Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Benefit of “Unusual”

Since beginning my search for the origin of my godmother’s family earlier this month, I’ve been amazed how much information could be assembled in such a short amount of time.  

The benefit of weird names in helping research move along quickly needs to be carefully balanced. Too weird, and you get no hits at all. Witness my attempts to find material on the Aktabowski family.  Too common—think John Kelly in Ireland here—and you get buried under an avalanche of search hits.

Looking for the surname Melnitchenko seemed to put me in the spot labeled “just right.” I was surprised to see how much I could find online since starting this search on March 5, from nothing but one name and a few childhood memories.

And that isn’t all. For some perverse reason—I dunno, maybe I was getting greedy for more?—I kept searching, even after all I’ve found so far. Visiting one of my all-time favorite sites, Old Fulton Postcards, I garnered five additional citations, including one from the Mount Vernon, New York, Daily Argus, raving about “the American debut of Genia Melnitchenko, brilliant Franco-Russian prima ballerina.”

Besides that, apparently, there is an entire file of magazine articles, old photographs and other write-ups on Genia housed at the New York Public Library—the only place in the country, in fact, with many of these holdings. And they’re not loaning them out.

When I consider all the material I’ve been able to find, I sometimes wonder if this would be the type of project that ought to be pursued. Someone ought to write this stuff up, I think.

But then my alter ego gets in the act and demands, “But who would want to know?”

And so I go, continuing the argument inside my own head, never quite overcoming the last zinger of a “yeah, but.”

Meanwhile, the fact that this search was all-too-easy—so far, at least—can’t be ignored. I must have found the sweet spot with a name like Melnitchenko. And that coupled nicely with all the material that keeps getting rolled out, daily, by several online companies and non-profit organizations in their own sort of arms race to digitize historic documentation.

It all has its limits, though. For one thing, you notice there haven’t been any “Russian”—or even Ukrainian—records forthcoming. I don’t suppose there will be any showing up in the next season or so, at this point. And for some documents, well, the only way to get hold of them is still the same old fashioned way we did it back when all we had was wood-burning computers: snail mail.

With that, I’ll have to set aside my project to pursue Genia Melnitchenko back to her grandparents’ generation. While I have a hint that there is an Ivan Melnitchenko out there—and a Theodore, too, tied to Lydia Melnitchenko’s maiden name, whatever that may be—that will have to suffice for now.

Some day, one digitized or snail-mailed way or another, there will be more to know. But for now, there are many other projects waiting in the wings for their own debut.


  1. Surely there are people researching their Russian and Ukrainian roots. How are they getting those old old old documents?

    If you want copies of those articles in the NY library, there are genealogy groups who practice "random acts of kindness" -- bet you'd find a person willing to do that for you.

    1. Wendy, I discovered there are some Ukrainian church records on Unfortunately, there are not many, and they don't fit my parameters. Of course, I'll keep looking! Stuff is coming online daily at a phenomenal rate.

      I so appreciate all those volunteers who make "random acts of kindness" a reality. Thanks for mentioning them, Wendy. I'm hoping that I can include a day in the city as part of my next visit home to visit family. A library trip like this one would require some advanced contact, though. I'm not thinking those photographs are from someone's personal scrapbook...

  2. Your inquiry into Aktabowski family at least turned up some "unexpected" variations on how to spell the name.

    I would think a biography or even a novel based on Genia's life would be a good seller.

    1. Oh, how I wish I could write like a novelist! You are kind, Iggy :)

      I do want to be able to share what I've found of her life, though. I can't get over that strong conviction that everyone's life deserves to be be remembered. We all have made worthy contributions...

  3. If you don't write it...who will?? Think about it! :)

    1. You're right, Far Side. There is no one who knows the story from quite the same angle as I know it. Even if someone else did tell the story, it wouldn't be the same.


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