I have been able to trace my wife's ancestors to people born in the 1790s in the Pfalz region of Germany and in Alsace using civil records of births and deaths. Those records books were started in the 1790s as part of Napoleon's influence. My understanding is that Napoleon also decreed that Jews had to take on last names at that time (rather than relying on first name and patronymic) to make record-keeping easier.

What sorts of records can I use to investigate the family lines further? Where are such records kept, and if the locations of such records vary by region, how does one go about discovering where these may be? Whereas Catholic or Protestant family lines would be documented in the church records (and perhaps available from familysearch.org), what are appropriate sources for Jewish records?

  • Tangentially relevant to your question, Edith Dinar, ynetnews.com, "Jewish World: How Jews got their names," 29 Dec 2005; electronic edition (ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3191492,00.html : accessed 11 Oct 2012), "Most of the Jews from countries captured by Napoleon ... were ordered to get surnames for tax purposes ... After Napoleon’s defeat, many Jews dropped these names and returned to 'son of' names such as: Mendelsohn, Jacobson, Levinson." – GeneJ Oct 12 '12 at 20:22
  • Is the Pfalz region also commonly "Palatinate?" Are there some specific towns that should be in focus as far as archives are concerned? – GeneJ Oct 12 '12 at 20:24
  • The towns in question are a couple of villages (most likely Gauersheim, but maybe Morschheim as well) near Kirchheimbolanden and the town of Offenbach am Glan. I have been to the Kirchheimbolanden archive, and their records go back to the 1790s. – Gene Golovchinsky Oct 12 '12 at 22:12
  • I followed my ancestors, Joannes Neff, and his wife, Secunda, son of Miachi Neff,to Buhl, Germany. They belonged to Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church there. I suspect they are Jews. From research on Buhl, Germany, I have learned Jews hid as Catholics and practiced their faith in secret. The oldest record of settlement of Jews in Buhl was in 1582. There were several wars and the records and churches burned over and over again. I have a group of ancestors from Buhl, the oldest record I have found for one of the families is ca 1650. I only use original records of births, deaths and marriages. I – Jeanne Bornefeld Mar 11 at 3:18

You mention ancestors from Alsace, so you should really be checking French resources too, not just German.

Get in touch with Le Cercle de Généalogie Juive (English version of their website: http://www.genealoj.org/New/Accueil_gb.php), which covers Francophone Jewish genealogists, primarily those living in France. They have a dedicated Alsace and Lorraine SIG (Special Interest Group).

They also publish a journal (partially online here: http://www.genealoj.org/New/ENtexte/page03.php) that has discussed the retrieval of 18th and 19th century Alsace and Lorraine records for several of their members.

Of more general interest, I remember reading that they recently traced the lineage of the former managing director of the IMF and notorious horndog Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose family is partially from Alsace and Lorraine.


I have a book that is falling apart, published in 1907, printed in Old Gothic Script called, "Stammbuch der Frankfurter Juden," by Dr. Alexander Dietz. This book has brief histories of families who had names in Frankfurt, going back as far as 1349. The actual range of information is the 500 years, 1349-1849 Whether this is the furthest back, I could not say. But if you suspect your family may have lived there at one time, you might find something of interest in that book.

  • It would be interesting to learn about the sources he used to compile the book. – Gene Golovchinsky Oct 25 '12 at 2:44
  • +1 for that tip. My own German records stop in 1703 where a church burnt down and the trail was apparently lost. This could get me back in the hunt. – Andrew Grothe Nov 20 '12 at 12:25

Take a look at the German-Jewish Special Interest Group (GerSIG) at http://jewishgen.org/gersig. If you post the question to their mailing list, people are certain to help you.

  • TAH: Some discussion re whether I did it right by recommending your comment be a question. They told me: "links should never be the only piece of information in your answer". See: meta.genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/1132/… I guess the idea is that we want this site to help people, and not tell people that they should go to other sites for help. – lkessler Oct 14 '12 at 17:24

JewishGen http://www.jewishgen.org/ is free to join and an excellent source of information for Jewish ancestors.

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    I have not found anything indexed in JewishGen databases pertinent to my search, and the question was intended to elicit suggestions of what kinds of sources I should be seeking and where this kind of information may be found. – Gene Golovchinsky Oct 12 '12 at 22:14
  • Take a look at the German-Jewish Special Interest Group (GerSIG) at jewishgen.org/gersig. If you post the question to their mailing list, people are certain to help you. – TAH Oct 13 '12 at 3:31
  • @TAH - Why not add that as an answer instead of a comment. – lkessler Oct 13 '12 at 21:01
  • @lkessler Done! – TAH Oct 14 '12 at 4:30

I just want to add that many Ashkenzi Jews did not have surnames prior to the year 1800. I do Jewish genealogy and unless the family is a Cohen, Levi, or some prominent member of society such as a Court Jew - they likely will not have had a surname and therefore be nearly untraceable before 1750 at the earliest, some don't come onto the scene until as late as 1850.

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