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Getting Started on your Jewish Genealogy

Two major events shaped Jewish life of the past two hundred years: migration and the Holocaust. Few Jews today live where their ancestors lived a century or two ago. As a result many Jews believe they cannot trace their family roots because:

  • My family name was changed (at Ellis Island)
  • No one in my family knows about the past
  • No one is left alive to tell me about my family's past
  • All the records were destroyed in the Holocaust
  • My town was wiped off the face of the map

These statements are myths. Jewish genealogy today is highly organized and therefore help is available to dispel these myths. There are many resources available to help you trace your Jewish family heritage.

Those doing research on Jewish families should first follow the genealogy strategies and methods for the area where the family was from. Research outlines and other research aids can help you learn about records and formulate strategies. In addition to general sources, which list all of the population including Jews, there are many books, indexes, and other resources that have been created for Jewish research in particular.

The following basic steps for genealogical research will help get you started:

Step 1. Identify What You Know about Your Family

Begin your research at home. Look for names, dates, and places in certificates, letters, obituaries, diaries, and similar sources. Ask relatives for any information they may have. Record the information you find on pedigree charts and family group record forms.

Step 2. Decide What You Want to Learn

Choose an ancestor to research for whom you know at least a name, the town where he or she lived, and an approximate date of birth. The more you know about your ancestor, the more successful you will be with further research.

It is best to begin by verifying the information you already have. Then you can decide what else you want to learn about that ancestor. You may want to ask an experienced researcher or a librarian to help you choose a goal.

Step 3. Select a Record to Search

Effective researchers first find background informa-tion. Then they survey compiled sources and finally they search original records. "For Further Reading" in this outline has a list of genealogy how-to books, both general and geographically specific, that give information about tracing Jewish ancestors.

Background Information Sources. You must have some geographical and historical information. This will help you focus your research in the correct place and time period.

Find the place of residence. Use maps, gazetteers, histories, and other place-finding aids to learn about each place where your ancestor lived. Identify governmental and ecclesiastical jurisdictions, local Jewish congregations, cities, counties, and other geographical features.

Review local history. Jewish history and the history of the area your ancestor lived in affected the records about the Jews.

Use language helps. Jewish records may be in Yiddish, Hebrew, or in the language of the country of residence. Some church records for Jews may be in Latin.

Compiled Records. Surveying research already done by others can save time and reveal valuable information. Check compiled sources such as:

Private collections of family histories and genealogies deposited in historical and genealogical societies and other libraries
Printed family histories and genealogies
Family histories, genealogies, and abstracts or transcripts of records on the Internet
Compiled records of the Family History Library
FamilySearch International Genealogical Index (IGI)
FamilySearch Personal Ancestral File
Vital Records Index British Isles and Vital Records Index North America.See "Genealogy" in this outline for details about these sources. Similar indexes for other countries are in production.
Pedigree Resource File

Remember, information in compiled records may have some inaccuracies,and the information in them should be verified.

Original Records. After surveying previous research, you can begin searching original documents, which are often handwritten and copied on microfilm or microfiche. Original documents provide first-hand information recorded at or near the time of an event by a reliable witness. To do thorough research, you should search:

Jurisdictions that may have kept records about your ancestor.
Records of Jewish communities.

Most researchers begin with civil registration, census records, church records, or probate records.

Step 4. Use the Internet

Many individuals and organizations have made family history information available on the Internet. This is particularly true of records pertaining to the Jews. Internet sites often refer to information others have placed on the Internet. These sites, also called home pages or web sites, are connected with other sites to create the World Wide Web (WWW). Each site on the Internet has an address that enables you to go directly to that site.

You can use search engines to search a broad range of Internet sites that contain certain keywords. For example, if you want to find Jewish cemetery records for a certain place, type in "Jewish" and "cemetery" and "Berlin" in a search engine, which will present a list of sites that contain these words. Different search engines search in different ways, so you may want to try more than one.