You become invested in their lives, wanting to find out how they lived and feeling a greater connection than you ever thought possible to people you never knew existed thirty minutes earlier. What more is hidden beneath the surface you ask? Suddenly I am catapulted back to 1864. I must know everything and even though these people have been dead for over 150 years I find myself curiously connected.
The problem is, unlike in many countries where a large proportion of old archive documents have been digitised and are accessible online, this is not the case if your ancestors lived in Belarus. The only way to find documents is in person, in the right city, in the right building, in the right volume, if it still exists and is in the right place. Patience is a necessary virtue here, which is not easy to ask for, especially in today’s world of instant gratification. For the dedicated team who work diligently on the enquiries as they pass from client, to case worker in the UK, then to the coordinator in Minsk and finally to the archivists working with the records. Searching for any record in Belarus takes time and skill, which the three trained archivists in The Together Plan team really have in abundance. The more you find out about the system the more you realise just how complex it is, which in turn propels you through this strange and intriguing world of what really is down the rabbit hole?
Belarus’s archive systems are not uniform so, depending on what city you are searching in, the system changes. Even though they are comparable records which require identical handling, our partnered archivists based in different cities; Brest, Minsk and Grodno, use different systems. In Grodno, the system is much the same as our larger national libraries like The British Library, where you request your volume and it gets delivered from the vaults to you, and fingers-crossed, the information you are looking for is there. In Minsk, it’s more like your local library where you can wander through the stacks searching for volumes. In Brest, you can do both, which seems somewhat of a conundrum. This second approach seems altogether far more prone to problems given these are very old and delicate books. They can get lost or put back in the wrong place making it even harder for the next record to be found.
Once you find the volume, the next problem is finding the record you want, as you regularly find volumes that have absolutely no order. There may be a series of volumes with over 600 families’ information where Zimmerman could be on the first page and Ackerman on the last. When the records were recorded, one person went from door to door in no particular order and very diligently wrote all the information down. To find a family’s information there, you have to search through each page one by one with the hope they were at home that day and among the first houses to be recorded. Add to that today’s challenges, where you submit a request using what information you have at your disposal only to find it does not match historical documents. Names were regularly changed when people moved countries, so the surname you thought your grandfather had, turns out was not Borowits but Burevich due to a number of reasons. In some circumstances translations were not accurate or because of illiteracy (which was common in those days) while others anglicised their names. When people immigrated, it was common for Customs Officers to make mistakes because they couldn’t understand what people were telling them as they arrived at ’passport control’. Truly, it was and is a cornucopia of issues.
Continuing down the rabbit hole, translations from old Imperial Russian requires skill and patience. Just as the English language has evolved over time with all sorts of words falling out of common vernacular (ironically vernacular is a good example of this!). As to fully understand Elizabethan English today would not be possible for the average person in the UK, so too has the same happened with the language in these historic documents. Our dedicated staff are constantly looking up words to accurately translate and decipher all the formal documentation found.
The more you realise how much time, effort and sometimes pure luck is involved in finding these documents, you understand just how extraordinary it is. Not only that so many of these documents still exist but that through careful, thorough and detailed teamwork, results of meticulous searches are delivered, fully translated to English to your inbox. We thank the wonderful public who want to learn of their ancestors, who wait eagerly for news. We thank the fabulous archivists and caseworkers who make it all possible trawling through the volumes, translating and going out to public buildings in a pandemic (which further slows things down). The rabbit hole can and will go so much further. We are learning more and more every day about the records that exist, just how much information we can obtain and indeed the increasing numbers of people who we are connecting to, eager to initiate a search.
Article by Rachel Gordon