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The Year Was 1998

By Joel Ratner, March 2018

The year was 1998. Lithuania was independent from the Soviet Union for less than ten years. Harold Rhode and Sallyann Sack had published "Jewish Vital Records, Revision Lists and. Other Jewish Holdings in the Lithuanian Archives" just 2 years prior. Resources we take for granted today were not available or at least not in a convenient, online format. For instance, since the WWW was not yet in existence, communication was via listserve. The Ellis Island database did not exist, nor the Yad Vashem database. Steve Morses’ extensive toolsets were not available. In the computing world, many people were still getting acquainted with PCs if they had one. Many did not have scanners. I was in southern California with my wife and daughter visiting family in the Los Angeles area. I had been participating in e-mail discussions with David Hoffman z"l regarding the formation of a Vilna-centric research group. In preparation for this trip, David and I agreed to meet as he and his wife Sonia lived in the LA area. We agreed to meet for further discussions at Canters Deli on Fairfax Ave. The three of us sat down, discussed the situation and the picture became crystal clear. David and Sonia had access to records which all agreed would be of interest to Vilna researchers - the very large 1858 Vilna City Revision List. The time period was perfect, as this list could easily stretch the trees researchers had been attempting to construct of their families. I figured if others had grandparents born in the late 19th Century as I did, the 1858 RL could add at least 1 - 2 generations to our trees. At the request of the Hoffmans, I agreed to lead what we advertised as a Vilna uyezd research group, the precursor to what is now known as the Vilna District Research Group. LitvakSIG was born, including district research groups for each of 14 uyezds. David Hoffman and Davida Noyek Handler ran the SIG.

Having the connections to the documents, David and Sonia arranged to procure the first set of records from the 1858 Vilna City RL. They made arrangements for a relative of theirs from Russia to translate these records and provide the data in spreadsheet form. I went back to Boston and using my personal computer and 300 baud acoustic modem (remember those?), I announced the formation of the Vilna Uyezd Research Group.  We started raising funds and by March 2002, we had distributed 10,000 records from the 1858 RL, 18,000 records from the 1915 edition of Vsia Vilna graciously donated by Scott Noar as well as Vilna related listings from the 1900 Riga Passport database. The remainder of the project was somewhat of a struggle compared to the much larger Kovno gubernia research groups. 

Eventually, David and Sonia went on to found the Jewish Family History Foundation, focusing on 18th Century records of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL). 

Litvak Vital Records

While the 1858 Vilna City Revision List translation was in its final stages, the LDS was completing the filming of the Litvak vital records at the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. This filming was completed in early 2002. Having a complete revision list for Vilna, a natural companion to these records were the vital records. Whereas revision lists enable researchers to identify an entire household and possibly discover branches of a family, the vital records are primary records and provide details on up to 3 generations through the use of patronymics. LitvakSIG, then in existence for several years, was provided digital images of the 231 microfilms on more than 200 CDs. DVD discs were already in existence, and the records were condensed into a much smaller set of DVDs. Fundraising and translating was started, primarily for Kovno area towns, due to the larger number of Kovno gubernia researchers. Vilna gubernia towns soon followed, and the project was in full swing. The project easily raised monies required by Kovno area towns, but again, it was difficult at times for Vilna and surrounding towns to gain traction. We had paid translators in Belarus, California, New York and elsewhere. Besides paid translators, the Vilna vital records effort also employed volunteers. Bruce Zatz, Dmitry Shirochin, Rabbi Nosson Vershubsky, Boris Bachman, Diana Kriwicky and several others I cannot retrieve from memory (beg my forgiveness). Bruce alone translated and donated nearly 100,000 records to LitvakSIG, almost half of the records for the city of Vilna. Presentations of the vital records were given at the 2003 IAJGS conference in Washington, the 2006 conference in New York, as well as talks given to JGS of Long Island, Greater Boston and the North Shore. Today, the translations of several hundred thousand vital records representing Vilna, Kovno and Suwalki gubernia towns are part of the All Lithuania Database ALD and the images are online at familysearch.org.

Much progress was made in the early days of LitvakSIG, with the archival records including the vital records. LitvakSIG had totally exhausted ( or almost) the available records from the Kaunas Regional Archives KRA for two districts, Shavel and Telsh. The vital records were a boon to Kovno area researchers for towns where these records were held. The KRA effort was nearly complete and the vital records project was just getting underway - perfect timing. Where possible, Kovno gubernia researchers would now be able to add vital records to their extensive translations of revision lists, tax lists, etc.

Large numbers of documents relative to the lives of our ancestors were uncovered at the various Lithuanian archives in the early years. Prior to Rhode and Sack, these documents were either not available or even known to the Jewish world outside of Lithuania. There was a lot of excitement over the prospect of being able to fill in gaps in our family histories and the possibility of extending our family trees beyond ancestors of which we were aware.

20th Anniversary additions

On this, the 20th anniversary of the formation of LitvakSIG, I have found the images for the 1765 Revision Lists for Vilna and Trakai. These images have been enhanced for legibility and provided to the SIG for translation.

LDS films for many 1795 Revision Lists (35 films so far, some with Jewish records) and RLs going through 1844 have been located as well. The LDS film listings are preliminary for most records, so film numbers assigned (no access to these images as yet) and no descriptions other than the year. Some of these may be Jewish records, others not. In order to kick things off relative to these lists, I am currently translating a very small list of names from the 1795 RL for Snipiskes from the images found online. The translations will be donated to LitvakSIG for inclusion in the ALD. 

I want to mention more key figures from those very early days: Olga Zabludoff, Deena Berton, Judy Baston, Richard Hoffman (treasurer) and leaders who sadly are no longer with us include David Hoffman, Carol Baker, Richard Winer (Ukmerge coordinator), and Howard Margol.

about the author
Joel Ratner

Former Coordinator, Vilna District Research Group

Former Coordinator, LitvakSIG Vital Record Translation Project