Certain words have a remarkable way of capturing our attention. The term Illegitimate, if connected to an ancestor, seems to be one of those words that has the potential to wake us up and throw our brains into overdrive. Suddenly, a dozen questions come to mind, each requiring an answer.
In my previous post, I mentioned that my grandfather used his mother’s maiden name on his immigration documents. The following information will give you insight into the situation and explain why some of your relatives might have done the same thing.
While my cousin and I were looking through a family birth index for a set of siblings, we noticed a common theme between each of the family records. They all had the following information: the child’s given name, year of birth and the mother’s full name. Their father’s name was never mentioned.
Very few details were known about our great-grandparents and their family. We heard that they decided to leave for America because life in Galicia during the early 20th century was difficult. We also knew that eventually all of their children left that region, some within weeks of their parents and others years later. Our thirst for knowledge about the family set us on a lengthy hunt to find out more.
We began the search by looking for our grandfathers’ birth certificates. They were brothers and also the link that connected our families together. We went ahead and ordered the entire set of birth records from an archive in Ukraine, hoping to find the reason why their father’s name wasn’t mentioned.
Once the birth certificates were translated, we realized that birth records from other families also excluded the father’s name. At that point, we felt that our family situation wasn’t out of the ordinary but was rather the norm for this region. Written on almost every birth record was the Polish word nieślubne which means illegitimate. The status of illegitimacy for so many children didn’t make sense to us until we found an explanation at the Jewishgen.org website.
Most records state that the child is illegitimate and the mother unmarried. This, of course, is the “official” view. Jewish couples married under the Chuppah and, in the eyes of the entire congregation were married. Most did not bother to pay the exorbitant price charged to register the marriage. But there were more serious reasons.
Until 1830 there was a law that allowed only one son in each family to marry legally. In order for other sons to marry a heavy fine was imposed. This law was largely ignored and religious ceremonies were performed.
In 1792 the Austrian Toleration Patent gave equal rights to all religions and marriage became a civil matter. There was strong resistance from religious groups who were reluctant to have the authorities interfere with what they considered a religious matter.
“In Austro-Hungarian Galicia, according to civil law, only one son in each Jewish family, was allowed to marry. In addition, only those couples who possessed between 500 and 1000 florins and who paid 10% of their wealth as a marriage tax could marry. Galician Jews who had less than 500 florins could not even apply for permission to marry; those with more than 1000 florins had to pay a higher marriage tax. The result was that most Galician Jews were married only in a religious ceremony by a rabbi. The marriages were never recorded nor recognized by the civil authorities. The children of such unions were recorded by the civil authorities as ‘illegitimate’ and they were required to adopt their mother’s maiden name as their own surname.”
Excerpt from: “Introduction to Polish-Jewish Genealogical Research” by Jeffrey K. Cymbler. Source: Jewish Roots In Poland: Pages From The Past And Archival Inventories by Miriam Weiner.
An official Jewish marriage document is called a ketubah. It was a requirement for every Jewish wedding back then. During this previous time in history, it was the only legally binding contract needed in the eyes of the community. Some ketubahs are artistically designed and then prominently displayed in the home. However, a ketubah can be as simple as a written letter signed by witnesses.
Sometimes, out of necessity, couples had civil weddings years after their religious nuptials. They did it for reasons such as property transfer from father to child, applying for visas, passports and immigration. Couples from Galicia would often get married in Vienna right before they emigrated. If you think this might be the case for anyone in your family, check the indexes at www.genteam.at. The Genteam website contains over 10 million entries relating to a variety of topics and regions.
*A translation of the birth certificate side bar can be found at the following website: