Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Validating Instincts

As a genealogist, I have learned to trust my instincts. They often lead me to pursue what might seem like a tenuous link to some, perhaps merely a coincidental confluence of facts, but for some reason they call to me. My challenge is to validate the connection through records to confirm that it is more than a coincidence, to prove or disprove my hypothesis.

In my latest project I was asked to identify the towns of origin for both sides of my client's family. My starting point is what I know which in this case was very little except for grandparents' names. This is a fairly typical beginning point. This client reached out to other family members who offered some rumored ports of arrival, all helpful information if applied wisely. While I use this in my search, I am always careful not to let it blind me to other possibilities. Often family members immigrate separately or in small groups so while I assumed at least one family member followed the route of family folklore, I also explored alternate routes.

As always I began by searching for census records on ancestry.com which tell me at least the approximate year of arrival so I can narrow my focus. With that information, I turned to stevemorse.org which allows me to search for immigration records on many variables. After a number of searches I found some immigration records for each family which revealed the towns of origin. Mystery solved, but wait a minute. One record noted Warsaw as the town of origin. I've learned that many immigrants will note a nearby large city rather than the smaller town in which they live. My grandfather's marriage record notes he was from Warsaw when in fact he came from a town an hour away. I wondered if this might also be true in this case.

I did a search on JRI-Poland.org with the given names of both husband and wife along with the married name. I was searching for Leon and Bella, but first I converted Leon to Leib and Bella to Bayla, the non-Americanized versions that they went by in Poland. Only a few index entries came up and the most promising was a marriage record for a town about 80 miles from Warsaw. The entry had the correct surname and the given names of Szija Leib and Bayla Brandel. Close, but no certainty, still very much in the realm of hunch.

This was just the index and I wanted the actual record. Records can be located in one of three ways. Some records are held at the Family History Library in Utah. The JRI-Poland site will often tell you the film number or you can search the FHL catalog on-line to learn whether they have the film for the year or town in question. You can order a film to review at one of their church libraries or if it is an isolated record for which you know the precise coordinates you may ask them to send it digitally.

If not at the FHL you can contact the appropriate arm of the Polish Archives to order the record, sending them a wire for the cost involved. Needless to say this is the most cumbersome means with potential language barriers to navigate.

The third way is fairly new. The Polish Archives are beginning to digitize records and in this case the index advised me that this specific record was on-line and provided a link. It took a while to navigate the all-Polish site, but with the year and record number I was able to ultimately locate it.

The record was in Russian so I deciphered enough to believe it was still a possibility. I decided to cross-check my translation by posting it on Jewishgen's Viewmate translation site in hopes that a kind and fluent researcher might translate it for me. After a few days I had received my translation.

To verify this record I needed to know one more detail, what was on their tombstones. Jewish tombstones have the Hebrew names of the individual and that of their father, the same information that is in a marriage record. I circled back to my client who sent me photos of the tombstones. Then I began to see how the information matched up.

So what did I find? The record showed Szija Leib's father as Mechil and Bella's father as Izak. Their tombstones showed Menachem and Yitzhak, a pretty close match in the art of tombstone matching. I then looked at the Hebrew tombstone names. Leib's appeared to be Joshua Arieh and Bayla's was Bayla Brina. I knew that Szija is derived from Isaiah which comes from the same root as Joshua. I soon learned from baby naming sites that they all translate to God is salvation or God saves. Similarly Areih and Leib both mean lion. Bayla's name in the marriage record was Bayla Brandel, not far from Bayla Brina.

My hypothesis has strengthened, but still reliant on comparable names, not a perfectly clean match. How else can I prove this out? I decide to return to immigration records, but this time using the town's name from the marriage record I had discovered. Searching with this new piece of information I found the immigration record of Bayla and several of their children. There are two pieces of data on which I focus, nearest relative in Europe and who were they going to. In this case I had a perfect match as she named her destination with her husband's name and town. Even better she gave her mother's name as nearest European relative, a perfect match of both given name, surname and town to the marriage record.

So what's next? With a firm foundation, we can begin to look for related records. On JRI-Poland I find indices for birth records for both Leib and Bayla, a marriage record for Bayla's parents and a death record of a Leib with the correct last name just one year before the younger Szija Leib's birth. Given the time proximity it may well be his grandfather after whom he is named. I order the records from the Family History Library and settle in to await further discoveries.

And there we have it, puzzle solved.

 

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