Why is it important to look up your ancestors? How to do it?

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What leads so many people to search for their roots and to be interested in their genealogy?

Among those who contact us, the majority are Jews from around the world who are interested in learning about the past, trying to fill in blank spots in their family stories about the country from which their close and distant relatives originated. They want to find traces of the presence of those relatives — a grandfather, a great-grandfather. They want to find, we can say, their Polish roots. They hope to find living relatives, whom they have not met as well as those of whose existence they might not previously have known.

Others, largely but not solely from Poland, want to find or confirm their Jewish roots. Early stages of research differ greatly from case to case: a total lack of information about previous generations, photographs of anonymous relatives found in family albums, documents with unfamiliar, foreign-sounding names discovered following a grandmother’s death. Sometimes, the research begins because of an insistently repeating dream, a need to define one’s identity or just simple curiosity.

There are those who will never find Jews among their ancestors. However, it is always worthwhile to check. Others, do find out that they are Jewish or that they have Jewish roots. And they react in various ways.

What do we gain from tracing our roots?

We certainly gain awareness. It happens sometimes that those who, after conducting prolonged research, find out they have Jewish roots ask themselves: I have Jewish origins and now what? Who am I? What, if anything, does this mean to me? Even before starting the search, it is worthwhile to think about what such a discovery may change. Will you be the same person? Will it be more than just a change in perspective?

Such a discovery for some means a change in lifestyle, new challenges and often an understanding of one’s „otherness.” Those people receive a new identity, as if they were receiving a new life. They discover the richness of the Jewish tradition and the sense of peoplehood we enjoy. We have also met those who, upon discovering that their loved ones – grandmother, grandfather, parents – are Jewish, had to deal with the horrors of the Shoah as it affected their close family. The Shoah — for the majority of us, a theoretical and historical challenge which we do not think about every day.

Where should I start genealogical research?

It is worthwhile to start by getting familiar with the history of one’s own family: To talk to parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Sometimes, we don’t realize what can be found in our own home archive as well as in those of our other relatives. Gathering and organizing family stories and available documents gives us an excellent starting point for further research. However, we need to keep in mind that people often say that “nothing was preserved” or “everything was lost during the war.” That is true less frequently than we often think. 

Where should I start archival research?

It all depends on what we know; however, the most significant collection of documents, confirming or denying Jewish origin for the lack of other evidence, are vital records — documents that accompany us at the most important moments of our lives — birth, marriage and death. These records are registered and kept in local civil registry offices. Therefore, one must know the place where the family was from before the war. After the war, many families changed their place of residence: some moved (or were moved) to Western Poland, and families from east of the Bug River had to leave their homes in order to still living within the newly redrawn borders of post-war Poland.

In short, if we do not know the place of origin of the family before the war, we start with the last generation for whom we have a location then go further and further back. If, for instance, grandmother was born before the war and died after the war, in her death certificate we will see such hints as her place of birth, parents’ names, mother’s maiden name. Then we can reach for the pre-war records, in which information is not corrupted, changed or distorted. It is also important to remember that pre-war vital records were registered in separate books for each religion with Jewish records in so-called „Mosaic” registers. As there were no mixed or civil marriages, anyone who decided to marry a person from a different religion, had to decide about conversion.

In the case of Jewish families whose members survived the Second World War, one can usually find a trace of them in the Registry of Jewish Survivors or other documents of the Central Committee of the Jews in Poland which are held in the archives of our Institute. The registration of Jews who survived from the Shoah was conducted until 1951.