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.