Beginner researchers often post on mailing lists or genealogy forums, “Does anyone know where town xyz is?” The typical answer from those “in the know” is a question: Have you tried ShtetlSeeker?
ShtetlSeeker is an online database developed by JewishGen. Researchers with no Jewish ancestry may not have heard of it, but if you haven’t you’re missing out on one of the best geographic resources on the internet. Despite its name, it’s not just for Jewish communities (shtetl is a Yiddish word meaning “town”). It is a database containing information on all towns in 45 different countries of Central & Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. If your ancestors were Jewish, there is a separate search form that only looks at the towns with Jewish populations.
What’s so great about this particular database? There are so many great features that it makes ShtetlSeeker far superior to any other online database or any paper map (and I am very fond of paper maps). Here are some of the things that I especially like:
He said Woodge not Łódź
The database uses the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex for a “sounds like” search. The Daitch-Mokotoff soundex is more useful for Slavic or Yiddish pronunciations than the “regular” American soundex, which is especially useful if you have Eastern European ancestry. Let’s say you asked Grandpa where he was born, and he tells you “Mishzinof” in Poland. Chances are you didn’t ask him to spell it, and there is no town with that name – at least not spelled the way you heard it. If you enter MISHZINOF into the search form for a “sounds like” search, you will get 18 possible matches based on the similarity in pronunciation between the search term and the correct language’s spelling. While you do not need to enter a search term with any special characters, the result will provide you with the correct accented letters in the native language.
Widen the search area
If your ancestors were like mine, they may have said they were from the “big city” nearby (Munich) when they were really from a smaller town that no one ever heard of (Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm). I am currently researching an ancestor who listed a somewhat large town, Żyrardów, as her birthplace. A search of the records didn’t find her family, so now I am looking at the towns closest to Żyrardów. I could open up a map to do this. Or, I can use ShtetlSeeker to find towns in a ten mile radius with the click of a button.
And then it was called…
Names change, especially town names in central and eastern Europe. One feature of the database is that you not only see what the town may have been called at a particular time in recent history, but what it was called in other languages. For example, you can quickly learn that Gdańsk, Poland, was once Danzig, Germany. Or that my own Polish ancestors’ town, Żyrardów, was called Ruda Guzowska before 1833. Or that Pécs, Hungary could also be known as Pečuh [Croatian], Pečuj [Serbian], Peçuy [Turkish], Fünfkirchen [German], Pětikostelí [Czech], Päťkostolie [Slovak], Pięciokościoły [Polish], Cinquechiese [Italian], Quinque Ecclesiae [Latin], or Cinq-Églises [French].
Above I indicated that one of my Pfaffenhofen ancestors said they were from Munich. When I initially found the town name, written as “Pfaffenhoven” in a baptismal record, I discovered there were several towns in Germany with that name. But, he said he was from Munich, so which of the many towns with that name are close to Munich? With ShtetlSeeker, you can see a town’s distance from another town as a reference point.
If you are Jewish, it’s even better!
I recently researched a friend’s grandfather, who listed his birthplace on a draft registration card as “Chernovitz, Austria”. As there is no town with that specific name, I tried the ShtetlSeeker to perform a “sounds like” search. The search result was a list of dozens of possibilities located in Poland, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and other countries. Then it dawned on me…my friend and his ancestors are Jewish! After I limited the search to only towns with Jewish communities in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the result was reduced to one: Chernivtsi, Ukraine. The findings show that pre-WWI the town was known as Czernowitz and was part of the Austrian Empire, so it is likely the correct birthplace for his grandfather. There are also links to other databases on the JewishGen site related to the town.
Other Cool Tools
There are a few other cool things about the database, such as:
- Links to actual maps – see the town and its region on multiple online map sites
- Latitude and Longitude data for the town
- 3 types of searches – Jewish Communities, places by name (all localities in Central and Eastern Europe), and location (localities within a certain distance of a given latitude / longitude coordinates).
If you have never used ShtetlSeeker, try it! You may just find where you are searching for…