For many third-generation descendants of survivors, one of the ancillary tragedies of the Shoah has been a loss of information about family origins. Many of us grew up curious about our distant ancestors, only to have questions to our family elders met with unknowing shrugs. Thankfully, with the digitization of surviving records from pre-war Europe in recent years, more resources are now available to help Jewish families trace their roots, whether they arrived here after 1945 or were already in this country for decades beforehand.
While a number of databases and resources exist both online and in physical archives, three websites present the easiest way to get started researching 3G Jewish genealogy. Each is most useful for one of the three main periods covered by American Jewish genealogical research: pre-war Europe, the immigration experience, and life in the United States.
The best way to start, of course, is with the information we know, which means genealogy research often begins with a family’s records here in the United States. For post-immigration records, one of the best resources available is www.FamilySearch.org.
Amateur genealogists will nonetheless find the site rich in information and resources. Free to create a login, any user can search thousands of digitized archival databases, from birth and death records to military draft cards to U.S. census logs. The best way to start is by clicking on the “Search” tab, where one can enter an ancestor’s name or search by spouse, parents, or year and place of birth, among other parameters.
Add paragraphOne of the main appeals of this site is that it provides access to nearly all the same records as the popular Ancestry.com, though here it is free of charge.
As one’s tree begins to take shape and stretch back in time, the next step is figuring out when an ancestor arrived in the United States and from what place of origin. That’s where the second site can help. The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation website has a passenger search function with access to records for 51 million immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island or the Port of New York between 1892-1957. text here.
This period covers the majority of Jewish immigrant arrivals from Europe. Researchers can enter whole or partial names and sort by year of birth, year of arrival, place of origin, and other parameters. While the site, accessed at www.libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger, can be clunky at times, it’s free to create a login and offers scans of original ship manifests.
The most important information gleaned from these records is usually an immigrant’s place of origin and who else traveled with that immigrant. Once a researcher knows this information, it’s time to turn to the third major resource.
The wholesale loss of records and genealogical information in the Shoah remains a stubborn myth among American Jews. In fact, while many shtetl record books were destroyed during the war, these books often held just the original copies. Meanwhile, duplicate records stored in district or national archives were spared. In the twenty-first century, volunteers have been working tirelessly to scan and transcribe these records page by page. The best way to search these pre-war Jewish records from Europe (and elsewhere) is through www.JewishGen.org.
While some of the more advanced search functions require a paid membership, users can freely perform basic searches across the site’s 20 million records – a number that continues to grow as more are uploaded. Once a user has created a free login, the best way to begin is by clicking on the “Databases” tab.
Here, one can choose a specific region and search records from that part of the world. For help identifying in which region one’s family shtetl or city was located, the site has a “Town Finder” page under the “Databases” tab’s drop-down menu. When searching within one of the site’s regional databases, one can find results divided by source or type of record, such as “Lithuania Marriages & Divorces,” the “Worldwide Burial Registry – Germany,” or the “1848 Hungarian Census.”
Thankfully, the site uses a search technology that allows for multiple spellings of the same name, so even if a user isn’t sure how an ancestor or record-keeper spelled it, the site will search all names that sound similar.
For those wishing to dig deeper, many of the regions with databases on www.JewishGen.org have “Special Interest Groups” (SIGs). These sub-sites, often maintained by descendants who volunteer their time to translate and sort through hard-copy records found in European archives, usually require some membership fee or donation. But they offer a wealth of information on individuals and families, occasionally stretching back as far as the seventeenth century.
These SIGs can be accessed through the www.JewishGen.org site. In many cases, additional location-specific archives are also available online or are indexed for aid in use offline, but these often require a reading knowledge of the original languages of recording.
Some tips and tricks can help first-time Jewish genealogy researchers sift through often-confusing mounds of data. One of the most frequently used techniques for connecting branches of a family tree is to use our knowledge of naming conventions. For generations, Jewish parents have named their children after recently deceased ancestors, often grandparents. This makes it easier to spot connections.
For example, if one finds the record for a “David Shapiro, son of Hirsh,” born in 1905 and then pulls out a list of five Hirsh Shapiros born in the same shtetl between 1870-1885, the one who is “Hirsh, son of David,” is the most likely to be the original David’s father. While this technique can’t prove connections on its own, it can be helpful in identifying where to look for other clues.
Another helpful tip: to find women’s maiden names, search marriage records. Often, marriage records recorded not only the bride’s full unmarried name but also her father’s – and sometimes her grandfather’s – name as well.
Some of the nineteenth century census records (often referred to as “revision lists”) record all the individuals within a household, including married women, but these are often listed only under their married names. However, these records also usually include the names of every individual’s father. This means that cross-referencing these names against marriage records can help fill in blanks when a woman’s maiden name has been left out.
Discovering an ancestor’s siblings can often be just as important to building a tree as uncovering the names of his or her parents, as these can serve as markers for identifying the family in other documents. If one has found that ancestor “David Shapiro, son of Hirsh,” had a brother named Avram, sometimes searching for an “Avram Shapiro, son of Hirsh” can bring up a family record that includes other relevant information, such as the name of an as-yet-unknown grandparent. Moreover, siblings often sponsored each other to come to the United States. Knowing where an ancestor’s sibling arrived from in Europe almost always reveals where the ancestor grew up as well.
Jewish genealogy at times can be a frustrating pursuit, and many researchers will find that extending knowledge of their family trees isn’t always successful. But with all the resources now available free and online, there is far more to be discovered than many people even believe possible. It’s time to shatter the myth that all this information has been lost to history. With these three sites and these introductory tips, it’s easy to get started on a genealogy project, which can be a fun activity for families to work on together across generations.
(If you are interested by this month's genealogy article and want to learn more about how to conduct your own research, stay tuned as 3GDC is planning a hands on Genealogy Workshop in 2018-2019!)