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Alex and Nadya Lipes: A person needs roots in order to feel confident in this world

A discussion on genealogy, searching for relatives, Mormons and working in archives

Alex and Nadya Lipes are the founders of jewinfo.com.ua and jewua.info, the first Ukrainian project which provides services of genealogical archive studies and compiles family excursion routes based on them. During their years of work the researchers have helped over 1,000 clients to find their roots, and the electronic database created by the Lipes family contains over 300,000 documents..

How did your interest in genealogy begin?

Nadya Lipes: I studied at the International Solomon University, and I have a degree in sociology. But I began my education at the faculty of Jewish studies, thanks to which I learned about the history of the Jewish people. In the Soviet Union the history of the Jewish people did not exist as a concept, all my relatives were Soviet Jews who knew little about the culture, traditions, and their own roots. After half a year of studying at this faculty, I realized the greatness of Jewish history. And generally, history had interested me from childhood, and so had genealogy. In the fifth year at school I drew up a family trees of the Ryurikovichs, to which I later had to add the family tree of the French kings, as they were all direct descendants of Anna Yaroslavna.

My grandfather constantly worked on the family tree of my grandmother, who died when I was three. That’s my background. And then, in 2008, when the crisis hit, I heard from a friend who had opened courses for Jewish guides. She invited me to attend them. One of the sections of the course was archive work, literally a few lessons. I went to the archive to work on my genealogical table, and I got drawn into it.

Alex Lipes: I was always interested about who my ancestors were, because I was interested about who I should become. This is one of the main reasons for studying your genealogy, probably, it takes place at a subconscious level. When you know what your ancestors did, you understand what abilities you may have.

And the professional stimulus was provided by my wife, when she started working on this. Over time I joined her, and now we’ve been working together for three years.

Working in the archives is not suitable for everyone and requires patience, along with special skills. How do you keep up your interest in what you do?

A.L.: Our interest is kept up by the things we find. We regularly share interesting findings on Facebook.

When you sit in the archives all day, and then you find a document which makes it clear that a certain Jew by the name of Gulko went on a spree with a Russian lady in 1799 (before Jews had surnames), you start to think about how surnames came into being. And then you want to find out the details of this. At these moments, stimulus for further work appears.

N.L.: I’m a scholar, I always had this sort of mindset. In the archives I search for and find confirmation of my theories. This experience is incomparable with any education, even higher education.

Semyon Dubnov, the first Jewish historian who tried to organize Jewish history in systematic publications did not have any education at all, he didn’t even go to school…

A.L.: One of our most recent theories is quite curious. In our work we often encounter histories of people who converted from Judaism to Christianity. In the mid-19th century, there were up to 500 cases of this every year, they were all documented in records of courts, the police and a number of other quite diverse records. Based on this, we decided that there are no native inhabitants of Ukraine who do not have Jewish blood in their veins.

This isn’t difficult to check. I plan to develop this topic, and study the history of Christian converts, these statistics were kept in the empire. Dubnov said that in the 19th century 4 million Jews lived on the territory of the empire, in the pale of settlement. A percentage of these millions converted to the Orthodox faith. It would be interesting to calculate the number of their descendants.

N.L.: At present there are four companies that study DNA, and people are starting to take an interest in this topic. And a person comes along, has a test and discovers he has two percent Jewish blood. And then he’s surprised, and asks, where did this come from, all my ancestors were Ukrainian.

Recently a growing number of people have been researching their roots. What causes the increasing interest in this topic?

N.L.:. There’s nothing new in history, it develops in a spiral. The Jews always knew the history of their families, at least before the era of changes – the start of the 20th century. Then came the Holocaust, which destroyed the memory of those who had kept it until the 1940s, because the children who survived no longer remembered anything. And now all of these children have reached a mature age and realize that they lack something. People cannot come from nowhere, people need roots, so that they can feel confident in this world.

In 1976,the Jewish genealogical society opened in Washington, which began to hold conferences and attracted more and more people. And then other nationalities living in America began to take an interest in this. Why did the interest grow there? It’s a country of emigrants. They’re no one there who can stamp their feet and say: we’re the native population, and you’ve come and overrun the place. The native population was almost completely exterminated, and it was the others who overran the place.
And they were all together in the same boat, proudly stating that they were Americans. But then it turned out that besides the label of “American”, there should also be some other background, a knowledge of your own history. And the process got started – Italians and Germans joined the genealogical fashion. Now the entire world is interested in this.

I’ve been to Salt Lake City twice, where Mormons keep archives that were copied from all over the world. You can find a huge number of people of different ethnic groups there – Japanese, Koreans, French and so on. Even the descendants of American slaves taken from Africa go there and find their relatives, despite the fact that the last slave was taken from Africa 150 years ago.
Our country is the unluckiest of all. Such unnatural phenomena as fires and wars have taken place here too often. What’s more, documents were destroyed intentionally.

A.L.: I would like to talk about the several types of clients we have, to make it clear why people are interested in genealogy.
The first type of people look for confirmation of Jewishness. Clients of this type have two goals: one group needs confirmation of Jewishness by Halakhah, for example for a Rabbinical court at a Jewish wedding, the second type need documents for repatriation to Israel. There used to be fewer of these clients, but now for obvious reasons there have become more of them.
The next type of clients are people who because of their status need to know who they are. They are representatives of serious business who must understand who they are, and where they came from.

N.L.: At the same time many want to find their connection with members of high society. I’ve heard from my colleagues that a lot of people came to the archive asking for nobility books – they know for certain that they are from the nobility, apparently.
A.L.: Also people come to us who consider themselves to be pure-blooded Germans, but they turn out to be Jews. The surnames are similar. Or on the contrary, I tell a client that he has a German grandmother and that he can go to Germany quite easily. But he doesn’t want to, he wants to go to Israel.

The third type of people are people of advanced age, some of them lived through the Holocaust. Everything that connected them with their roots in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova has been broken. There are also members of families who left before the revolution, after the pogroms….

The same family from different ends of the planet may come to us at the same time, not even suspecting that these relatives exist. We’ve seen this happen three times.

N.L.: It’s amazing. People sit around for 100 years, and nothing interests them. And then in three months three different branches of one family start to order research into their genealogy. And I tell them that they have more relatives….

A.L.: The most recent example: there’s the village Narodichi, in the Zhitomir Oblast. Before the revolution there was a compact Jewish community there, of 100-150 families, Naturally, half of the village was related.

N.L.: In our practice, we never get two orders at the same time for one village. But the last conference was attended by five people who were all from Narodichi.

A.L.:. These five families left Narodichi at different times, independently from one another. For some reason they all emigrated to Chicago, settled in different city districts and quite independently opened their own laundry businesses. These families have been living in Chicago for over 100 years. They worked in the laundry business and had no idea about one another’s existence until recently. And suddenly they went to us at the same time to research their genealogy. We went through our databases and almost immediately informed them that they were all relatives. After the DNA tests this was all confirmed.

How far back have you traced your own genealogical lines?

A.L.: It’s important to understand that genealogical lines in Ukraine can be traced back to a certain moment. Until around 1804, Jews living here did not have surnames, as in this year a decree was issued by which Jews took surnames that differed from Orthodox ones, to make it easier to calculate taxation. This was the reason that surnames appeared.

Most people can only trace their line back to this moment.

N.L.: My earliest known ancestor was born in 1710. We know about him because he died in 1804, and he was indicated in the census. The earliest census is dated to 1795, in some places there are surnames, despite the fact that they did not yet officially exist. If there is a need to find “older” data, you can look through court documents. Additionally, there is some information about the Jews of Volyn, we take information about them from the records of castles. So theoretically you can go further back into history, but I haven’t come across this yet.

A.L.: Additionally, throughout the entire 19th century, there was the concept of a census record, when information about taxpayers was recorded. This is a direct genealogical document. Additionally, there are registry books, the earliest is dated 1837 – on Zhitomir, for example.

But we differ from other researchers in that besides direct documentation we also use indirect kinds. We work with police and court records. Practically every Jew was kept track of, especially in the early 20th century. Practically everyone who lived in large cities has personal cases, which are kept somewhere. There was also the Tsarist secret police, any court hearing – the surnames are contained there with a description of family members. Very often these documents are the only source of genealogical information. But there are tons of documents of this kind, and to work through the Kiev archives alone, it took a group of five people five years of intensive work.

How much information do clients usually have when come to you? And what necessary minimum of information do they need to know to request a study from you?

A.L.: They don’t need any at all. Some people just write to us – help me to confirm my Jewishness. That’s all. Or a surname, and that the family was from Ukraine. That’s the best case. In fact, the price of our services depends on the amount of information that a person has. When there are details and we understand where to look, the price is lower. When we only know that there was a big river in the town where the client’s grandfather lived, the price is higher. We also find inquiries like this, by the way.

We organize trips to places where our clients’ ancestors lived. People have been living in America for a long time, for example, but they know that their ancestors are from Uman. In 50% of cases we can even find the residential address of their ancestors in 1897 thanks to the census. Even if the streets no longer exist, we can still find the place where this house stood. Sometimes we also find the houses…

The main information that we need is the name, patronymic and surname, the approximate years of birth and place of residence. But people should also know what they want to find and why they are doing this. The majority of our Russian-speaking clients ask to “find their genealogical line”, and it turns out that these people simply want to find documents for repatriation to Israel. The level of documents in a search you make for yourself is one thing, but the level required by an embassy is another, and clients sometimes don’t understand this… You shouldn’t be ashamed of this, this is absolutely normal.

What are the main difficulties in working with Ukrainian archives? Is the process of digitalizing databases underway?

A.L.: The biggest problem of the archives is that they work according to the Soviet model. And the Soviet model is “nothing, for no one, never”. Before the revolution everything was somewhat different, in those times documents were issued for a building. What a shame that these times are gone.

The first problem is the completely incorrect attitude to storing documents, a lack of understanding of the power that these documents have. This isn’t because the employees have malicious intentions – everyone tries to do their work well, but not all the archives have equipment which can provide conditions for proper work. Money for the archives doesn’t come from the state treasury. And so documents die, you get a document in your hands and you realize that in ten years it will be gone.
As for digitization, it is not carried out. We’ve just heard that people want to digitize the Vinnitsky archive, and this is by the efforts of researchers, and not the state.

N.L.: Genealogists got together and convinced the head of the archive to give them access to the documents which were covered in crop dust. For that reason, a lot of things were not issued – at one time people tried to preserve documents by covering them with crop dust, a very poisonous substance.

A.L.: There are some archives and documents which people tried to digitize, but there is a problem here. When archives are taken for digitization, according to the rules they should be closed. In the Kiev archive there is the census of 1897, which is the main document for us and our colleagues. In one year of digitizing, archive employees photographed 60 books. This took a whole year, until the entire archive was closed. The archive has over 5,000 books, and in a year 60 were digitized. People started to complain, write in and explain that this was the main archive and source, and that it could not be closed. Digitization stopped and the archive was opened.

There are archive that you cannot get your hands on because they cannot be taken out of storage. There are court records of the Oblast archive, which are not located at Melnikova, but at the depository on Vladimirskaya. There hasn’t been any electricity at this depository for years, and for this reason cases can’t be found. The cases are there, but they can’t be found… And there are interesting materials there about the first revolutionary organizations and events in Kiev. When will we be able to get access to them? No one knows.

When we saw the situation in the archives, Nadya and I began to make our own database five years ago. Every Jewish document which came into our hands in those years was described. We have all the surnames and all the information. We realize that the database would work when we began to find people who were wrong in their assumptions about the place of residence of their relatives.

There are also problems with photography, because each archive sets its own price for a photograph. In one archive it’s almost free, and in another it costs a considerable amount. All archives are subordinate to the Justice Ministry, but in each of them there is a person in charge who is the local emperor and sets the rules himself. They also think up reasons for refusing to photograph documents.

Once an attempt was made to prohibit us from photographing documents concerning the pogroms of 1917-1922. It’s a difficult topic, an interesting one, but unfortunately no one wants to know about it. We weren’t prohibited directly – they just wanted to take money for each application. Not only the list from beginning to end is considered to be a document, a small telegram is also a separate document, and photographing it costs 81 hryvnia. To photograph a case of 100 pages, we would have had to pay 8,000 hryvnia.

N.L.: The funniest thing was that this particular document had already been photographed four times, and four time the archive received money for it from different structures.

A.L.: We didn’t know it at the time, but now we know that these documents were digitized by the Holocaust museum in Washington. They invited me to the museum and permitted me to copy everything there. Generally, half of the Jewish registry books for Ukraine have been digitized, and are held at the Mormon center in Salt Lake City, and you can also acquire copies of them there absolutely free of charge. They have the goal of converting everyone to Mormonism. So they collect lists of dead people, in order to do this posthumously. It’s very interesting, their religion is focused on gathering information.

How many clients have come to you during your work? What success has your firm had? Do your findings change people’s lives?

A.L.: Of course they do, we find living relatives, we reunite lost families.

N.L.:I posted my family tree online, and a woman from the USA who is an amateur genealogist saw it. She connected my family tree with a branch of my relatives who fled to America after the pogroms of 1922. We are in contact. In February I took a Jewish name in the synagogue of my second cousin in the USA.

A.L.: I’ve never counted, but I can say that in a month we complete four to five successful projects. The percentage of failures is very low – we turn down many inquiries at the initial stage, as for some villages there is no information at all.

There are towns and regions where the archives were burnt completely. There are only court cases which are not organized, and which you have to spend years looking through. We honestly warn people that in this case they will have to risk their own expenses without any guarantee of a result.



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