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Abstracts of Some Papers Presented at the Toronto Conference

The 22nd IAJGS Conference on Jewish Genealogy, held in Toronto from August 4 to August 9, presented dozens of interesting papers and discussions. The following article presents a somewhat arbitrary selection of abstracts of some of these papers.

Bar-Zev, Dr. Asher — Gravestones and Death Certificates: Can You Believe What You Read?

Genealogists use information from gravestones and death certificates as sources for family history research. What data might we expect to find, and what might some of the pitfalls be in using information from these sources?

Dr. Bar-Zev gave a brief overview of various types of graves and grave markers in Jewish cemeteries throughout the world. He explained folk art symbols, names, dates, abbreviations, and titles. We can learn about the deceased and the writer of the epitaph from what we read. Why may designations of Cohen or Levi sometimes be omitted? Case studies of names and dates on gravestones, which differ from other records for the individual, were noted. Gravestone information may corroborate genealogical records that had been previously in question. Alternately, information from the gravestone may bring new information to light, and show differences from what had been accepted previously.

Information on death certificates may contain significant errors in names, dates and places. The role and state of mind of the informant and the clerk was discussed .

Ways of seeking corroboration and validation of the information found on gravestones and death certificates was given.

Beider, Dr. Alexander — Jewish Surnames in Galicia

Almost all names originating during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century among Jews in Galicia, which at that time was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were adopted at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Numerous appellations acquired by Jews in this region were based on German words. These words corresponded to various layers of the German languages, including occupational names, adjectives, nouns designating animals, plants and minerals. Numerous names had two parts, such as Gold-berg (gold mountain), Silber-stein (silver stone), Rosen-thal (valley of roses), Morgen-stern (morning star). Some authors cite Austrian officials who tried to ridicule Jews by assigning such pseudo-romantic

names. Others tell the story about the existence of various categories of names: expensive, cheap and free of charge. This lecture critically analyzed these opinions, taking into account the statistical calculations of names used by Jews from Galicia. It also reviewed the influence of surnames adopted in that region on those assigned in the neighbouring Russian Empire.

Wrobel, Dr. Piotr: Millennium of Polish Jewry, Part I—Wandering Jew: Migrations of Polish Jews, c. 1000 – c. 2000

The “eternal wandering” of the Jews constitutes one of the most important elements of the Jewish past. We can almost say that a history of the Jews is a history of their migrations. In the 19th and 20th centuries, various issues related to these migrations shaped important aspects of Jewish socio-economic life and initiated the formation of new political movements and ideologies. The two contemporary main centres of Jewish life, Israel and the United States, were established by the members of 19thand 20thcentury Jewish migrations. After World War II, over one-third of all the Jews are firstor second-generation immigrants. The Polish Jews contributed significantly to this phenomenon.

The lecture reviewed the history of the migrations of the Polish Jews. It started with the Early Middle Ages when the first Jews came to Poland and with the High Middle Ages when a sizable group of Jews moved to East Central Europe from Germany. There followed a discussion of the Modern Era, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became the centre of the world Jewry. Special attention was devoted to the consequences of the 1648 Khmelnytsky Uprising and the Partitions of Poland. The 19th-century part of the lecture concentrated on internal migrations within Austria, Germany and Russia, and on the great migration to the United States, Canada and South America. Finally, the 20th-century portion of the lecture concentrated on the emigration from Poland to Palestine, on the consequences of the Holocaust and on the policies of the Polish communist authorities towards the Jews.

Millennium of Polish Jewry, Part II—How Did the Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe Live and Why Did They Emigrate?

Since the Babylonian exile and the beginnings of the Diaspora, Jewish life has been characterized by the emergence of major foci of creativity and dynamism. In the period of the second Temple and after, Mesopotamia with its exilarch (Resh galutha) and its great academies was an even more important area of Jewish intellectual and legal activity than Erets Yisrael. It remained a major centre under Islamic rule, to be supplanted in the early middle ages by the communities of Spain and the Rhineland. When these settlements lost their significance, with the persecutions which accompanied the Crusades and more particularly the Black Death in Germany and with the expulsion and forced conversion of the Jews of Spain, their place was taken by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Turkish Empire, along with smaller communities in Italy, the German lands and the Atlantic littoral. By the early seventeenth century the Jewish community of Poland-Lithuania had become the largest in the Jewish world. The Jewish population grew from between 10,000 and 30,000 at the end of the fifteenth century (out of a total population of around four million) to between 150,000 and 300,000 (out of ten million) by 1650 and 750,000 (out of 14 million) in 1764.

In the years of its flourishing, the Jewish community of Poland and Lithuania gave rise to a unique religious and secular culture in Hebrew and Yiddish and enjoyed an unprecedented degree of self-government. In a penitential prayer composed in the aftermath of the massacres which occurred during the Cossack uprising of the mid-seventeenth century, Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipman Heller looked back to a golden age, recalling “Poland, a country of royalty where we have dwelled from of old in tranquil serenity.” Yet even after the devastating effect of these upheavals, which also marked the beginning of the downfall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Jewish community continued to increase in size and was able to recover some of its vitality. In the late eighteenth century, these lands saw the emergence and development of hasidism, an innovative revivalist movement, which was eventually to gain the allegiance of a large proportion of the Jewish population here and which remains very much alive in the Jewish world today.

Bialystok, Dr. Franklin; Polonsky, Dr. Antony; Tuszynska, Dr. Agata; Wrobel, Dr. Piotr: Millennium of Polish Jewry, Part III—Poles and Jews: A Shared History, A Divided Memory (Panel discussion)

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the late 18th century was home to four-fifths of world Jewry. For almost one thousand years Poles and Jews inhabited the same territory. They created a symbiotic relationship, although not always a harmonious one. Jews were first welcomed by Polish kings in the Middle Ages, and were granted wide autonomy from the 15th to the 18th century, creating a kind of “Golden Age.” They succeeded in creating a diverse and vibrant civilization that witnessed the development of movements such as Hassidism, Mitnadgim, Haskala, Zionism, socialism, and Bundism. In so doing, they had to deal with the oppressive policies of the Russian imperial authorities, systematic murderous rampages by Ukrainian nationalists, vilification by the Polish Roman Catholic Church, and anti-Semitic behaviour by much of Polish society.

It is important for Jews and Poles today, whether in Poland or in each respective Diaspora, to learn about this history, to explore it honestly and openly, and to appreciate the contributions of each to the character of the other.

It was in this spirit that the conference organizers chose to host an august panel of experts of Poles and Jews to discuss these significant issues.

Birnboim, Dr. Chaim—DNA, the Ultimate Genealogical Record: Using Saliva As An Easy Source of DNA

A genetic “fingerprint” based on DNA analysis is the ultimate tool for identification of persons. This is of interest to genealogists because it can also be used to identify blood relatives. These uses of DNA are increasing and there is therefore a need for even simpler and more reliable methods to collect DNA samples. Although blood is considered the most reliable source of DNA, it has many obvious problems. Swabs from the mouth are convenient but produce only a small amount of DNA and are less reliable. Saliva is known to contain more DNA but is not widely used, possibly because convenient procedures have not yet been devised. In his presentation, Dr. Birnboim described a new simple home kit for DNA from saliva. This has proven to be as reliable as blood but much more convenient. It can easily be self-administered. With this kit it should be possible to collect DNA samples from possible family members in virtually any part of the world.

Bookbinder, Hal—The Changing Borders of Eastern Europe

This lecture traced Eastern European border changes over the past millennium. Recognizing what government was in control at various times can help in understanding the environment in which our ancestors lived, the events which encouraged their migration, the languages in which official records were kept, and the likely locations where these records might be found. Your ancestral home may well have been subject to the rule of a number of countries when your family lived there. Consider Dubno, which is currently in Rivne Oblast, Ukraine. So it might be logical to look for records in Rivne. However, recognizing that Dubno was in Russian Volhynia from 1795 to 1917, one should not overlook Zhitomir, the capital of Russian Volhynia. And, since Dubno was in Polish Volhynia from 1569 to 1795 and from 1921 to 1939, one should also check out Lutsk, the capital of Polish Volhynia.

Bussgang, Dr. Julian; Bussgang, Fay—Polish Pronunciation and Grammar Workshop

Having trouble with those Polish town and family names that have several consonants in a row? Learning a few rules, with a little practice, might make you feel more like an expert genealogist and let others understand what you are talking about.

Grammatical changes and their spelling often cause trouble in reading documents. It is useful to know that “Brzeziny” and “Brzezinach” refer to the same town, while “Brzezany” is a completely different place.

Fay Bussgang learned both pronunciation and grammar from scratch while her husband, Julian, is a native speaker.

They prepared a handout to help genealogists with Polish spelling, sounds, and grammar .

Cantor, Linda & Gudis, Lucille — A Journey to Our Ancestral Shtetlach (Ukraine)

Linda Cantor and Lucille Gudis, longtime genealogists and experienced travellers, discussed their 2001 journey to Ukraine, how they prepared for this journey to their ancestral shtetlach and their travels from Krakow in Poland across the Ukrainian border, through Galicia and Volhynia in western Ukraine, ending in Kiev. They provided details about networking with other genealogists in preparation for this journey, arranging for a guide and transportation; food, hotel information and travel conditions; archival visits and available records; conditions in the shtetlach; remains of Jewish life in Ukraine; a family reunion after ninety years apart; and how, as a result of this journey, they were able to expand their genealogical research, both in the Ukraine and the United States.

Carynnyk, Marco — The Deadly Triangle: Ukrainians, Jews, and Poles in the Summer of 1941

In the weeks after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, western Ukraine, western Belarus, and the Baltic republics witnessed an unprecedented set of double murders. As Soviet forces retreated from the Wehrmacht, the Soviet secret police emptied its prisons by murdering the inmates. When local people rushed to the prisons to look for missing relatives, they found cells and pits filled with corpses in at least twenty-two localities in western Ukraine alone.

Within days after the occupation, a wave of pogroms swept these same regions. Enraged civilians beat, robbed and killed Jews on the pretext that they were all Communists and thus responsible for the NKVD crimes. In western Ukraine at least thirty-five such pogroms took place.

Drawing on interviews, German and Soviet military reports, eyewitness accounts and photographs and newsreel footage, Carynnyk discussed relations among Ukrainians, Jews, and Poles and tried to reconstruct the course of events in the town of Zolochiv (Zloczów, Zolochev), sixty kilometres east of Lviv (Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg), where 649 victims of the NKVD were discovered and where between a thousand and five thousand Jews were killed two days later.

Greenspan, Bennett—Genetic Genealogy: Another Tool in the Arsenal

All genealogists know that eventually the paper trail goes cold. Records are unavailable, lost, burned, misplaced or intentionally destroyed.

Once genealogists have gone back as far as possible, we tend to branch out to seek relatives of our ancestors. Eventually, we all run into someone with our same (or similar) surname that we can’t match with an authenticated paper trail. The trail ended, that is, until DNA testing became available. Now, genealogy enthusiasts can use this new method to pass a hurdle that has hounded them for years.

Due to groundbreaking work by geneticists from around the world, a new tool DNA testing has been added to the good genealogists’ bag of tricks! While the actual value of mtDNA is a legitimate source for debate, the value of Y-DNA testing for surname reconstruction and geographic studies has long been established and documented.

Bennett Greenspan, founder of Family Tree DNA, took us through the basic science behind DNA testing and shared some anecdotes and mysteries that remain unsolved or have been solved in the last few years.

Hondo, Dr. Leszek — Jewish Cemeteries in Western Galicia

The largest Jewish necropolis in the world is situated in Poland. In Western Galicia there are about 200 Jewish cemeteries. Research into cemeteries in Poland still awaits vital complex work. Jewish cemeteries in Galicia have been the focus of intensive research since 1993. This research consists of detailed descriptions of cemeteries and in stock-taking (inventory) of gravestones. The Department of Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University in Cracow is conducted research under the direction of Dr. Hondo on the cemeteries in Cracow (the old and new ones), Tarnow, Olkusz, Niepomice, Krynica and Muszyna. The findings from this work were partially published (Cracow, Tarnow, Pilica).

Contemporary times present new challenges in the area of collecting and accessing information, including those in the research into Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Information technology and utilization of large networks, primarily the Internet, constitute one of those challenges. A database of Jewish cemeteries in Western Galicia is being collected. This database will contain photos and detailed descriptions of gravestones, inscriptions and translations from Hebrew into Polish. It can enrich the genealogical information.

Sources for Jewish Genealogical Research in Western Galicia

In spite of the extermination of Polish Jews by German occupants in the years 1939-1945 and purposeful destruction during the war of all traces of Jewish presence in Poland, numerous monuments of Jewish culture were preserved, as well as millions of documents on its history and numerous examples of its material culture. Many of those documents were preserved in state archives, thus providing insight not only into economic history and history of the Polish-Jewish relationship with its far-reaching implications, but also into Jewish family life. The holdings of the state archives in Western Galicia contain rich and often unique materials documenting the genealogical research. Jewish family history, in particular, is documented, thanks to the records of local administration offices. Personal records are also amazingly abundant birth, marriage and deaths registers (sometimes with alphabetical indexes). For example, genealogical research can be based on preserved population records of Tarnow and on civil register books of 1808-1941.

Kelman, Sara Edell Schafler; Kurtz, Joel—19th Century Jewish Life in Eastern Galicia

This paper was the first of a series, which describes the last hundred years in the history of a family who left Pamurin, Galicia (now Pomoryany, Ukraine) in the late 19th century and settled in Toronto, Canada. Through history and anecdotes, this presentation described the evolution of a family unusual in terms of its contributions to the Jewish community, which includes bringing to Toronto its first full-time Orthodox rabbi in 1901.


Gesher Galicia is a non-profit organization carrying out Jewish genealogical and historical research on Galicia, formerly a province of Austria-Hungary and today divided between southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. The research work includes the indexing of archival vital records and census books, Holocaust-period records, Josephine and Franciscan cadastral surveys, lists of Jewish taxpayers, and records of Galician medical students and doctors - all added to our searchable online database. In addition, we reproduce regional and cadastral maps for our online Map Room. We conduct educational research and publish a quarterly research journal, the Galitzianer. Gesher Galicia is also organized for the purpose of maintaining networking and online discussion groups and to promote and support Jewish heritage preservation work in the areas of the former Galicia.

You can search our free All Galicia Database, Map Room, and archival inventories, and read about member benefits starting at $50 per year. You can also join online.

Our general contact address: info@geshergalicia.org