The Jewish Records Indexing- Poland (JRI-Poland) birth, marriage, and death indices found on the JewishGen Web site are invaluable resources for finding information with surname searches. This article provides a few tips for getting the most out of using these indices. These tips are based on my experience doing surname searches in the indices covering Kolomea Administrative District towns and villages for more than 50 requestors submitting hundreds of surnames.
I hasten to note that my experience in naming/name changes is restricted to American practices. Those of you from other countries should take into consideration nuances applicable to your locations.
Understanding the Nature of the Indices
The birth, marriage, and death records for Kolomea and other Galician locations are stored in the AGAD archives in Warsaw, Poland. The JRI-Poland project hired employees of the archives to prepare indices of those records in English. It is believed that several different archivists were employed in this project. It is suspected that English skills varied from one indexer to another. Variations in the spelling of surnames and given names in the indices could be the result of different English skills of indexers, different interpretations by the original government recording clerks, and/or different spellings of the same names by the persons filing the birth, marriage, and death events.
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Additionally, some spelling variations are related to difficulty in reading the records due to aging/ fading and illegibility of the records. In some entries letters were left out of names and a question mark (?) was inserted. This was very common in the name Mojzesz, which was of- ten recorded as Moj?esz. Then there are spelling changes that made the name sound the same in English as it had in German in Galicia. For example, I searched for a surname spelled Jeger. I found only the name Jäger (with an umlaut over the “a”). Another spelling for this name in English is Yeager. These are all pronounced the same. It is not uncommon for immigrants to America to Anglicize their names. Thus, a researcher needs to consider what the spelling might be in German based on the pronunciation of the name. We also must consider human error in copying from the records, thereby producing other spelling variations.
Tips for Surname Search Requestors
Generally I receive a request for a surname spelling as it was known to be after emigration. Thus a submission may be Goldstein, but unknown to the requestor the name in Galicia may have been Goldsteiner or some other variation that was shortened upon arrival in America. If a given name is known it should be provided with the surname. If parents, siblings, or children of the object search person are known, these should be provided as well, along with all suspected spelling variations.
Tips for Researchers
Researchers include those who are hired by others to do research as well as individuals who do their own research. Using my personal experience trying to locate my father’s birth record in the index, I will demonstrate one approach to overcoming the problem of starting with an imprecise name.
Some years after my father passed away the Kolomea indices became available. I started a search for my father’s birth record, as he had said he was born in Kolomea. I had only known his name in America as Sam Weiser. After his death my godfather arranged for the inscription on his headstone, and there for the first time I saw his name in Hebrew: Zalman. I also knew my father had said he was born in 1903.
I assumed that a child had the same surname as its father. I searched for a Sam or Zalman Weiser born in 1903. I discovered that no such person born in that year was listed in the index. I searched other years but to no avail.
In reviewing some reference materials I learned that at certain times in Galicia when Jews did not have a civil marriage, their Jewish wedding was not recognized. Consequently, children born of such marriages were considered illegitimate and the children were assigned the maiden name of the mother as their surname. What a discovery! Back to the indices I went, to find a Sam or Zalman Weiser, searching by Weiser as the maiden name of the mother. Still no luck. I did not know the given name of my paternal grandfather or grandmother at that time, and a lot of women had the maiden name Weiser.
My father had a much older brother, born in the 1880’s, who had also immigrated to America, where he used the name Philip. I searched for him, and success! I found a Fischel Weiser born in 1884, with father Chaim Fursetzer and mother Chaja Weiser. Philip I found is a common derivation from Fischel. (I also found as many as six variations in the spelling of Fischel while searching in the indices.) I went back to search for a Zalman with father Chaim Fursetzer and mother Chaja Weiser. The closest I came was Solomon Fursetzer born in 1903. Yikes! Was there no mercy? I then learned that Zalman is the Hebrew equivalent of Solomon, so this was my father’s birth record after all. Apparently between the time my grandparents married in a Jewish religious ceremony and Fischel was born in 1884, and the time my father Zalman was born in 1903, they must have had a civil ceremony to legalize their marriage in the eyes of the government.
After finding these records I found the birth record of a sister who also came to America. I then discovered another aunt and an uncle who did not come to America; I had not previously heard of them. I do not know what happened to them. I also found two other uncles who died in infancy.
So why was my father’s surname in America Weiser and not Fursetzer, the surname he was born with? Some 40 years or so ago, my father had told me he came to America after his brother Philip and went to live with him. He said it was difficult to explain why his brother was Philip Weiser and he was Sam Fursetzer, so on applying for U.S. citizenship he adopted the surname Weiser. If I had remembered this when I began my search, I might have found my father’s record much more quickly.
Summary of Lessons Learned
- The object person may have been born to an unregistered marriage and thus carried the mother’s maiden name as his surname.
- The object person’s given name in English or in whatever language of the country the person settled in after leaving Galicia probably has a Jewish root. Try those alternatives in the search.
- If you know the object person’s siblings’ names, search for those also. If you are successful and find the parents’ names, you can then search under those names to find the birth of your object person.
- Many people coming to America changed their surnames for many different reasons. Don’t get stuck in thinking that the name in America was the same as that used in Galicia. Check and cross-check with the other lessons here and you might be surprised at what you find.
- A surname or given name may be spelled differently from one index to another. Use what you learn from one index about possible spellings and apply that knowledge in searching other indices.
The tips described above apply generally to searching the marriage and death indices also. You can search the marriage index by bride’s name, bride’s parents’ names, groom’s name, and groom’s parents’ names. Thus if you know one party’s name, you can find all the other information. Death indices list the spouse of the deceased when applicable. With that knowledge you can go back to the marriage indices and look for the spouse and spouse’s parents’ names.