ONLINE NEWSLETTER
No. 2/2002 - September 2002
Editor: Fran Bock

This article is based on a lecture given by Dr. Oleg Perzashkevich, Director of the Minsk Historical Genealogy Group, at the IAGS 2002 Jewish Genealogy Conference in Toronto. We thank Dr. Perzashkevich for his permission to share this article for the benefit of SIG members who were unable to attend the Conference. Reproduction of this article is not authorized without the permission of Dr. Perzashkevish and the Belarus SIG.

 

USING SECONDARY GENEALOGICAL RECORDS IN BELARUSIAN ARCHIVES

by Dr. Oleg Perzashkevich

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 usually we call them the primary sources . But they are not the only ones. There are two reasons not to confine oneself to these documents:

  • If you want to know how your family lived, what was their social and economical environment, what was the family exact location in the town (like an address), you can hardly get too much information about those aspects of your family history.
  • If the primary records do not survive, you have no chance to know anything about the family at all, if you do not use the other sources.

The second reason is the dominant one if you work on Belarusian Jewish genealogy. Because Belarus is located in a strategic part of Eastern Europe, at least since the 18 th century, many documents were totally destroyed in such events as Napoleon's invasion, World War I, and World War II. It must be said that those wars were much more destructive in Belarus than in Western Europe, as they were considered "fights to death".

This is why I suggest the use of other records than the familiar primary ones. These secondary sources include a very wide spectrum of records on legal (and illegal) actions, business, property, migration and other family activities. Although you can hardly reconstruct the family tree with them, in some cases it is possible to fill in blanks caused by the absence of principal sources. To make it easier to understand what is what among the secondary sources, we can group them chronologically, and within chronological periods, according to the origin of the records.

A. Chronological

  1. Documents for the period of the Great Lithuanian Princedom (you call it Duchy in English tradition) for 13th - 18th centuries.
  2. Documents for 1795 - 1917 (the period we call the Russian principality). Actually, during that time almost all the current standards and templates for the documentation were created.
  3. Documents for 1917 - present (we can call this the period of Polish-Soviet principality and independence of Belarus). The majority types of the secondary records are the same as during Russian Empire, but there are some changes and additions.

B. Origin or Type of Records

For the 13th - 18th century period we have almost nothing for the 13th and 14th centuries in our archives, but since the 15th century there are a lot of documents:

  1. Court records
  2. Official records
  3. Land records
  4. Business records

Some of these records are stored now in the Central Historical Archive of Poland in Warsaw (archives of noble families and Polish king administration records, as since 1568 there was a union between Polish Kingdom and the Great Lithuanian Princedom, and the Polish king was usually the Great Prince, or Duke, at the same time). Some records are in the 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). Others (mostly local legal and some noble families' records) are in the National Historical Archive of Belarus in Minsk. All those documents were hand-written. However, it should be noted that some of this period's records were published by Vilno Archeographic Survey for Reviewing of Old Records in 1860s - 1910s and by some other official Russian institutions (for historical reasons mostly).

The documents were recorded to big books, so for research purposes one should be familiar with the following types of those books:

  • Castle court act records
  • District court act records
  • Lithuanian Metrica records (official documents of the Great Lithuanian Princedom)
  • Noble family records

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). There are surviving records on Jews for that period but usually they show no family names and ages.

For 1795 - 1917, because of Russian bureaucracy, a huge number of very interesting documents on family history were composed, and many of them survived.

  • The best known records are the voter lists. In fact, they show not only the family name in correlation with the place, but also serve as a 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 or 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 about the family history. The full 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.
  • Next are 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 owners) of the settlement. Rarely, there are also voters' addresses and ages. Such documents are available for 1820s-1910s, mostly for Grodno Province, but few for others also.
  • In addition, there are personal passports. 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 being a primary source, 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 records are both in Minsk and Grodno historical archives, but there are no indexes, so there is little chance to find a particular family name without checking thousands and thousands of pages. However, Minsk archive has started the work of systematizing these records, but the work is far from being complete.
  • Also, there are real estate owners lists. There are two types of those records. The first shows family name, address or the house location, valuation of property and its type, and amount of taxes. The second shows many additional details, like number and types of premises, number of floors, amount of land attached, names of renters (if any). This type of record we call the inventory description.

These types of records is not usually complete, but over 50% survived. For instance, they exist for almost all the big towns of Minsk and Grodno provinces, and for some of other pre-1917 Belarusian provinces. It should 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). Sometimes, there are ABCs to those files also. If you use the entire document, you can identify such things as social position and neighbours, how far the family lived from important places like synagogues, churches, townhall, doctor, etc.

  • Finally, there are Business registers. These files show family name, name, patronymic, business type, income and tax amount. There are many of those records in Grodno, and some in Minsk.

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 exception is Grodno and partly Minsk Provincial register books for 1795. They are mostly in Polish.

For the period of 1917 - present, we have a lot of Soviet records, which we can classify as secondary genealogical sources, mostly after 1944. For 1917 - 1945, when half of Belarus was under Polish principality, we do not have too much, because of the World War II destruction. However, you should pay attention to the following records.

  1. Polish and Soviet police reports, which stores usually some biographic dates and some other interesting events. Polish ones are in provincial archives (open for work or inquiry), and Soviet ones are in the archives of MVD (Ministry of internal affairs) or KGB (Soviet security police). Usually you can not work there, but you may make an official inquiry.
  2. Personal files on persons, compiled by KGB (the archive of KGB). It is almost guaranteed that the file is not complete, or you will be able get only extracts about your relatives. But you should try to enquire.
  3. Polish business registers. Surviving ones are in Grodno, Brest and Minsk provincial archives.
  4. Soviet labour union and labour activity records. Surviving records are stored in provincial archives. Usually have resident place, family status (sometimes with details), qualification and place of work.
  5. Registers for place of personal residence. These were founded by the Soviets for making control of every citizen easier. All the survived records should be in the archive of MVD (Ministry of internal affairs). The registers have all the details on every person, who was registered. It was a basis for issuing Soviet passports.

Copyright 2002 Belarus SIG and Dr. Oleg Perzashkevich

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