September 17th, 2012

Finding Your Eastern European Ancestors

Much of the population of the United States and Canada is descended from Eastern European ancestors. Countries that can be considered Eastern European are; Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Out of America’s population of nearly 300,000,000 approximately 13.5 million claim direct ancestry to these countries. Unfortunately due to language barriers and inaccessibility, finding ancestral records in such places can be overwhelmingly dreadful, and many genealogists are apprehensive about even trying to find their Eastern European ancestors.  It is completely understandable how one can be intimidated by research in these countries, but it can be conducted if we have access to genealogical data such as; our ancestor’s name, approximate time period in which they lived, and the location of any genealogical events related to them.

Anyone possessing all three of those pieces of information could actually find their relative quite quickly. Civil registration and Church records are the most commonly used documents for searching Eastern European ancestors, though in many of these countries the general public has no access to them. Fortunately for Genealogists, most of the immigration from Eastern Europe occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and there is a good chance that those records may be available for your ancestor.

The First Steps

The best place to begin searching your Eastern European ancestors is at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. They host a collection of more than two million rolls of microfilm, many of those being filmed civil registration and church records from East European countries. You can view the catalogue at, and get access to all of the records at the many Family History Centers located around the world. Once you access the microfilms you can search the records. Don’t despair that they are in a foreign language, as the names are listed using the Latin alphabet, so you will be able to recognize them.

Continued Strategy

Your strategy for finding Eastern European records whether you search them in person, by microfilm or by mail correspondence will rely on you knowing where to locate the required documents. Many records were recorded in the synagogue or church which your ancestor belonged to, so knowing where they lived is of the utmost importance. Before you even look overseas however, check local Immigration and Naturalization records first.  It is possible you may find names, dates, or the name of the location from which they migrated. Continue your search in local Census reports, BDM records, draft registrations, and even personal family papers. The more information you have before continuing your research overseas, the greater your chances of locating your ancestors will be.

If you find relevant records listing a genealogical event in Europe, you’ll then need to locate your ancestor’s synagogue or church. Many villages did not have their own place of worship, often one village served as a hub for a collection of villages in a particular area. Therefore your ancestor may have has to travel to a different place from where they lived, so you’ll want to extend your research to at least a 20km radius. You van locate villages that had a church or synagogue by using a gazetteer for the required region. You can find many of these gazetteers in the Family History Library (FHL), some of which are; the Magyarorszag Helysegnevtara Ket Kotreten (Hungary), Spis Miejscowosci Polskiej Rzeczypospolitej Ludowej (Poland), Administratives Gemeindelexikon der Cechoslovakischen Republik (Czechoslovakia), and the Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Połskiego (Poland and surrounding territories such as Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine)

Although the gazetteers are written in the local language, the FHL provides instructions in English on how to use them. They generally provide the location of the place of worship to which each village belonged. If you know your ancestors religion, the search is of course much easier. Many of the churches and synagogues also contained birth, death, marriage, and baptism records. Though many of the early records were recorded in Latin, later records will be in the native language of whichever country your ancestor resided in.

It is indeed a challenge to find Eastern European ancestors, but the same genealogical strategies hold true for any ancestors search. You must be patient, thorough, and imaginative, always keeping an eye out for potential clues and bits of data that may lead you further in your search. Stay organized, keep your focus, and be mannerly when dealing with foreign clerical workers and administrative workers. Many speak English, and some may even be willing to help you in your quest to find your European ancestors. Good Luck, and as always, Happy Ancestor hunting!