Czech Republic Jewish History
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History of Jewish Vital Registers
Jewish genealogical research in the Czech Republic can be difficult. The collection of Jewish vital registers is not complete, because most of the originals were destroyed during World War II, along with other Jewish documents and archives. In addition, Jewish families moved often and the last known address where they lived before deportation to a concentration or extermination camp was usually not the locality where they and their ancestors had lived for many generations. This is especially true of Jews who previously had lived in the German-occupied Sudetenland regions of Czechoslovakia. The discriminatory laws even influenced Jewish names and the recordkeeping.
Following is the description of the origins of registers of Jewish vital events (births, marriages, and deaths) and the ways in which they can be used by genealogical researchers. It also includes the types of archival records available at each level of the Czech archival system, with focus on records of particular interest for Jewish genealogy. Actual archival sources are cited to demonstrate types of results possible.
The registers of vital events-births, marriages, and deaths for the Jewish population began in 1784 by decree of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. This decree ordered registers of Jewish births, marriages, and deaths to be kept in a precise format: a separate column for each category of information about the individual whose vital event was recorded.
The decree assigned Catholic priests the responsibility of creating the registers and ensuring that they were kept carefully. In order to guarantee standardized registration, preprinted forms were used. The decree also instructed Jewish registrars to maintain the same type of registers, but allowed them to adapt the columns to categories used in the Jewish religion. In localities with rabbis, the rabbis were assigned responsibility for maintaining the registers; where Jewish families lived scattered in the countryside without an organized community or a rabbi of their own, the master record was to be kept by the rabbi of the closest Jewish community. An alternative option was for Jewish vital events to be recorded on the back pages of the Catholic parish registers by the local Catholic priest.
In 1787, authorities took steps to improve and standardize the Jewish registers. A new decree ordered that parish registers and circumcision registers were to be kept for the Jewish population in the German language, and all Jewish records were to include the official given names and family names assigned to every individual.
In practice, this meant that all Jews permitted to reside in the Czech Lands, by virtue of the so-called Familiant Law of 1726, were compelled to adopt family names. They and their families were to use these names henceforth in all formal activities, such as registering vital events, visiting schools, contact with state or manorial authorities, lists of Jews, and so forth.
The relationship between the Jewish population and the state in the Czech Lands underwent a fundamental change in 1797 with the so-called Systemal Patent. This decree outlined the rights and obligations of the Jewish population. For example, Jewish teachers were responsible for maintenance of Jewish vital registers. In localities with no Jewish schools, the responsibility fell on men appointed and sworn by the local manorial authorities. Catholic priests were responsible for checking the Jewish registers and for keeping duplicate registers of Jewish births, marriages, and deaths, so-called Control Registers.
The years 1848-49 saw liberal uprisings (sometimes called "revolutions") throughout many parts of Europe, including the Czech lands. These events began the process of full emancipation of Czech Jewry and the abolition of all discriminatory laws against them that had existed up to that time. These changes are reflected in the Jewish vital registers. The registers kept by Jewish registrars were declared to be authentic records acceptable as evidence in a court of law. Supervision of Jewish vital registration by Catholic priests was abolished. Instead, Jewish registrars were ordered to keep Duplicate Registers of the originals with appropriate indexes and to submit them to district authorities annually. District authorities were instructed to place the duplicate Jewish registers in safekeeping and to compare them with the original registers. As late as the first half of the 20th century, district authorities still checked the maintenance of the original registers of Jewish communities and stored duplicate Jewish registers.
When the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia between 1938 and 1945, the registers and documents of the Jewish communities suffered a fate similar to that of the Jewish population itself. In October 1938, Jewish communal registries in German-occupied Czech Sudetenland were closed. Registers from the Bohemian border region were collected in Liberec, the center of the so-called Sudetenland. The registers were not maintained between 1939 and 1945, but were completed retrospectively - death records especially - by referring to the original records. The registers from the Jewish communities in the border regions of northern and southern Moravia did not survive at all and are believed to have been lost at the beginning of the German occupation.
In 1942, the Office of the Reichsprotektor ordered that all original Jewish registers in the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia be sent to the Central Office for the Regulation of the Jewish Question in Prague. In April 1945, by order of the Gestapo, the original registers were transported to a paper mill in Prague and destroyed. In 1943, the duplicate registers also were collected, but thanks to the Czech employees of the Central Office for the Regulation of the Jewish Question, they were stored along with the older control registers. Duplicate registers for the years 1880-1945, saved by virtue of having been stored outside Prague, were (in October 1945) declared to be valid originals for issuing certificates, official documents, and licenses.
All preserved registers were transferred to the Prague Jewish community, which then was entrusted with the further administration of the registers for Bohemia and Moravia. In December 1949, a new law removed administration of vital registers from the churches, instead establishing standardized civil registers supervised by non-religious authorities, initially district committees, today municipal offices and town councils. In compliance with this law, the Prague Jewish community transferred the entire collection of Jewish registers, along with all other original documents, to the district committee of Prague. They remained there until 1983, when the entire collection was transferred to the Central State Archive in Prague, now the National Archive. This priceless collection of more than 3,000 volumes of Jewish birth, marriage, and death registers that cover Bohemia, Moravia, and the Czech part of Silesia for the period 1784-1949 now is held in the First Department of the Czech National Archive in Prague.
Content of Jewish Vital Registers
The earliest Jewish birth registers included date of birth, child's name, parents' names, and names of witnesses. In addition, they included details specific to the Jewish religion: circumcision ceremonies for boys and name-giving ceremonies for girls. Entries in the early registers were simple, often including only names and dates. The information included depended on the decisions and conscientiousness of the man responsible for making the entries. Rules for standardized registers were not issued until 1838, when specific columns for each category of information were mandated.
Most registers were not completed in such an ideal form. The registrar always determined how much information was recorded. Duplicate registers, especially, often were kept in outline form only. For example, duplicate birth registers sometimes recorded only the names of parents and omitted all other mandated information.
In addition, the Familiant Law allowed only 8,500 Jewish families to reside in Bohemia and only 5,400 in Moravia. In these families, only the first born son had the right to marry and replace his father as head of the family-called the familiant in German and Czech documents. Subsequent sons had to wait for a vacancy among the official families and needed to apply for a state permit to marry. Some Jewish marriages were performed by rabbis without the requisite state permit. Any child of such a marriage was defined officially as fatherless and was recorded in the Jewish birth registers under the mother's maiden name. The father could assume responsibility for such a child, and if he did, his declaration of paternity, together with the signatures of two witnesses, was recorded as a note. Children of parents who married after 1848 were legitimized retrospectively and, at that time, received their fathers' surnames. This fact is not widely known by their descendants and often complicates research in pre-1848 registers.
In 1838, the same year that standardized forms were introduced, registration districts were specified. The community with the largest Jewish population was designated the center of a district and the location where the registrar was supposed to reside. If the registrar's position was not filled in a particular locality, births, marriages, and deaths were to be reported to the nearest alternative registry office. In many cases, this meant going beyond the geographical boundaries of the original registry district. This fact complicates genealogical research, especially in Jewish communities on the inland border between Bohemia and Moravia.
Holocaust Era Records/Documents
The original documents transferred along with the Jewish registers to the Central State Archive in December 1949 include original reports of autopsies from the Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto conducted between 1941 and 1943. In addition, judicial declarations of death for many Holocaust victims issued during the period 1946-48 and 1950 fill gaps in the original Jewish death records. Jews who survived the Holocaust needed to create new lives-find work, apply to inherit relatives' property, marry and/or adopt children. To do so, they needed new personal documentation for themselves and, often, death certificates for their relatives. The latter were replaced with judicial confirmations of death. Useful for genealogical research, these documents provide personal data such as birth date and parents' names, plus information about where the subject had been born and his or her last place of residence before deportation. In some cases, these documents also include the address and name of the person applying for a declaration of death, usually a relative of the deceased.
The original documents also include a small group of applications for change of surname and for permission to adopt an orphan. Children coming back from the concentration camps without parents were adopted either by relatives, family friends, or by people who had lost their own children in the war. The process to adopt a child was not simple; it required numerous confirmations and references. The former especially can help verify the identity of applicants for citizenship or to confirm kinship. Applications for change of surname were made by a number of concentration camp survivors with typical Jewish surnames (such as Abeles, Kohn, and Roubitschek) or typical German surnames (such as Adler, Schwarzkopf, or Weissmuller) - with the intention of putting the past behind them and integrating into a non-Jewish enviroment.
Also valuable are records created during Germany's occupation of Czechoslovakia in connection with deportations to Terezin and other camps in Eastern Europe. To this time, one card index in Prague is used for official purposes by the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. Another index is stored in the Third Department of the National Archives, and another in the archives of the Terezin Memorial located in a small fortress in Terezin. Cards provide information helpful for genealogical research: names, dates of birth, last address and transport number.
Law of Privacy
Personal data recorded in both original and control registers and in the card index files are protected legally. Birth registers for 100 years and marriage and death registers for 75 years after the last entry are accesible only to direct relatives or state authorities. Access to more recent registers is not permitted for genealogical research. More than 3,000 volumes in both collections of Jewish registers are available on microfilm in the study room of the First Department of the National Archives.
Documents preserved in the Czech archives dealing with the Czech Jewish history fall into two broad categories:
Documents created by the Jews
Functions involving the surrounding Christian world included the implementation of rules imposed by the state and the manorial administration, payment of feudal levies and state taxes, registration of vital events, and resolution of conflicts and complaints. Relevant documents include correspondence with civic and church authorities and institutions in matters relevant to the Jewish community as a whole, as well as individuals in conflicts with Christians over debts and criminal affairs.
Unfortunately, because of loss and damage to documents during the German occupation, most archives of the original Jewish communities have not survived. The few surviving documents are deposited in the archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague, in the district state archives for the relevant locality, or in the municipal archives of the relevant large city. The former administrative districts currently are served by 72 district state archives that have become constituents of the regional state archives. Documents concerning larger urban centers may be found in the city archives of Brno, Ostrava, Prague, Plzen, and Usti nad Labem.
Documents created by the civil authorities
Jews also were recorded in the central statistical sources generated by all levels of the state administration. Most important are the land registers:
The latter three registers are stored in the National Archives in Prague, the Moravian Regional Archives in Brno, and the Regional Archive in Opava, according to the territory from which they came.
Results of complex research into references to Jews in the oldest Bohemian and Moravian tax cadasters, from 1654 and 1657 respectively, have been published and are available in the 2002 and 2004 issues of Judaica Bohemiae, the yearbook of the Prague Jewish Museum. Considerable variation exists in the amount of information about Jews found in the old cadasters. Some record only the number of Jewish men over age 10 (or age 20) with no names; others list entire Jewish families, along with their servants and occupations.
An experienced genealogical researcher also can make use of documents generated by the manorial authorities that administered the large feudal domains in which Bohemians lived. Before 1848, feudal domains were the units of local administration. Manorial authorities had two responsibilities. First, they administered the property of the domain's owner (usually a member of the nobility), which also involved responsibility for the property of all the ordinary people who lived on the domain and for levying the feudal duties owed by serfs to their overlords. Secondly, manorial authorities acted as the local government administration, dealing with matters related to commerce, economic regulation, the judiciary, military affairs, police, politics, and taxation.
Records of the manorial administration include documents concerning the acceptance of Jews onto the domain, periodic lists of Jewish residents and the establishment, Jewish traders invited to live on the domain as Schutzjuden (protected Jews), and filling of the positions of familiants. Manorial authorities also supervised issuance of Jewish marriage licenses, tenancies, and sales of real estate, especially distilleries, tanneries, potash plants, and other forms of production commonly undertaken by Jews, because they were unpopular among Christians. Schutzjuden were responsible for selling the output of the overlord's home farm or industrial operations, such as grain, livestock, or alcoholic beverages. They also bought the surplus output of the serfs such as butter, eggs, feathers, and linen cloth. Finally, protected Jews were responsible for importing back onto the domain the common wares unavailable locally, including coffee, fruit, dry goods, and spices. The manorial authorities were directly involved in administering the inheritances of the Schutzjuden, which gave rise to useful documentary sources. Manorial records do not include death records, but the date of death of an individual may be found in the records which offer considerable information about individual property, repayment of debts, and the division of assets among relatives. Such documents may be used to study the economic and social conditions of the Jewish families living in the small rural towns; to follow the process of the division of an inheritance; and to reconstruct a deceased individual's business, craft, or equipment; and to show how people dressed; and the types of tools they used.
Because the manorial authorities intervened in all spheres of Jewish communal life on the domain, manorial archives include records of elections to Jewish councils, records of the synagogue, establishment of Jewish schools, appointment of Jewish teachers, and social care within Jewish communities. While manorial records, now held in the seven regional state archives of the Czech Republic, may be helpful in genealogical research, they require an experienced researcher with the expertise to read and understand the handwriting and the language, often non-standardized and difficult to understand.
Regional state archives hold the records of the former regional administrative offices (Kreisamte) established in 1751 and continued for about 100 years. These offices generated several types of registers of inhabitants: lists of taxpayers, lists of travel and emigration permits, and many other miscellaneous documents. These documents frequently provide useful evidence on Jewish vital events. Regional administrative offices were abolished in 1868 and replaced by district administrative offices (Bezirksamte). These offices also generated numerous documents of genealogical value, including registers of residency certificates, passport and travel permit registers, indexes of work permits, and after 1918 registers of nationality permits.
From 1870 onward, district offices registered births, marriages, and deaths of all individuals who had no official religion. (Judaism was an official religion.) District offices preserved the censuses taken every 10 years from 1857 onward. All types of documents generated by the district administrative offices now are stored in the district state archives. Grundbucher (land books), some of which date from the late 15th century, recorded all transfers of real estate between owners (whether by inheritance or sale) and legal documents such as wills in the district archives. Many other interesting genealogical records, especially from the second half of the 19th century, include registers of native and foreign persons belonging to the local community, registers of residency certificates, and registers of tradesmen.
Genealogists can also find interesting information in the records left by elementary, grammar, and vocational schools. Personal data such as names, birth dates, addresses, and parents' names may be found' in school registers, graduation books, attendance registers, and registers of examination results. Not even church records should be omitted from a survey of documents potentially useful for Jewish genealogy. Because Catholic priests were tasked with observing all Jews living in their parishes, information about Jews, especially about conversions to Catholicism, is found among the records of parish offices, today stored in district state archives.
For more information on history of Czech Jewish vital registers including a case study see an article Czech Archival Sources: History of the Jews in the Czech Lands by Lenka Matušíková, published in the Avotaynu, Volume XXIV, Number 2, Summer 2008. (Family History Library INTL book 296.05 Av79).
The Familiant law of 1726 regulated, defined and restricted Jewish life. Their purpose generally was to stabilize the number of Jews in the Bohemian lands by curbing marriage, economic competition, ownership of real estate and social contact with non-Jewish neighbors. A familiant was the head of a household who had a license to reside in a town, marry and raise a family. A first-born son could inherit these rights, but not a second-, third- or later-born son. Because subsequent sons could not become familiants, they often emigrated in search of a better life. The laws caused great suffering by keeping Jewry impoverished, preventing most Jews from being able to marry, from earning more than a meager income and contributing to the exodus of all but firstborn sons to neighboring countries, especially Hungary.
According to the Hungarian Jewish Census of 1735-38, a decade or so after the passing of the familiants laws, an estimated 38 percent of Hungary's 2,531 Jewish family heads had been born in Moravia. In Bohemia and Austrian Silesia, the familiant numbers were apportioned by district whereas in Moravia numbers were apportioned to Jewish communities in relation to their size. This provision effectively bound Moravian Jews to live in a specific community, whereas in Bohemia and Austrian Silesia, they could move to wherever Jewish residence was allowed.
By the end of 1731, ghetto formation had begun and clearly demarcated Jewish quarters had been introduced. Thus, as the Jewish communities grew, they became increasingly crowded. This, in turn, negatively affected economic opportunities, and many had to lead an itinerant life, taking stalls at local markets or selling their wares in the countryside, setting out on Sunday and returning only on Friday.
For more information about effects of the Familiants Laws see Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation, by Michael Laurence Miller. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2011.
Project Bohemia, Moravia et Silesia Judaica
Genealogical research does not always end with the records found in birth, marriage, and death registers but may extend into a search for historical causes, economic and social situation, and, in particular, history of the Jewish community.
During the past decade, an increasing number of Bohemian and Moravian archivists and historians have focused their interest on the history of the Jews in the Czech lands. Most attention has been devoted to the events of World War II and the Shoah of Czech Jewry. In addition, many publications have appeared that chronicle the history of Czech Jewry from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
Since 2005, the Society for the History of the Jews in the Czech Republic, headed by historian Helmut Teufel, has undertaken intensive research into all sources from the period 1520-1670 with any relevance to the Jewish inhabitants. The archival documents that were discovered fall into two categories:
A number of censuses of the Jewish population of the Czech lands have been located and made available by this project. They are among the most valuable historical sources.
All information about Jewish individuals mentioned in the above described sources-name, gender, occupation, family relationships, place of origin, and archival reference- are recorded in an electronic database and gradually being posted to the website of the Society for the History of the Jews in the Czech Republic. Website has two versions, one in German and one in Czech, and it is a paid website. One must register to use it.