Issues With Finding Names on Tombstones

Jewish people in parts of Europe did not always have family names, so tombstones alone don’t always give you the genealogical information you are looking for. It helps if you can cross-reference something like a date of death to a written record of deaths and/or burials, that only began in the early 1830s.

I began with a focus on the Jews in what is today the Spis Region of Slovakia, learning that they arrived or migrated there from various places including Bohemia, Moravia, and parts of Galicia (in Malopolska, “Lower Poland”). We need to understand that Jews were not allowed to live, work, or conduct business wherever they wanted to. It always depended on who was ruling a particular country and the laws that allowed or prohibited what they could do. That would also include where they might set up places of prayer, schools, and cemeteries.

Jewish people also didn’t have family names until the early 1800s after laws were enacted by Napoleon for places he conquered and Emperor Joseph II of the Hapsburg Empire, who on November 12, 1787, decreed that Jews must have family names. So tombstones in the early 1800s seldom have family names.

For the region I began my work with, the earliest matzeva to date is for a woman, with no identifiable family name, who died in 1815, and we have no records from that time frame to cross reference against. The next earliest with an identifiable family name is 1829.

This is not to say that others may have once existed. Reasons why tombstones cannot be found or read are:

  • the stones may have been destroyed by local vandals or taken for their own uses (in construction, roads, etc.)
  • destroyed during the Holocaust by Nazis or their sympathizers
  • might have eroded with time, especially in harsh winter climates
  • in some cases such as the greatest and most destructive flood of 1813, they were washed away into the Poprad river, as in Huncovce.