I’ve written a number of posts about my Carpatho-Rusyn/Slovak ancestry and, although I have no known ancestors from other areas that make up Eastern & Central Europe, I do get asked how to go about researching in many former Communist countries, including Russia and its satellites.
My answer is always the same.
First, you need to know your ancestors’ original name, if it was changed, and the towns where your ancestors came from. Sometimes, that’s a slam dunk because an older family member knows the answer. My grandmother was able to give me the names of both her families’ villages, which happen to border each other (Udol and Hajtovka) AND knew that Udol’s name had been changed from Ujak years ago. She also knew that they lived near the Poprad River so I was able to precisely locate both before the internet age.
1. If you have little or no idea from whence your family came, you either need to be lucky enough to find an indexed record on FamilySearch or some other website that has enough detail to help determine whether the record pertains to your ancestor or another person of the same name OR you need to continue to dig through U.S. records to uncover the hometown name before you make the leap across the pond.
Let’s assume that you know the name of at least one ancestral village in Eastern Europe. What is Step #2? You need to determine the political entity that ruled the area where your town is located. That’s not always so easy, particularly if you can’t find any town with a similar name to the one you have.
2. Determine the time period in which your ancestor left for America (or elsewhere in the world.) Most Eastern Europeans migrated in a period of time ranging from the late 1880s until the early 1920s. NOTE: If you are searching for a family member who migrated because of World War II, there may be more modern records available to help you learn more about your family, but that would be the subject of a different post.) Under which government were they ruled? Was your ancestral homeland part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire? Which part? Was it in Russia? In what country is that place located today?
Udol and Hajtovka were part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but specifically part of Saros County, Hungary in 1890, which is about the year that my great grandparents arrived in New Jersey. It remained Hungarian until the close of World War I.
Therefore, I needed to search Hungarian records (and found an 1869 census of Saros County) in addition to locating church registers housed in today’s Slovakia.
I’ve known several people whose ancestors reported on U.S. censuses that they were from “Galicia.” Notice that the area that was once Galicia today stretches from Poland through part of Slovakia eastward to Ukraine. Finding church registers today means figuring out exactly where the ancestors called home.
3. Can you find the town on a map today? If not, searching a gazetteer might provide answers.
4. What religion did your ancestors practice? Most of Eastern Europe were either Catholic – Roman or Greek (Byzantine) or Orthodox, whether Russian Orthodox or Ukrainian Orthodox, although there were some who were Protestant or Jewish.
This is important because there was no central government vital record keeping. It was the responsibility of local priests to record all vital records – baptisms (which sometimes also included dates of birth), marriages and burials (which sometimes included dates of death.)
BE AWARE that Roman Catholics might marry a Greek Catholic from a neighboring town. Priests noted the religion of those marrying, names of parents and of witnesses and godparents.
I personally have not found Catholic family members marrying those of the Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox faiths, but I would be surprised if it didn’t happen regularly in communities that had several parish churches.
5. What if you can’t find the record you seek in the ancestral town? Be mindful of the 5-mile guideline. Courting couples likely lived closer than 5 miles apart from each other because that was the distance a young man could walk, round trip (10 miles), in a day and still have time to spend with his girlfriend.
If the couples lived in different parishes, the general rule was that they married in the bride’s church, but children were baptized and grew up in their father’s parish.
If you can’t find a vital record, widen your search to include perhaps a 10 mile radius (they might have had access to a horse or wagon to travel) and check those parish records.
6. Success! You’ve found – you think – the record you’ve been searching for, but it is in a language you can’t read. You don’t know anyone who speaks that language. Who can help you?
Don’t be afraid to search records in a foreign language. Roman Catholic records were almost always recorded in Latin, usually in column form, noting dates, people, event, address, etc. so it is fairly easy to find what you are looking for.
Greek Catholic records were also often recorded in Latin.
However, I have come across church entries that changed OVERNIGHT from Latin to the Cyrillic alphabet because a new government came into power in the area.
Specifically, I was looking for the baptismal record of Michael Scerbak and I know nothing about the Cyrillic alphabet. I googled it and then wrote his name on a piece of paper using Cyrillic letters. I knew he was born in 1868 and went page by page, matching letters like a kindergartener, until I found an entry for Michael Scerbak. It wasn’t that hard, it just took a bit of patience.
Now that the basics have been covered, exactly where do you go to find the records?
- FamilySearch Research Wiki for the country of interest. There are all different kinds of help available, from maps to vocabulary lists, helpful for genealogists.
- Facebook Genealogy Groups – Katherine Willson regularly updates her PDF list of all genealogy/history themed Facebook groups. There is a FB group for just about any nationality/ethnicity or religious group that might tie into your family tree. The best part is that everyone is willing to help others and many of the groups have members who are native speakers of the language you don’t understand and can easily translate (short) passages for you, all for free.
- There are several bloggers who have extensive knowledge about researching behind the former Iron Curtain. Lisa Alzo, a fellow Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn like myself, is a professional researcher, author and speaker who specializes in Eastern Europe. She writes The Accidental Genealogist. Lara Diamond is another professional genealogist and speaker who has deep Jewish roots in Eastern Europe. She is the author of Lara’s Jewnealogy. A third blogger is Vera Miller, author of Find Lost Russian & Ukrainian Family. She has a number of links on her blog to free guides and resources to help with your research. All three ladies are highly experienced researchers and you will learn a lot by reading and following their blogs. Cyndi Ingle isn’t a blogger, but she is Cyndi of Cyndi’s List and you should definitely look there for Eastern Europe links to your countries/areas of interest.
- Genealogy Societies
East European Genealogical Society (EEGS) – This is a great starting place.
Foundation for East European Family History Studies (FEEFHS) – A second great place to start for Eastern Europe.American Historical Society of Germans from Russia
Czechoslovak Genealogical Society Internation (CGSI)
Estonian Biographical Center
Genealogy of Halychyna/Eastern Galicia (HalGal) – Check this group out if you are searching in Galicia.
Geneteka – Polish research
GenTeam – Germany
HercegBosna Society – Croatia
Hungarian Society for Family History Research (MACSE)
JewishGen – Whether or not you have Jewish roots, check this website out. It has many resources to European records.
Latvia – Discovering Latvian Roots
Lithuanian Global Genealogical Society
Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA)
Poznan Project – Poznan region of Poland
Romanian Genealogy Society
Russian Genealogical Society
Serbian Genealogy Society
Slovak Genealogy Research Strategies
Slovenian Genealogy Society International
- National Archives Websites (I have noted those that do not have translated English pages.):
Poland – no English version
Serbia – no English version
Slovakia – no English version
6. Online Education – Google is everyone’s friend, so search for genealogical resources for your ancestral homes. There are many free videos on YouTube. Legacy Family Tree Webinars (subscription site, but for $9.95 for a one-month membership, you can watch unlimited videos) has webinars by Lisa Alzo that cover various aspects of Eastern European research. WorldCat will help you locate more scholarly works pertaining to the history of your family’s homeland.
I hope I’ve provided enough to get you started, but there are many other websites that I haven’t listed here, due to the wide geographical area on which I’ve focused.