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SO YOU WANT TO RESEARCH
YOUR FAMILY BACKGROUND?
By David Kravitz
An increasing number of people are trying to trace their roots. This is not just a British or American phenomenon but across the whole world. If your family was born and raised in this country from the tin1e of William the Conqueror this is relatively easy and I stress the "relative", but for most Jews this is not so easy. If you are Ashkenazi, this means ancestry in Eastern Europe and the first difficulty is surnames.
Surnames were first forced into use in Russia in the late eighteenth century and in Poland in the early nineteenth. Avram ben Dovid was OK before then but now you had to have a national surname. Thus, unless your family contained rabbonim, family research to earlier' dates becomes much more difficult. You cannot even be sure of a surname. My wife's late uncle, Jack Goldstone, used to tell me the tale of his father who had two brothers. All had different surnames though they shared the same parents fully. This was a device to avoid National Service as the eldest son in a family was exempt. I believe it still happens today in some parts of Russia.
Another problem is that of immigration. Is your own family name the one that left Eastern Europe or one the British immigration officials allocated? Some members of my own family spelt their surname with a K, others with a C, even in a father-son relationship. Where did your family come from? My great-grandfather arrived in England (how? Where?) in .189.1 having left the shtetl of Sislewich, now the modem town of Swisloch, in Belarus. However, when I finally traced his sister, She lived in Warsaw, Poland and Kravitz is the Polish word for a tailor. Which member of my family was a tailor in Sislewich, I have absolutely no idea.
Assuming the prologue has not put you off let me be more positive. If, like me, you are mature in years but not that old, you may still have elderly relatives who can help. Start here; talk to them, ask them to go through their papers and photographs (look on the backs of these). Ashkenazi's name after dead ancestors so who are they named after? This latter clue yielded the name of my great-grandfather's grandfather. If members of your family immigrated and died here and you know where they are buried, visit the cemetery and read the headstone. This yielded the name of my great- grandfather's father. Thus I went from Philip Kravitz, buried in Blackley cemetery, Manchester, back to Abraham, then Emmanuel. These last two are "shadowy" characters of whom I have absolutely ~o detail, Emmanuel must have been born around 1790 but was his surname even Kravitz? Later research, not yet confirmed, suggests that the surname was, indeed, accurate around 1850. As to their wives~ Ply only clues are the repeating use of Ada (or its derivatives) and Rachel, but they may have come from the other side. And one of Philip's sons was called Abraham, thus born after the death of Philip's father. So the first step is to talk to your own ageing family if you, too, are middle-aged or later.
Some of these immigrants settled ill England and naturalized. Unfortunately how they arrived will probably always remain a mystery. Although some small regional newspapers in ports carried lists of immigrants and you may be lucky, shipping companies were not obliged to keep their records and the Public Record Office (PRO, more later,) do not hold any relevant records of passengers from Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean countries. If some of your family later made "Aliyah" to the USA, you may be luckier as some emigration passenger lists do exist and there are good immigration records for the USA The Ellis Island website is a marvelous source of information about immigrants and their families. It often shows their contacts in the USA as well. A substantial number of immigrants to the States, after clearing Ellis Island, lodged for a time at Lower East .Side. The museum holds some detail about the immigrants background and you can write to them via Ms Gail Morse, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 66 Allen Street, New York City, New York, United States of America, 10002. They also have a website. I had little success with this source.
A good source of data about your relatives is wills that have been through probate. You are legally entitled to a copy of anyone's will, its public information. Write to the
Probate Office at Dunscombe Place,
York, YOI 2EA
You need to be as helpful as you can. Supply a full name, year of death and place of death if possible. For a fee of £5, they will search forwards three years from the date you supply. It can take up to six weeks at busy times, but I have just had a (negative) response on my great- grandparents almost by return of post. Wills during the last fifty years have been computerized and are kept at Astley House, off Deansgate, Manchester. I have found their staff to be extremely helpful. You can also visit the Probate Office, High Holboffi, London, and search their records, latterly computerized. They will provide a copy of both the will and probate in about an hour. Early nineteenth century wills show the relationship between the deceased and those receiving handouts. This is central London with limited (and expensive) on-street metered parking at the rear.
Wills will give you the names and addresses of beneficiaries, often with a relationship, and also the name and address of any solicitors involved in drawing up the will.
There are two main sources of information about all of us. The Public Record Office (PRO), which is at Kew, London, an imposing white building by the Thames, a short, signposted, walk from the Kew underground and railway station. It has ample free parking as well. The second is the
Family Records Centre
1 Myddleton Street
Islington, London ECIR lUW
near Kings Cross railway station and Angel underground station. Limited on-street metered parking is close by. Births, marriages and deaths data can also be obtained from Southport, but not from the PRO. I would strongly advise you to look at the website
for a lot of detail about the records. I advise you to print off the section called Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) in the genealogy section. The PRO is a huge library that you may join in exactly the same way you join your local library, so take along two method~ of proving who you are and where you live. If any reader of this is a visiting foreigner, you may still join but you must also produce your passport. The main reading rooms are a rich mixture of cultures and races tracing their roots.
The main item of interest at Kew is naturalization papers. Only a small percentage of our families bothered to become' British and most of these were men. The staff are friendly and helpful and will guide any newcomers towards the right books. The main starting point is HOl44 on the first floor. Once you have traced a relative, you request the actual papers via computer terminals. You can request several documents at a time, but only see three sets at a time and this can seriously slow you down. Expect to spend most of the day. If you know the paper references, you can order them via the internet in advance stating the day you wish to see them. Personally, I could live there.
In Britain, there is no Freedom of Information Act, thus the date of the naturalization papers is critical. Over seventy years, little problem and do not let them try the old 100 year rule on you. Less than seventy years and the documents may be classified as secret. If this is the case you can appeal to the Home Office. If you have good cause, for example a direct line blood relative, you should get clearance opening the file to all. These papers will tell you all about the person's ancestry, where he or she was born, and when. Siblings will probably be listed along with witness and police reports. A photocopying service is available on site but again you may be faced with a long queue as each document has to be carefully taken apart. All sorts of other records are kept at Kew and the website is most thorough. The 1901 census is on the first floor, too. On the second floor is the map room. Here are the very sparse shipping records. Most surviving records relate to sailings to and from the old British Empire and the United States. There are no records for Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean. (Some local newspapers in the ports, at one time, published passenger data as well. Main ports include Liverpool, Harwich, Southampton, Hull and Cardiff in south Wales.)
Also here are the deed poll ledgers where people changed their nan1es via the courts. Both old and new names are listed twice allowing searching by old or new. The records are mainly hand-written and sorted only by initials of SUffian1e until very recent years. And, by the way, it is pencils only within the library. On the ground floor is a pleasant cafeteria.
A note on deed polls. It was not a legal requirement to change your name via the court You could advertise in a local paper "that from this day on, I wish to be known as ''. Or merely adopt a name. In my case I dropped my middle name, Philip, in 1975 and in both cases you can use the change on legal documents after a period of years.
Myddleton Place is full of very large books sectioned by category and by quarter or, earlier, half years. Alphabetic lists need to be trawled through and, hopefully, you have a vague idea. I subtracted nine months from my uncle's birth to find my grandparents' wedding data. For a fee, you can have a copy of any certificate. Be warned that seats are noticeably absent. I spent several weeks here researching my own family by a variety of spellings including a C as well as a K. I estimate that I had to remove and replace some 4,500 of these heavy, leather-bound books. The reward was a list of over 500 names, most of which will not be related to me. The downside was the disappearance of people. Some might be change of name, others emigration, a few my negligence. Two families "disappear" but turned up on the Ellis IslaI1d records. If you are reasonably sure of a family connection, you can order a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate from the desk and they will post it to you for a fee. Here, too, are computerized records on the 1901 UK census. Scottish records are kept in Edinburgh but a computer room provides a chargeable link to these records.
There is another major source of information easily accessible. The Mormons, as part of their religion, are deeply into genealogy. Look for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the phone book and check your nearest one has a Genealogical Library. I have used the one in Poole, Dorset. These libraries are free, manned by volunteers and will not accept payment for use of their facilities. You will almost certainly have to make an appointment and members of the church will take precedence. Their main, but not only, records called the International Genealogy Index (IGI) is a series of microfiches and may be stocked by your local reference library too. Here again in the church library, pencils only please. With some effort, you can occasionally make a donation for use of their facilities.
Visitors to London may find other places of reference useful. Use a search engine (e g Google) to locate the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain website. It lists libraries and referenced cemeteries. A wonderful source of data.
And so to the Internet in detail. Let me start by giving the address of the Mormon web site, it is
The detail is awe-inspiring and growing incredibly fast. When it first opened, there were so many "hits", it caused their site to crash. But it is good, very good. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians passed a huge amount of fragmented detail to the Mormons. In turn, they have been working with the Jewish Genealogical Society in Washington DC turning these fragments into something that we can all use.
Another major player in the genealogy business is the commercial Family Treemaker run by the Learning Company, formerly Broderbund. Find them at
They claim to have over 300 million names on their database. Being American, it is highly US-oriented but you can search it quite freely for a name. What you cannot normally do is look at the family tree of your "hit" to establish a connection to your own family. This data is contained on a growing number of CD-ROMs that you can purchase. A tip to avoid disappointment. If I was searching for my own family (actually it is there, I supplied it), suppose I searched for Philip Kravitz and found a link on several CDs. I note the numbers and try again under other names, for example Morris Kravitz, Abraham Kravitz, Bella Halprin (his sister) etc. If the hits do not tie in to the same CD and tree, and my rule-of-thumb is a minimum three hits, it is unlikely to be the same Philip Kravitz and I try elsewhere. If you have the FTM CD-ROMs, I have version 7, you will also receive 3 CD-ROMs full of useful data narrowing down a search.
There are simply dozens of these genealogy sites and you must plod along just hoping. Searching is timely, mainly a huge disappointment and a severe test of your resolve. Try
Another commercial web site or
or the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. You can even try using Yahoo, AltaVista and other drivers with a general search. Just keep going. The multi-search engine yielded 3,200 Kravitz families in the USA alone!
But, I have reserved the best to the last. The specifically Jewish search engines. The JewishGen forum is an absolute must. If you are really serious about tracing your roots, go directly to
and sign up. Print off the FAQ section and join the forum This will mean that you could receive upwards of 30 Email: s a day that need to be carefully sifted or subscribe to the digest and receive all of them as a single, indexed Email: . You quickly become adept at this because users are encouraged to title their Email: s with something sensible such as "Searching for Goldberg" or "Belarus news" etc. Join in; send Email: s about yourself. The response can be staggering. By being helpful you can help other families too. Here in Bournemouth, I helped our local retired baker discover a cousin in Los Angeles, he believed he had no family anywhere. I have "made friends" with people right across the world including a well-known Jewish film star. A subscriber in Colorado was searching for the same missing family member as I was, from different viewpoints and this reached a successful conclusion. Another very large database is Harry Leichter's
Some of these searches have taken over two years and involved hundreds of Email: s and letters. I believe I have now found all the direct descendants of Philip Kravitz and my current efforts are directed at his siblings. You find surprises too. Danny Kaye's maternal grandmother turns out to be a Kravitz. Another local genealogist discovered really unpleasant 'details of his distant family. Once you have created your family tree preserve it for future generations. Send copies to JewishGen or to DOROT in the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv as well as the non-Jewish organizations. They will NOT release details of any living person to any third party beyond their actual name and connection to other names. Should my grandchildren's grandchildren choose to trace their roots long after I'm gone, it should be much easier. The three major Jewish databases have recently been merged into one.
And, finally, I am happy to respond to any questions or suggestions. Feel free to send me Email: s at either david_kravitz@hotmailcom
(Updated November 2002)