How many times have I heard “There’s no information on my shtetl.” Perhaps there’s no information readily available on the Internet, and you’ve tried Google and JewishGen’s databases and sitewide searches, but alas…. Yet there is plenty of information about the vast majority of shtetls. The trick is to find people who do have the knowledge or documents about a particular place and get them to share it.
Fifteen years ago I found nothing on the Internet about a “two horse” town named Zmigrod. Nobody had even heard of it and no data were available. So in my grandparents’ memory, I created a JewishGen ShtetLinks site. I looked at the other ShtetLinks sites and figured out where to get some basic information. Once the site was up, someone wrote me and said they were going to hire a researcher, was I interested in joining in? I said yes and then e-mailed all the other folks who were registered on JewishGen’s Family Finder (JGFF) for that shtetl. It turned out five researchers were interested in the project. We pooled our money and sent our surnames to the researcher. Because there were five of us, we were able to get the researcher to spend an entire week in the town researching records, not just one day.
The results were amazing — more than 1,500 documents were retrieved, most of them copied and all of them translated by our researcher. In looking back, my only regret is that we did not ask her to photocopy every document. The documents that we obtained as a result of this project served to prove family connections between us, and we also found one person’s relative was the mohel and another the midwife.
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That was only the first step. As a result of the research project I created a database on my ShtetLinks Web page of the relevant information that we had obtained. Once the records were available online, I realized there was significant interest in the town and I began to ask folks to send me photographs and stories for the page. Many more family connections were established as a result of the ShtetLinks page. In fact, the ShtetLinks page and family postings were so successful that I employed the same formula for other towns— Dubiecko, Dukla, Frysztak, Jasienica Rosielna, Jaslo, Korszena, Krosno, Rohatyn, Rymanow, and Strzyzow— all shtetls of my family. One example is five ladies who are interested in the same surnames from Rohatyn; two family connections were finally proven and we remain friends to this day.
But it did not stop there. As time progressed I received e-mails from researchers in Israel who found my Web pages. One gentleman sent me a list of Dubiecko schoolchildren and their parents from 1936; another person sent a list of survivors from many of the towns surrounding Krosno; a third person sent a short but personal yizkor story from Zmigrod. As researchers began to visit the towns, I would post their travelogs, including photographs, cemetery listings, and wonderful stories about the towns as they exist today. Non-Jewish youngsters e-mailed also, asking how they could help as they were starting to find out the true histories of their towns. One discovered and translated a Polish story of life in Jaslo that was the best description I have ever read of life in these towns. Another took photographs in cemeteries. Others told me of the synagogue reconstruction in Rymanow and the cemetery clean-up in Zmigrod. These young people help
me whenever I need translations, too, and it has been a true pleasure to interact with them.
And I have helped other people as well. I am proud to say that I have assisted in establishing and renewing many family connections. I maintain a Word document of every e-mail I have ever received regarding each town. Very often I can put folks in touch with others who are researching the same surnames from the same town or adjoining towns, as I have learned where these towns lie in relation to each other. So many families married their children to people in nearby towns that one shouldn’t look just in the town of origin, but also in the surrounding towns. Geography is an essential part of genealogy.
In conclusion, do not make the mistake of assuming no information is available for your family’s shtetl. If that brick wall bothers you, create your own ShtetLinks Web page and see what happens. There are folks at JewishGen who can help you with the technical “stuff.” Take a look at http://www.ShtetLinks.JewishGen.org/ and start chipping away at those walls.
Phyllis Kramer is the V .P. of Education for JewishGen, Inc. This article first appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Avotaynu, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy.