Tracing family back to the mid-1600s is now possible

It's All Relative: A Grand Project
By Schelly Taladay Dardashti
Published in the Jerusalem Post, Nov. 18, 2004

(Updated and edited February 2006 – Sonia Hoffman)

Jewish genealogy has come a long way from the old days when we believed there were no Jewish records left in Eastern Europe. The non-profit Jewish Family History Foundation, established by David and Sonia Hoffman of Los Angeles, offers the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) Project, which can bridge the gap from 19th to 18th century records.

 In 1990, David and Sonia organized a worldwide cousins group. As they interviewed cousins, gathered photographs, documents, stories and autobiographies, they began to trace seven family branches to the Lithuanian shtetl of Ariogala.

Using JewishGen's Family Finder and discussion groups, they gathered a research group whose ancestors also came from Ariogala, coordinating fundraising to acquire, translate and share the shtetl records.

In 1999, they visited Vilnius and the Lithuanian State Historical Archives and met the archivists. David had already traced his Friedland family to an 1816 census. He asked if other documents were available to go back in time, and found the 1784 and 1765 Ariogala Jewish census-tax lists, identifying his family, through naming patterns, to the mid-1600s.

David and Sonia have helped many researchers find families in these documents, created when Lithuania, Belarus and other nearby areas were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Importantly, they provide support to family history researchers who establish groups to study ancestral towns and family origins.

In 2002, the Foundation was formed to help acquire, preserve, transliterate and disseminate disintegrating Jewish records from Eastern European repositories, with a view to creating online databases and sharing data with other Jewish genealogy organizations. It compiles lists and locations of documents it hopes to acquire, concentrating on 17th-18th century Jewish families in the GDL. When a repository is located, duplication, translation and publication of translations are planned.

The GDL Project focuses on the large Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) and Kingdom of Poland, joined in a commonwealth from 1569 through the 18th century. An estimated 80% of today's Jews descend from families who once lived there. The partitions of Poland divided this large expanse among the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Prussia from 1772-1795.

The Project has acquired the 1784 census-tax list, including today's Lithuania, most of Belarus, some western areas of Poland and a few towns in northern Ukraine. The earlier 1765 GDL census covers a larger territory, which existed before the first partition, including eastern Poland, parts of Latvia, and Vitebsk (now Belarus). Similar records for the Kingdom of Poland are today in archives in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.

Jews were not required to have surnames until the early 1800s. Only a few families with surnames show on the 1765 and 1784 lists, an obstacle to locating family. Often surnames do not show until the 1816 Russian Empire tax and conscription lists, with some exceptions among prominent or rabbinical families.

One way to break through this wall is finding family naming patterns, as Ashkenazi Jews named children after deceased grandparents or other close relatives. Such patterns help identify an ancestor's household as versions of the same names repeatedly appearing over the years. Several dozen researchers have been successful in using this technique.

David recommends that researchers prepare by reading about naming patterns. Informative JewishGen infofiles by Warren Blatt and others (check under "Names") provide help. Alexander Beider's A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation and Migrations, is a masterful work, and helps researchers recognize name equivalents and variations in various countries over the years. Professor Jerry Esterson's Given Names Database (see www.Jewishgen.org) provides data on Jewish given names in Europe, 1792-1925.

The couple says of the independent foundation, "Our data is unique in that it focuses on very early and a much wider geographical areas than preexisting country-related databases. Once each phase is completed, we will share translated records with donors, add them to an online database, and donate them to JewishGen, Special Interest Groups and other nonprofit organizations."

The organization has attracted many top researchers to its advisory board, who are helping to avoid duplication of efforts and coordinate closely with other groups.

The first step is to complete acquisition of 1784 and 1765 censuses covering all of Lithuania, much of Belarus, portions of Poland and Ukraine. Most names are recognizable as the lists are in Old Polish, written in the Latin alphabet. Additional data is recorded, such as names of kahals (organized Jewish communities), taverns and villages. Land owners and nobility (magnates) are listed. By researching these sources, information is found concerning families and communities located on estates. This data can illustrate active Jewish religious, communal and secular life to the early 1500s.

Each kahal was required to prepare a detailed inhabitant census, used to prepare tax lists. The Project looks for the most complete version of the records. An inventory of districts and kahals/towns in the 1784 list appears on the website. Records for 500 larger towns have already been acquired and identified. Since each town or kahal includes at least 10 villages and taverns, at least 5,000 individual places where Jewish families lived will be identified from these first records as transliteration proceeds.

Translation is done by skilled volunteers or professional translators, familiar with Old Polish, Yiddish names, historical terminology and vocabulary.

Foundation president and co-founder David Hoffman, a clinical psychologist and former UCLA professor, was Litvak SIG co-founder, and organized research groups to acquire and translate records for the All Lithuania Database. Currently, with his wife Sonia and Kaunas archivist Vitalija Gircyte, they create inventories of ancient archival documents with information about 16th-18th century Jewish families and communities.

Co-founder Sonia Hoffman is president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, JRI-Poland’s Bialystok Indexing Project coordinator, Rostov-on-Don Family History Journal editor, and supervises 1784 GDL census translation.

Chief archivist of the Kaunas Regional Archives Vitalija Gircyte, has worked there since 1988. In 1995, she began helping scholars and genealogists research the holdings, becoming expert in the genealogical records, translating thousands of records for JewishGen databases and other nonprofit groups.

Vitalija and David developed an archival cataloging method for court, business and inheritance files to index them online, and are currently compiling a comprehensive catalog of lists, documents, manuscripts and bibliographies to select documents for microfilming.

Among familiar names on the Foundation's advisory board or cooperating in other ways, are JRI-Poland's Stanley Diamond, Mark Halpern, Hadassah Lipsius; Belarus SIG's Nancy Collier Holden; Litvak SIG's Ada Green; professors Eric Goldstein and Lynn Lubamersky, and rabbinic scholars Chaim Freedman and Neil Rosenstein.

The website offers fascinating success stories: Green (who traced her grandmother's paternal line from Krakes and her grandfather's maternal line from Vandziogala to at least 1784); Lipsius (who traced her constantly moving Czarny-Shachor-Szwartz merchant family throughout Poland, Lithuania and Belarus to the 18th century); and others who explain how they have followed their families using GDL documents and lists.

Genealogist/author Chaim Freedman used the 1858 Ekaterinaslav Province revision list, an 1847 application to become a farmer, an 1846 list of people too poor to pay box taxes, and an 1816 revision list for Raseiniai, Lithuania, to find his Komisaruk family on the 1784 and 1765 lists for the small town of Girtagola, near Raseiniai. He has used the 1765, 1784, 1795 Vilna lists for his continuing research into Vilna Gaon-related families and identified previously unknown descendants.

Emory University (Atlanta) History Professor Eric Goldstein not only found his family on the 1784 Vidukle list, but is using the records as primary sources for a picture of Lithuanian shtetl life for Darbenai (Dorbian)from the 1760s-1941.

Stanley Diamond found family in an even earlier 1760 record for Janowa, Poland, at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, and is linking it to GDL documents.

Research groups are formed around geographical areas to acquire and translate records for the website. David and Sonia noted that many Jews in 1784 lived in areas outside of towns, such as inns, taverns, mills, on farms and on estates, leasing lands or following various professions. Focusing on a single town, as genealogists are reminded continually by top experts, is a poor research strategy. By joining with others to fund acquisition and translation of larger geographical areas, more ancestors may be located.

Funds and expertise are pooled with others interested in the same district; donors receive area Excel spreadsheets after acquisition and translation; and also receive data long before it goes online. Go to the website for the list of 1784 GDL Project District, Town and Kahal Lists and an alphabetical list of all towns. Work is in progress; new kahals, smaller inns and taverns are continually being added; check frequently, or contact David for more information at GDLProject@aol.com, to volunteer to translate, or to make a contribution.