Monday, May 5, 2014

Cracking the Code

When I'm not at the studio painting, I am often immersed in genealogy. I've delved deeply into my own family history and now the discoveries are few and far between. I do some genealogy consulting for others as I miss that rather addictive thrill of discovery. I am always fascinated by process, how we get from point A to point B. It sometimes seems like I am pulling a rabbit out of a hat when I present someone with the result, but much of discovery is knowing the route to follow and understanding what data is available and how it connects. Having a basic familiarity with Cyrillic Russian often proves critical in the part of the world I research. A few community ed classes in Russian have given me enough so that I can find family names in records and was able to translate signs when we traveled to Lviv.

When I was a kid, my brother did magic tricks at birthday parties. I used to sneak into his room to examine the way the tricks worked and I remember studying a yellow cabinet into which he would drop a marble. It would disappear behind a wall of mirrors and miraculously reappear. So I am about to tell you a bit of the magic behind discovering family history, but no mirrors are involved.

I was contacted by an individual whose one branch came from a small town in Poland. He knew the names of his grandparents who died in the Holocaust and that two family members had survived. Beyond that the history was unknown.. Now that didn't give me much to go on as privacy laws mean that records from the past 100 years are not available on-line. They can be accessed if you go to Poland and prove your family connection, but as a researcher I was limited in what I could find. I estimated when the grandfather would have been born and thought I might be able to find a birth record older than 100 years. We always begin with what we know and tug on a thread.

Now if you are searching for Jewish records in Poland, the starting place is indisputable. has indexed many of the Polish records so I began with a search on name and town. I came up with one record that matched the name with a birth year of 1891. I soon realized that I was quite fortunate. The Polish archives has begun to digitize records and the actual record was accessible on line from the JRI site.. My elation soon turned to dismay when I was reminded that the record was in Cyrillic Russian, handwritten Cyrillic Russian. Even if you learned your textbook Russian, handwritten languages don't look like the printed text.

I decided to see if I could decipher any of the names as I knew the father's name was often at the top as well as the first name below the record. The mother's name is further down in the body. They also had assisted me by capitalizing the names, but you will notice there are quite a few capitalized words, the name of the town and witnesses are also capitalized so knowing the location in which to look is important. Now despite the fact that I know some Cyrillic, I also drew on for some help. I input Nahum Stern and translated it to printed Russian. Then in a second step I translated it to handwritten Cyrillic. This is one of the options that it gave me.

Then I started looking for something similar. In the third line you will see the father's name and the last name appears to be Shtern, but the first letter is different.

I had been looking for the letter that sounds like "s" and looks like a"c" rather than the "sh" sound, but assumed it could also have been spelled in this fashion. In front of it is a common Jewish name that looked familiar even in Russian, Mordko.

The mother's name usually comes before the child's name so I looked for Nahum. At the end of the 11th line is a word that is capitalized and looks like it begins with Hoxum. In Cyrillic, what appears as an H is pronounced as an N and the x sound is a ch, close enough for Nahum which is often pronounced as Nachum.

In the prior line is a word which starts with a B which is a V in English and often pronounced as a W. I deciphered the first few letters and came up with a name that began with Wolf for the mother's maiden name.

Back to JRI-Poland to do a search on a Mordko Stern which quickly uncovers many records for Mordko Stern and his wife whose last name is Wolfenfeld.

Now I circle back to my client to see if 1891 sounds like the appropriate birth year. He's not sure. My dilemma is whether this record, from which I'm working backwards, belongs to the right family. I need to confirm that this is the right family or I can build a wonderful tree that lacks a solid foundation. I recall the grandfather died in the Holocaust so do a search for testimony on Yad Vashem. Success! A record has been submitted by an uncle who gives the birth year of 1891 and the parents' names which match my record.

Working back from one record to another I quickly realize that I can get back to his fifth great-grandparents, certainly back to the 1700s. There are marriage records for great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, always valuable for the wealth of information they provide, parents names on both sides.

Now the work is by no means done. Now I need to order records from the Family History Library or from the Polish Archives and get translations for them. I will build a tree with what I know and build the details from the records into it. But our process has begun, using sources of JRI-Poland, Yad Vashem, and the Polish Archives. With those resources together with some basic Cyrillic and knowledge of the layout of records, I can crack the code.


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