“Always… no, no… NEVER forget to check your references.” – Real Genius, 1985
One thing I’ve seen is that it’s rarely a waste of time to work on a side tree. Especially in closely-knit European Ashkenazi communities, everyone was related to everyone else, and it’s just a matter of teasing out the relationships. That’s easier said than done, perhaps, but sometimes it works out.
The Mystery Great-Great’s
Case in point, the family of my paternal grandfather’s mother. We didn’t know much about her. She was out of my grandfather’s life when he was little more than a toddler, for reasons unknown. For many years, I believed she had died. That’s what my grandfather told me when I spoke to him about his family in the 1970s. The truth is more complex, though. But whatever the reasons, she appears not to have died.
Sometime after my great-grandfather died, my grandfather went looking for his mother, and somehow found her sister (name now lost) living in Rockaway, NY. God only knows HOW he found her; my only guess is that his paternal great uncle, living in Pennsylvania, knew more. But found her he did, and he was given a photograph of his grandparents – his mother’s parents.
If he was told their names, that information wasn’t recorded.
The next step: Russian Government Records!
One of the most surprising things I found when I started looking into my family is that, despite the horrendous devastation which occurred during WWII, many of the civil records of the old Russian Empire and interwar period survived, in particular from the mid-19th century through to the late 1930s. While many remain in the Lithuanian National Archives, they are slowly over time being translated by interested organizations such as litvaksig. Their efforts have been a great boon to me.
In this case, I was eventually able to find the marriage record of my great-grandparents (1913), and birth record for my grandfather (1914), both recording his mother’s name as Doba KATZ, daughter of Khaim KATZ, from Vilnius. Sadly, Katz was a very common name, and Doba’s birth record, if it still exists, has not yet been translated. But the gentleman above at least had a name now.
Boredom + Restlessness = New Tree!
Next, I took some time to create a possible tree. The records for Vilnius are (relatively speaking) substantial. So, I looked for a KATZ family from Vilnius, father Khaim, and children born around the time of my great-grandmother (c. 1885). There was only one candidate – a Khaim Katz with wife Khana Shteinbok. Of course, this didn’t mean that I’d found what I was looking for, only that it matches what information I had. So, I spent a weekend coming up with the tree best I could, and there it sat for a while, waiting for additional information….
The Key Breakthrough, and American Bureaucracy to the Rescue!
Now, you’d think at this point I’d say that there was some new record translated that made everything work out. No, it was a new photograph that my father sent me.
(Dear pop: I love you, but you know this genealogy thing I’ve been going on about for years? If there’s something I don’t know about, you should — I don’t know — TELL me??? Thxkbye.)
Anyway, this photo was supposedly Doba’s brother, taken in Miami in the early 1960s. (how did my grandfather find HIM? How many more relatives did he know about?). He definitely had a resemblance to Khaim.
My tentative tree listed one (known) son, Girsha. If he had come to the US, there would be a record, and indeed there was a Girsha KATZ, from Vilnius, of the right age, who arrived in Boston in 1913. Spending a day tracing through his American records, I eventually found his US Petition for Naturalization from 1929, which had a photo….
So now we’re off and running…. Girsha’s 1913 ship manifest states that his closest relative in the US in “brother in law” I. LICHTER at a particular address in New York. The 1915 New York State Census lists at that address the family of Israel LICHTER and wife Rose, with two daughters, Ann and Tillie. Tillie’s marriage record lists her mother’s maiden name as KATZ, confirming the relationship.
So is Rose LICHTER the woman my grandfather met, who provided the first photo? It seems likely, although I haven’t yet verified that she later moved to Rockaway. Possibly there are living cousins out there; Tillie LICHTER married Ben WEINTRAUB in 1937, but as of the 1940 US Census they had no children. Supposedly (also new information from my father) there was also a sister in Chicago. Perhaps eventually I can find an obituary for Rose or Girsha which will name her.
I may never know what happened with Doba. Possibly if I do find out, I’ll not be happy with the answer. But it’s a fascinating journey.