A Beginner's Guide to Eastern European Genealogy – Part 1

A community survey of the ancestry of the population of the United States performed in 2006 showed that in a population of 299,398,485, an estimated 6,834,657 people identified their primary ancestry to be Polish, 2,186,872 Russian, 957,522 Czech, 947,375 Hungarian, 692,098 Ukrainian, 506,910 Slovak, 439,202 Lithuanian, 358,464 Eastern European, 329,200 Romanian, 226,024 Czechoslovakian, 81,330 Bulgarian, 65,368 Latvian, 20,964 Estonian, 7,206 Carpatho-Rusyn, and 1,683 Soviet Union. These groups roughly correspond with the countries classified as Eastern European countries by the United Nations Statistics Division.

Genealogical research in Eastern European countries is frequently approached with uncertainty, if not outright dread. The prospects of trying to find and understand records written in a foreign language coupled with the relative inaccessibility of many of the records in Eastern Europe is certainly reason to give many people misapprehensions of starting to research ancestors from Eastern Europe.

Nonetheless, research on ancestors in Eastern Europe can be conducted by genealogists who know little of the native language as long as three essential pieces of information are known: the name of an ancestor, the approximate year of an event in that ancestor’s life, and the location in which that event took place.

For those who have these three pieces of information, the path to research ancestors in Eastern Europe may be relatively straightforward. The most commonly used records to research Eastern European ancestry are church records and civil registration records. Unfortunately, in most places, the more recent church records and civil registration records may not be open to the public. On the bright side, however, the greatest influx of Eastern European immigrants to the United States occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their records in their Eastern European homelands may, indeed, be available.

The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, Utah boasts a collection of over 2,400,000 rolls of microfilm, many of which are microfilmed copies of church records and civil registration records. Several countries in Eastern Europe are well represented in the microfilm collections of the FHL, providing genealogists with ready access to these valuable records through local Family History Centers all over the world. The catalog of available microfilms is online at http://www.familysearch.org/.

Once equipped with the microfilms, one can search the records. Even if a researcher can’t read the language in which the records are written, many are written using the Latin alphabet, and so the researcher can at least recognize the names in the records.

Location, Location, Location

The strategy for finding records in Eastern Europe, whether by searching for them in person, by mail, or by using the FHL microfilms involves, first and foremost, knowledge of the location where the records were recorded. Most commonly, the records were recorded in the church or synagogue to which the ancestors belonged. The location of the vital events in an ancestor’s life, therefore, is one of the most important pieces of information to have.

Americans researching their immigrant ancestors should first research American records to learn names, dates, and locations relevant to their searches for records in Eastern Europe. Such records as census records, draft registrations, birth records, baptismal records, marriage records, death records, obituaries, immigration records, naturalization records, and personal family papers may all provide clues to finding information in Eastern European records.

Even after finding relevant records that list the location for a birth or marriage in Eastern Europe, one must still learn where the ancestor’s church or synagogue was located. Most villages in Eastern Europe do not have a church or synagogue in the village itself, but rather the residents all traveled to a nearby village to attend services. It is in the churches and synagogues that the records were kept, and it is the village in which the church or synagogue was located that the genealogist must find.

The easiest way to find the name of the village in which the church or synagogue was located is to use a gazetteer (geographical dictionary) for the appropriate region and time period. Some examples of gazetteers include the Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Połskiego (Poland and surrounding territories such as Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine), Spis Miejscowosci Polskiej Rzeczypospolitej Ludowej (Poland), Administratives Gemeindelexikon der Cechoslovakischen Republik (Czechoslovakia), and Magyarorszag Helysegnevtara Ket Kotreten(Hungary). All these gazetteers are available through the FHL and the local FHCs.

Most of these gazetteers are written in the local languages, but many of the microfilmed copies include instructions for use in English. In most cases, the gazetteers provide the location of the parish church or synagogue to which each village belonged. In many Eastern European villages, most residents were members of a single religion: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Evangelical Lutheran, for example. In those locations where the population was divided among two or more faiths, the researcher must know the religion of the ancestor in order to find the correct records.

But the Borders Changed!

Alas, the problem with historic locations is that, throughout history, borders changed as invading armies took possession of new lands and as nations reorganized their administrative structures after establishing strategic alliances with other countries. These border changes and reorganizations affected the types of records maintained, the languages in which they were maintained, and the locations at which they were archived.

By far, the most significant border changes in Eastern Europe occurred in the territories now occupied by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, although border changes affected every country in Eastern Europe.

This article is Part 1 of a three part series that includes:

A Beginner’s Guide to Eastern European Genealogy is also available as a downloadable PDF document.

Written for the 93rd Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy

Copyright © 2010 by Stephen J. Danko

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2 Responses to A Beginner's Guide to Eastern European Genealogy – Part 1

  1. John Walusis (Valiuszis) says:

    I have been working on a Lithuanian family history. Have had limited success finding info on my fathers ancestors in Lithuania. The name was Valiuszis. His mother and father were from around Jubarkas.

    Any leads or info would be appreciated.

    Thanks for your site.

  2. Roger Laske says:

    Steve, I am the Editor of the “Polish Eaglet,” journal of the Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan and looking for a qualified person that could write a 3-6 page article on Researching Lutheran/Evangelical records in Poland, especially the Borderlands.

    I will be writing a background article on Lutheranism in Poland and an article on Lutheranism in Poland, Ukraine and North America (which is minimal for Polish). The Research article would follow.

    The article will be needed by mid-November for our Spring 2014 issue.

    Please let me know if you are interested so I may plan accordingly. I can send you a PDF file of one of our journals, Polish Eaglet, if you wish to peruse it.

Comments are closed.