Documents on Jewish Genealogy in the Collections of the National Historical Archives of Belarus 
Fonds of the National Historical Archives of Belarus
The National Historical Archives of Belarus is the largest archival repository in the Republic of Belarus and one of the largest archives in Central and Eastern Europe.
There were several stages in the formation of the fonds of the Archives: in 1551 an archive was founded in the Radziwill family estate in Neswizh, in 1862 the Vitebsk Central Archive of Historical Records was founded, in 1938 the Central Historical Archives of BSSR in Mogilev was established, in 1963 the Central Historical Archives of BSSR in Minsk was established, in 1995 the National Historical Archives of Belarus was established.
The Archives keeps documents pertinent to the history of Belarus during the period when it was a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) and the Russian Empire (since the end of the 14 th till the beginning of the 20 th centuries). The documents are aggregated into 3155 fonds (1020049 items). The earliest original document held in the fonds of the Archives dates back to 1391. There are a few dozens of original handwritten documents of the 15 th century.
The bulk of the records is related to two periods: the period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Rzeczpospolita (from the 14 th till the end of the 18 th centuries) and the period of the Russian Empire (from the end of the 18 th till the beginning of the 20 th centuries). All the documents concerning the first period, which can be found in the Republic of Belarus, are concentrated in our Archives. These records cover the territories of Belarusian counties of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and partly the territory of Podlasie which is now included in the Podlaskie Voivodeship (the capital is Bialystok) of the Republic of Poland. The period of the Russian Empire is represented exclusively in the records kept in the fonds of the institutions of three governorates: the Minsk, Vitebsk and Mogilev Governorates.
Survey of Collections and Documents on Jewish Genealogy
The archives contains nearly half a hundred archival fonds from Jewish organizations and institutions.
The first group of such fonds includes the fonds of synagogues, kahals and Jewish societies of the towns of Vitebsk, Gomel, Gorki, Klimovichi, Lepel, Minsk, Mogilev, Novogrudok, Orsha, Polotsk, Rogachev, Senno, the villages of Belitsa, Dashkovka, Dobromysl, Dubrovno, Zhlobin, Zhuravichi, Zabychanye, Zaharino, Kazimirova Sloboda, Karpilovka, Liady, Miloslavichi, Nosovichi, Streshin, Tolochin, Uvarovichi, Hotimsk, Shumiachi, Esmony. With few exceptions, the amount of each fond does not exceed two-three dozens of archival items. The fonds of funeral organizations can also be added to this group: the Board of the Minsk Jewish Society of Funeral Services and the Mogilev Jewish Funeral Brotherhood.
The second group consists of the fonds of Jewish educational institutions: state-owned schools of the Vitebsk, Dubrovno, Mstislavl, Rogachev, Surazh, Cherikov and Gomel Societies for the Distribution of Education among Jews and the Cherikov Comission of the Jewish County Schools.
The third group includes the fonds of institutions established by Russian authorities in order to monitor compliance with the residence regulations within the Pale of Settlement: the Minsk Provincial Committee for the Settlement of Jews on State Lands, the Minsk Provincial Committee for the Resettlement of Jews from Villages to Towns, the Vitebsk Provincial Committee for Jews-Landowners, the Vitebsk Committee for the Development of Censuses of Jews.
The archives also holds a few collections that have no definite provenance: the Jewish Societies and Institutions of the Minsk Governorate, the Jewish Societies and Institutions of the Mogilev and Vitebsk Governorates, the Collection of Torah Scrolls. The history of the formation of the latter is dramatic and peculiar to religion-related collections under the militant atheism espoused by the Soviet Union. At the moment the collection consists of five parchment Torah scrolls dating back to the 18 th - 19 th centuries.
The scrolls were acquired apparently in 1920s - 1930s, when religious institutions came under attack in Soviet Belarus. As of 1954 there were 185 scrolls in the collection. That year a preliminary destruction list of the documents of the collection was compiled. But in 1955 the Commission came to the conclusion that all these documents "in Hebrew, written around 200 years ago were worthy to be preserved since they were of historical value". On the crest of the following wave of the militant atheism at the beginning of the 1960s a new list of records proposed for destruction was compiled. It was permitted to preserve five scrolls while 180 ones were going to be destroyed. The expert report on the necessity of destruction of these valuable documents was signed by prominent historians of Jewish descent.
The history of the fonds can (more or less accurately) be traced back to 1944, when Belarus was retaken by the Soviets. Until 1963 they were kept in two main archival institutions − the Central State Historical Archives of BSSR in Mogilev and the State Archives of the Minsk Region. After CSHA of BSSR moved to Minsk in 1963, all the fonds were concentrated here. It is worth reminding that the National Historical Archives of Belarus, which I represent, is a successor of CSHA of BSSR.
Here is an overview of the histories of the main fonds:
Fond 332 "Minsk Kahal" was created in the 1920s; in 1944 the revision of the items of the fond revealed that the majority of the documents had not survived;
Fond 917 "Pinsk Community Rabbi" was created in 1952 after the archives obtained documents from the State Archives of the Pinsk Region;
Fond 1226 "Minsk Rabbi" underwent reorganization in 1953 with the aim of identifying items of historical value;
Fond 1520 "The Jewish Societies and Institutions of the Minsk Governorate" was created in 1962 after the items were received from CSHA of USSR in Kiev;
Fond 1530 "Novogrudok Kahal": the earliest documents on the formation of the fond dates back to 1960;
Fond 1608 "Borisov Rabbi" was created in 1976 after some non-core items were discovered in fond 299 "Minsk Provincial Government";
Fond 2606 "Vitebsk Kahal" was obtained from the State Archives of the Vitebsk Region in 1949;
Fond 2731 "Lepel Kahal" was obtained from the State Archives of the Vitebsk Region in 1955;
Fond 2732 "Polotsk Kahal" was created in 1949 after some unaccounted items were discovered;
Fond 2859 "Lepel Synagogue" was created in 1951 when non-core items were discovered in the fond "Obolets Church";
Fond 3362 "Mogilev Synagogue" was created at the end of the 1920s, in 1959 it was received from the State Archives of the Mogilev Region;
Fond 3374 "Senno Synagogue" was obtained from the State Archives of the Mogilev Region in 1961.
The history of the formation of the collection "Jewish Societies and Institutions of the Mogilev and Vitebsk Governorates" is referred to the post-independence period of the Republic of Belarus. The collection was created at the National Archives of Belarus in 1993 when registers of various Jewish societies and synagogues were collected from other fonds of the archives, and since 1995 the collection has been kept at the National Historical Archives of Belarus.
You can find out more about the above-mentioned fonds and the chronological boundaries of the documents kept in them from the catalogue "The Fonds of the National Historical Archives of Belarus" ( http://niab.by/dakumenty/fondy_niab.pdf).
The study of Jewish genealogy in contemporary Belarusian historiography is of little significance. This can be explained by the fact that nowadays the Jewish community in the Republic of Belarus is small. The main consumers of information on Jewish genealogy (including researchers) reside abroad. Among the most significant source studies works, published in Belarus in the last decade, only "The Sources on the Genealogy of Belarus, c. XVI - the beginning of XX" (ed. S. A. Rybchonok, Minsk, 2003) and "Documents on the History and Culture of Jews in the Archives of Belarus" (Minsk, 2003) can be mentioned. In 2003 S. A. Rybchonok defended his PhD thesis on "Mass quantity sources on genealogy of Belarus of middle XVIІ - the beginnings of XX century (on the basis of the materials of the National Historical Archives of Belarus)".
Meanwhile, the number of genealogical queries increases every year.
The Peculiarities of Handling Genealogical and Biographical Queries at the National Historical Archives of Belarus.
The National Historical Archives of Belarus renders the following services on the discovery of documents of a genealogical nature.
- handling biographical queries (issuing copies of records of births, marriages, deaths, divorces), generally based on one kind of archival sources - synagogue registers (rarely, family or recruitment registers), the time of execution - up to 2 weeks;
- conducting genealogical research (involving a number of primary genealogical sources: synagogue registers, census records, family and recruitment registers, inventories), the time of execution - several months;
- making digital copies of documents.
It is worth paying attention to the fact that the archives undertakes research only when there are primary genealogical sources. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of other fonds which may contain indirect information about your ancestors. However, it is impossible to examine all the fonds while conducting the research.
Fluctuations in public inquiries into Jewish genealogy are as following: in 1996 14 inquiries were received; in 1999 - 9; in 2002 - 28; in 2005 - 79; in 2008 - 72; in 2011 - 101.
The geography of queries is vast. Within the last 15 years (1996-2011) there have been received 810 inquiries into Jewish genealogy: 259 out of which came from USA; 156 - from the Russian Federation; 101 - from the Republic of Belarus; 88 - from Israel; 24 - from the United Kingdom ; 15 - from Canada; 14 - from Ukraine; 13 - from Germany; 12 - from France; 11 - from Australia; 7 - from Hungary; 6 - from Argentina; 6 - from Latvia; 98 - from other countries.
About half of the requests are not accepted because of the absence of primary genealogical sources. Subject to different regions, the number of preserved records vary. Generally, the most informative archival references are provided upon requests for the genealogy of Jews dwelling in the Minsk Governorate. Almost the whole set of the basic census records of the period between 1795 and 1858 and, partly, additional records of the period until the year of 1874 are preserved. The state of the preservation of the documents relating to the Vitebsk and Mogilev Governorates leaves much to be desired. The most well-preserved documents on Jewish genealogy pertain to the Jewish communities of the three largest towns of the region − Vitebsk, Gomel, Mogilev.
The archives does not hold documents on Jewish genealogy concerning the territories of the Vilno and Grodno Governorates. These records can be found at the State Historical Archives of Lithuania in Vilnius and the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Grodno.
Another peculiarity of conducting research on Jewish genealogy is the chronological framework. Generally, our search does not extend beyond the lower chronological boundary which is the time when the Russian Empire came into possession of the Belarusian lands (the year of 1772 - for Eastern Belarus and 1795 - for Central and Western Belarus). There are no survived synagogue registers of the period of Rzeczpospolita.
The archives is gradually implementing digital archival technologies in search work. It is currently working on the creation of a number of digital databases (only for administrative use so far): the database "Ancestry" (which contains surnames and places of residence of people, dwelling within the territories of the Minsk Governorate according to the materials of the census records; at the moment the main censuses of 1850 and 1858 and the additional census of 1874 are more or less processed), the inter-fond indexes of the passports of people, who left the territory of the Minsk Governorate and went overseas, the names index to the registers of the Mogilev synagogue (is under improvement), the names index to the collection "Minsk Provincial Conscription Commission" (in development).
Doing Jewish Genealogy Covering the 17th −18th Centuries
Doing Jewish genealogy covering the 19 th - early 20 th centuries on the basis of records from NHAB follows one scheme. The set of primary genealogical sources is standard: census records for the period 1811 − 1858 (fragmentarily for 1795), synagogue registers covering 1837 to 1930, family and recruitment registers for the period 1874 − 1914.
Deeper research covering the 18 th century, and even the 17 th century, can be carried out only in two cases - if your ancestors were living on the territory of either state estates or latifundia - vast private estates.
There were a few dozens of large state estates called starostwo in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (since 1569 GDL was a constituent part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). The most well-known of them were Bobruisk, Gomel, Kobrin, Mogilev, Mozyr, Pinsk, Rechitsa, Rogachev estates. In the 17 th - 18 th centuries in GDL 25% of all the lands belonged to the state. In the 18 th century there took place complete inventories of the state estates - lustratsia. While taking inventory, a census of the population of starostwo, including the Jews, took place. These inventories were taken in 1738, 1765 and 1773. The preservation of the records regarding them is almost perfect. The main part of them is kept in the State Historical Archives of Lithuania in Vilnius, the lesser part is held by the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk. Combining these records with census records for the period of the Russian Empire allows to trace the genealogy of the family throughout a long period of time. For instance, in cases of Bobruisk, Mozyr and Rechitsa this period is 120 years - from 1738 to 1858. The materials of lustratsia are concentrated in the fonds of the Treasury Commission of GDL (the State Historical Archives of Lithuania in Vilnuis) and in the fonds of district and town courts (which operated in every voivod and county centre of GDL - Braslav, Brest, Vitebsk, Volkovyssk, Grodno, Lida, Mozyr, Minsk, Mstislavl, Novogrudok, Oshmiany, Pinsk, Polotsk, Orsha, Slonim, Rechitsa). Some records from these institutions are kept in NHAB.
Other important sources of Jewish genealogical information covering the 17 th and 18 th centuries are inventories of private estates. The wealthier and more powerful the family was, the more inventory records are preserved. Since it was not compulsory to have inventories in the 17 th - 18 th centuries, and taking inventory was quite expensive, smallholders (who owned one or a couple of places or villages) could never take inventories of their property. If the estate belonged to a magnate family (the Radziwills, Oginskis, Sapegas, Tyshkeviches, Hreptoviches and others), there is a possibility to trace your genealogy back to the early 17 th century. For example, the Radziwills' fond (some parts of which are kept at the Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk, State Historical Archives of Lithuania in Vilnius) contains the 16 th− and 18 th−century inventories of the estates. Inventories were usually taken once in 30 years, in some estates - once in 10 years. This peculiarity gives an opportunity to significantly widen the chronological focus of research.
Records of the 16 th - 18 th centuries have their peculiarities. Jews had no family names. The majority of last names in documents are of patronymic origin. If there is a Jew Shmoila in a document of the early 17 th century, in later records his descendants can be named as Leizer Shmoilovich, Faibish Shmoilovich, etc. Furthermore, in later records members of this family can appear as Shmoilovichi, Leizerovichi and Faibishevichi. Taking into account the fact that all these names were wide-spread, it is quite difficult to discover the links between different Jewish families, using the records of the 16 th - early 18 th centuries.
In the mid-18 th century Church authorities (mainly Catholic and Uniate/Greek Catholic Church authorities) started tracking the presence of Jews within their territories. NHAB holds a few dozens of so-called status animarum records (lists of parishioners) of the Uniate Church of the Minsk and Novogrudok counties for the period 1763 − 1766. These records contain the precise number of people affiliated to non-Christian confessions - Jews and Muslims. Some lists contain common information only. For example, according the 1766 census there were 1380 Jews, 790 Uniates, 180 orthodox Christians, 78 Muslims, 10 Lutherans in Minsk. Without taking into account the Catholics, it is obvious that Jews made up roughly half of the population of Minsk in the mid-18 th century.
For some parishes (in the towns of Berezino, Molodechno, Pogost and some others) for the period 1763 − 1766 there are complete lists of Jews with last names, names of family heads, and the number of males and females in each family indicated.
Translated by Hanna Mazheika
 The author would like to express his gratitude to The Lucille Gudis Memorial Fund for providing him with an opportunity to take part in the Congress.