Sunday, March 9, 2014

Why I Think That’s Right


Using sheer recollection to piece together a family history can be dangerous stuff. Stories—already tenuous material, given human tendency to minimize, aggrandize, or just plain ol’ forget—can’t really be trusted.

Not that I’m casting aspersions upon your Aunt Maud or anything. It’s just that, when it comes to relying on family stories to extract family facts, let the listener beware.

With that in mind, I proceed with caution as I tell you some of my memories of my mother’s stories of her young adult years, working in New York City.

It was there, of course, where she met Genia Melnitchenko, the focus of my current research project. Genia was a French-born ballerina descended from a Russian ethnic background who had immigrated to the United States after the second World War.

Now that I’m trying to apply some research techniques to my quest to piece together Genia’s family history, I’m finding documentation that looks enticing—but though it corroborates stories I know from my mother, it screams for yet further proof.

In finding the 1938 passenger list including a very young “Eugenie” Melnitchenko, traveling with a ballet troupe to New York City, it looked very promising, indeed. Today, I want to share some background information I had always known about my Genia, based on my mother’s stories, as a way to bolster my hunch that Eugenie and Genia are one and the same person.

There are some doubts, too, of course, but I think I have explanations to vanquish those nagging nay-saying thoughts.

Primarily, there was the issue of Genia’s age. This comes in two parts: the issue of her actual age, and the incredulous thought that a fourteen year old would be considered enough of a professional to be performing internationally at such a young age.

If you remember when I first brought up the topic of my godmother, it was upon the anniversary of her death. According to one report, her age at passing had been given as seventy four. That would put her year of birth as, approximately, 1930.

Of course, the problem with that year of birth would become apparent when you stack it against the passenger list information given for Eugenie, who was traveling in 1938 at the age of fourteen. The numbers just don’t add up.

However, I remember, in my mother’s discussions about Genia, that she had represented Genia as being the older of the two friends. I had confirmed that fact, years later, when I was able to reconnect the two friends when Genia was teaching at University of Akron. My mother couldn’t remember how old Genia would have been at that point, but she did confirm that Genia was the older of the two.

Apparently, the writer of the memorial for The New York Times hadn’t confirmed this one detail when she noted Genia’s age at passing. Though it takes searching through records using three different surnames at times, I was able to find two confirmations of an earlier date of birth. In her Petition for Naturalization, filed in 1953 in New York, in addition to requesting that her name be changed from Melnitchenko to Melch, Genia gave her date of birth as January 6, 1924—a little over a year preceding my mother’s own birth date. Then, too, a Social Security Death Index record—this time under her stage name, Genia Melikova—provided the same date of birth.

That provides confirmation to the passenger list, showing a fourteen year old ballet performer traveling on the M.V. Georgic. Genia—same as “Eugenie”—was fourteen at the time of the ship’s sailing to New York in 1938.

But would it really be so that a fourteen year old girl could be part of an international touring ballet company?

Here, again, I rely on my mother’s stories. Of course, it has been so long since I’ve heard some of these stories that my memory is failing me! I’ve forgotten some of the ballet terminology that I used to know, so I may inadvertently slip in the wrong dance term in this story. But I think you’ll get the gist of it.

The pertinent story in this case is that Genia was actually dancing professionally since she was twelve years of age. When it comes to this form of art—dance—you simply have to get your head around our current mindset that professions take decades to master. We are thinking brain surgeon here, when the vernacular should approach something more akin to gymnast.

The story my mother used to like to tell about Genia was that, when she auditioned for that first company in Paris, one of the requirements was to do a particularly challenging dance step. Not only was each applicant to the position required to execute the movement once, but several times. I believe the number required for the audition was something like thirty two times, in sequence, within strict parameters.

Well, thirty two times was nothing to Genia. She went in and did the thirty two repetitions.

And then she continued.

They had to make her stop her demonstration of the movement. There was no limit to what this girl could do! She executed the step flawlessly, and seemed like she could have gone on into infinity, had not someone intervened.

While I’m not sure I have the right term, I believe the step was called fouett├ęs en tournant. It required specific footwork while spinning—a challenging series of movements which is better seen than read about. You may see an example of this movement by clicking here, where you may also read about its history and where it has been featured in classical ballet. Once you see the move, you will understand why Genia aced her audition by her ability to continue seemingly endlessly.

That was when she was twelve.

Fourteen? Of course she would be traveling with the company by then. Making arrangements for her mother to travel as her chaperone, if laws about minors had to be satisfied, was no problem. Genia’s father was often away from home anyhow, working as a sailor on commercial vessels.

I already knew from my mother that even though Genia’s parents were Russian, she had been born in Marseilles, France. I also knew that she had lived in Paris, once she began dancing professionally. All these little details from the 1938 passenger list for “Eugenie” Melnitchenko seemed to line up perfectly—even her height, light hair and eye color matched.

But I still want more. Even finding out her father’s first name begins with “M” is not quite enough. I want to find record of that mysterious mother who was somewhere on that ship with Eugenie—where?—and discover the pertinent details of the older Melnitchenko woman’s own birth and origins.

Just one more generation—that’s all I ask.

Aren’t we genealogists a never-satisfied bunch?

5 comments:

  1. That ballet move would have to be learned at a young age..it is beautiful and I am certain those judges were impressed!
    One more generation..and then one more:)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, Far Side, you've uncovered that deep dark secret: yes, there is always one more!

      Delete
  2. Ancestors are like potato chips -- you can't stop at just one.

    ReplyDelete

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