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Latvia Vital Records

Background

This database owes its existence to the remarkable, indeed unique, contribution of Christine Usdin, a noted artist and sculptor, who set out to translate all surviving Jewish vital records held in the Latvia State Historical Archives.

This introduction serves as a memorial to Christine Usdin who set out on this remarkable journey and who has shared the benefit with the descendants of these communities who now live and thrive throughout the world.

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The database is the first that has benefited from the project set up in 2007 by the Latvijas Valsts vēstures arhīvs [Latvian State Historical Archives] to digitize their primary holdings relating to family history and to make them available online on their website https://raduraksti.arhivi.lv.  Tragically, Christine passed away on 10 June 2013, aged just 66, while working on this project. Her work on these records remains a unique testament to her dedication to preserving the memory of Latvian Jewry. The over 100,000 translations which she left us form the basis of this database. May her memory be a blessing…

​The database has 100,112 unique entries, for the places and dates set out in the tables below.  The records usually provide additional names:

  • Birth records include the name of the child, their mother and father and usually, their maternal and paternal grandfathers,
  • Marriage and divorce records include the names of the bride and groom and each of their fathers,
  • Death records include the name of the deceased and their father, and sometimes their spouse.

Thus, the total number of individuals mentioned could be over 400,000.  Although the Latvijas Valsts vēstures arhīvs [Latvian State Historical Archives] generally has a “cut-off date” of 1909, it has records that are more recent in some cases.  For example, there are also records for 1919-1921 for Mitau [now Jelgava], the capital of Courland.  However, most records for any period post-1909 can only be obtained from the bureau dealing with contemporary vital registration.  In common with most European countries, issues relating to security and privacy have resulted in a policy that is more restricted relating to access to individual records for genealogical purposes, and are only available on limited personal application.

The story of the survival (and loss) of Jewish vital records remains to be told.  Much has been lost as a result of invasion, dispersal, incursions of war, and other social upheaval.  It is interesting that some small but important Jewish communities such as Sassmakken [Latvian name, Valdemārpils] have an excellent run of surviving vital records, whereas the other, larger Jewish communities, have only limited vital record registration books, for example, the important Jewish communities of Pilten, Goldingen and Friedrickstadt [Piltene, Kuldīga and Jaunjelgava, respectively].

Click HERE to view an inventory of records.

  • Vital records usually show the place of birth, marriage or death, which is not always the place where the individual lived his or her daily life.  The Register formats, which followed a state-mandated form for the whole of the Russian Empire, required the place of event and place of residence, which may be different.
  • The vast majority of the translated records are translated from Russian, the authorized language for vital record registration in the Russian Empire.  Courland was a German-speaking enclave that now makes up modern Latvia.  Some records, particularly early ones, are in German.
  • The soundex search facility is particularly important for these records, because the Jewish community lived and operated using German [particularly in Courland and Riga], Yiddish, and Hebrew.  The transliteration of these records reflects the fact that many records will have V’s instead of W’s [for example, “Vipman” instead of “Wippman”], G instead of H [for example, “Germer” instead of “Hermer”], and so on.  It is strongly suggested that you take advantage of the wide-ranging soundex facility and use alternative patterns of spelling.  For example, I, J and Y are sometimes interchanged in the process of transliteration, such that “Joelsohn”, “Yoelson”, “Ioelson” can all be used to refer to the same Courland family, who would probably have described themselves as “Joelsohn”.
  • This is a rich and varied database.  Please do visit Christine’s website at Riga Rabbinate Vital Records ,where you may find additional family material, for example, cemetery records, photographs of surviving tombstones in Jewish cemeteries, and other sources such as directories, maps etc., that may have additional material relating to the named individuals in this database.
  • All “Christian” dates before 1918 are according to the Julian calendar, as was used throughout the Russian Empire before 1918.  After Latvian independence (1919), the Gregorian calendar was used, so the Christian dates after 1919 are according to the Gregorian (modern) calendar.  For the Gregorian (modern) calendar date, add 12 days for dates from March 1800 to February 1900, or add 13 days for dates from March 1900 to February 2100.  Hebrew dates are unchanged.

How to View the Original Records

The Raduraksti website, which hosts the Latvian State Historical Archives images, has moved, and the links associated with the database entries are no longer valid. The Latvia Research Division will be working to correct these links. The Latvian vital records have been rececently digitized by FamilySearch. The JewishGen Latvia database entries include the archival number of the document, the image or page number, and the record number, and you will use this information to locate a digitized copy of the birth, marriage, divorce, or death record on the FamilySearch website.

The Latvia Research Division has created a video on the JewishGen YouTube channel that explains how to locate a copy of the original document on FamilySearch by using the archival information listed in the database.

Alternatively, you may locate the records on the new Raduraksti website:

The new Raduraksti website is found at https://raduraksti.arhivi.lv/ .

  1. Unlike the old website, which was available to users in multiple languages, the new website is written only in Latvian. Turn on the translate feature of your browser to English (or your chosen language) and complete a one-time registration.
  2. Once the registration is complete, you will find the vital records (if you are using English) under Church Books > The Believers of Moses > Rabbis.
  3. At this point, switch your browser back to Latvian, and find the location where the birth, marriage, death, or divorce was recorded. Be careful to use the “Place Recorded”, not the place shown for “Residence” or “Town.” Do not be concerned if the spelling does not match exactly.
  4. Click on the location, and find the year and type of record you are looking for. The categories are Dz (births), L (marriages), M (deaths), and Sk (divorces) . Once you are in the correct volume of records, use the video referenced above to find the image or page number and the record number.
  5. Compare the numbers shown on the cover page for “FONDS”, “APRAKSTS”, and “LIETA” to the numbers shown in the “Archive / Fond / Aprakst. [List] / Lieta [Item]” section of the search results. If the numbers match, then you should have the correct book.
  6. Once you are in the correct volume, use the information provided in the video (frame number, record number) to locate the correct record.

Note: Some record books are not listed correctly.  If you are unable to find the correct book, or have other problems locating the data, contact the Latvia Research Division (LatviaRD@JewishGen.org) for assistance.

The Format of the Vital Records

The format of vital records (sometimes called “metrical records”) during the Czarist era can be seen below, in this example from the Death Record book from Bausk for 1856.  The headings indicate the mandatory fields, and each record book is supplied with the headings ready printed to be filled in by the Crown Rabbi for each town of record.

Each book opens flat.  The left side is completed in Russian [or very occasionally in German, in the case of Courland]; and on the facing page the same data is entered in Hebrew.

Death Records – Bauska, 1856 [Courland]

The headings on each side translate as follows:

Record Number
Place of Death and of Burial
Date of Death
Age
Cause of Death, illness or other
Identity of Deceased
Female Male Christian Calendar Jewish Calendar

The Usdin database is a translation of the left (Russian) side only.  This database has benefited from the additional work of Anna Chosak, who has used the right (Hebrew) side to check some discrepancies and to obtain data that was listed as illegible on the left (Russian) side.  The task of translating the entire Hebrew side for any additional information or differences of spelling and name formation remains to be done.  Volunteers with the necessary skills will be able in the future to significantly enhance this remarkable transcription exercise.

The Database as a Historical and Social Record

These vital records date from 1838-1921, but most are from 1854-1909.  Each record is a moment in the life of an individual and his or her family and the community of which they were a part.  We see couples marrying, having children, and then coming to terms with the high infant mortality rate that is notable. There are childhood deaths, particularly in the winter months, when child death after child death is recorded, sometimes in the same family, from illnesses such as scarlatina, measles, and croup.  There are multiple deaths from drowning, usually boys and teenagers in the various local rivers.  Outbreaks of the dreaded cholera were common, particularly in the early 1850’s to the 1860’s. Clearly, there were more children who survived, who went on to build their lives and families in the Latvian provinces and beyond. Through these records, we can see the life cycle of a number of generations of families. We are shown how individuals and families moved from small towns to the cities of Dvinsk and Riga, changed their occupations and social status and built their lives anew.

It is hoped that these records will be the basis for further study by one or more post-graduate students based at The Centre for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia.

Acknowledgements

This database is a unique contribution first and foremost by Christine Usdin, whose interests rapidly expanded way beyond her search for her own family roots in Vishki and abroad.  She used her skills acquired at University in France to transcribe and translate all surviving records in honor of her own family, but in recognition of the importance of these records to the whole of the Jewish community who lived in this part of the Russian Empire.

The creation of the actual database would not have been possible without the extraordinary efforts particularly of Stephen Weinstein, who was able to unite and unify the variety of formats that were used over the several years this data has been collected and translated.  Thanks are also due to Bruce Dumes, who has supported the work of Christine Usdin and helped her to create her extensive websites, which support a whole variety of supporting material relating to Jewish families of Latvia.  Anna Chosak has contributed many, many hours proofreading and correcting where possible from the Hebrew data where this could be done to fill in gaps or resolve conflicts in data transcription. 

Special thank you to:

  • Constance Whippman – who wrote the basis for this introduction
  • Paul Cheifitz (Director of Latvian Research)
  • Arlene Beare

If you have any questions, or would like to learn more about volunteering for JewishGen’s Latvia Research Division, please contact the Latvia Research Division at (LatviaRD@JewishGen.org).

Volunteers who are able to read Cyrillic cursive and Hebrew are particularly welcome to contact the Latvia Research Division if they would like to participate in additional translation projects.

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