What are Yizkor Books and how to use them to enhance a genealogical work?

Table of Contents


What IS a Yizkor Book

Where to FIND a Yizkor Book

How to READ a Yizkor Book


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1998 © Copyrights Yigal Rechtman


The destruction of European Jewry in World War II was massive but not total. During the war many Jews fled to Russia, Israel, the United States and other countries. Others emerged in Europe after Germany's occupation ended. These survivors started a collective effort to recall and preserve the Jewish life that was destroyed under the Nazi occupation. Many groups of Holocaust survivors created memorial books about the specific areas they lived in. These books are known as Yizkor Books. The historical background of these books is in the war-time associations in America, Israel, Central-America and elsewhere that centered their activities around a town or geographic area. Typically, a group of ex-residents from a particular town in Eastern Europe would send aid to their hometown and be a resource to immigrants and refugees from their respective areas. Once the war was over, these associations, known as landsmanshaft, founded memorial committees. In turn, these committees produced one or more memorial publications for their respective hometown or its vicinity, known collectively as Yizkor Books. Sometimes, more than one book would be published. Sub-committees of survivors who lived in different countries collected and published their own books, overlapping at times with articles that were contributed by the same persons to different sub-committees. For example, the Lomza Yizkor book has two versions: Hebrew and English. The former was published in 1952 by the memorial committee in Israel; in 1957 a few of the Israeli articles were translated and added to a collection in English, published in the United States. At times the work was halted during the 1950s and continued later, with essays and details that were contributed over many years. As a result, a new genre of books appeared: Yizkor (memorial) books. Although not all books are actually called "Yizkor" books, they all share similar traits such as goal, format and similar content and style.

What's in a Yizkor Book

A Yizkor book typically contains several sections: First, a history of the town it commemorates, with special emphasis on its Jewish history and the first Jewish settlement in the area. Usually, documents are presented to show the original charter of Jewish settlement in the town or its vicinity, and settlement patterns discussed. Neighborhoods and close communities where Jews lived throughout the generations are also described. Often, the history of the leadership in the town is included, complete with biographical information of Rabbis (and sometimes cantors and other lay leaders) in the town. Typically, a large portion of a Yizkor Book is reserved for articles recalling the town. These vary in length, style and language. Some are personal articles describing one's family or neighbors, others recall childhood memoirs and still others narrate the escape story from a concentration camp or the last days of the Jewish community. There are stories about businesses, characters and places in the town. Although information can be incorrect or contradicting other narratives, it is often rich with personal information, and colorfully "brings to life" the lives of those who lived in the community. There are articles about the last days of the community during Nazi occupation, which tend to be somewhat confused, too, and describe a very fast chain of events, often citing people from all walks of life in the town.

Personal information is sometime trivially mentioned but carries important genealogical information. For example, a phrase in one Yizkor book which stated "my uncle Yosef came too, to greet me upon my departure" helped me uncover a previously unknown branch of the family. Commonly, the names of in-laws and even their relatives are named to commemorate one's family Yichus (pedigree or status). Narratives with historical perspective may detail families two and three centuries back. Many Yizkor books have small sections written by residents of nearby villages and shtetls (small settlements.)

Finally, almost all Yizkor books have the Yizkor section itself (which gave these books their general name). A memorial section is made of memorial "notices", commemorating families lost during the war. Originally, these notices were the way the memorial books' committees raised money for the publication. Therefore, a "notice" sometimes included related families and were often paid for by more than one survivor. As most memorials were paid for according to the space they took in the book survivors often crammed their notices with as many names as they could. As a result, cousins, in-laws and other relatives are mentioned, often with their relationship to the notice's contributor or to a common ancestor. So, by reading them carefully, relationships between families could be reconstructed.

Yizkor books also abound with photos about their subjects. Landscape, documents, events, associations, families and individual portraits can be found. Some include photos of professional associations, Zionist or Socialist movements and their activities, while others have images from family events, historic visits of heads of states or images from the Holocaust.

Where to Find a Yizkor Book

To actually find a Yizkor book is a challenging task. First, a researcher has to locate their town of interest and find any Yizkor books pertaining to that town. This can sometime be a difficult task, especially if one is searching for a small town or a village (small villages' memorials are often incorporated in the book of a neighboring larger city, and overlaps exist, albeit rarely). An excellent source to overcome this problem is the book Where Once We Walked by Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack (Teaneck NJ: Avotaynu, 1991), commonly known by its acronym as WOWW. WOWW employs a modified soundex method named after one of its creators, the Daitch-Mokotoff soundex (known also as DM-index). DM-Soundex is a successful focus on converting the most obscure and mispronounced placenames (in Eastern Europe) to their appropriate town or village name, provides a consistent code to a whole set of similar names. By utilizing a soundex system that was designed with Eastern European and Jewish name variation, DM-Soundex solves the problem of inconsistent variations of names as they were transliterated between languages. For example, WEBREMCHEK and VEBRANCHEK have the same DM-Soundex code but not the same soundex code. WOWW includes references to many of the resources available for a given town, including an indication of the existence of Yizkor book for that town or village. Another finding aid is the JewishGen web site (URL is detailed below,) with its Shtetl Finder and the Yizkor Book Web Page. Searching libraries indexes by keywords that include the town's name could also yield results. But one should be aware that spelling variations abound and if no results return from a library's catalogue, WOWW should be consulted, and using the DM-soundex method, the town's name (and its common variations) should be obtained and the catalogue search retried.

If a Yizkor book exists, a researcher can expect to find a vast amount of genealogical material on the community where an ancestor lived and possibly about their family. It is rewarding to locate a "blurb", a paragraph or possibly a whole article about an ancestor. However, these books' editors meant to commemorate, not necessarily to archive, the memory of their communities. Therefore, retrieval of information is somewhat problematic. Besides the language barrier, there is no immediate way to find references to people without reading the whole book. Since most Yizkor books are in Hebrew or Yiddish (sometimes a small English section is included,) one's best aid in searching for a person is the book's index and table of contents. An index, if one is fortunate to find one in a Yizkor Book, may be helpfully broad (including every references to individuals and events), or may refer to only a few key subjects in articles and narratives. The table of contents sometimes describes key subjects in a narratives, and because the book is a collection of contributed narratives, the article's author's name is often included. Thus, with only minimum knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet a researcher can look up the table of contents and look for a name that is of interest. Another easy searching tool is the Yizkor section where the memorial "notices" are usually arranged alphabetically by the contributor, and where the memorial text follows a similar pattern, with remembered names in a larger typeface. The order is sometimes inconsistent: some books follow it stickily, while others do it according the first contributor's last name (when there is more than one). Often a separate and partially overlapping English or Yiddish Yizkor section is also at hand. Finally, with a bit of luck a list of illustrations may give clues about photos that show a sought-after person. Photos are typically placed near the article that describe them, but I find that this is not always the case. Photos, besides their collectible value contain their own piece of information, whether in their caption or by studying the subject closely.

How to Search in a Yizkor Book

When searching for an individual, remember that names were often transliterated from Yiddish, Russian, Polish, English, German, or Spanish to the language of the book. Transliterated names are often confusing and inaccurate and as a result, names were spelled and pronounced in different ways. Because name variations are sometime hard to master, a consultation with a translator could yield results where none were seen prior. However, more information is stashed in the Yizkor book that can ascertain from all the original indexes. In 1992 I started indexing the Lomza Yizkor book (incidently, the book is called Sefer Zikaron Le Kehilat Lomza and does not bear the word "Yizkor" in its title). The index contains some 300 entries, including the list of illustrations. However, an additional 5,000 entries were added after the entire book was indexed. This exemplifies the ratio of references that are not available by a simple scan of the Yizkor book's table of contents and index. Some researchers have solved their own language barrier by pulling funds together, enabling them to hire translators to translate (or index) large portions of a Yizkor book of their mutual interest. (The Shtetl Link Web site at www.JewishGen.org is a helpful way to find such associations and how to start one up, if needed.)

Recently there have been efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to index and translate Yizkor books to English. Name indices and translations of narratives were published by genealogical societies and sometimes by individuals. An extensive catalogue of these efforts as well as general information about Yizkor books, how and where to obtain copies or translated materials, and other related material is available at JewishGen's World Wide Web site at http://www.jewishgen.org -- a useful Web page devoted to Yizkor Books. The web site includes detailed names of libraries to contact for Yizkor books, Yizkor books which are indexed or translated, and general communiqué about the topic.

Once a genealogist finds a Yizkor book, and once she or he locates any entries in the book that pertain to their ancestors there are several ways they could take. First, a Yizkor book is a good way to find out about related families. Because many narratives include womens' maiden names and in-laws are often named, marriages and relatives could be further discovered. Even though they may be of lines that are not investigated, information could be found in the vital records for the related family, especially if marriage record can be obtained. However, vital records are not always extant, and the Yizkor book might be the only source available. In narratives and picture captions, one should be mindful of maiden names as well as the "modern" names that surviving relatives have assumed once out of Europe (Israel, the United States, South America, Ireland, etc.) Many Holocaust survivors changed their names in order to conform to their new country. A Yizkor book could be a good starting point in locating surviving family by both names' versions. Although many are dead by now, a researcher should attempt to make contact with a surviving relative or the narrator that describes an ancestor in the Yizkor book. (Some have left narratives that were not published by the Yizkor committee, and these have the potential to enlighten a genealogist with more details.) Furthermore, even if a contributor is not directly related to your family, it could be helpful to locate them or their families, because this could lead you further to still-existing Landsmenschafts or their now-dispersed members.

Extant photos might be helpful in refreshing memories with an older relative and are a special collectible for a genealogist's album. If the genealogist is publishing a book it could be nice to quote a Yizkor book with narratives of relatives about bygone ancestors. (However, one must beware of copyright laws which can bring about a wild goose chase for the appropriate reproduction permission.)

For hard-to-find families, even if the family name does not appear in the book, it can still be of use to a researcher. In the first section, migration and settlement patterns are discussed and they can be instrumental in following the paths of elusive ancestors. For example, in my search for RECHTMAN ancestors from Suwalk, Poland I found - in Kehilat Suwalk - that the Jews were expelled from Suwalk in the 1850s. Although there is no reference to my ancestors in any of the book's sections, I can trace the potential cities of relocation of my family, to learn where they did spend a generation, before returning to Suwalk in the later decades of the 19th century. A map is often included with a discussion which in some cases may be the only reproducible map of the area in a particular period. In some Yizkor books, an actual address book of survivors from a town, village or geographic area is included. At times this can be very helpful to either track down potential informants or relatives or simply another source of easily-scanned information.


In sum, Yizkor books were written to commemorate bygone Jewish communities and serve as an excellent (and often the only) genealogical source. They include general local history and information about many residents of the Jewish community of the town or city they describe. Although one will not always find a reference to ancestors or relatives, a Yizkor Book is a useful starting point in researching both parish and survived branches of one's family. A Yizkor book is not always called that way (sometimes they are titled "Kehilat such-and-such" or "Toldot 'city-name', etc.), but they mostly follow a similar pattern. A Yizkor book will often contain large amount of information about individuals, families, clans and communities, including historical references which are otherwise hard to find such as the Jewish origin in an area and settlement patterns of Jews on a local basis. They are partially indexed and may require help of a translator.


Some factual confirmation and over-all review is gratefully acknowledged to Mr. Bruce Kahn, of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Rochester, New York.

Yigal Rechtman 1998 ©