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Breaking Down Walls

Updated: May 9, 2018

By Susan Weinberg -

We recently met for our first Breaking Down Walls discussion. The purpose of this gathering was to look at some of the sticking points that we all run into in doing genealogy research. We are likely to always have some unsolved mysteries and we often discover solutions in the most unlikely and unsought places. Sometimes it is as simple as new records coming on-line. Other times it comes in the form of other researchers. When I put out a post on Jewishgen asking for tips prior to a trip to my ancestral Ukrainian town, I received a reply from a gentleman with the Scottish Jewish Archives who shared history in that Ukrainian town. I shot him a note back on my Scottish mystery to which he responded with a document that broke that whole branch open. By going to the Ukraine, I discovered my Scottish family. Go figure! So that is a long way of saying serendipity and patience often play a role. But let’s assume you’d like to hurry that along by a bit of exploration. Read on…

We decided to focus on the broad themes that emerged from a request to our membership in order to make the presentation meaningful to a cross section of people.

Where are they from?

The starting point for most people is figuring out where family came from. We can’t start to search for details without that. So how do we find it?

Oral history, whether it is a full-blown recorded history or a simple question, is your best starting point. Even if the more senior family members are no longer alive, check with cousins who may have heard anecdotal information.

If you have family buried in New York or areas with a larger Jewish population, check what section of the cemetery they are buried within. Many New York cemeteries are on-line and the links can be found in the download on the Resources page of this website under Our Origins. Typically the website will tell you the name of the section which may reflect a Landsmanschaft organization based on the town of origin.

I typically start with the most recent information I can find, usually the census, and work my way back to other documents. The census will tell you the year they immigrated. Don’t assume it was precise, but search with a narrow band around that date for the immigration record which will tell you the town of origin. Marriage and death certificates may also give you that information. If your family came over in the 1800s it becomes more difficult, but I’ve had success locating town of birth in wills for early immigrants. That same will told me of another branch of the family with young sons who had draft records that cited a town. If you had family who came over earlier, it is still possible that additional branches of the family came later and have documents with greater information. Always search for the cousins.

If you are trying to narrow down the scope of where family came from there are some tools that may give you a broad perspective, especially if you don’t have an extremely common name. Within JRI-Poland there is a tool called the Surname Distribution Mapper. You will find it on the right side of the search page in JRI-Poland. You input a name and it will map it across Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine in areas that at one time fell within Poland. You can search by a specific time band or put it on progression and see where your family name started out and then where it moved to. By clicking on trees that populate the map you can pull up the specific records within JRI-Poland.

Another angle to finding towns of origin is to looking at the JewishGen Family Finder under databases on JewishGen. Take a look at who is searching for that name and what towns they are looking at.

Where is Family Buried?

While many tombstones and cemeteries in Eastern Europe were destroyed by the Nazis, there are still many that remain. Often cemeteries are no longer maintained and are difficult to maneuver, but there have been and continue to be many efforts to document them.

You may first want to determine what cemeteries fall around the town you are searching. To do this you will want to go to the IAJGS International Jewish Cemetery Project. This site will tell you what exists where and in what condition it exists.

Then you will want to drill down to specific tombstones. For Eastern Europe or the US you can go to the Jewish On-line Worldwide Burial Registry which will pull up the key elements of text and a photo. Keep in mind that they may not list surnames so it is helpful if you have a dual name to narrow your search. If you are searching in Poland you will want to go to the Foundation of Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland and see if your town falls within those that they have documented.

Many Kehilalinks have cemetery links. I do Kehilalinks for Radom and for Dunilovitchi and you can find transcriptions of the cemetery within them.  Kehilalinks vary in how robust they are, but be sure to check JewishGen-Research-Kehilalinks to see if there is one for your town.  They are a volunteer effort so if you don’t find one for your town consider whether you’d like to create one. 

Finally don’t forget Find a Grave or Billion Graves, especially when searching for US tombstones.

How Do I Find Missing People?

Sometimes we are in search of a person, but can’t find a trace of them at all or at a specific time during their life. Our talk revisited the question of what do we do when we have searched in vain for an immigration record. In the case that our member presented she had the naturalization certificate which would cite the ship and dates, but could not find the manifest. This can be solved by two of sites. First you go to Ship Lists and input the info from the naturalization record to narrow your search down to a specific ship. Then you go to Missing Manifests and pull up the manifest of that ship. You will need to go through it page by page to find your “missing person”. What typically has happened is that the transcriber couldn’t read the handwriting of the name so didn’t index it. To get a copy of the page, I pick a clearly distinguishable name on the page and pull it up under that name in and then save it.

Other sources for missing people are city directories which may list home or business. Additional sources include local newspapers, census records, professional associations, military records, marriage records and the social security death records. If you are looking for local records don’t forget that the Minnesota Historical Society has newspapers on microfilm throughout Minnesota as well as the American Jewish World. 

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