Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Safecracker's Work

“My father and I are planning a day trip to Radom” began the email asking for some guidance for their trip.  She went on to note that she'd had difficulty finding much on her grandmother who came from there. 

Some years ago, I took on a volunteer task for Jewishgen, creating a website on Radom, Poland, my ancestral town. Now I often get emails from people planning trips to Poland to visit the town where their ancestors lived.  I advise them how to do research in foreign archives, of meaningful information on the site and often direct them to resource people in Radom.

Although it is a volunteer activity, it has paid many dividends over time. I met one of my closest friends through the project, a survivor from Radom, now in her 90s. I obtained source material to develop artwork on the town and later exhibited it in Poland, and of course, I learned how to do websites, a skill that I’ve drawn on many times. None of that would have happened had I not volunteered.

Along the way, I often help people solve their family mysteries. Truth be told, I like when I can solve a puzzle and this one promised to be a challenge.  The name was unusual and had many varieties, but I knew exactly where to look. Much to my surprise the name didn’t show up in any of the usual places. I began to wonder if this was the right town. I went to the naturalization document and verified that Radom was indeed noted as the town. My curiosity drew me in further and I did a search for the name in Yad Vashem. Again, a record came up under Radom, but when I went to the original testimony and studied the handwritten form, it appeared to be Radun, a city that was 243 miles away. There are often errors in transcription which is why it important to see the original document.

A few e-mail exchanges and a bit of research and I told my correspondent that the town was actually, Radun, a town in what is now Belarus, once in the Vilna Gubernia. I could see how the confusion arose as more than one of the records confused the towns. As the trip was fast approaching, I was asked to do some genealogy consulting.  Our starting point was the grandparents who came to America and got married in New York.  Our objective was to cross the ocean to find where they had lived and who their parents and siblings were. Quickly! 

Marriage records are the gold standard to crack such a puzzle. They have the names of those who married, but also their parents’ names. If I could find that, then I should be able to work backwards to the towns of origin.  Ancestry.com had the summary of the marriage record with the date and the certificate number.  That was sufficient information to order it, but that meant a wait when we didn’t have much time. Most searches have alternate paths and I decided to go in through stevemorse.org.  I knew his search engine tapped Italiangen for NY marriage records, but I saw it also offered a linkage to Family Search. I had used Family Search for many things, but I had never compared them to another source for the same item. To my surprise, the Italiangen site offered the certificate number, but Family Search offered a much richer record with both sets of parents’ names, everything that would be found on the document itself. I felt like a safecracker who just heard a satisfying release of the tumblers.  In addition to the marriage record, I pulled immigration, draft and census records to gather information that I could cross-check against European records to verify a match.

Now the names weren’t exactly consistent, they seldom are. One name read Sreida which I quickly surmised was probably Freida.  The Elowitz of the record was originally Ilutowich and Sadorwick was actually Slodovnik.  So how did I find that out?  My client was familiar with the married name of Ilutowich so that was my starting point.  We start with what we know and look for a bridge to what we don't know. I did a search for Nechama Ilutowich on Yad Vashem and lo and behold it came up with Nechama Ylutovicz nee Slodovnik.  Once again those tumblers released. I was in the vault.

Much of genealogy is about moving between different sources looking for bridges to the next data point. That's why familiarity with available sources and alternative paths is valuable.  Yad Vashem had given me the key, now I had to explore the names in the All Lithuanian database. Why Lithuania? Although Radun is in Belarus today, it was originally in the Vilna Gubernia. Part of that region is now in Lithuania and the rest is in Belarus. I knew from my own research in Belarus that many of the towns that were once in the Vilna Gubernia have records at the Vilnius archives. And about those records, you no longer have to go to Lithuania to get them.The Lithuania database is linked to the original records of the Vilnius region through Familysearch; however I was to learn that records are not always at the image number where they are listed. I put together a finding aid using stevemorse.org to learn what the names look like in cursive Cyrillic Russian. Then I used that to locate the missing records among pages of Cyrillic. You don't need to speak Russian, just be good at pattern recognition.

While I had found entrance to the inner data sanctum, I still had a few bears to battle in this quest. The groom's father in the American marriage record was Berel, yet he showed up as Dov in the Lithuanian database. Dov is the Hebrew name and Berel is the Yiddish and both mean "bear".Sometimes it is written as Berko and this was indicated in the Lithuanian records after Dov. I had run into something similar in another case with Areih and Leib, both mean "lion" and were used interchangeably.  Understanding the derivation of names and related names is valuable in working with European records. Without that awareness, it would have been easy to conclude these records weren't what I was looking for.

Several of the bride's siblings showed up in the birth records with both of the parents' names in the town of Radun, but where was the bride?  A quick look at the rtrfoundation.org site for the Radun records, told me that her birth likely preceded the period for which records were available. Knowing what is available can save you some time in fruitless searching.

The Lithuanian database is quite robust and includes birth, marriage and death records as well as revision lists which are the census of the time. They are revised periodically with updated information, which is likely how they got their name. If you're fortunate, you may find an 1850 revision list followed by an 1858 one and note how the families have matured in the intervening years. It feels a bit like a holiday letter across the ages as you watch children grow up, marry and have their own children.  Extended families frequently lived together and revision lists will show the head of the household and every person's relationship to him. It will also note each person's father. Many of the vital records show the subject, their parents and their grandfathers so revision lists are useful when you are building out a tree.

I concluded this project with almost 70 new relatives and a few remaining mysteries. Just in time for my client to head off on her travels.


  1. Excellent! Too many people get off on the wrong track with their research by "adopting" the wrong town. It takes lots of records to "make" a village.

    1. And sometimes even the records are wrong! In this case they had a naturalization record and a Yad Vashem record that were incorrect. It is a good reminder, that there is a person recording what they think they heard and plugging it into their knowledge of towns which may well be incorrect. There are many places for errors to enter.