Locating Jewish Family Roots

There is a common perception that the persecution of Jewish people makes locating Jewish family roots difficult, if not impossible. In many families, Jewish ancestry has simply been hidden to avoid persecution. Recently I was talking with someone who had not known until reaching adulthood that she had Jewish ancestry. One of my guest bloggers from New Zealand — Esther Fitzpatrick – writes about her search for an adopted ancestor who had been known as “the little Jewish girl.”  The Holocaust wiped out not only six million Jewish people, but also many of the records of who they were and who their families were.

Nonetheless, a rich array of tools and resources exists for Jewish family historians. Here I will direct you to some of them. But before you plunge in, as Judaism 101 points out, you should know that the main websites about Jewish family history recommend beginning with the same steps as for any family history:

  1. Gather as much information as you can from family members by talking informally or interviewing, even if they don’t think they know anything about the family’s history. Get names of family members, any information you can about births and deaths, and where people came from. If you can, get social security numbers as well. 
  2. Use the census of the U.S. or of any other country where your family has lived, to trace as many people as you can, working backward from the present. To the extent possible, use other kinds of records described in this blogsite.

Currently the main database people are going to for Jewish families is JewishGen, which is an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. JewishGen is loaded with information and databases. The one that I would probably go to first if I were Jewish (I’m not) is the JewishGen Family Finder, a “crowd sourced” compilation of family surnames and towns (submitted by Jewish family historians like you), that is free to use. Initially it was begun in 1982, then put online in 1996, and has expanded rapidly since then. At present, the database contains over a half million entries submitted by genealogists around the world. You can check out what proportion of the entries are from which countries. JewishGen also has a Holocaust database, a burial registry, and other searchable databases.

The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) collects and disseminates information about Jewish genealogy, and assists with the process of researching Jewish genealogy. This organization also holds an International conference on Jewish genealogy annually. Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database, a service of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, offers a searchable database for individual names, and lists of documents such as death lists, concentration camp lists.

If you are a member of Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.Org, you can access help pages for Jewish Genealogy. The page on FamlySearch.org looks particularly useful because of the various tools it offers such as lists of organizations, and Jewish population maps. There are additional websites online, but these are good ones to start with.

In addition, there are “brick and mortar” places to visit that house archives. One such place is the Family History Collection of the Center for Jewish History in New York. There, you will find many collections that can be searched by visiting the center, such as marriage records, New York court records, Jewish immigration records.

In short, Jewish family historians will find a wealth of records and databases that make locating Jewish family roots much more possible now than even a decade ago.

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