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Welcome to my professional research pages.

My name is Stephen Rigden and I am a professional researcher covering Eastern Europe.

If you would like to discuss your research and/or need any assistance, please use the Contact Us Tab at the top of this page

Address

3 The Quays, Belvedere Road, Faversham, Kent, England, ME13 7LP

Qualifications

1st class BA with Hons in English Literature

Career

I have been a professional genealogist since 1987. I formerly worked for 21 years for a leading London firm of forensic genealogists, where I was Head of Research until 2009. Currently, I work part-time for a major British family history website. I am the owner of Bluebird Research.

My interests include Slavic history, Russian literature and travel in Eastern Europe.

Specialisation

I provide specialist family history research services across Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, Greece and Russia (with Siberia). I also undertake genealogical research in Cyprus and Egypt (Greek communities only) and in Armenia. For more information click here

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Genealogical research in the Banat

The Banat is one of the regions of Europe known as contact zones, where peoples of different ethnicity, religion and language co-existed, and to an extent still co-exist – sometimes harmoniously, sometimes uneasily, as is the case the world over. 

Imagined as a Venn diagram, the Banat is perhaps a natural intersection for the Serbs to the west (who had pushed north to escape the Ottomans) and the Romanians to the east. However, there is also an artificial historical factor, caused by the ruling Habsburgs’ intervention and planned settlement of the land in the 18th century and more natural immigration of Imperial subjects in the 19th century. The majority of these were German speakers – they became known as Swabians, although Swabia was only one of various German regions from which they came. In addition to the Germans, the Banat received, among others, Bulgarian, Croat, Czech, French, Hungarian, Slovak and Swiss settlers – mostly but not exclusively Catholics (there were also Protestants of different persuasions, among them again many German settlers). And further broadening the mix of peoples in the area were Jewish merchants and professionals, Austrian civil servants, and Gypsy (locally Tsigani or Ţigani) settlements.   

Resources and professional genealogical research services for those with German Banater ancestry are well-established. In the wake of WW2, rightly or wrongly, the Germans in Yugoslavia and Romania became persona non grata. The descendants of the Banat Germans now live in Germany, in Canada, in USA and elsewhere and, like all displaced and diaspora peoples, show a keen interest in their roots (roots which, of course, pass through the rich black soil of the Banat and extend beyond it to Baden and Lorraine, Westfalen and Württemberg). 

However, Bluebird Research, as well as undertaking German genealogy in Serbia and Romania, can assist with your genealogical research in the Banat whatever the nationality or religion of your ancestors. We work in both Romania and Serbia; we are just as interested in the cultural and social history of the Hungarians and the Slovaks of the Banat; we have a special interest in the Jewish communities, now mostly lost; and in the Serbian Orthodox families, many of which can trace their histories back to “continental” Serbia (for instance to Šumadija), or to Herzegovina, or to Montenegro. 

If you have ancestors from the Banat, and would like professional assistance with your family history research, please get in touch with us for a free assessment and estimate of costs. Research is affordable and success rates are generally high.

Eastern European merchant marines

This week the family history website Find My Past has published the central index to the register of merchant seamen on British vessels. The original record series was created by the then Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman (part of the Board of Trade). It is now held on microfiche at The National Archives in Kew, England and can be seen under shelf references BT348, BT349 and BT350. 

The resource takes the shape of record cards which form a central index to seamen registered to serve on British-registered vessels within the period from approximately 1918 to 1941. 

What makes the Central Index Register cards interesting from an Eastern European genealogical research perspective is that many of those employed in the British merchant navy were engaged at overseas ports. For example, there are large numbers of records relating to Estonian, Greek and Latvian sailors. Additionally, there are smaller but still significant quantities of seamen from Cyprus, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia, and even some from landlocked Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Some of these men may have settled and even become naturalised in Britain but presumably a majority remained citizens or subjects of their country of birth. 

The front and back of each index card have been scanned and an online index published so that the records of individual merchant marines can be searched for and located. Two, three or more cards of different dates exist for some individuals. 

The cards evolved a little over time, from CR1 to CR2 to CR10 types, and the details recorded changed too. However, the basic format remains the same, as does the core detail of name, year and place of birth, rating, Discharge A Number, ship name and/or official registered number, and date. Some cards give physical descriptions, while others sport a black and white passport-style photograph and signature. 

The data is handwritten onto the printed index cards. The handwriting is not always legible and may be faint or contain abbreviations. The place of birth information on the cards will reflect the date at which they were created and the spellings current at that time, sometimes anglicised or misspelt. For example, the Estonian islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa often appear as Dagö and Ösel respectively (typically minus their diacritics), being their old Swedish names, and similarly the Saaremaa capital Kuressaare is often given as Arensburg. 

This online collection is not a complete record of those sailing on British merchant vessels between the Wars. The majority of cards dating from 1913 to 1921 are known to have been destroyed in 1969. Moreover, a fourth record series at The National Archives (shelf reference BT364) is not being published, on account of data protection and personal privacy concerns. The series BT364 also covers the period 1921 to 1941 and was extracted from the materials that now comprise BT348 to BT350 inclusive. It remains possible that this series, which has also been scanned and indexed, may be released too in due course. 

A final note: while some of the individuals contained within these records will have seen service additionally in the Royal Navy at some date, it must be emphasised that the majority would have served only on British merchant vessels and were not in the armed forces.

State-sponsored genealogy

Imagine. Millions of individuals are researching their ancestors. Hundreds of professional researchers have come into being to assist in the reconstruction of these family histories. Original registers are being imaged and indexed to broaden access and facilitate the process of research. 

No, not 2011 in North America or Britain or Australia, but the mid-1930s in Nazi Germany. 

From April 1933, all citizens in Germany were required to research and document their family tree, at least back to the level of their grandparents, and to obtain as evidence the corresponding certified copies of entries in birth and marriage registers (while SS officers had to zealously research their pedigree back to 1750 and other high level Nazi Party functionaries had to go back to 1800). 

The reason for this rush of interest in genealogy was, of course, to validate one’s Aryan credentials, or determine one’s degree of Aryan purity, as the case may be. And one’s genealogy had grave consequences, for those who were non-Aryan (by which was meant Jewish) and for the great many who were Mischlinge or of mixed blood – at the very least, discrimination and persecution. Determining the status of each individual was not as straightforward as one might now think, and such factors as Jewish conversion to Lutheranism or Catholicism, or dropping out of the Jewish community without conversion to Christianity (Austritte), or illegitimacy, or disputed parentage, meant that the state had to interpret and decide upon tens of thousands of moot cases. 

Various official Nazi bodies were involved in the process. Foremost was the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung (the “Reich’s Centre for Genealogical Research”). Once the necessary tree had been recreated and register entries had been found and authenticated, the documentation had to be submitted to the Reichsstelle, where bureaucrats would then rule as to whether one was Aryan, three-quarters Aryan, half-Aryan, quarter-Aryan or non-Aryan. 

In 1934 the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung embarked upon an ambitious project to microfilm parish registers, both to preserve the originals and to make the material more readily available to the state. Accordingly, registers were called in from the churches to a central micro-reprographics studio in Berlin. A copy was returned to the incumbent of the church, and the master held in the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung archives. 

The Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung also created a massive central card index system for ease of reference. This comprised abstracted births and baptisms, with particular attention paid to the baptisms of converted Jews, from which it constructed its own handy Jüdische Personenstandsregister. This Register comprised the so-called Judenkartei, the index cards relating to Jewish converts. In fact there were two copies of these particular index cards. The original Judenkarte remained in the Reichsstelle’s archives, while a copy was gifted to the Evangelical Lutheran Church – the latter is now housed at the Evangelische Zentralarchiv in Berlin. 

During the orchestrated Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938, the Nazis not only razed or damaged synagogues, smashed Jewish property and assaulted Jews, but also carefully removed Jewish vital records from the synagogues, so these could be put to use by the state. Likewise, in 1939, the Reichsstelle für Sippenforschung took over the Jewish genealogical record collection of the Gesamtarchiv der Deutsche Juden. The Gesamtarchiv had been collecting original birth, marriage and death registers from synagogues across Germany for over 30 years, held vital records for hundreds of local communities across Germany and had also created a card index of Jewish births in Berlin (where the sheer size of the community and number of synagogues made it difficult to find a particular record unless one already knew the exact place of registration). 

Within seven years, mandatory genealogy had affected the lives of millions in Germany and, of course, impacted in particular upon the lives of the hundreds of thousands of German Jews. Today we do genealogy for a different reason, to affirm identity and heritage, but it is perhaps wise to remember that genealogy can also be put to sinister uses in the hands of eugenicists, racial supremacists and ultra-nationalists. 

 

This blog article owes much to Prof Deborah Hertz. For further information on the uses to which the Nazis put genealogy, see Prof Hertz’s 1997 article “The Genealogy Bureaucracy in the Third Reich” published in the periodical Jewish History (Vol 11, No 2)

Civil registration in Hungary

Civil registration has been conducted, and mandatory, in Hungary since October 1895. Of course, after this date religious communities continued to register locally events of birth or baptism, marriage, and death or burial, but these ceased to carry legal recognition. 

In common with most other European countries, registration of birth, marriage and death in Hungary is not centralised; rather it is conducted, and all records are held, locally at municipal level. 

This can cause serious problems for the genealogist, especially when undertaking 20th century research. Self-evidently, it is necessary to know exactly where a child was born, a couple married or a person died in order to request a certified copy of an entry from the register. If you do not know this, you need to make enquiries, often unavoidably speculative, to find out. 

The problem is magnified when a family being researched comes from the capital. Budapest is today sub-divided into 23 separate districts. The districts are customarily identified by Roman numerals. For example, the northern district (kerület) of Újpest, on the east bank of the Duna (Danube), is Budapest IV, while the inner city Pest district of Erzsébetváros is Budapest VII. 

Many of these districts are of modern origin, encompassing large suburbs and outlying villages which have been swallowed up by the capital during its growth in the 20th century. The original, historic districts are the 10 numbered from I to X and it is in these that you should concentrate enquiries if you do not know where a family lived after 1895. 

As is also common in Europe, the more recent civil registers are closed, other than to the individual, their close family or attorney, for a prescribed number of years, on account of personal privacy and data protection concerns. In Hungary, births are restricted for 90 years, marriages for 60 and deaths for 30. It is usually possible for private family historians to obtain certificates from within these closed periods upon application to the relevant register office, subject to proof of identity and relationship. A letter of authority can be used to delegate the application for certificates to a third party such as Bluebird Research and we would be happy to advise further upon request.

Jewish names and papers

Stability is not a common trait in Jewish names and those researching their family tree should not expect too much consistency from generation to generation or even over the course of a single individual’s life. Leaving to one side the traditional naming patterns before the era of (supposedly) fixed surnames, Jewish names change, or different names are used, for a host of reasons. 

A Jewish person or family resident in a country using the Cyrillic alphabet will spell his or her name, or have it spelt for them in official papers, in one way but transliterate it differently into the Latin alphabet. There is not a simple 1:1 correspondence between the characters of the two alphabets and there are different transliteration systems which, in turn, have changed over time and differ by place (for example, French and German transliterations from Russian often differ from the English and American). 

Of course, many Jews and virtually all educated Jews in Eastern Europe were fluent in at least two languages, depending on their place of residence: in the former Russian empire, including the Congress Kingdom of Poland, they might well have spoken Russian, and/or German, and/or Polish. The Jewish lingua franca of the empire was Yiddish, although an increasing number were at least conversant with Hebrew. Yiddish also had its dialects, such as Litvish spoken by the Litvaks, which affected the pronunciation and therefore also the spelling or rendering of proper names. 

When Jews emigrated westwards, to Germany, for instance, or France or the Netherlands, and especially when they came into contact with the English-speaking world, their eastern names caused difficulties of orthography and pronunciation, and were subject to change in spelling and usage. Here is Joseph Roth writing in The Wandering Jews (translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books, 2001) about the experience of Galician Jews arriving in Vienna: 

“Christian papers are in order. All Christians have sensible, European names. Jewish names are mad and Jewish. Nor is that all: they have two or three surnames, qualified by false or recte. You never know what to call them. Their parents were married by a rabbi. The marriage has no legal standing. If the father’s name is Weinstock, and the mother’s Abramovsky, then the children of their union will be called Weinstock recte Abramovsky, or perhaps Abramovsky false Weinstock. The boy, for example, is given the Jewish first name of Leib Nachman. Because the name is difficult and might sound provocative to others’ ears, the son styles himself Leo. So his name is Leib Nachman styled Leo Abramovsky false Weinstock. As far as the police are concerned, names like that are nothing but trouble.” 

So the Jew will simplify or change his name to satisfy the civil servant who wants sensible order to prevail. Not that that will invariably give satisfaction, as the Jew will have papers, if he has papers at all, which do not support the claimed new identity, and which will cast further suspicion upon him. 

Roth’s remarks in a later chapter of his book should also be borne in mind when undertaking research: 

“Don’t be surprised at the Jews’ lack of attachment to their names. They will change their names with alacrity, and the names of their fathers, even though those particular sounds, to the European sensibility, are charged with emotional weight. For Jews their names have no value because they are not their names. Jews, Eastern Jews, have no names. They have compulsory aliases. Their true name is the one by which they are summoned to the Torah on the Sabbath and on holy days: their Jewish first name and the Jewish first name of their father. Their family names, however, from Goldenberg to Hescheles, are pseudonyms foisted upon them.” 

Roth is writing primarily about Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews of the former Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire but his cautionary words are salutary for anyone undertaking Jewish family history research.

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Lithuanians in Scotland

Like any other small immigrant community whose population is not being frequently replenished with new stock, the Lithuanian community in Scotland is in danger of completely assimilating – effectively disappearing – within the next 10 or 20 years.

The original migrants arrived in the early 1880s, coinciding with the introduction of a more repressive regime in Tsarist Russia following the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. Various reasons are cited for the influx of Lithuanians into Scotland, among the most common of which are political, religious and/or national persecution, or escaping conscription, and poverty. Suppression of the growing Lithuanian national movement may have played a role but I suspect that it was minor. One has to ask the fundamental question: why would a Lithuanian emigrate to Scotland during the era when, for example, USA operated a completely open door policy without even the annual quotas which were introduced in the wake of WW1. And, if they came to Scotland, why on earth would they emigrate to, for example, Bellshill and Mossend, Coatbridge and Uddingston, in North Lanarkshire as they did rather than, say, Edinburgh or Dundee? 

Of course, chance and chain migration may have been involved – one or two Lithuanians, fresh off the boat in Leith, happened to find jobs and land up in Bellshill and others followed. But I believe the real reason must have been that they were purposely recruited, in Lithuania itself, to work in the mines. Whether the agents of the Scottish mine owners and ironworks were seeking skilled labour or cheap labour is a moot point. 

One thing is for sure: Scotland may not have been experienced as a universally welcoming new home. The Lithuanians were, for starters, not just foreigners but moreover they were Catholic rather than Protestant and they were competing, or were perceived to be competing, for local jobs. This antagonism recurred whenever there was an economic downturn and rising unemployment, for instance during the severe depression of the 1930s.  

In this environment, and without a steady flow of new immigrants to reinforce the population, the process of assimilation gathered pace. Lithuanians changed their names, for convenience and to stand out less. They married out. They quickly became bilingual and then started to use English more than Lithuanian. Some will have moved on to USA and several hundreds returned to Lithuania following its independence in 1918 after the Great War. Despite some newcomers after WW2, when UK accepted Displaced Persons from the zones it occupied in defeated Germany and Austria, the Lithuanian community appears to be dwindling and recognised as such. 

The growth of recreational family history will lead to an increased awareness of the Lithuanians in Lanarkshire but unfortunately it will not revitalise the community. Scotland enjoys an excellent civil registration system and records can be searched online at the official ScotlandsPeople website. One beauty of the Scottish registration system, as opposed to the English & Welsh, and certainly those in Ireland, is that it captures aliases very diligently. Partly this is a function of Scottish women legally retaining their maiden surname after marriage; they therefore appear in the birth, marriage and death registers as, for example, Mary Millar or Scott or Wilson (in that case meaning that Mary was born a Millar, married firstly a Mr Scott and secondly a Mr Wilson). This keenness to record all names means that Lithuanians’ changes of name can be traced back through the records to shortly after their arrival. The one problem is that their names are not always spelt correctly in the registers (and of course never faithfully using the diacritics of the Lithuanian alphabet). 

If you wish to take your research into your Scottish Lithuanian ancestry back to Lithuania itself, it is vital to know, or to be able to discover through research in UK, the exact place of origin in Lithuania. The reason for this is simply that all records of use to family historians are decentralised. Without a place of origin, therefore, it may not be possible to advance your enquiries. Try, as well as the birth, marriage and death records, Scottish census returns and British naturalisation records; elders within the family or the Lithuanian community generally may be able to point to a home town in Lithuania. And if you would like a hand in Lithuania, Bluebird Research offers reliable family history research with good rates of success across Lithuania and would be happy to undertake an investigation upon your behalf: contact us for a free assessment.

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Jewish Drohobycz

The writer Bruno Schulz is not much read in the English-speaking world nowadays, nor perhaps anywhere outside Poland and Israel. You can find pretty much his entire fictional output in a single volume English translation by Celina Wieniewska. 

Schulz was the small-town Jewish boy who never really made good, a kind of obscure provincial Franz Kafka with a runaway mind veering towards the fantastic. He came from a modest and alternately successful and failing middle class background. His father Jakub Schulz was a clothier and later a bankrupt; his mother Henrietta or Hendel nee Kuhmärker took over the family business. The family appears in the JewishGen Ukraine Database, the nondescript name Schulz drawing no attention to itself, just one more lost Jewish name among many.  But there is Bruno, born in Drohobycz in 1892 (actually 12th July 1892). It is not clear whether the civil authorities recognised the Jewish marriage of his parents, although the family is thought to have assimilated, as some family entries seem to be registered under the mother’s maiden name Kuhmärker rather than Schulz. It was not at all unusual for Galician Jewish births to be recorded under the mother’s maiden name both in the days of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and during interwar Polish times; therefore, it is advisable to search under both names. 

Most summaries of Bruno’s family life refer to a single sister Hania and brother Izydor. However, there appear to have been two more siblings at least, namely Isak, who died as a three-year old boy in 1879, and Hinda, who also died aged three years of age in 1890; quite possibly there were others who died in infancy or childhood. Hania appears to have been born circa 1873 and to have married Moses Hoffmann in 1900; at the time of her marriage, according to JewishGen, she was spelling her name Anna or Chane. They had a son Ludwik in 1903. Izydor seems to have been born as Baruch Israel in 1881. He was a successful engineer with oil mining interests in Galicia; a 1912 directory shows that he was then residing at ulica św Bartłomieja in Drohobycz. He died in 1935. 

As for Bruno, he became an art teacher in the local school, wrote his fiction and received moderate acclaim for a while. Like Kafka he never married, although he had a string of female friends and correspondents and eventually was affianced to Józefina Szelinska, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who taught Polish and later worked in the bureau of statistics (perhaps the register office?). For her sake he renounced his religion, becoming officially “faithless”, but the intended resulting register office wedding never came to pass. Schulz survived the first Soviet occupation of Polish Galicia but was not to survive the subsequent Nazi occupation. 

As a modern poet once sang, “Every moment leads toward its own sad end”. Bruno Schulz was shot by a Nazi named Karl Günther while carrying a loaf of bread back home to the ghetto in November 1942.

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Serbian lineages

In Serbian peasant families, surnames were often taken in the very early years of the 19th century. Say there were three brothers, Andrija, Pavle and Stojan, each of whom settled and married in or around the same village. Their families then took a patronymic as their surname, becoming respectively Andrić, Pavlić and Stojanović. The children of the three brothers therefore had different family names, and so on down each male line of descent, which in Serbian is known as a vamilija. Traditionally, kin within a vamilija cannot inter-marry, no matter how far down the lineage. 

Each vamilija has its own patron saint and celebrates the saint’s feast day or slava. The slava is of central importance in Serbian tradition and, especially where a surname is common locally, individual families will be known and distinguished by their slava. The family’s patron saint does not appear in any official state or church records but, if it is known or can be found out, it can prove of assistance in identifying related families when undertaking genealogical research to locate surviving family in Serbia. Historically, too, each vamilija tended to reside in its own neighbourhood of a settlement, although in this respect it should be remembered that many Serbian villages are dispersed communities of scattered smallholdings, rather than concentrated and clustered in the manner of villages in many other places in Europe. Often, too, in rural areas (and Serbia was and still is very much a rural land) the vamilija will have its own burial ground (perhaps on a hillside, unconnected to the church), or section of a village cemetery.

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The Third Partition of Poland took place in 1795 and the partitioning powers of Austria, Prussia and Russia embarked on a process of registration of the inhabitants of the formerly independent country. This affected all sections of society – the Polish gentry (szlachta), town dwellers, Roman Catholic and other clergy, and the peasantry – and was implemented as part of the process of social control and political subjugation. Jews, who had enjoyed some autonomy under the old Polish state, now had to register with the civil authorities, a process which required a surname. Where surnames were not already in use – as was often the case – civil servants would assign a name to a family as part of the registration process. 

Norman Davies writes in his Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present (Oxford University Press, 2001) of how the young ETA Hoffmann, the German writer and musician, approached the momentous task of giving surnames to a people. He was posted and worked as a civil servant at Poznań (Posen), Płock and finally Warsaw. 

“He glares at a client in deathly silence, and then shouts out the first word which comes to mind. This word, which enters into the Register, becomes the client’s official surname. At the end, Hoffmann says when the certificate is to be collected, and calls for the next customer.” 

As described, the process, even when not demeaning, was completely arbitrary and often simply a matter of caprice: 

“Before dinner, or on an empty stomach, he issues serious or melancholy surnames, after dinner more amusing ones.” 

Davies relates how apparently one Friday Hoffmann gave Jewish registrants the names of fish; on Monday the names of flowers. On other days, everyone was given the names of birds, or church-related names. Once, hung-over following a drinking bout with a Prussian army officer, Jews coming to Hoffmann’s office were given military names such as Festung, Fojer, Pistolet, Szyspulver, Trommel, Trompeter and Harmata. 

Even if some of these stories are apocryphal, the attitude of the partitioning authorities to their new Jewish subjects is clear. Davies’ account also flags the point that Jewish family historians should not necessarily read too much into the surnames on their family tree.

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