First of all, we should define what is a genealogical record, and what is not. Usually, one considers that if a record includes a name, patronymic, family name, and any date like birth, marriage, divorce or death, it is a genealogical source. Of course, it is. Such records are the most important, and I propose to call them the primary sources, but not the only ones. There are two reasons not to confine oneself to these documents:
- One can get a little information about the family history.
- If the records do not survive, you have no chance to know anything about the family at all.
The second reason is the dominant one if you work on Belarusian Jewish genealogy. Because, at least since the 18th century, Belarus was situated on the strategic "border" of Eastern Europe, a lot of documents were totally destroyed. To prove this thesis, I want to mention just a few well-known and relatively recent events: Napoleon's invasion, World War 1, and World War 11. It must be said that those wars were much more destructive in Belarus than in Western Europe, as they were considered "fights to death". That is why I suggest the use of other records than primary ones. Let us call them secondary sources. What are they?
They include a very wide spectrum of records on legal (and illegal) actions, business, property, migration and other activities of the family, to be researched. Although you cannot reconstruct the family tree with them, in some cases it is possible to fill in some blanks that were caused by the absence of principal sources.
All the records on genealogy of Belarusian Jews can be divided into three groups:
(I) Pre-Russian records (before 1772/95)
(II) Russian Imperial period (1772/95-1917), and
(III) Post-Imperial records (since 1917).
The Imperial records are the most interesting ones, because the earlier records show no family name (with very few exceptions), and the later ones often indicate no (or the wrong) nationality/religion.
As we speak about Jewish genealogical and other historical records in Belarus, we should first of all define the difference between modern Belarus and what it was in history. Above all, it is important, because the Belarusian archive system uses territorial principal of storing and systematizing documents.
The history of Belarusian Jews is usually started from the late 14th century, when they were officially allowed to reside in these lands. That time there was a monarchy there. Its official name was the Great Lithuanian Princedom, which is known in English-language sources as the Great Lithuanian Duchy. Jews were awarded, by the Great Prince Vitovt, the privilege of living in the towns of Brest (1388) and Grodno (1389), and also of keeping their business there. Since the reign of the Great Lithuanian Prince Sigizmund Old (1506-1549), Jews were allowed to live in all the towns of the Princedom. That state was much larger in territory than modern Belarus, so if you know that your family lived in Belarus at that time, you should seek it in the records of the Great Lithuanian Duchy. [It does not mean that there were no Jews in Belarus before Vitovt's decree, but they had no official status as Jews there].
There are surviving records on Jews for that period but, as they show no family names, they are secondary sources. Some of them are stored now in Central Historical Archive of Poland in Warsaw (archives of noble families and Polish king administration records, as there was a union between Polish Kingdom and the Great Lithuanian Princedom, and the Polish king was very often the Great Prince (at the same time). Some are in Central State Archive of Ancient Records in Moscow (the majority of official state documentation of the Great Lithuanian Princedom), as they were moved there after Napoleon's invasion). Some (mostly local legal and some noble families' records) are in the National Historical Archive of Belarus in Minsk. It should be noted, that some of that period's records were published by Vilno Archeographic Survey for Reviewing of Old Records in 1860s - 1910s. The original languages are Old Belarusian (the official state language of the Great Lithuanian Princedom), old Polish (the official state language of Polish Kingdom) and Medieval Latin (at that time, the international official language).
After partitions of Rech Pospolitaya (the united state of Polish Kingdom and the Great Lithuanian Princedom), which were made by Austrian Empire, Prussian Kingdom and Russian Empire in 1772-95, Belarus occurred in the Russian Empire. During 1801 - 1917, five provinces are considered to be Belarusian: Grodno, Minsk, Moghilev, Vilno and Vitebsk. Local Jewish life was changed according to Russian Imperial Law. Let us mark some of the new principles.
- Jews were not allowed to possess land and serfs (personally dependent peasants).
- Jews were to live in the towns or shtetls only. But if there was no Jewish community in the settlement, Jews were not to live there.
- All Jews were to get official family names. That was why Jewish family names derived from the name of the settlement, like Moghilevsky (i. e. from Moghilev), Slutsky (i. e. from Slutsk), or from the occupation, like Chasovshchik (watch maker), Shinkar (tavern keeper), etc., were so common at that time.
- Jews were registered as independent social classes: petty-bourgeoisie or merchants (owned capital was over 1000 roubles). It is to be stressed that the majority of the local population (over 80 %) were peasants, who were registered as personally dependent.
- Jews were to be registered officially at their residence places, because they were to pay taxes (including a personal or so called "soul" tax) and served in the army. [Each settlement was to deliver definite number, of soldiers-recruits, who were male and over 17 years old. They served for 25 years]. A District Fiscal Chamber was responsible for it.
In 1874, the 25-year military service was changed to a universal military draft for the male population. Soldiers started to serve for five years in the army and for seven years in the navy. Fiscal chambers were dismissed.
- In 1882, Russian authorities allowed Jews to reside in some other settlements of Belarusian provinces, like railway stations, and new towns which had developed from the villages by that time.
The Russian Imperial period is the most fruitful for Belarusian Jewish genealogy. First of all because of primary sources:
- Revizskaya skazka (Register Book).
- Metricheskaya kniga (birth, death, marriage and divorce records).
- Family list.
- Draft list.
- Census record.
Revizskaya skazka was composed by District Fiscal Chamber for the entire family, with ages. It was registered after the head's family name and the definite number. Such books were composed for all the settlements of Belarusian provinces, including Jewish ones. There were two forms of Revizskaya Skazka: (1) ordinary, and (2) additional. The ordinary one was composed during general Russian Revisions. For Belarus they were in 1795 (5th Revision, almost no family names), in 1811 (6th Revision with family names), in 1816 (7th Revision with family names), in 1834 (8th Revision with family names), in 1850 (9th Revision with family names), in 1858 (10th Revision with family names). Note that for Grodno Province, there was one more ordinary revision in 1806. It was done because in 1795 there was a war in that territory, and the information in the 1795 books was wrong or poor.
The additional one was composed on a family or group of families, that were missed in the ordinary book.
Of course, Jews did all their best to avoid any registering or, at least, showed wrong information for male family members. That should be noted during research into the family history.
Soon after the institution of Fiscal Chamber was dismissed in 1874, the Revizskaya skazka was finished to be composed.
This type of record, for Grodno and Vitebsk Provinces, was seriously destroyed during time past.
Metricheskaya kniga was composed by the official rabbi of a community. The records showed date, place of the event and participants. Those records were to be accurate, but actually, as the source could be used by local civil and military authorities, there were "mistakes" in those records also. These records also were seriously destroyed during in the past, especially for Minsk, Vitebsk and Grodno Provinces.
Family lists were composed by the administrations of particular settlements (townhall administrations) at once after dismissing of Fiscal Chambers. Those sources showed the entire family with ages, and were to be upgraded as soon as the family situation changed. They were used for fiscal and legal reasons and were accurate enough. However, as they were kept in the townhalls, they were generally destroyed during any local fire, disorder or war. Now there are just several full lists of such kind for different places in Belarus.
Draft Lists were composed by District Military Departments since 1874. They used to show male part of the family with ages, often with parents, but without their names (of course, father's name is in patronymic, but mother's is usually unknown). These lists are accurate enough and still existed for many places of Belarus, but not for all, of course.
Census records were composed during the 1st All Russia Census, which took place in 1897. It was the most interesting source from the genealogical point of view, because it showed not only names and ages of all the family members, but their religion, address, native tongue, occupation, birth place, and if they were literate or not. But all the primary information was in the application forms of the Census. According to Soviet Law, all such papers were to be destroyed as soon as the next census took place. So, almost all the records were destroyed in 1927, when the 1st All Soviet Union Census occurred. There are only very few documents for Grodno and Vitebsk Provinces.
Secondary sources form huge mass of different documents. However, I'd like tell about some of them.
First of all, the most known records: voter lists. In fact, they show not only the family name in correlation with the place. A voter list is some sort of index for real estate and business records of the settlement. Actually, if you know the qualification for the definite person (it is shown in the voter list), you know where you should look for him: in business registers, real estate descriptions of apartment renters. Of course, you can not find any ages or other personal information there, but there is a chance to get some interesting facts from the family history. So, the full enough voter lists for elections to State Duma (Parliament) in Minsk Province for 1907 is in the National Historical Archive in Minsk; the same is true for Grodno Province for 1912, which is stored in the State Historical Archive in Grodno. The corresponding business and real estate records for that period are also in the same archives. These records are not full, but over 50% survived. To be noted, that such records appeared in the late 19th - early 20th century only (I know only one exclusion for now - the real estate description for Pruzhany for 1853).
The second group is the records for elections of local officials, including Jewish community officials, like teacher, community board and treasurers. They show names of the candidates, often their ages and property. Sometimes, there are lists of voters (i. e. real estate or big business possessors) of the settlement. Rarely, there are also voters' addresses and ages. Such documents are available for 1820s - 1910s, mostly for Grodno Province, but for others also. The set of them is not fall, but considerable.
The third group is formed with personal passports of the Jews. Such documents appeared in the Russian Empire in 1870s, but Jews started to ask for them mostly in the late 19th - early 20th century, because of American and European emigration and business interests mostly. Actually, this type of document is very close to the primary sources, according to the information, but as the passport showed separate families from different places (the passports were issued by Province Administration), often even parts of the family or one person, we do not consider them as primary sources.
The passport registers are available for Minsk and Grodno Provinces, but the archives have no any systematization on them at all.
All the records of the Russian Imperial period are in Russian. Special Jewish documents (birth, death, marriage and community elections records) sometimes have Yiddish equivalents. The only exclusion is Grodno and partly Minsk Provincial register books for 1795. They are mostly in Polish.
After the revolutions of 1917 the Empire collapsed, and Civil and Soviet-Polish Wars occurred in Belarusian territory. They ended by 1921. From 1921 to 1939, Belarus occurred in two states: Poland and Soviet Russia (since Dec. 30, 1922 - USSR). The border was 60 krn westward from Minsk. So, the records for Soviet Belarus are in Minsk, Vitebsk, Gomel and Moghilev Provincial Archives. For Polish Belarus, records are in Brest and Grodno Provincial Archives, sometimes in District Archives of the Archives of Ministry of Justice, known as ZAGS archives (usually survived birth, death and marriage records). Some documents are in Warsaw and Belostok, as the former was at that time the Polish capital, and the latter was the Province City for the Grodno area in 1921-39.
Documents for that period were badly destroyed, as they were not moved from local offices to archives before 1939-41, when World War II began. The records that had been stored in synagogues, burned away totally, and over 60% of local archives burned away. However, some records survived:
- All Soviet Censuses for 1927 and 1937. Of course, the questionnaire papers were mostly destroyed, but something for a few places in Mogilev Province survived.
- Some birth, death and marriage records survived in ZAGS archives.
- Some real estate and business registers for Polish Belarus.
- Local police reports for Polish Belarus.
That is all for Jewish records in Belarus. After 1945, Belarus occurred in the USSR, and Jews had to mask or hide their Jewishness, so the records often show "just Soviet people".
Finally, some words should be said about Belarusian archive system. 'Mere are two Historical Archives, which store almost all the records for pre- 1917. The only exclusion is some birth, death and marriage records in ZAGS archives, which were not moved to one of the two historical archives because of different, mostly technical, reasons.
Each of six provinces of modern Belarus have so-called State Provincial Archive. Each institution stores the records of local and provincial administration for the period since 1917. There are also ZAGS Provincial archives. They store birth, death, marriage and divorce records for after 1917.