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Thread: Jewish genealogy challenges and strategies

  1. #1
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    Jewish genealogy challenges and strategies

    I thought it might be nice and - hopefully - helpful to start a relatively generic thread on challenges and strategies in Jewish genealogy. I'm relatively new to the subject, as I've only been actively researching my genealogy for the past two years. Although I've often been successful in tracing my non-Jewish paternal lines back several centuries, my quest to do the same with my Jewish lines has been (somewhat predictably) much less fruitful. Three of my maternal great-grandparents were born in the Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine) and one in Turkey. Amazingly to me, I've been able to find all of their parents' names and, in some cases, their grandparents' names, by digging in U.S. records. Unfortunately, my tree ends there. If there are records online, lack of cataloguing and my own lack of knowledge of the records' language of publication are significant obstacles.

    I'd be very curious to know what challenges and successes others have faced in this area! Has anyone been able to trace their Jewish lines in Europe, North Africa or the Middle East beyond what immigration records show? Have you had to use knowledge of local languages? What kind of resources have you been able to tap into, online and offline?
    Paper trail:

    Father = 50% English (early American settlers), 25% Dutch, 12.5% Danish, 8% German + some Irish, Scottish and French

    Mother = 75% Ashkenazi Jewish (Russia/Ukraine) and 25% Sephardic (Turkey)

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    One of my great grandfathers was Jewish; initially I had only his name and his wife, and his father's name. The family had either passed or moved away before my grandmother was an adult so picking up the traces was difficult. His parents were married in London, England, and so was he, in fact my grandmother thought her father was English. I eventually found the town in northern Germany the family came from, but not much more. The town was heavily damaged in WWII, and then behind the Iron Curtain. My 2x great grandparents were married in the Great Synagogue in London, but that was nearly destroyed in the same war.

    One place I've found useful is JewishGen.org--they have a great many records there that might be helpful.

    There are two things to keep in mind here; the adoption of surnames is relatively recent and DNA is of very little help. The Jewish communities tend to marry within, you'll find many "cousins" that aren't actually relatives because of endogamy.

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  4. #3
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    -jewishgen.com
    -yadvashem (even if your ancestors didn't perish in the Holocaust, your ancestors likely had close family that did. The documents submitted for them can give you leads towards previous generations, locations, contacts etc. It's also a useful way to gauge the geographic distribution of a Jewish surname)
    -geni.com
    - https://mitzvatemet.com/ (they follow soviet transcriptions. A chat window pops up. Ask the guy to help you with the soviet transcription. Soviet transcriptions of Jewish surnames can be counter intuitive. Also, some surnames are conjugated for females, so you'll have to search the female versions separately.)
    - Beider's surname dictionaries: Beider lists the towns/cities where a given surname was most common/originated from. He recently wrote one for Sephardim.
    - Learn multiple transcriptions of the surname in question and learn to search it in the relevant languages.

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  6. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lirio100 View Post
    One of my great grandfathers was Jewish; initially I had only his name and his wife, and his father's name. The family had either passed or moved away before my grandmother was an adult so picking up the traces was difficult. His parents were married in London, England, and so was he, in fact my grandmother thought her father was English. I eventually found the town in northern Germany the family came from, but not much more. The town was heavily damaged in WWII, and then behind the Iron Curtain. My 2x great grandparents were married in the Great Synagogue in London, but that was nearly destroyed in the same war.

    One place I've found useful is JewishGen.org--they have a great many records there that might be helpful.

    There are two things to keep in mind here; the adoption of surnames is relatively recent and DNA is of very little help. The Jewish communities tend to marry within, you'll find many "cousins" that aren't actually relatives because of endogamy.
    Thanks for sharing your story.

    So far JewishGen has been of little use to me personally, though it's generally a great website and I hold out hope that in the future they'll be able to get even more records translated and catalogued. I did find immigration records there for some of my great-grandfather's siblings that I haven't found elsewhere, so that was a nice surprise.

    I do wonder how far back my Ashkenazi family surnames go. As I understand, Sephardic surnames tend to go back much farther. My great-grandmother's apparently goes back all the way to the medieval Kingdom of Aragon, though of course I have no idea how it got carried to her.

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    Quote Originally Posted by StillWater View Post
    -jewishgen.com
    -yadvashem (even if your ancestors didn't perish in the Holocaust, your ancestors likely had close family that did. The documents submitted for them can give you leads towards previous generations, locations, contacts etc. It's also a useful way to gauge the geographic distribution of a Jewish surname)
    -geni.com
    - https://mitzvatemet.com/ (they follow soviet transcriptions. A chat window pops up. Ask the guy to help you with the soviet transcription. Soviet transcriptions of Jewish surnames can be counter intuitive. Also, some surnames are conjugated for females, so you'll have to search the female versions separately.)
    - Beider's surname dictionaries: Beider lists the towns/cities where a given surname was most common/originated from. He recently wrote one for Sephardim.
    - Learn multiple transcriptions of the surname in question and learn to search it in the relevant languages.
    Thanks! A couple of those are new to me. I'll have to look into them.

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    My 3x great grandfather was born about 1812 what was then Jastrow,Poland; as far as I can tell his generation was the first one to have the surname that got passed down. As you've found it varies by locality.

    I haven't done much more at the moment The family came from a tiny town in northern German, only had a prayer room, no synagogue. His mother is said to have been born in Berlin but I haven't found any trace of her in extant records so far. I hope you have more luck!

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  10. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lirio100 View Post
    My 3x great grandfather was born about 1812 what was then Jastrow,Poland; as far as I can tell his generation was the first one to have the surname that got passed down. As you've found it varies by locality.

    I haven't done much more at the moment The family came from a tiny town in northern German, only had a prayer room, no synagogue. His mother is said to have been born in Berlin but I haven't found any trace of her in extant records so far. I hope you have more luck!
    Thanks! I hope so, too. It seems like you've done pretty well though with what little info you had to go on.

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    Quote Originally Posted by StillWater View Post
    -jewishgen.com
    -yadvashem (even if your ancestors didn't perish in the Holocaust, your ancestors likely had close family that did. The documents submitted for them can give you leads towards previous generations, locations, contacts etc. It's also a useful way to gauge the geographic distribution of a Jewish surname)
    -geni.com
    - https://mitzvatemet.com/ (they follow soviet transcriptions. A chat window pops up. Ask the guy to help you with the soviet transcription. Soviet transcriptions of Jewish surnames can be counter intuitive. Also, some surnames are conjugated for females, so you'll have to search the female versions separately.)
    - Beider's surname dictionaries: Beider lists the towns/cities where a given surname was most common/originated from. He recently wrote one for Sephardim.
    - Learn multiple transcriptions of the surname in question and learn to search it in the relevant languages.
    Thanks for mentioning Beider. I haven't heard of him before - I was impressed with the samples of his Sephardic book that I found online. I will be buying a copy of his book asap.

  12. #9
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    Some sources that helped me:

    - Dutch victims of the holocaust
    - Dutch Civil records
    - (specific) The Hague Civil records
    - Amsterdam marriages before 1811 These are great, since they state age, often the witnesses (generally a parent), place of origin and if they could write a signature. Be aware that most Ashkenazi did not use surnames and that their given names might be a bit altered.
    - Amsterdam notarial records
    - Dutch Jewry in general
    - (specific) Ashkenazi Amsterdam (18th century)
    - (specific) graves of the Beth Haim cemetery (where most Sephardim from Amsterdam lie).
    - The database from mr. Lewis.
    - Burial records Frankfurt am Main (search for "Ele Toldot").
    - google books sometimes contains interesting information.


    Some issues that I came across: especially with Ashkenazi, their names are often different within the Ashkenazi community than in the public sphere (some examples in my family tree: Issachar vs. Zacharias; Beile vs. Sybilla; Haim vs. Hendrik; Jechiel vs. Michael; Scheinle vs. Reina vs. Catharina).
    On the other hand, watch out for brothers that have similar names (I have a Nathan and Nathaniel, Joseph and Josiah) and also keep in mind that sometimes cousin-marriages or even uncle-niece marriages occurred.

    Brick walls generally arise when the background was outside of Amsterdam (if they were from a smaller town, or from somewhere in Germany).

    About geni: some of their trees are very good, but if they do not provide sources or I cannot verify the links, I am cautious, especially with lines to Rashi etc.
    Last edited by Pylsteen; 06-29-2019 at 06:58 AM.

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  14. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pylsteen View Post

    Brick walls generally arise when the background was outside of Amsterdam (if they were from a smaller town, or from somewhere in Germany).
    Though I hate to admit it, I have given up on finding out more about my Jewish ancestors at this point. The only hint I have is that they came to the Netherlands from Berlin. Not much to go on, unfortunately.

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