Getting to the Source RYO #3

Getting to the Source of Historical Information About Your Jewish Ancestors RYO #3

In this blogpost we will be getting to the source of historical information about your Jewish ancestors by looking at key types of historical sources that can illuminate your Jewish forebears and where these sources can be found.

Our previous blogpost Routes to Research Your Jewish Family History explored three routes you can take to develop your Jewish family history research project. Firstly by working backwards through the human pyramid of your direct ancestors. Secondly by building up information about individuals and generations, and thirdly by looking sideways to broaden your focus if you encounter difficulties.

Three Key Categories of Historical Sources

To research your Jewish family history person by person and generation by generation you will need to get to the historical source of the matter. The simplest way is to focus on obtaining information from three key categories of historical sources, listed in rank order of importance: Getting to the Source Archival Documents National Archive UK



The most important category of data about ancestors is their VITAL DATA, primarily birth, marriage and death records. Along with other life cycle events these should have been officially registered and in most cases this can be traced in civil and Jewish community records relating to the places where the events occurred.


Beyond the key life events it is important to think through all the stages of an individual’s life to decide the type of additional information you will want to find. I call this category of historical sources LIFE EXPERIENCE DATA since it can shed light on the various experiences and everyday activities of ancestors, bringing your ancestors’ experiences to life in an exciting way.

This includes all other types of historical sources which might make reference to your ancestors. The most useful are census data and address confirming sources such as address books, business and telephone directories, and electoral rolls. Secondly migration and travel records: passports, naturalisations and passenger manifests. Thirdly other government issued records, taxation and military documents, occupational and educational records, and newspapers.

Your searches for these two types of data may not be linear. You will probably start by searching for VITAL DATA first but you may find that you need to look at LIFE EXPERIENCE DATA at the same time. Especially when you are not sure where to start and if dates and places are unknown or unclear. It is worth using censuses next to identify possible birth years, locations and family members, as well as looking at other official and government issued documentation we have listed.

The benefit of this dual approach is that if a piece of key information is not forthcoming from the VITAL DATA sources, you may be able to identify other ways of getting hold of that information from the LIFE EXPERIENCE DATA.


The third category BACKGROUND DATA is a very valuable but often overlooked source of historical information in which to contextualise the lives of your ancestors. BACKGROUND DATA includes all sources which shed light on the communities your ancestors lived in, the historical events and circumstances of the period and the locality, as well as the cultural, linguistic and national heritage of their places of residence and communities.

For example if you know the place where an ancestor lived you may want to find out more about the history of that place during the time period when your ancestor lived there. You could gather information about the specific communities who lived there and the history of those communities, their trades and connections. JewishGen’s Town Finder or Communities Database, Jewish Encyclopedia and Wikipedia entries are useful tools to get you started. Searching out historic maps and urban street plans is another way to bring your ancestry to life. Historic photographs, postcards and paintings can also help to visualise former surroundings.

Looking at the Source

The location of these three key types of historical information depends on the location where your ancestors’ lives played out. Information held in local and regional archives, as well as national institutions are now far more accessible than ever before. Many sources are available online, even where those life events took place abroad. This may be in the form of indexes to historical records or the actual digitalised documentation itself.


In the first instance use an internet search engine to gain information about specific historical records and their whereabouts. This can point you to archive contact details, useful websites and other people’s own experiences of searching for similar records.


You may already be familiar with some of the big name genealogical websites such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, Findmypast and Fold 3, which present digitalised collections from national institutions. Or websites like Geni where subscribers post their family trees and data submitted solely from user content. Then there are the national and regional websites of archives around the world which increasingly give access to their holdings online in digitalised form.

In the specific field of Jewish family history research there are several notable websites to look at starting with JewishGen and its many special interest groups (SIGs) focussed on family ancestry in specific geographical and national locations. The JewishGen databases and information pages have been created by volunteer transcribers from historical records all over the world. Depending on the country you are focussed on other specialised websites provide invaluable information and databases, such as JRI-Poland, Routes to Roots, Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and many other national and regional special interest groups and societies who have specialised local knowledge.


Often we don’t need to GO LOCAL for historical sources until we have worked through the other steps to ascertain what is accessible remotely already. At that point you may need to consider what and where to look on the European continent if that is where your ancestors emigrated from. In continental Europe accessibility varies from country to country. Some archives respond to written requests readily, some require in person research or only carry out enquiries themselves. Furthermore there are some restrictions on access to vital data that is less than 100 years old and the length of restrictions varies according to the country and type of record. Depending on the time period and country in question, records should be sought nationally and locally in the country of origin. Many types of data may still exist from civil vital records to Jewish community records and a range of historical documents which can shed light on your ancestors’ life experiences.

In our next historytracings blogpost we will continue this series on researching your own Jewish family history, so watch out for the blogpost entitled “Location location location RYO #4” in which we will explore how to go about identifying and researching the locations where your ancestors’ lives played out, in particular where ancestors formerly lived in continental Europe before migrating to other places around the world.

Ed., historytrace, 21/12/2015

Historytrace specialises in researching Jewish and non-Jewish family histories which originate in Europe and where there is family migration between European countries and emigration away from the European continent.

If this service could help you find where your family hailed from or explore their lives on the European continent do get in touch using the Contact page of this website.

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