How many times have I heard “but there’s no information on my shtetl”? Perhaps there’s no information readily available on the Internet, and you’ve tried Google and JewishGen’s databases and Ancestry.com, but alas…nothing. Yet plenty of information does exist about the vast majority of shtetls. The trick is to find people who have the knowledge or documents about a particular place and get them to share it.
Fifteen years ago I could find nothing on the Internet about a “two-horse” Galician town named Zmigrod. Nobody had heard of it, and no data was available. So in my grandparents’ memory, I created a JewishGen ShtetLinks site (see note below). I looked at the other ShtetLinks sites and determined where to get some basic information. Once the Zmigrod site was up, someone wrote me and said they were going to hire a researcher to find vital records from the town; was I interested in joining the effort? I said yes and then e-mailed all the other folks who had registered on JewishGen their interest in the shtetl of Zmigrod asking if they were interested in joining the project. Five researchers who had listed Zmigrod on JewishGen’s Family Finder (JGFF) were interested. We pooled our money and sent our surnames to the researcher.
Because the project (and funds) now involved five families, the researcher spent an entire week, not just one day, in the town searching for records. The results were amazing. We received more than 1,500 documents, most copied and all translated by our researcher. In looking back, my only regret is that we did not ask her to photocopy every document. The documents we obtained as a result of this project proved family connections among us. We also learned that one person’s relative was the town mohel (ritual circumciser) and another was the midwife.
Impressed by the results of this research project, I created a database on my ShtetLinks web page of the information we had obtained. Once the records were available online, I discovered significant interest in the town and began to ask others to send photographs and stories for the page. Many family connections were established as a result of the ShtetLinks page. In fact, the ShtetLinks page and family postings were so successful that I employed the same formula for other towns: Dukla, Rymanow, Krosno, Korszena, Rohatyn, Strzyzow, Jasienica Rosielna, Jaslo, Frysztak, and Dubiecko—before World War II in Galicia, Austria, now in Poland and the Ukraine—all shtetls in which members of my family had lived. For example, five researchers were interested in the same surnames from Rohatyn. Two family connections finally were found; vital records, censuses, and family stories tied remote members of Eichel and Lichtgarn descendents. We became friends and remain so to this day.
As time passed, I received e-mail messages from researchers in Israel who found my web pages. One donated a list of Dubiecko schoolchildren and their parents from 1936; another sent a list of survivors from many of the towns surrounding Krosno; a third sent a short, personal yizkor story from Zmigrod. This Holocaust survivor’s story contained his personal experiences during the Shoah and included many of the townspeople. As researchers began to take trips to visit the various towns, I posted their travelogues, which include photographs, cemetery listings, and wonderful stories about the towns as they exist today.
Non-Jewish youngsters from these towns wrote also, asking how they could help; they were starting to learn the true histories of their towns. One discovered and translated a Polish story of life in Jaslo that is the best description I have read of life in Galician towns. Another took photographs in the Rohatyn cemeteries. Others told of synagogue reconstruction in Rymanow and cemetery cleanup in Zmigrod. These young people also help whenever I need translations, and it has been a great pleasure to interact with them.
I have helped others as well, assisting in the establishment and renewal of many family connections. I maintain a Word file of every e-mail message I have ever received for each town. I often put folks in touch with others who are researching the same surnames from the same town or adjoining towns, since I have learned where these towns lie in relation to each other. So many individuals married spouses from nearby towns that genealogists should never look for relatives just in a single known town of origin, but in the surrounding towns as well. Geography is an essential part of genealogy.
Never assume that no information is available for your family’s shtetl. If that brick wall bothers you, create your own ShtetLinks web page and see what happens. Folks at JewishGen can help with the technical details. See <www.ShtetLinks.JewishGen.org> and start chipping away at those walls.
To create my ShtetLinks pages, I began by browsing many of the previously created pages on <www.ShtetLinks. JewishGen.org> and selecting elements from pages that I especially favored. Next, I contacted the manager of ShtetLinks to register the towns and learn the formats required. Because of my years with IBM and my technical background, I do not use an editor. Instead, I create the pages with HTML directly. I found a website with an HTML overview, then downloaded one ShtetLinks site and copied that website’s structure onto a new page. I then formatted my information and graphics and uploaded them to my ShtetLinks site. Once I got into a routine, it was easy to update the sites. After the ShtetLinks sites were created, I constantly receive new information and connect with old and new friends.
Phyllis Kramer is the vice-president of Education for JewishGen; board member of the Palm Beach, Florida, Jewish Genealogical Society; creator of the first Genealogy Computer Education Lab (2006 NYC IAJGS Conference); developer of 12 ShtetLinks web pages; graduate of Cornell and Fordham Universitie;, and a retired IBM business consultant.