The Clerk Writes What he Hears

In my search for my grandmother’s PRAJS ancestry 15 years ago, I wound up purchasing a scan of every single vital registration from every archive in Poland with the surname PRAJS that I found in an index. If I was lucky, there was an LDS film (the images photographed by the Mormon Church in the 1970’s from all the archive documents) or there was a microfiche copy in the Beit Hatfutsot Library or in the CJS (Center for Jewish History Library in NYC). But when I exhausted those resources I had to bank wire funds to the Polish State Archive Branch where the specific books were housed. [Today of course, , JRI-Poland has most of these scans and should be the first-stop resource for anyone doing Polish genealogy research.]

Recently I worked with a researcher who wrote to me that the surname PRASA was in her ancestry, and we discovered that her family was from Dzialoszyce and Pinczow, two of the towns for which I am the JRI-Poland Town Leader and had extracted the records that are in Polish.

There were three birth registrations in Pinczow that I examined in Cyrillic, and discovered that in all, very clearly, the mother’s maiden name spelled PRAJS, not PRASA. Perhaps I found a new cousin! The researcher, however, was adamant that her ancestor’s surname PRASA, and here’s what I found: In the Dzialoszyce records, the same mother was indeed shown with the maiden name PRASA.  So why did the Pinczow clerk write “PRAJS?”

The PRASA were an indigenous Dzialoszyce Clan and appear in the Dzialoszyce Book of Permanent Residents. There were PRAJS in Dzialoszyce as well, but they were permanent residents of Wislica. In Pinczow, the surname PRAJS was common, but there isn’t a single family with the surname PRASA appearing in 100 years of records from that town. There are many PRAJS (who settled early in Pinczow but migrated from Wislica). So the Pinczow clerk was very familiar only the surname “PRAJS” and that’s what he heard when these birth testimonies were given and that’s what he wrote.

This is how the name PRASA is spelled in Russian, taken from a Dzialoszyce birth registration.
This is how the name PRAJS is spelled in Russian, taken from a Pinczów birth registration.

Spelling is Irrelevant (in Polish Archive records)

Polish clerks were often very creative in their spelling of names – both given names and surnames. It wasn’t really their fault; the mother tongue of many Jews living in Poland was Yiddish, and while they might have spoken the local language, few probably wrote it.

This helped my personal research in realizing that my grandmother’s maiden name was spelled in Polish in varied ways at various times. The same couple might have had children’s births or marriages or deaths written as “PRAJS” or “PREIS” or “PRAIS.” But in Hebrew, it was more consistent, usually with two “yuds” and sometimes with one.

My fifth cousin Dana Preis and I first made contact several years ago. He recounted the incredible story of our connection: SEARCHING FOR PREIS AND FINDING PRAJS.

We knew by dint of the town of origin that we had to be from the same family – but how? Two resources locked the pieces into place: the YadVashem site with its database of Shoah victims’ names, and JRI-Poland, the organization that extracts into English the vital details of Jewish vital records and enables searching these details. A Yad Vashem database search found testimonies for Dana’s father Zelig’s father and Zelig’s aunts and uncles, submitted by Dana’s grandfather’s first cousin. With the assistance of JRI-Poland, we found the vital records (housed in the Polish State Archives Civil Records Office) with birth registrations of Zelig and his siblings, confirming their parentage.

While Zelig’s father’s cousin was no longer alive, her children lived in Israel – Zelig’s second cousins. What I found extraordinary, and bit surreal, is that Dana and his newly discovered cousin both had a daughter born on the exact same day of the exact year.

Surname Confusion

Every so often I do arbitrary searches on the Yad Vashem database. I’m never sure what I’ll find or if the output will be relevant. One day I came across a page of remembrance that a family from Israel had submitted for relatives “lost in the Shoah” (that’s the phrase used instead of “murdered by the Nazi’s”) and my heart skipped a beat. There appeared the surname with which I was born, listing given names that repeatedly appeared in my father’s family. Moreover, these people who died in the Holocaust had resided in the town in Galicia where my grandfather had been born. This could not be coincidental.

Since an Israeli had made the submission, I looked in the phone directory to see if I could track down this unknown branch of my family. My maiden name is not a common one.

I succeeded in reaching the family, soon met with the brothers who had submitted the page, and we tried to figure out how exactly we were related. There was no doubt that we were somehow connected. They gave me all their family details and we surmised that our great-grandfathers had to be brothers. How else could we have the same last name?


I subsequently got hold of some surviving archive records from the town. Not many survived, and these archive registration books had actually been found in someone’s attic in a closed chest just a few years before. What I discovered was a registration of the marriage of a known sister of this family’s grandfather. Her maiden name was that of our family surname, however, her father had an altogether different surname and it was her mother whose maiden name was the same as that of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Huh?

So it turned out that the carrying of the family surname was actually from the maiden name of this family’s great-grandmother, handed down to their grandfather, father, and used by them. I saw this practice of taking the mother’s surname yet again in another branch of the same family – using the maiden name of a mother rather than the father. Was this a Galicia thing?

Yes, but perhaps for two different reasons. The first and probably primary reason was that in Galicia, one of the reforms implemented by Emperor Joseph II stipulated that both a religious and civil authority marriage ceremony were mandatory for a marriage to be considered legitimate. Many Jews had a religious ceremony but did not comply with the civil edict. When children were born, they were thus considered illegitimate since the parents were not legally married according to the Empire. Hence the children were given their mother’s maiden name as their surname.

But I’ve seen another case in my family ancestry where a couple from Galicia had 10 children: the first 4 took the father’s surname. The following 6 alternated between taking the father’s surname, the mother’s maiden name, and the maiden name of their mother’s mother! So there were 3 different surnames carried by 10 siblings. Since they started with the father’s surname, it’s unlikely that the marriage was considered illegitimate.

It turns out that a steep fee was assessed in order to register the birth of a child with the surname of the father, which was generally the desired assignment. However, it was free to register the child with the name of the mother. Registration of births was mandatory and times were often financially hard at the turn of the 19th to 20th century.

So apparently cost trumped father’s surname in birth registration when finances were tight.

Small World

In spite of the proximity of our shtetl towns in Kielce county (his from Chmielnik, ours from Wislica), David Price of Canada is not related to my family Price. I know this with certainty. I asked David and one of my Price cousins to submit a Y-DNA spit-test. A Y-DNA test analyzes markers on DNA passed down from father to son, and generates a list of other men with whom there is a marker match, going back up to 24 generations, with results of 99.9999% certainty. 24 generations constitute roughly 700 years worth of family connections, long before there were any archives in Poland. David’s and my Price cousin’s match results are totally non-overlapping. So we are not related on the Price side – at least going back 24 generations.

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Interview with a Jewish Genealogy Researcher

Have you always been interested in your ancestral history?

JG: Unfortunately, no. Growing up, the thought never crossed my mind to find out who my great-great-grandparents or their siblings were. I loved my relatives, but I wasn’t aware enough to ask questions.

What changed?

JG: I got older. And part of me wanted to connect to my past. I now realize that I missed out on the opportunity to ask my grandparents and great aunts and uncles all sorts of questions. Not everyone had this opportunity.

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That guy who lives around the corner could be your cousin

After 15 years of living in my remote village in the northern Galilee, I discovered exactly that. Fred Brandsztetter, who literally lives around the corner from me, was a fourth cousin of my Dad’s from Fred’s father’s father’s side and a third cousin from his father’s mother’s side. In our ancestral family where there were multiple instances of cousins marrying each other, Fred’s grandparents were second cousins. This is only one of the remarkable connections I’ve uncovered in my family history.

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