A good experience with the Grodno (Hrodna), Belarus archives #general


I wanted to report back on a recent good experience I had getting
information out of the National Historical Archives of Belarus in
Grodno (Hrodna). The entire process took several months of
back-and-forth contact over e-mail, but it yielded much more
information than I was expecting, it didn't cost terribly much, and I
didn't have to use a professional researcher or translator at any
stage. I have heard reports that it is often quite difficult for
people doing Jewish genealogy in Belarus to get information out from
the country, but in this case they actually went above and beyond the
call of duty in providing me with helpful information on family
members. So I hope this message will inspire people to at least try
using them as a resource, based on what I did and what worked for me.

My husband's paternal grandmother's ancestors came >from the city of
Bialystok and a nearby little town called Goniadz. Both of these are
located in far northeastern Poland today (near the modern border with
Belarus), but they used to be located in the Grodno Gubernia
(province) of the Russian Empire. As a result, most of the area's
19th Century vital records wound up stored in the Grodno (Hrodna)
archives in Belarus, rather than in Poland. The Grodno archives
actually have a very nice website, with an English version:

On March 28th of this year I sent an e-mail to the Grodno archives
with the following query:

"I am seeking a copy of the 1874 census for Jews, for Bialystok uezd in
Grodno province. Resources on the Internet say that it is stored in
Fond 24, Opis 7, Dyelo 213 at your archive. How much would it cost to
get a full copy of all the pages of this document? Please reply and
let me know. (I hope my Russian is not too bad -- I am using
automatic translation software >from Google Translate. Please excuse
any errors.)"

As you can tell, I actually sent this e-mail to them in two languages,
first in Russian text, which I translated and cut-and-pasted >from the
free and invaluable Google Translate service online
(translate.google.com), and then with my original English text pasted
below it, in the same e-mail. I continued this bilingual e-mail
exchange while writing back and forth to the archives over the
following months, and it was a big help to both them and to me, as
they do not write correspondence in English and I am doubtful if they
would have answered my e-mails if I had not included Russian text.
Actually, for most of my later e-mails, I stopped using Russian and
switched to Belorussian, which I noticed Google can now translate to
and from, thinking that this would be better (and carry fewer
unintentional political overtones for an ex-Soviet country). I took
care to write in overly simple sentence structures to avoid potential
translation problems, and I also often re-ran my Russian or
Belorussian text back through Google Translate into English to see if
it would still be readable and semi-grammatical, before sending it

Back to my request... I had asked for a copy of the entire 1874
(Russian Empire) census for Jews, and the archives replied back a few
days later that I would need to provide the surnames of the people I
was researching, as they could not make a copy of the entire 1874
census. So I sent back an e-mail with the eight surnames >from my
husband's family that I am researching, made sure to note that I am
looking for spelling variants of those names too, and added the small
nearby town of Trzcianne, Poland to my search list too.

The archives then sent an e-mail saying that I would need to provide a
notarized document >from my husband stating that I was "allowed" to
search these surnames on his behalf (?!). Okay, if that's what was
needed to pacify the bureaucracy, so be it. So I drew up a one page
document that said I was researching such-and-such surnames from
such-and-such towns and that my husband gave me permission to conduct
this search, and we both trotted off to the local UPS Store to sign it
and have it witnessed by a notary public. I then scanned the document
and e-mailed it to the archives. Of course, since it was written in
English, goodness knows if they could read it, but whatever, it got
the job done.

Then, radio silence >from the archives for several weeks. I e-mailed
back asking if everything was okay, and they replied, saying that an
invoice would be sent to me shortly. Finally, about three months
later, a preliminary invoice was sent to me requesting payment (in
Belorussian funds), which I arranged through an international wire at
my local bank, and then a month or two later a request for the
remaining payment. It was unfortunate that I wasn't able to get an
estimated total of the cost of the research in advance, but luckily it
turned out to not be a terribly large amount.

Finally, this fall, I received in the mail (postal, not e-mail) my
completed research packet >from the archives. And they did a terrific
job! It turns out that they didn't just research the 1874 census of
the Jews, as I had originally asked, but they basically searched
through *all* of their holdings for the eight surnames I had
requested! This included the 1834 Russian Empire revision list (males
only), the 1850 revision list (males only), a book about Jews born in
the city of Bialystok in 1852, an alphabetical census of the city of
Bialystok in 1853 (comparing people in that census to their official
listings in the eighth and ninth revision lists >from 1834 and 1850),
an alphabetical census of the town of Goniadz in 1853 (ditto), the
name lists of Jewish landowners >from the town Trzcianne >from February
22, 1857, a list of Goniadz's Jews for 1874, Bialystok Jews who had
acquired "receipts" for military duty in 1874, "In testimony on the
postscript of the Jews" for 1875, and the Bialystok city census for
1897. In total, there were 18 single-spaced typewritten pages in the
report they sent me -- hundreds of names!

(Two of the surnames I was researching were Cohen, a.k.a. Kagan in
Cyrillic, and Levine, so as you can imagine there were a lot of "hits"
for those particular surnames.)

However, the research they sent me contained the data extracts typed
entirely in Russian Cyrillic. Now, I could have hired somebody to
translate it all for me, but I found a better way to handle it. I
scanned each of the 18 pages and saved the output as 18
high-resolution .TIF files. I then ran each .TIF file through this
free OCR (optical character recognition) website -- www.newocr.com --
making sure to choose "Russian" as the source language >from the
dropdown menu each time. The site would give me back the Russian
words >from the document in text that I could copy-and-paste. It had
problems recognizing what to do with columns of data and dates, but it
was still readable -- and still in Cyrillic. I opened the Google
Translate site in a different tab of my web browser and pasted the
Cyrillic text of each page into it and had it translate the page's
text into English. Presto change-o, I had changed the archives'
typewritten Russian text into English text that I could cut and paste
into a word processing document. Google Translate did choke a little
bit on some of the first names, particularly "Leib" and "Chaskel", but
I knew enough about common Hebrew/Yiddish names in the area and
remembered enough of the Cyrillic alphabet >from my seventh grade
language class to fix up problems as I saw them.

So, if you don't mind working entirely over e-mail, translating all
your messages into Russian or Belorussian, not knowing exactly how
much your research will cost ahead of time, not always hearing updates
for weeks or months at a time, waiting about eight months >from start
to finish, and receiving your results in Russian -- then you, too, can
use the Grodno archives to help you with your genealogical research!
:-) But seriously, they did a very nice job, did far more than I
asked of them, and I thought they deserved a good mention and thanks
for their work.

Finally, if you are researching any of the following surnames in the
towns of Bialystok, Goniadz, or Trzcianne (all now in Poland), please
let me know and I would be happy to share both the scans of the
original report and my translated document with you:

1) The LEWIN or LEVIN or LEVINE family
3) The GREENSPAN family
4) The FARBER family
5) The FORMAN or FURMAN family
6) The COHEN or COHN family (a.k.a. KAGAN in the Russian records)
8) The FISH family

- Brooke Schreier Ganz
Los Angeles, California

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