Sunday, June 3, 2018

Accessing Eastern European Records on FamilySearch--From Home

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 first in what will be 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.

(This is an update of a post which talked about how to see LDS records on microfilm, because of all of the digitization that has been done.)

FamilySearch recently announced that all of their filmed records from Ukraine are now available for free, from your home!  But how do you best figure out what records may be available on FamilySearch for your ancestral towns?  Here are some tips (which are applicable to all locations, not just Ukraine).
Lots and lots of documents are available!  (Yes, you can zoom in.)

If you don't have a FamilySearch account already, you'll need to create one (it is free).

Log into your account, go to the catalog and search by place.  Start typing the name of your ancestral town, and FamilySearch will start giving you options.  Select your town.
Looking for records from Nezhin
Now, there are a few very important tips here:
  1. Use multiple spellings for your town.  Searching for "Nezhin" finds some record sets that "Nizhin" doesn't.
  2. Search for your town with both its transliterated ("English") spelling as well as with Russian and Ukrainian spellings in those alphabets.  Sometimes record sets are only listed under one and not the others, and you do not want to miss that there are precious record sets accessible from home! 
  3. Be very creative with spelling.  Remember that in Russian, there is no 'h' sound, so substitute g's for h's and vice versa.
  4. Don't just look for the town.  Look for the district (uezd, for former Russian Empire) and province (guberniya, for former Russian Empire) as well, since some records were kept at that level, and FamilySearch hasn't broken availability down by individual towns.
Once you have located your town/district/province of interest, select it, and you will get a list of any record sets that FamilySearch has.
Groups of records available for Nezhin uyezd
To the left of each type of record is a triangle.  Clicking on it expands that section and gives more information on what is available:
Looking at Jewish-specific records for Nezhin
For this example, you can see that FamilySearch has two Jewish-specific record sets for Nezhin.  The first is Metrical Books (these are vital records), and then second is a poll tax census (Google Translate can help you if you can't read another language).  Note that there may be Jewish records in some of the other record sets here, but these are likely enumerate only Jewish individuals, while the others (particularly the civil records) will contain records with people of all religions.

Once you select a record set of interest, you'll get additional information about that record set as well as a more detailed list of what is available:
FamilySearch's description of its collection of Nezhin Metrical Books
As you can see, the description gives a brief summary of the record set and also gives information about its origin (in this case, the State Archives of the Chernigov Region).  Scrolling further down the page gives information about precisely what you can view:

(Part of) what's available to browse
In the above image, you can see details of what can be browsed.  To jump straight to the images, click on that camera image to the right.  (Note that the key above the camera usually means that the images are only available in a Family History Center or the Family History Library; for the Ukraine records that are recently available from home, the images haven't yet been updated.)

But before you go into the records, note the Item Number for each line, as that can help you figure out where on the film to look for the records you want.  For example, suppose I want to look at marriages from 1898-1899, which is on the first line.  Those marriages will be in Item 6 once you click on the camera icon.
Overview of the film
Take a look at the above image.  You're looking at images from a microfilm which has been digitized.  (You can zoom into individual pages using the plus sign on the top left.)  Those black images show the beginning and end of each item.  So to see those 1898-1899 marriages, scroll down until you see the black image that begins item 6.  Zoom in on those pages, and research away!

Now, to head off some questions....
  1. No, these records are not in English.  They are in the language in use in the place at the time they were recorded.  The metrical records in the example above are both in Hebrew and Russian.  The poll tax census mentioned above is only in Russian.  Records from Galicia may be in German, since it was part of Austria-Hungary.  I do read Hebrew, but I taught myself to read old Russian--enough so I can read names and be able to identify which records are the ones I'm looking for.  There are some great online tutorials to read various languages.
  2. Have these been indexed?  Some have, but most have not.  FamilySearch has indexed some records.  JewishGen has indexed many Jewish records, and they will point you to the correct film number (so you can now find the original record, from home).  But the vast majority of these haven't been indexed, so you'll need to browse through them yourself (or with the help of a friend/translator).
  3. If I don't see any records for my ancestral town, does that mean they do not exist?  No!  This will only find records that FamilySearch has filmed and is a small subset of records that actually exist.  To see other ways to find records, check out this series of posts.
  4. Can I look for specific records for you?  No, sorry, but hopefully this gives you the tools to find them for yourself.
Enjoy and good luck!

Note:  I'm on Twitter.  Follow me (@larasgenealogy).


  1. Thanks for this valuable primer. With your permission I would like to share it with our Genealogy Club here in Florida.

    1. Sure! (Sorry for the delayed response; Blogger decided to stop notifying me that I had comments. I went in today and had dozens!)

  2. This is so exciting to read about, Lara! I recently subscribed to your blog looking for more ways to research my Jewish ancestry. I, too, am learning to spot the important tidbits of information from online documentation written in Polish. Thank you for sharing this wonderful news!

  3. I just want to make sure I understand your response to your own question # 2: there are records on FamilySearch that are not yet even listed on JewishGen? Is that correct?

    1. Yes. There are records on FamilySearch not listed on JewishGen and records indexed on JewishGen not imaged by FamilySearch.

  4. is still in process of having the "Ukrainian" records digitized. It is not all done yet.

  5. Lara: Re your Mar 22, 2020 NYG&B Webinar "Jewish Genealogy 101". It was very informative, and your presentation skills were excellent! I lost your Handout during the download; then NYG&B emailed me the wrong Handout; can you send me a replacement.
    Cheers, Mike Dach,

  6. Lara, super job! Thank you so much.
    I have a question about records not digitized yet; can I order a copy of a microfilm? It used to be sent to a near by Mormon church where one can look at them; maybe because of the pandemic, I haven't been able to reach anyone to understand how and if it can be obtain now for viewing.
    I have found records related to my family roots which haven't been digitized yet.
    Any tips would be very much appreciated!
    Alla Pinsky

    1. Unfortunately you cannot order microfilm, even pre-pandemic, for a few years. However, this should help (assuming there are no contractual reasons barring FamilySearch from digitizing a particular microfilm):

    2. Laura, thank you so much. Will try and let you (and maybe others are interested as well) and let you know.

      Alla Pinsky

    3. Thanks. (And it's Lara, not Laura :) )