My visit to the Chernigov archives

by Yechezkel Schatz 2013

I have recently returned from a very successful visit to the Chernigov archives, and I feel that I want to share that experience with others. I am hoping that my account will educate others on what’s involved and will help them prepare. Furthermore, I hope that I can inspire others to dare and plan such a trip, just as I was inspired by the accounts of other researchers.

My genealogical mission

My brother Yaakov started putting together our family tree several years ago, and I promptly joined him in the family research. It has been an exciting journey, and over time we learned a tremendous amount about our family history and the history of the Jewish people in general. But even as we made progress in our research, learning more and more about our grandparents (and their ancestors…) and connecting with distant (and not-so-distant) relatives, there was one branch of the family where we were stuck at an impasse.

My paternal grandfather, Yaakov Moshe (Morris) Schatz, was born in Pryluky (now in Ukraine, about 2 hours east of Kiev) in 1890. His mother Risja (later known as Rose) grew up, and was probably also born, in Pryluky, but his father, Eliyahu Schatz, “came from some other place” ? that was the family tradition that got passed down to us. Eliyahu did not want the family to immigrate to America, but after he died of cancer, that is exactly what they did. First went Yaakov and his brother Yehoshua (later known as Sam) in 1912, and then in 1913 their mother and sister Sophie joined them.

My grandfather was the only one in his immediate family with descendants, so we knew that there is no point in searching for second cousins in this branch of the family. However, we wanted to try and connect with third cousins, especially cousins who share the same surname. But to make any progress, we would have to find out where Eliyahu Schatz was originally from. Much of our family research had been done until now through Internet searches and collaboration with other researchers that we found online. So after finding all the relevant American documents about my grandfather’s family through online searches (Ellis Island records, marriage records, Rose’s death record), we realized that it was time to take our research to the next level and finally experience some real legwork away from our computer desks; it was time for a visit to an Eastern European archive.


So many things just turned out right and fell into place. Firstly, I got involved at my company with a team in Ukraine, and the need arose for me to travel to Ukraine and visit the team. That took care of the psychological block of travelling to a “strange and foreign” country…. In fact, my visit to Chernigov occurred during my second visit to Ukraine. So I really threw myself into the whole experience... Here are a few things that I did in preparation for my trip:

  • Studied online maps and researched transportation options at my Ukrainian destinations.
  • Booked apartments at all my destinations. Apartments for short-term rental are readily available in Ukraine (I used Apartments are a very convenient and inexpensive alternative to staying at hotels, and the rental apartment market seems to be thriving.
  • Started an audio course in Russian during my commute to work. Not many people speak English in Ukraine, so being able to speak and understand just a bit of Russian proved to be a very important asset. Out of the 90 lessons in the course, I completed about 40 by the time I went to Ukraine for the first time, and about 70 by the time I visited Ukraine for the second time. This enabled me to shop, ask for directions, and communicate at a very basic level with people on the street and in the archives.

    As for reading skills: way back when I was a curious lad of 15, I decided one day to look up the Cyrillic alphabet in the encyclopedia, and taught myself to recognize the letters. For a reason that I cannot explain, the visual memory stuck with me over the years. I had ample opportunity to practice during my stay in Ukraine by reading the signs in the streets and shops.

And here are the actions that I took specifically in preparation for the visit to the Chernigov archives:

• Through the help of a colleague and friend in our Kiev offices, I hired a person to accompany me to the archives. Lia’s role was twofold:

  • To help me communicate with the people at the archives (who spoke either Russian or Ukrainian). This also included a few phone calls that we had to make.
  • To help me quickly peruse the documents at the archive. Although I can read printed Russian (phonetically), I am very slow and do not understand almost anything that I’m reading. Furthermore, reading handwritten Russian cursive is especially difficult.

    So the skills I was looking for were:
  • Satisfactory level of spoken English
  • Fluent Russian and Ukrainian
  • Ability to read Russian cursive quickly

As you’ll see further on in my description, Lia’s help was invaluable, and she played a key role in the success of my mission. She was highly educated and extremely pleasant, and we made a perfect team.

• Booked the time at the archives. This involved the following steps:

1. My brother and I first consulted Miriam Weiner’s Routes to Roots Foundation website (, and found that the relevant documents are in the archives in Chernigov.

2. Lia called the Poltava archives (, to ensure that they do not still house any of the Pryluky documents, as Pryluky used to be part of the Poltava gubernia. They assured us that all documents are now in Chernigov.

3. I wrote an email (in Russian) to the Chernigov archives (, telling them about my intent to come visit and providing a rough list of the documents (type and year range) that I am looking for.

4. We called the Chernigov archives, negotiated the dates for my visit, and reserved seats in the reading room on those dates (more about this room later on). This phone call was much more important than the email, and, presumably, it must be done at least a month before the date of your visit.

5. Prepared prints of a few documents that tie me to the objects of my research (grandfather’s Ellis Island arrival record > US census record that lists my grandfather and my father > my birth record with my father’s name).
Note that I was never asked to present these documents….

• Defined my objectives.

What specific information was I looking for?

  • Place of origin of my great grandfather (as discussed above)
  • More about my great grandmother’s family; information to help us connect with cousins from her side of the family
  • My grandfather had two more sisters who died young. I wanted to find some record of these sisters, and at least discover their names.

My first day in Chernigov

I spent a very pleasant Shabbat in Kiev. The apartment that I rented was just a couple of blocks away from the Brodsky synagogue, and I was invited by a local Jewish family for the Shabbat meals. I even went to a ballet (Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”) on Saturday night. On Sunday around noon I took the metro red line to Lisova station (Chernihivska station would have been good too). There I got on a marshrutka (share taxi) for the two-hour ride to Chernihiv (the Ukrainian name for Chernigov).

After meeting the landlady of the apartment that I was renting and setting myself up, I went for a walk to do some grocery shopping and to get a feel of what the city is like. I also wanted to see if I could find the archive buildings according to the addresses that appear at their website (2 Mstyslavska and 52 Pitnytska), so that I wouldn’t waste any time the next morning. Well, those street numbers turned out to be total bogus?no buildings existed where you’d expect them to according to the street numbers...

Luckily, Lia had been to the archives before, so she explained to me how to get there and we didn’t waste any time on Monday morning searching for the place. Simply continue south on Myru Avenue until past the theater/opera house, and enter Dytnets Park; the archive building is right next to the Saviour Cathedral.

Upon our arrival, Lia and I said hello to the guard on the ground floor, explained what we came for, and filled out papers with details about ourselves and our mission. We were then called in to the office of the vice director, a serious, unsmiling woman. She told us that Lia could not be granted access to the documents without a notarized letter of authorization from me, since she has no family connection with any of the people in these documents. In my frustration, I opened my mouth and said in Russian “I want Lia with me, she works for me, and I have only a little time.” The vice director answered that she understands that I don’t have much time, but under no circumstances will she violate the rules. However, my small act of voicing myself did make a difference?she continued to say that we could go to the reading room and submit our first request for documents to be brought out to us. Then, while waiting for the document folders to be brought out?typically a 60 to 90 minute wait?we could go to a notary’s office and tend to the letter of authorization.

The reading room is not very large, but can probably seat about 20 researchers, if necessary. The two main librarians working in this room were like a breath of fresh air?pleasant, caring, knowledgeable, and helpful. Pryluky documents are listed in catalogs, with a very good, simple-to-follow catalog of vital records, and another, more complex and diverse catalog of census records and directory listings. I had plenty to check out in the vital records, so Lia and I quickly decided to focus our time on vital records and leave the studying of census records and directories for later. (In the end, that later will be the next time that I visit Chernigov…)

It didn’t take very long to get accustomed to the routine…

1. You must first submit a request to have the catalog brought out to you. You fill in the details of the catalog on a slip of paper and hand it to the librarians. If no-one else is currently using the catalog, you can expect to have it handed to you within 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Browse through the catalog and choose the folders that you want to peruse. Folders are identified by year and type of vital record. Again, you use the same slips of paper to submit your orders, one slip of paper for each folder. One important detail to keep track of and to include on each slip of paper is the number of pages in the folder. Presumably, you are entitled to browse through a maximum of 1000 pages (per day? Per order? Not quite clear…) After submitting your order, you can expect to receive the folders within 60 to 90 minutes.

3. When the folders are received by the librarians, they stack them somewhere safe near them at the head of the room, and you tell them which one you want to browse through (assuming that you want to browse through the folders in a specific order). When a folder is handed to you, you sign that you received the folder and browse through the pages, looking for the surnames of your ancestors. When you finish browsing, you return the folder and sign again.
As you move on to the next folder (receive > sign > start browsing), the librarian takes the folder that you just returned and sits with it for a couple of minutes, leafing through it to make sure that you did not damage the pages or remove any pages.

But, of course, on that first day, we had an important task to perform during those 90 minutes between step 2 and step 3. Lia and I set off by foot towards the center of town in search of a notary’s office. This proved to be a very easy task, as you can usually find several notary offices on every block in any Ukrainian city. (I can only surmise that notary services are needed quite often in Ukraine…)

The head notary at this office was a very pleasant woman. She explained that before we sit down to author our letter of authorization, she would need proof of our identities. For Lia, a simple photocopy of the relevant page in her Ukrainian passport is fine. For me, on the other hand, matters get a bit more complicated… I will need to get that page in my passport translated and notarized by a certified translator. With that document from the translator I would come back to the office and we could then author the letter of authorization. This letter of authorization would allow Lia to sit together with me in the archive. If I want to authorize her to come to the archive in my absence and search for documents on my behalf, I would, in addition, need to apply for a special Ukrainian identity number, a process that typically takes 2 to 3 days. Naturally, we chose to continue with the type of document that covers the lower level of authorization…

“Oh, and one more detail… When we finish authoring your letter of authorization in Ukrainian, you’ll need to bring a translator here, so that he/she can certify that you understood what you are signing.” Well, this was a bit too much for me, and I immediately responded with “я могу прочитать!” (I can read!) And from that point on in our conversation with the head notary, Lia was careful not to translate too much of what was being said…

So Lia and I set off to find a translator’s office. That too was not very hard, and the second office we walked into was not too busy and was able to offer us their services for a certified and notarized, expedited translation within the hour (to be picked up after we come back from lunch). Here’s a very important note: Take the time to explain to the translator how your name is pronounced! I forgot to do this, and ended up having to add the silly erroneous transliteration of my surname in parentheses to the document that we had earlier submitted at the archives (it could have been much worse, phew…)

With the translated document of my identity we headed back to the notary’s office, where we authored a letter of authorization together with the girls there. I then took the document and read it out loud, with Lia whispering a few words of explanation now and then. That must have been quite a sight to see, but it was good enough and I was not asked again to hire a translator to come to the notary’s office…. We certainly earned that letter of authorization! Back at the archives, we handed our notarized letter of authorization to the vice director. She made a photocopy of the document, and we were free to take our place once again in the reading room.

The first time that we held one of the folders in our hands was a very exciting moment. I could sense the historical value of these records, which capture some of the most important moments in the lives of a whole community. I was relieved to see that all vital records were written in both Russian and Hebrew, so Lia took charge of examining the names in Russian and I was responsible for the Hebrew. The handwriting wasn’t always easy to follow, but between the two of us we managed beautifully. It is interesting to note that often when the handwriting in Russian was hard to read, the Hebrew was much more legible, and when the Hebrew writing was a mere scribble, the Russian script was clearer. This made us wonder whether this was because the person who did the writing was more fluent in one language and less fluent in the other (and, if so, which language was he more fluent in?the clearer handwriting or the less clear handwriting?) We found the death records to be easiest to read, the marriage records next in legibility, and the birth records in last place…

Within a couple of hours we had already found the marriage record of my great grandparents and then the birth record of my great grandmother’s sister. The next day we found the birth records of my grandfather’s sister and brother, the birth records of two more sisters of my great grandmother, the marriage records of two sisters of my great grandmother, and the death record of my great grandfather and second great grandfather.

To obtain a copy of a document, you can choose between a printed copy or a scanned image file. Both cost the same, a bit more than 40 Hryvnia (about $5 US). You have to fill out a form and take it with you to the bank and pay there. After you come back from the bank you submit the form, and the scanned images or printed documents are given to you some time later (up to a day later, although I think you can ask them to speed it up just a bit). Note: Taking pictures using mobile devices is strictly prohibited, and I would strongly advise against trying to violate their rules and risking getting kicked out. The guard on the ground floor has a closed-circuit TV that shows him what’s going on in the reading room at all times.


I spent a total of two and a half days in the archives, and (as mentioned above) found 10 vital records of my ancestors. When I analyze my findings against the objectives that I set for myself, I have the following results:

  • These documents gave us the name of the place of origin of Eliyahu Schatz, my grandfather’s father. It was Mogilev. Now we have to figure out whether this was the Mogilev that is nowadays in Belarus or Mogilev Podolsky in the south of Ukraine, along the Moldavian border.
  • We also have a lot more information about my grandfather’s mother’s family, and are currently trying to connect ourselves with cousins from her side. Her maiden name was Shepsenvol, but we do not know whether she had any brothers, so perhaps we will succeed in connecting with fourth cousins. We’ll also try connecting to the descendants of her sisters (third cousins), for which we have the following married names: Khotimsky, Tserberov, and Sheptowitzky.
  • I did not find my grandfather’s two sisters, but I have a few more years of death records that I did not get to, and I’ll have to check them during my next visit.

One of the most important accomplishments is having familiarized myself with the process. I can now say with confidence that I will be back in Chernigov in the near future to check out a few more vital records and to check out the census records, as well. In addition, I think our research might perhaps take me to Minsk, and I am sure that my experience in Chernigov will serve me well there too.


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