Eastern Europe Workshop
Syllabus for workshop taught by Daniel Schlyter, Research Consultant at FamilySearch's Family History Library, presented at NGS 2010 Conference.
Eastern European Genealogy may seem somewhat intimidating. As you begin, you likely have specific concerns about how difficult it can be. Take a minute and write what your greatest fears and concerns are.
The purpose of this workshop is to help you overcome those fears and approach your research realistically. Although research in Eastern Europe does present some significant problems, it is, in many ways, much easier than American research.
- 1 HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF EASTERN EUROPE
- 2 STRATEGY
- 3 SOURCES FOR GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH
- 4 AVAILABILITY OF RECORDS AND WRITING FOR GENEALOGICAL INFORMATION
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF EASTERN EUROPE
Eastern Europe has been the scene of many wars and conflicts over its history. Empires have grown and fallen. Each government had its own rules and traditions regarding the keeping of records. Thus understanding border changes can help in understanding what records exist to research our ancestors.(Original Syllabus con
For all Eastern European countries your research strategy should be as follows:
- Begin your research in the United States. Search U.S. records to determine all you can about your Eastern European ancestor in order to lay a foundation for your research in Europe. These would include:
- The names of your ancestor’s family members and relatives.
- The religion and ethnic identity of your ancestor.
- The date (at least the year) that your ancestor emigrated.
- The name of the place your ancestor came from.
- Determine where your ancestor was from in Europe.
- Find the ancestral home using gazetteers and maps.
- Determine the record-keeping jurisdictions where your ancestor lived.
- Find the records of that place. See “Sources for Genealogical Research” on the following pages.
- Search for records in the Family History Library Catalog.
- Write letters to the record holders asking for information.
- Hire a local researcher to do the research for you.
- Visit the record repository in person and do the research yourself
- Search through the records to find your ancestor, then his or her siblings, then his or her parents’ marriage, and his or her parents’ births. Repeat.
1. Begin your research in the United States
Search American records to find out everything you can about your ancestor. The nation where your ancestor settled often has the best sources for learning your ancestor’s place of origin, family members, family stories, and other information crucial to proceeding in Europe.
- Talk to living relatives of your immigrant ancestor.
- Search for personal information in sources you may have at home or at the home of relatives, such as: vital records, Bibles, journals, letters, pictures, funeral home records, or naturalizations records.
- Search immigration records. These can be found by searching the passenger lists for each port, as well as the Ellis Island and Castle Garden records online.
- Search U.S. Censuses from 1900, 1910, and 1920. These will list the year of immigration as well as the country of origin. This will help narrow your search to one year.
2. Determine where your ancestor was from
Because the records that you need to do your research were kept on a local level, your research cannot proceed unless you know specifically where your ancestor came from. See Tracing Immigrant Origins.
3. Find the ancestral home using gazetteers and maps
Once you determine where your ancestor was from, you must verify the spelling and determine where it is now (Eastern Europe has had a lot of border changes). You will also want to know what province, county or district had jurisdiction over the place. Gazetteers are the best way to solve these problems, along with maps. The Family History Library has an excellent collection of eastern European gazetteers. The Library’s International Reference staff can help you with specific locality questions and show you how to select and use the appropriate gazetteers. Several outstanding old gazetteers are now available online.
4. Determine the record-keeping jurisdiction
Most of the smaller localities were not responsible for keeping records. Church records were kept by the parish, which may have included several small hamlets and villages. Similarly, civil registration was under the jurisdiction of locally incorporated communes or townships. Gazetteers are excellent tools to figure out the parish or commune that had responsibility for keeping records for the place your ancestor lived.
SOURCES FOR GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH
Eastern Europe has many excellent sources for research. Researchers who are accustomed to genealogical research in the U.S. and Canada often rely heavily on census records, land records, wills, and probates to build a pedigree of their families in North America. This is because there often is nothing better available. But in Europe the availability of vital records greatly improves the research climate.
Civil Registration and Church Records
These are records of births, christenings, marriages, deaths, and burials made by church priests and pastors and government officials (civil registration). They are excellent sources of accurate information on names, dates, and places of births, marriages, and deaths. They are the single, most significant source of genealogical information in the eastern European countries and are essential for genealogical research.
Civil Registration. In most cases civil registration did not begin until the late 1800s. For some countries there are also census records, military records, or nobility records. The information recorded in these records varied over time. The later records generally give more complete information than the earlier ones. Because records can be hard to find, it is very helpful to understand who kept the records, under what government, and what modern country or countries may have the records today.
Church Records. The earliest Catholic Church records begin in the late 1500s. In general, church records began to be kept on a consistent basis in the mid to late 1600s. By the 1800s, laws were enacted in most areas requiring the churches to keep church records in a specified format and to make transcripts of the records for the benefit of the civil government. In many cases, these laws required that people of other faiths be recorded in the Catholic Church records.
Jewish Records. Jews were also required to keep birth, marriage and death records in a manner similar to civil church record transcripts. These are referred to as Jewish Records. The information recorded in church books and Jewish records varied over time. The later records generally give more complete information than the earlier ones.
The laws regarding vital records varied, depending on the Empire that had jurisdiction.
AVAILABILITY OF RECORDS AND WRITING FOR GENEALOGICAL INFORMATION
Many records of Eastern Europe are available through the microfilming and digitizing efforts of FamilySearch. Records, when they become available are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. There are a few countries for which the Library has very little material. When records you need are not available, you can request information by correspondence with archive, civil registration offices, and parishes. Search the Internet for the locations and addresses of various state and regional archives. The library has letter writing guides for a few of these countries.
Albania: Some Catholic records have been acquired. These are listed in the Family History Library Catalog.
Bulgaria: A few civil and church records have been acquired. These are listed in the Family History Library Catalog.
Czech Republic: The Family History Library is working with several archives to digitize the records and make them available online. They are not listed in the Family History Library Catalog.
There are seven regional archives in the Czech Republic: Praha, Plzeň, Třeboň, Litoměřice, Zámrsk, Opava, and Brno. FamilySearch received permission to digitize records in the following regional archives: Třeboň, Litoměřice, Opava, and Zámrsk. Some digitized records are now available from the Records Search page at www.familysearch.org. The direct link to the database is Searchable Collections. Plzeň, Třeboň, Opava and Brno regional archives maintain their own digital databases. If you are not sure which archive holds the records of your ancestors or you want to see a quick overview please go to the FamilySearch Research Wiki at Czech Republic and check under Research Tools/Online Databases.
Hungary: Church records, transcripts of Jewish records, and many census records for areas within the modern borders of Hungary were microfilmed in the 1960s and are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. Civil Registration began in Hungary in 1895. Civil registration records are kept at local civil registrar's offices in town halls. Civil registration records are presently being acquired by the Family History Library up to about 1920.
Slovakia: The Family History Library has acquired most church records and census records on microfilm. These projects are ongoing. The available records are listed in the Family History Library Catalog.
Republics of the Former Soviet Union: The acquisition of records from these republics varies considerably from republic to republic. In most cases the process is proceeding very slowly. Records filmed by FamilySearch are not available from these republics until they appear in the Family History Library Catalog. Surprisingly, considerable records have been acquired from Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova. Look in the Family History Library Catalog for the specific place for which you need records. In some cases it is possible to do on-site research in person, but this is no simple matter and not recommended unless you have considerable experience and have clear assurances that you will be allowed in the archives. Until such time as records have been microfilmed, it may be possible to get information is through one of the several genealogical research organizations that have been formed. There are several such companies, and some are not satisfactory in the work they do. Some advertise or are referred to on the pages of various Jewish genealogical periodicals. Many have web pages. You can also use the Internet to find addresses of the various archives. You can then attempt writing directly to the archive to get the information you need.
Russia: The Russian Republic is vast. Microfilming began several years ago, but it will be many years before many areas are represented in the collection of the Family History Library. There are as yet no significant Jewish records in the collection. Many genealogical researchers are interested in the records of German colonists who settled in Russia and the Ukraine. No records are yet available from the Volga. Transcripts of the records of Protestant communities in the Ukraine (Black Sea and Volhynia), Belarus, and the vicinity of St. Petersburg were stored at the Lutheran Consistory in St. Petersburg, and these records have been microfilmed. Localities and film numbers for this set of records are listed in The Lutherans of Russia; Vol. 1 Parish index to the church books of the Evangelical Lutherans Consistory of St. Petersburg, compiled by Thomas Edlund, published in 1995 by the Germanic Genealogical Society, P.O. Box 16312 St. Paul, Minnesota 55116 - available on FHL microfiche 6001716.
Belarus: FamilySearch is presently acquiring microfilmed records from several archives in Belarus. These are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. For records not yet filmed, write directly to the archives there.
Baltic States: Most records of Estonia have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library. Many Latvian Protestant records have been filmed. A lot of Lithuanian records have also been acquired. Available records are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. For records not yet filmed, you can hire a research service or write directly to the Lithuanian or Latvian State Archives.
Moldova: Microfilming is nearly completed in this republic which has close cultural ties with Romania. For records not yet filmed try writing directly to the Moldovan State Archives.
Ukraine: FamilySearch is presently acquiring microfilms of records from Ukraine but the process will take many years. Presently filming is ongoing at archives in Kiev, L'viv, and Chernigov and Osessa. For records not yet filmed, try writing directly to the archives in Ukraine.
Poland: Many church records and civil transcripts of church records from Poland have been microfilmed. In many cases, however, they are filmed only up through the 1880s. Later records and records of communities that are not filmed can be obtained by writing. You can often get information by writing in Polish directly to the Catholic parish [parafia Rzymsko-katolicka] in the town where your ancestor lived. For non-Catholics or when you receive no response from the church, you can write to Polish state archives
Poland was partitioned in 1795 between Russia, Austria, and Germany. The style of record keeping varies considerably in each of these three areas.
Romania: Some records of German communities in Romania have been microfilmed in archives in Germany and Hungary. But no records have been filmed in Romanian archives. The former communist government rarely replied to genealogical questions, and the new government does not seem much better. Hopefully, the chances for response will improve. You can try writing to the local parish [parohie] or to the local civil records office [Oficiul Starii Civile]. The address for the state archives can be obtained online.
Former Yugoslavia: Records have been microfilmed only in the republics of Croatia and Slovenia. The process of filming continues in those republics even now. Available records are listed in the Family History Library Catalog. Some information can be obtained by correspondence with Croatia and Slovenia. It is difficult to get genealogical information from the other former Yugoslav republics by mail. You may be able to get information by writing to the archive of the appropriate Yugoslav republic.