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Jewish Genealogy: More than a Family Tree?

by Valerie Schatzker

Technically, this magazine, we who subscribe to it, and the eminently successful enterprises of the Jewish Genealogy web site, JRI-Poland, and a host of other similar resources and organizations are dedicated specifically to the pursuit of Jewish genealogy. Yet the relatively recent explosion of interest in this topic, undoubtedly encouraged by the ease of communication provided by the Internet, would seem to indicate that more than the curiosity and family pride motivates many amateur genealogists in this field.

Jewish genealogy is dominated and complicated by the matter of the Holocaust, which annihilated not only millions of individuals but also most of European Jewish society. Thus, as people search for great-grandparents and second cousins, they may find their names and a few important dates in their lives but know so little about them. Sources of information on Galician Jewish life are scarce, scattered or non-existent. Much of this is can be blamed on the destruction of war and the annihilation of Jewish social structure and institutions. Synagogue and community records were lost, libraries obliterated, monuments and cemeteries leveled. However this is not the only explanation for the paucity of material. The thousands of books, articles, stories, and biographies that would have been written, the many films, documentaries and TV programs that would have been made by people from these lost societies were never written, never produced, because the spokesmen for this lost world are ashes.

Are we seeking these lost relatives to enumerate them and trace their lineage, to put names to the anonymous millions who are known to us only as statistics or through photographs and accounts of mass slaughter? Or do we also have an obligation to resurrect them as living people, to see them not only as lists of victims but also as vital and vigorous participants in the life of their own societies.


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Genealogy can provide a window to history. As I began to search for my husband’s family, I found references in the vital records of the town of Drohobycz to professions like “owner of petroleum factory” or “refinery.” This profession certainly did not fit in with anyone’s stereotype of Galician Jewry. I knew that my husband’s family was not typical, but I had no idea, as I later discovered, that Galicia had been the site of an oil boom in the mid nineteenth century, that the early foundations of the industry were established by Jews, that many Jews depended on the industry for their livelihood, that some were highly skilled oil workers and a few made huge fortunes from it or from subsidiary industries.

As I unearthed more information the dry records of births, marriages and deaths came to life, the picture of the town of Drohobycz became more complex and real. As I searched for more information I realized how little was available and how little time was left to gather what we can from survivors. I have mentioned my experience to urge members of Gesher Galicia to consider extending their efforts in genealogy to include material relevant to Galician Jewish history. I am convinced that the most worthy result of this work will be not just the record of the names of the dead and their lineage but the recreation of the life of the Jews of Galicia in all its variety and richness.

An entire society was silenced by the Holocaust and those who have family connections to this area should not allow it to be buried. Until the catastrophe began, all the people whom we discover in the records lived their lives, many in poverty, some in the lap of luxury; they danced and sang, loved and squabbled with each other, prayed and argued; they wrote, created, invented, schemed, taught; they followed the traditions of their ancestors or rebelled; they spoke many languages; they practiced professions or toiled in backbreaking labor. As we move further back to generations that had no knowledge of the catastrophe, we begin to learn about the place of the Jewish community in the economic and political life of Galicia. We learn what forces impelled emigration in different periods, both within Europe, and to Palestine or North America. We gain further understanding of the waves of anti-Semitism that destroyed and uprooted Jews and the moderating forces that at times allowed them to live productively and even become powerful and wealthy.

The story of this lost world is many faceted and rich. I know from my own experience with my husband’s family that members of his and your family trees would not want to be remembered only as sta- tistics, bodies in a mass grave, ash in the wind, or only as victims. They would want us to know them in all their complexity and, I am certain, they would consider this effort the greatest memorial to their existence and a kind of triumph over those who tried to annihilate any trace of the Jews of Galicia.


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