Jewish ancestors (1800s)

Although researching Jewish ancestors will at some stage lead overseas, there's plenty of UK-based information to help you get started. Jenny Thomas shows you how.

Esther Rantzen’s story is somewhat unusual in terms of Jewish ancestry. Unlike her family, who emigrated from Warsaw to Britain in the 1850s, the primary migration of Ashkenazi Jews from Russia and Poland took place from the 1880s to 1914, quadrupling Britain’s Jewish population.

It is useful, if you are not already familiar with the terms, to recognise the difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. In genealogical terms, there are differences in names (see www.jewishgen.org/Sephardic/differ.htm for more) and, of course, in likely geographical origin. The Ashkenazi tend to come from Eastern Europe and Germany, while the Sephardi are Iberian in origin, and are likely to come from Spain, Portugal, North Africa or Italy.

It is not always immediately obvious to which group your ancestors belonged: Nigella Lawson’s colouring suggested to her that the belonged to the latter group, and she wondered if her journey would take her to Spain. She was surprised when the trail led her to Holland. Both Nigella and Esther descend from Ashkenazi Jews.

Esther’s unusual family name, Rantzen, certainly helped in tracing her ancestors as it is very rare not only in England, but also in Poland. However even if the name is relatively common there is still plenty of information to be found. As with all family history, if the name is particularly commonplace any extra details you know about your ancestor can help to narrow down the search.

Although, like Esther, your search is likely at some point to lead abroad, there is still a wealth of information available in the UK at archives and on the internet. Good luck!

Photo © Hulton Archive Getty Images

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