Who do you think you are?
David Suchet

David Suchet - how we did it

Eastern Europe

David knew that, like Amelie and Arnold, the Suchets of his father's line also had eastern European Jewish origins. He thought that the name Suchet perhaps derived from what he thought was the Russian name, Suchedowitz.

David's father Jack had never spoken about the family background. David knew that Jack was born in South Africa and had moved to the UK as a young man, leaving his parents behind. David wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding his family name and the Suchet roots. We started the investigation by visiting his older brother.

Paternal grandfather - Isidor Suchedowitz

Step 1 - Family members

When searching for clues about your origins, it is important to speak to those family members who may have been able to spend more time with older relatives.

Izidor Suchedowitz, David's paternal grandfather
Izidor Suchedowitz, David's paternal grandfather

David's older brother John Suchet had shared his home with their parents for a period of time and remembered one occasion when their father, Jack, had suddenly opened up. Jack had told him that his own father, Isidor, had changed the family name to Suchet whilst living in South Africa.

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David visits his brother, newsreader John Suchet, to find out more about their father's roots.

John also remembered that Jack had said Isidor was originally from a place called Memel, in Lithuania. With the help of a map, John showed David that Memel is now known as Klaip?da. At the time, Lithuania was part of East Prussia.

Extended family members

David now turned to his extended family still living in South Africa to see if they might have more information about Isidor's roots. It is always helpful to speak to extended family overseas, particularly when their branch of the family has stayed in the country where earlier generations arrived and settled.

David's first cousin Mavis Schneider grew up with their grandfather Isidor in South Africa. She was able to offer several significant revelations.

She told David that Isidor spoke German rather than Russian, and showed him Isidor's old passport, which referred to the change of name from Suchedowitz to Suchet. Her theory was that the name had been changed to simplify it.

Mavis also told David that Isidor had two brothers, Benjamin and Joseph, and that they had all moved to South Africa from Memel in 1896.

A letter written by one of Benjamin's daughters revealed that David's great-grandparents (the parents of Benjamin, Isidor and Joseph) were called Jacob and Beila Suchedowitz. The letter stated that they were indeed born in Russia, near Memel where the whole family had later settled, and that they had married when Jacob was 17 and Beila was just 14.

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David meets his cousin Mavis Schneider to find out more about their grandfather, Isidor

These discoveries were fascinating. However, we still weren't clear whether Isidor's family were Russian or German, or whether Memel had been their hometown for generations. We had to go to Memel, renamed Klaipėda, to find out more.

Step 3 - Foreign street directories

When investigating foreign relatives abroad, one useful source of information can be the street directories for a particular town or city. They are the equivalent of a modern phone book and contain comprehensive listings of residents and businesses.

In Lithuania we hired local genealogist Ruth Lieserowitz, who was able to help David search through the Memel directories at the Centre for Prussian History, University of Klaipėda.

Ruth had found an address book from 1898 that included an entry for Suchedowitz. It stated that a widow called Beila (David's great-grandmother) lived in Badestrasse 8-9 in Memel.

It was therefore clear that Jacob had died by 1898. But as no other family members appeared in that or any other directory, we were no nearer to discovering exactly where the family had come from.

We learned that in the late 1890s, like the rest of the German empire, Memel was a safe and stable place for Jewish families. However, by the time the Suchedowitzes lived in the port, Jews from neighbouring Russia were no longer allowed to settle there.

We now knew that David's family was living in Memel in 1898, but had no evidence of them having lived in the area before this time. We also had no clues about where they had come from.

The Suchedowitzes' existence in Memel was still a real mystery, and it looked like we had reached a dead end in Lithuania.

Step 4 - Naturalisation certificates

Before travelling to eastern Europe to investigate Jewish roots, it is important to undertake careful research in the country to which family members first migrated. Census records can be useful in tracking the movements and origins of ancestors. Naturalisation certificates are also very useful and are held in the UK at the National Archives (see Related Links).

Jewish emigrants to Africa or America often travelled through Britain, and it is possible to search passenger lists for people leaving the UK between 1890 and 1960 online via the website Find My Past. If you are investigating family members who emigrated from eastern Europe to South Africa, the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town is a very valuable resource (see Related Links).

When David returned to his hotel, a package was waiting for him from his cousin Mavis back in Johannesburg. Before meeting David she had put out a request in South Africa for some more information about Isidor and his brothers on their arrival in South Africa. She was now forwarding to David applications for certificates of naturalisation.

One certificate belonged to Joseph, Isidor's brother. David was stunned to see that Joseph stated that his present nationality 'whether acquired by birth or naturalisation', was Turkish!

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David returns to find a package waiting for him at his hotel.

This was very confusing. According to the certificate, Joseph was a naturalised Turk. But his birthplace was recorded as Kratingen, Russia, and Benjamin's birthplace was said to be Krottingen, Kovno, Russia.

Step 5 - The Pale of Settlement

David met up again with Ruth to see if she could make any sense of the latest discoveries. On a map Ruth pointed out Kretinga, the birthplace of Benjamin, Joseph and presumably Isidor too. It was a small town close to Memel, but, significantly, on the other side of the national border, in Russia.

Map of the Pale of Settlement
Map of the Pale of Settlement

We discovered that at the time of Isidor's birth, Kretinga was on the edge of a part of western Russia known as the Pale of Settlement. The Russians had decided to segregate the Jewish population during the 19th century, forcing them to live in a vast strip of land that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Jewish people would often try to move illegally over the border from Russia into Prussia in order to escape hardships in the Pale such as heavy taxation, conscription and growing anti-Semitism.

It appeared that David's grandfather Isidor and his family had somehow managed to escape from the threat of persecution and oppression in the Pale of Settlement to the relative safety of Prussia.

We set out across the old border between Prussia and Russia to Kretinga, to search for more evidence of the Suchedowitzes' time there..

Step 6 - Name changes

We looked for any records of David's family in Kretinga to work out how long they had lived within this section of the Pale of Settlement, and when they had moved on. But there appeared to be no evidence of the Suchedowitz family in the area.

Many surviving records for the Jewish population throughout eastern Europe can be accessed through the Jewish genealogy website JewishGen (see Related Links). However, it is often difficult to track the movements and locations of family members who lived within the Pale of Settlement.

Due to Russian segregation policy, some Jewish families may not have been recorded in civil vital records (certificates of births, marriages and deaths). Some families wishing to avoid heavy taxation and conscription of their men would have actively sought to evade appearing in any kind of official record. In addition there was no centralised system of registration earlier in the 19th century. Many vital records have not survived, and name changes over the years have also complicated the process of tracing people.

In David's case, Ruth was aware that Suchedowitz was a Germanised name. In order to help her search for records in and around Kretinga, she had been trying to work out what the family's original name would have been in Russia.

Jews in the Pale of Settlement didn't traditionally use surnames amongst themselves, but the non-Jewish authorities made them adopt surnames in order to facilitate the documentation of the Jewish population for taxation and conscription. These names were sometimes based on someone's place of residence, occupation or physical attributes.

Ruth's note compares the Hebrew spelling of Shokhet with Suchet
Ruth's note compares the Hebrew spelling of Shokhet with Suchet

Ruth made a breakthrough, and met with David to update him on her progress. She had tried taking the Germanised name back to its Hebrew roots. When the '-owitz' (meaning son of) was removed from Suchedowitz, it became apparent that the closest Hebrew word for 'Suched' was 'Shokhet', which means kosher butcher.

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Ruth makes a breakthrough in her search for more records of the Suchedowitz family in Kretinga.

Ruth had then tried searching online again, this time using Shokhet as the family name. She found a Yankel (which in Yiddish is Jacob) and a Beila Shokhet! In 1866 they were registered as living in a place called Tryškiai, 80km away from Kretinga.

Step 7 - Death certificate

We now had proof that David's original family name was the equivalent of 'Butcher'. David travelled to what appeared to have been his family's hometown, Tryskiai. In 1866, when Jacob and Beila were living there, Tryskiai was a small village deep in the Pale of Settlement with a large Jewish population. Today it is a small rural market town in Lithuania. After two centuries of persecution, there are no Jews left.

David visited all that remains of the Jewish community, the Jewish cemetery. We assumed that somewhere amidst the mass of graves there would be the remains of Shokhet family members, but it was impossible to identify where they lay.

Ruth joined David in the cemetery. She had found one last document that addressed the puzzle of David's great-uncle Joseph's Turkish naturalisation.

Ruth had uncovered David's great-grandfather Jacob's death certificate from 1895 in a local archive. Most surviving genealogical documents in eastern Europe should be held locally. Jacob's death certificate stated that he had been living in Memel when he died, and that he was born in a place called Sadfath in Turkey!

However, no such place exists in Turkey. Ruth therefore presumed that somehow Jacob had managed to acquire Turkish naturalisation for his family, enabling them to get out of the Pale and into Prussia.

We discovered that due to the persecution experienced within the Pale of Settlement, many Jews left, crossing the border into Prussia in the late 19th century. In the 1880s, the Prussian government introduced an expulsion order that affected Jews with non-German passports. Similarly, in 1890 foreigners were restricted from settling permanently in the east of Prussia.

Such measures would have concerned people like Jacob and Beila, who feared being forced to return to the Pale if they managed to leave. Hearing about such expulsions and restrictions had perhaps driven them to seek a way to distinguish themselves from the masses of other Russian Jews wanting to escape from the Pale.

Jacob therefore demonstrated great resourcefulness in finding a way for his family to conceal their Russian citizenship through Turkish naturalisation.

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Ruth meets David at the Jewish cemetery with one last document.

Within his own journey of discovery, David had traced Jacob, Beila and their family on their journey from Tryskiai, out of the Pale, initially to Kretinga, then over the border to Memel, and later on to South Africa and Britain. It was clear to David that Jacob and Beila's enterprising spirit had ultimately saved the lives and fortunes of their family, and the generations that followed.

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