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Vital record extraction is the process of identifying the primary facts from vital (birth, marriage, death and bann) records, which greatly aids our ability to identify our ancestors. We can piece together their lives using these basic facts, such as name, parents, ages, occupations and towns of origin. However, the records do contain other information as well. They are not always just a presentation of these bare facts embedded in standard templates.

Witnesses can be a crucial piece of information on vital event registrations. Because witnesses are sometimes related to the principal parties, and because the nature of the relationship is often stated explicitly, this can provide a key clue in connecting seemingly independent branches of a family. Note that in the early (pre-1826) records, it is more common for witnesses to be relatives. In later records, there are usually “standard witnesses,” people who served as the witnesses for nearly every vital event registered. However, even in the later records, there are still examples of family members serving as witnesses.

The Paternal Uncle Connection
While researching my Cukierman ancestors in the municipality of Krasnystaw (village of Gory, Lublin gubernia), I constructed several independent trees: The family of Lipa Cukierman, the family of Beniamin Cukierman, the family of Berek Cukierman and the family of Zajwel Cukierman were chronicled through birth, death and marriage registrations of their children during the 1840s. Zajwel Cukierman was the only one for whom parents were identified, as the result of his 1848 death record.

The clue to identifying these four men as brothers was the witness section on three marriage records. Berek Cukierman served as a witness on the marriage record of Lipa’s daughter and Beniamin’s son. Zajwel Cukierman was a witness on the marriage record of Lipa’s son. In each case, the witness was identified as the paternal uncle (stryj) of the Cukierman bride or groom.

This not only provided several brothers for my great-great-great-grandfather Lipa Cukierman, but a father as well. Subsequent detailed study of the birth record of a son of Lipa showed that Zajwel’s father (Lipa’s father) was a witness on the document.

Same Family, Different Surnames
The Manela family of Checiny (which also used the surname Kwart) consisted of descendants from five sons of the progenitors Szlama and Golda Herszelow. These five brothers were born in the 1770s and 1780s. There was another Manela v Kwart family [see Note #1], which took on the surname Goldrat in 1821 during the Russian imposed surname mandate. The patriarch of this branch was Luka Goldrat, who was about ten years older than the eldest known Manela brother. Luka’s parents were Szlama and Szajndla.

Through many clues uncovered during the research of this enormous family, I suspected that Luka was half-brother to the five Manela brothers. However, I needed a firm piece of evidence. Szlama was too common a name to assume that both fathers were the same person.
The 1826 death record of Hana Ropsztain, a married daughter of one of the Manela brothers, provided the proof I needed. The witness was Luka Manela Goldrat. In the text of the record, no relationship was specified, but in the signature block, he was identified as the paternal uncle of the deceased.

Look at the Signatures
From the Jewish Civil Register of Checiny, Poland, 1830 death record #27. English translation of the original Polish text: It happened in the town of Checiny, on the fourteenth day of March in the year one thousand eight hundred thirty at nine o’clock in the morning. Appeared the Jews Szyia Manella, grandfather, stall keeper, fifty years and Erszel Waxman, hospital worker, forty years in age living in Checiny, and they declared that on the twenty fifth day of March in the current year, at six o’clock in the evening, died Laia Bakalarz, living in Checiny, one and a half years alive in age, daughter of Janas and Sora Kwart married name Bakalarz, not leaving behind a widow being underage. After verifying the death of Laia Bakalarz, this document was read to the witness and the grandfather of the deceased and signed by Szyia Manella, grandfather, and Erszel Waxman in Hebrew.
Szyia Manella Kwart, grandfather (Yiddish signature)
Erszel Waxman, witness (Yiddish signature)
Officer of Civil Records Bureau

From the text of the record, it is unclear how the grandfather is related, since his surname matches neither the father’s nor the mother’s. It is only in the signature block that his multiple surnames are revealed and he can then be identified as the father of the child’s mother. (Also note that the dates are erroneous. According to the way they appear in this document, the death was reported 11 days before it occurred).

Zostipca Oyca: Rudowski
I was performing extractions of the 1830 marriage records for Checiny, and although I didn’t typically extract witnesses during that era when so few were relatives of the families (most records show the same standard witness in a town), I had trouble deciphering the name of the groom from the text of the record. I looked in the signature block for clarification, and noticed that one of the signatures was a Boruch Majerkiewicz, zostipca oyca (substitute father). Studying the text of the record more carefully, it said that Boruch was the brother-in-law (szwagier) of the groom, Szymon Rudowski, son of Janas. I recognized the name Boruch Majerkiewicz; he was a direct ancestor of my friend and research partner Michael Tobias. Boruch had been married three times; Michael descended from the second wife, Malka Janusow.
I shared this exciting information with Michael, who had been unable to trace Malka’s family, since there was no surname and no town of origin for Malka. He was able to use the marriage record of Malka’s brother to reconstruct the Rudowski family in Checiny, and trace back further generations of both Rudowski and Majerkiewicz in Malagoszcz, a town mentioned in the Checiny marriage record. Michael’s only clue to the Rudowski family was the fact that his ancestor was a related witness to a Rudowski marriage.

Interesting Tidbits
Izbica Survivor Lists
Death records with comprehensive survivor lists are a true treasure, often yielding detailed information on family members whose own records may not be present in that town’s vital records register. In Izbica (Lublin gubernia), the survivor lists are embellished by listing siblings (and often their ages) for juvenile decedents, as well as married children along with their ages and spouses full names, for older decedents. Certain towns in Kielce and Radom gubernias also carry survivor lists that extend beyond simply the parents and/or spouse. Among them are Checiny and Wolanow, although they don’t typically include the other detailed information on the survivors, such as ages and spouses of the adult children.

Ajzenberg Orphans
From the Jewish Civil Register of Izbica, Poland, 1848 death registration #92. English translation of the original Polish text: It happened in the town of Izbica on the ninth day of October in the year eighteen forty eight, at four o’clock in the afternoon, appeared the Jews Josef Hochman, teacher, forty seven years in age, and Herszel Nudel, teacher, forty years in age, both living in the town of Izbica, and they declared that on the seventh day of October in the current year at six o’clock in the afternoon, died the Jewess Chaja Ajsenberg, married, fifty one years in age, daughter of Jojnes and Ryfka of unknown surname, survived by four children: Dyda, twenty six years of age; Wigdor, twenty three years of age; Josef Jojnes, fifteen years of age; and Majlech, nine years of age, all living in the town of Izbica, the three youngest living with their elder brother, Dydzia, professional baker. After verifying the death of the Jewess Chaia Ajzenberg, this document was read to the witnesses and they signed.
Josef Hochman (Yiddish signature)
Herszek Nudel (Yiddish signature)
USC Official (Polish signature)
[correction in the margin:] widow [see Note #2]

The Ajenberg family of Izbica is very well documented, and the full survivor list of the above record did not add any new names to my tree. However, if we are striving to learn about the lives of our ancestors, occasional tidbits of extraneous information can add to our understanding of their unique situations, such as the fate of the orphaned youngsters upon the death of their parents.

Grandparents on the Birth Record
From the Jewish Civil Register of Krasnystaw, Poland, 1826 birth registration #1. English translation of the original Polish text: It happened in the town of Krasnystaw, on the twentieth day of January in the year eighteen twenty six at nine o’clock in the morning. Appeared the Jew Herszel Liebmann, tailor of ladies’ garments, living in Krasnystaw, by the village of Gory, house number seventeen, twenty two years in age, in the presence of the witnesses Ire Lewkowicz, tailor, sixty four years in age, and Mortka Lewkowicz, thirty two years in age, both residing in Krasnystaw. And he showed us a female child, born here in Krasnystaw on the twentieth day of January in this same year at seven o’clock in the morning, of his wife Chana, daughter of Falek and Laia Rappaport, wife of Herszek Liebman, eighteen years in age, whom was given the double name Sara Bayla. This document was read to the witnesses with no opposition and neither the father nor the witnesses could write, signed only by
Registrar of Vital Statistics (Polish signature)

Only four birth records of the hundreds I extracted for Krasnystaw had grandparents explicitly listed. While the grandfathers sometimes served as witnesses in vital event registration, it is extremely uncommon to see grandmothers as well. In this case, there is no indication that the grandfather was present at all, but fortunately the names were embedded in the record.

Go beyond extracting critical information (name, parents, ages and occupations) from your vital records. Examine all the people mentioned, looking for relationship words. [One researcher] found a birth record that had a great-great-grandfather listed: (Metele, Suwalk gubernia, 1811 Birth #4). The grandfather and great-grandfather (aged 45 and 70, respectively) were the witnesses, and both were listed with their patronymics.
Be sure to look for phrases that vary from the standard template. These phrases may be a key to learning something additional about your family.

Note #1: v standing for the Latin word “vel” meaning “also known as.”
Note #2: Chaja Ajsenberg’s husband predeceased her by two days

Hidden Treasures in Polish Vital Records

Genealogy article about vital records for Jews in Russian Poland in the 1800s
Published in the Kielce and Radom Special Interest Group Journal: A Journal of Jewish Genealogical Information, Winter 1999