Hiraeth: When “The Old Country” No Longer Exists

Issue #04 - Fluid Borders

Maps of the world are always changing, reflecting the progress of politics, warfare, and empire. This was especially true for Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, leading to headaches for genealogists trying to track down official records. Fortunately, Trace has a secret weapon: Markus, our resident (of Austria) expert on all things Eastern European. Check out his seasoned tips on how to conquer the archives of what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire (but had a whole lot of other names before and after that).

For most Americans, family history research is an exploration of human migration. We take the name of an ancestor, connect it to a location, then turn to the map to tell us where in the world we migrated from. But maps change. For some of us, the place we came from no longer exists.  

That’s the situation facing many families with roots in Eastern Europe. North America received millions of immigrants from Eastern Europe, especially from the 18th century onward. But decades of shifting political alliances, religious movements, and political revolutions often erased the place names (and sometimes the places themselves) immigrants left behind. 

Such is the case for the millions of Jews around the world today who descend from the Galitzianers, (the Jews of Galicia). Once a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1772-1918), Galicia is now just a historical reference to an area of land divided between the nations of Ukraine and Poland. In 1910, Jews made up 10 percent of the Galician population. After over a century of antisemitic pogroms, persecution, and the Holocaust, the Jewish population of the same region is nearly nonexistent today. In the Lviv province, once the center of Jewish Galician life and culture, Jews today make up only 0.2 percent of the overwhelmingly ethnic Ukrainian population. Galicia, both the people and the place itself, has disappeared. 

But this doesn’t mean the history of the Galitzianers is gone. Since the end of World War II, displaced Jews have been reconstructing the Galicia of the past from the memories of those who were forced out. “Before the Jews of Galicia died, they lived. We, today, are not the descendants of their deaths – we are the descendants of their lives.” Dr. Vladimir Levin, 39, head of the Architectural Section of the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, has been working to recover the lives of Galitzianers. “Jews produced material culture,” says Levin, “and from this material culture – buildings, cemeteries, synagogues – we can learn about their lives.” Thanks to the work of scholars like Levin and many non-professional researchers, the descendants of Galicia now have real archival records to research. 

The trauma of forced migration may leave some with no desire to return or even research their past. But others feel a longing for the lost world of Galicia, and there is a word for that. It comes from the Welsh, a people who have also fought to remember and preserve their own unique culture and heritage. The word is hiraeth, and it means a longing or nostalgia for a former home that no longer exists. 

Ghetto Heroes Square. This memorial site in Kraków, Poland includes 33 empty chairs symbolizing the people and culture that were destroyed during the Holocaust. During World War II, the 60-80,000 Jews of Kraków were either driven out or imprisoned in the Nazi-built Kraków Ghetto, where they organized ongoing deportations to the death camps. Before World War II  Poland was home to 3 million Jews; today fewer than 10,000 remain.

Hiraeth is part of what draws the Jewish descendants of Galicia back to Ukraine and Poland. They also go to bear witness to a painful but important history. And it’s a history that survives thanks to the work of the displaced Jews themselves, who understood the importance of documenting the impending genocide. “Jews, write and record!” became a familiar community mandate for besieged European Jews in the 20th century, from Russia to France, as the destruction of Jewish European life began to happen around them. 

Even when imprisoned in a Nazi-built ghetto, the Jews of Warsaw, Poland kept detailed records of their living conditions and their suffering, then buried the papers in metal milk cans, in what is now known as the Ringelblum Archive: 35,000 pages of priceless testimony about Nazi crimes, dug up from beneath the Warsaw Ghetto after World War II. 

It was a longing for a home being destroyed before their eyes that motivated the Jews of Eastern Europe to make a record of what was being lost in the 20th century. And it’s that same spirit of hiraeth that brings their descendants back to the continent and online to the region’s reconstructed archives. Jews lived in the Galicia region from the 1300s on. If they no longer do, their rich cultural and political history remains. It’s a history that travels with the descendants of the Galitzianers, wherever they are in the world.

Expert Corner, Markus from Austria

Markus has worked as a professional genealogist for the past decade.  In addition to his native German and English, he speaks a few other languages, and understands and reads several more, among them Hungarian and Romanian. He specializes in research in Austria, and the neighboring countries like Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, and parts of Romania, Poland, Croatia, and Serbia, with a focus on the 19th and 20th centuries.

Today’s Topic:

The fluid (changing) borders of central Europe, specifically those countries that were formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a focus on the time period leading up to World War I and World War II and into modern day

Question:  When researching ancestors in these areas, what are the initial steps one should take?

Answer:  In most areas of Central Europe, records were created and are kept on a local level, even if digitized. There are not a lot of census records available, but usually a lot of vital records, which are sorted by civil division or parish. Many online records are only images, without an electronically searchable index, requiring manual page-by-page review. If one does not know the exact locality, and are not lucky enough to locate in an electronically searchable index, then it is usually best to conduct research in records in the location where the subject immigrated to. There are usually additional sources other than the low hanging fruit of vital records. When a locality has been identified, the next step is to determine what state or country this locality belonged to in the pertinent time period. Czechoslovakia split into two parts (or even three, depending on the time period), Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union into many more, and Hungary and Austria used to be much larger. Some places were governed by up to five different states within the 20th century alone.

Question:  What are some of the unique challenges encountered when researching in these war-torn areas?

Answer:  Sources for a specific locality can be held in different countries. For example, records for the Burgenland province of Austria, which used to be part of Hungary until 1921, can be found both in Burgenland itself, and in Hungarian archives. For many vital records, duplicate records exist, which had to be delivered to state or church authorities. In many regions, state civil registrations were not introduced until the late 19th century or early 20th century. Prior to that, vital records were kept by the religious parishes. The parishes in the Burgenland had to deliver their duplicates to the Hungarian state authorities, and these duplicates are now held in Budapest, as well as online. The Protestant parishes of Bucovina, a formerly Austrian province which is now split between Romania and the Ukraine, had to provide duplicates to the headquarters of the Protestant church of Austria in Vienna - which is where these duplicate records remain, approximately 1,000 kilometers away. Records from eastern Galicia, also a formerly Austrian and then Polish province and now in modern-day Ukraine, are currently held in Warsaw, Poland. In Upper Silesia, records for localities close to the present-day border may be held in one of the bordering countries, which are Poland and the Czech Republic. There are other regions for which finding records is pretty straightforward. Some areas in what is now Poland or the Ukraine suffered a lot of record losses during  World War II, while in comparison other countries such as Austria and the Czech Republic, have almost no record losses.

Another challenge are the languages. Recently, I was conducting research in parish records of several Greek Catholic parishes in present-day northeastern Hungary. The languages of the records over a few decades were Latin, Hungarian, Romanian and Ukrainian. It is beneficial to have a a basic understanding of these languages when researching such records.

Question:  What are the three biggest mistakes commonly made by individuals researching their ancestors in these areas?


  1. Interpreting “Austria” in its present-day borders, while the specific locality could now be in modern-day Poland, the Ukraine, Romania, the Czech Republic or even Montenegro. The same can be said for “Hungary,” in a similar way.

  2. Not taking into account different variants of spelling of names (for both persons and places), especially when individuals crossed state and/or language borders, or borders “crossed” localities. In addition, people's names were sometimes changed to something quite different after emigrating from their mother country.

  3. Not being diligent enough when it comes to determining a specific place of origin in Central Europe. The broader location of only  “Austria” or “Hungary” is usually a non-starter for research in these areas.

Question:  Are there any specific challenges we should be aware of for research of those of Jewish heritage?

Answer:  In all countries of Central Europe, birth records created less than 100 years ago are restricted from public access. In some countries, this also applies to marriage and death records, while other countries have introduced stricter protection periods of 75 years for marriages and 30 years for deaths. Other records, such as  probate files, may prove easier to access.  In addition there are published sources, such as directories, which are always public. In 2022, the Czech census records of 1921 should become available again, after they were blocked a few years ago as a result of the EU law, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) being introduced. In addition, a record that is by itself is beyond the protection period, can sometimes remain restricted from public access, because it is included in a book that also includes content which spans into the protection period. Very often, a request to the civil registry office in question, written in the official language of the country, will result in the release of the specific record, which would have otherwise been publicly available on its own.. Access is usually also granted to persons in a direct line of descent from the subject of the record.

Question:  In regards to records, have there been any new discoveries or upcoming collection releases that we should be aware of?

Answer: In some countries, such as the Czech Republic, almost all vital records that are not within the data protection period are available online as digital images, though there is not a lot of indexation of these records. Austrian records are approximately 95% online as images, and indexation, especially for Vienna, is ongoing. Catholic records of the Burgenland are now slowly becoming accessible online. There is a lot of indexation activity going on in Hungary and Poland as well, so it can be beneficial to look into the relevant databases every few months, if one is desperately looking for a specific person or family. In other countries, like Romania or the Ukraine, digitization of records is not as advanced. Indexed records have been made available on both commercial and non-commercial platforms, and for every area, one should look into a different set of databases. If the family was mobile, they could have left traces in Vienna, Budapest or another bigger city, even if they did not stay there for long. These traces may oftentimes be uncovered only by onsite research.

Question:  Is there anything else you would like to add?

Answer: In the 20th century, borders changed, but also people moved, or the spelling of names changed. Families changed their language of communication, or their perceived nationality. Official languages changed over time, as had previously occurred in the late 19th century. Genealogical research in Central Europe is mostly based on vital records, but there are a lot of other records available as well, with most of the alternative records only accessible at the archives, in person. Often these records are the key to understanding a family’s migration, not only across the Atlantic, but within Europe.

Would you like help with your Eastern European research?

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Weekly Discoveries

  1. Passenger lists can be rich with genealogically-pertinent information, but those manifests can prove elusive. This handy Ship Passenger Lists and Immigration Records research guide may provide additional sources for those hard-to-locate lists.

  2. Are you an educator or a parent of a remote-learning student?  If so, you could benefit from the free resources that are being provided by Ancestry®, including free subscriptions for teachers and remote access for parents, educators and tutors.

  3. Learn genealogy basics, like document analysis, source citations and basic genealogy methodology by enrolling in this virtual day-long workshop, hosted by the Georgia Archives. 

  4. Newspapers can be a valuable resource when researching one's ancestors.  Learn how to utilize newspapers in your research with this free webinar presented by the Chicago Public Library.

Tips on Researching Behind Eastern Europe’s “Paper Wall”

Anyone who’s done family history research for long soon becomes familiar with the “brick wall,” the point at which the clues to their ancestry just run out. But there’s another kind of wall that can be equally frustrating: the paper wall. Genealogists face a paper wall when confronted with a deluge of potential records and archives so complicated and confusing they become impossible to navigate. Here are a few strategies for slicing through your paper wall, should you encounter one.

  • During the 18th and 19th centuries, some areas of eastern and central Europe utilized church records in lieu of civil records.  What you may not know is that if there was no Jewish synagogue in close proximity to register vital events, Jewish ancestors were sometimes recorded in the Catholic and Protestant registers in the area instead.

  • Records in any given local may not have been written in the modern-day language spoken in the area, but instead by the language of the ruling entity at the time the record was created or even in a prevailing Roman Catholic standard of Latin. For instance, when researching in Poland, records are found written in Latin, Polish, Russian, German and  Ukrainian, among others.

  • If you don’t know Hebrew it can oftentimes prove difficult to decipher the inscriptions on cemetery headstones, as it requires not only translations, but also transliteration.  You can utilize the Stephen Morse transliteration tool to convert from Hebrew to English or English to Hebrew, with options for Sephardic, Ashkenazi and Yiddish.  Converting Isaac to יסק or Maier to מייר in a snap!

  • Have a German ancestor who may have died during World War II and you are unable to locate a death record?  During the time of war, it is possible that they may have died outside of Germany and may be included in the collection, Deaths of German Occupied Territories, 1939-1945.  The collection includes death records for German citizens who died outside of the geographic borders of Germany, including deaths which occurred in the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, along with parts of Ukraine, Russia and the Baltics.

  • Jewish ancestors?  Make sure and check out our blog post:
    Jewish Genealogy:  Borders and Boundaries

Past Issues Worth Reading

1.  Modern Day Criminals and Felenous Ancestors - Read Here

2.  Record Remains of a Pandemic - Read Here

3.  The Line Between the Living and the Dead - Read Here

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Sources… Duh!

Jjillian Locke, Elephant Journal (https://elephantjournal.com : accessed  21 October 2020), “Hiraeth:  Homesickness for a Place that Doesn’t Exist.” 

Barbie Golan, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, (https://www.rabbidanielcohen.com/ : accessed  21 October 2020), “In Their Memories: Rosh Hashanah 5780.”

Erin Blakemore, History Stories (https://history.com : accessed  21 October 2020), “This Secret Archive Documented Life in the Warsaw Ghetto.”

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia (https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/ : accessed  21 October 2020), “Emanual Ringelblum and the Creation of the Oneg Shabbat Archive.”

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia (https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/ : accessed  21 October 2020), “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” 

Jewish Historical Institute (http://jhi.pl/en/ : accessed  21 October 2020), “Ringleblum Archive.”

Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 123.

Paul Robert Magocsi,Historical Atlas of Central Europe (Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2002); digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 21 October 2020), p. 124.

World Jewish Congress (https://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/ : accessed 22 October 2020), “Poland.”

Goliath, “Bundesliga goal anthems,” video, uploaded 2016; You Tube:  Goliath Channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJfQ8-M2-j0 : accessed 22 October 2020).