Julius Müller:

Family history research in Bohemia/Moravia -  the vital records lost and found

The migration from and to Germany from Czech Lands of former Austro-Hungarian Empire was quite frequent during the history of Jewish people in the region.


Some examples can be traced in Census 1793 of Bohemia : e.g. in Chynov, Tabor region, Feidesch MECKLENBURG „gehört nach Mecklenburg“ dwelled; a widdow Catharine HART from Frankfurt lived with the family of Jakob WOTTITZ in Neuhaus (today Jindrichuv Hradec); Rosa, daughter of Samuel BOBELLE of Neuhaus, married to Bamberg, etc.


The family history can be further traced in Bohemia and Moravia. A complex relationship of the central and local authorities to the Jewish families resulted in a variety of Jewish records in Bohemia/Moravia. There are three main sources of family data : vital records (1784-1949), Jewish Censuses (1724, 1783, 1793, 1799, 1811) and Books of Jewish Familiants (1760-1849). The latter two data sources are more or less associated with so called „official antisemitism“ based on the Emperor´s decree called Familiant Law (issued in 1726 by the Charles VI.). The Law dramatically changed the social life of Jewish families for the next 120 years by imposing a population restriction allowing only firstborn sons to marry.


The obligation of Jewish communities to keep the vital records was introduced by the Emperor´s decree of Joseph II. in 1784. Since then the records had fixed structure till 1949. Birth records: birth place, birth date, circumcission date/girl´s naming date, gender, legitimacy vs. illegitimacy, child´s name, father´s name, father´s profession and status (familiant, schutzjude), mother´s name (often the names of grandparents ), witnesses names, godfather´s name (= sandek´s  name concerning the boys); marriage records (see attached example): name and age of groom, name and age of bride, dates of banns, date of marriage, place and date of marriage, name of marrying person, names and profession of the witnesses; death records: date of death, date and place of burial, name and age of deceased person, profession of deceased and his/her domicile, cause of death. In 1949, the Jewish records were implemented into the civil records, kept by the state. Most of the vital records are stored today in the National archive in Prague.


The demographic pattern of Jewish communities in Bohemia and communities in Moravia was quite different due to the different status, esp. due to more relaxed attitude of the local government in Moravia and individual landlords to the Jews. In Moravia the Jews mostly lived in larger towns, and the records were kept in each town´s Jewish records. In Bohemia, besides few large communities like Prag, Kolin or Jung Bunzlau, most of countryside Jews (Landes Juden) lived  scattered in the hundreds of small vilages/small towns. The vital records were often kept in „the administration districts“ under the name of one central village covering the Jewish families from other villages around. The location of local parish must then be reflected when one wants to study the catholic duplicates of Jewish records (see below).


The vital records contain the surnames since 1788 when Emperor´s decree was issued by Joseph II. The decree ordering the usage of German first names and surnames induced a wave of objections and protests made by Jewish officials. However, the subsequent decree issued soon after confirmed the former regulations and fixed 115 male and 35 female first names. The formation of German first name can be often traced : Löwy > Löbl > Leopold, Cvi > Hirsch > Hermann, etc. The dynamics of surname formation is a truly fascinating topic, elaborated in several onomastic studies. Before 1787, the most of Landes Juden used patronyms; sometimes the toponyms indicated where they come from (Prager, Amsterodamer, Furth, Frankfurter, etc.).


The change and/or adoption of a new surname is a crucial issue in the process of tracing the family backwards. Some of the earliest vital records show charts with the former and the new name. The Books of Jewish Familiants also often show the surname change made in abt. 1787.


The legitimacy of children is another issue that was produced by the existence of Familiant Law. Due to the restrictive decree that only first-borns sons were allowed to marry, the children of other couples were considered illegitimate and they bore mother´s surname. After 1849 when the decree was lifted, the marriage books contain enourmous amount of records since many couples wanted to legitimize their children. Only then their adult children obtained father´s surname. If the parents already deceased, the children stayed with mother´s surname.


Jewish vital records were started in Bohemia and Moravia  in 1784 but the records were not always kept according to the proposed guidelines. In 1794, a new regulation was issued which entitled the midwifes to keep the separate birth reports. This produced a first series of duplicate records. In 1799, a Systemal Patent entitled the catholic priests in nearby parishes to lead so called „catholic duplicates“ of Jewish vital records. Since the catholic duplicates were not started yet in many parishes, in 1839 another decree enforced this agenda. The catholic duplicates were mostly led till 1873, in some cases even till 1900. Another duplicacy appeared since the Jewish communites were ordered to keep duplicates of their own records since 1874. In the 2nd half of 19th century, the records of small towns/villages were geting tenuous as Jewish families gradually moved to large towns and/or abroad.


In 1938/1939 the gestapo bureaus attempted to collect all Jewish vital records in the area of first-wave sieged part of Bohemia and Moravia (Sudettenland) and gathered most of the records in town Liberec. In 1941/1942, similar campaign was launched in the rest of the occupied country and the Jewish records were gathered in Zentralamt zur Regelung der Judenfrage in Böhmen und Mähren. In 1943, the various duplicate records including the catholic duplicates were collected by Sippenamt für Böhmen u.Mähren and reposited outside of Prague. Those duplicate collections were reportedly covered and saved by the Czechs employees in the repository and thus were not transfered to Prague during the war years. The original records were then destroyed by the nazis in April 1945.


Today, the old Jewish vital records (1784-1949) are rather well preserved although most of the interested public is not aware of this fact. As shown above, there were many duplicate records that can be used today for family history research. Taken all information about Jewish vital records together it indicates that there were at least 3 collections of the vital records, overlaping more or less each other for the time when vital records were ever kept. Even today some of the catholic duplicates can be recovered in several district archives of Bohemia and Moravia.


The duplicate records regained its significancy after the WWII, when the duplicates were claimed as legally acceptable documents. The death records were supplemented by painstaking large „claimed-dead“ sections. Also, the birth and marriage records were re-opened to the recovering communities in Czechoslovakia. In 1949, the state legislature took over the agenda of all vital records and the Jewish records were no longer kept as a separate collection.


Julius Müller



Kukanova Z., Matusiková L.: Matriky zidovskych nabozenskych obci v Cechach a na Morave z let 1784 az 1949. Czech. In: Paginae historiae, no. 0, pp. 103-122, Prague 1992.  


Julius Müller is a director of Toledot, public interest institution aimed to gather and develop the genealogy databases and to digitize the Jewish records of former Bohemia and Moravia.

He can be reached at library@toledot.org