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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2001

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, December 2001 Contents

Jewish genealogy

Susan Fifer

If you're trying to research a possible Jewish link in your family, you'll soon find out that Jewish genealogy is just like all other genealogy, only more so!

The great wave of Jewish immigrants came over to the UK in the last quarter of the 19th century. They initially congregated in the towns where they arrived, and many of them living in the East End of London. This meant that many communities lived in close proximity to family, friends, landsleit (people coming from the same village) and co-religionists. As late as my childhood in the 1950s, people lived within 'pram-pushing' distance of their mothers. This meant a closeness of family life and knowledge of cousins, great aunts and uncles that only began to lessen as subsequent generations became more prosperous and started to move out to the suburbs and beyond. With a visit to the various Jewish cemeteries as part of the yearly religious cycle (for adults at least), with barmitzvahs, weddings, Passover and Friday night family meals, there was a consciousness of an extended family and networks that all newly arrived immigrants develop for mutual support. Tapping into this wealth of family knowledge can get you off to a great start but, for every genealogist who is fortunate enough to be able to access this information, there will be another whose family organisation and memories didn't seem to conform to this pattern or who feels they started their research too late.

The two main problems that most people encounter are where their ancestors came from and whether they changed their names. Even a brief study of the history or political geography of Eastern Europe will show how often borders and administrations changed. My grandmother said she came from Austria. It was actually a region of the Austro-Hungarian empire called Galicia. Today it is in the Ukraine but, at some point in its history it was in Poland. So, many of its records are in the Polish State Archives in Warsaw while others are in Lvov (also known either now or in the past as Lwow, Lviv or Lemberg).

Probably the best thing that happened to me was learning, right from the beginning, the names of the towns where my great grandparents came from: Kalisz, Kolo, Biala Podlaska (all in Poland) and Husiatyn (Galicia). Discovering that there were microfilms of Polish Jewish birth, marriage and death records available through the Mormon Family Historv Centre here in England was a revelation. I used to think that all these records would have been destroyed in the turmoil of life in Eastern Europe during the last two centuries. I recognise now that bureaucrats didn't go to a lot of trouble to collect information, only to destroy it. They kept it for tax collection, for military and conscription reasons and sometimes, unfortunately, for more menacing purposes. Where records have been lost, it is more often through neglect and lack of funds and equipment to preserve archives.

The first time I saw some of these Polish records on microfilm, my elation turned to disappointment. I was initially discouraged by difficulties in understanding the narrative 'Napoleonic' format of the records, the frequently dreadful handwriting and the poor condition of some of the records filmed. I was rescued by a wonderful book on translating 19th century Polish records written by someone from the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois. It was certainly the best investment of any that I've made in terms of genealogical books and materials. Have I mentioned, by the way, that after 1867, all the Polish records are written in Russian (Cyrillic) characters? No? Well that's another steep learning curve that I'll have to go through at some point. Contrary to popular

The grave of Gershon son of Jacob which gave me his father's name

mythology, name changes were not usually made at the point of entry to a country by immigration officials too lazy or ignorant to understand foreign names. Most passenger lists would have been compiled in the country of origin by people familiar with these names. Where there were rigorous immigration procedures, particularly in the USA, officials would themselves either have first hand knowledge of the language, would use interpreters or would have become familiar with the spellings of foreign names over time. The immigrants therefore often made name changes themselves. Mainly these were made to fit in to the local business and social community. In times of strong anti German feeling (for example during the First World War), it was not only Jews who changed their surnames to avoid becoming targets.

Name changes may be spelling simplifications - my own name of Fajfer changing to Fifer - or direct translations as when Grunfeld became Greenfield. Sometimes the name will just be shortened as in Green. Levy (often written as Lewy in Polish), can become Lewis. And often there is no apparent reason for the change as when someone in my mother's family changed his surname from Vogel to Lester. Thank goodness for my Klinger family who kept their name, both here and in the USA. This enabled me to get documentary evidence of my grandmother's town of origin from information about her cousins on US passenger lists, census and naturalisation documents, all of which contrasted starkly with the lack of similar evidence available in this country.

Things don't get much easier when you look at forenames. In Poland, in particular, many Jews used a variety of names for business, religious and social purposes. These too were often changed or simplified after a period in the new country. Baruch might become Barnett or Barney or Bernard. Sometimes it helps to know the meaning of the original name as when Blume became Flora. Many people changed their names for secular purposes but retained their Hebrew names for religious purposes. These names can often be found on gravestones in the Hebrew writing and they are useful because they are written in the form of patronymics and thus give you the father's name (in Hebrew at least).

It was (and often still is) customary in Ashkenazic families (those who came from Eastern Europe in contrast to the Sephardim from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and Holland) to name children after deceased grandparents. They are rarely named after living relatives. This often enables you to pinpoint when someone died since a number of cousins born shortly after that time will all bear the name of their common grandparent. This use of naming patterns can be very helpful in tracing back different family lines, particularly when combined with the names 'inherited' from the spouse's side of the family. This is all the more important since Eastern European Jews often didn't use surnames until they were legallv required to do so at the end of the eighteenth century. Working backwards from the age of his death record in 1836, I can estimate that Lewka Pfeiffer (my 4 x great grandfather) was probably born in 1748. However, even if I could find records from that period, it is unlikely that he or his family were using the Pfeiffer surname at that time. All I could hope would be that the patronymics used would be sufficiently unusual to help me in my task.

The President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain tells how he got interested in genealogy as a young boy when he saw a family tree of the Kings and Queens of England. He asked his father why their family didn't have such a tree and, being dissatisfied with the answer, set out to rectify the matter. While there are no royal lines in Jewish genealogy (anyone who tells you that he has traced his ancestry back to King David is probably spinning you a line) the next best thing is if you are descended from a rabbi, preferably one of the famous ones. Their genealogies are well documented and there are a number of people who specialise in this field.

In some cases, you may be researching a single Jewish ancestor who 'married out' and who subsequently maintained few or no links with their family or the Jewish community. In other cases there are families who have hidden their Jewishness from their children and grandchildren. At the International Seminar on Jewish Genealogy held in London this summer, there were some very moving stories of people who had discovered Jewish roots initially through their family history research. This kind of research can be difficult but is not impossible.

The Holocaust was, and continues to be, a defining event in Jewish history and consciousness. Even for those of us who did not lose immediate family members, we know that there will be lines in our family trees which we may pick up in the research for our roots but which we know will be cut short as we try to research these lines forward into the 193os and 1940s. For many of us, the creation of a family tree can act as a memorial both to the known and the unknown dead. In some cases family history research has enabled Holocaust survivors to find out more about their roots and even to discover branches of their families that they didn't know existed - a wonderful blessing that can give real impact and meaning to the research activity.

Much of the support and information available to help Jewish researchers comes through various societies and on-line support groups. The American Jewish genealogical research community is particularly strong and well-organised in this respect and there are some wonderful examples of international indexing projects for Polish records, burial records and other activities to which we can all contribute. Many of these are hosted by Jewishgen on the Internet at and, if you have never visited this site, I urge you to look here for both databases and a very useful series of help and information files for beginners. Here in the UK we also have an excellent website at which will tell you about our publications, library and activities ( Since Jewish researchers are often more widespread both in their current locations and in their research interests, the Internet has been a boon in bringing people together and helping them to share their knowledge and interests.

I am conscious that I have focused this article on the research for Jewish ancestors in Poland, the area where my own interests lie. I have not discussed research for those whose Anglo-Jewish roots go back much further than mine, sometimes to the time of Cromwell. I have also not covered those areas with which I am less familiar such as research in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Western European countries, South Africa or even the USA. Many of these have their own Special Interest Groups (SIGS) with newsgroups on the web, newsletters and annual get-togethers at the International Seminars (to be held in Toronto next year and in Washington in 2003). We may not all be related, but we all feel like mishpocheh (defined in Leo Rosten's book The Joys of Yiddish as ', including relatives far, near, remote and numerous').


Judith Frazin, A Translation Guide to igth-Century Polish Language Civil-Registration Documents (Birth, Marriage and Death Records). The Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois, 1989, ISBN 0-9613512-1-7
Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish. Penguin Books, 1971, ISBN 0-14003068-9

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