Archive for July, 2011

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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Bestowing Jewish surnames in Partitioned Poland

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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Chekhov the census enumerator

Sakhalin island, in the Russian Far East, north of Japan, was of interest to the Tsarist Empire for a multitude of reasons: its proximity to the mouth of the Amur River, its mineral reserves, its strategic location in the push and shove of its relations with Japan, its potential value as a hub in the development of a navigable northern sea route which would join the sea ports of European Russia, such as Archangel and Murmansk, over the top of Siberia, to Manchuria. Russia was keen to colonise the island but it was not a natural destination for settlers – even discounting its utter remoteness, its climate and landscape were not exactly hospitable. Russia therefore pursued its traditional policy of establishing a penal colony, which it did from 1857.  

Chekhov visited Sakhalin in July 1890 and, fascinatingly, in order to understand the human geography of the island, conducted his own personal, unofficial census of the population. He printed his own census forms on which to record the place of residence, the name, the status of the individual (convict, exile or “settler”, peasant formerly exiled, or free person), relationship to head of household, age, religion, place of birth, year of arrival on Sakhalin, occupation, literacy and marital status. He covered the island singlehandedly over three months. The Island of Sakhalin, the fine book that resulted from his stay, was published in Russia in 1895 and is available in an English language translation by Luba and Michael Terpak. 

The Russian presence in Sakhalin was barely 30 years old when Chekhov visited and the writer found a frontier society with all the usual trimmings (drunkenness, gambling, prostitution, boredom etc). A distinction was maintained between convicts and exiles, the former being criminals (including army deserters) and the latter politicals or casualties of class conflicts (often peasants). The exiles were also termed “settlers”, as if they had come of their own free will. After 10 or six years, an exile was freed and legally acquired the status of a “peasant formerly exiled”. A “free person” was an individual who had voluntarily arrived in Sakhalin, often as wives or family of a convict or exile, but also including traders, seafarers and the civil and prison service administration. 

The political exiles came from all across the Russian Empire. Chekhov mentions Finns, Polish Catholics, Ukrainians and Armenians from Yerevan guberniya, for instance. Many of the other types of resident were vague or evasive about such details as their places of birth, their age or their date of arrival on Sakhalin. Not a few were unsure of their names, or had acquired new names. Chekhov lists the following surnames: 

  • Besprozvaniya – “Nameless”
  • Bezbozhny – “Godless”
  • Bezotechestva – “Countryless”
  • Boganov – “Godgiven”
  • Koloda – “Fetter”
  • Nepomnyashchy – “Unremembered”
  • Neizvestnovo Zvaniya – “Man With No Name”
  • Zamozdrya – “Behind Walls” 

Note that these are the actual surnames in use, not the answers to Chekhov’s questions.     

Chekhov also notes that marriage was not in favour anywhere on the island:

“Nowhere else in Russia is illicit marriage so widely and notoriously prevalent, and nowhere else does it take the peculiar form it does on Sakhalin. Illicit marriage or, as it is called here, free cohabitation, does not find objectors among either the officials or the priesthood but, on the contrary, it receives encouragement and is sanctioned. There are settlements where not even one legal marriage is encountered… Free couples… beget children for the colony and therefore there are no reasons to pass separate laws for them at registration”.

The origins of Lithuanians in Scotland

John Millar’s The Lithuanians in Scotland (House of Lochar, 1998) provides a very readable account of the lives of first and second generation Lithuanian immigrants in Scotland, covering their geographic distribution, their working and living conditions, their customs and traditions. It is fascinating on the name changes and how most immigrants took Scottish surnames (usually seemingly assigned to them rather than chosen voluntarily). 

The book was written before the recent great explosion of interest in family history and, of course, was not written with the family historian in mind. Unfortunately, while it should prove essential reading to anyone trying to understand their Lithuanian roots in Scotland, it is less helpful for anyone wishing to extend their genealogical research back to Lithuania. The book is light on the places of origin of the Lithuanians who came to Scotland. Various places are mentioned in passing – “Vladislavovskiy district” (today known in Lithuanian as the border town of Kudirkos Naumiestis), “the valley of the Nemunas River”, “Mikolines dvaras near Mariampolė” (a dvaras is a farm or manor estate), “Sukalupio dvaras in the Naumiestis area” and Kaunas itself. If these places are plotted on a map of Lithuania, it does appear that Millar’s general statement that “the majority… came… from the Suvalkija area in the south-west of the country and from the Kaunas district” is probably true. This is the region south of the Nemunas and east of the Šešupė River, extending east to Kaunas. 

However, it is important to understand that vital records in Lithuania – the Roman Catholic parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial – are held by specific locality. There is no centralised or regional indexing, and no computerised database. Therefore, it is vital to know or to be able to find out exactly where an ancestor came from to have good prospects of finding their birth or baptism in Lithuania and being able to research their family tree back from there. 

One also needs to be mindful of not confusing a regional place name with a town or village name. For instance, Kaunas is both the town and the region – in Imperial Russian times, Kovno (Kaunas) gubernia covered the majority of what is today Lithuania. Similarly, Suwałki gubernia covered the Suvalkija region mentioned above plus adjoining territory in what is today Poland, including the Polish town of Suwałki itself. 

The historical geography is especially important to grasp as, with the exception of Lithuanian immigrants who arrived in Scotland as Displaced Persons immediately after WW2, the Lithuanians in Scotland arrived in the country from the Russian Empire before the start of WW1. In historical documents, therefore, including Scottish census returns, Russian terminology is to be expected, as the Lithuanians were Russian subjects, who prior to their emigration had resided in the Russian Empire (“Poland” is often seen too, as Suwałki gubernia was part of Congress Poland, that part of partitioned Poland belonging to Russia). 

If you are interested in taking your Lithuanian genealogy further, Bluebird Research is always happy to receive enquiries and provide a professional opinion on the prospects for family history research in Lithuania.

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Russian serfs, peasants and military service

The situation of the peasantry in the 19th century Russian Empire is much more complex than generally thought, and a genealogist with ancestors in the territories of rural Russia should be aware of this complexity so as to better understand the likely circumstances under which their ancestors may have lived. 

Firstly, it is not true to think of the peasantry as being a single undifferentiated mass, or to say that all peasants were serfs. The Russian Empire was expanding in all directions at the start of the 19th century. The Poles in the Partition were not enserfed when they came under Tsarist jurisdiction; nor were the Finns after 1809 or the Bessarabians after 1812. Furthermore, where serfdom had previously existed in the Baltic, it began to be modified, first in Livonia (or Livland – roughly the north of modern day Latvia and the south of Estonia), where there were reforms in 1804, and then in Estland (today’s northern Estonia) and Courland (or Kurland, western and southern Latvia) where there was landless emancipation of the serfs during the years 1816 to 1819. This introduces another point worth emphasising: emancipation did not necessarily lead to increased prosperity and, in fact, the opposite was true in these Baltic regions – the serfs were freed without being gifted or sold land and therefore became more destitute than they had been before the reforms.      

Elsewhere in the empire, most minorities, such as the free agriculturalists, were not subject to serfdom, something that the Russian peasantry did not understand and which could cause resentment – why should German colonists, for example, be free when native Russians were not? 

Secondly, there were different types of peasant in the lands of Imperial Russia. 

There were state peasants, who were literally owned by the state and worked upon state lands. They were the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance and later, from 1837, the Ministry of State Properties. Although state peasants enjoyed some rights and freedoms (for example, they could acquire smallholdings of their own and even become civil servants), they had to pay taxes, maintain roads and supply recruits to the army. Moreover, the state was a largely indifferent owner and did not invest in its properties. 

Then there were privately-owned serfs, who were the property of the landowning aristocracy and gentry. Absentee landowners often left an estate manager in charge, not infrequently to exploit the serfs on the estate. Some landowners permitted their serfs to remit in cash not labour dues – in other words, instead of working upon the landowner’s estate, they could leave the land and go to work in a town or city, and pay their owner in lieu. Of course, while some serfs made a substantial amount of money and were able to purchase their freedom, the majority remained upon the land in reduced circumstances.    

The serfs in Russia were emancipated from 1861. Unlike in the Baltic region of the empire in 1816, the serfs were able to purchase their dwelling and land, so as to become independent smallholders. As redemption prices for the privilege of emancipation were way beyond the means of many serfs, the state lent them monies at 6% annual interest for up to 49 years, thereby creating a generation of peasants perpetually in arrears to the state. 

Then there was the issue of military service. By 1815 the Russian Army was 1 million strong and the state, entering peacetime, was apprehensive of demobilisation and its impact upon communities across Russia and its potential for unrest. At this point, it needs to be explained what military service entailed. Men were recruited at aged 20 years for a period of 25 years (reduced to 15 years from 1834). Once enlisted, a serf became a free man in law; hence, once demobbed he would be his own man, with no immediate source of employment but with the experience of handling a weapon. To mitigate the risks that this entailed, the army found ways of making military service mean life service, not releasing men at the end of their term (for instance, by imposing extra service as a penalty for the many disciplinary offences). 

Between 1815 and 1858, the state found an ingenious way of dealing with demobilisation and managing the risk to stable civilian life of releasing ex-soldiers into the community. So as not to demobilise troops, agricultural “military colonies” were established. Previously uninhabited state land was colonised by a mixture of soldiers and state-owned peasants commandeered from elsewhere. The soldiers retained the status of soldiers, although in their everyday lives they became agricultural labourers working for the state peasants. The army was therefore kept at full strength and made economically productive and self-supporting. Furthermore, the reserve army was strengthened because of the newly acquired status of the state peasants residing in these military colonies. The head of the household and the eldest son remained state peasants. However, younger sons were classed as military canonists (the term used for sons of soldiers during their minority) and joined the reserve at aged 18 years. It is estimated that by 1825 over 750,000 soldiers and families had been settled on these military colonies in areas such as Mogilev, Novgorod and St Petersburg, as well as in the southern region of Ukraine. 

Much has been written about Jewish aversion to military service and, of course, the Jews shared the same reasons as the Russian peasantry for not being keen on being conscripted into the army, plus had plenty more valid religious reasons of their own. In fact, the Jewish population of the Russian Empire was not subject to military service until 1827. However, from then on, the state pursued a russification programme for the Jews and required them to be available for service from aged 12 years. Community elders had to select the recruits whenever demanded each year and of course this led to tension and frequent flight to evade the draft. 

It is interesting to note that the infantry divisions of the Russian Army tended to be garrisoned around the periphery of the empire, especially in the west. While therefore there might be a solitary division in the Caucasus, or one in Orenburg towards the restless Kazakhstan, the vast majority were stationed in occupied Congress Poland and the westernmost gubernia of Russia (areas now in Belarus’ and Ukraine) where there was a perceived and sometimes a very real threat of politically or economically driven internal unrest.

The 1918 Albanian census

Albania was never part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but one of the most useful genealogical sources for Albanian family history is a census conducted and preserved by the Austrians. This took place in March 1918, during the Austrian military occupation of the country in WW1. 

Not all of the country was under Austrian control at that time; areas to the south of the river Vjosë were under Italian occupation and the census was not extended to such parts of the country. This means that towns such as Gjirokastër, Sarandë and Vlorë were excluded. Unfortunately, also, census returns for some districts of the Austrian-controlled area of Albania have been lost: this mostly affects the vicinity of Berat, Fier and Lushnjë. All that survives for these areas is statistical information. 

However, censuses survive for the majority of the northern and central regions of Albania, including such key communities as the port of Durrës, Elbasan, the predominantly Roman Catholic town of Shkodër and the capital Tiranë. A total of 435,075 individuals are enumerated in these bilingual (Albanian and German language) surviving census enumeration books. 

The census is superbly detailed. As well as the usual census data such as administrative geography and address, the information captured for each individual in every household included their name, relation to head, sex, age, place of birth, usual abode, occupation, religion, nationality, literacy in the Latin and Turkish alphabets, and so on. 

An especially interesting feature of the census is the evidence of polygyny. Monogamous marriage was enforced by the state in 1928; or, rather, future polygamous unions were made illegal, as existing marriages were not affected. Until then, it was not unusual for Albanian men to take two or very rarely three concurrent wives. It should be stressed that this was culturally acceptable in both Christian and Muslim societies in Albania, albeit far more common in Muslim. It was predominantly a feature of rural villages (especially in the northern mountains) and was only very rarely encountered in towns. Academics working with the data contained within the 1918 Albanian census have calculated that 4.9% of Albanian marriages extant in March 1918 were polygamous. This figure is recognised as an under-estimate of the total proportion of polygynous marriages, as it excludes those marriages in which either the man or the woman had died before 1918 (and it should be noted that the percentage of widows in the census is very high). 

Where a man has two wives, these are marked in the census as Frau I and Frau II and ordered by seniority. Invariably, the first wife was the elder of the two: the average age difference between the two women or co-wives (known as shemra in Albanian) was seven years but sometimes it was as great as 35 years.  Second wives were taken for various reasons. The usually accepted reason was the childlessness of the first wife; or, given the widespread cultural son preference, the “sonlessness” of that marriage. However, another reason for a householder to take a younger second wife was to secure extra household labour, especially where the first wife was in declining health or the couple had no live-in daughter-in-law. Two other reasons have been offered, namely the levirate (where a widow marries a brother of her late husband) and the sororate (where a woman marries the widower of her late sister, for instance to look after young children) but of course both of these practices would require the man to already have a first wife and therefore probably contribute only slightly to the overall proportion of polygynous marriages. Finally, a head of a household may simply have taken a second younger wife simply because he could. 

The feature of polygyny in Albanian society can have repercussions for a family historian working with the 1918 census, as it can lead to uncertainty as to the true maternity of a child: even if only one wife is named in the census, the possibility of one or more of the children in the household being the issue of a now deceased wife cannot always be eliminated.  

Occasionally in the 1918 census you will come across a head of household with two mothers, Mutter I and Mutter II. This points to a scenario in which the head’s father died at some date before 1918 but was survived by two co-wives. Of course, only one is the actual birth mother of the late head’s son, now in 1918 the new head of household. However, once again, it is not necessarily apparent which Mutter is the true mother and which a kind of step-mother. 

The Albanian census also confirms the reports of 19th century travellers and anthropologists in the region regarding age at marriage. These reports speak of child betrothal and of grooms being 15 years and brides as young as 12 or 13 years old. Although it is clear that these ages were not the averages but those at the lowest end of a range, very young brides were not unusual and a 13-year old co-wife in a polygynous marriage has been noted. However, Albanian society was already changing, more typical ages for groom and bride were 29 and 18 years respectively, and perhaps a more notable feature is the disparity in age between bride and groom – averaging at 11 years for a first marriage. The communists banned what they regarded as under-age marriage after WW2 and it is unlikely that Albania today displays ages at marriage much different from those anywhere else in Europe.

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