East European Research Online
by Barbara Renick

[email protected]

©2007 Barbara Renick

Sooner or later, most genealogists trace their family trees beyond the boundaries of their research experience. Learning to do research in a new geographic area and/or culture means that some things stay the same (fundamental principles of research) and some things will be different—especially for East European research.

Challenges include learning about:

bulletThe legal, religious, economic, and cultural systems for that location and your time period of interest (and possibly earlier and later time periods, as well).
bulletThe geopolitical shifts in boundaries and jurisdictions for that location over time.
bulletMultiple places with the same name and how you place name changed over time.
bulletThe types of records created and the time period each type covers for that location.
bulletHow to determine if a particular record still exists.
bulletThe languages and dialects used by the record keepers.
bulletThe script/handwriting used by the record keepers.
bulletThe cryptic symbols often used in many types of records.
bulletThe tools/finding aids (maps, gazetteers, dictionaries, indexed parish registers, indexed port records, etc.) specific to that locality, record type, and time period.

Because of these challenges, the first rule of East European genealogy is to search in every record here that may contain any scrap of evidence before searching in records from there.

Speech Accent Archives

Preparing to do genealogical research in East Europe requires four vital pieces of information:

bulletNames (and likely spelling variations)
bulletDates (or at least a probable range of years for each identifying life event)
bulletPlaces (as exact as possible with other nearby places and geographic features identified)
bulletRelationships (your ancestor’s family, social, religious, and occupational contacts are an important foundation for you searches in foreign records).


Names: People names, place names, and names of occupations often prove to be your biggest challenge. As your ancestors migrated across Europe and eventually to America, there were many opportunities for these names to change. These names are also more difficult to accurately transcribe than the ordinary words you encounter in foreign documents.

Types of people name changes:

bulletTranslative: Many Europeans upon arriving in America changed their names to the English equivalent of the original. Example: KLEIN or PITSCHNA а LITTLE
bulletPhonetic: If the name did not have a local equivalent, quite often it was changed phonetically. Example: THIEME in Switzerland > DIEM in the Swabian Alb in Wьrttemberg > TYM in Polish Russia > TEAM in Wisconsin after coming to the U.S.A.
bulletAnglicization: Others modified their names by adding or dropping a portion of the name.
bulletTotal change: For reasons of prestige or political motivation, many Europeans found it expedient to adopt a completely new and unrelated name in America.
bulletTranscription errors introduce even more name variations.

Places: Everything previously said about people’s names applies to place names. Because names changed (both people and place names), the risk greatly increases for tracing the wrong family name in the right place, the right family name in the wrong place, or both! VERIFY, VERIFY!

Once you have exhausted readable records in your native tongue (for most of you this will be English) and as clearly as possible defined the four key areas of identification, you are ready to consult East European records. The two primary sources of genealogical information in Europe are civil registers (if these existed for the time period you are researching) and church records. Of course, most of these records will be written in one or more foreign languages and scripts.

For those planning to use microfilms or microfiche of original source materials from East European countries, the online version of the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) is very helpful. Many of the finding aids and tools from the library are made available to Family History Centers on microfilm or microfiche. Remember to check under the general heading of the country of interest in the catalog for such aids. CAUTION: The "Related Places" screen in the online version of the FHLC serves as a partial gazetteer, but it includes only those places for which the library holds materials.

Finding maps and gazetteers reflecting the correct place names with correct geopolitical and religious boundaries is challenging enough. But the real difficulty often comes when you try to use these tools and encounter their cryptic abbreviations and miserly archaic fonts. Example: Meyers Orts- unt Verkehrs- Lexikon versus SPIS for Polish Russia.



A search in Expedia.com’s Maps for the place Jasienica in Europe finds 13 places by that name currently exist in Poland (including two or more in some powiats/districts).


Many genealogy sites refer to classic maps sites like:

The Perry-Castaсeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas (www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/index.html)


Map History / History of Cartography: THE Gateway to the Subject (http://www.maphistory.info/collections.html)


Oddens’ Bookmarks (http://oddens.geog.uu.nl/index.php)

Audio tapes of lectures from past regional and national genealogical conferences are available at www.audiotapes.com. Some recent genealogy conferences have been digitally recorded. For instance, http://www.LULU.com recorded lectures at the 2006 Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in Boston. These are now available for purchase and download for $1.99 each at LULU.com (search on FGS). Lectures at the 2007 National Genealogical Society Conference in the States were recorded by JAMB Inc. Those recorded are available on CDs for $12 per lecture at www.jamb-inc.com.

The FamilySearch Internet Web site has six areas of significant help for genealogists learning to do research in a new geographic area and/or culture.

bulletSearch for Ancestors (www.familysearch.org > SEARCH > Search for Ancestors comes up by default and click on International Genealogical Index)
bulletResearch Helps (www.familysearch.org > SEARCH > Research Helps)
bulletResearch Guidance (www.familysearch.org > SEARCH > Research Guidance)
bulletWeb Sites directory (www.familysearch.org > SEARCH > Web Sites)
bulletFamily History Library Catalog (online version) (www.familysearch.org > LIBRARY > Family History Library Catalog)
bulletGlossary (www.familysearch.org > SEARCH > Research Helps >Glossary)


Despite the vastness of the help available at the FamilySearch Internet Web site, there isn’t a single site that has "everything." Examples:

bulletGenWeb Projects vs. WebRings
bulletWorldGenWeb Projects (www.worldgenweb.org)
bulletWebRing (www.webring.org/rw)
bulletCyndi’s List vs. Wikipedia
bulletCyndi’s List (www.cyndislist.com)
bulletWikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page)


Specific Sites:

bulletFEEFHS (www.feefhs.or/)
bulletPolishRoots (www.polishroots.org)
bulletJewish Genealogy (www.jewishgen.org)

Some of the best resources are found in unlikely or less likely locations.

bulletBaltimore County [MD] Genealogical Society’s ethnic links
bulletMr. Tom Wodzinski (in Canberra, Australia) has Polish genealogy links
bulletRafael T. Prinke’s Web site (http://main.amu.edu.pl/~rafalp/) in Poland


Many of these "unlikely" resources can be found via search engines.

bulletInternet Search Engines
bulletGoogle.com is very popular, but don’t stop there. (Google Advanced Search, Directory, Groups, Google Maps, Google Translate)
bulletMost general Internet search engines have advanced settings to limit your search to Web sites in specified language.
bulletThere are also language specific search engines. Use an online tool like www.searchenginecolossus.com to find them.
bulletSearch on such phrases as East European Studies, East European Libraries, East European Genealogy; then try these phrases again with the specific name of your ancestor's country or region.


bulletRemember to search outside the lines.
bulletSearch for travel resources.
bulletSearch for departments of culture.
bulletSearch for the equivalent of a Chamber of Commerce.
bulletSearch for lists of Frequently Asked Questions about that country or ethnic group.
bulletSearch for local newspapers and foreign language newspapers in the areas where your ancestors lived.
bulletNewspapers.com (www.newspapers.com)
bulletNewsLibrary (www.newslibrary.com/nlsite/index.html)
bulletSearch Cyndi’s List for the word newspaper and the name of a country
bulletDon’t overlook e-mail discussion groups to join, lurk, and then use.
bulletMail lists
bulletE-mail Collaboration Lists at FamilySearch Internet
(www.familysearch.org > SHARE > Collaboration E-mail Lists)
bulletRootsWeb (http://lists.rootsweb.com/)
bulletGoogle Groups (http://groups.google.com)
bulletNewsgroups category at Cyndi’s List (www.cyndislist.com)
bulletYahoo! Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com)


Libraries and archives provide a wide variety of resources:

bulletThe Library of Congress has lists of links in its “Portals to the World” (www.loc.gov/rr/international/portals.html)
bulletWorldCat.org (www.worldcat.org/) has more than one billion entries from more than 10,000 libraries around the world and growing.

BUBL Information Service (http://bubl.ac.uk/) has several lists that are genealogically useful including:
bulletGeneral reference
bulletLanguage, literature, and culture
bulletSocial sciences
bulletNARA’s Genealogy: East European Research page (www.archives.gov/genealogy/heritage/east-european.html)
bulletRefDesk (www.refdesk.com/index.html)
bulletRefDesk’s Countries page (www.refdesk.com/topcount.html)
bulletRefDesk’s Historical Information Resources (www.refdesk.com/facthist.html)
bulletRefDesk’s Dictionaries and Language Resources (www.refdesk.com/factdict.html)
bulletEast European Studies programs
bulletSSEES (www.ssees.ac.uk/)
bulletCREES (www.umich.edu/~iinet/crees/)
bulletThe Amherst Center for Russian Culture (www.amherst.edu/~acrc/)


Although still challenging, tracing your East European ancestors is a great deal easier today than it was just a decade ago thanks to these free Internet resources.