To be Jewish is to be specifically identified with a history. And if you’re not aware of that when you’re a child, the whole tradition is lost. ~ Joyce Carol Oates
People wishing to trace their Jewish genealogy may encounter a few unique challenges. Patrilineal surnames were not adopted by Jewish communities until the late 1700s to the early 1800s. In addition, unrelated lines often adopted the same surname. Conversely, related lines may have different surnames.
Furthermore, the national boundaries of Eastern European countries changed frequently, so that within a few decades a single village may have been Polish, Russian and Austrian. At the same time, records were kept in many different languages, though primarily in German, Russian, Polish, or Yiddish.
Finally, some records were destroyed during the Russian Revolution and others during the World War II. Still, many records survived.
When researching the victims and survivors of The Holocaust, you may also encounter the term Shoah. The Holocaust with a capital T and capital H generally refers to the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War. However, this English term has troubling connotations and origins in regards to its Jewish victims. Holocaust means “burnt offerings” and carries with it a religious sacrificial tone, as Dr. Zev Garber explains here. The Hebrew term Shoah, Garber notes, has no religious connotations and simply means, catastrophe or calamity, a “devastation, desolation, or ruin that affect man, nature, and land.” It forces the responsibility back onto the Nazis and focuses the attention back onto the Jewish victims. Therefore, the preferred term for the Jewish Holocaust has come to be the Shoah.
Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute – A part of the Center for Jewish History, the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute provides a central point of access for the genealogical collections of the five partner institutes of the Center for Jewish History: the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. You can even arrange a Zoom consult with one of their staff genealogists.
American Jewish Historical Society – “Established in 1892, the American Jewish History Society provides access to more than 30 million documents and 50,000 books, photographs, art and artifacts that reflect the history of the Jewish presence in the United States from 1654 to the present.”
Ancestry.com Library Edition – The Library edition of Ancestry includes many resources for genealogical research. However, in order to use the Library edition, you must be at one of the libraries within the Sevier County Public Library System.
ANU: Museum of the Jewish People – The ANU Databases is an open database project supported by the Museum of the Jewish People. For over 40 years, they have been collecting the family histories of over five million individuals. Their collections include archival footage (photographs and videos), music, compiled genealogies, surname databases, and cultural resources.
Avotaynu Online: Research into the Origins and Migrations of the Jewish People – A peer-reviewed multidisciplinary research site that focuses on the origins and migratory patterns of Jewish populations, which includes cast studies, collections of personal stories, DNA studies, white papers, conferences and conference publications, and scholarly articles housed on Academia.edu.
The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People – The Jerusalem-based Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People holds “the most extensive collection of documents, pinkassim (registers) and other records of Jewish history from the Middle Ages to the present day.”
Cyndi’s List – Jewish – A comprehensive list of Jewish genealogy websites and resources.
Ellis Island – The official website of Ellis Island includes the Family History Center, which has approximately 65 million searchable records. Their genealogy guide to their collections may be found here.
European Holocaust Research Infrastructure Portal – The EHRI portal offers access to information on Holocaust-related archival material held in institutions across Europe and beyond.
FamilySearch – This free genealogy resource operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints includes Jewish resources. They also have a research guide available here.
Gesher Galicia – Galicia does not exist anymore. It is a region that is now divided between western Ukraine and eastern Poland, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is not a free resource, but it has vast records, such as vital records, maps, surveys and family information.
HeritageQuest – A resource available through the Tennessee Electronic Library, it is free for all Tennesseans. There are many resources available through HeritageQuest, including city directories and immigration records.
Historic Jewish Press Collection – Although the site is in Hebrew, it contains newspapers published in many languages, countries, and different time periods.
International Center on Nazi Persecution Arolsen Archives – “The Arolsen Archives are the international center on Nazi persecution with the world’s most comprehensive archive on the victims and survivors of Naziism. The collection has information on about 17.5 million people and belongs to UNESCO’s Memory of the World. It contains documents on the various victim groups targeted by the Nazi regime.”
JewishGen – A free website for Jewish genealogical resources, which includes unparalleled access to global resources.
Jewish Family History Collection – A partnership between Ancestry.com and JewishGen, this collection represents seven subcollections that will remain free to all as long as they are housed on Ancestry. They include the USC Shoah Foundation’s Holocaust Jewish Survivor Interviews ; the Miriam Weiner Eastern European Archival Database ; Lithuania, List of Donors to Charity from HaMagid, 1871-1872 ; Hungary’s Jewish Census, 1848 ; Munich, Vienna and Barcelona Jewish Displaced Persons and Refugee Cards, 1943-1959 ; Jewish Given Name Variations ; Russia, Duma Voter Lists, 1906-1907.
JRI Poland – The largest online database of Jewish vital records. Besides Poland, it includes records from Belarus, Galicia, Lithuania, Prussia, and Ukraine.
Leo Baeck Institute – “The Leo Baeck Institute – New York | Berlin is a research library and archive focused on the history of German-speaking Jews. Its extensive library, archival, and art collections comprise one of the most significant repositories of primary source material and scholarship on the centuries of Jewish life in Central Europe before the Holocaust.”
LitvakSIG – Litvaks or Lithuanian Jews were once a thriving, vibrant community in pre-War Lithuania. This website seeks to preserve Litvak heritage by collecting records such as census and vital records, tax lists, voter, citizenship and passport lists, Holocaust lists, and cemetery records.
The Miriam Weiner Routes to Roots Foundation – Includes databases, maps, and articles related to Jewish genealogical research.
New York Public Library Yizkor Book Collection – The New York Public Library has digitized about 700 yizkor books in partnership with the Yiddish Book Center. Yizkor or memorial books are commemorative books of Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust. They were written by survivors, often in Hebrew or Yiddish.
The Pinkas Project – The Pinkas project is “a collaborative effort to build an online catalog of pinkasim from immigrant communities.” A pinkas is a traditional ledger used to record Jewish communal organization and communal memory.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database – The Holocaust Memorial Museum provides a database of the survivors and victims of the Holocaust.
Yad Vashem Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names – “Yad Vashem, together with its partners, has collected and recorded the names and biographical details of millions of victims of systematic anti-Jewish persecution during the Holocaust (Shoah) period. More than four million eight hundred thousand of the near six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices are commemorated here. This database includes information regarding victims of the Shoah: those who were murdered, many whose fate has yet to be determined as well as some who survived.”
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research – A research institution focused on the study of Eastern European Jewish people and their communities, it was originally founded in 1925 in Berlin and Wilno, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania), YIVO survived the Holocaust by relocating to New York in 1940. It is the only prewar Jewish library and archives to have survived. Their collections contain invaluable records and artifacts for those researching their family history and/or Jewish heritage. Their research guide for genealogy may be found here.