The first place to start is always with your family. My brother had done a lengthy interview with my father a number of years ago, which was a good starting point in some ways and frustrating in others, as there were many gaps in Dad’s memory. For this entry, the main thing of note is that Dad believed his father, Leo (Leib in Yiddish) NADEL, was born in Vilna and that his parents were Pinchas NADEL and Civia CHVOLES.
With that information, I went to Jewish Gen and searched the All Lithuania Database with surname NADEL and given name Leib. (I should note that Jewish Gen is free, but you do have to register. Of course, if you find it helpful, you should send in a donation.) The All Lithuania Database includes vital records (births, deaths, marriages and divorces), revision lists, tax records, and lots of other odds and ends. There were hits in several different databases for that search and I started with the births. Sure enough, there is a record for Leib NODEL, born on 18 Sep 1906 in Vilnius whose father is Pinchas, paternal grandfather Leib, mother Tsivia, and maternal grandmother Khatzkel. There are also records that appear to be for two siblings – Benjamin, born 2 Nov 1907 in Vilnius, and Masha, born 18 May 1909 in Naujoji Vilnius. There is also a note that the family is from what is listed as either Dusiatsky or Dusetos, depending on the record.
Problem 1: Orthography:
The difference between NADEL and NODEL is just a difference in who was transcribing the record, which was written in Yiddish (or, in some cases, Hebrew) into the Latin alphabet. Similarly, Civia is the same as Tsivia, because the letter "c" is pronounced as "ts" in Lithuanian. The records from the period of independent Lithuania are even more complex, because they added gendered suffixes, so that males would be NODELIS and females NODELIENE.
As an even better example of how complex this can get, I mentioned previously that my KHONKEL family became HANKIN in the United States and aliceinfinland asked for an explanation.. The vowel transformation is easy, as vowels are almost always a matter of transcribing someone’s accent in a not necessarily intuitive way. The "kh" to "h" is also simple, since the former is really the voiceless velar fricative (i.e. like the "ch" in "loch"). So the only real mystery is how they got from an "l" to an “n.” I can think of two possibilities – misinterpretation of Cyrillic handwriting (the two letters look quite similar in cursive) or an intermediate step to KHONKELN, which would be a Germanic pluralization of the family name.
In fact, the problem gets even more complicated by the years in which the Russians were ruling over the region, because there is no letter "h" in Russian and the usual custom is to write the name with a "g" instead. So, for example, the man’s name shown as "Girsh" could be either short for "Gershon" or a Russification of "Hirsh."
Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about most of this, because you have options to search the databases by "sounds like." That option will also take into account the equivalence of "c" and "ts," "s" and "sh," "w" and "v," "b" and "p," and so on, some of which are due to sound, some due to potential confusion in handwritten records. (By the way, the confusion between the Hebrew letters "sin" and "shin" is well-known as a Litvak peculiarity and was something I noticed when my father spoke Hebrew.)
Problem 2: Names of Towns:
Depending on what year it was, what language you are dealing with, and who was in charge, the name of a town could be quite different. So Dusiatsky, Dusetos, Dusyat are all the same place. Similarly, Kaunas is Kovno and Josvainiai is Yasven in Yiddish. Even more confusingly, Villiampole is Slobodka and Daugavpils (Latvia) is Dvinsk in Yiddish. Fortunately, there are lists that match things up for you. The reason this is important is that looking in specific towns can narrow down a search quite a lot if you are dealing with a common name and can help ensure you are looking at the right family. The Shtetl Links database on Jewish Gen is also helpful for historical background on the towns.
Problem 3: Multiple Names for the Same Person:
This doesn’t necessarily come up a lot if you are looking within records from one country, but comes up with respect to immigration records. It can also come up when looking at tombstones. For example, my father’s name was Eric NADEL. In some records, right after he came to the U.S., he spelled his first name as Erich. But you won’t find any European records for him under that name. All of those (if they existed, which they don’t to the best of my knowledge) show him as Ephraim. (Actually, there is one record – a list of Lithuanian Jewish Holocaust survivors.)
Similarly, all of the Lithuanian records for my grandfather have his first name as Leib, but he used Leo in the U.S. and his Hebrew name was Aryeh. All three of those mean "lion."
Things get even more complicated when you consider nicknames. And people who go by their middle names. Some of these will get picked up by the more inclusive search options, while other times you just have to try creative search options.
Yet another complication in this category is specific to women and involves divorce and remarriage. The whole subject makes my head hurt, frankly. The one saving grace is that some of the records from the period of independent Lithuania do show both the maiden name and name of previous husband for divorced women.
Problem 4: Conflicting Records:
Now, let’s turn to the search I mentioned above. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem is that my grandfather’s naturalization documents (both his declaration of intention and actual naturalization certificate) claim that he was born on 20 Oct 1907 in Kovno, Lithuania.
This particular case is simple enough to resolve. It was not uncommon for Shoah survivors to lie about their birthdates to make it harder for the Nazis to track them. I knew my father had done this, but had not realized his father had also. And I can verify the 1906 date is for the right person because there is also an internal passport record for Leib NODEL. It not only indicates he is a shoemaker, but should have a photo of him when I obtain the actual record, not just an index to it. And it says he was born in 1906.
Further Searching – Grandpa’s Generation: That first search above gave me a few new pieces of information – names a generation further back than I knew, as well as a place name. But even before that, there were still hits from the first search I didn’t mention. Among the death records, I found that Pinkhos NODEL, my great-grandfather, died of appendicitis on 15 Dec 1909 in Vilnius at age 45. So that means he was born in 1864. And Grandpa was only 3 years old when he lost his father. That raises all sorts of interesting questions about what his mother did and where the family went.
So what about Grandpa’s siblings? Benjamin died in Vilnius of pneumonia on 2 Oct 1912 at the age of 5. So the family stayed in Vilnius at least a few more years.
Now, Masha is an interesting problem. There is no death or marriage record for her. But there is an illegitimate birth of a Rokhel NADEL on 1 Feb 1931 in Panevezys whose mother could be her. It’s not conclusive since there is a birth record for another Masha NODEL in 1904. I tried searching for NADEL in Panevezys, but didn’t turn up anything that had an obvious connection. So far, there is a dead end as far as she is concerned.
My Father’s Generation:
Let’s take a brief look at my father’s generation. I know I won’t find my father in the Lithuanian records, since he was born in Koenigsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad, Russia) on 1 September 1930. (The American records say 15 Sep 1929, because Dad had lied to the Nazis and the original records were not available. He celebrated both dates as his birthday.) We know he had at least 2 sisters, who according to Nahum FEINSTEIN in a page of testimony at Yad Vashem were named Michla and Leah. If they died in Auschwitz in 1944 when they were 11 and 7 respectively (along with my grandmother), then Michla was born in 1933 and Leah in 1937. I did find a little other info in the death records from the Jewish Gen search. My grandparents had a stillborn child on 24 Aug 1929. That probably explains why his mother mistrusted Lithuanian doctors and went to Koenigsberg. They also had a daughter, Rochel, who died of pneumonia on 16 April 1938 at the age of 1 year, 9 months. So she was born about September 1936.
I will briefly note that Grandpa did remarry after the war and had two more daughters. It’s my general policy not to write publicly about living people in these posts, so that’s all I’ll say on that subject.
One More Note About My Grandfather: I will have some things to say about the earlier generations in another post, since this is long enough. But I wanted to note the single thing I found that made me say "wow" out loud. One of the other databases in the search is of Yizkor books, memorial books printed by various communities. There is one very lengthy one called Lita (Yiddish for Lithuania) and there was a link to two pages of it from my search. What I discovered is that Grandpa had actually written an article (title translated as "Elchanan the Shoemaker") for this book, which was published in New York in 1951. I assume this was due to a connection from his Landsmanschaft (an organization of people from the same community) and the chapter hasn't been translated yet, but it was an exciting find. I haven't figured out where his name shows up on the other page, yet, which didn't appear to be related, so (as always) there is more to do.