This research was previously published in Shemot, journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, in Apr 2023 (vol. 31, no. 1)
Written by Leigh Dworkin
Parts 11 and 22 of this Dvorkin epic I had been searching fruitlessly in Brest-Litovsk, Belarus for evidence of Harris (Tzvi Hirsch) Dvorkin and his two siblings, Schlomo and Yitchak, or Solomon and Isaac, as well as the father of all three, Joseph or Yossel Dvorkin. However, the conclusion of Part 2 was to understand that the brothers and their father were actually from Brestovich – really Vyalikaya Byerastavitsa3 – some 2.5 hours’ drive away from Brest Litovsk. While this might seem quite close, crucially it is much closer to the Grodno archives than the Brest archives. I had been looking for my people in the wrong place and in the wrong archive. An American Social Security number application form for Schlomo (now renamed as Sam Devorkin in the US) had revealed that the mother of all of the brothers was a Dora Abramovich, Joseph’s wife.
Research in Belarus is not for the faint of heart. Very little is online, unlike Poland, for example. Very little is digitized. Visiting archives in person and touching original records is the norm. Not all records have survived, sadly. Most research involves consulting huge, badly preserved tomes of records, which need to be searched for names of interest page by page (Figure 1). As we are in Belarus, most of the records are in Russian in Cyrillic script, although there may be a smattering of Yiddish in Hebrew script, but definitely nothing in English in Latin script.
You have to pay people to go into the archives for you and then pay for the laborious search. If they find nothing, you still pay. If they happen to find a record, you will get a report about it, but you have to pay extra for a photo of the original record or a high-quality scan of it.
My first attempt at getting records from the Belarusian archives in 2017 ended in abject failure at my expense. I hired a Belarusian professional genealogist to go into the archives for me. Before choosing them I asked for recommendations from fellow JGSGB researchers and the JewishGen Belarus Special Interest Group. Unfortunately, it did not work out for me and so I will not name the professional genealogist or the company that they worked for.
The task in my mind was simple: to find anything about Harris (Tzvi Hirsch) Dvorkin (born 1878) and his two siblings, Schlomo and Yitchak, plus their father Joseph, all from Brest-Litovsk. Before I started, I was informed that the 1878 birth records from Brest had not survived, but I requested that the search proceed anyway. The work was expected to cost $900 and a deposit of $350 was paid plus some currency fees in order for the work to commence.
The reality was that very few records could be found. At one point there was a glimmer of hope that some traces of Hirsh or Girsha Dvorkin had been found, but I never saw them, nor was I told specifically what they were. No signs of Schlomo, Yitchak or Joseph Dvorkin were found.
Success was never guaranteed but there seemed to be a continual set of requests for more money for more in-depth time-consuming searches which also might not find any records. In short, I lost trust in the researcher and communications dried up with nothing received for a considerable outlay of funds.
Several years passed and I became aware of a British charity called The Together Plan whose CEO is Debra Brunner. Her parents happen to go to my synagogue in Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK and I met Debra at a talk about Polish ancestral tourism given by her mother at the synagogue. Debra has been a frequent speaker at JGSGB meetings and conferences subsequently, talking about the charity which aims to revitalise Judaism in Belarus. During the pandemic, The Together Plan started a research service due to their contacts within the Belarusian archives in Brest and Minsk in particular and I heard Debra speak a number of times about the success stories of the service (Figure 2).
Despite the poor results achieved from the expensive mistake described above in 2017, I decided that I would try again with the Belarusian archives using The Together Plan’s service in 2022. It was not so much once bitten twice shy, but after a few years, my shyness had subsided and I knew more about my Dworkin ancestors so it seemed worthwhile to throw good money after bad. I am easily parted from the little money I have.
For the sum of £200, the service repeated a “Phase 1” search for the family of Harris (Tzvi Hirsch) Dvorkin, born 1878 in Brest Litovsk, and came up with remarkable similar results – I received nothing but a report stating that there was no evidence of Dvorkins in Brest-Litovsk. However, there was a crucial difference in that the archivist seemed to feel bad about it! Their recommendation was not to proceed to a deeper “Phase 2” search for £600 in Brest-Litovsk. Communications had continued throughout and my discovery that I might be looking in the wrong place and that Vyalikaya Byerastavitsa (or Brestovich) might prove more fruitful had been shared with the archivist. So I was given two discounted options. I could either do a Phase 1 search of Brestovich for £150, or a combined phase 1 & 2 search of Brestovich for £600.
I decided to take things step-by-step and went for the extra £150 option; the search in shtetl Velikaya Berestovitsa for the family of Harris (Tzvi Hirsch) Dvorkin, born 1878, including father Joseph and brothers Schlomo and Yitchak was conducted. In addition, the archivist promised to throw in a quick search for Dora Abramovich (but not the whole Abramovich family) in Velikaya Berestovitsa for free.
Finally results from the Grodno archive were forthcoming …
The first set of records was from lists of names of residents who voted in elections for the Burgher Council and for the Grodno Rabbi assistant. All the names in each document were written by the same scribe who compiled the list (Figures 3 and 4).
The second set of records seems to have been written by Iosel Dvorkin himself. They are signatures in both Russian and Hebrew, as they are the ballots rather than the list of voters (Figures 5 and 6).
Next, a printed rather than handwritten record which proves that Iosel’s father was Zelman and that Iosel had a son Movsha, both facts unknown previously. The three other sons had emigrated before 1912, Hirsh to the UK and Schlomo and Yitchak to the USA (Figure 7).
This record was not completely unknown to me as a transcription exists on JewishGen. My previous attempts to obtain the original record from the JewishGen Belarus SIG had not been successful, but The Together Plan delivered. This discovery of Iosel’s father Zelman Dvorkin – my triple great-grandfather – made sense of some records from Bialystok, Poland that I had not previously managed to link in. More research is required, but the mother Rochla-Bunia of two Babicka children born in 1901 and 1903 was the daughter of a Zelman Dworkin (Figure 8).
Other records found were real estate tax lists showing the value of real estate for Movsha and Iosel, the street names on which their properties were, as well as their names on lists of owners of real estate (Figure 9).
The archivist decided that a Phase 2 search was unlikely to produce more Dvorkin results, although for an extra £300 they would be happy to do the more in-depth search. I was happy to take their advice and save my money. At some point in the future I may go for this option, but I was very pleased that there was no hard sell.
The quick search promised for free for Dora Abramovich was one of the most valuable pieces of research done for me. It consisted of looking through the 560 sheets of the censuses (actually “revision lists”) for 1850 and 1858 (Figure 10).
Although this is rather speculative, there is a potential Dora Abramovich born in 1854, so only appearing in the second part of the revision list for 1858. She is Dvorka, daughter of Nokhim Girshevich Abramovich (age 25 in 1850, age 30 in 1858) and Dushka (age 30 in 1858). Nockhim’s brother Leiser Abramovich is also listed with wife Sora. Finally, there is a niece, Sora Elka Itskova (age 18 in 1858), presumably the daughter of Nokhim or Dushka’s brother Itsek.
Being born in 1854 means that Dvorka would be 24 in 1878, when her son (my great-grandfather Tzvi Hirsh) was born, so the ages are feasible.
So if Dvorka is my great-great-grandmother Dora Abramovich, my triple great-grandparents are Nokhim Girshevich Abramovich and Dushka, both born in 1828. That patronymic means my quadruple great-grandfather was Girsh Abramovich, born circa 1800, before our people used surnames. Could this mean that Abramovich is a patronymic for Girsh? If so, then my pentuple great-grandfather was Abram, born 1770–1780.
I also wonder if my great-grandfather Harris (Tzvi Hirsch) was named after his great-grandfather Girsh (or Hirsh) Abramovich?
It would be nice to know what made these people tick and something more of their stories than just names and dates, but that is not bad for a free quick search, thrown in because my first £200 search found nothing and the archivist felt sorry for me!
So, from Part 1 of my research I had discovered a couple of brothers, Yitchak and Schlomo (Figure 11). In Part 2 of my research I had found that Yitchak had become Jake Dwarkin in America, Schlomo had become Sam Devorkin in America, their mother was Dora Abramovich and they all hailed from Brestovich rather than Brest-Litovsk (Figure 12). However, in Part 3, with The Together Plan and their archive services, I have managed to go back one generation with my Dvorkins to my triple great-grandfather Zelman Dvorkin and back three generations in the Abramovich line, albeit speculatively, to my pentuple great-grandfather Abram (Figure 13).
In conclusion, I can thoroughly recommend The Together Plan’s archive services. It is not just about whether they deliver results but whether they give a feeling of a trusted partner in this great pastime that is genealogy.
Leigh Dworkin is the current Chairman of the JGSGB. He has been researching his mainly Polish family for the last thirty years, but also tries to research into Lithuania and Belarus, from where his surname originates. He regularly presents at JGSGB Regional Groups, Special Interest Groups and conferences.
- See ‘The Dvorkins of Brest-Litovsk, Part 1’, Shemot, 30 (1), April 2022
- See ‘The Dvorkins of Brest-Litovsk, Part 2’, Shemot, 30 (2), August 2022
- See https://www.jewishgen.org/Communities/community.php? usbgn=-1941478
- See thetogetherplan.com
- See thetogetherplan.com/our-projects/heritage/archive