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Tips for Genealogical Research
by Carola Murray-Seegert, Ph.D.

Collect U.S. Records First
Begin by collecting as much information as you can about the immigrants from U.S. sources (census, naturalization, military and vital records). Get organized, as experts Phyllis Kramer and Warren Blatt suggest (Blatt, 2012; David, 2010). Be sure to examine old letters - a date or return address may yield a key fact. This is how one JewishGen member found cousins alive and well in Moscow, fifty years after her father had been told they died in the Holocaust (Garbuny Vogel, 1997).

Use online research sites to locate any living relatives. Search for the entire family - siblings, spouses, or distant cousins. Among them, you may find a fellow genealogy-maven who saved a family tree compiled for an old court settlement or recorded oral histories while the immigrant generation was still alive. In my personal research, I hit the jackpot in just this way, gaining the names of 55 individuals, including the previously unknown names of great-grandparents, through just one contact.

Learn the immigrant's original name. Ship manifests (passenger lists) are particularly useful since they supply the person's name in 'pre-Americanized' form, which you will need to know when you turn to the Russian archives. The Hamburg Passenger Lists are especially relevant because they show the immigrant's last place of residence (1877-1914 are the years presently indexed at Ancestry). Depending on the year of immigration, Ellis Island records supply the name and address of the nearest relative or friend in the old country as well as contact information for a friend or relative in the U.S.

Query multiple sources, such as Ancestry, FamilySearch and Heritage Quest; document availability differs from site to site. A superb tool for sifting through the multiplicity of online genealogical information is Steve Morse's One-Step website at Morse is both a computer genius and a witty writer (a rare combination, at least in my experience). I strongly suggest you read "A One-Step Portal for On-Line Genealogy" before plunging into the site's offerings (click on the link "About this Website and how to use it" on the home page). The JewishGen Discussion Group is another terrific resource; its readers respond quickly to queries and are very generous with their knowledge and time - if you have not yet subscribed to this forum or searched its archive on a topic of interest, I strongly suggest you do so.

Consider taking an online, interactive genealogy course. I regarded myself as a rather skillful researcher when I started a family history project centered on the former Russian Empire. However, I quickly learned that this demanded special tactics and decided to get help from the expert instructors in the JewishGen Learning Center. Their professional attention to my specific questions was invaluable. What I appreciated above all was having an interested, experienced guide at my side, showing me how to differentiate (for example) "our" Weinstein family from hundreds of others on the New York census lists. If you are truly committed to doing this sort of research, a course at JewishGen will boost your productivity like nothing else.

Then Search the Russian Sources
Regarding the former Russian Empire, JewishGen members have, until now, focused their energies on locating information from shtetls within the former Pale of Settlement. While those with roots in Belarus or Poland or the Ukraine now have access to enviable quantities of documents online, those of us seeking families outside the Pale are rather like poor relations in this genealogical community.

Gaining access to Russian records is very much a work-in-progress. Although Imperial Russia began the systematic collection of census data in the 19th century, many documents have been damaged or lost to war, civil strife and the simple vagaries of time. A few files are beginning to appear online in digital form, but most are paper copies in local repositories and a great deal of individual effort is required to obtain them. If you are dreaming of travelling to Moscow to visit the archives, or if you are thinking of hiring a researcher and wonder what skills that person should have, you should first peruse a guide published by the University of Birmingham that identifies the holdings of individual libraries and describes their varied and sometimes arcane requirements for accessing information (Berry and Ilic, 2002).

Family stories on this KehilaLink show that some people have gotten results by searching Russian-language sites and then using an online translator to decipher the results (see Databases and Links for examples). Others have hired professionals to search the historic archives in Moscow or St. Petersburg; this is obviously the more expensive route, but perhaps the most straightforward for those who are not fluent in Russian. JewishGen deliberately avoids recommending specific professionals, but does offer tips for those who wish to pursue this course (Polakoff & Mokotoff, 2000); it also maintains a collection of reviews by members who have employed genealogists (Haas & Kramer, 2012).

Like many of you, I am still trying to find my way through this maze of information. One reason I volunteered to sponsor the Moskva KehilaLink is the hope that we amateur investigators can learn from one another. If you have successfully documented a Jewish family from Moscow or know of a reliable source for Moscow data, please share your expertise! Contact us and we will happily add your suggestion to this site.

Berry,M.J & Ilic, M.J. (2002) Using the Russian Archives - A Practical Guide for Beginners, Based on Users' Experiences. British Academic Committee for Collaboration with Russian Archives in association with the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, The University of Birmingham.
Retrieved 18 July 2012.
(This 'know before you go' advice is clearly founded on extensive experience. Some of the links are outdated, but the description of the archives' practices should still be relevant, given the fact that they originated centuries ago and are unlikely to change any time soon).

Blatt, Warren (8 July 2012). Frequently Asked Questions. JewishGen InfoFiles.
Retrieved 11 July 2012.
(Blatt provides detailed answers to most of the basic questions about Jewish genealogy, including strategies for starting your research and tips for locating vital records and passenger lists).

David, J. (2010) Who Do You Think You Are? Retrieved 12 July 2012.
(An interview with genealogy experts Phyllis Kramer and Warren Blatt that summarizes the best techniques for beginning Jewish family research).

Garbuny Vogel, C. (1997) The Great Garbuny-Gorbunov Hunt. Avotaynu:
The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Vol. XIII, No. 4. Retrieved 19 July 2012

Haas, P. & Kramer, P. (January 2012) Finding a Professional Genealogist. JewishGen InfoFiles.
Retrieved 11 July 2012.
(A list of genealogists with individual recommendations from JewishGen members).

Horlacher, G. (2010) Using Hamburg Passenger Lists. ProGenealogists - Regional Resources for Hamburg.
Retrieved 11 July 2012.
(Detailed explanation of information available and ways to search passenger lists kept at the port of Hamburg, 1850 -1934. Although the text emphasizes German family research, many Russian Jews departed from Hamburg, particularly at the time of the 1891 Moscow expulsions).

JewishGen (2012) Discussion Group Archives.
Retrieved 11 July 2012.
(Searchable database of all messages posted to the JewishGen Discussion Group since September 1993. This is a great place to look for answers. It contains long, thoughtful articles as well as briefer messages on a wide variety of genealogical topics. One must register at the JewishGen site to retrieve this post.)

Morse, Stephen P. (February 2011) A One-Step Portal for On-Line Genealogy. One-Step Webpages by Stephen Morse. Retrieved 11 July 2012.

Copyright 2012 Carola Murray-Seegert Ph.D.