Several years ago when I began researching my own Jewish ancestry, an elderly relative sent me a scuffed piece of paper with a list of unfamiliar names. These, I was told, were my great-grandfather’s siblings – the Lewkowicz family – from Lodz, Poland. Then, I knew little more than my great-grandfather’s name and that he had died aged 52 in Kensington Infirmary, of tuberculosis aggravated by his tailoring work.
Fast forward to the present day, and I not only know what became of each one of those siblings, their children, and grandchildren – but, I am in touch with more than thirty 2nd and 3rd cousins in the US. I know exactly where my great-grandfather grew up, what his street and his synagogue looked like, the names of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as far back as 1740, how and when he came to London, the family he left behind…
The point of this story? With a little persistence, everything is possible. Do not assume that your Jewish ancestry cannot be uncovered! I have since researched a number of Ashkenazi and Sephardi families, from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East and have learned a few clear lessons along the way.
Chuck out the rule book
The usual principles of genealogical research do not apply. Clearly, you cannot rely on your Jewish ancestors staying in the same place, as most English families traditionally did, or using the same names. Even in “the old country” our ancestors typically went by a variety of names and epithets in several languages, and spelled surnames in multiple ways. These challenges are compounded by translation and adoption of new names in new countries. It is wise to keep an open mind when searching records and not to discount sources too quickly if certain details appear inaccurate.
It is surprising how many Jewish records survive in Eastern Europe and beyond, despite best efforts to obliterate them. Do not assume there is no information to be had. It may be possible to find birth, marriage and death records; books of Jewish residents; business directories; cemetery records and much more.
Ask the questions
You won’t get answers if you don’t ask the questions! Use the internet to research which archives might be helpful to you. Write or email, explain what you want to find out, ideally in bite-size chunks, and ask what records are available. Though archivists are employed to retrieve records, not to do the work for you, they often provide an amount of informal research. It pays to do your homework first. Be prepared to chase! If you do not know where your ancestors came from, use old census returns and vital records to locate them.
Muster your resources
Use every tool at your disposal – a larger toolbox is required to research a Jewish family tree, though it need not be specialist. Start by contacting relatives and ask them what they know. As well as genealogical resources online (many of which are free, see below), use Google translate to help communicate with overseas archives, XE.com to calculate currency conversion fees. Utilise Facebook, the Israeli telephone directory, US White Pages…
Expect nothing… and everything
Obviously there is no guarantee you will find what you are looking for. However, the particular challenges of researching Jewish ancestry make the fruits all the sweeter. And, often, the stories uncovered about our ancestors’ rich past are of a peculiarly fascinating scope.
Where to start?
Start with the present and work your way back logically, making notes of significant names, places and dates. You may wish to make use of the following resources:
JewishGen – the most comprehensive repository of Jewish genealogical information.
Ancestry – register a free subscription to build a tree, and explore its vast records, including the Jewish Online World Burial Registry, Jewish family history collections, passenger and immigration records.
Yad Vashem – trace relatives in wartime Europe using the Shoah Names Database, which draws on personal testimonies and WW2-era records.
Avotaynu – investigate the extensive resources of this leading Jewish genealogical publisher, including the Consolidated Jewish Surname Index, a gateway to 700,000 Jewish surnames.