Saturday, October 31, 2009

Using the Utah Family History Library

I’ve spent this week in Utah doing research at the Family History Library with a group of Jewish genealogists. En route to Salt Lake City, I spent a few days in Nevada with my brother. He owns a group of radio stations there and before departing I did a radio interview about my travels in Lithuania and my genealogy research.

In Utah I was reunited with Fran, my traveling companion from Lithuania. We originally had met in Utah and became good enough friends to brave six weeks of travel together, appreciate our differences and still enjoy each other’s company. My trip to the Family History Library is an annual event and an opportunity to meet others who share this same passion as well as do much more intensive research than is easily available elsewhere.

The Family History Library is run by the Mormons and actually ties to their belief system. By baptizing ancestors posthumously they believe they buy them access to the “Celestial Kingdom”. Thus their research has a very different objective than my own. Because this is so central to their beliefs they go around the world copying records that are maintained at the library. Some areas are well covered, while others are much less so. I’ve had a great deal of success in Polish records which are recorded from around 1810 through the 1870s, but far less success in the Ukraine and Belarus.

The library has filmed in 110 countries and territories and includes records from the United States, Canada, the British Isles, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It is the largest library of its kind anywhere in the world. The library is open to everyone and frequented by groups studying their specific ancestry. They offer a variety of lectures on different topics free of charge. If you look up your local church of the Latter Day Saints you will find that it may have microfilm readers and library resources. They will order records from the library for you to review locally. Typically they have limited hours as they are staffed by volunteers. Their equipment is usually far less sophisticated also so while they can be helpful, they certainly don’t replace the benefits of a trip to the Utah library.

While in Utah we stay at the Plaza hotel which offers comfortable accommodations in addition to its proximity, literally next door to the library. The library opens at 8AM and closes at 9PM (except for Mondays when it closes at 5PM and Sunday when it is closed). That means I usually put in a 12 hour day. During the year I keep a computer file called Library Preparation in which I record information that I want to search for while I am there.

The library has a catalog which is on-line so one can determine what information is likely there. You can find the library at Click through the headings to find the catalog where you can search by a variety of methods. I find that place and keyword are often good starting points. If you enter New York City it will come up with the different boroughs of New York. If you click on a selection you will find subtopics related to that area. You then click on the desired topic and in the upper right hand corner click on Film Notes and it will bring up the related films.

Often you first need to use a film with indexes before you find the film with the record. I find that many of the index films are no longer necessary as there are sites such as which search multiple sites which have indexed records for New York in particular. His site is also quite helpful in researching immigration records by a variety of elements such as the town they are from. He keeps adding search tools so it is worth exploring what is available at his site. When you identify the film that you want, you go to the files and find it and return it when you are finished.

This year the library had a new feature. The old copiers were gone and in their stead were scanners where one could print directly or scan onto a memory stick. There was an enhanced ability to clean up the film to make it more legible. While I was there I scanned records with family names from 1820 through 1865 in Radom, Poland. Over the years I have built a database for Radom and Sienno, Poland from where family came. In it I’ve recorded all the family names, the associated records and data that I was able to decipher. Because I began doing this a few years ago when I knew far less, I decided to go through and clean up my database. I was amazed at how much I learned over the years as records seemed so much more decipherable. It brought me back to those early days when I dove into the Polish/Russian records before I even did the US records. Not the wisest thing to do perhaps, but I couldn’t wait to get to the European records. In addition to reviewing the information for accuracy, I also was reformatting the database so I could better use some of the analysis approaches I’ve developed since I began.

My database has already proved fruitful. Some months back I ordered information from the Polish archives in Radom. I had requested copies of the death certificates for my great-great grandparents. To my surprise I learned that my great-great grandmother had died at 92 in 1904, not an age many get to today, let alone in the 1800s.

My great-great grandfather’s death certificate provided another piece of data that I didn’t know, the names of his parents, Berek and Chaia. This took me back five generations. Hmm, now I could test out the utility of my database. I did a search for a Berek Rubinsztajn and discovered I had a record for one who died in 1839. It noted that he left a wife and three adult children. I then searched for records where Berek and Chaia Rubinsztajn were parents and discovered marriage records for two of their daughters in my database complete with hard copies. Together with my great-great grandfather that would make three children. I had these records all this time; I just needed the information to connect the dots.

But I wasn’t quite finished. With the names of both husband and wife to match, I decided to tackle the patronymic records. Patronymics records are those which preceded Jews taking last names. Similar to the Johnsons or Carlsons which are so prevalent here in Minnesota, they merely add an ending to the father’s name which means “son of”. The patronymic records are found prior to the 1820s in Poland and are included in the Catholic records. In the 1820s the Jewish records were split out and maintained by the Jewish community. These records are fairly easy to separate from the Catholic records as the names are quite distinctive; Malkas and Bajlas, Dawids and Yaakovs as opposed to Jans, Stanislaws and Paulinas.

In 1811 I found the birth of a son Israel to Berek Herskowicz and his wife Chaia Herskow Berkowiczowna. The child died a few months later in 1812. This was the only record for a Berek and Chaia in this time period and fell right in the middle of their child bearing years. It also gave me another piece of information. The fathers of both Berek and Chaia were named Hersk taking me back six generations. Berek would have been born around 1770 based on his death record. Presumably both Hersks (fathers of Berek and Chaia) would have been born around 1750. What makes me so sure that this couple without a surname is the same Berek and Chaia who later took the name Rubinsztajn? Remember that Berek died in 1839. Ashkenazic Jews typically name a child after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent. In 1842 my great-great grandfather had his first son after three daughters. He named that son Hersz Berek, an honored name as he was named after both his grandfather and great-grandfather.

On this visit I scanned the records that I’ve identified. I also figured that if Herszk, my fourth great grandfather, was born around 1750 than it was possible that his death record could be in the period around 1810-1830. Using my database as a guide, I scanned the Herszeks in the patronymics. My hope of course is that a record will indicate that a Herszk of the right age range died leaving a survivor named Berek or Chaia so that I could connect him to the names I already know. I’ve not found anything as of yet, but with the scans I can spend some time studying the records at home. As the library has no records prior to 1810 for these towns, I am nearing a time where I will need to visit Poland to see if there is anything else which I can access.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing research trip! I kinda thought you were happily digging in a library somewhere. I enjoyed reading how you connected ancestors -- you've got a deep, rich history -- didn't know Askenazic Jews typically named a child after a decesed grandparent/great-grandparent -- many of the kids (I was much older) on the kibbutz were named after such (as they said) but I didn't know why, never thought about this being the connection. Yes, I can see where you need to go to Poland. Thanks for sharing!