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Book Notes: Jewish Ancestors: A Guide to Jewish Genealogy in Lithuania, Sam Aaron

Raymond Kalman

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes Jewish Ancestors: A Guide to Jewish Genealogy in Lithuania. No. 6 in the Jewish Ancestors Series. Sam Aaron (Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, London 2005) isbn 0-9357669 8 5, pp. ix + 130, ?5 95. As its title indicates, this is a guide to those wanting to trace ancestors who originated in Lithuania. The author is described as co-ordinator of a 'Litvak' Special Interest Group [SIG] District Research Group and Member of the Genealogical Society's Lithuania Special Interest Group. Mention of the two SIGs raises a complication to which I shall return. A short preface is followed by a nine-page history, covering eight centuries, of an area which at times stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea; was often invaded, partitioned, dismembered, dismantled and overrun by neighbours; and of which parts were intermittently governed by rulers of at least four nationalities and most shades of political opinion. Subsequent chapters deal briefly but helpfully with Lithuania's Administrative Divisions; with problems associated with initiating research; with the vari? ous types of records available, including computerized data, local archival information and how to make use of non-Lithuanian sources in the UK, USA and South Africa; with Holocaust research and with a case study from the author's own family. These chapters conclude with a S'htet/-locator and map, with an appendix listing old and current Lithuanian placenames and with a bibliography of further reading. As a Litvak whose ancestors migrated to Britain in the 1880s, I can iden? tify certain omissions. Many problems would be clarified with the help of maps indicating the dates of changes in national borders. In addition, insuf? ficient importance is given to the special place of this region in modern Jewish religious, social and political history. The area was Russian from 1796 to 1918, 'during which time it became of major Jewish cultural impor? tance'. It contained Vilna, known as the Jerusalem of the North; six great yeshivot, four of them now in Belorus and only two in contemporary Lithuania; and was home to the Vilna Gaon, Mitnagidim and Hassidim; and the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. It saw the growth of the Musar ethical move? ment; the anti-religious Socialist Bund; Zionism's religious wing, known as Mizrachi; as well as the Lida yeshiva, model for Yeshivah University. These are only some of the features of this outstanding Jewish area. Many Jews lived in shtetlach, but Vilna and Kovno were two important Jewish towns. The period of Russian governance included the peak of west? ward migration, with many migrants describing themselves as 'Byelo' or 'White' Russians. It is doubtful whether 'Lithuania' meant anything to those who comprised many of the thousands who settled in this country and established the Federation of Synagogues. 299</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes As South Africa is so often associated with Litvaks, it is interesting to note that none of the four who were most responsible for its important mining development were from this area: Oppenheim and Beit were Germans, while Barnato (born Newman) and Joel were from London's East End. Similarly, the important Hebrew Order of David, with branches in every Jewish community, originally a friendly society and now a social and charitable organization to which most South African Jews still belong, was founded by two settlers who had belonged to it in London at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is worth noting that the September 2005 issue of Shemot, the magazine of the Genealogical Society, includes a review a book by Jack Kagan, a survivor of Novogroduk, who took part in the resistance put up in the nearby forests by the Jewish 'Bielski' partisans. The fact that the town was in Poland for twenty years and is now in Belarus, shows yet again how irrel? evant these national borders were, and are, to Litvaks. The distinction between 'Lithuanian' and 'Litvak' is practical rather than sentimental, and has a direct bearing on the languages in which records were kept at any particular time and on the alphabet used. These problems are insufficiently explained, as is the location of records. Some are held in the Belorussian central archives in Minsk, although some may have been returned on independence. The book is not as helpful as it might he in explaining such problems or in suggesting solutions that are bound to arise while searching for family records in an area of Eastern Europe where changing boundaries and languages have compounded the effects of wartime devastation. Raymond Kaiman 300</page></plain_text>