Did Families Really Stay in One Place? Finding Ancestral Towns, A Case Study

By Loretta Niebur Walker, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Niebur Lee of Daughters of Jacob Genealogy

We feel like we have hit a gold mine when a client comes to us with the name of a parent’s ancestral town in eastern Europe, especially when it is written in their parent’s own hand. When we discover that the record includes the names, birth dates, and home towns of that parent’s parents and siblings, it is as if the gold mine just became platinum.

            Conventional wisdom is that by the time an ancestral town is identified, the hardest work is done—probably because that is often the case. This can be especially true when the family is from the southeastern Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, for which many indexed records are available on the JRI-Poland and Gesher Galicia websites.

            In a document provided to us by our client, her father named his parents as Itzhak Josef Katz of Mikulince, Poland, and his mother as Rose Sara Katz of Tarnopol, Poland, along with the names and birth dates of three siblings, all with the last name Katz. A note added later in another hand indicated that Rose’s maiden name might have been Braun or Garff. In another document that we found early on, for which our client’s father also provided information, he listed his father as Josef Engel, his mother as Rosa Schorr, and his own last permanent address as Mikulince, Poland.

            Now, all we had to do was learn if the records from Mikulince and Tarnopol exist, if they are available online, access them, and piece the family together.  It was a genealogist’s dream job.

            Well, maybe.

A time-lapse video of our search would show us searching in the extensive databases of JRI-Poland, Gesher Galicia, FamilySearch (indexes and images), and the Central Archives of Ukraine in Kiev (AGAD) for records containing variants of each person’s name, plus any connection to Mikulince or Tarnopol.  We found no records that we could be reasonably confident belonged to this family.

            Surely, a family of seven, whom we were sure had lived in Mikulince for decades could not be that invisible. Our client’s father watched his parents and siblings be deported from that town. He listed Mikulince as his home town on every document he completed after his arrival in the United States. How is it that there is no record of anyone in his family living in that town? Surely there had to be someone connected to our client’s family, somewhere on the 30-plus pages of small-font results that listed every person who had any of the many names we searched, as well as any connection at all to the town of Mikulince or its environs.

            Testing that assumption involved the very low-tech strategy of cutting the lists apart into separate names, and then grouping as many of those names as possible into family groups, using the information given. By doing this, most of the Engels in Mikulince fit into family groups, with comparatively few “orphans” left over. The Katz family names from the same town did not gel into families as well, but to our chagrin, there were no clear connections to our client’s family anywhere.

It was as if all the people in this family were invisible for their entire lives. It is understandable that individual documents for specific people may be missing because of gaps in the available records, or lack of records altogether. However, the odds are very slim that an entire family of seven could live in a town for decades and not have any major life event of any person in that family inscribed anywhere in that town’s well-kept records. Add the fact that we could not find any of the family mentioned in any records within a 50-mile radius, and this case was especially puzzling.  

            But by this point, I was so deeply invested in these people that I could not let them go. So, I examined all the results of the entire JRI-Poland and Gesher Galicia databases again, giving closer scrutiny to entries to which I had given only passing attention for any of several reasons. Perhaps, the names, dates, or relationships did not fit, or the town in which the recorded event occurred was more than 50 miles away from Mikulince or Tarnopol.

             Revisiting the broad search results did not seem much more productive than the previous passes them. However, one long-shot Gesher Galicia indexed record began to stand out.  

Unfortunately, we were not able to access an image of the original record from which the indexed information was taken, so all we had to work from was the indexed information. Could this record help us find the elusive Katz/Engel/Schorr/Braun/Garff family? The pros and cons of this record belonging to our client’s family are summarized as follows.



Last name: Engel

First name: Berta, not known in family

Parents: Josef & Reisel (“Rose” in English)

Parents: no last names, first names are common.

Marriage town: Mikulince

Bride birth town: Mikołajów, 100 miles away

Bride’s parents’ town: Mikulince

Brides’s residence: Mikołajów

            The next logical step was to conduct searches for family names in the town of Mikołajów, which we did, using all of the family names. To our astonishment, the searches picked up both indexed records and scanned images for seven children born to Josef Engel of Mikulince and Reisel Schorr of Mikołajów whom our client knew nothing about!

            Reviewing these surprising records was a testament to the synergistic power of using both indexed and scanned records in research.

            Indexed results make it easy to search for specific names, dates, and locations in a vast body of records, as long as the information is included in the indexed fields of the document. They can also give us a false sense of security that we know everything we need to know about a record and lead us to prematurely trust or distrust a record. This is what happened to me when I first saw Berta Engel’s indexed record. Yet, the broad and deep reach of indexed records is one of the marvels of 21st century genealogy. After all, how else would I have possibly known to search for unknown children in the records of a town 100 miles away from the father’s town, and even farther from the town where we were told that the mother was born?

            On the other hand, there is nothing quite like reading the record of an event that was handwritten by someone who probably knew the participants well. Clean computer font cannot capture the feel of the signature of a father attesting to the accuracy of the birth record of his son. Or the signature of a great-grandfather on the birth records of his great-grandchildren when there is no other direct evidence in the records linking him to his descendants. Or reading notes that give updates about an ancestor’s ongoing life— written in the hand of whomever the local scribe was at the time—and reveal insights that we are hard pressed to find in the tidy results generated by search engines.

In all, Berta Engel’s stray marriage record from a distant town led us to nine aunts and uncles of whom our client had never heard, a number of their children, 11 great-aunts and -uncles and their children, plus two more generations of grandparents before that, for a total of nearly 100 people.

            A number of intriguing mysteries remain. How did Josef and Reisel meet if their families lived 100 miles apart? Where were they between WWI and WWII when the record goes silent? What happened to the descendants of all of the “new” relatives who have been so recently found? Is the world full of family whom we don’t know yet? I suspect that it is, more than we know.


The research in this blog was made possible by the generous efforts of those who support the following websites:

JewishGen.   Hub for all things Jewish genealogy. A great place to begin and find advanced information. https://www.jewishgen.org

Gesher Galicia.   Detailed indexes of records from within the boundaries of the Austria-Hungary province of Galicia, which now lies in southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. Site accessible through JewishGen. Members have access to additional information. https://search.geshergalicia.org/

JRI-Poland.   Jewish Records Indexing of Poland.  Less detailed indexing of a vast store of Jewish records from historical boundaries of Poland. Records link to images of original records. Accessible through JewishGen. There is not much overlap between GesherGalicia and JRI-Poland. https://jri-poland.org

FamilySearch.   Entirely free genealogy site with vast resources and helps of all kinds. The source for many records that other sites index. Fabulous research helps in their “Research Wikis.”  https://www.familysearch.org

AGAD.  Central Archives of Ukraine Jewish Records from Communities beyond the Bug River.  http://www.agad.gov.pl/inwentarze/Mojz300x.xml.

About the Authors

Daughters of Jacob Genealogy is a boutique family history service that specializes in searching out the roots of clients of Jewish heritage and then bringing their unique family histories to life in gorgeous heirloom books that capture the imaginations of all generations. 

For more information, visit https://www.daughtersofjacobgen.com

2 Responses

  1. Very interesting to read your process! And so glad you took a chance on that one indexed record with a match…just goes to show we should never assume anything while doing our research. While in general people didn’t stray far from their place of birth, there are plentifuly examples of those who did. Thanks for a great case study!

  2. You are welcome. Thank you for enjoying our blog. If the lives of the living are full of surprises, it seems that the lives of those who have passed sometimes surprise us more!

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