Rostov Archival Research: Tracking Families in the Russian Empire

By Sonia and David Hoffman
© 2007

Our family immigrated to the United States from Rostov-on-Don, Russia beginning in 1886, and continuing through 1926.  Like Odessa, Rostov, situated near the Black Sea, was a crossroads for trade in Southern Russia, and grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many Jewish families moved there from other parts of the Russian Empire during this period, to take advantage of new economic opportunities. Russia was trying to develop trading cities with access to the Black Sea, and through the Straights of Bosporus, to the Mediterranean Sea. Jewish merchants were recruited and given special privileges to move to these cities because of their business and language skills and ties to people in other countries.

Our family had lived in Lithuania for several centuries, but between 1870 and 1884, David’s great-great grandparents, Lazer and Liba Friedland, and their five children, with their families, made the 800 mile trip to establish new homes in Rostov.  We had succeeded in learning a great deal about this family for the 250 year period that they lived in Lithuania, and about their many siblings and descendents after they emigrated to the U.S., South Africa and Israel. But for the period that they lived in Rostov, and for the relatives who remained in Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we had only minimal documentation and our conclusions were based entirely on family lore. We also knew very little about the origin of the spouses who married into the Friedland family.

For several years, we helped to organize groups of researchers with similar interests, and worked with archivists in Lithuania on projects to translate records and create databases for the internet.  But the Rostov Regional Archives did not accept genealogical research orders, and we had no way to access our family’s records there.  In 2000 we posted a call on the JewishGen Discussion Group  for other researchers with roots in Rostov to form a research group, and a former resident of Rostov living in Europe responded, informing us that he  was planning to visit the archives in Rostov, with the expectation that he would be able to research his family. Since he could read Russian, he did not need to use a translator, and he offered to do some research for our family surnames, if he had the opportunity.

Our fellow researcher was able to identify the major Jewish community records held in the Rostov archives, and to translate the entries for several surnames. He was one of the first to be able to use these records for genealogical research, but making copies of the originals required a lot of red tape, so he made full translations only.  The most useful documents were the 1895-7 All Russia Census, vital records and a list of burials in the old Jewish cemetery.   

Many researchers have discovered that their families moved from one part of the Russian Empire to another, but have had difficulty in pinpointing exactly when they moved, and where they were officially registered versus where they actually lived.  The All Russia Census is especially useful in these cases because it lists the names of the entire family, with ages, occupations, addresses, and also notes the previous place of registration and the year of arrival in Rostov. For example: 

Hirsh Eliash Shliomovitch, son of Leyb, 56, teacher in the synagogue, home address Donskaya ulitsa 49, came to Rostov in 1884 from Kovno; his wife, Malka, 51, his sons, Borukh, 20, and Leyba, 12, his daughters Krayna, 22, and Chaya-Sara, 17.

Simon-Chaim Friedland, son of Leyzer [Malka Shliomovitch’s brother], 45, seller of mineral water, home address Pushkinskaya ulitsa 175, owned property since 1883, came to Rostov from Eyrogala, Kovno Guberniya; his wife Golda, 42, his sons Movsha, 23, Mordukh, 21, Ilya-Aba, 11, Leyba, 6, and daughters Mera, 13, Chana, 8, Gitlya-Eta, 3.   

 The Russian government kept careful track of people, as we found when we checked the 1887 Family List for Ariogala, Lithuania. Simon-Chaim, the head of household in the Rostov 1897 All Russia Census (above), is also listed back in Lithuania in 1887:            

Fridland, Simon-Chaim, son of Lazer, 38, his sons Movsha-Mordchel, 15 (joined the army in 1891) and Abel-Elia, 4; his wife Golda Chiena, 38; his   daughters Chava Sora, 14, Mera, 5, Chana-Leah, 1/2; (family listed under number 280 in Rostov-on-Don); Itsik-Shmuel, 25, brother of Simon-Chaim, adopted the Orthodox faith in 1889 and was crossed off the Jewish lists.

 Vital records include father’s town of registration and previous residence. Several marriage records revealed that brides and grooms that married into our family also came from Lithuania. For example, Lipman Solomin had come to Rostov with his family in 1874 from Jonava, and later married Chaya Shliomovitch, from Kovno – these towns are only a few miles apart. 

Lipman Solomin, 28, son of Movsha-Sender, from Jonava Kahal, Kovno district and province, married Chaya-Sara Shliomovitch, 20, daughter of Hirsh-Eliash, from Kovno, on March 9, 1899. 

Perhaps some of these families knew each other before coming to Rostov, or perhaps most of the families that were part of the Jewish community had originated in the northern parts of the Russian Empire, in provinces such as Kovno, Vilna, Grodno, Moghilev, etc. We noted that some families came to Rostov from Ekaterinoslav and Kherson provinces.  It is likely that they also originally lived in Lithuania or Belarus, then moved to colonies in Ukraine when the Russian government offered the opportunity to farm in these areas, and later moved on to the “big city” where there was more economic opportunity.

The lists of burials on the old Jewish cemetery supplemented missing death records.  Lazer Friedland appears on this list, though no death record was found: “Leyzer-Ber Friedland, son of Zelik, died on April 10, 1884.”  Since Lazer died before the All Russia Census was taken in 1895-7, and no earlier census records seem to exist, this entry is especially important.

Other records available in the Rostov Archives are: the 1896 Business Directory (listing Hirsh Shliomovitch, teacher of Talmud-Torah at the Choral Synagogue, Vorontsovskaya St.); the 1910 Business Directory (showing family members D.R. Friedland, a dentist, and M.Kh. Shmaeva, a midwife); the 1907 Duma Voters List (listing Simon Friedland and his son Abel-Ilya); and the 1913 Real Estate Owners List (showing Simon and Golda Friedland, Sennaya St., 215,000 rubles.)

The types of records found at the Rostov Archives are probably typical of Jewish records held in most archives in Russia, except that for Jewish communities with a longer history, there are usually earlier 19th century census/revision/family lists and tax records.

Some archives accept genealogical research orders directly and charge a standard search fee, plus a cost for copies. Private researchers can conduct research for you in the reading rooms of many archives. In general, it appears that personal visits by Jewish family historians over the past ten years, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, have resulted in the recognition by archivists that Jewish records are in demand, and as a result, they have gradually become more helpful and cooperative.  Increased access to records has also been made possible by researchers forming groups, as in the case of the Rostov group. It is important to contact everyone with similar research interests whom you find in the JewishGen Family Finder, and to post messages to the JewishGen and Special Interest Group discussion groups.  Joining forces with others and sharing information will eventually help to create opportunities for research at all the archives in the areas that were once part of the Russian Empire.

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