Around the Jewish World: Russian Jews Trace Family Roots Long Forgotten Under Communism

When Vladimir Paley began researching his family history two decades ago, some of his relatives were strongly opposed. “When I was 10, I started asking older relatives about our family past,” he says.

“Not everyone was ready to help — my mother would ask what did I need it for?” says the 30-year-old Muscovite.

Paley’s family was not alone.

During the oppressive days of the Soviet Union, most Russians avoided learning about their family roots. Under the brutal dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, Russians learned that knowledge of one’s own family history could bring nothing but trouble.

Having a grandparent who was a noble, a rabbi or even a shopkeeper could land one in the Gulag. This was particularly true for Jews, many of whom came from merchant families.

Even after the mass arrests slowed after Stalin’s death in 1953, a “petty bourgeois” or Jewish ancestor could still harm one’s career or, sometimes, land one in jail.

Since the fall of communism in 1991, however, the situation has changed. An increasing number of Russian Jews are now interested in learning more about their neglected family history.

Some of them want genealogical proof of their Jewish background before they emigrate to Israel.

Others are Jews who returned to Judaism and want to know if there are any scholars among their ancestors. In some cases, clients are non-Jews who discovered that they have some Jewish ancestors and want to fill in this part of the family tree.

There are also better-off Jews for whom the family tree is a matter of prestige.

“These are business people who have seen trees of their Western colleagues, not necessarily Jewish. Now they want to have similar trees for themselves,” says Paley.

The fruit of Paley’s inquiry into his own family is a scroll 9 feet long.

The scroll is the culmination of five years of research in the archives of the Belarussian capital of Minsk and the Ukrainian city of Chernigov.

Paley has documented his family history seven generations back — to Ukraine in the 1720s. But his tree could not have been completed were it not for a remarkable coincidence.

Two years ago, he attended an international annual meeting of Jewish genealogists in Washington, D.C., where he gave a lecture on genealogical research in the former Soviet Union.

After the presentation, an American approached him.

“He handed me a piece of napkin with a part of his genealogical tree drawn on it,” Paley says.

The man, Herbert Lazerow, a law professor at the University of San Diego, turned out to be Paley’s fourth cousin. Lazerow’s great-grandfather left Ukraine around the turn of this century.

“If your own surname and the geographical names on your family tree coincide with those on someone else’s tree, pay attention to the first names,” says Paley. “Within one family, there was always a relatively limited set of given names used over the generations. It is true even after the family was separated by emigration.”

While the first Jewish genealogical groups started in Germany in the 1920s, widespread interest in genealogy among Jews in the United States began about two decades ago after the 1977 television movie “Roots” based on a book about an African American’s search for his family origins.

Today, there are 60 Jewish genealogical societies worldwide, 45 in the United States and Canada.

Paley, meanwhile, has turned his hobby into a full-time job.

Since 1994, he has chaired the Jewish Genealogical Society in Moscow. Founded in 1992, the society is the only such group in the former Soviet Union.

The society gives free consultations to those interested in researching family heritage, describes Jewish holdings in the archives of the former Soviet Union and helps locate long-lost relatives in Russia and abroad.

About half of its clients are Russian Jews; the other half are Jews from other countries, mostly from the United States.

Paley says that his American clients often do not know where their families lived in Russia before emigrating, making research impossible.

“My father was born in `guberniya’ is a typical description of one’s family origins we often come across,” Paley says. Dozens of guberniyas, or provinces, existed in the Russian Empire.

“The name of the place was erased from this family’s memory and people think `guberniya’ is the name of a shtetl.”

A search can be conducted only when the last name of the person or family and the place of residence are known.

There are two different types of research. The elementary one is based on vital records found in the archives and results in the list of names, dates and, sometimes, old addresses.

The more detailed and more expensive research recreates parts of family history. Based on different types of documents and non-archival materials, including cemeteries, it draws a broader picture of the family’s daily life.

An average search of a family name in Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian archives by one of the society’s six full-time researchers costs about $500.

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