About ancestral town names

November 2023
Kaye Prince Hollenberg

In September I presented a session on the history of Hamilton’s Jewish community for the Ontario Genealogical Society’s annual conference. The conference theme this year was Diversity in Genealogy – Spotlight on the Grand River and it was heartening to see a range of sessions covering, among others, Indigenous, Japanese, Black, and Eastern European history in Ontario. Feedback on my session was positive and attendees seemed to be especially taken with the story of Bessie Starkman Perri who helped her husband, Rocco Perri, run a successful bootleg (and more) business during prohibition. Bessie was murdered in 1930 and accounts from the time suggest that over 20,000 Hamiltonians attended her funeral or piled into Ohev Zedeck Cemetery for the burial. 

Following my first column in the September issue and the cover story featuring the Holocaust Recollections exhibit I curated, I received several lovely emails from both readers and people who were involved with the original publication of Holocaust Recollections. One email I received came from Raquel Epand who was interested in the town of Korolivka; the town was mentioned in the cover article and subsequent Shpiel interview as it’s where some of my husband’s family came from. Raquel’s grandmother came from Korolivka and she was interested in learning more about its history (she also suggested I write a column specifically about the town). I did a little digging into the surname she provided as it wasn’t one I recognized from my years of research and it ended up that we were actually looking at two different towns with the same name! 

This is something I’ve come across not infrequently in my research as there are town names that appear over and over throughout Eastern Europe. Both of our towns are in present-day Ukraine, but that was not always the case. Prior to the First World War, Raquel’s Korolivka in the Kyiv district would have been part of the Russian Empire, whereas my Korolivka (also known as Korolowka) in the Ternopil district was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The towns are 450km apart and would not have shared a common government or language until after the Second World War, but here we are more than 100 years after our townsmen left still talking about them. And even though Raquel’s town was not one I had researched previously, I was still able to provide her with an 1897 revision list that showed her family living there which was exciting.

Being versed in border changes over time and knowing the names of relevant districts is incredibly important when it comes to Jewish genealogy. So my tip for this issue is: If there are towns you are researching become knowledgeable about where the town was exactly situated at various point in history (especially through the 20th century), get to know the town name in multiple relevant languages, and also memorize the names of other towns in the immediate vicinity. 

The JewishGen Town Finder and Gazetteer tools will be especially helpful in this regard – they’re resources that I go back to over and over. The Town Finder provides details for towns with known Jewish communities including their location at various points in history, the name in multiple languages, links or citations for resources such as Yizkor books and the Shtetl Finder, contact details for other researchers interested in the same town, and the names of other Jewish towns and cities within a 50km radius. The Gazetteer provides location and name information for locations throughout the world (not just those with a larger Jewish community) and results from the Gazetteer can be triangulated to show distance from a specific major city or set of coordinates.

So, if you know the names of a few towns your ancestors came from, go to JewishGen (jewishgen.org) now and play around in the Town Finder. Be sure to utilize the dropdown for “search method” to toggle between different options like "sounds like" and "fuzzy matching." You might be surprised at what you dig up and learn about your ancestral town! 

If you would like to submit a question or have some Hamilton Jewish history to share, please email  wschneider@jewishhamilton.org and we may publish it in a future edition.