Kunas in America

The KUNAs were the family of my great-great-grandmother along my direct maternal line. Until very recently, I knew very little about them, and today I only know slightly more, but enough that it’s worth talking about.  This post is not only about obtaining the addition bits of knowledge I have now, but also about the slow process of getting there.

When my great-grandmother, Sarah WERTEL OCHOWITZ, died in South Carolina in 1949, her husband was the informant on her death certificate, including the names of her parents, Kalman J. WERTEL and Friedla FOX:


Even by the time I found this, I was experienced enough to know that the names given weren’t always correct.  For one, names of those left in Europe were often in Yiddish, and did not translate directly. Second, those providing the names often didn’t know and/or recall them correctly, and typically were in no emotional state to verify that information was recorded as they intended.

In this case, the father’s name looks reasonable, and probably the mother’s given name, but her maiden name, FOX, seems unlikely for Poland. Possibly, I thought, it was FUCHS.

Some time afterwards, I discovered JRI-Poland, whose mission it is to index Jewish records from pre-WWII Poland. There, I found a marriage record in the town of Kaluszyn in 1878 for Kelman WERTEL and Fradja KUNA. The timing was right; the place, more-or-less correct (general Warsaw area). Could these be my great-great-grandparents?

I looked up the meaning of “KUNA”, hoping to find a clue that way, and discovered that in that area of Europe that it’s the name for a weasel-like forest animal known generally as a marten. (Side trivia: a species native to Scandinavia is called a “nokia”.) It seemed likely to me that Abe OCHOWITZ had internally translated KUNA into the English FOX. It’s not proof, but the best I could do under the circumstances. Thus, Frieda FOX became Fradja KUNA in my tree, and for many years was the only KUNA in the tree.

It is now necessary to make a slight genealogical digression. When Abe and Sarah OCHOWITZ arrived in the U.S. in November 1904, the ship manifest listed their relative already in America:


Uncle “H”, where are you?

Uncle H. BERTUVIC (or BERKOVIC?), 183 Allen Street, New York. The date was close enough to the 1905 New York State Census that I combed through it looking for “H”, but no one by that name or close to it was living at 183 Allen Street. I spent a fair bit of time looking in the neighborhood – perhaps they had just moved, and would likely be somewhere nearby. I located one Hyman Bercowich and family, of about the right age and from Poland, and built up their side tree. But there was no proof that these were the droids relatives I was looking for. Thus, they’ve remained a sidetree and the mystery of “H” unsolved.

Clearly, I’m going somewhere with this.

Last week, I returned to JRI-Poland with a plan to create a new sidetree, all of the KUNAs in Kaluszyn. I still didn’t know for certain if the WERTEL-KUNA marriage record was my family, but sometimes patterns emerge when you map out everyone. In this case, not too many patterns. There are about 30 records for people named KUNA in that town, but post 1860’s, the indices only give the name of the person, not their parents. The indicies of older records DO have parents names listed, but often have not recorded surnames. Thus, the result looks more like a KUNA cloud than a KUNA tree. The good news is that the Polish State Archives is working to digitize their holdings, including the original records from which these indices came, so hopefully someday I’ll be able to go a better job.

Still, in going through the exercise, two items struck me. The first was an 1893 marriage record between Chaim Szaia BERKOWICZ and Dwojra KUNA. The name Chaim often turns into Haim, Hyman, or Herman in English… could this be Uncle H?

The second item was the birth record in 1873 of Abram KUNA, although no parents are listed in the index. I found him again in Lodz in 1904, when he married Rachel ICEKSON [Isaacson] and the two had a stillborn child not long afterwards. All of this is not particularly notable, except that one Abram KUNA, age 28, came to the U.S. from Lodz in 1905, naming his contact in America:


br[other]-i[n]-l[aw] Chaim Berkowicz, Allen Street 183

Bingo! Abram is the brother of Dwojra KUNA, and Sara’s mother, Fradja.

The name Abram KUNA appears only once more that I can find, when he started collecting Social Security in 1947. His SS number indicates that he applied in New Jersey, but the fact I cannot find him on the four intervening U.S. Censuses likely means he was using an alias. I have written to the SSA to get his original application form, which should give a street address and hopefully the name of the alias he was using.

Abram was listed as single on his 1905 ship manifest, so he was either widowed or divorced. Or possibly he misunderstood the question, and merely came to the U.S. ahead of his wife. Hopefully I can dig up more.

BERKOWITZ in America

So with this new information, could I definitively find Chaim and family? Knowing they were married in 1893 gives a likely age (born around 1870) and that his wife’s name in the U.S. would probably be Deborah or Dora. While I’m still unable to locate the family on the 1905 NY Census, I have found Hyman and Dora BERKOWITZ, who had a daughter Libbis (yes, with a “s”).  Libbis was born in 1908, and the transcription of her handwritten NY State death record gives her parents as Chajam BERKOVITZ and Dora KRAK, so it very reasonable to assume that this is the right family. Chaim and Dora had another child who died prior to 1910, and Libbis died in 1988, without children, so no new cousins on that branch.

One last gift, a reward for finding Dwojra. My great-great-grandmother’s sister died in New York in 1947, and her husband was the informant on the death certificate. The transcription gives the name of her parents – my previously unknown great-great-great-grandparents – as Mordecai Isaac KANNEL and Esther Riva BISSER.  Clearly the first surname was KUNA, and BISSER is very likely incorrect, but perhaps something close.

And so we end the day where we started, only this time one more generation back, with a few extra names definitively in my tree, and a KUNA “cloud” that I may someday be able to connect up.


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