French Jewish Genealogy

The Cercle de Généalogie Juive


One of the main reasons that we attended the salon in Lunéville was in the hope that there might be a group dedicated to the research of the Mennonites of the region, but no. Nevertheless, the hunt for associations of specialists in research into religious groups was not at all fruitless. Alsace and Lorraine have and had a large Jewish community, so the presence of the Cercle de Généalogie Juive at the Grand Salon de Généalogie, Histoire, Patrimoine à Lunéville was most sensible and welcome. Their table with all of their publications was fascinating. Of particular interest to some of our Dear Readers will be the book on Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire (of whom there were some eight thousand) who came to France during the First World War, Destins de Séfarades Ottomans : les Israélites du Levant en France pendant la Première Guerre mondial, by Philippe Denan.

Other publications include:

  • Extracts from various sources on the Jewish communities of Lorraine
  • Books about Jewish cemeteries throughout France, with photographs of each tombstone, transcriptions of the engravings and histories of the communities
  • A regular review, Généalo-J, produced three times per year, and which has many articles that are research guides

Many of these may be purchased as PDF documents and downloaded immediately. A complete list of the many, many publications may be found here.

The group is quite dynamic, with monthly lectures at the Mémorial de la Shoah and monthly genealogy clinics to help you with your research at the Mediathèque du Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris.

The organization is perhaps the best resource for French Jewish genealogy.

©2018 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Picard on Jules Lion - A Study in an Altered Identity

LaFayette passenger list

Some time ago, we were contacted by the art historian, Sara M. Picard, to help with research into a French immigrant to Louisiana named Jules Lion. It was such a fascinating case that we were more than happy, nay, keen to be involved. We hunted through cemeteries, French passenger lists, Consistoire registers, naturalisation files, commercial directories, notarial records, and many more. Dr. Picard quite brilliantly combined the French research with her much larger amount of research into American records to prove a remarkable point -- that historians had mistaken the racial background of Jules Lion. 

Her article, "Racing Jules Lion", appeared recently in Louisiana History, the Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association. Dr. Picard very kindly has obtained permission from that publication to allow you, Dear Readers, to access and read the article in its entirety here. If you have ever been puzzled by aspects of an ancestor's identity in your research, or if you simply want to have an amazing read about one of Louisiana's earliest photographers, do read this excellent study.

Many, many thanks, Dr. Picard, for allowing us to publish the link on The FGB.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

The Jewish Registers of Bayonne

Circumcision register Bayonne

Pre-1808 documentation of French Jewish families is rare and not easy to find. While legally required parish registrations in France began, more or less, in 1539, these pertained to Catholics only. Protestants maintained their own registrations as best they could. Yet, there was no general law across the country that required that Jewish people also register their births, marriages and burials. Additionally, before the Revolution, Jewish people were often considered as nationals of the region or country of origin and so, in documentation they are referred to as a type of foreign resident, even though this was not their actual legal status.

In the south of France, the assumed place of origin of much of the local Jewish population often was Iberia. In Bayonne, in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the Jewish quarter of the eighteenth century was within the parish of Saint-Esprit, where some registers refer to les juifs while others to les portugais. Still others use the more common French name of Israélites. Whatever the term, these registers are a rare and precious resource and it is quite nice indeed to find some of them online on the website of the Departmental Archives of Pyrénées-Atlantiques. More difficult to search but also very useful are certain tax and notarial records. A few of the records on Jewish people that may be found on the AD Pyrénées-Atlantiques at the moment are:

  • Etat des charges et modérations accordées par Mgr. l'intendant....sur le l'industrie des juifs du Bourg-Saint-Esprit pour l'année 1784 (a business tax list that contains some Jewish names)
  • Rôle de vingtième 1787 - another tax list for all who had to pay their "twentieth", which includes some Jewish names.
  • The registers of the parish of Saint-Etienne d'Arribe-Labourd at Bayonne - a single microfilm roll which contains a number of Jewish registers, some of them in Spanish, concerning births, circumcisions, marriages and burials. The typed contents list at the beginning of the roll is most helpful. 

For those who wish to dig deeper, try using any of the terms juif/juifs, portugais, espagnoles, Israélite/Israélites in the Recherche Simple box and pore over each and every one of the results. If your French Jewish ancestors were in Bayonne for a significant number of generations, the finest resource is Léon's Histoire des Juifs de Bayonne, which may be downloaded in its entirety here, or read online here.

Nice research opportunities, especially for those hoping for a Spanish passport.

©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Sephardim Proofs for a Spanish Passport


In the past two or three years, we have been contacted by numerous people who have become quite excited by the announcement of the government of Spain that it would award Spanish citizenship to anyone who could prove descent from one or more of the Jewish people expelled from that country in 1492, and who could demonstrate a knowledge of Spain's culture, heritage and geography. The hopeful applicants who have contacted us tend to have no knowledge of the language or country and to have had an inexpensive DNA test which indicated that they may have had ancestors from the Iberian peninsula in the fifteenth century. 

A few have had good reason to contact us, as they did have French ancestors, but why most of them came to us is a mystery. They were lacking a good 350 years of documentation and what they did have gave no indication that France was a good place to begin their research. In our mystification, we have referred them to others and now, we give a link to an article about the first person to succeed at this most difficult of genealogical endeavors, with details of the organisation that helped him to do so. We will be referring all future comers to this post. Thank you.

©2016 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

French Jewish Genealogy - La Revue des Etudes Juives


Arabesque 2

You know how it is when the research bug bites and it is impossible to stop. More, when the discoveries come thick and fast, you think you have struck some sort of gold, as indeed it can be -- a lovely, golden flow of discovery of history and ideas and family connection. In short, we have found a gem we wish to share about French Jewish genealogical research: La Revue des études juives, begun in Paris by the Société des Etudes Juives in 1880 and still going strong. Long  articles, scholarly and erudite -- especially in the earlier volumes -- provide abundant information that is not only historical but often genealogical. We give examples of titles:

  • Les Juifs en Bretagne au XVIIIe Siècle 
  • Les Juifs de Montpellier au XVIIIe Siècle
  • Les Juifs dans les Colonies Françaises au XVIIIe Siècle
  • Le Trèsor des Juifs Sephardim - notes sur les familles françaises isréalites du rit portugais
  • Inscriptions Hèbraïques d'Arles
  • Jacob Backofen, rabbin de Metz
  • La douane de Lyon et les juifs
  • Marchands juifs en 1670
  • Concile d'Orléans et les relations entre juifs et chrétiens (mariages)

 Some articles continue through many issues and really are books. All quote their sources and, if the sources are in the archives, give the facility and the code. Articles are not only in French. Many are in German, some in English, some in Hebrew, some in Italian. Nor is the subject matter limited to France. It is those that are in French, however, that seem to contain more information that can help the genealogist. Correspondence and many other documents are copied in full. In at least one article a complete list of names from a census is given. Individual court cases are described. People's lives are explored in detail. For those who cannot travel to France to use her many archives to research their French Jewish genealogy, this publication can be a gift indeed.

The Revue can be found around the Internet. For ease of use, we prefer to use the Index to the first fifty volumes via the Internet Archive. It is an excellent index, with headings for both authors and subjects. Thus, just looking up a city, such as Bordeaux or Lyon, or a region, such as Lorraine, will give a list of articles. Then, we go to Scribd, where the wonderful folks at Patrologia, bless them, have uploaded all the early volumes of the Revue.


©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Books - Documents on the Jewish Community of 18th Century Paris


Louvre Lamp


In 1913, the Society of the History of Paris and of the Ile de France brought out a book by Paul Hildenfinger, Documents sur les Juifs à Paris au XVIIIe Siècle : Actes d'Inhumation et Scellés. This is doubly a treasure, since pre-1871 Paris genealogy and pre-Revolutionary French Jewish genealogy are both very difficult areas of research.

The author, who spent months researching the documentation of the deaths of Jewish people in Paris in the eighteenth century, did not live to see the publication. Originally from Lille, he trained at the Ecole des Chartes as an archivist and paleographer, then worked at the Bibliothèque Nationale.  The research for this book did not come from his work but from his personal interest.

As Hildenfinger explains in his Introduction, eighteenth century French law stated that priests or curates were required to maintain registers of births, marriages and burials of every member of their parish. The law did not extend to non-Catholics, who were refused burial in Catholic cemeteries. While many Protestant pastors kept near-identical registers, the leaders of other religions often did not, or those records have not survived.

However, it was also required by law that the police were not to allow any burial without some sort of record of death. This particular law, enacted in 1736, was primarily intended for the documentation of Protestants and stated that, where there was no Catholic parish record of burial, an affidavit concerning the deceased was required before burial could take place. It ended up being applied to those of other religions, including Greek Orthodox and Jewish, as well as to a variety of foreigners, duellists and suicides.

It was the local police superintendent, of whom there were about twenty in Paris, who went to the home of the deceased and wrote the necessary documentation. Those documents that remain are in the Y series of the Archives nationales and it is these that Mr. Hildenfinger abstracted. Generally, he tells, the documentation includes:

  1. The declaration of death, by witnesses, neighbours or friends, whether Christian or Jewish, with their full names, the places of origin, their addresses in Paris. Sometime there may also be their professions and their relationship to the deceased. They signed, in French or Hebrew.
  2. The death report and identification of the corpse, with the full name, age, address, religion, and place of origin of the deceased.
  3. After 1737, comments by the Attorney General of Châtelet, to whom the report had to be submitted, giving the name of the deceased and the place of burial.
  4. The police authorisation for burial.

The scellé refers to the documentation concerning the sealing off by law of the deceased's property in order to protect the heirs and/or creditors. Often, it was used by the state to take possession of the property.

In all, Hildenfinger found 176 documents about 171 Jewish persons who died and describes them fully. The index is excellent. The Introduction could be used as a research guide to the subject on its own. Read it on Gallica:

Documents sur les juifs à Paris au XVIIIe siècle : actes d

Documents sur les juifs à Paris au XVIIIe siècle : actes d'inhumation et scellés / recueillis par P. Hildenfinger ; [publié par Alexandre Vidier]

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Jewish Genealogy in Alsace and Lorraine


Mortes en deportation en 1944

This year, the Day of Remembrance of the victims of the Shoah, Yom HaShoah, falls on the 8th of April. As before, at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, the names of all French Jewish victims will be read aloud.  The abomination that is human brutality when expressed as genocide is chilling and, it seems, will not go away any time soon.

All that any of us can do in the face of evil is good. There are times when we think that the search for our ancestors, and our need to find them and remember them, springs from not only obsessive research, but from a deep feeling of sympathy with and for those who are gone and cannot ever again speak for themselves. To be sure, genealogy is not charity but perhaps thoughts of kindness for the dead do lead to acts of kindness for the living.

One of the most important websites dedicated to the preservation of the culture and memory of France's Jewish people was the site du Judaïsme d'Alsace et de Lorraine. Founded by Michel Rothé, one of the co-authors of the seminal book "The Synagogues of Alsace and Their History" (now found only at used book dealers), the site is no longer but once had many articles.

Sadly, there seems to have been no replacement website.

©2013 Anne Morddel

updated 2018

French Genealogy

Changing Names to Assimilate...and Back Again

Door with studs

As individuals within a species, we are all pretty much identical; no one would mistake any of us for an elephant or a spider or a barracuda. Yet, how we focus on the differences of our fellow humans, blinding ourselves to the similarities and thus, to the possibility of unity. Dividing ourselves into groups based upon minute differences, our larger and dominant groups make life hell for the smaller groups, who in turn, make life hell for groups smaller than they. One would laugh, if only not to weep.

French Jewish people, in an effort to assimilate, have often changed their surnames to sound more French. After the Second World War, government officials, at the local level most often, urged Jewish residents and immigrants to change their surnames. About five per cent did so. Many of their descendants now wish to change their names back to those of their grandfathers, even though they are sympathetic to those who made the changes. As one descendant said of his grandfather to a Los Angeles Times reporter: "He never complained [about being encouraged to change his name]. Remember these were people who, after what they had been through, just wanted to live in peace. They would do anything to blend in." 

At the time of the changes, some were told that their children could, on reaching the age of majority, choose to take back the family's previous surname. This was simply not true. One must apply for a court order -- something not lightly given in France -- and have a very good reason to change one's name. In a 2010 article for Libération, three people explain why their "Frenchified" names make them feel cut off from their roots. 

One such descendant, the psychoanalyst Cécile Masson, has formed an organisation for those who wish to take back their family's earlier names, La Force du Nom. A discussion of the issues with her and others can be heard on the internet radio site of France Culture on the presentation entitled "Du changement de nom au re-nom". Ms. Masson has produced a documentary on the subject, of an hour and a bit, based on interviews with some Jewish families of Ashkenaz origin. It has been shown at various venues and will be shown at the 32nd International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference in Paris this month. For those who cannot attend, the DVD may be purchased from the bookshop of the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme. (Two other films planned for the conference have excerpts online: "Le Premier du Nom" and "A Little Family Conversation".)

Should your research into Jewish ancestry in France have run aground, a name change may be why.

Update: in April, 2013, the courts granted French Jewish people the right to change their names back to earlier names used by the families, as reported in the Times of Israel. 

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Cimetière parisien de Pantin - The Pantin Cemetery


We read on the very fine blog of Janice Sellers, Ancestral Discoveries, that the Pantin cemetery was embarking on a rash of reclamations of plots. We thought we should investigate. We dragged our weary self out to the near end of Line Seven on the Métro and hiked a long, traffic-blasted and gusty avenue to the entry. It looks rather battered but elegant in the photo above. Here is what one truly sees on approaching the entry:

Grubby entry

Four or five disembowelled sofas, rubbish bins, and a wide selection of empty beer bottles make for a different sort of depression from that usual to cemetery visits. Cross the threshold, however, and one is transported from grim poverty to grand avenues of beautiful gardens and mature trees. There are more than eight thousand trees, and the air is correspondingly cleaner than out on the road. A very nice place to spend eternity.

Grand street small

The Pantin cemetery is outside of the city of Paris, on the border between Pantin and Bobigny. Administratively, however, it is one of the Paris cemeteries. It is the largest cemetery in France and in Europe. It opened on the 15th of November, 1886, and has over 200,000 graves in 180 divisions, of which many are designated as Jewish divisions. When we asked about the threatened graves, we were told that in no case is an entire division or even a section threatened, but only individual graves. These include Jewish, gentile and other religions among them.

Jewish section

Graves and tombs in France are considered inviolable, except as concerns the bureaucrats, who can do as they please with the dead as well as with the living. The space in cemeteries could once have been bought as concessions à perpétuité, e.g. forever. Descendants merely had to keep up the tombs (they have a tendency to cave in if not maintained, and can be quite dangerous).

Untended grave

The population explosion having effected the cemeteries along with everything else involving humanity, the problem of overcrowded cemeteries has become urgent. In 2002, it was announced that all of the Paris cemeteries were full; there was absolutely no place for anyone to be buried. The press was full of comic headlines saying such things as "Death in Paris is Forbidden".

The solution has been to review the maintenance and condition of all of the graves taken as concessions à perpétuité, and there are reportedly some 1,157,533 in Paris, and reclaim those that have clearly been forgotten. There are rules: 

  • the grave has to have been abandoned for a minimum of thirty years
  • there must be an effort to find the family lasting at least four years
  • there must be a public notice that the grave is planned to be reclaimed unless family come forward
  • if the family do come forward, they have up to three years to make repairs; if they fail to do so, the bones will be exhumed and sent to the ossuary, as we have explained here previously

As repairs can cost up to 10,000 euros, one can be sympathetic to the families that have let the graves fall into disrepair. Nevertheless, there is a waiting list of dead, we read, though we cannot work out just where they are waiting, and the pressure on the cemetery administrators is intense. Many Jewish families want plots in the Jewish sections, many Muslim families want plots facing Mecca, many Christian families want plots in the Christian sections. Everyone wants plots near to relatives. Consequently, efforts to reclaim space have increased significantly. Hence, the blog post by Ms. Sellers and other notices in the press.

Pantin is run as are the other cemeteries. The summer and winter hours correspond to the hours of daylight. To find a grave, you must have the full name of the deceased and the date of burial or at least that of death. With that information, you can go to the office, just at the entry, and request directions to the grave. The guards wait outside and in a most kind and unParisian way will offer to drive you to the correct section, if you feel it may be too far to walk. The cemetery is so large that cars are permitted, should you wish to take one.

There is no online list of all those buried at Pantin, but Ms. Sellers's post does give a list of the names on those Jewish graves that are at risk of reclamation. If you think that your ancestor may be at Pantin, and you wish to plunk the small fortune to protect his or her grave for a bit longer, you can write to or ring the administration:


Bureau d'administration

Cimetière parisien de Pantin

164, avenue Jean-Jaurès

93   Pantin


(+33) 1 40 33 85 89 (general number)

(+33) 1 48 10 81 00 (Pantin office number)

©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Bulletin de l'Alliance Israélite Universelle


The Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) is an international organisation founded in France in 1860, after a period of nasty anti-Semitism and a celebrated case of the forced conversion of a child to Christianity. The goal of the founder, Adolphe Crémieux, was to encourage education -- with an emphasis on the idealism of the French Revolution -- for all Jewish people. The AIU has been building schools for Jewish children all over the world -- particularly in North Africa --  for the past 150 years, more than twenty years longer than the Alliance Française. It was the first international Jewish organisation and has had significant influence. A history of the AIU, edited by André Kaspi, entitled plainly Histoire de l'Alliance israélite universelle de 1860 à nos jours, was published last year. (See an interview with the Kaspi here.)

From its beginning until the First World War, the AIU published the Bulletin de l'Alliance Israélite Universelle which, because it listed so many of its members and their contributions, is of enormous value in French Jewish genealogy, as described by the National Library of Israel:

"The Bulletin is also a rich source of information on the inner lives of the Jewish communities. Every issue contains detailed lists of AIU members in every city, continuous information reported from local committees spread over five continents, lists of donors or people who contributed to solidarity activities initiated by the Alliance for the benefit of Jews who had fallen victim to misfortune or violence, and more. Statistical data on the AIU schools provide accurate information about the number of schools in each city, the number of students, the make-up of the teaching staff, and the schools’ budgets." 

Until recently, the only way to read the Bulletin was to visit the library of the AIU in Paris, one of its schools around the world, or a library that has maintained a collection of it. Now, it is available online at the above mentioned National Library of Israel under its category Historical Jewish Press. The description and search pages are in Hebrew, English or French. The indexing is quite good. As there are so many lists of names, the results are usually many and some search refinement is required. Even so, it will be a slog through many pages, but could be a happy one for the genealogist.

Go for it!


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy