Where do I begin?

When faced with the prospect of Jewish ancestry there are four great challenges that stop many people before they start.

1: Nobody remembers anything
2: All the records were destroyed during The Holocaust
3: The family name was changed and no one knows what it was originally.
4: No one knows where we came from originally.

The truth is these perceived challenges are mostly not true; And even if they were none of them need stop a diligent researcher.

So let’s tackle each one in more detail.

Challenge 1: Nobody remembers anything
Reality: While your parents and grandparents may profess to not remember, asking the right questions can release memories like a flood.

Asking questions of older family members is one of the best places to start your genealogical journey. You parents and grandparents may have memories of their own parents and grandparents that will open up more questions for you to find answers to. Sadly, if you go in with “what do you know about the family history Gran?”, you’re very likely to get a shrug of the shoulders and “not much” as a response. It’s better to be more specific and to frame questions that will open up deep memories.

For example:
Hey Grandpa, Who are you named after?
It’s traditional in many Jewish families to name children after deceased relatives. Knowing the names of living family members may point to the identities of ancestors.

Nan, Do you know when your parent’s and grandparent’s birthdays were? Do you know where were they born?
While Nan may not remember specifics you can start a conversation about what she/ he does remember. Don't take NO for an answer.

Hey Dad, Do you have any old family photos? Do you have any ideas of when and where they were taken and who is in them?
Photographs can be a wonderful memory aid. While it can often be tricky to identify people in old photos if you don’t know the circumstances they were taken in, it is not impossible: it simply may take more time. Always check the back of photos, even if they are framed. You may collect several photos of people you know look similar until you find one with names written on the back or a relative who can tell you who is who. Never throw anything away!!

You can gain hints on when the photos were taken by examining the clothing worn and the style of the image. Late 19th century images were a lot more formal than today as film stock was expensive and a family portrait was a special occasion. Soldiers in WW1 often had a photo taken of them in uniform and printed onto a postcard for their families. More casual images became popular from about the 1940s and pocket camera of the 50s and 60s, and 1hour photo processing in the 80s, made family snaps ubiquitous.

The introduction of digital cameras in the 90s ramped up the quantity of images and today, with cameras in our phones, billions of images a day, still and moving, are recording our lives. The advantage of digital photos is that they have embedded metadata that can be very helpful. Metadata is the extra information recorded in the image file such as the date the photo was taken and, if the device had a GPS in it, the location. This data is embedded in the information of the image itself so photo management software such as iPhoto and Picassa can display this information in the info window. Some hot management  programs also allow you to tag the faces of people with names and add keywords to identify events. Adding this data can be time consuming work but ultimately it’s worth it.

Mum, Do you have any old documents or papers from you parents or grandparents, or any other members of the family?
Many families have boxes, drawers or cabinets of old documents. Birth, death or marriage certificates, old newspaper clippings and magazine articles and mementos of special occasions like awards, greeting cards, postcards and letters. These are invaluable resources as they can act like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, helping your  piece together a picture of the past.

Unfortunately, this question can sometimes lead to challenge number 2...

Challenge 2: All the records were destroyed during The Holocaust
Reality: While it’s true that countless Jewish records held in Synagogues and homes were destroyed during the Holocaust, and other conflicts, millions of government records survived the wars and are available if you know where to look.

It’s surprising how much information is out there and the internet has brought more and more of it out of libraries and archives into our homes.

The LDS (Mormon) Church has been collecting genealogical data for over 100 years as part of its religious mission. In the late 19th/ early 20th centuries Mormon missionaries photographed millions of records all across Europe. Today the Church of the Latter Day Saints maintains one of the largest genealogical databases in the world, and it's still growing as they continue to index and digitise their collection.

Searching their website, Familysearch, is free. Ancestry built it’s database from this collection (it was originally affiliated directly with the  Church but is now an LLC). This collection is a treasure and does contain images of some document collections that were destroyed during conflict.

That being said not as many record collections were destroyed during wars as one may think. Many European governments, churches and civic organisations have vast archives of genealogically useful records. Many are now working to index and digitise these collections to make them available online, largely using volunteer support and public donations. Jewishgen supports many of these efforts and members can make donations or volunteer their time to index and transcribe records into digital databases to make them searchable.

If your ancestors came to Australia several generations ago and you do not have birth, marriage and death certificates for them at home, you can order copies through state based government authorities (see our Australian Research page for links). There may be time restrictions limiting access if you are not an immediate relative (ie child or grandchild) of the individual whose certificate you are applying for if it falls inside the embargoed time zone. Historical records (i.e.: those outside the embargoed times) are indexed and can be ordered online (charges apply).

Old wedding invitations, newspaper clippings or letters may open up new lines of enquiry. Trove, a massive newspaper index hosted by the National Library of Australia, has an ongoing project to digitise historical newspapers from all over Australia. The text is searchable so it’s a great place to look for your family, especially if they had a distinctive name. Family notices, academic achievements and criminal activity was extensively recorded, particularly in rural areas.

Challenge 3: The family name was changed and no one knows what it was originally.
Reality: Name changes were common as families moved from European to Anglophone countries but there are a variety of strategies one can use to discover your original family name.

A passport has been a necessary document for traversing international borders for centuries. In fact (according to Wikipedia) one of the earliest known references to paperwork that served in a role similar to that of a passport is found in the Hebrew Bible. Nehemiah 2:7-9, dating from approximately 450 BC, states that Nehemiah, an official serving King Artaxerxes I of Persia, asked permission to travel to Judea; the king granted leave and gave him a letter "to the governors beyond the river" requesting safe passage for him as he traveled through their lands. The modern passport, used for identity and travel to foreign lands, is credited to King Henry V of England and the first official reference occurs in a 1414 act of parliament.

This being the case, our ancestors would have required a passport to emigrate and the names on their passports would be the names on manifests and passenger entry lists. Following a family's trail using census documents, vital records and public registries can help us track name changes.

Challenge 4: No one knows where we came from originally.
Reality: This may be true but not knowing the country or town your ancestors came from originally is an obstacle that can be overcome using persistence and tenacity.

When you start your genealogical journey you begin to unwrap a gift that will keep on giving. By starting with your immediate relatives, the ones you can ask questions of or about, you can access memories and primary records. As you begin to go back in time your research skills will invariably improve and your imagination and lateral thinking will lead you to resources that will yield yet more information and open up  new lines of enquiry.

It simply doesn’t matter that you don’t know where your family is from. It’s your job to find out!

Research Best Practice

Keeping your records organised.

It’s important when you start your genealogical journey that you quickly develop a good system for record keeping and data managment. You will end up with mountains of facts and figures, names and places, photos and documents, Whether you’re using a stack of notebooks or a computer and the internet, there are a few things you can do to establish good habits from the very start.

Create and maintain data standards

This might sound complicated but it’s not. It simply means creating a system for how you record things like names, dates and location. This is much easier to do in online genealogy programs as the interface itself directs your actions however if you’re using paper or writing up your stories it’s important to use the same conventions for information so as to not confuse your reader.

So, for example, for names the general conventions are:

  • <first name> <middle name> <surname>
  • a married woman’s name is her birth name, although you can also use nee to indicate a maiden name if you’re writing it out in full (a note though; today many women do not take their husband’s surname so check with living people for what their preference is).
  • Aliass and original names can be recorded in the notes section of software.

For dates, software packages usually offer a range of date display options. Pick one and stick to it. Don’t forget that in the US dates are usually formatted MM/DD/YYY, whereas in Europe and Australia it’s usually DD/MM/YYYY. This can cause problems when entering data into software packages as they often default to the US date format.

Place names can become tricky as your research takes you further back in time. The location should be recorded as what it was when the event took place. Genealogical standards recommend US place names are shown as town/ city, county, state - eg: Brooklyn, Kings, New York. For other countries the convention is town/ city, province, country - eg: Warszawa, Warszawa, Poland.

The borders of countries in Europe have changed markedly over the last 250 years. Whole regions have changed sovereignty and some provinces, such as Galicia, no longer exist. Some of the old documents you uncover may have town names that no longer resemble the name in use today. Jewishgen has an excellent tool on its homepage - search for a town - to help find both current and historical names of towns in Europe. Google is also a fabulous resource to find old maps and historical travelogues, however always try and cross check information gleaned from second hand sources, especially Wikipedia.

Cite your sources:

When you start collecting information it’s often a flurry of activity and excitement as you make quick discoveries and import information from other family members’ trees. Slow down and try to record the source of your information. This will be particularly important if you find that your data conflicts with someone else’s. If you know where your data came from you can ascertain which source has more authority - is yours a primary or secondary source? is it irrefutable or could you be wrong? Knowing where you got something from will help you judge its veracity.

Computer based genealogical software - online and offline - all have provision to record the source of data. It often does it automatically if you’re importing data from inside the system - for example on Ancestry or My Heritage.

Recording and citing your sources is absolutely worth it as the longer you spend on this journey the more information you have both in your head and in your databases!!

Create a research Log

The final bit of advise is to maintain a research log. This can be a bit of an effort, especially when you get excited about things and just want to keep looking. But in the long run it will minimise repeating the same mistakes over and over. That’s not to say it’s not worth revisiting some resources, despite not finding anything first time round. Resources such as Trove and Jewishgen are constantly adding more data to their collections, so while you may not have found anything when you first started your search, 12 months later relevant information may have been added. Never give up!

Sections of this article were adapted with permission from
Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy,  Gary Mokotoff (13th Edition)
Published by Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy

Jewishgen has a dedicated space for beginners to help navigate their resources.