Belorussian Genealogy

Last night, I attended a talk by Yuri Dorn of the Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus. He spoke primarily about 19th century Jewish history in Belarus and methods of doing genealogical research, exactly what I was hoping to learn about, as my father’s father’s family was from Kletsk, a shtetl near Minsk, Belarus.

A couple of the nuggets of information that I got from the history related to the names and the military service. Jews did not have last names, traditionally, referring to people by their first names and then “son of” or “daughter of” their father. In 1798, the Russian government (the area was part of the Russian Empire at the time) decreed that all people should have last names, so they could track them better for census and tax purposes. I expect that the Sepersky (Tseperskij) name was created at that time, probably based on the Tsepra region, near Kletsk, though I have no documentation to support that.

Throughout the 1800s, Jewish boys were required to serve in the military, at time as young as age 12 and as long as 25 years. Over time, the laws changed, to be age 19 and only 3 years, but this was still highly disruptive to Jewish life. One of my grandfather’s brothers claimed that the family moved to America to keep him from having to serve in the military. That was one of the big incentives for Jewish emigration from Russia in the 19th century.

The two main difficulties in researching my ancestors from that area are that the records are not complete, many having been damaged or destroyed over the years, and that they are not easily accessible. Very few of them are online. The best ways to do this research are to make requests to the Belorussian officials, hire private genealogists from the area, or to travel to Belarus and hire a translator and do it yourself. None of these options are easy or inexpensive.

I don’t have any current plans to travel to Minsk. For now, I’ll probably just hold out hope that Belarus becomes more open with their history and allows more of their information to be digitized.

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