I always recommend that people first start with interviewing everyone in their family who might know something about their history. In this case, the client didn’t have the benefit of family members who could offer that information so we were reliant on what she knew and remembered. She knew her grandmother’s married name and thought she knew her maiden name. She also knew the names of some of the siblings of her grandmother, the birth year of her grandmother and the year of immigration.
With that as our starting point we began by following principle #1: Work with what you know towards what you don’t know. We searched ancestry.com for her grandmother’s married name and quickly found the 1930 census. The census confirmed the year of birth, but the year of immigration was six years later than what we had believed it to be. Principle #2 What you believe to be true, isn’t always accurate. Don't let it blind you to other possibilities. We had done some unsuccessful searches for immigration records using the year we believed she came over. This new information told me we needed to widen our net and search a broader number of years. Principle #3 Start broad, then narrow as necessary.
With our broader net we quickly found the 1920 census record for my client’s grandmother and family. This record indicated yet another immigration date, but one that was close to that of the 1930 census. The 1920 census record was an important one for several reasons. It provided the name of the client’s great-grandfather who brought all of his children to the US. It told us he had filed initial papers to become naturalized so we could look for a naturalization record. It also told us that different siblings immigrated at different times. The record confirmed several of the siblings’ names and provided a few new ones of whom we hadn’t been aware. Most immigration records just indicate the place of birth as the country, but in this case, it actually specified Vilna, Russia. I knew from my own family experience that Vilna could mean the gubernia rather than the city, kind of like a county or province. My grandmother used to say she was from Vilna. In fact I found that she was from a small shtetl 75 miles away from Vilna which is now in Belarus, but at one time was in the Vilna gubernia.
Our next step was to search for immigration records as we hoped to find the town from which they had immigrated. Several siblings had come in 1914 as had my client’s grandmother Lillian. I had done some searches with the name “Lillian” with little success and wasn’t sure what that name might have been prior to being Americanized. Instead I decided to search on her brother Hyman whose pre-Americanized name I assumed was Chaim. Principle #4 Search for the non-Americanized name and Principle #5 If unsure, search for related names. Searching with just his non-Americanized name, birth year and year of immigration I quickly found the record which also contained his father Schaje and sister Lillian whose name appeared to be nothing like Lillian. Ellis Island had transcribed it as Kate. The year of birth corresponded with both censuses and what we knew it to be originally. One of the things I would be interested in seeing is a tombstone for Lillian as it might indicate in Hebrew what her original name was.
Within the record it indicated the last permanent residence as Wischnowo Wilna. We now needed to convert the town name to what it is called today. We had a clue in that we knew Wilna was Vilna and we knew they were supposed to have lived close to Vilna. Substituting Vs for Ws the name now read “Vischnovo”. I then went to the jewishgen.org communities database and input the name along with a request to tell me how close it was to Vilna. Up popped Vishnevo, Belarus within 53 miles of Vilna. All the other options were much farther away. We soon found a shtetlink for Vishnevo which talked about a match factory that my client recalled as a family business.
The key pieces of information on the immigration record are who remained in Europe and who were they going to. In this case they were going to Schaje's son Ichk, no doubt Isador in the 1920 census who had been the first family member to arrive in 1904. The nearest relative remaining in Eastern Europe was Schaje's brother Abram.
Now that I had the town on which to search I decided to make use of the advanced searching techniques possible on the stevemorse.org site. I input the surname and the town and soon pulled up ten records. Among them were Kate (Lillian), Chaim and Schage (Schaje) whose record we had found in 1914. The variance in Schaje's name points out yet another principle #6 Transcription errors are prevalent due to transcriber unfamiliarity with Jewish names. Go to the original document to confirm.
I realized that I might not be picking up all of the towns of Wischnewo due to transcription errors so instead decided to search for the surname with a given name that started with an “I” for Ichk and a town that started with a “W”. Stevemorse.org allows this flexibility. Now I picked up another transcription of the town, “Wiscknewo” which didn’t show up earlier and it was for Itrko. Interestingly when I went into the record it showed Itzek, then 12 coming with his brother Selik and his sister Mine, accompanied by his father Schaje who must have then returned to Wischewo only to come back ten years later with his youngest children. Selik was a new sibling of whom we hadn’t been aware as he had not shown up in census records with the rest of the family, probably living independently from the family in 1920. A 1912 immigration record of brother Benjamin notes that he was going to his brother Selig. The birth year for the father Schaje in this earlier record read 1852 instead of the 1862 as we saw in the 1914 immigration record. Principle #7 They didn’t pay much attention to birthdays or dates in general, don’t expect them to tie out across all documents. My great-grandmother had a different birth year for herself in every birth record for each of her children.
And one more principle from this exercise…Principle # 8 Search related lines. Since I knew that Schaje had a brother Abram, I took a look at the unidentified records of the same surname. Several of them had a father in Wischnewo named Abram, thus making them cousins and an additional thread to follow.
Searching is a laborious process, but you can shave some time from your efforts if you keep these principles in mind.
1: Work with what you know towards what you don’t know.
2 What we believe to be true, isn’t always accurate. Don't let it blind you to possibilities.
3 Start broad, then narrow.
4.Search for the non-Americanized name in immigration records.
5. If you can’t find a specific name, search for related names.
6 Don’t forget that names can be transcribed in error. If names seem close, confirm the actual name in the original document.
7. Don’t expect birth dates or immigration dates to match exactly across all documents.
8. Search related lines for cousins.