Location Location Location – Locating Your Jewish Family History RYO #4
Locating your Jewish family history can be both fascinating and frustrating. In this historytracings blogpost we continue our series on researching your Jewish family history by exploring 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.
Our previous blogpost Getting to the Source RYO #3 explored key types of historical sources that can illuminate your Jewish ancestors: vital data, life experience data and background data, and where these key historical sources can be found.
Where Oh Where?
Besides knowing your ancestor’s names, the name of the place where an ancestor’s life played out is perhaps the second most important detail which can unlock their life story and potentially give access to preceding generations.
To find an ancestor’s place of birth, place of upbringing or previous places of residence, especially prior to emigration, there are several types of historical sources which could provide those elusive place names. If vital data documents such as birth, marriage or death records do not record specific places of birth or former residence, then census data may give some indications. In US censuses both states and countries of provenance are recorded, whereas in UK records places and counties help narrow searches down. Other life experience data sources such as lifecycle events and government issued documentation may help to pinpoint specific place names. So think through what you already know about an ancestor’s life and imagine the kinds of historical sources which might reveal a place of birth or origin.
If the records point to an ancestor’s “foreign” origins outside the country in which they last resided, then knowing the country is important and the place name vital. Immigration and passenger manifest records as well as naturalisation and passport documentation may hold the key. If more that one place name is given, note this down also, do your research, make sure the records definitely all relate to your ancestor and not a person of the same name and similar background, give it the benefit of consideration and draw your conclusions later
So you have been fortunate enough to find a place of origin. However it is one slightly illegible word scrawled in the furthest columns of a passenger manifest which was actually on the page after the one the index directed you to. Or better still it is a place name neatly inscribed onto a naturalisation application. Perhaps you also know the country the place was in at the time, but what next?
If you cannot read the place name, start to dissect the scrawl. Ask others what they can decipher. Decide how many letters the place name might have and start filling in the ones you can figure out. Look around the page at other similar letters of the alphabet or an adjacent page with the same handwriting. Perhaps you can get confirmation of a letter of the alphabet from its use in other words or names you can read. If you are reading a passenger manifest, look at other entries on the same page, do any other travellers come from the same place? Can you trace any other close relatives of that ancestor to see where they came from?
Perhaps you have a working place name, maybe not the correct version, but an approximation. Try it out in an internet search engine, see if it appears as a place name or is referred to in other contexts. Likewise use the place name as a search term in a big name genealogical website by putting it into a category box such as “place of birth” or “residence” or “keyword”, using a wild card asterisk to replace any letter clusters you are unsure about. Chances are other people, transcribers or subscribers, may also have had trouble deciphering the word. Does it crop up in other cases as a place name?
Putting it on the Map
If you have deciphered the place name, or a commonly used version of it, but do not know where the place was located you can again use the internet to look at possible contenders. Encyclopedic websites like Wikipedia have a wealth of information about places around the world in a number of different languages and JewishGen’s Town Finder or Communities Database has a database of place names associated with Jewish communities across Europe. This database can also provide place name variants in various languages commonly used by residents.
Bear in mind the place name you have may be its official title or a homegrown one. Levels of literacy, language, dialect and multiple names changes due to historical events over time may be at play here. Some European regions have changed national identity multiple times during the last 300 years and were officially called by different names based on national identity and language use at different times and the same time during that period. Additionally residents who spoke different languages at home also had their own names and variations for their place of residence.
For example places in modern day Slovakia may have had a Germanic name under the Austrian Empire, a Magyar name under Hungary, dialect versions in both languages, a common Yiddish name, and presently a Slovak name. For example present day Dunajská Streda in Slovakia was referred to as Niedermarkt and Schutt in German, Szerdahely and Dunaszerdahely in Hungarian, and Sezdahely and Serdehel in Yiddish sources.
Not only place names but also addresses can prove hard to figure out and locate on the map. Issues of deciphering aside, historic address books can be immensely helpful here, since besides listing residents and businesses they can also often have an alphabetical gazette of streets which can help narrow down possibilities, especially in large cities. These are often to be found online through the city or regional library service of a country. Furthermore looking at historic maps can help to locate villages, towns and cities, as a well as regions and smaller details like former streets which now no longer exist because of demolition, redevelopment and renaming according to nationalist, linguistic and political changes within the country in question.
If you are still having difficulties identifying a place name look sideways. Can you identify other people coming from the same or similarly named location? A snapshot of migrant origins can sometimes lend clues such as JewishGen’s Ellis Island Gold database of passenger arrivals on New York, which can be search by “Town Name” with the “sounds like” option. Another strategy is to identify other family members and where they came from, which might narrow down a region within which to look. Lastly waiting for further sources to become digitalised or transcribed and posted online is also a valid option, so make good notes of what you have already pursued so that you can search again after a period of time elapses.
Frustratingly some individuals’ place of birth or last address before emigration simply never reveals itself. There are ancestors whose place of birth or origin was just not recorded for various reasons at the time of their departure or arrival or naturalisation in another country or other part of an empire. And many immigrants to the UK who settled or passed through on their way to North America or the southern hemisphere often used Baltic and north sea ports whose passenger manifests have not been retained. Some ancestors through no intention of their own left little paper trail of their lives, whilst others unwittingly did.
In our next historytracings blogpost we will continue this series on researching your own Jewish family history, so watch out for the blogpost entitled “Must Be Out There Somewhere – People Tracing for Jewish Family History Research RYO #5” in which we will explore some strategies to help find traces of missing ancestors and family members.
Ed., historytrace, 20/12/2015
Historytrace specialises in researching Jewish and non-Jewish family histories which originate in Europe and in particular where there was family migration between European countries and emigration away from the European continent.
Our expertise can help you research your family’s former places of residence in Europe. If this service could help you explore where your family hailed from and the locations your ancestors lived in do get in touch using the Contact page of this website.
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