Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Most Hated Word
in a Genealogist's Lexicon

While pursuing a new genealogical trail brings the thrill of the hunt, often a genealogist is tracking progress, not on one, but on several simultaneous chases. So, while we are hot on the trail of the once-again-immigrating Ryan family as they move on from their decades-long visit in North Dakota, I've been checking the calendar and impatiently watching my mailbox, the farther we move from that date in mid May when I sent away for the death certificate for someone in yet another side of the family. It's a death certificate I've been awaiting for someone who might have been my father's paternal grandmother—or who might just turn out to be a total stranger. I've been waiting for news on one Anna Kusharvska of Queens, New York.

As you may have already guessed, tucked in with yesterday afternoon's mail delivery was an envelope from the City of New York Municipal Archives. Although my husband—along with my daughter and a visiting family friend—greatly enjoyed taunting me by waving the thing just out of my reach, they eventually relented and dropped the coveted item into my hands.

What I was seeking, when I sent for the death certificate of Anna Kusharvska, was the answer to a series of questions.

First, I wanted to see what address was listed for this woman who had died on the exact same day as my great grandmother, Anna Kraus. After all, since the only person listed as having died on the day the newspaper report had indicated as Anna Kraus' date of death was someone whose surname was not Kraus but Kusharvska, I was interested in seeing whether the two were one and the same Anna.

Then, of course, as any genealogical researcher would, I wanted to learn the names of Anna's father and mother. If this Anna turned out to be my Anna, that would be valuable information.

You may remember my original series of posts, explaining how I came across the name Kusharvska. It was in pursuit of clues as to whether the mysterious "Aunt Rose" of my older cousin's memory was actually my paternal grandfather's sister or not. When I stumbled upon a Brooklyn Standard Union article from September 29, 1921, reporting Rose's mother's death, you know I would want to send for that confirmation. It would, of course, contain the kind of information that would allow me to push back just one more generation than I had ever been able to reach before.

But the name I was seeking was Anna Kraus, not Anna Kusharvska. Yet, there was no entry on the New York City death index for anyone named Kraus in Queens on that date. But there was an entry for someone named Kusharvska.

So, who was this other Anna?

Apparently, though she did not live at the 729 Ninetieth Street that the newspaper identified as our Anna's place of death, the death certificate, coincidentally, listed the Kusharvska house number as 729. The only catch was that it was on Ninety Sixth Street. Hmmm...was it possible that someone converted a six to a zero for that newspaper report? A quick double-check of the 1920 census, completed just over a year prior to that point, showed Rose and her husband George Kober—along with Anna Kraus—listed at 729 Ninety Sixth Street.

So...Anna Kraus was Anna Kusharvska. And, just as cemetery records had already confirmed, the certificate showed she was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery—the same place where Rose's husband George was later laid to rest. The gruesome details of the suicide were also confirmed on this certificate, along with a statement on the reverse identifying "Mrs. Geo. W. Kober" as Anna Kusharvska's daughter.

The bold strokes of the script in which the form was completed slowed my eyes from sweeping over the page of Anna Kusharvska's death certificate. It took me a while to locate the next step I was seeking: the place set aside to list the name and birthplace of both the decedent's father and mother. This would be the lines which could open up an entire new avenue of pursuit for my research. If you've been in my shoes before, you know exactly how exciting it can be to finally see this revealed.

Or how devastating it can be, after waiting so long and hoping so long, to discover...nothing.

And that is exactly what unfolded with this letter.

Putting myself in the shoes of the distraught daughter who had to provide the answers, I can imagine all the turmoil that must have accompanied the completion of this form: the shock and anguish for Rose of discovering what her mother had done and suddenly not only being faced with having to make funeral arrangements, but also being thrust into an unexpected interface with New York City law enforcement personnel.

But I still wish she could have maintained her composure enough to have presented these officials with some informed guess as to what to put on those blanks begging for the name and birthplace of Anna's father and mother.

Granted, Rose did manage to report that each of them was born in Germany—as was Anna and, in fact, Rose, herself.

But when I searched the scrawling handwriting for those names I was seeking, I found myself colliding with what I've decided must be a genealogist's most hated word: "Unknown."

All told, what I learned from receipt of this document was that Anna Kraus was somehow Anna Kusharvska. Why she showed in both the 1915 New York State census and the 1920 federal census as Anna Kraus, I have no idea. This death certificate certainly provided no clue.

I end up having to walk away from this hope of discovering more about my father's family, realizing just how much I rue seeing one innocuous word, when it appears on governmental documents of this type. When it comes to delving into one's own family story, "unknown" is such an unwelcomed word.


  1. I should stop being surprised that an informant knows so little about their own family. I see "Unknown" all too often - even a wife not knowing her in-laws' names. How did she miss that? What did they ever talk about in life?

    1. Sometimes, Wendy, I think that "not knowing" such names is really a cover for a much more revealing story. Or am I reading too much into such instances? Ideas like disowned sons and disapproved marriages dance in my head when I run across examples like the one you provided. But then, I'm always looking for the story...

  2. It is incomprehensible to me that someone not know the details of their close family members' lives. However...sometimes it is better that they say 'unknown' than giving the wrong name and sending you off in the wrong direction.

    1. Good point, Colleen. And, along those lines, I guess I should be grateful that Rose provided the true name of her mother for her burial, rather than the "Anna Kraus" that she supplied to every census enumerator--as well as the newspaper reporter.

      Still...this has got my curiosity piqued.

  3. "Unknown" and perhaps forever so - but... but... you linked together the Anna K's... so someone might just find something!

    1. This is true, Iggy. I need to be grateful for these small victories. And it is trailblazing. Maybe it will help someone else who's puzzling over this line, as well.

  4. Your title is right- I do believe that "unknown" is the most dreaded word I every run across in my relentless search for answers.

    1. Terri, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my frustration. We do tend to be quite demanding with our search for answers, true! "Unknown" is such a set-back.

  5. Yes she was the one that inhaled the illuminating gas...too bad but now you know her alias....what else do you call a woman with two names:)

    1. Alias...that's exactly how to put it. At least this new name gives me another chance at searching for more clues :)


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