How far back can one go? #general

David Dubin

Besides the relation to famous, historical, Rabbinic, and maybe the tribe of Levi including, Kohanim families, how far backward in a time gone in finding relatives? What successes achieved pre last names? To me, at least an ending where one can’t reach further, people stated can trace beyond 200-300 years ago. Noted is unusual for a Jewish family passed a point, Ashkenazi, and Eastern European lineage.

David Dubin Chicago, Illinois, the United States of America.

Richard Cooper

In 1787 Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were required to take fixed surnames that did not change with each generation. The Prussian and Russian Empires followed suit later. So I would say you are broadly correct: for the majority of Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors lived in partitioned Poland, you will be very lucky to trace back further than an ancestor born around 1750. The exceptions, as you say, are those from Rabbinic dynasties and famous hofjuden like OPPENHEIMER and ROTHSCHILD. Records from Kutno are unusually well-preserved and through parent to child lines you can trace some families back to just before 1700: but I haven't found such records in other towns. In Western Europe, where the Jewish population was more acculturated, you can also find records back to around 1600. Sephardim, of course, used fixed surnames much earlier: the SHALTIEL family can trace back to Temple times. And of course the COHEN Modal Haplotype goes back 3,300 years - but we have no documentation for the intermediate generations. So to recap: the vast majority of us will not be able to trace our family tree, generation to generation without skipping, further back than c.1750,

Ric Cooper
Midhurst, UK


For those whose families were from the Russian Empire -I have found that once you identify the place of legal registration in the Russian Empire you can make your way back through to the 1811 and 1816 Revision Lists without interruption. If a 1795 Revision List is available, it does not have surnames but it is an easy transition from the 1811/1816 or even the 1834 Revision List to the no-surname Revision Lists of 1795. You are using the earliest 19th century Revision Lists you can find, as "bridge records"  to the period before hereditary surnames were registered in 1805. Identifying a person old enough in the 19th century records, to have been well documented in 1795, lets you match them  by their given name, age, patronym, and other family members in the household to the same town's lists pre-surnames.  Those tracing family in today's Belarus and Lithuania, can continue back from the 1795 Revision which was compiled in Russian and Polish, to the 1784 Grand Duchy of Lithuania Poll tax which was created in Polish. And remember, the head of household  being listed in 1795 or 1784, was not born that year. Among the people named in Ostropol in Volhynia guberniya's 1816 and 1834 Revision Lists were people who had died since the previous Revision List. Among the living and the dead, there were a  number who had been born between 1730 and 1740. And all of those men were recorded in both Russian and Polish language records with their patronyms. Searching by whole community, makes the difference. Because  it gives you lots of data on  the way every person of that town will appear in a record in the pre-surname period. The 1795 Revision List of  the Jews Ostropol (one of the communities I study) and its surrounding villages, gives us two different groups who can be identified more or less clearly. Almost all of those living in Ostropol proper (the town itself) in 1795, can be fully identified with families still resident in the town in 1816. Around  half of those living in the surrounding villages have been identified also with folks later living in Ostropol proper. More details on the nineteenth century village residents would probably clear up some of the others. But allowing for the estimated ages of some of the fathers whose names are given only as patronyms, more than 50 of the families listed in both the Ostropol 1795  and 1834 Revision Lists, can be documented  back to ancestors born in the 1700/1710-1730s. 
Deborah Glassman, Historian of the Jewish Community of Ostropol
researching SOLOMON (from Chudnov); FRIEDMAN (from Ostropol and Lyubar); KLEINMAN (from Brailov); TUCKER   and LEVINSON (from Srednik); CHAIT (from Vilna city)

Lee Jaffe

I'm intrigued by the underlying issues implied by this question.  For the most part, this revolves around what one considers valid evidence.  I know a couple of people (not Jews) who have extensive family trees going back hundreds of years – one more than a 1,000 years – where the only evidence are the trees themselves.  Someone, at some point some generations back, pulled together a family tree, which has since been handed down like a precious heirloom with all of the reverence accorded divine revelation.  I do think it is significant that someone managed to record this information early enough and that narrative was preserved to the current generation, but does this constitute the sort of evidence we hope for when tracing our family trees?  Perhaps there are supporting records or DNA evidence that corroborates the families' anecdotal narrative, but in neither case has external evidence been sought:  the families own records in themselves were considered sufficient.  Perhaps this speaks to the value one gives to a family tree.

I've mentioned in another thread that last winter Ancestry started prompting me with hints that lead to my paternal 3x great-grandmother ... and then linked her to a father and mother which lead to a vast branching tree that eventually reached back to the 12th C.  The records from the purported 4x ggm to ancestors born in Portugal, Amsterdam, Fez, Constantinople and even a British Norman baron were pretty rock-solid, but they came from a variety of sources, not all of them conventional.  For instance, one of the links was an Inquisition record, prompted by an indiscrete letter from the Constantinople branch to to family in Portugal, outlining the family's history.  Academic investigations into this family's history supported the Inquisition's version, revealing other historical evidence in support.  These include 16th and 17th C. Papal records, Dutch marriage records and gravestones which seem to be better preserved and more accessible than their 19th C. Polish counterparts.   If you can get back past a certain point in your family tree, the narrative may lead very far back indeed.

That is a very big IF... in my case, the link from my almost-certain 3x great-grandmother (born c. 1800) to her purported mother was uncertain at best.  The link appears to be based on a narrative in a doubtful text whose main theme is that most of the early modern Kabbalists and many rabbis were secret Catholics.  In one account the (otherwise unknown) daughter of a leading Kabbalist married the son of a famous rabbi (a marriage for which there is no supporting evidence) and one of their daughters was my 3x great-grandmother.  It's an enticing story because, if true, I can lay claim to 15 generations of family history.  Quite a few families accept this link and include those earlier generations in their trees.  I don't know if they know the background that supports that version or, like those families I mentioned earlier, for them the tree itself is the record. 

Lee Jaffe

Ilya Zeldes

For those who are researching Ostropol'e, a 1795 Revision List of Jews in Ostropol'e starts at Frame 641 between many other revision lists for Polish Nobility and Christians in the 
ДАКО 280-203-4а. 1795 рік. Ревізька казка всіх станів Волинської губернії
In the same file, at Frame 1095, there is a table listing number of Jews in every village of Volyn guberniya.
Ilya Zeldes
North Fort Myers, FL

Ilya Zeldes
North Fort Myers, FL

Jeremy Lichtman

In some parts of Poland and Lithuania, the 1764/5 poll tax records still exist as well. In one case I was able to find an ancestor who was mentioned in both the 1785 and 1764 lists, and his father was mentioned as a patronymic - i.e. late 1600s.

There's a very large number of documents (tens or hundreds of millions of pages) in the Polish archives that have Jewish names in them. Things like court cases, property records and the like. People are just starting to look at these records from a genealogical perspective. If you fast-forward 20 years, my guess is that there will be indices of many of this sort of record as well, and they go very far back. 

Jeremy Lichtman
Toronto, Canada


There is a particular challenge for people looking for ancestors which came from the Old Kingdom of Romania (mostly Moldova). While the vast majority of Jews living in that area in  1850 +/ - decades, came from places  where Jews did acquire surnames (Austrian Galicia and Bukovina and Russian Podolia and Bessarabia), in many if not most cases such surnames were not used in the civil records which started in 1865-66.  Many Jews used occupational surnames, patronymics or surnames unrelated to the original one. In the same family and even for the same person there is a surname variability which I do not think is found in Russian or Austrian lands.

Luc Radu
Great Neck, NY

Marilyn Robinson

I have also seen/skimmed the 1765 Census of the Jews, handwritten in Polish ( with some Russian). Of course, this census does include first & patronymic names, with labels of wife, daughter, son, widow, etc., but not fixed last names, which were not yet required. It also appears to include addresses.
Marilyn Robinson

Barbara Stack

Digest #1408
Hello all,

I've attached 12 pages of the document Ilya referenced listing of numbers of Volyn Jews in 175--a much more manageable file. Perhaps someone can transcribe it?
Best regards,
Barbara Stack
Berkeley, CA
ALTSTEIN                       Mlawa, Poland
ALTSZTEJN                    Nowy Dwor, Mazowiecki, Poland
CHRZADOWSKI            Brzeziny, Poland
CHSHUNSTOFSKY       Brzeziny, Kikol, Lipno Poland
DROZDOWCIZ              Nowy Dwor, Mazowiecki, Poland
OLDSTEIN                      England, US, Australia
RESNICK                        Volhynia, Ukraine
SCHLEGER                     Lokachi, Ukraine
STACHOWITZ                USA
STASIOWICH                 Nowy Dwor, Mazowiecki, Poland
THORNER                       Plock, Poland
TORUNCZYK                 Warszawa, Poland
YECHT                             Lokachi, Ukraine
ZLOTNICK                      Nowy Dwor, Mazowiecki, Poland