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The Jewish Genealogy Association 

Jewish Genealogy in France

Why a Jewish Genealogy?

By Micheline Gutmann

Translated into English by Gaby Laws

I - Movements

The constant movements of the Jewish people caused by persecutions and expulsions make the search for ancestors something of a battle.

The diversity of the countries of origin means we need to know the history of each country of origin and how this and the laws affected the Jewish community.

Some of us have ancestors in many different regions or countries.

We recommend a book which deals with these movements: Universal history of the Jews, collective under the direction of Elie Barnavi. Atlas, Hachette, 1992.

II - Documents

The documents we need to find in order to trace our ancestors can be split into two main categories, those which are common to all religions and those which are specifically Jewish.

In France and in many European countries until civil registration there were only religious records. Registration was not always obligatory, there was no law like the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets in France. The religious marriage contract or Ketuba belongs to the wife and was not required to be officially deposited except for in Alsace from 18th century.

III - Names

Surnames did not exist in the majority of places that Jews lived for a long time. Some families did seem to have one but it was really a nickname by example Wormser in Alsace had an ancestor who came from Worms Germany.

The first name of the father was coupled with that of the child: Abraham Moise, Abraham son of Moise. For the next generation the eldest grandson was given the grandfather’s first name (if he was deceased) Moise Abraham. In some places “Ben” was used and in Italy “A”.

For each first name there was a Hebrew name and its equivalent localised name. Therefore one must know that Juda = Jehuda = Lion, but also Low, Loeb, Loewe, Leib, Leibel which became Leo, Leon, Leopold, Lehmann.

Jewish genealogy in France

A little history

There are still traces of Jewish settlement from Roman times, in Caracalla’s time the Jews were Roman citizens just like all other inhabitants. Their commercial success and their religious characteristics quickly brought a certain amount of anti-semitism.

Having been driven out of Palestine by the Romans they settled in Gaule. The appearance of Christianity worsened their situation. The church prohibited contact with Jews. In 633 they were temporarily expelled by King Dagobert. Things improve under the Carolingien kings but decline again under the Capetiens and worsens with the crusades, the Jews being the first victims of the Albigensians.

Around 1100, there was the great Rashi, the erudite Rabbi of Troyes.

Under Louis IX there was forced conversions, the Jews were driven out many times and their goods confiscated, they were allowed back but only if they paid high taxes. In 1394 they were expelled and sort refuge in the border towns in Provence, Savoy, Bordeaux, Alsace, Germany.

Until emancipation in 1791, Jews were tolerated in some areas but they had few means of existence. The main zones of Jewish settlement before the Revolution were Alsace, Lorraine, Comtat Venaissin, Bayonne and Bordeaux

The Archives

Civil Records

Nous commençons par notre époque puisque nous devrons remonter le temps. La date du 1er janvier 1793 marque le début de l'état civil. Les sources ne sont pas les mêmes avant et après cette date.

Civil registration started 1st January 1793, the sources for marriage information are the same for all religions, they are numerous and varied:

  • communal records
  • Departmental Archives
  • National Archives, Military Archives, etc.

Civil records were written in registers with 2 copies, one of which is kept at the town hall, the other is intended for use in the departmental archives.

Acts over 100 years old are kept with the Departmental Archives in Paris, 18 Bd Sérurier, Paris 19th arrondissement. Generally they will not reply to correspondence and you have to go there in person. The acts were microfilmed by the Mormons up to 1892. Acts under 100 years are kept in the town halls, for Paris you need to know which district. If the district is not known a preliminary search can be conducted by either 1st arrondissement or the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris. Only descendents can get access to these records but everyone can obtain an extract.

Naturalizations files contain information of variable importance but in general they are essential for families coming from abroad in the 19th century. You can often find their names, parents names, their address and sometimes their siblings’ names.

First you need to obtain the decree reference number and then ask for the file. You can only see the file at CARAN. It normally takes 2 weeks from the date of request to the file being made available. For files less than 60 years old you need to ask for permission.

Registration Archives Records over 100 years old are available but those under 100 years are only available to descendents. It is possible however to consult the 1831 census of France or the 1926 census of Paris. Electoral rolls are useful if you know the district. Military files at Vincennes of French nationals are available and the files at the Paris archives are invaluable for information from 1868. Lastly, directories or almanacs, especially for the professions (Didot-Bottin).

Documents available before Civil Records very varied according to the areas.

Amongst the oldest are those of Comtat Venaissin. Registers go back to 1738 (Carpentras), and for Comtat Venaissin to 1750 (Carpentras, Cavaillon, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Avignon.)

The Jews driven from Spain and Portugal having been pursued by the Inquisition some of whom converted to Christianity, settled both in Bayonne where they created the chocolate industry and in Bordeaux. They were well respected by the authorities and opposed the arrival of Ashkenazi’s who created competition. Registers exist in the same way as Catholic baptisms and marriages.

In Metz, Jews were permitted from 1595. Registers of births, marriages and deaths were held by community leaders in most places, in particular in Metz from 1717. The heads of family appear on many tax lists such as the Brancas tax before on this date.

Jews were tolerated in Paris from Louis XIV time and some lists still exist; records of those stopped for travelling on business without a passport. The files of the Bastille contain interesting documents before the Revolution.

In Alsace the situation was most unfavourable. No trade was allowed except the reselling of used items and sometimes live stock breeding. Providing loans was allowed but only to customers that had been refused a loan by others.
The most accessible documents are the marriage contracts from the beginning of the 18th century (rarely found for early 18th century), the enumeration of the Jews of Alsace in 1784. Rare books recording circumcisions contain invaluable information. As for cimetières, few are sufficiently preserved. The inscriptions written in Hebrew must be deciphered. Declarations of 1799, marriages, births, death, were recorded in some communes.

Registers of the Edict of Tolerance : by Louis XVI in 1787, provides little information regarding Jews but it is sometimes possible to find something useful.

Notarised acts in particular marriages.

In Alsace from 1701, they had to be deposited with a Royal notary up to the time of the revolution, but in practice this happened gradually.
Translations were carried out by Solomon Picard (for Haut-Rhin) and by Aron Fraenckel who summarized these acts in order to place them at the disposal of genealogists. Jean Fleury compiled a collection of authenticated contracts found for Moselle. (This work and the others can be found in the GenAmi library). For Comtat Venaissin, there are numerous sources but it is difficult before 1700. See bulletin of GenAmi n° 10, November 1999.

Many censuses took place, the majority concerning the heads of household. These census were necessary to tax the Jews, to control and limit their presence in the various territories where they had to buy the right to live and to work in the rare professions which they were authorized to practise: in Alsace trade of used objects, loaning of money (to those which carried the highest risk of non-payment), and that of the horses and cattle breeding. We advise readers to refer to the research guide on the Jewish families of France, by Gildas Bernard published by the National Archives.

After the Revolution

In 1808, by the decree of Bayonne, Napoleon ordered that all Jews of the Empire register a permanent surname. Some records as in Metz were destroyed by fires or the bombings of 1944. These declarations contain the old name and first names and the new name, sometimes a profession, an age or occasionally a precise date of birth. (see example of declaration).

The ‘Consistoires’

Since Napoleon’s time, religious authority has been entrusted to the ‘Consistoires’ made up of a Central Consistoire and regional Consistoires. These have registers which are more or less accessible, but held in an irregular way.
Not everything was recorded though because, by example, to have a religious marriage all that is needed is the presence of 10 men. Circumcisions were sometimes recorded by a rabbi who may or may not have then registered them correctly.

In Paris, for example, the Consistory records consist of some marriages from 1822, deaths from 1882 but no register of birth or circumcision.

A small advantage for us in Paris, where all the marital status information was destroyed and where there was no census before 1926: we profit from censuses carried out by the Consistoire in 1809 (complete), 1852 (heads of household), 1872 (heads of household, first name of the wife, numbers children boys and girls). Registers of religious weddings since 1823, and the burials registered by rabbis of the Consistoire since 1883.

The Cemeteries

Where they exist and where the inscriptions are still visible, they give invaluable information. Unfortunately, in the villages formerly inhabited by Jewish people, the communities and therefore people to maintain them no longer exist. Some registers remain, often written in Hebrew, so it is necessary to translate them before using them.

Genealogists’ work

Many genealogists, in particular from GenAmi association, do important work of general interest: lists of names, cemetery records, marriage records... and place them at the disposal of association members.

20th century Research

We frequently receive enquiries from abroad from those searching for parents missing since the war and for cousins who could still be alive. This is extremely difficult work, more like detective work than genealogy. It is necessary to try to find all possible sources of information while remaining within the law.