Preserving Jewish Family History in Ukraine

A burnt and water damaged piece of paper from 1862.
A burnt and water damaged file from 1862.

By summer, one million Ukrainian family history records will be available on JewishGen.

In Judaism, we often hear the expression “May his or her memory be a blessing” when someone dies.

I don’t remember where I first heard it, but someone once said that as long as you remember someone who has died, they will live on. It is only when we forget that people and eventually memories begin to fade.

It fuels my passion for genealogy and family history, along with the Jewish belief in honoring the deceased, whether they lived 20 or 200 years ago. By learning about our past, and the names and stories behind it, we keep these precious memories alive for generations to come.

A badly damaged file from 1875.
A badly damaged file from 1875.

jewish gen It is one of the world’s leading organizations that preserves this history. As the world’s largest digital repository of Jewish family history information, this free, searchable website houses millions of Jewish records from countries around the world, including: are hundreds of years old. Jewish Jen lets you search your family history to find your ancestors, create a family tree, and even find your living relatives.

Today, JewishGen’s Ukrainian Research Department (focusing exclusively on Ukrainian records) is on a mission to preserve and digitize 1 million records in Ukraine by the summer of 2023.

These records are part of the last records of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in the former Russian Empire (including Ukraine) and are in danger of disappearing forever.

Between the ongoing wars with Russia and Ukraine, website hacks, and even archive fires, JewishGen staff, volunteers, and contractors worked around the clock to make these records available to the public. increase. Valuable information contained in these records includes births, marriages, divorces, deaths, and census data of Jewish ancestry.

Files burned in 1811.
Files burned in 1811.

This is one of JewishGen’s biggest projects to date. The JewishGen Ukrainian Research Division transcribes, digitizes, and publishes approximately 150,000 records each month on the searchable “JewishGen” website in order to reach its ambitious goal of publishing one million records by the summer. Uploading.

Next, they plan to work on the millions of records still in Ukrainian archives.

Phyllis (Gold) Berenson, Detroit native and University of Michigan graduate, JewishGen’s Director of Ukrainian Studies and Ukrainian Studies, explains:

“They are safe on JewishGen servers.”

Fight for public access

These records come from two main sources: the Ukrainian archives themselves and the vast Wikisource library compiled over the last few years and months by Ukrainian genealogist Alex Krakowski. .

This library contains nearly 3,000 metric books, indexes, name lists, revision lists, and census of the Jewish population of Ukraine, scanned and uploaded by Krakovsky and his team.

Poltava recruit list 1859
Poltava recruit list 1859

Records can have various states. Although some are over 200 years old, they are still in mint condition and legible. Others have water damage, fire damage, crevices, or simply yellowing and fading over time.

The Ukrainian JewishGen research department intervenes by taking information written in old Cyrillic script on individually scanned pages, transcribing it into typed Cyrillic script, uploading them in English to JewishGen servers, and It is to be searchable by the general public.

This is an invaluable step, as very few genealogy enthusiasts can read the old Cyrillic script (including many Russian-speaking natives).

As for records coming to JewishGen from the Ukrainian archives themselves, many state and regional archives in the country have recently begun uploading scans of records held in their repositories. Yet researchers encounter the same problem. The records are written in old Cyrillic script and range in condition from excellent to illegible.

There was a lengthy legal battle to publish these records in the first place, spearheaded by Krakowski. “He took the initiative and tried to get the record,” explains Berenson. “He sued the archives when it was not available or available in large quantities, was too expensive, or had various restrictions.”

One after another, Krakowski brought over a dozen Ukrainian archives to court. He called for fair processing fees, copies of documents, and publication of inventories online. Denial of access was a form of “censorship,” he argued, and the court agreed.

Winning these lawsuits, Krakowski helped remove barriers to Ukrainian genealogical research that has given millions of people the opportunity to learn about their roots. The same level of access as the European archives is now possible.

“He opened the archives for everyone’s benefit,” says Berenson.

Since these records are not copyrighted and can be downloaded for free, the JewishGen Ukrainian Research Department will take these uploads (usually uploaded as books of hundreds of pages each) and digitize them. I can.

Nor is the end of information in sight. Krakowski and his team continue to scan new records and lists despite the war, and JewishGen’s Ukrainian research department continues to transcribe. His recent GoFundMe effort also gave Krakovsky’s team access to state-of-the-art scanners, speeding up the document saving process.

time is the essence

Still, the pace wasn’t always this intense. Between the war and Krakowski’s hacking into her Wikisource library, Berenson — serving in a volunteer role in addition to her day job as a lawyer — and other JewishGen leaders took action. I figured I should speed it up.

“Over the years, it was problematic because there were individual transcribers or translators,” she explains of the previous process of digitizing these records. “But all of a sudden we had thousands of documents and we had to deal with them. [to search]”

With these records at risk of being physically destroyed by war or erased from the Internet, JewishGen’s Ukrainian Research Department has assigned approximately 100 Ukrainian records to undertake the ever-increasing load of Ukrainian records that have become available. We assembled a team of human transcribers. Together they set a goal of uploading 1 million records by summer 2023.

Kyiv 1834 census
Kyiv 1834 census

Each month, Berenson receives approximately 150,000 posted records, bringing the department closer to meeting its goals. A record contains one line of her in a document, not a book, that provides important information about an individual or family. This may include approximate date of birth, location and even social class.

Berenson receives the records in typed Cyrillic, reviews them, and then puts them into a system developed by a Jewish Jen volunteer named Logan Kleinwaks. This system will change your documents to English and load them on a Jewish server with just two clicks.

For the 81-year-old Berenson, who lives in Sonoma, California and San Francisco, releasing these records during his lifetime was a top priority. “We really do it,” she says.

None of the works are free. As a non-profit organization, JewishGen relies heavily on funding from donors to keep records on the site. General membership is free, but a member can donate $100 to give him a year’s worth of advanced search features that allow him to further refine his search results.

Many of Jewish Jen’s coordinators and heads of research are volunteers like Berenson, and work has branched out far beyond Ukraine to include records in dozens of countries around the world. JewishGen also contains important Holocaust and burial records.

millions of additions

With open access to Ukrainian archives, these Jewish record groups are now some of the largest available on the JewishGen website for researchers to search.

Also, JewishGen’s Ukrainian Studies department continues to gain access to previously hard-to-find groups of records, including those from the Kherson Archives, an area hard-hit by the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian war. .

“Another area of ​​great difficulty [to access] Crimea,” explains Berenson. “There was nothing from there.”

Still, researchers hope there are rare records and books waiting to be discovered. “One of the highly sought-after records is the All-Russian Census from his 1895 to he 1897, which covers the entire country,” says Berenson. “It was Ukraine at the time. The requirement was that he make two copies and destroy both.”

According to her, many were eventually destroyed, but only a handful survived, including Kiev.

JewishGen is currently transcribing the 1895 Kiev census. Since Kiev was he one of the largest Jewish population centers in Ukraine, they are on their way to completing vital information for hundreds of thousands of families.

Berenson was told that five regions included in the All-Russian Census from 1895 to 1897 escaped destruction, like Kiev. JewishGen Ukrainian Studies Department is also working on transcription of records from his Kamenets-Podolsk census list in western Ukraine.

“We are very excited,” says Berenson. “It happens to be near my grandparents’ hometown.” These records, like many others, fell victim to the fire, arriving in Berenson’s inbox as scans with burnt edges. “It’s very sad, but most of the information is there. We save as much as we can.”

Work will continue on the next million records once the transcription and upload of one million records from Ukraine, a project that began in late 2022, is completed this summer.

“One million sounds great, but it doesn’t make much sense to me,” says Berenson.

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