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Jewish Genealogy Sources

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 2 Dec 2010 | comments*Discuss
Jewish Genealogy Ancestors Family Origin

If you’re Jewish, then unless you or a relatively recent ancestor converted – your family came from somewhere outside Britain in the past, quite probably in the 19th century, although possibly earlier.

The chances are that it will have been from somewhere in Middle or Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazik Jews, although it’s possible that your roots could be Sephardic, reaching more to the Mediterranean; in Britain, though, that’s less likely.

Whichever branch, it means your task has become somewhat more difficult. In many cultures the Jews lived poor lives, whether in villages or towns, often set apart, often persecuted, with family and religion the main support. Between all those things, records can be very spotty.

Where to Start

Using the techniques set out elsewhere on this site, you can trace your ancestors back in Britain. That’s the easy part, especially if your ancestors arrived after 1837, as you’ll be able to trace them back using census, birth, marriage and death records.

You’d be well advised to contact the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain (jgsgb.org.uk), and to become a member. They possess a database of researched family tress that could save you a lot of work, but they also have resources that can aid you in your search, and branch offices around the country.

Another excellent source of information is Jewish Gen (jewishgen.org). They’re based in the US, but they’ve acquired some excellent resources, including the Family Finder, which can connect you with others searching the same family name or town.

If your ancestors arrived after 1878, then you can trace their arrival using the Board of Trade Passenger Lists, which have been digitised through the National Archives. This should give you their names, ages, where they sailed from, the ship’s name, and where they intended to go in Britain, although not all records have the full information.

At some point those immigrants will have become naturalised citizens, and on arrival they will have registered as aliens – the alien records go back to 1836, and you can dig deep into them at the National Archives.

Where is the Family From?

The chances are that you’ll have some idea where your family originated, although it might not be exact. Stating “Vilna,” for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean the city itself – it might just be a reference point, while “Russia” doesn’t equate to Russia as it is today; it could mean anywhere from the Baltic to the Ukraine. If you don’t know your family’s origins, then the surname can offer a clue; there are a number of books that list surnames by region, although it’s worth knowing that until the early 19th century, most European Jews didn’t have fixed surnames. The ones that were adopted can come from the father, from a trade, or from a place. Some, of course, such as Cohen, are extremely common, and don’t help much in your search.

In the countries of your ancestors, certainly going back in time, records were kept on a local, rather than national, level, which can pose its own problems, since not all will have survived, and they’ll be in a foreign language. It’s worth trying the International Genealogical Index, since they’ve transcribed records from 88 countries and their Family History Library is extensive, with an index at familysearch.org.

One of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century was the Holocaust, where millions of Jews died, and if your origins are in Europe, then relatives of yours would almost certainly have been among them. Tracing them isn’t easy, since most of the available material isn’t published in English. However, the Yitzkor books, or memorial books, published in Hebrew or Yiddish, are worth trying to find. There’s one for each of around 1,000 different communities, offering a history of the place and the names of those who died in the Holocaust.

Digging Deeper

If you really want to dig deep, and you know where the family is from, you can undertake a trip there, although you’ll probably need an interpreter (very definitely for the records). You could also employ a local genealogist, someone familiar with the history and records of the country, who will be able to find what’s available (and sadly, it’s often very little) quickly.

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