Frequently Asked Questions

The Center for Jewish History is home to millions of archival records and hundreds of thousands of books, housed in the archives and libraries of the partner organizations. These include family histories, memoirs, correspondence, personal papers of prominent and less well-known individuals, and records of communal, cultural, political and professional organizations. Among these sources, which are in English and other languages, are many materials with information about individuals and families. To learn more about these records and books, please search our online catalog. You may search by family name; however, a search by town name may prove to be more fruitful, since most record groups are not indexed or catalogued by family name. In addition, we provide access to many family history records through our online databases and our microfilm loan program. To learn more about the many genealogical resources available at the CJH, see our research guides.

Among the collections at Center for Jewish History are many sources from or about Jewish communities worldwide, in English and other languages. These include encyclopedias, yizkor books, landsmanshaft records, newspapers, memoirs, and records of communal, cultural, political and professional organizations. To learn more about these records and books, please search our online catalog by town name or by the name of the district or province in which that town was located. In addition, we provide access to many community records through our online databases and our microfilm loan program. For country-specific lists of town resources at the CJH and beyond, please see our foreign records research guides.

Center for Jewish History have an online catalog?

Yes! Our online catalog integrates all the partners’ library and archival collections and the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute’s collection.

Our staff and volunteers will be happy to guide you to appropriate resources for your research. After searching our online catalog and consulting the research guides, you are welcome to visit the Genealogy Institute or contact us with a specific inquiry. Please note that the average response time to inquiries sent via e-mail is 1-3 weeks.

Please review our step-by-step guide on how to get started in your research. After reading this guide, you are welcome to visit the Genealogy Institute or contact us and we will try to provide some helpful advice. If you are planning to visit the Institute, we recommend that you first gather all documents that may contain clues about your ancestors, such as citizenship papers or birth, marriage, and death certificates, and interview your relatives who are most knowledgeable about your family’s history. Please bring in the documents you have gathered and a family tree. If you have not prepared a family tree yet, please download this chart and complete it to the best of your ability prior to your visit.

Family history research is typically a lengthy, multi-step process. It may take as little as a couple of hours to find out the names of your ancestors going back three or four generations -- but it may take decades to build a detailed family tree that goes back centuries and fleshes out the stories of your ancestors’ lives. The two greatest factors which will determine the duration of your research are your level of interest and your perseverance. The speed of progress varies widely from one person to another depending upon the amount of information you have prior to beginning your research, the survival and accessibility of records from your ancestral towns, the language(s) in which your ancestors’ records were written, how common your ancestors’ surnames were, the mobility of your ancestors, and other idiosyncrasies of your family’s unique history.

Up to the 20th century, Jewish communities all over the world had an autonomous record-keeping tradition that stretched back to the Middle Ages.  These local archives documented all aspects of life that were regulated by the Jewish community’s leadership, known as the kehillah or kahal, namely religion, education, communal arbitration, finance, and social welfare. Thus, the archive of a particular Jewish community may contain anything from marriage contracts, circumcision registers, and cemetery plot maps to business/property contracts, tax lists, court proceedings, and more.   The oldest surviving community records come from the Sephardic and Mizrahi world, as early as the 10th century in Egypt, the 12th century in Spain, and the 13th century in Italy and Portugal. Jewish community records date back to 14th century in parts of Western and Central Europe (namely, France, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia) and to the 15th and 16th centuries in much of Eastern Europe.

Please note that the earliest dates of surviving Jewish community records listed above only apply to a selective group of towns within those regions; it is important to keep in mind that the extent of the survival, physical condition, and accessibility of Jewish community records varies widely from place to place. For example, in many parts of the Sephardic and Mizrahi world not mentioned above, the local archives are highly fragmentary and date back no further than the 19th century. In addition, tracing one’s ancestors in early Ashkenazi Jewish community records is severely hindered by the fact that most Ashkenazi families did not adopt surnames until the late 18th to mid-19th centuries.

In contrast to the records maintained by Jewish communities themselves, the separate registration of Jews in government-mandated vital records (i.e. birth, marriage, and death registers) and population records (e.g. censuses) is a relatively recent phenomenon. While civil vital registration was established in most regions of Europe by the late 18th century, separate registers for each religious community, including Jews, were not required by the various imperial powers until the 1820’s-1860’s. Similarly, while the modern population census began to evolve in the 17th century and grew increasingly widespread and larger in scale over the course of the 18th century, censuses that specifically focused on Jewish populations were taken only sporadically from the 18th-20th centuries and remained predominantly at the local or provincial level. The most extensive of these Jewish censuses were as follows: 1724 (Czech lands), 1848 (Greater Hungary), and 1939 (Germany). In the Sephardic and Mizrahi world, the only large-scale attempt to count the Jewish populace was the series of censuses undertaken by Sir Moses Montefiore in Ottoman-controlled Palestine, Beirut and Sidon (Lebanon), and Alexandria (Egypt) between 1839 and 1875.

Most family trees are not on the Internet. There are several places, however, where some family trees or connections to other researchers can be found.

  • Family Tree of the Jewish People: This database consists of family trees that individual researchers have chosen to share with others. It is not an all-encompassing family tree of all Jews everywhere. For security and privacy reasons, dates are not included for living people, nor is the name of the submitter provided; however, you may contact him/her by sending a message using the provided link. To search this database, you must be registered with JewishGen (registration is free).
  • JewishGen Family Finder: This is a database of genealogists - both amateurs and professionals - with the surnames and towns they are researching. An exact spelling or soundex search may be made for a specific name, town, or both. The results give the researcher's name and contact information. The most useful results will be obtained by searching both the name and town. To search this database, you must be registered with JewishGen (registration is free).
  • WorldConnect Project: This is a free user-submitted family tree database of more than 640 million names, supported by Ancestry.com.
  • Personal Web Pages: Some families have created web pages containing genealogical information. To search for these, simply enter the surname you are researching into a search engine, such as Google or Bing.
  • Subscription databases: Ancestry.com (visit their genealogy page at ancestry.com/genealogy), Geni.com, MyHeritage.com and other commercial genealogy databases offer their subscribers full access to the public family trees submitted by users. You may search Ancestry.com’s and Geni.com’s family trees free of charge on-site at the Genealogy Institute. For more information on how to log on to these databases, please ask a Genealogy Institute librarian.

Most Ashkenazi families adopted surnames between 1780 and 1850. Jews living in Frankfurt and Prague and many Sephardic families used surnames much earlier. Some surnames were based on patronymics, matronymics, occupations, physical characteristics, or places of origin. Others were words borrowed from the Bible or other Jewish literature. The Genealogy Institute and Reading Room reference collections have a number of useful surname and given name dictionaries and other sources. These are listed in our research guide on Jewish Names.

The best way to identify ancestral towns is to interview relatives who may have that information. If that’s not possible, there are other ways to find your ancestors’ town of origin. These include:

  • Naturalization Records: U.S. Naturalization papers filed after 1906 contain the new citizen's exact town of origin; papers filed before 1906 may or may not, depending upon the court.
  • Ships’ manifests: Relatively few manifests prior to 1890 show the town or city of origin; later lists provide the specific place of last residence and/or birthplace.
  • U.S. Vital Records (Birth, marriage and death certificates): Some contain precise place of origin, depending upon the state, town, clerk, etc.
  • Census Records: Occasionally, the place of birth listed may include the name of the town.
  • Cemeteries: Many immigrants belonged to landsmanshaftn, which were organizations of people from the same ancestral town. The individual’s landsmanshaft usually provided cemetery plots. If you can visit your ancestor’s grave, you may find the name of their landsmanshaft. Note: It is sometimes possible to get this information by calling the cemetery.

For specific information about how to search for the above records, please see our research guides on Naturalization Records, Immigration Records, Vital Records, Census Records, and Cemetery Records. For suggestions of other types of records that may reveal an ancestral town, please see JewishGen’s FAQ on this subject.

A great place to start is JewishGen’s Communities Database, which contains information about 6,000 Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. You don’t need to know the exact spelling, as the database will yield all matches that sound like the name that you enter. This database contains each community's name in various languages and the names of the larger political jurisdictions (district, province, etc.) in which the community was located during different time periods. For additional guidance, please see our research guide on Finding an Ancestral Town.

NOTE: It is important to be aware that borders often changed in Central and Eastern Europe, so depending upon the date of immigration, a relative who said they were from Austria (The Austro-Hungarian Empire), pre-WWI, may have been from towns that are currently located in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, or Slovenia.

In addition, those who reported they were from Russia pre-WWI were most likely from the Pale of Settlement, the term given to a region of Imperial Russia in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish permanent residency was generally prohibited. Today, those towns may be located in Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Ukraine, and parts of western Russia.

Our country-by-country foreign record research guides and reference books like the Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy and Jeffrey S. Malka’s Sephardic Genealogy (both available at the Genealogy Institute) provide information on how to obtain foreign records. Many international vital records, census records, and other documents useful for family history research have been microfilmed by the Church of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. You may search the online Family History Library catalog by town name to find out which records are available for your ancestral towns. Please keep in mind that these microfilms are copies of original records, mostly handwritten in languages other than English. The Genealogy Institute administers a loan agreement with the Family History Library, so that researchers can order microfilms to be viewed at the Center for Jewish History. For instructions on how to order microfilms, please click here.Over 2,000 Family History Library microfilms containing records specifically useful for Jewish family history are available on long-term loan at the Institute. To see a complete list of these microfilms, please click here.