Getting Started with Jewish Genealogical Research in Latvia
by Marion Werle
Starting Jewish genealogical research in Latvia is no different than starting genealogical research in general. The first priority is to interview relatives, especially older family members. Then gather artifacts and memorabilia. These can form the basis of further questions to your relatives. Once you are ready to begin research, concentrate on researching the immigrant in the country where the immigrant ancestors settled, learning everything you can about your extended family, both direct line and collateral relatives. Only when you have exhausted research in their new country will you be ready to begin overseas research.
It is important to interview your relatives NOW, while memories are still intact. The older generations have the closest connection to our immigrant ancestors, and unfortunately, many older family members are no longer with us. Over time, memories fade, and once reliable witnesses may no longer remember their distant past. Don’t put this task off, and keep notes (or make recordings) of your interview sessions, whether telephone, Zoom, or in person. Sketch out a family tree. You may end up revising it completely, but at least you will have a starting point.
During your interviews, try to determine whether your family always had their current surname, or whether it was changed at some point. Many families have stories about the origin of their surname and/or what it was in the Old Country. While you can discount the “"names changed at Ellis Island" stories, often the family surname lore turns out to be correct. This information will be crucial in beginning your overseas research.
Gather Artifacts and Memorabilia
“Artifacts” is a generic term to describe the collection of documents, photos, letters, and other memorabilia that family members have accumulated during their lifetime. There is usually a treasure trove of information to be found in these artifacts. If your relative will allow it (or if you have inherited personal effects from a deceased family member), scan the documents and preserve the originals in photo-safe covers or slips. In a pinch, you can use your phone to photograph documents and pictures.
What are you looking for? Every family has a different collection, but you may find
Your parents’ (or grandparents’) ketuba (marriage contract)
Copies of vital records (birth, marriage, death, divorce)
Photographs – labeled or unidentified
Old letters or diaries
Certificates and awards
Old or expired passports
Memoirs and stories
If you are lucky, family members may have written memoirs or stories of their early life. The possibilities are endless.
For photos, be sure to copy both sides if there is an inscription or photographer’s stamp. Even if you don’t know who the person is, your relative may know, but even if the name is unfamiliar, record it in your notes. Some of these “unsolvable” artifacts may provide important clues years later in your research.
Exhaust Research at Home Before Going Overseas
It is extremely important to learn everything you can about your immigrant ancestor after he or she settled in their adopted homeland. This may include research in multiple countries, as not all family members ended up in the same place. Be sure to include extended family members – this includes aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, and anybody else from the family who may have preceded or followed your immediate ancestor’s immigration. Tracing close relatives can often help to fill in gaps in your research. You want to create as complete a picture as possible of your family, and compile a list of similarities and differences (e.g., parents’ names, place of birth/origin) you may encounter, which may provide clues for further research. Take advantage of both Jewish and general (non-Jewish) genealogical resources.
Ancestry.com ($) has a free YouTube channel with a wide variety of tips for researchers, both beginning and advanced. Especially recommended are the videos by Crista Cowan, “The Barefoot Genealogist” (Crista is well-versed in genealogy in general, and is also very familiar with Jewish research).
FamilySearch, which is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has resources that are open to all. You need to register on their website for a free account to view their records. The FamilySearch wiki has a wealth of information on all aspects of genealogy, as well as specific information on resources for a wide range of geographical areas. Their collection is especially strong in vital records, including New York City.
MyHeritage ($) has a Knowledge Base that includes videos on three major topics: family trees, research, and DNA.
JewishGen has a database of Infofiles on a number of topics. While many of the Infofiles are useful and recently revised, there are still a few old text files remaining.
Note that many public libraries have free library editions of Ancestry and/or MyHeritage, which may be accessible from home during the pandemic. You should also register for the JewishGen Discussion Group, where you can ask questions and exchange ideas with other researchers. Two Facebook groups, Jewish Genealogy Portal and Tracing the Tribe, may also be helpful in answering questions if you are a Facebook member.
Your research will encompass multiple sources, and it is important to cast a wide net and not depend on a single genealogy website. Although some genealogy websites may have overlapping information (e.g., census and immigration records), they may be indexed differently, and each website has its own unique records as well.
Archives and immigration and naturalization records are discussed in the next section of this website, called Finding Your Ancestor's Town of Origin, and covers records from the United States, Canada, Israel, and South Africa.
For countries other than the United States, see the following resources:
Canada – For a comprehensive guide to Canadian Jewish research, see the excellent Infofile called Guide to Canadian Jewish Genealogical Research. Another important resource is Library and Archives Canada, whose genealogy section has links and databases to a variety of national resources, including census records and naturalization indexes.
United Kingdom – The JCR-UK website, a joint project of The Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain and JewishGen, includes information on both the UK and the Irish Republic. It describes the history and background of the various communities, synagogues, and cemeteries, and includes a wealth of information in its databases. The JGSGB website also has a variety of useful resources for British research. Vital record indexes are found on the major genealogy websites as well as the Free BMD website. Record copies may be ordered from the General Record Office. UK school records may be found through both the London Metropolitan Archives and JCR-UK.
South Africa – FamilySearch has been active in digitizing records for South Africa, and immigration and naturalization records will be covered in the next section. The South Africa SIG website is not current.
Israel – See the Israel Genealogy Research Association database for a variety of records, including name changes and marriage records during the British mandate period. MyHeritage ($) also indexes IGRA’s database records and has indexed Israeli gravestone records from Billiongraves.com.
Don’t overlook public libraries, local archives and historical societies, and Jewish Genealogical Societies sources of local information. Librarians are usually willing to help with lookups, including newspapers and city directories that may not be digitized. A list of local Jewish Genealogical Societies may be found on the IAJGS. Local and regional historical societies, both Jewish and non-Jewish, can provide excellent resources.
The major types of records you will be researching include:
Census records – years and availability depend on the country – typically held by Ancestry.com ($), FamilySearch, and MyHeritage ($), among others.
City and business directories – these can help with residence information when census records are missing, or between census enumerations- there are multiple sources, but libraries are an excellent source of digitized city directories – Google “<location> historical city directories.”
Vital records – birth, marriage, and death records – not all are digitized, and you may need to send for them; they may be subject to privacy restrictions, depending on the jurisdiction. Many state, provincial, and local jurisdictions have digitization projects, either complete or in progress, and indexes may exist even if the actual records are unavailable.
Gravestones and cemetery records – see Find A Grave, BillionGraves, the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), JewishData.com ($ - may be available free through genealogy societies or public libraries), and individual cemetery websites (Google the cemetery name). An introduction to reading Jewish tombstones may be found in the JewishGen Infofiles. Photos of gravestones may also be posted on JewishGen’s Viewmate for assistance in translation, or to the Facebook groups Jewish Genealogy Portal or Tracing the Tribe. Cemetery offices may also be able to provide information and/or gravestone photos if they have not been photographed on one of the cemetery websites – you may need to offer to make a donation to obtain a photo. Of course, you may also visit cemeteries in person.
Social Security Death Index (and related claims index) – available on multiple sites, some free and others paid, including Ancestry ($), FamilySearch, and MyHeritage (SSDI is free). Typically lists mother’s maiden name and death date for those who have filed Social Security applications and claims in the U.S.
Immigration and naturalization records – see Finding Your Ancestor’s Shtetl on this website for a discussion of finding immigration records in general and finding what name your ancestor may have used at the time. One particularly useful Infofile resource by Marian Smith is Manifest Markings: A Guide to Interpreting Passenger List Annotations. Another newer file in the Infofile database is Joel Weintraub’s Finding Immigrant Names On Degraded Ellis Island Manifests. Not all Infofiles in the Immigration/Emigration section on JewishGen are up-to-date.
Newspaper articles – many families kept newspaper clippings recording significant events affecting family members (birth, death, marriage, graduations, etc.). In addition to life cycle events, historical newspapers recorded legal and social news, and unexpected stories that may provide insight into an ancestor’s life.
There are many sources of historical newspapers, some free and others through pay sites. Ancestry.com extracts and indexes names that appear in obituaries on Newspapers.com ($), a subsidiary of Ancestry. MyHeritage ($) also has a newspaper collection which includes the British Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle. There are also a number of Jewish newspapers that have been digitized, including The Sentinel (Chicago, Illinois), The Detroit Jewish News, and the Canadian Jewish Review. The Library of Congress has a collection called “Chronicling America,” containing digitized newspapers which are no longer under copyright. Public libraries may offer member access to ProQuest Historical Newspapers covering the major newspapers within the library’s geographical area. Google the location and “newspapers” or “historical newspapers” to see what is available on other websites.
Wills and probate – these vary by jurisdiction. Poorer relatives with no assets likely did not have wills. Sources of probate records include Ancestry ($) and FamilySearch.
School records – these may be included among your family’s artifacts, and others may be available in various jurisdictions. Both Ancestry ($) and MyHeritage ($) have school yearbooks digitized.
Synagogue records – JewishGen has a Memorial Plaques Database. Individual synagogues may have records such as mohel books that have been donated to genealogy websites. The JewishGen USA Database is another source of U.S. synagogue records. Quebec vital records were held on the parish (including synagogue) level through 1993, and may be found in the Drouin collection on Ancestry.ca or the international subscription of Ancestry.com ($).
Local histories – the Internet Archive, Hathi Trust Digital Library, and Google books are sources of out-of-print digitized books. WorldCat can also direct users to local libraries that hold hard-copy books of interest.
Land Records – although most Jews lived in urban areas or in smaller towns as shopkeepers or merchants, those who settled in farming communities may have purchased land. Land records are available on Ancestry ($), FamilySearch (many in the unindexed digitized collections), and MyHeritage ($).
Finding Your Ancestor’s Shtetl
The following page discusses how to find your ancestor’s town of origin using immigration and naturalization records. Once have determined both the town and your surnames of interest, you may register them in the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF). The JGFF will allow you to search for others researching the same names and towns, and will enable them to find you as well.