WHERE TO START YOUR
JEWISH GENEALOGICAL JOURNEY
It’s exciting to start researching your family tree but you soon realise it can be a daunting undertaking. Researching Jewish ancestry presents unique challenges as Jewish families migrated widely, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, and many were torn apart by the momentous events of the 20th century. Countless records, if they existed at all, have been lost or destroyed… Names changed as people migrated and the many languages spoken created multiple spellings and translations of those names. Towns changed jurisdictions and also acquired new names or altered spellings as borders shifted.
Unfortunately, for some localities, it may be almost impossible to find records. For example, records for Sephardi communities from the Middle East are a challenge to access. Extensive records exist for the U.S., UK, and Australia. There are excellent online resources to search available records for Europe – both East and West – and resources are also available for some Asian regions; for example the Jews of China.
As daunting as all this sounds we’re here to cut through the complexity and help you uncover your Jewish roots, so you can understand the rich cultural context in which your ancestors lived.
Family tree research comes down to three main activities.
- You collect data, stories, photos, and documents;
- you collate these into a collection, a book, or an archive – either in a box, a folder, or online;
- Collecting and collating tend to happen simultaneously and once you begin it’s very hard to actually ‘finish’ a family history as new information seems to pop up all the time. This isn’t a problem, it’s just one of the realities of this type of research.
The very first place to start your genealogical journey is at home.
- Speak to your parents, your grandparents, aunts and uncles, your cousins and second cousins… anyone who you think may have family stories and data.
- Create a simple family tree – You can download our AJHS PEDIGREE CHART template to get you going – or set yourself up an account with one of the online family tree providers. Fill in dates and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Make a note of professions and any achievements you’re aware of.
- Write down family legends or apocryphal stories so you can figure out if they’re true or not.
Once you’ve done this, you’ll see where the gaps in your knowledge are, and you can embark on the next stage of your exploration… your research. Check out our Research Resources page for more information.
PHOTOS ALWAYS TELL A STORY
Family photos can tell terrific tales. You can try to figure out when a photo was taken by examining the clothing worn and the style of the image.
Late 19th/ early 20th Century images were a lot more formal than today as film stock was expensive and a family portrait was a special occasion.
Soldiers in WW1 (1914-1918) often had a photo taken of them in uniform and printed onto a postcard for their families.
More casual images became popular from about the 1940s, and pocket cameras of the 50s and 60s, then 1-hour photo processing in the 80s, made family snaps ubiquitous.
The introduction of digital cameras in the 90s significantly increased the quantity of images families generated, (although not the quality), and today, with cameras in our phones, billions of images a day, both still and moving, are recording our lives.
There are four challenges, or genealogical myths, that often stop people from even starting their family history research.
Challenge 1: Nobody remembers anything
Reality: Asking questions of older family members is one of the best places to start your genealogical journey. Asking the right questions can release a flood of memories.
Your parents and grandparents may have memories of their parents and grandparents. Asking the RIGHT questions may bring back long-buried recollections. Rather than asking “What do you know about the family history Gran?”, start your conversation with more specific questions. For example:
- Who are you named after?
- It’s traditional in many Jewish families to name children after deceased relatives.
- Hebrew names may point to the identities of other ancestors.
- Do you know when and where your grandparents were born?
- While your family members may not know the specifics they may know a story that could point you in the right direction.
- Do you have any old documents, letters, or photographs from your grandparents?
- Birth, death, or marriage certificates, old newspaper clippings and magazine articles, and mementos of special occasions, like awards, greeting cards, postcards, and letters can act like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, helping to piece together a picture of the past.
Challenge 2: All the records were destroyed during The Holocaust
Reality: While it’s true that countless Jewish records held in Synagogues and homes were destroyed during the Holocaust, and other conflicts, millions of government records survived the wars and are available if you know where to look.
The Mormon Church (Church of Latter Day Saints/ LDS) has been collecting genealogical data for over a century as part of its religious mission. In the late 19th/ early 20th centuries Mormon missionaries photographed millions of records all across Europe and put the resulting images on file as microfilm/ microfiche. Today they maintain one of the largest digital collections of genealogical data in the world, FamilySearch, which is free to access (registration is required). and Ancestry built its database from this collection (Ancestry was originally affiliated directly with the Church but is now an LLC).
Governments, churches, and civic organisations have vast archives of genealogically useful records. Many are working to index and digitise these collections, and make them available online, largely using volunteer support and public donations. JewishGen supports many of these efforts and members can make donations or volunteer their time to index and transcribe records to help future researchers.
Trove is a massive local resource hosted by the National Library of Australia, which, amongst other things, holds digitised newspapers from all over Australia. Trove is a great place to look for your family, especially if they have a distinctive name. Births, marriages, deaths, and burials, were advertised in Family Notices; families bragged about their academic and sporting achievements; and criminal activity was extensively reported, particularly in rural areas. You can learn more about Trove on our Australian Genealogy Resources page.
Challenge 3: The family name was changed and no one knows what it was originally.
Reality: Name changes were common as families moved from European to Anglophone countries but there are a variety of strategies one can use to discover your original family name.
A passport or other travel document has been a necessary condition for traversing international borders for centuries. Our ancestors required official travel documents to emigrate, and the names on these documents were usually the names on manifests and lists at ports of entry. One challenge that is encountered is that many passenger lists only have an initial instead of a full first name – So Mr/ Mrs/ Miss A Surname. This can be very frustrating when attempting to sort out who is who, and where they went.
Following a family’s trail using historic census documents, vital records, and public registries may help track name changes. Tracing the movements of refugees and displaced persons is more challenging, but there may be lists from government agencies and NGOs available in relevant archives, such as the Arolsen Archives in Germany.
Challenge 4: No one knows where we came from originally.
Reality: It doesn’t matter that you don’t know where your family is from. It’s your job to find out!
When you start your genealogical journey you unwrap a gift that will keep on giving. Not knowing the country or town your ancestors came from originally is an obstacle you overcome using persistence, tenacity, and technology. As you progress with your research, your skills will improve. Creativity and lateral thinking will lead you to more resources that will yield yet more results and, step by step, open up new lines of inquiry. Advances in DNA technology for genealogy, and the new frontier of AI to surface previously invisible connections in huge datasets, are changing the landscape of research options and opportunities.