Estonia Toolkit

By Allison Dolan Premium

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English-Estonian Dictionary


Estonia Message Boards


Estonia Genealogy Forum




How to Find Relatives in Estonia



Estonia and the Estonians, 2nd edition, by Toivo U. Raun (Hoover Institution Press, $24.95)

Estonian Experience and Roots: Ethnic Estonian Genealogy with Historical Perspective, Social Influences and Possible Family History Resources by Sigrid Renate Maldonado (As Was Publishing, $24)

The Estonians in America, 1627-1975: A Chronology and Fact Book edited by Jaan Pennar (Oceana Publications, out of print)

A Guide to Jewish Genealogy in Latvia and Estonia by Arlene Beare (Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, $10 from Box 27061, London N2 0GT, England; see <>)


• Embassy of Estonia

2131 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, (202) 588-0101, <

• Estonian American National Council

243 E. 34th St., New York, NY 10016, (212) 685-0776, <>

Estonian Genealogical Society

Pk4419, 10511 Tallinn, Estonia, <>

Estonian Historical Archives (Ajalooarhiiv)

J. Liivi 4, 50409 Tartu, Estonia, + 372 (7) 387 500, <>

National Archives of Estonia(Riigiarhiiv) Maneézi 4,15019 Tallinn, Estonia, +372 (o) 693 8m, <>

National Library of Estonia

Tonismägi 2,15189 Tallinn, Estonia, +372 (o) 630 7611, <>

You should also become familiar with different names for your family’s province and town — many places have names in multiple languages. Take L’re viv, Ukraine: It’s been known as Lvov in Russian, Lwów in Polish, Lvuv in Yiddish and Lemburg in German. The city was the historical center of Galicia (Halycbyna in Ukrainian), an area now split between Poland and Ukraine. Gazetteers will help you unpuzzle these name switches and locate defunct and tiny towns. Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack’s Where Once We Walked (Avotaynu, $85) is especially valuable for Jewish researchers because it identifies pre-Holocaust towns. Check the FHL catalog at <> for gazetteers that cover your ancestral country.

Ethnic organizations also may have resources and researchers for you to consult. The Balzekas Museum for Lithuanian Culture, for example, assists in town research. And don’t forget online resources, such as the Jewish-Gen Shtetl Seeker at <>. This place-name database is useful for all Eastern European researchers.

Once you’ve identified the name and town, you’ll face a dizzying array of potential languages in European documents. Records from the USSR or Russian Empire are usually in Russian. Depending on the place and time, records may be in Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Yiddish, German or Latin in addition to or in place of your ancestors’ native language.

Don’t panic — not even the most dedicated genealogist will master all those tongues. “You don’t need to speak the language at all,” assures Weiner. “You can work with a translator.” Ethnic and professional genealogy groups can recommend translators, or consult the online directories for the Federation of East European Family History Societies <> and the Association of Professional Genealogists <>.

So stick to learning basics such as foreign alphabets and key genealogical terms, and be able to recognize names and places. The Routes to Roots Foundation Web site, which Weiner created and maintains, has a key to Russian genealogical terms and downloadable alphabet charts for nine languages at <>. Following the Paper Trail offers genealogical word lists for Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, German and Latin, plus sample records and their translations.

Recording your past

Perhaps the greatest challenge of roots research in the former Soviet Union is limited access to records. Weiner has been conducting archive research there since 1991 and warns the work isn’t easy: Records aren’t fully microfilmed, organized or digitized as they are here, and finding aids are scarce. “It’s very often difficult to determine what records exist for a specific town,” she says. Worse, some records have been destroyed, which means your family tree might be stunted by gaps in the archives’ collections.

Record-keeping in the Russian Empire mostly resembled the practices elsewhere in Europe. Vital records were the purview of the church before the government stepped in. Older parish registers are usually held by an archive, while more recent ones (within the last 75 years) are in civil registration offices, says Kahlile Mehr, an FHL collection development specialist. The government took 10 poll-tax censuses, referred to as revision lists (revizskie skazki), between 1719 and 1859. They’re organized by place, then by social class, such as nobility (dvorianstvo), peasants (krest’re iane), Cossacks (kazaki) and Jews (yevreyski). Surviving revision lists are in regional and historical archives, as are remaining copies of the 1897 census of the entire empire.

Some records have been microfilmed by the FHL. Its Estonian records represent the most complete film collection for any Eastern European country. But that’s the exception — the library has several thousand church books for Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, close to 25,000 for Ukraine and 45,000 for fewer than a dozen Russian provinces, plus assorted tax, census and other records. To see exactly which records are available, try a place search of the FHL catalog. You’ll also find a good rundown of available Jewish records at <>.

Another option is to write to the archives — success on this front is increasing. Some national archives, including Belarus and Ukraine, have even put instructions and fees on their Web sites (see page 51). But responses from the archives vary. Weiner says your level of success will depend on the archives’ location, facilities, equipment and communications. You also have to provide detailed information about the searches you want and send the fees (nonrefundable, of course) in advance. Your best bet, when possible, is to determine whether the records you want exist before you request archive research. You’ll find some inventories on archives’ Web sites and through the FHL. Jewish researchers have an excellent resource in the Routes to Roots Foundation’s Eastern European Archival Database <>: It catalogs surviving archival records in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova and Ukraine.

When microfilmed records are unavailable and the archives’ response is dubious, your wisest choice is probably to hire a professional. But Weiner urges caution. “It’s like the Wild West with people setting up research services,” she says. Some researchers are seizing a moneymaking opportunity, peddling services to foreigners regardless of the researchers’ experience or qualifications. You should always get references from previous clients and a written agreement that outlines costs, the method of payment, a time frame for completing the research and the format of the researcher’s report.

The final option, now that the doors to your ancestral homeland are finally open, is traveling there to research yourself. If that’s your plan, however, Weiner warns that you might not get the results you hope for. The archives’ staff likely won’t speak English, and they don’t work at the speed we’re accustomed to. You might travel those thousands of miles only to be told that the archives will send you an answer later.

But if you do decide to go, preparation is key. Contact the archives well in advance to find out the facility’s hours, policies and holdings. Bring a translator with you — it’s tedious work, and you’ll want to accomplish as much as possible in the time you have.

Still, these challenges are little cause for disappointment or discouragement. Today’s maybe is better than yesterday’s nyet. “Who ever dreamed we could even do this?” says Weiner. Indeed, many Americans with roots in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could barely imagine these new family history possibilities, or the chance to walk in their ancestors’ footsteps. The iron curtain is history — and you can finally reclaim your family’s past for the future.

From the February 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

Regional Resources



<>: Free Russian and Lithuanian translations.

Family History Library Catalog


FEEFHS Map Room: Russian Empire


GenForum: Countries Forums <>: Message boards for your ancestral country.



Mailing Lists

<>: Click on your ancestral country.

Petro Jacyk Resource Centre

<>: Find Cyrillic fonts and alphabets in the Fonts section of PJRC Resources.


•A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from the Russian Empire by Alexander Beider (Avotaynu, $75)

• Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman (Avotaynu, $29)

• In Search of Your European Roots: A Complete Guide to Tracing Your Ancestors in Every County in Europe by Angus Baxter (Genealogical Publishing Co., $18.95)

• The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia by John Channon with Robert Hudson (Viking, $16.95)

• Where Once We Walked: A Guide to the Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust, revised edition, by Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack with Alexander Sharon (Avotaynu, $85) and WOWW Companion: A Guide to the Communities Surrounding Central and Eastern European Towns by Gary Mokotoff (Avotaynu, $16)


East European Genealogical Society

Box2536, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3C 4A7 Canada, (204) 989-3292, <>: Publishes East European Genealogist.

Federation of East European Family History Societies

Box 510898, Salt Lake City, UT 84151, <>: Publishes FEEFHS Newsletter.

Immigration History Research Center

University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts, 311 Andersen Library, 222 21st Ave. S., Minneapolis MN 55455, (612) 625-4800, <>

Interlink Bookshop

4687 Falaise Drive, Victoria, British Columbia, V8Y 1B4 Canada, (800) 747-4877, <>: Maps and atlases.

Routes to Roots Foundation

136 Sandpiper Key, Secaucus, NJ 07094, (201) 601-9199, <>

From the February 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.