Posted by Jasmine Vasquez on March 30, 2018 in ProGenealogists

Janette Silverman grew up believing she might never uncover the stories of her Jewish ancestors. Due to the diaspora and the horrific events of World War II, finding Jewish families who had lived in Europe before the 20th century was nearly impossible. At least, that’s what she had been told. It was common knowledge, a story passed down the generations until it became a myth disguised as fact.

Janette has since abandoned those beliefs and made a robust career out of helping others discover their Jewish ancestry. There’s no denying that Jewish genealogical research is challenging, but many people miss the opportunity to discover their heritage, simply by holding on to false beliefs about what is and is not possible. Here, Janette dispels the top three myths about Jewish genealogical research and paints a more accurate picture of what it takes to learn more about one’s Jewish ancestors.

Q: What are the top three myths surrounding Jewish Genealogy?

A: 1) There is no way to find information about my family before they arrived in the United States (or Canada, South America, England, or elsewhere). 2) There are no records that survived World War II in Europe. 3) Our names were changed at Ellis Island.

Q: How do these myths affect the Jewish community?

A: It’s very strange for many of us growing up being told that there is no “before” – I think it really affects our psyche. It’s a feeling of rootlessness, even though our families clearly set down roots and became established in one way or another in their new countries. It especially affects those whose families were murdered during the Holocaust whose descendants may believe that any information from communities where Jews lived was completely destroyed in the war, and that there is no history for their family predating the mid-20th century. Even for those Jews whose families arrived earlier than the 20th century, those families rarely spoke about people who might have remained in “the old country” or even where the family originated, except in the most general terms.

Q: Where did the belief that there are no records available come from? What is the truth about the existence and availability of records about Jewish families outside America?

A: For many years, a large part of Europe was behind the Iron Curtain. Records were inaccessible, and travel was highly restricted. This lack of access to records and restrictions on visiting or communicating with people who remained in the Soviet areas was close to impossible. The information after World War II about the destruction of all the places Jews lived, as well as the murder of such a large percentage of Jews, led to the belief that all records regarding Jews were destroyed.  In other communities where Jews lived, such as Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, and Syria (just to name a few), the Jews fled to Israel, the United States, England, and elsewhere, to escape persecution or because they were quite literally expelled and often stripped of their property during the process. Accessing any records which remained behind was impossible.

The truth is that many records still exist, whether maintained by Jewish communities or organizations outside of the place of origin, or in archival repositories in those countries. Often it is difficult to gain access to the records, or even when the records can be accessed, to read them. The documents are old, sometimes not in good shape, or handwritten. Some are indexed and digitized, so they can be searched online. But for the most part, in order to really find documents pertaining to your family, you have to be skilled in the research. Because of the changes of names and their rendering, for example, from Yiddish to Russian to Polish to German, names out of context may be unrecognizable. Another issue is, of course, being able to identify the town.  If you don’t know exactly where the ancestors were from, it may be impossible to find records pertaining to them.  There are many towns all over, both within a country and between countries, with names that are the same or similar. Borders of countries changed dramatically after World War I and World War II and again recently. It is possible that the records for which a person is searching are in the archives in the country as it was at the time their ancestors emigrated, but it is also possible that they were moved to a different location.

Q: The belief that immigration agents changed the names of immigrants at Ellis Island is a pervasive myth. But in fact, passenger lists were created at the port of departure and U.S. authorities at Ellis Island simply checked off names as people disembarked. No one’s name was changed at Ellis Island, but many immigrants did change their names before and after they immigrated. What were the common reasons for Jews to change their name? How can one discover other names their ancestors may have used?

A: I think the two biggest reasons for people to change their names were that they felt (or knew) that their names were difficult to say or spell, and they wanted to assimilate, to be indistinguishable from the rest of the population in their new home.  Immigration and naturalization records often have the original name, and vital records might also have them. Family stories often hint at a name. A lot of Jewish gravestones have the decedent’s Hebrew name and that of their father.  Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino names are very important when attempting to identify Jewish families on ship manifests and in their countries of origin.

Q: Realizing these beliefs are myths will likely inspire many readers to learn more or to begin searching for their Jewish ancestors. Where do you recommend they start?

A: There are some great hints in the JewishGen InfoFiles, with tips on beginning Jewish research and on some of the cultural issues that affected our ancestors and their records. A couple of basic books would be those written by Arthur Kurzweil and Dan Rottenberg.

 

Jasmine Vasquez

Jasmine Vasquez writes for the Storytelling Team at AncestryProGenealogists. Before joining Ancestry, she earned her journalism degree from the University of Oregon and worked as a reporter in Central Oregon. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

13 Comments

  1. Susan Winters

    Just Found Out I have 17% DNA to Ashkenazi Jewish Roots. How Do I Find Sources For This Finding and What Areas My Roots Come From? Never Knew This Info Until Now . . .

  2. Sybil Vanger

    My grandfather (my father’s father) is listed in ship records. How do I find out more about him?

    • A good overview is an article I wrote some years ago on resources for tracking a US immigrant back to their town of origin in Europe: bloodandfrogs.com/2011/05/finding-information-on-us-immigrants.html

  3. Jennifer Kerschner

    I am wondering best way to find out about more about my great grandmother on my fathers side she was in a concentration camp, I do not have her maiden name and have very little other family history.

  4. Dian Villarreal

    I know I am Hebrew. My mother was born in Austria/ Poland as the war changed the lines of the countries. She was brought up Jewish but never exposed us 2 the religion and that’s why I say I am Hebrew, and not Jewish. Most of our family was killed in concentration camps or lined up in front of their homes and shot down by the Nazis. My grandfather and his brothers came to this country narrowly escaping the concentration camps. My mother was 8 years old when she came to America, not speaking any English. I know I have cousins that are Jewish that’s still live in Israel, New York, and probably other places. The family name was Dubowy. If you have any knowledge of family members with this surname, please contact me. I have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that would love to find out if they have cousins on our side of the family. I’m sure my brother would love to know too.

  5. James Lollar

    Very interesting site. I had an aunt who researched the name. The result of her efforts produced a very extensive document. If memory serves the research began with Issac circa 1700. On a more personal level, I have always felt a Jewish connection. If I help you, please email me anytime.

    Rowland

  6. Tanianicole Schwarting

    Trying to find fiqoroa first cousin of mine really hard reaching out to any body who should and would have a clue

  7. Judith Tarry(nee Feiermann) DeLaney

    Trying to find information on my grandfather’s family. His name Mores Moishe) Feiermann, family verbal history has him born in Isbiza. Father’s name Shruge Feivel. We think he had a brother named Benno. Mores is said served in the Austrian- Hungarian Army. There are several Feiermann ( or similar spellings) families in the US. If any of them connect with this side of my family , I would like to hear from them. Mores arrived in the US on 4 July 1909 with his wife Minerva ( Nichame) Witlieb at New York. They lived for a short time with an uncle , Charles Lefkowitz.

  8. John Maylath

    My twin brother and I were adopted in 1949 to a Catholic family near Philadelphia. We knew from an early age that we were adopted, and it appeared to be no big deal. As time went on and my adopted parents passed away, my wife and I uncovered our adoption papers and discovered who my biological mother was. We went through proper channels and met her at the adoption agency in the late 1970’s. She was German and Catholic. She confirmed that the person mentioned in the adoption papers was my biological father. He was Irish, German and Catholic. My birth parents were not married to each other. He had a wife. My wife and I are recently retired and have taken up genealogical research. We love Ancestry,com, Based on my birth parents, I deveoped a 7 generation tree on my mother’s side and a 10 generation tree on my farther’s side. Being adopted and curious about finding additional relatives, I took several DNA tests. To my surprise, I was 42 % Ashkenazi Jewish (Ancestry) and 48% Ashkenazi Jewish on 23 and Me. I could not find Jewish connections on my birth mother’s side. I even had my half sister on her side take a DNA test. It confirmed that she was my half sister and that she had 0 % Jewish ancestry. I looked to my father’s side; not only could I not find any Jewish ancestry on his side, but I had 0 matches from his line. On the other hand, most of my close matches were Jewish. I concluded that he could not be my father. I could not confirm this with my birth mother; she passed in 1997 and my so called birth father passed away in 1984. I removed his tree and began to develop a new paternal tree based on close matches from Ancestry,com, 23 and me and My Heritage. 23 and Me stated that either my birth father or grandfather was 100 % Jewish. Based on my new paternal tree my wife and I believed that we narrowed down paternal candidates to two individuals who were of Jewish ancestry from Kiev, Russia. The two had already passed away but had living children. I even made a cold call on a potential half sister or first cousin who lived on the east coast and was a rabbi. Her response was wonderful; she even agreed to take an Ancestry.com DNA test to confirm the relationship. Unfortunately, she turned out to be a third cousin. Back to the drawing board (the paternal tree). The challenge was finding a paternal candidate who was in Philadelphia at the time of my conception. This was a true challenge because my new paternal tree was from Detroit, and my mother’s family was in Philadelphia. There was only one candidate who moved to Philadelphia during that time period. He had one daughter who had no children. He was born in Kiev, Russia in 1899 and moved to Michigan in 1905. His daughter was born in 1918. They both appeared to be too old to be potential candidates. In addition the closest DNA match that I had on his tree was a 2nd cousin. I was frustrated and ready to hire a professional from Ancestry. We did some more research on him and found that not only was he in Philadelphia but he was in the same industry that my mother worked in. But this was not definitive proof that he was my father. I really wanted to know who my father was before I died. We now turned to Newspapers.com and found his obituary, but that did not add any new information. The next day I went back to Nwspapers.com to see if there were any other entries about my potential father. I came to an entry that stated ” Two Philadelphia residents in serious automobile accident in New York state.” The first person who was most seriously injured was my potential father (age 48) and his passenger less seriously injured was my birth mother (age 21). Finally, the “smoking gun”. It was August, 1947 and I was conceived in Fall of 1948. This was no coincedence. I am a first generation Russian Jew and proud of it. Thanks for hearing my story.

  9. Laura Astudillo bruck

    Hi! I sent my DNA about two weeks ago.More or less I guess it may take about three more? Thanks.

  10. Jean Wells

    I had a DNA test done and it came back that in European jew.my mother’s side of the family has no Jew in them so it must be my dad’s side of the family.my mom has passed away and never told me my dad’s name,how do I find out who he could be ?I found a first cousin but we don’t know where I fit in her family

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