Saturday, November 28, 2020

Reflections on this Research Journey


Sometimes, a research challenge is straightforward: you have a specific research goal, you formulate a plan, you execute the plan, everything goes exactly as predicted, and you file the answer for future reference.

That's not how this past month went. My goal—for finding two out of my "Twelve Most Wanted" ancestors for 2020—was to locate something, anything, about my paternal grandfather's origin. 

Yes, that's right: this family history fanatic did not even know the most basic details about my own grandfather. A pretty sorry state of affairs for someone who can trace her maternal line all the way back to the Mayflower.

Along the way, while piecing together the vaguest of hints about the woman called "Aunt Rose" by my father and his sister, and finding details about the tragic death of her mother, it became apparent that these were clues pointing me back to a small town in Poland called Czarnylas. A constant stream of DNA matches helped confirm the fact that not only did my paternal grandfather re-invent himself with a new identity in New York City, but his own mother changed her name, in a way, during her immigration process. The woman whose name I knew as Anna Krauss apparently began life with the name Anastasia Zegarska.

I've talked about all the discoveries along the way, the disappointments, the twists and turns—and the amazement at the awesome power of DNA to give us connections where we thought we'd never find any. Even though the paper trail is now pieced together in a coherent way, the corollary I still need to get off my chest is the metaphysics of the experience of having to go find all that stuff.

I wondered things like: why did my Anna end up in New York City, if all her relatives immigrated to Milwaukee? Some of her relatives even made the trip the same year she arrived in New York. Why didn't she stick with family?

Surely, I thought, she would have kept in touch with her fellow immigrants from her small village back in Poland. But where were the letters? Or at least the oral tradition of sharing with one's children about occurrences in the lives of one's siblings.

The thought occurred to me: could it be that Anna didn't even know how to write? When I researched my husband's Irish roots, if an ancestor needed to send a letter to family, but didn't know how to write, he found someone who could help him compose the message that was needed. Why was there seemingly no awareness in my family of a large group of relatives living in Milwaukee?

There is, of course, a simple way to answer that question—simple, of course, but not complete. We can see what the census records tell us about who can write and who cannot. The trick, of course, was to find Anna in the census for those earlier enumerations. "Aunt Rose," at the time, would have been married to a Miller, but the closest I can find for a possible household in 1910 has Anna's surname written as "Kusfkr"—perhaps an enumerator's ineffective translation of that mysterious Kusharvski surname which didn't surface again until Anna's unfortunate death. Sure enough, that record shows that Rose, the daughter, could read and write English, but her mother could not.

But what about her relatives in Milwaukee? Could anyone there write? As it turns out, my Anna's youngest sister, who also went by the name Anna—my Anna being born Anastasia—arrived in Milwaukee about a year after her sister's arrival in New York. According to the 1900 census there, Anna and her husband, Thomas Gracz, were both listed as being able to read and write. And so it was with the others of Anna's relatives in Milwaukee.

I wonder about the lack of connection. Was there a story buried deeper, behind this apparent need to disassociate themselves from the identity of their past? Is there more to be discovered? I have known other immigrants from war-torn areas of Europe whose parents did not fare well in the transition to a new home, despite the relative safety of the new location. Back then, there may not have been a name for it, but post-traumatic stress without a scientific name is still a devastating burden.

While we can now find so many records to document the overt facts of our ancestors' existence, without that personal narrative, we can't always read between the lines of a disjointed life story. We can approximate, but not certify intangibles like motivation or disappointments. Those who have ancestors who kept personal journals or wrote letters which family preserved well beyond their lifespan indeed have a treasure, for perhaps they are the only ones who can say with certainty that they have documented indications of how an ancestor felt about what befell her in life.

For the rest of us, it can only be conjecture. Research can reach only so far. 

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