The Gross-Steinberg Family Tree presents:

Locating Maps/Aerial Photos on your Shtetl

by James Gross

This summary by Mel Comisarow ( has appeared several times in Jewishgen. I am sharing it with you as it has several good research points.

Date:    Tue, 24 Jun 1997 10:36:34 -0700
From:    Mel Comisarow 
Subject: Finding your town

First check out Shtetl Seeker:
The Shtetl Seeker search engine uses soundex for searching so
exact spelling will not be needed to find your town. Shtetl Seeker
returns the town coordinates for each successful search.  The
problem is you must know the modern name of the town.

A more thorough way to locate your town is the following:
Go to your local library and ask to see the United States
Board on Geographic Names (1970) gazetteer.  Look in the several
volumes of USBGN that cover eastern Europe and the Russian empire.
Be flexible with respect to spelling; v can be b, ch can be kh,
r can be l, sh can be zh, s can be sh or z, f can be v, g can be h,
j can be i, ei can be ay, and all vice versa, vowels are
interchangable, etc., etc. Your known town name may be the
historical name which is no longer in use.  USBGN will likely give
under "see also" the modern name.  It is common for many different
towns in the Russian empire to have the same name so it can be
important to have a general idea of the location of your town.

The USGBN gazetteer also lists rivers, lakes, mountains and other
geographic features.

The Web version search engine for USBGN has the URL:
Unfortunately, this version of the USBGN gazetteer only has
modern names.

Another good gazetteer is Where Once We Walked (WOWW). WOWW will
give only the modern name of your town.  The town name expressed
in Yiddish by Jews may or may not be the same the town name used
by the indigenous Russian, Ukrainian, Polish or Lithuanian people
of the region. Note that WOWW will give the modern town name
expressed in the indigenous language, not English.

Once you have the coordinates for your town write to
Library of Congress
Geography and Map Division (LCGMD)
Washington, DC 20540-4761
202-707-6277,  202-707-8555
202-707-8531 (fax)

and ask for photocopies of the maps of your towns from

1) The Russian maps of 1865 and 1920
(the maps might be the same)

2) The German maps of 1941.
The maps are free. LCGMD replies take about 4-8 weeks.

The Library of Congress Geography and Map Division (LCGMD)
Russian maps have a scale of 1:126,000
(1 cm = 1.26 km/1 inch = 2 mile) and have Cyrillic lettering
that will indicate the historical Russian name that may
or may not be the same as the Yiddish name that you know.
The LCGMD Russian maps have two longitude scales with Pulkova=
0 and Paris, France= 0. The LCGMD German maps have a
1:300,000 scale (1 cm = 3 km/1 inch = 4.7 mile) with a
Greenwich = 0 longitude scale and will have the modern town
name expressed with German spelling.  German s = English z,
German ss = English s, German z = English ts,
German w = English v, German j = English y, and so on.

To convert from Polkova to Greenwich, add 31 degs. 20 mins
to the longitude value shown on the map.  To convert from
Paris to Greenwich, add 2 degs.  20 mins.

The 1941 "modern" name may or may not be same as the post-WWII
"modern" name.  Also note that with the collapse of the Soviet
regime in the 1990s some towns with Bolshevized names have
reverted to their historical names.

A Web source for large scale (1:6,000,000) historical maps of
Eastern Europe is Federation of East European Family History
Societies, FEEFHS:
These are good maps for seeing the gubernias (provinces) of the
Russian empire.

A list of gubernias and their capital cities is given in

WWII-era aerial reconnaissance photographs --
The US National Archives has WWII-era aerial reconnaissance
photographs of Russian villages.  In order to order these photos
write to:

National Archives and Records Administration
Cartographic and Architectural Branch
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
specifying the modern name and longitude/latitude coordinates
of the villages of interest.  Also include a map showing the
town(s).  I suggest using the LCGMD 1941 German maps.

The Archive will reply giving their reference number for the
photo along with a list of commercial firms who will retrieve
the photo from the Archives and make contact copies,
enlargements and/or digital scans.  The cost is approximately
$25 per contact photo including shipping.

The Archive has 10 inch X 10 prints, from which negatives and
positive prints, enlargements and digital scans can be made.
The photos have a scale range of 1:7000 to 1:40,000
(1 cm = 70 meters to 400 meters) and are shot on high resolution
film such that with the aid of a 10X loupe, a magnifier available
in any camera store, objects as small as a meter can sometimes
be seen.

Photos that were shot in sequence, presumably a few seconds apart,
will have some geographic overlap between the two photos. It is
possible that the village of interest could appear in two or more
photos with a clearer image in one photo compared to the other(s).
It might be worthwhile to also order the adjacent photos to get
the clearest image of interest.

The Archive village name index not complete and some Archive
photos have images of villages that are not indexed.  It might be
wise to query about several neighboring villages, obtainable for
example from the 1941 LCGMD German maps, in the hope that at
least one of them is indexed. Inclusion of a map with your query
can be critical in this case.

I have corresponded with several Jewgenners who when searching
ShtetlSeeker or some other gazetteer find that there are several
towns that seem to match the supposed ancestral town.  Without
some other information, such as the names of neighboring towns
or rivers, the researcher is unable to select an ancestral town
from the multitown list.

I would like to emphasize the importance of locating the
naturalization documents for ancestors.  I recently received
the 1919 Canadian naturalization documents for my grandfather
and while most of the documents stated that he was from "Russia",
one of the documents listed the birth town, county (uzed) and
province (gubernia). Obviously, knowing the county and province
of birth is of enormous aid in selecting the town of birth from
a list of towns with similar names.

I don't know if Canadian naturalization documents from other eras
or if naturalization documents from other jurisdications give
birth county and province.

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