Landsmanshaftn are societies formed by Jewish immigrants from the same villages, towns, and cities, primarily in Eastern Europe. They became a dominant form of Jewish social organization in the late 19th century and continue to function as such well into the 20th century. The many types of landsmanshaftn included religious and socialist organizations, as well as American-style fraternal orders. They played an important role in the immigrant's lives, providing them with formal and informal social networks. Members paid dues to the society, which in turn helped provide for members' financial needs, as well as their medical care and burial. Each landsmanshaft had a chevra kadisha (burial society), whose responsibility it was to purchase and maintain the society's burial plots.
The number of landsmanshaftn has always been difficult to estimate, since many organizations were informal and not incorporated. Also, they were private organizations, often reluctant to reveal their identity. However, in 1938, a survey by the Yiddish Writers Group of the WPA's Federal Writers' Project identified 2,468 landsmanshaftn in New York City (see "Reference Books" section below), though there are estimates of as many as 10,000 of them during the early part of the 20th century. The number of landsmanshaftn began to decline in the 1950s, though some societies continue to exist today.
The value of landsmanshaft records for family history research varies. The records include incorporation papers (in English), minutes of meetings, membership records, death certificates, burial records and plot maps, and programs and photographs from special events, such as annual banquets. Most landsmanshaftn records are handwritten in Yiddish and English, though they may appear in Hungarian, German, Polish, Russian, and other languages. Older records are less likely to be in English. With the necessary language skills or the help of a translator, one may find an ancestor’s membership application, filled with information about his or her life. However, one may also find only minutes of meetings at which one’s ancestor was not present. Some societies’ records are preserved intact and complete, while others are fragmentary.
Learning the name of an ancestor's landsmanshaft can be very helpful in genealogy research. In some instances, it may help determine the name of the ancestor's area or shtetl of origin, since the name of the landsmanshaft typically included the name of the village of its members. If asked, many cemeteries will reveal the name of the landsmanshaft associated with a particular gravesite. In addition, if you have the name of an ancestor's landsmanshaft (if it was based in the New York metropolitan area), it is possible to find the cemetery where that ancestor is buried (see "Web Sites" section below).