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The Reliability of information found in civil records

By Micheline Gutmann

Translated by David Presburger-Hauser & Gaby Laws

A family on a wedding day

Genealogists with some experience of searching in civil vital records and more specifically those concerning people of the Jewish faith, have repeatedly found contradictions or inconsistencies regarding names and dates amongst these records.

For decades now, some kind of proof of identification is required when registering a civil vital record (such as marriage and death registrations). Errors have thus become exceptional.

Names

Nowadays, it is very difficult to change a single letter of one’s last name, a good reason for doing so must be provided and the change will only be granted in some specific cases.
This was not always the case: in the early days of civil records, from 1 January 1793 (sometimes as early as late 1792), Jews did not often bear hereditary last names and their father’s first name was added to theirs as a family name. In 1808, the Bayonne decree required the acquisition of a hereditary name, but the law was not always easily followed and the old habits lasted for some time.

We will not develop here this chapter on names; we suggest our readers, if they have not yet done so, to refer to the adventures of names in Jewish families told by Gerard Levy and Anne-Marie Fribourg in GenAmi 41.

The most frequent errors are found In declarations of death because they were generally made by people who did not know the place of birth or the parents’ names of the deceased.

The problems are severely amplified when one goes to foreign countries. Statements of death are even less reliable than in the villages of origin of the deceased. We have even had more recent examples. And when descendants stick rigidly to information supplied by their family and don’t question it or check it they may never find the connection.

Dates

Civil vital records started on 1st January 1793 (with some exceptions in late 1792).

In France, for Roman Catholics, the proceedings were recorded in the parish at least since the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets in 1539 and that of Blois in 1579 instating holding of church records for baptisms, marriages and burials. There were no such religious acts for Jews. The only document required as a must-have by religion was the Ketubah, a marriage contract serving as a guarantee for the wife to whom it was delivered. The lists that we were able to draw (Translation of Ketubah, deeds, other vital records declarations) depended on local decisions and there is a great diversity of sources by region.

Birth: before civil vital records, the places where you can find a precise date of birth or circumcision are rare. In general, Jews did not know their birth date as it has no religious significance. Even when it had been recorded they provided approximate dates. Thus, throughout the 19th century, in birth registration of their children, in their marriage registration and more so in their death certificates, varied and fanciful dates can be found. This applies, for example, to Joseph Israel of Romanswiller who had 15 children and for each birth declaration has given himself an age corresponding to a different year of birth and sometimes he rejuvenated himself in between births of his children.
Another example is the tomb of Adele Emmanuel born in Durmenach in 1815 (record found) and deceased in New Orleans in 1895, on which we read that she was then aged 65. There could be some doubts because she had children until 1870.

You will find detailed documentation available for each region in our Research Guides.

What are the solutions?

One must confront all records relating to the person or even better to his family and complete them with deeds and census records. It is rare that we don’t come to a solution... especially with the help of GenAmi specialists.