A woman officer in the Serbian Army

In the 1881 census for England,  a five year old girl named Flora is to be found residing with three sisters, her mother Sophia and her father, the curate, Samuel Dickson Sandes, at The Rectory in Monewden, Suffolk. The living for the rural parish of St Mary’s was valued at £265 in 1868. The National Archives’ handy currency converter tells us that this sum would be worth about £12,110 in today’s money – not much but then it was a small and obscure parish. By the time of the 1891 census, the family has moved a little cross-county to The Rectory in Marlesford. 

At the next decennial census in 1901, the family is living in suburbia, at St Paul’s Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey. Rev Sandes, now 78, is recorded as “living on own means”, so one assumes that he has retired from the curacy of Anglican souls. Flora is still at home, a 25 year old spinster, described, like her sister Fanny, as a correspondent.  In 1911, the most recent census of England & Wales currently publicly available, the family is still at St Paul’s Road. By this date the Rev Sandes, aged 88, is describing himself as a “retired parson and barrister”. He may have become curmudgeonly with age, or perhaps was registering a minor objection to the exclusion of women from the franchise (in tune with the “No Vote, No Census” protest): either way, the census return, which is neatly completed in most respects, records against the Ages of Females simply “full” against his daughter Flora and the other women in the house (excepting his wife Sophia, who is an acknowledged 78).  The census enumerator, one William Warman, has pencilled in the remarks “will not give ages” and “refuses to give ages and any further information”, his irritation almost audible. 

And as for Flora herself, the column Personal Occupation says: None. Yet five years later Flora Sandes was a Captain in the Serbian Army. 

Flora volunteered for overseas service immediately upon the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914. She was rejected by the Volunteer Aid Detachment but got in to the American Mabel Grujić’s Red Cross Unit on a temporary three-month stint and headed to Serbia. She then returned home to fund-raise before returning in 1915 to join the Serbian Red Cross. She served in Niš, caught typhus in Valjevo, was attached to the Serbian Second Army, and worked as a medical orderly in Salonica and Monastir before making the transition from nurse to soldier. Commissioned as an army officer, she fought at Kajmakčalan before accompanying the retreating Serbs on their long winter march across Albania to safety in Corfu and Bizerte (Tunisia). 

After the War, Flora Sandes lived in Yugoslavia and married a White Russian officer named Judenič (later imprisoned and killed by the Nazis), before returning to England in her sixties. 

Flora Sandes was one of hundreds of British women who volunteered and served as nurses in Serbia during WW1, at places such as Kragujevac, Mladenovac and Valjevo. Some served under the aegis of the Red Cross, others as part of the independent Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service. Most came from relatively comfortable and privileged backgrounds and the contrast between their early life experiences and those of the war must have been acute and unimaginable. 

For those researching an ancestor or family member who was one of those women, there is a significant collection of records in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London.

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Research in Zhytomyr Archives, Ukraine

 Zhytomyr, or Zhitomir (also Shitomir in German), is a Ukrainian provincial capital, seat of the Zhytomyr oblast, but is of immense significance for family historians with German-Ukrainian roots and specifically for those from Ukrainisch Wolhynien. This is the region of Volhynia to the west of Kyiv formerly dense with German settlements and colonies founded during the 19th century. The German population was particularly concentrated in the triangle between the towns of Zhytomyr, Novohrad-Volynskyi (or Nowograd-Wolhynsk, previously known as Zwiahel or Swehl) and Korosten. 

Ukraine operates, in theory if not always in practice, a 75-year “modern era” closure period, meaning that records from before 1936 (at the time of writing) should be on open access in state archives rather than closed, for reasons of data protection and personal privacy, in register offices (known by the acronym RAHS and administered by the Ministry of Justice).  

The state regional archives in Zhytomyr are one of the most efficient and cooperative in Ukraine.  Among their holdings is an important collection of German Evangelical Lutheran parish registers for Wolhynien. These vital records all date from before 1936, of course, and are particularly strong for the period from about 1900 to 1920. The collection is not complete but includes, among others, births/baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials for the parishes of Emiltschin, Heimthal, Radomysl, Tutschin, Shitomir itself and Nowograd-Wolhynsk. There are also name indexes in the archive and a collection of police files which contain biographical information on individual inhabitants. 

The same archive also houses a number of records of interest to those with German Baptist roots, e.g. in Tutschin. 

Bluebird Research offers research services at Zhytomyr state archives and is also able to assist at other locations which hold Wolhynien Lutheran records, such as the St Petersburg archives which hold the bishop’s transcripts for the years 1836-1885 (the original parish registers being lost, only these contemporaneous copies survive). 

Please contact us for a free assessment if you are interested in professional family history research assistance in Ukraine or Russia.

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Jewish research in Belgrade, Serbia

 The Jews of Belgrade were largely exterminated by the Nazis and their local accomplices between October 1941 and May 1942. The Nazis declared the city Judenfrei by August of 1942. Of course, as elsewhere in Serbia and throughout Europe, this was seldom entirely true – individual Jews managed to go in to hiding, or were concealed and protected by kind neighbours, or left Belgrade for the relative safety of an obscure village in the countryside, or fled while there was still time with view to returning later. Nevertheless, the great majority of the pre-War Jewish population of Belgrade was destroyed. 

The Jews of Belgrade were both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, with the latter in the majority (as tended to be the case throughout the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans), forming approximately 80% of the overall community. Before the Shoah there were four functioning Sephardic synagogues and prayer houses in Belgrade. However, families were not necessarily religious – the Jews of Serbia were usually assimilated and often upwardly mobile and, as well as merchants and craftsmen, there were many shop salesmen and clerks, professionals and intellectuals. 

Although the community was destroyed in 1942, there are excellent surviving records covering the period from the turn of the century up to the Holocaust. These are not online but in some cases have been digitised and can be interrogated locally. Other and frequently more informative paper files have to be called up in the traditional way in the municipal archives. If an individual or a family was established in the city, especially in the Stari Grad (“old town”) neighbourhoods such as Dorćol, we can usually find a very good paper trail for the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s up to 1941/42, detailing dates of vital events, occupations, residential addresses and so on. Such records often indicate connections elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia or abroad – a sojourn in Croatia perhaps, a wife born in another city with a thriving Sephardic community, or a parent from Sofia in Bulgaria. 

If you are interested in Jewish family history research in Belgrade, Bluebird Research would be delighted to assist – please email us for an assessment and estimate of costs.

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Among the aristocracy of Imperial Russia, as of course among the landed gentry in other places, some men of title fathered children by mistresses, of high and low birth, and by female serfs in their households and on their estates in accordance with the droit du seigneur. Those of the illegitimate children recognised by the father, and perhaps supported by him, would sometimes take a truncated version of his surname (as well as his patronymic) so as to acknowledge paternity but at the same time prevent confusion with the legitimate bloodline.  

It seems that recourse to the dropping of the leading syllable of the surname was the practice most often adopted. For example, the surname Pnin, today most associated with Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, was borne by the poet Ivan Petrovich Pnin and was an abbreviated version of the surname of his father the statesman Nikolai Vasilyevich Repnin. 

Similarly, the 18th century educationalist Ivan Ivanovich Betskoy was the illegitimate son of Ivan Yurievich Trubetskoy. Other examples include Golitsyn shortened to Litsyn, and Putivlev to Ivlev.

The Jews of Belgrade

The very nature of the trade of a professional genealogist is to undertake research into someone else’s family history. As a genealogist, one is accustomed to researching one’s own tree and generally feels reasonably confident when visualising the past and imaginatively reconstructing the lives of one’s ancestors, based upon what one knows of local history and culture, the places where they lived and what they did for a living. At least that is certainly the case when one’s ancestors come from the same country and, as in my own particular case, the same county and often the same town. 

It is of course different if you live in diaspora, if you are, for example, a resident of North America or Australia or South Africa with ancestors back in the unfamiliar old world of continental Europe. When, as a professional genealogist, one conducts investigations on behalf of such individuals into their family background in Europe, one brings to bear the wide experience of one’s previous research across multiple cases, the knowledge derived from reading and, in many instances, from travel; but most of all one has to have what Keats called negative capability. This is the ability to suppress one’s own personality and to project oneself into the lives of others, to try to think and feel the world through their eyes. One might argue that this is largely spurious but I do not think it impossible to gain practical insights into avenues of research from this kind of imaginative or lateral thinking. Certainly, one often finds that one becomes preoccupied with particular individuals or lines of a family being researched, as one wonders about their lives, their motivations, what prompted them to emigrate, for example, or how they managed to survive adverse circumstances. 

David Albahari published in 1998 a book called, in English translation, Götz and Meyer*.  His book is an essay in negative capability, an attempt to come to terms with the experience and unknowable inner life of participants in the terrible drama of the extermination of the Jewish community of Belgrade once Serbia had been forced to capitulate to Nazi occupation. Between April and July 1941 almost 9,500 Belgrade Jews had to register with the authorities. The Jewish men of Belgrade were mostly shot in October 1941, but the women, children and elderly were taken to the Sajmište concentration camp (in the grounds of a former trade fair on the outskirts of the city) in December 1941. The protagonists of the title are Wilhelm Götz and Erwin Meyer, NCOs of the Nazi SS who operated the gaswagen that liquidated the Sajmište camp Jews between March and May 1942, using the truck’s exhaust fumes, on daily or twice-daily trips (excepting Sundays). What can one know of Götz and Meyer? Albahari presents them not as callous or psychopathic but as regular guys carrying out a perhaps unpleasant but necessary duty for the greater good. Gradually over the course of the book they are used as a means of teasing out the last days and demise of the family Albahari doesn’t know, those lost in the Shoah: 

“When I first tried to sketch out my family tree, it looked like… a blade of grass, like a bare tree, without leaves.” 

He interviews an ailing elderly relative living in care but still able to record the names of multiple uncles, aunts and cousins, whose lives Albahari then researches as best he can using the surviving vital records of the Jewish community of Belgrade: 

“My family tree now looked quite different, it had filled out with leaves and branches, and it was sturdier… I ought to have had 67 relatives, some of them close, others more distant… in fact I had only six, including the cousin in the old people’s home.” 

The cousin passes away shortly after. The other five kin, “the last kernels on a gnawed ear of corn”, lived in Argentina, Australia, Israel and USA. Their average age was 80 and all were childless. 

“I was an ear of corn with nothing but a few loose kernels left on it… when all of us died off, when our kernels fell into the washtub of time, nothing would be left from my parents’ families.” 

Although ironically, perhaps, the book is an easy read – you can read it in two sittings – it is a serious and sobering reflection on persecutor and victim, as well as a personal journey in discovering and attempting to come to terms with the past and realising the significance of memory. It also makes one start to think about the ones who got away, and how; what role was played by chance or luck or circumstances, and what part by the initiative, or sheer determination, or instinctive will to survive of those Jews of Belgrade who somehow came through the Holocaust years alive, against all the odds. 

*published by Vintage, 2005, in translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać

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Roman Catholic marriages in Cyprus and Egypt

Records of interest to family historians can be found in unexpected places. 

Researchers with experience of Central and Eastern European genealogy will know that records are often to be located outside the borders of a country, due to the complex history and shifting political map of the region. For instance, in Poland there are vital records for western Ukraine; in Germany there are records for some of the German communities of Romania; and in Austria there are army records for soldiers from the successor states of the Habsburg Empire. 

For those with a family history rooted in the British Isles, the primary source of information for the British overseas is the General Register Office’s various series of indexes to armed forces, consular and maritime birth, marriage and death registers. They cover events relating not just to English and Welsh but also to Irish, Scottish and doubtless Manx and Channel Islander individuals. These are widely available online and have recently been fully name-indexed by Find My Past.  

At New Register House in Edinburgh, the records of the births, marriages and deaths of Scots abroad are to be found among the statutory registers. These are also searchable online on the official Scotland’s People website, where they are called “minor records”. It is likely that there is some (possibly considerable?) overlap with the records held by the General Register Office of England & Wales described above. 

Less well-known and rather surprising is the fact that the Catholic Registers on the Scotland’s People website include records from beyond Scotland. An overview document detailing the holdings can be downloaded. The document begins with the expected records of Catholic missions and parishes in Scotland itself. However, on page 3 it moves on to the Bishopric of the Forces. Among the Roman Catholic registers here there are of course records from within Scotland but a great many are from beyond its borders – and not just from England, Ireland and Wales. In fact, the collection covers Catholic registers of the British Forces across the world. For instance, there are volumes from Aden, Austria, Germany, Iraq, Lebanon, Malta and Singapore. 

For those undertaking research within the region covered by Bluebird Research, the following may be of interest: 


  • Akrotiri RAF base 1956-1967
  • RAF register 1957-1969


  • Alexandria chaplaincy of the English forces 1899-1910
  • Cairo military vicariate 1896-1945
  • Cairo 1904-1955
  • Moascar camp 1925-1967

Although these Roman Catholic registers have been digitised by the Scottish authorities, the records contained within them do not just relate to Scots but, of course, to English, Irish, Welsh and all other Catholics in the British Armed Forces. At least one of the two parties will have been serving in the Forces at the time of the registration of the event. However, in the case of marriages, the other party to the marriage (usually but not invariably the bride) could be a civilian and, for that matter, a local from the vicinity of the Forces base. Likewise, of course, for births and baptisms of issue of such marriages. 

All of Scotland’s People’s Roman Catholic registers before about 1908 can be viewed online (in contrast to the General Register Office’s records, for which only the indexes are publically available). For more recent records after 1908, there is a searchable index, upon the basis of which extracts from the registers (certificates) can be purchased.

Italianised names in Istria

When researching Croatian family history in Istria, one should not be surprised to find that names, both Christian names and surnames, do not appear in their expected forms. Just as in the diaspora a name may be changed to make it more pronounceable to an English speaker or to be typed on an English-language keyboard lacking the diacritical marks of Croat (so that Babić becomes Babich or Babitch, and Blažević becomes Blazhevich), so names were changed in Istria under Italian and earlier under Austro-Hungarian rule. The difference is that, under Italian rule, such changes were not always made voluntarily by the subject but imposed upon him or her by the state or the church. 

The Italians occupied Istria in November 1918 and within a few years had started to suppress Croatian (and of course Slovenian) national culture. In October 1919, religious education in Croat was forbidden in schools and measures begun to encourage parish priests to use Italian rather than the local vernacular in church services. In October 1923 a diktat was issued closing all Croat-language schools; they could only re-open if education was conducted in Italian. In January 1929, Croat-language newspapers were shut down. Most pertinently for our purposes, in November 1928 parents were forbidden to baptise their children using Slavic names, so in baptism registers from that date one should expect to see only Italian equivalents of Slavic names (unless the local priest defied the ruling). From April 1927, surnames, especially those which Italians regarded as having Italian or Latin roots, or claimed to have been translated from Italian and given Slavic suffixes, were to be italianised as well, so that Babić might become Babicci, and Horvat became Crevato. In April 1936 an official publication was issued prescribing the way in which names should be changed. 

These are but the legal manifestations of the pervasive creeping suppression of Croatian nationality in Istria during the inter-War period of Italian rule. Of course, some Croatians emigrated to the new Yugoslavia or to America, while a minority consciously opted for Italian culture. It can be expected that most, especially away from the larger towns, simply wanted to be able to get on with their lives and lived quietly, passively accepting the italianisation of the external forms around them and keeping their essential Croatian national identity intact. Those in positions of authority – such as teachers and priests – doubtless tried to continue using Croat where they could but switched to Italian if they had to. Roman Catholic parish registers – the baptism, marriage and burial registers – and the wonderfully informative status animarum documents, encapsulating a wealth of information about a family, usually evidence the pressure to italianise, and you should expect to see Italian spellings of names. However, this was seldom standardised, so that a single family surname can be rendered in different ways at different times. This demands constant alertness on behalf of genealogists, especially when surnames showed more significant alteration than a tinkering with the surname suffix. For example, one can expect a Croatian surname beginning with a K to be changed to a C, a name beginning with a Cu or a Ču sometimes changing to a Z depending on the spelling convention required when writing it in Italian, a name starting with Krm- or Krt- acquiring a vowel, and so on. 

 If you have roots in Istria and are interested in knowing more about your Croatian family history and ancestry, please contact us and we would be happy to provide you with an assessment of the research that can be done and an estimate of costs.

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Albanian ancestry

Mary Edith Durham was born in 1863, the eldest child of parents Arthur and Mary Durham.  Her father, originally from Northampton, was a consulting surgeon in London. In the English decennial census returns, the family can be seen living comfortably, replete with domestic servants, at 82 Brook Street in the West End (in 1871, 1881 and 1891) and later at 20 Ellerdale Road in Hampstead (1901). Miss Durham received a private education before studying art at the Royal Academy (she is described as “artist, painter” in the 1891 census return) and then caring for her widowed mother. 

Miss Durham’s life abruptly took an unexpected course in the early 1900s, when she undertook a trip along the Dalmatian coast to the Bay of Kotor in what is today Montenegro. Here she discovered a lifelong passion for the southern Balkans, initially all-embracing but gradually developing into partisan advocacy for the Albanians. She wrote many books and articles about Albania, Montenegro and Serbia, ranging from travel to anthropology to politics. 

In August 1931 she published a short piece called “Preservation of Pedigrees and Commemoration of Ancestors in Montenegro”, on the subject of ancestral awareness. 

She recalled firstly how she had attended a Montenegrin Orthodox church service on All Souls’ Saturday (Zadušna Subota) at which the members of the congregation handed the priest a list of the names of deceased ancestors to be remembered and prayed for. Durham called the list a čitulja, which means obituary but in this context more accurately a necrolog (a list of names of the dead to be commemorated). This custom was found among the Montenegrins and Hercegovinians but, she wrote, not among the Serbs. 

She then goes on to write: 

“In the Northern tribes of Albania, all the men know their pedigrees – or knew them when I was there. I did not know then that the pedigrees were of any value, or I could have collected plenty. They go back mostly to thirteen or fourteen generations. Owing to early marriage, generations are rather short… In this district – and formerly in Montenegro – knowledge of pedigree is most important to prevent the possibility of committing incest by intermarrying with someone descended from the same ancestor. I expect that that was at first the sole object of preserving these pedigrees, and that praying for the names therein was a later and Christian idea…  When I was in Njeguši in Montenegro, I was told of a couple who were just about to be married… The young man was from Bosnia. At the eleventh hour it was discovered he was her second cousin, his grandfather having emigrated. The match was at once broken off, and the girl was married against her will to another man, and the unlucky bridegroom left the country. I expressed sympathy with, and sorrow for, the couple. My informants were astounded: “On the contrary, we should be thankful the family had been saved from incest. We saw how necessary it is to keep pedigrees.”” 

These pedigrees, which appear to have been written rather than oral, were unlikely to comprise full reliable dates of birth, marriage and death, and were more likely a list showing the male line(s) of descent from an original paterfamilias.  Even so, 13 or 14 generations is impressive: assuming 20 years per generation and dating from 1915, it means that the Albanians in questions may have had a record of their ancestors going back to the mid-17th Century.

Professional research in Serbia

We offer professional family history research services across the former Yugoslavia, including of course Serbian genealogical research.

In Serbia itself, we can provide assistance: 

  • in Vojvodina, including Banat, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As well as ethnic Serbian research, we can help investigate ancestry for those with roots among, for example, the ethnic German Donauschwaben and Hungarians of this region.
  • south of the Danube, in continental Serbia, formerly under Ottoman Turkish rule. As well as those with Serbian roots, we can also help those with Jewish connections to Belgrade and other towns.
  • in Kosovo, researching Serbian roots, subject to local conditions.
  • researching the family histories of the many White Russian émigrés who settled in Yugoslavia after the 1917 Revolution and the defeat of the White Army in Russia.

For Serbian ancestral research beyond the borders of modern Serbia, the types of records available and the prospects for success vary with the territory. It is important to understand that few regions have an unbroken documentary record and, therefore, to manage your own expectations as to what is achievable. However, we can assist with research into the family trees of ethnic Serbs whose ancestors came from: 

  • today’s Republika Srpska and elsewhere within Bosnia-Hercegovina.
  • Croatia, including the Krajina around the town of Knin.
  • Macedonia.
  • Montenegro, such as the Bokelji from Boka Kotorska who were prominent among the earlier waves of emigrants to North America.

In these places, vital records created by church and state have been lost or destroyed at various times, including as recently the 1990s. However, even where records are incomplete, it is usually possible to recreate a family history using alternative sources, so please contact us for a free opinion and an assessment as to the prospects for research.

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Armenian genealogical research in Kars

The Armenian diaspora is international and many of its family historians find that they have roots in that part of Western Armenia now in the Kars province of Turkey. Many Armenian villages in this region have either been destroyed and erased from the map or, once depopulated, re-named by incoming Turkish settlers. I have posted several blogs on my Bluebird Research website to help those Armenian genealogists with roots in the Kars area to locate their ancestral villages. These blog pages are as follows:

  1. An extract of all the Armenian villages from the 1902 Address Calendar of Kars province, transliterated from the original Russian. This gives the Armenian population as at 1901 and the administrative geography for each settlement.
  2. The corresponding extract of all the Armenian villages from the 1914 Address Calendar of Kars province, transliterated from the Russian. This gives the Armenian population as at 1913 and administrative geography for each settlement.
  3. A concordance of Armenian settlement names matching the names transliterated from the Russian together with both their Armenian names (transliterated from the Armenian alphabet) and their modern Turkish names.
  4. A blog linking to a Google Map which I have created, showing the location of the Armenian settlements of Kars province and their old and new names.

You can find these and other blogs on Armenian family history at http://www.bluebirdresearch.com/category/blog/armenian.

If you would like professional assistance with Armenian family history research, or simply a second opinion on the avenues of enquiry open to you, please feel free to contact me using the Contact form.

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