Saturday, October 3, 2015

Finding Eastern European Records, Part 6 (Getting Documents from Archives)

I've often been asked how I find so many documents from various parts of Eastern Europe--many of which have appeared in blog posts.  This is the sixth in  a series of posts describing how to find Eastern European records for your own ancestors.  While these posts will generally concentrate on how to find Jewish records in Eastern Europe, many of the strategies will also be applicable to records for other religions.  (Note that in the Russian Empire, most record sets were recorded separately by religion.)  The entire series can be seen here.

Dealing with Archives Directly

Some Eastern European archives are very responsive and can be reached via email addresses or forms on their webpages.  Others are not responsive at all to individual email queries.  (Many of the archives in Ukraine fall into this category.)  The archivists, should you get a response, are best utilized for specific queries.  Examples of what they can help with are:
  • "My grandfather, Leib Melamed, was born in the town of XXX on January 1, 1899.  Do you have a copy of a birth record for him?"
  • "I'm interested in entries for the Melamed family in the 1875 census for XXX town."
Examples of what they likely will not be able to help with include:
  • "My family lived somewhere in Vilna Guberniya.  What do you have on them?"
  • "Please send me all records from the Melamed family in XXX town."
1811 Revision List for modern-day Krasnoye, Belarus; Obtained from Lithuanian State Historical Archives (Halperin family is highlighted)

Archives will often charge one fee to search their holdings and another fee for copies of documents that their search finds.

Most Eastern European archives are sorely underfunded and do not have the resources to do a thorough search for your family--they will only be able to look for specified documents.

The document above was obtained from the Lithuanian State Historical Archives.  Although I had only requested records relating to the Halperin family in Krasnoye, Belarus (the archive said they wouldn't copy entire data sets for me), the Halperin name ended up being so common that the name appeared on every page of the 1811, 1816 and 1834 main census as well as the additional lists from 1818 and 1837-1849!  These records have all been transcribed, and I've donated the transcriptions to Belarus SIG--so now everyone with family from this town can search for their family members.

Hiring a Researcher

The best way to get a thorough search of relevant documents is to hire a local researcher who is familiar with the archives.  This can get expensive, and there are several things that factor into the cost:
  1. Travel expenses.  If the researcher doesn't live in the city in which the records would be found, you will need to pay for travel expenses--including the cost to get to the city and lodging while there.
  2. Cost to procure documents.  Some archives charge a fee for each copy made--even if it is just a photograph made with the researcher's own camera.
  3. What you're asking for.  If you have a specific document for a specific person in mind, it will be a lot less time and effort than asking for someone to find as much as possible on a particular family in a region.  If they lived in a small town, there will be less for the researcher to go through than if they lived in a large city.
  4. Profit.  The researcher does need to make some profit, so that will be built into your quote.
One way to bring down the cost--and also to help others--is to bring together a group of people researching the same town and divide the cost amongst those people.  I did this very successfully with records from my ancestral towns of Shpikov and Krasnoye; a description of how this was organized (through JewishGen) and the types of records we obtained is here.

When negotiating a price, there are several things to keep in mind.
  1. Have in writing what the price includes.  Do you want copies of all documents found or are you okay with just a synopsis?  Do you want the documents translated into English?  Be sure to ask for a list of document sets reviewed so you don't pay someone else to look in the same place in the future.
  2. Have a timeline in which the work will be done so you have similar expectations.
  3. Agree on which documents set(s) are to be searched.
What do you want to look for in a researcher?
  1. Get references.  I was burned by getting too excited by one researcher who said all the right things, and I didn't investigate his past work.  You can also post queries on country-specific Facebook genealogy groups and see if people have used a specific researcher.  JewishGen also has a list of researchers that people have used.  This is a good start, but there are some reliable researchers who aren't on that list.
  2. You want someone who specializes in the area in which your family lived.  Each archive is organized differently, so someone with knowledge of what might be in an archive has a better chance of finding documents on your family than someone who spends a lot of time trying to get his or her bearings.
It is very typical for researchers to ask for payment in advance.  Money is generally sent via Western Union or Paypal; some researchers do have US bank accounts, and deposits can be made there.  When sending money, refer back to getting references.  Once the money is sent, it is gone, and you are relying on the individual to follow through with your agreement.

What can a researcher find?
Researchers can find documents that often wouldn't be indexed--or document sets that would lend themselves to indexing so that others can search.  Some examples that have been found related to my family include (but aren't limited to) the following:
As you can see, Eastern European archives can be a treasure trove--you just need to have the right person to search them and either possess a treasure trove of funds or be able to coordinate with others to get to the documents about your family.

Coming next: Other Sources for Documents


  1. Thank you for your always-interesting and informative posts. I don't even have ancestors in the same area, but I enjoy reading about your adventures and your finds. It's inspiring to those of us who are researching East European ancestors, and I just learn so much from you!