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Italian Resources for Jewish Genealogy
A Guide to the Main Resources on Italian Jewish Genealogy
by Nardo Bonomi
Italy has a very important role in Jewish history and genealogy: it is located centrally on the Mediterranean sea and serves as an important crossroad and an intersection between North and South, East and West, Sephardic and Ashkenazi culture.
Unfortunately, although Italy is very rich in genealogical records and resources, there is no centrally located source.
Although some books and publications speak about "Vital Record Centers", no one specific place exists. There has not been much interest in genealogical research and there is no central collection of civil, religious, administrative and military records for genealogical purposes. However, there are numerous places in which such records do exist.
The way the Jewish community referred to itself changed over time. Until the middle of the 19th century, the Jewish Communities were called "Nazione Ebrea", "Governo della Nazione Ebrea", "Nazione Israelitica", etc. Then the terms "Universita' Israelitica", "Universita' degli ebrei" came into use. In the 1930's, the name "Comunita' Israelitica" was introduced.
This work has been donated to JewishGen by a volunteer. Therefore if you find any error in this page or in the web-links mentioned, be patient and please report to the author Nardo Bonomi. Thank you.
History of Jewish Italy
Italy contains some of the oldest Jewish Communities in Europe. The first Jewish immigration occurred during the Maccabean period, when Jews arrived in Italy as both slaves and merchants. Approximately eight thousand Jews lived in Rome during the reign of Emperor Augustus, and "some tens of thousands" lived there under the reigns of Emperors Tiberius and Claudius. In the second half of the first century, there were ten synagogues in Rome, and their number later increased to at least fifteen. During this period, and continuing on, Jewish settlements were documented in forty-three places in peninsular Italy, Sicily and Sardinia. At this time, the main Jewish communities were in Roma, Genova, Milano, Bologna, Ravenna, Napoli, Pompei, Siracusa and Messina. (source).
Under the rule of the Emperor Claudius, a census was taken, which estimated that the Jewish population of the entire Roman empire was 6,944,000 Jews, equivalent to approximately 7 or 9 percent of the total population. In Italy, the percentage was certainly at least this high (source).
In the year 212, the Emperor Caracalla issued an edict that gave Roman citizenship to all free people; this most likely pertained to Jews as well.
The Middle Ages
Since then, the Jewish population has fluctuated, partially due to immigration and emigration.
During the Middle Ages, Jewish immigration to Italy occurred in several waves:
In the 16th century, persecution of Jews by the Catholic Church spurred both an emigration of Jews out of Italy and an strong internal migration from southern and central Italy to northern Italy.
Family names will often give clues as to the place origin of Italian Jewish families, and are a good resource for history and genealogy. Often surnames will have been derived from an ancestral town. (see bibliography).
By the end of the Middle Ages, Italy had been divided into fifteen different states. Each state had its own level of social and economic development and political structure. The role of nobility, the influence of the Catholic Church, the state of relations between towns and surrounding areas, administrative structure and the type and number of restrictive laws on the Jews varied from state to state.
The number of states was reduced to ten by the latter part of the 15th century because of wars and annexations. Jewish life was severely affected in the beginning of the 16th century by the establishment of ghettos in which Jews were required to reside. An important exception to this restriction was the total freedom given by Medicis to Jews who moved to Leghorn (see bibliography). These grants were designed to encourage immigration to that less-desirable region, and did indeed, result in an influx of thousands of immigrants in the decades following the grants.
18th and 19th Centuries
After the French Revolution, the French military campaign against Italy and local rebellions led to the end of oppression and the beginning of legal equality (1789-97). During the French occupation, the Italian administrative system was reformed: the country was divided into provinces, and civil and penal codes were introduced to most of the country. The political unification of Italy under the Crown of Savoia dynasty took about ten years (1860-1870). From that time to the present, few boundary changes have occurred. With political unification, Italian Jews had full civil and political rights which continued until the persecution of Fascism began. For genealogical purposes, a researcher must orient himself in the local political system of the time in which he or she is researching. If the researcher wishes to go back prior to the last half of the 19th century.
20th Century and the Holocaust
Racial persecution in Italy began in 1938. Within a few months, 200 Jewish teachers lost their jobs and thousands of Jewish students were forced to interrupt their studies. Approximately 8,000 Italian Jews perished in the Holocaust (see bibliography). In addition, many Jews crossed or stopped in Italy during the period of the Nazi persecution.
Italy is today divided into regioni (regions), provincie (provinces) and comuni (municipalities). There are twenty regioni. Each regioni has a capital. Regioni are divided into provincie. There are 103 provincie. Regions are remnants of the old states in which Italy was divided, while provincie are remnants of the French administrative system.
Each provincia contains many comuni (municipalities), one of which serves as the provincial capital. The name of the province and the name of its capital are the same. Thus, for example, Milano is capital of provincia di Milano and regione Lombardia; Firenze is capital of provincia di Firenze and regione Toscana; Napoli is the capital of provincia di Napoli and regione Campania. Comuni are the smallest political unit with genealogical importance. In parallel with this administrative system, there is the system of Church administration, with parrocchie (parishes), diocesi (dioceses), etc.
An Overview of Record Locations
In starting out, it is important to realize that surnames may vary in spelling, and to attempt to identify the original Italian spelling of a family name. It is also important to identify the time and place in which you are looking. family names.
Prior to the 19th century, there was no central system of administration. Until the French occupation (1797-1812), the sources for Jewish genealogy don't have any standard or uniform pattern. From that time until the Unification of Italy (1860-70), there are several different systems of administration for cadasters, fiscal records, censuses, vital records, etc. From the time of Unification to the present, uniform fiscal and administrative systems and nationwide laws have produced standardized archives, libraries, and civil record repositories.
This is a broad outline of the various repositories. As you can see, most of the resources are kept on local level: town archives, archives of the Jewish communities, state archives. For some examples of documents that can be found in these archives, see a page on Jewish documents.
Introductory Books and Bibliographies
A good book to begin with is Guide to Jewish Italy by Annie Sacerdoti, Israelowitz Publishing, Brooklyn 1989 (English translation by Richard F. De Lossa, of the original Guida all'Italia Ebraica, Ed. Marietti, Genova 1986). This book contains information on the main Jewish communities of Italy: for each community, there is information on the community's history, its synagogues, cemeteries, museums, libraries, and cultural centers. There are also some web pages which give similar information. (see Internet resources).
Although there are quite a few manuals on the subject of genealogy, but, unfortunately, most approach the subject of research as if Italy was always one unified country, or only discuss the time period from Regno d'Italia (Kingdom of Italy) to today. No one book discusses the specific administrative systems of the little states that constituted Italy.
Most of the books on Italian genealogy are in Italian, and few have lists of family names. They are the only indexes to the original and more detailed resources. For this purpose, I am compiling a bibliography for the genealogical needs: a bibliography sorted by localities by which it is possible to go back to the resources.
In English, there is Finding Italian Roots: The complete guide for Americans, by John Philip Colletta (Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore 1993), where there are some pages (pages 87-93) pertaining to Jewish genealogical research. There is also an article by Colletta, Jewish Genealogical Research in Italy, published by Avotaynu, vol. VIII, Spring 1992, pages 20-27.
Sephardic Genealogy. Discovering Your Sephardic Ancestors and Their World by Jeffrey S. Malka, Avotaynu 2003, devotes some pages (207-214) to Jewish genealogy in Italy.
The first bibliography on Italian Jewish history mentions about 750 publications (books, essays, researches, etc.): in 1954 Attilio Milano published a bibliography on Jewish history with 1,600 publications, and in the following twenty years other 850 works were published.
Main Bibliographies on Italian Jewish History
These bibliographies have good indexes of places, subjects, and surnames, etc. The Centro Bibliografico Ebraico (Jewish Bibliographical Institute) in Rome holds indexes of Jewish books and manuscripts: Centro Bibliografico Ebraico, Lungotevere Sanzio, 5 00153, Roma. Tel. 065803667.
The System Of Libraries
Italian libraries can be divided into several categories: Biblioteche Nazionali Centrali (National Libraries), Biblioteche universitarie (of universities), and Biblioteche comunali (of municipalities).
The main libraries in Italy are the Biblioteche Nazionali Centrali. They are located in the following in four towns:
The university libraries are very specialized, but they have some access restrictions and they generally don't allow books to be loaned. The Internet has some excellent resources for searching library catalogues. The Italian National Service for Libraries has a web page (also in English) where you can find an almost complete catalogue of books published or stored in Italy. Here you can also find the contact addresses of the libraries to request an interlibrary loan.
The Department of Education has a page containing a map to find libraries in Italy. Finally there is a website Alice with the addresses of the libraries, lists of CD-ROMs, lists of journals and links to on-line libraries with extensive web pages. Some "virtual libraries" offer access to digital texts, databases, etc.
Yahoo has some addresses of on-line municipal libraries. Other Internet resources are described below.
The Italian system of record depositories can be is roughly divided into the following subdivisions: Archivi Comunali (Town Archives), Archivi di Stato (State Archives), Archivio Centrale dello Stato (the Central State Archive), Archivi Parrochiali e Diocesani (Parish and Diocesan Archives), Archivi delle Comunita' Ebraiche (Archives of the Jewish Communities), and Archivi dei Distretti Militari (Military Archives). Remember that before searching for a record it is important to review the history of a region in order to identify in which former state and town your ancestors lived, and to learn as much as possible from published materials about the Jews of that area.
Archivi Comunali (Town Archives)
Most Italian records of genealogical value are maintained by the town or city, that is by the Comune (plural "Comuni"). A royal decree of 31 December 1864 instructed all the Comuni to record demographic movement. However, since it was not compulsory to do so, not all the Comuni did so. It only became compulsory in 1971 for municipalities to record citizens. Because of this variability in record-keeping, because of annexations of new lands over periods of time, municipal registration began at different times in different places: Veneto and part of provincia of Mantova began registration in 1866, part of Lazio began in 1870, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige began registration only in 1918.
In the Comuni, records are kept in the Ufficio di Stato Civile (Civil Record Repository) or in the Archivio Comunale (town archive). The Ufficio di Stato Civile or Anagrafe di Stato Civile is not technically an archive. It is the repository for vital records, and files are stored there for the actual registry and use. It keeps documents from about 1870 to the present under a special legal status. You cannot search through the registers by yourself, but you can request searches. Searches can be requested for atti di nascita (birth records), atti di matrimonio (matrimony records), certificato di morte (death records), certificato di residenza (certificate of residency) and stato di famiglia (certificate of family status), which start from the beginning of the 20th century and can document family relationships.
Archivio comunale are the second branch of the local municipal resources. Almost each Comune has an Archivio comunale or Archivio Storico Comunale (town archive), generally divided into pre-unitario and post-unitario (before and after unification of Italy) sections. Each comune has its own standard method of shelving documents and not all the comuni have catalogued their archives. Researchers are often able to find staff to assist them. Since the Archivio comunale (Town Archives) are part of the local municipality, its the address can be found through the town hall. The first resource to reach a Comune is an yearbook of the town halls, Annuario Generale, Comuni e Frazioni d'Italia (Touring Club Italiano, Milano 1968 and later), which lists addresses of comuni of Italy in alphabetical order.
A very good on-line resource is the Official page of municipalities of Italy Comuni d'Italia, with a research map. Input the place name in the box "Cerca il Comune'" (Search the town) and press the button "Cerca" (research). For every comune this web page lists the address, telephone and fax numbers and the e-mail address; it lists the name of the mayor and the name of the chief of the municipal administration (Segretario comunale), the URP -- Ufficio rapporti con il pubblico (Office for Public Relation). There is an official web page which lists the Comuni which are on-line.
For the past ten years, some bills and laws (Legge 241/1990, Dpr 352/92, etc.) gave an individual the right to request a copy of any document kept by an Italian central or peripheral administration. These provisions give the right to examine and copy the documents with the payment of costs (extraction, duplication, and expedition). This right is limited to the request for a specific document, not for generic information: therefore you must provide all the information you have (name, surname, date of birth or approximate date of birth, type of act you ask for) to expedite the retrieval of the document. As to arranging for the payment of costs, it may be helpful to ask the Comune itself, and enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope, or to send a small amount of money. The official applications must be sent to the Mayor or to the Ufficio Rapporti con il Pubblico (see above) by registered mail. The success of research by mail can depend on the level of assistance that the clerk's office is willing to provide, but it is worth the attempt.
In conclusion, it is possible to ask the clerk of a comune to search for your grand-father's certificato di matrimonio (certificate of matrimony) and mail it to you, but you cannot ask the clerk of an Archivio di Stato to do research for you. Examples of form letters requesting copies of documents can be obtained by writing the author of this article.
Archivi di Stato (State Archives)
There are about hundred Archivi di stato: one archivio di stato in almost every provincial capital (94 out of 103). Some Archivi di Stato have a sezione (department or branch) in one or two smaller cities of the province, when the local collections are large enough to warrant such a sezione. These archives store documents produced by the peripheral branches of the central administration of the State: Prefetture (Prefects), Questure of Ministero degli Interni (Police headquarters of Department of Interior); Intendenze di Finanza of Ministero delle Finanze (Ministry of Finance), Provveditorati of Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione (Ministry of Education). The Archivi di stato also keeps notable documents of historical importance from Comuni, banks, private families, etc.
Before researching in a branch of the Archivio di Stato, it is helpful to consult the General Guide to the Italian State Archives (Ministero per i beni Culturali e ambientali, Guida Generale degli Archivi di Stato Italiani, Roma 1994), four volumes of about one thousand to thirteen hundred pages each. This is an official guide that describes, in general, town by town, the files stored in the Archivio Nazionale of that town: i fondi, le serie la consistenza (the collections, the series and the amount of the files) stored.
The Department of Culture has a page with addresses of the Archivi di Stato. Input the place name in the box "Citta'" (town) and press the button "Ricerca" (research).
Archivio Centrale dello Stato (The Central State Archive)
The Archivio Centrale dello Stato (Central State Archive) is located in Rome, and stores documents produced by the Ministries and Departments from the time of the Unification of Italy to the present -- documents produced by the Central administration of the Cabinet. The address is: Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Piazzale degli Archivi, 40 - 00144 Roma - Italia. Tel. +39/06/5920371 Roma.
This archive is more useful for research on recent family history, especially the documentation concerning Ministries with interior or economic jurisdiction (1876 to 1954). Here are some examples:
Archives of the Jewish Communities
There is no complete index to all the documents kept by the Jewish Communities in Italy. The individual communities themselves sometimes do not have a complete catalogue of the documents they store. The best way is to research in their files is thought publications or directly on site. The Jewish Communities generally have documents from the 19th century to Second World War. In some cases, they have very rich and old archives. For example, the Archive of the Jewish Community of Livorno has a collection of ketubot dating from 1626, and the Archive of the Jewish Community of Rome has matrimonial registers dating from 1775.
Here are some published catalogues of archives and libraries of Communities:
As lot of the records kept by Jewish Communities are not catalogued, you can write to the Rabbi to obtain general information about the archives of the Community or to ask a specific research question. It is often much easier to communicate (as to subject matter and language, etc.) with the Communities than with other archives. Remember, however, that most of the archives and libraries of the Communities are run by volunteers.
The addresses of Italian Jewish Communities can be found on the web page of the U.C.E.I. (Union of Italian Jewish Communities). Also, the Morasha website lists addresses for Jewish communities, Jewish institutions and foundations, as well as the opening hours, etc.
Italian Family History have some example of Jewish documents from the Archives of the Jewish Communities.
Archivi Parrochiali and Archivi diocesani
During the Council of Trent (1545-63) it was established that churches had to register families when a baby was taken to baptism. From that point forward, the churches began to register births, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and deaths. There is a large number of files kept in parishes and in dioceses. However, there are no Jews registered: the main and almost complete resource for the period 1563 - 1806, is not available to Jewish genealogy. However, sometimes in the Archivio Diocesano there is the fond labeled Inquisizione(Inquisition), which may contain files of Jewish importance. These are generally very huge archives and contain documents from the last half of the 16th century to the end of the 18th century concerning forbidden books, sorcery, processes, conversions, etc. In Southern Italy, where the Inquisition begun earlier and became extremely powerful, the collections of the Inquisizione can be a resource for the Jewish genealogist. Often the documents of the Inquisition are shared between the Archivio Arcivescovile and the local Archivio di Stato.
LDS (Mormon) Microfilms:
The Mormons have microfilmed Italian vital records for the 19th century mostly dating from the early 1800s through the 1860s or 1880s (depending upon when they microfilmed the records of a particular town -- they could only microfilm those records that were more than 100 years old as of the time of microfilming). The civil vital records will contain Jewish records after 1870 for all towns, and for some towns prior to 1870.
To see what records have been microfilmed and are available for your town,
look in the Family History Library Catalog™ (FHLC), Locality section,
under the heading "
The FHLC is available online at http://www.familysearch.org/eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp by clicking on the "Library" tab, and then the "Family History Center Catalog" tab. The online catalog is searchable using only the town name using the "Place Search Option", inputing the town name and "Italy" in the "Part of" window.
Here is an example of microfilmed records available for Jewish genealogy:
Telephone directories are extremely rare and are not normally stored in most libraries. However, in some libraries somevery old telephone directories can be found. For example:
The information contained in the telephone directories is very limited: telephone number, name and surname, profession and address. Here are examples of telephone directories found for three towns:
Some Italian phone books are also accessible abroad: the Library of Congress and the LDS FHL have some. The AT&T company also sells microfilmed telephone directories. One of the most complete collections of world-wide telephone directories is in London at the British Telecom Archive, situated at Third Floor, Holborn telephone Exchange, 268-270 High Holborn,WC1V 7EE. Helpdesk no 0171 492 8792, fax 0171 242 1967 e-mail: email@example.com.
Business directories may be called by different titles depending on their time and place of origin. A directory available for the town in which you are researching can be very useful. It may contain maps of the town, lists of streets, directories of public offices, of practitioners, dealers, merchants and traders. Sometimes it may list foreigners resident in the town, or may contain a useful general list by surname. The directories differ from town to town in dates of publication and editors. Generally annual editions were published. Here some examples of business directories for specific towns:
Later these directories took titles such as Il Commercio, Bollettino Commerciale, etc. More recently, they were called Annuario, Guida Monaci, Pagine Gialle, etc.
Another resource for finding businesses are the lists of firms, shops, companies owned by Jews and published by Ministero delle Corporazioni (Department of Corporations) in the Gazzetta Ufficiale del Regno d'Italia (Official Gazette) in the year 1939. This publication was made for the purpose of persecution and racial descrimination, however.
After the Unification of Italy, Jews had the same rights and obligations as other citizens, including the obligation to serve in the army. It may be difficult to obtain much from military records, but the basic information is as follows: The Distretti militari holds registers of males from their eighteenth birthday: name, date of birth, present address, parents names and military service curriculum. Records produced before the unification of Italy are held in the local Archivio di Stato. Those produced after the unification are in the Distretti or more rarely in the Archivio di Stato. For addresses of Distretti you can see the Italian Army page.
Onomastics and Lists of Family Names
For Jewish genealogy, the study of the surnames has much significance: a surname can yield information about the occupation, the place of origin, etc. of our ancestors. This is particularly true for Italian Jewry, which was shaped by immigrations, cultural movements, and invasions. The family names evidence these migrations as described above. Often Jewish family names lead directly to the ancestral towns. Scholars divide Italian actual family names according to their etymology in ten overlapping groups: German origin, Spanish origin (from places in Spain but also from Spanish aristocracy), oriental, Hebrew (from the Middle East, from the Torah, etc.), Greek origin, occupations and religious charges (in different languages), Catholic (because of mixed marriages), and places (in Italy or abroad). The following are good sources for lists of family names:
A searchable archive on these lists will be available at Italian Family History.
Besides these publications, there are other books listing the surnames of Italian Jews. These publications are of modest scholarly importance because they were originally written anonymously for racist purposes in 1938:
Societies and groups
In Italy, most genealogy groups devote their research efforts to areas of heraldry and to the history of noble families. Genealogy is not very popular. Furthermore there is no Jewish Genalogical Society in Italy at the present time. There is an Italian Genealogical Group which meets at the Bethpage Public Library in Long Island, NY. It has a web page, and a mailing list in English. There is an Italian genealogy society in Paris (the address is: Association Ancetres Italiens, 3, rue de Turbigo 75001 - Paris France, Fax: 01.46.65.60.13), which has a useful research tool in a database of bibliographies and studies on Italian families. You can also use their database for Jewish genealogy in Italy (insert "juif" in the box "parola chiave" and press "inizia la ricerca"). On the Internet, there is a virtual group, Genealogia Ebraica Italiana (Italian Jewish Genealogy), which runs on Delphi.
An inventory of resources for genealogy and databases on the Jews of Livorno, Roma and Venezia can be found in the page of Jewish Genealogy in Italy.
The Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea (Center for Contemporary Jewish documentation, address: via Eupili, 8 - 20145 Milano) is a Jewish organization run by volunteers dedicated to contemporary Jewish culture and history. It has four main sections:
A group on Jewish Culture in Sicily, Sicilia Judaica, has a web page rich with information on history and runs a mailing list in Italian.
An Italian Jews Association, based in Jerusalem, is active in Jewish Italian history and culture.
The following are useful links to webpages and addresses by subject:
Bibliography and Sources of this Page
Manuals for Italian Genealogy
Works about History of Families
Sources Quoted in this Page
Updated and edited by Debra J. Kay, Feb 2005, Sept 2005.