volume one of this work contains some excellent background information and reports from the camp. Rather specific chronologies and operational procedures of the camp are detailed, which allow the researcher to become aware of all the record or document possibilities. More than 200 pages (nearly one-half) of this first volume contain copies of actual documents from Auschwitz. These documents are divided into the four categories of (1) One Day in Auschwitz-March 30, 1942, (2) Deaths and "Cause of Death," (3) Mass Slaughter in Auschwitz, and (4) Personal Photographs of Deportees.

Volumes two and three contain an alphabetical list of 68,864 individuals who perished in Auschwitz, with some basic information about each person. Each entry lists the surname, given name, date and place of birth, the date of death as registered in the camp's death books, and the death book entry number, to exactly identify each individual. Notations are made if data from the original books is modified and changed in any way.

The four major sources of Jewish and eastern European data discussed in this article will open wide the doors to vast quantities of information for the genealogist. Add sound research methodology, and one has years of ancestral research to enjoy.

Other Internet Database Offerings

JewishGen Discussion Group message archives (1993-97)

Vsia Rossia 1895 Database (Jewish names from Ukrainian business directory)

HaMagid Lithuanian Donors 1871-72 Database

HaMelitz Lithuanian and Latvian Donors Database (names of over 16,000 charity donors from 1893 to 1903)

Cleveland Jewish News Obituary Database (index to over 5,000 obituaries, 1988-1996)

The Russian Era Indexing of Poland Project (index to over 100,000 19th century Polish-Jewish vital records)

LDS Microfilm Master: Poland (to locate LDS films based on geographic coordinates)

The Yizkor Book Database (to locate eastern European memorial books)

The JewishGen TraveLink Interactive Database (reports from researchers on their visits to ancestral towns)

The JOS Date/Soundex/Distance Calculator (1) calculates dates in the Gregorian calendar, (2) encodes names in two different Soundex schemes-the non-U.S.-government scheme being more precise-and (3) assists in determining distances between towns

The Jews of London, pre-1850 (names and addresses of Jews from London directories)

Jewish-American Civil War Veterans (more than 7,000 Union and Confederate Jewish-Americans)

Curt B. Witcher, FUGA, is the department manager for the Historial Genealogy Department of Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is the past president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies and is currently the national volunteer coordinator for the Civil War Soldiers Name Index Project.

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