How to decipher Cyrillic handwriting
- Approach transliteration of old vital records with a sense of
tenderness. The men in the records who died of "old age," the little girls
who died of the measles and the babies who grew up to be our
great-grandparents were all part of the same busy, scared, happy community
that passed on the love and energy that allowed us to exist. We should
honor their memory by trying to pass on at least as much love to future
generations as was passed to us.
- Learn as much as you can about the names and words you will see in
the records for the communities that interest you. If possible, for
example, go to the Family Finder at JewishGen and look up the
surnames of other people who are studying the community that interests
you. Names that interest the other researchers may be names that appear
frequently in the old records. Even if you have no interest in those
names, learning to recognize them may help you figure out the clerk's
- If you're not comfortable with printed Russian and printed
Hebrew, get introductory Russian and Hebrew textbooks from
your library. Skim the first few chapters of both texts, till you
reach exercises that are printed entirely in the Russian and
Hebrew alphabets. Complete as many of the reading exercises
as you can.
- Print out copies of the Cyrillic and Yiddish cursive alphabets and
stare at them for a few minutes several times a day, till you are in
the mood to transcribe.
- Once you have copies of the records you want to read, go
through them several times without even trying very hard to read
them. Just let the appearance of the handwriting sink into your
Put an illustration of Cyrillic cursive in front of you. Use it to
spot the most common, most clearly written names and words in the records
you're studying. Chances are that the capital letters and the
lower case letters with descenders that dangle below the line of writing and
ascenders that rise above the line will be the easiest to recognize. Keep
in mind that some old clerks (like some modern people) wrote entirely in
lower case letters.
The entries in the "name" columns will often start with words or phrases that
describe the age of the person named. Common personal description terms include
"malchik" (boy), "syn" (son), "dvochka" (girl), "otetz" (father), and "mat'"
(mother). When you learn to spot those words, you can use them to figure out
how the clerk wrote the letters in those
particular words. You can also avoid the embarrassing mistake of thinking that
your relative's first name was Malchik or Dvochka.
Next, if you're looking at Jewish records, search for extremely common first
names such as Yankel, Moshko, Mordko, Avrum, Khaim, Surah and Maryam. Or, if
you are interested in Christian records, look for common Christian first names
such as Fodor. Stare at the names till you begin to understand how the clerk
wrote and connected the letters. If possible, copy the clerk's version of A's, B's and other letters into a notebook, so that you have an illustration of the clerk's own, working version of the cursive alphabet. Not how you or your third grade teacher wrote the alphabet. Not how a modern Russian teacher might write the Russian cursive alphabet. But how the clerk who actually made the records you're trying to read wrote it.
Now start transcribing all the pages you have as quickly as possible. If a name or word is too hard,
skip it and go on. When you're finished, go back to the beginning and repeat
this exercise. Go through the pages about five times before you give up, then
wait a couple of days and go back through the pages a few more times. With any
luck, the part of your brain that organizes memories while you are sleeping will
have improved your ability to recogize cursive Cyrillic.
Keep in mind that all spoken and written human languages come with
built-in redundancy. When you're trying to transliterate messy
handwriting, that means you should eventually be able to tell what a name
is without necessarily being able to make out every letter in the
Example: when you're looking at the Russian given names of wives and
daughters, you should have a pretty good idea that a woman whose name
begins with a D is probably a Dvojra. A woman whose name begins with an E
is probably an Ester, an Eidl or an Etil, and a woman whose name begins
with an F could very well be a Fejga or a Freida.
Chances are that, if one person in a particular Jewish community had a
particular given name or surname, other people had the same name. Even if
the clerk wrote the name illegibly in one instance, he may have written it
legibly in other instances. If you study the legible instances, you may
get enough of a sense of how the clerk wrote the legible version of the
name to recognize the illegible version.
Some writing will always be too messy, too weathered or too badly copied
for you to read it. Try to love yourself for what you can do rather than
beating yourself up over what you can't do.
If you are not really detail-oriented, wait until you are fairly
comfortable with transliterating before you look closely at the JewishGen
"transliteration standards" guides. The guides are important for
standardizing database entries to make them easy for computers to
search. They are not important for you looking up the names of your
great-great-grandparents, and they seem to have been written by
experienced researchers who have a hard time remembering what it was
like to look at a page of blurry, messy cursive in an alien language.
The detail-oriented way is probably the best way, but, if you're a
big-picture kind of person, work with what you've got.
Even if you want to put transliterations on the Web, a Web page that
gives 200 error-ridden, moderately inconsistent transliterated records is
a lot more useful to most folks than the same records entombed on
microfilm in a vault in Salt Lake City. To paraphrase the Carpenters' song
Transliterate a vital record.
Don't worry if it's not good enough for anyone else to read.
Transliterate a record.
Once you can transliterate a little bit, consider teaching other people
how to transliterate, or doing your own version of this page using my
gifbet letters (if you want them) and a couple of pages of your own
favorite shtetl's records. The best way to learn a subject really well is
to teach it to other people.
How to decipher Yiddish and Hebrew handwriting
Remember that Yiddish and Hebrew are written from right to left! When I
prepared the Yiddish/Hebrew transliteration graphics for this site, I did
one set of transliterations that follows the actual letters closely and
goes from right to left. In many cases, I give a second, left-to-right
transliteration, so that it will be easier for you to see what words and
names the letters must represent.
If you are like me, even if you can follow along in the prayer book and
learned to write a little Hebrew cursive back in the fourth grade, you
will find reading cursive Russian a lot easier than reading cursive
Yiddish and Hebrew, just because the Cyrillic alphabet is so much closer
to the Roman alphabet than the Hebrew alphabet is.
My suggestion would be, do as much of the Russian transcribing as you can,
then go back and compare all the names you are sure about to the Yiddish
versions letter by letter. In most cases, you can assume the Yiddish
constants will be very similar to the Russian consontants. The major
difference will be that the Yiddish and Hebrew names will often have the
letter H where Russian as a G. (Because Yiddish and Hebrew have the letter
H and Russian doesn't.)
After you can transliterate a little between the Cyrillic and the Yiddish,
go through the Yiddish/Hebrew using the same steps described above for the
Russian. Once you have some ability to read the Yiddish/Hebrew
handwriting, you will be able to use it to check your Russian
transcriptions and fill in the gaps in the Russian version.