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How to use the Belarus SIG website to find your Belorussian ancestors and their shtetls

by Edward Rosenbaum
(last updated March 25, 2006)

The Belarus SIG website is full of information aimed at providing research tools for helping people locate their ancestors, and their ancestral shtetls. The website consists of an active newsgroup, over 300 different webpages, several databases and contains more then 300,000 names. If you cannot find your ancestors name on our website, we hope that you can find enough information to know where else to look.

I know my family name, but I have no idea where the family came from.  What can I do?

There are several places that you should start your research into finding your ancestral shtetl.

  1. The JewishGen Newsgroup Archives contains every message posted to the Jewishgen newsgroup since 1993.  By going to the archives page and typing in your surname, you may find messages about your family surname.  These messages may indicate where the family came from, as well as give you names and email addresses of other researchers that are interested in the same name.

  2. The JewishGen SIG Discussion Group Archives is very similar to the JewishGen Newsgroup Archives, and contains every message posted to any of the JewishGen SIG newsgroups since 1998.

  3. The JewishGen Belarus Database contains an index to over 200,000 names from many different databases.  You can search this database by surname, town, or text, and can specify that you want to search by exact spelling or by Daitch-Mokotoff soundex.  To use this database to locate where your family came from, type in your surname.  For example, if the All Belarus Database finds your surname in the "Minsk City Homeowners Lists, 1889 and 1911" database, then you will know that the city of Minsk may be where your family once lived.

  4. The Belarus Static Index contains an index to thousands of surnames that appear on the hundreds of webpages of the Belarus SIG.  Similar to the All Belarus Database, finding your surname in this index may help indicate the town that the family resided in.

  5. The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF) contains the surnames and towns that other people are researching.  As with the previously mentioned websites, searching by your surname may reveal towns where the family once lived.

  6. The Family Tree of the Jewish People (FTJP) is another way of finding out where your family may have come from.  The FTJP contains the Gedcom files of other researchers.  Searching on your surnames may lead you to ancestors that have already been located by other researchers.

I have a vague idea where the family came from, but do not know the name of the town.  What can I do?

The Belarus SIG website has information at various levels. 

Gubernia

At the highest level is the gubernia, or province.  The website has information on five gubernia: Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev, Vilna, and Vitebsk.  Each gubernia has its own web page, and contains the following information

  1. Links to websites related to the gubernia
  2. A list of the uyezds (districts) within the gubernia
  3. Links to websites related to each uyezd
  4. A list of shtets within each uyezd
  5. A list of all shtetls within the gubernia

A list of the gubernii, and all of the uyezds and shtetls can also be found in the Shtetls of Belarus.

If you know the name of the gubernia, then search the appropriate gubernia page (Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev, Vilna, and Vitebsk), looking for shtetl names that may sound familiar.

Uyezd

Within each gubernia were several uyezd, or districts.  A list of all of the uyezds within a gubernia can be found on the individual gubernia pages (Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev, Vilna, and Vitebsk), and in the Shtetls of Belarus.

If you know the name of the uyezd and the gubernia, then search the appropriate gubernia page (Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev, Vilna, and Vitebsk), looking for shtetl names that may sound familiar.

If you know the name of the uyezd, but do not know which gubernia it was in, then use the Shtetls of Belarus.  On the left side of the Shtetls of Belarus page is a column labeled "uyezd".  Click on the first letter of your uyezds name, and you will then see an alphabetical list of all uyezds that start with this letter, and also an alphabetical list of shtetls within each uyezd.  Search for your uyezd, and then look at the shtetl names for one that may sound familiar.

Shtetl

The shtetl was the home of our Jewish ancestors.  The Shtetls of Belarus contains information on over 2000 shtetls.

If you know the name of the shtetl, please use the Shtetls of Belarus.  On the left side of the Shtetls of Belarus page is a column labeled "shtetl".  Click on the first letter of your shtetls name, and you will then see an alphabetical list of all shtetls that start with this letter.  Look at the shtetl names for one that may sound familiar.

Once you have located your shtetl, and click on its name, you will see a web page that has the following pieces of information:

As you can see, there is a considerable amount of information available for each shtetl.

I know may family name, but what was their first names in Belarus?

One of the obstacles that we face in our research is finding records in the 'old country'. We may know that our grandfathers name was Max, but what was his name in Belarus?  Max is an American name.  So how do you find out what his original given name was?  Professor Jerry Esterson has created searchable data bases for Jewish given names used during 1795-1925 in fifteen 19th-century European regions (Belarus, Denmark, France, Galicia, Germany/Austria, Holland, Hungary, Latvia/Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Prussia, Romania, Russia, Sweden, and Ukraine), and links are made in each record to the new local vernacular names adopted in this same time period in nine Foreign countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Palestine, South Africa, UK, US) to which European Jews immigrated. For each European region, these data bases include the Hebrew, Yiddish, and local & other-European-country secular names used, as well as the new vernacular names used in foreign countries.

How can I find out what records may exist for my shtetl?

There are two places that you can look to see what archival records may exist for your shtetl.

  1. The Routes to Roots Foundation Archive Database contains a comprehensive list of archival holdings for Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and the Ukraine.  You can search this database from their website, or for the shtetl pages of the Shtetls of Belarus.

  2. The Belarus Records in Various Archives web page contains detailed information about the archives of Belarus.

How do I get records for my family from Belarus?

There are several ways to get Belorussian records for your ancestors.

  1. Visit your local Family History Library.  The Mormons have microfilmed many Belorussian records.  Please realize that most of these records will be in cursive Cyrillic, and may require you getting translation help.  The resources page of the Belarus SIG lists the names of some people that may be able to search and/or translate these records.  Be sure to check references and fee, before hiring anyone.  You should indicate to the researcher the surnames, towns, and years that you are interested in, as well as the exact records that you want searched (use the Routes to Roots Foundation Archive Database and the Belarus Records in Various Archives web page to help determine this information).  Be sure that the results you get from the researcher indicates the records that were searched (even if nothing was found), so that you do not wind up paying another researcher to look at the same records.

  2. You can contact the Belorussian archives directly.  You should indicate to the archives the surnames, towns, and years that you are interested in, as well as the exact records that you want searched (use the Routes to Roots Foundation Archive Database and the Belarus Records in Various Archives web page to help determine this information).  Be sure that the results you get from the archives indicates the records that were searched (even if nothing was found), so that you do not wind up paying another researcher to look at the same records.

    The addresses of the archives can be found on the Belarus SIG Resources page, and on the TOWNS AND REPOSITORIES IN BELARUS portion of the Routes to Roots Foundation Archive Database.

  3. You can hire a researcher in Belarus.  While not endorsing anyone, the Belarus SIG resources page does list several researchers and translators that may be of help.  Before hiring any researcher, please be sure to check references and fees.  You should also indicate to the researcher the surnames, towns, and years that you are interested in, as well as the exact records that you want searched (use the Routes to Roots Foundation Archive Database and the Belarus Records in Various Archives web page to help determine this information).  Be sure that the results you get from the researcher indicates the records that were searched (even if nothing was found), so that you do not wind up paying another researcher to look at the same records.

  4. You can visit the archives yourself.  The TRAVEL portion of the Belarus SIG Resources page has information on traveling to Belarus.