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| Jewish American Research
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Jewish American Research|
|Jewish Migration to the United States|
|Finding Jewish Records|
|List of Useful Jewish Research Resources|
Most Jewish Americans are descended from Ashkenazic Jews who did not have surnames before the nineteenth century. Consequently, it is unusual to trace a Jewish ancestry back more than two hundred years. In fact, most Jewish Americans do not trace their ancestry as much as they document their families; that is, they identify their most ancient ancestor, then trace forward to document all descendants of this ancestor—rarely more than ten generations. Because 50 percent of European Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust (91 percent of Polish Jewry), virtually every Jewish American has relatives who were victims of the Holocaust. (I have documented more than 250 descendants of my great-great-great-grandfather who were murdered—fewer than thirty survivors are known).
Although many Holocaust victims had no surviving immediate family members, there are persons who have remembered them. These remembrances are documented in two of the most important sources of information about Holocaust victims: yizkor books and Pages of Testimony.
After World War II, the survivors of the Holocaust published books that memorialized the destroyed Jewish communities of Europe. Called yizkor books (yizkor means “memorial” or “remembrance” in Hebrew), they commemorate not only the victims but the Jewish communities themselves. To date, more than one thousand towns have been commemorated in this manner.
Although each book was written independently of the others, yizkor books have a typical structure. The first section describes the history of the Jewish community in the town or city from its inception, sometimes hundreds of years ago, to the events of the Holocaust, which invariably culminated in the destruction of all Jewish religious property (synagogues, cemeteries, etc.) and the immediate murder of the Jewish population or their deportation to labor or extermination camps. For the genealogist, this overview section provides much material about Jewish community life in the town.
The next section of a yizkor book is a group of stories that are the personal remembrances of survivors about their families. These usually contain a wealth of information about the particular family. The following section is devoted to families from which there were no survivors. The descriptions are usually brief—one or two paragraphs headed by the names of the father and mother, as well as the names of the children. The final section is a necrology—a list of all the victims from the town.
A searchable index of towns with yizkor books that is updated regularly can be found at http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/database.html. The most complete list of towns in print can be found in Where Once We Walked—Revised Edition by Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack. Any town in this gazetteer that has a code “YB” in its description has a yizkor book. Major yizkor book collections are at the YIVO Institute in New York and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Many public and university libraries with Judaica collections have acquired a good number of these books. A list of them can be found at http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/yizlibs.html. The New York Public Library has placed online the contents of more than eight hundred yizkor books. They can be found at http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/jws/yizkorbooks_intro.cfm.
Pages of Testimony
The major archive and documentation center for the Holocaust is Yad Vashem. Since 1955, Yad Vashem has been attempting to identify, on documents called Pages of Testimony, each of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. To date, 3 million Holocaust victims have been documented. Yad Vashem has requested persons come forward and submit, on preprinted forms, a host of information about victims, including name; place and year of birth; place, date, and circumstances of death; name of mother, father, and spouse; and, in some cases, name and age of children (see figure 18-3). Each submitter must sign the Page of Testimony and indicate his or her name, address, and relationship to the deceased. Not only do Pages of Testimony provide lineage-linked information about Holocaust victims, they provide a connection to the present through the submitter of the document. If the submitter can be located, he or she can often provide firsthand information about the family. Unfortunately, most Pages of Testimony were written in the late 1950s, more than fifty years ago, and many of the submitters are no longer alive; however, their children can often provide additional information if they can be located. These Pages of Testimony are now online as part of The Central Database of Shoah Victims Names at http://www.yadvashem.org.
Holocaust education centers exist throughout the world. Exhibits depict events during this period, and many have libraries containing literature about the Holocaust. A list of centers that are members of the Association of Holocaust Organizations can be found at http://www.ahoinfo.org.