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Myths About Latvian Research

[This post was written for the 26th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy, hosted by Jessica's Genejournal.]

There are thousands of people in the West with Latvian ancestry. Many are searching for their Latvian ancestors, but often encounter a variety of misconceptions about Latvian genealogical research, or don’t know where to start.

I will be addressing the latter soon, with a step-by-step guide on how to get started with Latvian research. Really, I should have done that when I started this blog, but better late than never!

For now though, I want to address the former – myths and misconceptions about Latvian research. I’ll admit, when I first got started, I believed some of them as well. But now I’ve learned that the task of researching your Latvian ancestors is not as difficult or impossible as it may seem.

Myth: Since Latvia was a battleground through both world wars and numerous smaller ones, as well as being controlled by totalitarian political regimes, this means the records are all destroyed.

Fact: Records survive! Certainly, some disappear or get destroyed throughout the years, but this happens everywhere. But the vast majority of records you will want to seek out for Latvian genealogical research do exist today. Precisely what is available will vary from parish to parish, but because of the variety of records, it is extremely unlikely that all records for a given area were destroyed or have gone missing.

Myth: You need to be able to speak Latvian to do Latvian genealogical research.

Fact: Only partially true. While knowing Latvian is a great asset for research after 1918, prior to that, most records were in German or Russian, both of which are languages spoken more widely than Latvian. But even if you don’t speak any of them, a dictionary or genealogical word list will help you extract the information that you are looking for.

Myth: The surname of my ancestors from Latvia is German or Russian, so that means my ancestors were German or Russian.

Fact: Not necessarily. Latvian peasants (the majority of the population) only acquired surnames in the nineteenth century, and it was not uncommon for them to choose German or Slavic names (even though officially they were encouraged to choose Latvian ones). While Latvia has always been a multiethnic country with many German and Russian inhabitants, surnames alone cannot determine ethnicity. I will be addressing how to sort out ethnicity soon.

Myth: It is difficult to access Latvian records.

Fact: Numerous Latvian genealogical records are available online at Raduraksti – religious BMD records, the All-Russia Census, and a growing number of revision lists. Now, they are not indexed (yet! I’m working on it) or searchable, so you need to read through the handwritten pages, but they are accessible anywhere in the world. For other records, you would need to visit (or write to) the Latvian State Historical Archives in Rīga. Obtaining a reading room pass is fairly straightforward, and the staff are wonderful and will help you find what you need. Not everyone speaks English, but there will usually be someone around who does. If you want to know the Latvian names for records to search before you go so you have an easier time, let me know and I can try to help you.

Myth: I met someone with the same surname. We must be related!

Fact: Just like in other countries, having the same surname does not imply kinship. The most common Latvian surnames arose independently across the country from what were farm names, which were in turn often based on physical characteristics of the area. Remember also, that while Latvian surnames might sound “exotic” to non-Latvian speakers, many of these names are extremely common in Latvia. My Latvian Surname Project is growing, and while I haven’t even covered a tenth of the parishes in Latvia, looking at some of the names there and the number of different places they are attested can begin to give an idea of how common or uncommon a name may be.

Now, if these ancestors with the same surname were from the same parish, it is much more likely, since when surnames were being assigned, there were efforts made to not duplicate the names within estates or parishes. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but since surnames came about because rulers needed a way to distinguish these newly freed peasants from one another, it would not have happened often.

Myth: A different surname means a different family, and thus not a relation.

Fact: Just like the inverse above, this is also not necessarily true. The family surname was chosen by the patriarch – he chose the surname that he, his wife, his unmarried daughters, his adult sons and their families, would bear. If the family patriarch was deceased, the brothers could each choose a different surname for their families. Since this only happened in the nineteenth century, it is important to be aware of these potentially different surnames within a family, especially if you are interested in finding living distant cousins. To trace family groups through this time period of surname acquisition, family numbers in population registers and revision lists are invaluable. Since this number remained the same from year to year, it can help match up families in the times before and after surname acquisition.

Any myths that I’ve missed? Questions? Let me know and I’ll try to answer them!

12 comments to Myths About Latvian Research

  • Thanks for that, Antra. I am learning a lot from you!

  • P. Szelewski

    Hi Antra,
    Well done for all the work that you have done so far. Are you interested in receiving other people’s backgrounds? I have documentation and photos from my Dad’s time prior WW2 Smiltene, through to DP Camp in Germany and then transfer to DP Camp in England. I keep trying to find out more but not speaking Latvian, German or Russian and with the reluctance of Dad to share details of his traumatic past it’s a bit of a slog. I would really like to join the dots and perhaps visit his birth place at some time but would like to be sure that I’m not just doing the tourist run. Good luck with all your ventures.
    Pauline

  • Antra

    Pauline,

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by “receiving”. Do you mean researching other people’s backgrounds, or compiling/translating the documents they have, or something else?

  • P. Szelewski

    Hi Antra,
    Certainly I would be interested in having some items translated for my own use, likewise, if they could further your own research I would be happy to share them with you via e-mail attachments. It is clear to me that you have a genuine passion and if I can add information to your pool that would ultimately benefit others that would be good too. It’s obvious to me that there are a lot of us trying to make out the past with little information. Could be that I have photos that include others. I am not trying to be pushy. I have followed your suggestion to look at the Raduraksi and think that I might have found Janis Jakobsons on the Smiltene list but will need to have a look closely with a dictionary to be sure. Any how keep up the good work Antra I will definitely be following your blogs. Best wishes, P

  • Holly

    Hi Antra,
    My last name is not in your database, nor is it particularly common. I’m a little stumped as to how to research it. My grandad was latvian and came to england in ww2 but he died a number of years ago. He left his first wife and brothers and extended family in latvia but we lost touch. We believe the last name could have been spelt differently and changed to match the pronounciation? I was planning on visiting latvia for the first time this february 2011 and was wondering if you had any tips for getting started.
    Thanks for any help,

    Holly

  • Antra

    Hi Holly,

    What is your last name? You can email at admin at celmina.com if you don’t want to share it in public here. I might be able to help you figure out what it might have been originally, and from there, we can figure out the best way for you to proceed with the research.

  • Morrison birznieks

    My last name is birznieks and it’s from Latvia for all I know
    is it from German Latvia or Russia ?

  • Antra

    Hi Morrison,

    “Birznieks” is Latvian, and would mean “someone from the grove”.

  • morrison birznieks

    well i have had some pepole say its latvian and sum just think its german for sum unkown reson anyway

  • Victoria Gross Chase

    Hi, My father was Latvian and both his parents came to the US in the early 1900′s. All are now passed away and yet I am sure I have Latvian relatives. I am going to Riga and Auce (where my grandmother lived as a child) to see what/who I can find. Please, any direction or help would be welcome. I have postcards written in Letish up to about 1933. I live near San Francisco, California and would love some translation and assistance with names and locations. Thank you in advance, Vicki

  • Tony Skuja

    Hi, my father was from Riga, during WW11 he escaped and changed his name. I belive it was either Embers/Rainer, will I have any hope of finding if I have any relatives? His father was Herman, and dad had a brother and I think two sisters, possibly in Germany. How can I progess? Best regards.

  • [...] on the context of Latvian records, and then you’ll be ready to dive in. Also check out Myths about Latvian Research to dispel popular [...]

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