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Behind the Headlines U.S. Jews of Russian Descent May Soon Be Able to Trace Their Roots

May 21, 1985
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A veritable gold mine of information for American Jews tracing their roots is on the verge of being made easily accessible, according to the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington. But hundreds of die hard amateur genealogists are concerned that before the job is completed their treasure might be transformed from the dusty cartons of a Maryland warehouse to permanent obscurity in the Soviet Union.

The huge cache of documents — accumulated in Russian Consulates throughout this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — is a godsend for many Jewish descendants of Russian emigrants, since official records that might unearth a part of their families’ past have been unobtainable from the Soviet government. Over half of the estimated 100,000 to 500,000 documents are expected to be case files on Jewish immigrants to the United States.

“This is the largest single source of information about Americans of Russian descent known to exist anywhere in the world today,” Dr. Sallyann Sack, founder of the Society, said in an interview.

The documents were left behind when the Russian consulates in the U.S. and Canada were closed in the years following the revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Bolsheviks in power. By 1933, when the Roosevelt Administration announced its recognition of the Stalin government, the previously scattered records had been concentrated in the former Russian Embassy in Washington. But just a night before the Soviets were to repossess the building, the U.S. army carted off the 500 crates of remaining files to a government warehouse.


The consular collection might have met with permanent oblivion were it not for a Canadian scholar who came across them by chance in the 1970’s at a storage center of the National Archives in Suitland, Maryland. By 1980, some 100 boxes of files from the former Russian Consulates in Montreal and Vancouver were being transferred to Canadian archives, where they have been sorted and indexed for public reference.

With the launching of the Canadian project, news of the collections’ existence made its way to Jewish genealogists in the Washington area, where a mass of documents — almost 20 times the volume of the material transferred to Canada — was waiting to be processed.

The collection includes documents ranging from birth, death and marriage certificates, to circumcision records, to school transcripts and individual petitions for assorted consular services. Many are requests for proof of having served in the Russian army, needed by immigrants for exemption from military conscription in the U.S. and Canada.

Some of the correspondence is surprisingly personal, resembling the type of letters that appeared for so many years in the “Bintel Brief” column — the “Dear Abby” equivalent — in the Jewish Daily Forward.

A woman from Vilna, for example, wrote to the Consul General in Philadelphia, saying her husband had left her five years back, had sent no support for their many children, and was now living with another woman. “Dear Madame,” the Russian officer replied, “Obviously he doesn’t want you. Why should you make trouble for him? My advice to you is to forget it.”

A letter sent from the New York Consulate to a Jew still in Russia informed him that his relative had died and left him a bank account of $1.5 million. Apparently, the many Russian claimants of alleged fortunes left by deceased family members in America rarely heard the same good news.


Eager to turn the mass of randomly packed files into a useful resource for American Jews tracing their roots, Washington’s Jewish Genealogy Society reached an agreement last year with the Mormons’ Genealogy Society of Utah, which will record the documents on microfilm once the names appearing on them are properly transliterated and indexed.

The indexing task got underway last October and is already some 75 percent finished. But the funds raised for the project so far — mostly small donations from individual members of Jewish Genealogical Societies throughout the country — are expected to run out by June. Because the status of the documents remains in limbo, several foundations have rejected requests for funds.

“Our concern is that either the records will deteriorate so badly that they’ll be unusable or one day they’ll just be given back to the Russians and that will be the end of it,” Sack told the JTA. According to Sack, the Soviet Union has repeatedly asked for the return of the collection and in 1980 it was almost given back.

The Society has recently turned to Jewish Federations in several cities for the $10,000 that it estimates would be needed to carry its part of the project through to the end.


Once the project is completed, a Jew in search of his family’s past will be able to scan a printed index for names of people whose case files are in the collection. Microfilmed documents will be available at the National Archives, as well as Mormon libraries around the country.

The Russian consular project appears to be one indication that the genealogy passion sparked in the 1970’s by the television program, “Roots,” has withstood the test of time in the American Jewish community. Sack, a clinical psychologist who herself has written a book on one branch of her family, estimated some 1,300 to 1,400 active genealogists in the United States today.

With a wealth of new resources and guidebooks published to make the amateur genealogist’s task a little easier, the movement does not appear to have lost its momentum. “There was an initial surge and then I think there was a steady growth,” Sack, who founded the Washington Society in 1980, recalled. “But what has happened is that the growth has been increasing exponentially.”

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