Rosanne Leeson

On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, half of the Jews in France were living in Alsace, an area roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. The first Jews to arrive in what is now France probably arrived as slaves during the Roman occupation. Following the fall of the Second Temple in the first century C.E., many more fugitive Jews fled across the Mediterannean to Gaul, settling in such cities as Arles, Vienne and Narbonne, where they were soon comfortably established. Over the following centuries Jews had spread, and were thriving, to all parts of what was then France. However, with the first Crusade in the 11th century the persecutions began.

Over suceeding centuries the Jews were alternately tolerated and expelled by the French rulers, depending on their usefulness to the particular monarch. The boundaries of what was then known as France were considerably smaller than those of today. The region of Alsace was a part of the Holy Roman Empire until it was ceded to France by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Year's War. Since it was not French, large numbers of Jews expelled from France fled to this small neighboring region.

In addition, the havoc wrought on that area by the many battles had reduced it to ruins, both financially and physically. For that reason, the Jews were welcomed to help rebuild Alsace, and were also less visible spread out in the countryside. The following year (1649) the Chmielnicki massacres brought even more Jews from Eastern Europe to relative safey in Alsace. And so, over the years, the population grew rapidly, from the 2600 souls counted in a 1689 census, until the famous (or infamous) 1784 "Census of the Jews who were Tolerated in Alsace", which showed there to be over 20,000 living there at that time. By contrast there were then about 7,000 in the Moselle region, some 2,000 in the Comtat-Venaissin in the southeast of France, 4,000 in the Bordeaux/Bayonne region, descendants of those expelled in the 15th century from Spain and Portugal, and only 500 in Paris, all of whom were given French citizenship in 1792. This explains why so many of French ancestry in the U.S. descend from Alsatian roots.

We come now to a discussion of the records available for research in Alsace. To begin with, the most important thing to remember is that there are no centralized records for doing research in France. France is divided into 97 Départements, roughly coinciding to counties in the U.S. Each maintains its own departmental archive. Alsace comprises two Départements: Bas-Rhin in the north, with Strasbourg as its main city, and Haut-Rhin to the south with Colmar as its main city. Knowing that you had an ancestor who came from "Alsace" is about as helpful to doing research there as knowing that you had an ancestor from "New England", or the "Pacific Northwest" in the U.S. In short, before attempting to cross the ocean to France it is imperative that you use the usual resources to identify the precise locality from which your ancestor came. The JewishGen FAQ #11, "Finding your Ancestral Town" is an excellent guide for those in the U.S.

The records that do exist in Alsace can be divided into two distinct periods: Pre-1792, also referred to as the Ancien Régime, and post-1792, when civil registration became compulsory for all French citizens. There are a number of resources available from the period of the Ancien Régime, but they are not available in the United States, and the difficulty of locating and deciphering them calls for an expert in the field. Among these are such items as early censuses, taxation records and Notarial archives. The Archives themselves are not set up to do research, or copying and mailing of documents abroad. Should you be fortunate enough to know from which town your family came then you are advised to seek the services of a qualified, experienced and knowledgeable researcher in France.

Now, let us consider the post-1792 records. A number of these have been filmed by the Mormons and are available at their Family History Centers. Without a doubt, the most valuable of these microfilms are the Civil Registration records. These include the birth, marriage and death registrations, almost all of which have been filmed by the Mormons, and are the main source for Jewish genealogical research in the area. Most of these films were made in the 1970's or early 1980's, and, therefore, because of France's 100-year Privacy Laws, end in the 1870's or early 1880's.

Assuming that you have located the town from which your ancestor came you must first search the Locality section of the LDS catalog, either on microfiche or CD-ROM. You would look under the country, the department, and then the town. For example: France, Moselle, Saint-Julien-lès-Metz. Under that heading you would then choose "Civil Registration". This will in turn list the various film numbers available for that community (Figure 1). The new online web catalog at permits a simple online search by first clicking on the Library Catalog button, and then choosing the Place Name search. In this case you would enter the name of the town, and then the country, i.e., Saint-Julien-lès-Metz, and then France. This will then bring you to the listing for France, Moselle, Saint-Julien-lès-Metz, and then again to the Civil Registration Lists. A click on the View Film List button will give you the same lists as below.

Microfilm list

A typical listing for a town will provide, first of all, 10-year indexes to birth, marriage and death registrations (Tables Décennales). Then follow the listings of film numbers for each of the records: Births (Naissances), Marriages (Mariages) and Deaths (Décès). Within each year these indexes are arranged alphabetically by family name, and the marriage records include listings by both the name of the bride and the groom. Using these indexes as your starting point you should carefully note any possible family names and the dates and certificate numbers. Only then should you begin with the individual reels which contain the full certificates. The most difficult to deal with are those from the first two decades (from 1792 through 1810).

These were handwritten paragraphs giving the particulars, and often extremely difficult to read and understand. As in all such human undertakings, handwriting quality differs from town to town. Some scribes were very meticulous, and kept detailed records. Some did not. One helpful feature in these earlier years is that the name of the individual and certificate number is written in the margin. So, if you have the correct date and certificate number it is possible to make a copy of the document, and hopefully be able translate it or find someone who can read it for you.

Many of these earlier documents are written in the old Gothic Germanic script (Figure 2). As is true even today, the information that you will get varies from place to place. In addition, it is important to recall that from Setember 22, 1792 until September 19, 1807 the Revolutionary calendar was in use. A conversion calendar from the Revolutionary to Gregorian dates is available at Family History Centers and also online.

Figure 2
Figure 2
Beginning in 1811 the job grows simpler. A printed form was used for the records, with blanks to be filled, which helps the legibility enormously. (Figure 3). Names of parents are given, often the occupation of the groom, a house number and a grandparent, are included. I have found records from the later years which have the date and place of death, as well as dates for permission to emigrate, and the date and place to which that person emigrated added in the margin! It is also important to note the witnesses that were required to be present. Almost always these were relatives of the bride or groom, and can give additional family information. This is particularly true in the case of marriages, where relatives often came from different towns which are named. This can lead to other branches of the family. Births or deaths were often reported by a neighbor or friend.

While not producing any heirs to trace, it can fill in a touching picture of your ancestor's life when an infant who was stillborn or who died shortly after birth is discovered. These infants will not necessarily be found in the birth records, but may have been directly entered into, and found only in, death records.

It can be an exhausting procedure to go through these individual reels of film. In my case, it took me 2 ½ years, going once a week, to look at every single reel of microfilm for my town in Alsace. However, there is a benefit to doing this that goes far beyond obtaining a copy of a single vital record for a single ancestor. One can reconstruct entire family relationships, finding siblings of the direct ancestor, as well as their descendants. It is well worth the effort!