Well, a lot happens in four years, but enough about me... David Ellis of Natick MA recently posted to the LitvakSIG listserv a question that related to population growth in the shtetlach in the 19th century. His question related to Butrimonys. It led me ...

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"The Zarasai Web Log" - 5 new articles

  1. 19th century population explosion!
  2. Zarasai boy makes good: Al Jaffee and his Mad Life
  3. Yahrzeit dates
  4. ZIMMAN? BRINKER? simple research tools
  5. How healthy was interwar Lithuania?
  6. More Recent Articles

19th century population explosion!

Well, a lot happens in four years, but enough about me...

David Ellis of Natick MA recently posted to the LitvakSIG listserv a question that related to population growth in the shtetlach in the 19th century.  His question related to Butrimonys.  It led me to wonder whether we can find out anything interesting about shtetl populations using the datasets we have available.

I looked at Salakas for which we have a range of data sets - census, revision lists and family lists.

(An article by Boris Feldbyum explains the background of much of this information   http://www.bfcollection.net/fast/articles/ruscensus.pdf )

The 1784 Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) census has 80 lines for Salakas, the 1845 revision list has 650 lines or so, the 1874 family list has 3080 entries and the 1887 family list about 8,500.

Plotted on a chart:

This looks exponential: and plotting on a log chart we see the trend very clearly.

This is a steadyish trend of close to 4.5% every year.  In other words the population doubled about every 16 years.   If this had continued Salakas would now be a metropolis of more than 1 1/2 million people.

There was a mix of immigration and organic growth.  Comparing the 1845 and 1887 lists, 1845 has 72 unique family names, 1887 about 200. Using this as a proxy for net immigration (which may or may not be reasonable) it looks as though about 2.5% annual growth was through net immigration with another 2% or so “organic” growth. 

There is a myth of the unchanging shtetl.  Salakas was in ferment with a doubling in size in less than a generation.  With this pace of growth the number of young people massively outweighed the old.

While the population expanded, opportunities became more and more limited as the Russian state failed to industrialise and limited Jewish access to higher education and the professions. The pressures on resources was clearly a key factor in the explosive emigration that started in the 1880s.


Zarasai boy makes good: Al Jaffee and his Mad Life

Al Jaffee had an itinerant childhood: born in 1921, in Savannah GA, he was shlepped by his heymsick mother (a Gordon) back to Zarasai town in 1927 for a year, and then again in 1929 when they were four years in Zarasai and Slabodka. He eventually became a comic book artist - and winner of the major prizes in the field. He is best known for his fold-ins and other long running features in Mad Magazine.

A biography, Mad Life, has just been published written by Mary-Lou Weisman and illustrated by Al Jaffee - available from Amazon and all good book shops. There is an interesting piece in the New York Times. Al illustrates and recalls life in Zarasai in the interwar period from a unique perspective - as an American kid experiencing shtetl life.

For those of you in the NY area Al Jaffee is appearing at the NY Comic Con October 8-10 and there is a show of his illustrations for the book and other work at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in SoHo from 5 October to 30 January.

Ms Weisman is talking about the book at Fairfield Connecticut Public Library on 13 October and at the Strand Bookstore on 19 October.

LitvakSIG gets a name check - our All Lithuania Database and Zarasai District records were helpful in documenting the family history. Al and Mary-Lou made generous donations to our research funds.


Yahrzeit dates

From August 1941 German units (primarily Einsatzkommando 3 of Einsatzgruppe A) killed, according to their own report (see http://www.holocaust-history.org/works/jaeger-report/htm/intro001.htm?lang_from=de), more than 130,000 men, women and children in Lithuania and neighbouring areas . These weeks mark killings in the Zarasai district. In particular we can remember:

Antaliepte/Antalept 26 August (3 Elul, this year 23 August)
Pandelys/Ponidel 25 August (2 Elul, this year 22 August)
Rokiskis/Rakishok 15/16 August and 25 August (2 Elul, this year 22 August)
Obeliai /Abel 25 August (2 Elul, this year 22 August)
Zarasai/Ezhereni 26 August (3 Elul, this year 23 August)
Pandelys/Ponidel 25 August (2 Elul, this year 22 August)
Dusetos/Dusiat 26 August (3 Elul, this year 23 August)
Salakas/Salok 9 August and 26 August (3 Elul, this year 23 August)
Skapiskis/Skapishok 15/16 August (22/23 Av, already passed)

People from smaller shtetls were usually taken to a larger place nearby. Dates for other Livak communities can be found at http://www.jewishgen.org/Litvak/HTML/yahrzheit.htm.

ZIMMAN? BRINKER? simple research tools

I posted the following to the LitvakSIG discussion group digest where it appeared on 2 August 2009. It helps to illustrates some basic tools and techniques for research - and how far we have come: translated records available to everyone through the ALD- thanks to so many people's generosity - means a new researcher can find her roots: shazam! Arlette Doubnikof was thrilled.


I write in response to Arlette Doubnikof's email seeking information on Elka ZIMMAN, daughter of Shaba ZIMMAN and Sarah Dvore BRINKER "born on 3 august 1869 in NOWO-ALEXDRANDROVSK" .

This is a good example where intelligent use of available records and resources can lead us to an answer. Explanations of the various types of records I reference can be found on the LitvakSIG public website (www.litvaksig.org). Drill down under "FAQ" to "FAQs about Available Records for Lithuania".

NovoAleksandrovsk also known as Zarasai was the capital for a district named after the town. Often people used the name of the district or the name of the province ( or Guberniya) when they came from a shtetl that might not be well know. So it possible that the family came from some shtetl other than Zarasai itself.

So when we look at the All Lithuania Database (the "Search ALD" button at www.litvaksig.org) we see that the Brinker entries from the mid 19th century are all from Salakas - a shtetl in the Zarasai district. So in the 1845 Revision List we see a Sorka BRINKER aged 8 who is at least a candidate for Sarah Dvore.

The ZIMMAN link is more difficult. We can first look at the Given Names Database at www.litvaksig.org. This tells us Shaba is probably a version of Shabsay Sheftl - so might see this as something like Shepsel or Shebsel or Shabsel in the records. Now where would the ZIMMAN family come from and what were they called?

There was a tradition called "kest" where as part of a marriage settlement the bride's parents would provide the couple with room and board for a certain number of years. I discuss this practice and its genealogical impact in a recent post at www.zarasai.blogspot.com. So it is possible that Shaba ZIMMAN came from somewhere else.

We recently received a dataset (thanks to Maria Krane) of marriages connected to Salakas for a slightly later period from 1877 to 1915. A short statistical analysis is at zarasai.blogspot.com. This tells us that only 39% of marriages were within the district, so even though it makes sense to look there first, it is easy to be disappointed. There is however no name ZIMMAN, or possible variations such as ZIMAN or ZEIMAN, in any records associated with the district.

The possible variations are numerous: do a "sounds like" search on ZIMMAN on the ALD and see dozens of possibilities. However to cut through this mass of possibilites we can do a soundex search for ZIMMAN from Salakas at the JewishGen Family Finder (http://jewishgen.org/jgff/). This gives no result.

So we search the JGFF for Salakas without specifying a name. This gives a list of registered researchers and the names they are researching. We look through the left hand column and come across ZINMAN. This is suggestive.

Go back to the ALD and do a soundex search for ZINMAN. Eventually scrolling through the revision list entries in the results you will find in the 1887 Family List for Salakas Shebshel TSINMAN, born about 1841, married to Sora Dveyra with two sons and three daughters - one of whom is Elka.

Elka's birthday is not recorded there. If it were to be found elsewhere then do remember that the date shown would be according to the Julian calendar in use in Russia and would need adjusting to match other records.

Now there are other records that are not currently publicly available. LitvakSIG's District Research Groups sponsor research. Once newly translated files are received they are edited - to check for typos and other errors - by volunteers and then eventually - perhaps after a year or even two - they are included in the ALD. But qualified donors will generally receive the new files in excel format almost immediately. Currently qualification requires a donation of US$100.

Contributions can be made at www.litvaksig.org under "Join/Contribute" - on the contribution page select "Zarasai" under "Choose District".

One such file, distributed to the members of the Zarasai District Research Group last year is the Salakas 1876 Family List. Here we can do a quick search and find Elka's declared age, which is not consistent with a birth in 1879. We also find that the family is registered in Zarasai town! So they did live there and Elka could have been born there, but note that the family details were still recorded in the Family List in Salakas. The father is shown as Shabsel TSYNMAN rather than Shebsel TSINMAN, but transliteration of names between Yiddish, Russian and English is an inexact science.

Is this Elka then definitely Ms Doubnikof's grandmother? In all probability, she is - and using the BRINKER and TSYNMAN entries in ALD and other resources she will be able to trace her families back to the late 18th century - with luck even into the 1784 Grand Duchy of Lithuania census - and forward through (great) great uncles and aunts to TSYNMAN and BRINKER cousins across the world.

How healthy was interwar Lithuania?

My conclusion: it was about as healthy as living in Switzerland. But before 1945 Switzerland was not such a great place to live: their economic miracle came after 1945. And life expectancy was below that for the US.
Last year I wrote a post that mentioned a 499 record dataset of deaths between 1922 and 1939 for one district ("dataset A"). I have also obtained another dataset of 963 deaths for the same period for an adjacent district ("dataset B"). The deaths are almost exactly split between male and female. Deaths of infants of less than one year in dataset A were 25, and dataset B 63. I have anonymised the information due to Lithuanian privacy laws for events within 100 years.

Grouping the deaths by age in 5 year blocks and adjusting for the different numbers in each dataset ("normalising") we can see the overall pattern of age at death in the two datasets.

The chart on the left (click to expand) shows a good eyeball consistency between the two districts in the pattern of age at death. This gives us some confidence in the quality of both datasets.
Note that I have excluded deaths of infants aged one or under.
What pattern can we see?
  • Up to the age of about 50 roughly similar numbers die annually and then from there the numbers rise sharply.

  • There is an interesting twin peak pattern: in the range 71-75 years the number of deaths dips when we might expect a peak. What might be the reason for this? This is really very odd - we are looking at a 17 year period and there is a consistent gap in this age range. I'll look at this again later.

  • The number of deaths then drops as the number of people left alive at each higher age falls. The oldest death in Dataset A was 102 and in Dataset B was 105. Now there may be some doubters out there, but I have looked at the 102 year old and traced the person back into mid 19th century revision lists and the age does seem to be correct.

How does the pattern of age at death compare to the rest of the world? I chose Switzerland as a benchmark. Switzerland is more formally known as the "Confoederatio Helvetica" or "CH" for short. I made this choice for a number of reasons. It was largely unindustrialised at the time, similar to Lithuania; it was unaffected by Great War deaths, which completely changed the demographics of France, the UK, and Germany; and reliable data is readily available from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. I used data for 1928 and compared Dataset A with Swiss male and female deaths.

The chart on the right (click to expand) shows this comparison. (Again the total number of deaths has been normalised to facilitate this)

The eyeball consistency is remarkable: and particularly with CH female deaths.

We see the "twin peak" in the Swiss data. This means that our Litvak datasets' twin peaks were not aberrant or an artefact of my amateur analytical methods. There was a cross european phenomenon which meant that there were fewer deaths of 71-75 year olds of both sexes than one might expect.

I have no idea why this might have happened. If any historical demographer chances along here please comment. Anyone in fact: please post any ideas you might have.
Despite this gap in understanding, it is clear from the overall pattern that Litvaks and Swiss had very similar mortality patterns during the interwar years - and it's reasonable to conclude that overall health was therefore similar.

The consistency of the Litvak and Swiss data for the interwar period suggests that looking at Swiss data for earlier periods might be suggestive for the pattern of age at death for Litvaks in earlier periods, where we have much less information for Litvaks.
The chart on the left (click to expand) shows Swiss data for 1876. We see that the pattern is quite different: there are many more deaths at younger ages and many fewer very old people. The average age at death was under 50 in 1876, compared to 64 in dataset A.
This change in longevity has a genealogical impact. Litvak naming traditions were that children were named, when possible, for deceased ancestors. In the first half of the 19th century one can often see names repeated every other generation - by the time the first grandson was born the grandfather was often already dead and their name was therefore available for reuse in the family. But as time passed the grandparents were increasingly still alive - possibly for the birth of every grandchild - and so the first opportunity to reuse a name might be for a great grandchild or even a great great grandchild. The neat naming patterns break down and our task becomes that much more interesting.
To illustrate how things are today I also show 2002 deaths. People now live much longer. But note there is also a dip at 71-75. This suggests we may be seeing a culling effect with slightly more infirm people dying in their late 60s leaving a slightly healthier group with a slightly enhanced chance of survival.
These datasets have a lot more information to offer - for example, in most cases a cause of death is given and analysis of this information could be interesting. This sort of analysis, which can give us the possibility of new insights into the pattern of the lives of our ancestors is only possible with the translation of complete runs of records: this is a new sort of reason to support LitvakSIG's work.

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