REVIEW OF JEWISH GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH

by Jacqueline M. Wolfe

The National Genealogical Society Conference in Valley Forge, 7-10 May 1997, included three sessions devoted to Jewish genealogical research. The information presented included search techniques and resources for international research, resources in the Greater Philadelphia area, and how to document victims and locate survivors of the Holocaust. Following are some highlights and references taken from the three sessions.

Gary Mokatov, owner of Avotaynu, Inc. and one of two speakers on Jewish genealogy at the conference, is the largest publisher of information and products of interest to persons researching their Jewish family history. The firm publishes the journal, Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, books and microfiche, and serves as a resource for books, maps and video tapes published by other companies. Markatov commented that Jewish genealogy tends to "document families rather than trace ancestry".

As with all genealogy, research of Jewish roots has exploded with the advent of the World Wide Web (Web). A primary resource on the Web is JewishGen (http://www.jewishgen.org), the second largest BBS in the world which offers more than 20 hyperlinks to information. For example, the site offers a calendar calculator for reference to the Hebrew calendar, interactive databases such as a publication database and meetings database, and the ShtetLinksProject. Shtetl in Yiddish refers to a small Jewish town in Eastern Europe. ShtetLinks is a project aimed at giving people with an interest in a particular shtetl a chance to share and expand their knowledge (actually, any Jewish community anywhere in the world qualifies). The goal is to develop a grass roots atlas of Jewish life, a resource for those seeking to know the stories and histories of the cities, towns and villages where their ancestors lived. Other links provide information on: the Volunteer Translation Service which offers free translations of material relevant to Jewish genealogy; the AJGS Cemetary Project Online, which contains 70,000 cemetaries with more than 100,000 grave locations; and the Family Finder.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at http://www.ushmm.org delivers a Holocaust Victims Database and serves as a catalogue which provides a searchable means of learning about the Museumís holdings. With the decline of the Soviet Union, this facility is rapidly acquiring a significant collection of Holocaust-related material. The National Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. which provides survivor names and localities before and during the Holocaust, originally published as a book is also on-line at the USHMM site.

The Consolidated Jewish Surname Index, is a searchable database available at http://www.avotaynu.com which contains information about more than 200,000 Jewish surnames that appear in more than 23 different databases.

According to Leonard Markowitz, President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Philadelphia , there are similarities as well as differences when comparing Jewish genealogical research. While there is a common basis for most research of relatives and ancestors once they reached these shores, there are some differences in approach. An important initial consideration is the knowledge of both the first name and surname. In this regard, it is significant to note that there were no Jewish surnames prior to 1800. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who required the assignment of surnames; rabbis collected taxes prior to Napoleonís edict. After the edict, the government received payment for a surname; hence a rich man could afford a Rosenberg or Blumenthal, while a less affluent person might receive the name Stahl. From birth in Eastern Europe until death in America, a person could have owned as many as five first names. Surnames of ancestors can be problematical because the spelling was changed upon arrival and in some cases were completely changed. Both the name(s) and approximate birthdate are needed to begin a search.

Hebraic inscriptions on tombstones not only indicate the first name of the person interred, but the name of his or her father. In addition, the monument might indicate if the interred person was a Kohane, a descendent of the priestly tribe of Aaron, indicated by clasped hands. (Levites were servants to Kohanes, and Israelites were everyone else.) Ethnic bank records are another unique feature in Jewish genealogy. Immigrants would save a portion of their wages with these banks until the sum was large enough to pay for the passage of a spouse, child, or relative. Then the bank would arrange all aspects of the passage. Four of these banks existed in Philadelphia at the turn of the century: Rosenbluth (which survives today as the Rosenbluth Travel Agency), Lipschutz, Bitstein, and Rosenbaum. While the vast majority of immigrants arrived in the U.S. at Castle Garden or Ellis Island, a significant number also entered via the Port of Philadelphia.

Some resources in the Greater Philadelphia area unique to Jewish genealogy research include:

Other sources for Jewish research include:

Jewish Personal Names, by Rabbi Shmuel Gorr which is out of print but might be available through inter-library loan or at one of the libraries listed above.

A video, How to Trace Your Jewish Roots: A Journey with Arthur Kurzweil, by Arthur Kurzweil is available through Avotaynu, Inc. Using his own experience in tracing his family history, Kurzweil takes you to some of the major repositories which have records of Jewish ancestors. He guides you step by step through the process of researching, acquiring and examining relevant records and historical documents.

Sourcebook for Jewish Genealogies and Family Histories, by David Zubatsky and Irwin Berent, a bibliography of published and unpublished Jewish genalogies and family histories for over 10,000 family names; published by Avotaynu, Inc.

The Holocaust has been called the most documented event of the 20th century. According to Mokatov, researching individuals will be greatly aided by knowing where they lived and what happened to the locality. Some of the tens of thousands of books in existence, which are of interest to genealogists include: Yizkor (meaning "memorial" or Ďremembrance") books, which were published after WW II by many survivors, to commemorate the victims as well as Jewish communities. To date, more than 1,000 towns have been commemorated. Near-complete collections of these books are available at YIVO Institute in New York and the Library of Congress. Other major collections are held by the New York Pubic Library, the Jewish Theological Seminary (New York), Yeshiva University (New York), and UCLA at Los Angeles. Approximately 99 percent of the books are in Hebrew and Yiddish. Mokatov commented that a person who does not read Hebrew or Yiddish can still research documents by identifying the characters that represent the name being searched. Once the name has been identified in an item or article, it can be given to a translator for the complete information.

The Yad Vashem (Hebrew for "everlasting monument") Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority Library and Archives; PO Box 3477; 91034 Jerusalem, Israel is the principal repository of information about the Holocaust. Tourists know Yad Vashem for its multitude of exhibit halls depicting the events of the Holocaust and memorializing its victims. For researchers, Yad Vashem houses a library, archives, and a special memorial called the Hall of Names. More than 100,000 books, including the only extant complete set of the Yizkor Books, are housed in the library. The archives contains original source material much of which is organized by town.

"Pages of Testimony", at Yad Vashem, documents more that three million victims including names of victims, parents, spouse, and children; also, years and places of birth and death. The Pages also include the name and address of the person, usually a relative, who submitted the Page.

International Tracing Service (ITS), D-3548 Arolsen, Germany maintains 45,000,000 index cards about events that happened to both survivors and victims, but tend to be very slow in responding. Yad Vashem has a duplicate copy of their index through 1955 and the vast majority of ITS information was acquired before that date. However, Yad Vashem does not do research by mail; you must go there or retain a professional genealogist in Israel.

If you are a close relative of an individual, the American Red Cross will process your inquiry to ITS and the waiting time is usually no more than six months. You can apply for forms at your local Red Cross office, but you should not indicate that genealogical research is the reason for the inquiry.

A catalog of education centers that exist throughout the world which contain literature about the Holocaust is available through: Holocaust Resource Center, Queensborough Community College, 222-05 56th Avenue, Bayside, NY 11364.

The German Minority Census of 1939: An Introduction and Register, by Thomas Kent Edlund is a finding aid for persons who want to use the LDS Family History Library microfilm collection of this important Holocaust-era census.

Bibliography on Holocaust Literature, 1986, Boulder, Co, is a two-volume vork published by Westview Press which identifies more than 14,500 works on the Holocaust.

How to Document Victims and Locate Survivors of the Holocaust, by Gary Mokotoff and published by Avotaynu, takes you step by step through the various processes and sources of information about the Holocaust.

The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, 122 West 30th Street, New York, NY 10001 maintains a list of more than 100,000 survivors and their families living in the U.S. and Canada. The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, 333 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001 assisted more than 70,000 Holocaust families in the late 1940s and early1950s. They maintain case files on these persons and for a $25 fee, will search their records. Although the case files may be considered confidential, the index card to the cases often contains a wealth of information including names, ages and place of birth of all family members, as well as addresses of friends or relatives in the U.S.

The Fifth International Jewish Genealogical Summer Seminar will be held in Paris 13-17 July and offers organized trips following the seminar. You can obtain online information about the seminar at JewishGen. Future AJGS seminars are scheduled for: 1988 in Los Angeles and 1999 in New York City. Plans are being made to hold the seminar in Salt Lake City in the year 2000 and Chicago in 2001. Principals are hopeful that an international seminar will be held in Jerusalem in 2002.

This Article was donated by Jacqueline M. Wolfe.

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 Mary Ann Lubinsky
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