The pragmatic side of me has always held to the idea that it takes much more than mere desire to negotiate the challenges of genealogical research. What do you do, then, when your heart wants to pursue the trail for which your head warns, “No way!”
How to put together a research plan when you start with almost nothing is a challenge, but it is not impossible. Admittedly, a lot of us have had questions about how to start, judging from the popularity of that very concept as a subject for genealogical workshops. My own genealogical society recently completed an all-day seminar, for which that very topic was selected—and capably presented, incidentally, in case-study format by a Bay Area genealogist and fellow blogger, Janice Sellers.
Listening to presentations on how someone else conquered their search problem is all well and good. When it comes to doing it on your own—well, that may turn out to be a different story. And I, as volunteer lab rat, am willing to bring you along as this hopeless task puts me through my paces.
Maybe I’ll find something.
Maybe I won’t.
My mission is to transform a handful of dim childhood memories into a documented trail connecting my godmother, Genia Melnitchenko, from her last days in New York City in 2004, back through her post-World War II emigration from her native Marseilles, France, and all the way to her parents’ generation somewhere within the reaches of the former Russian Empire.
Only problem: I have no idea what the names of her parents were.
Considering my dilemma, I took the very unprofessional approach of logging on to Ancestry.com, clicking on the “Search” tab at the top of the home page, and entering the only detail I knew for sure: the surname Melnitchenko.
Hey, what did I have to lose? How many Melnitchenkos from France do you suppose would be in New York City in 1950?
Let me revise that approach…
I realized I had better conjure up even the vaguest memory of what my godmother’s parents' names might have been. I really struggled with this. While I could still recall the strong impressions I had when visiting their apartment in New York—Manhattan, of course; where else would one take the train in from Long Island?!—my mind balked at remembering names.
Could it have been Michael? And Lydia? That sounded reasonable. Of course, I felt led down a deceptive trail, the more I pored over the search results I had produced. There were all sorts of Michaels on the list—the passenger lists seemed to grab me and pull me toward them.
“Click on them. Just one won’t hurt you.”
How very thoroughly unschooled I was behaving! This was foolishness. How could I possibly find just one man, out of a city of millions of people?
I clicked at random—“just for fun,” I promised myself—and found myself awash in a sea of possibilities. There were so many Michael Melnitchenkos arriving at the port of New York, many of them from France. Which one would be the right one? How would I even know?
Perhaps his name wasn’t Michael after all, I mused. What if it were something like Ivanivitch? That sounded like a bona fide Russian possibility. I clicked on that one, and came face to face with a Russian sailor working on the Hirondelle—although not, apparently, the S.S. Hirondelle which was torpedoed in 1917. This Melnitchenko, serving as a “fireman,” sailed with the crew from Marseilles, arriving in New York on April 6, 1924. He gave his age as twenty seven, putting his year of birth about 1897—a reasonable age for someone whose daughter also happened to be born in 1924.
I kept poking through the passenger lists on Ancestry.com. I am so prone to pursuits down rabbit trails. Michael? Ivanivitch? It didn’t really matter. I was in search and rescue mode. I wanted to look at everything. I needed to find them.
And then, I found something: a listing for a fourteen year old “Eugenie” Melnitchenko, traveling to New York on the Georgic from Southampton, England, in 1938. Remembering what I had recently learned about that French name, Eugenie, I grabbed the listing and opened it up.
The passenger list showed a group of aliens—almost all of them of Russian heritage and, with the exception of the one listed as “stage manager,” billing themselves as “artist”—traveling from London to “Metropolitan Opera Co.,” their destination in New York.