Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Family Stories versus Family History


So many families have passed down stories from generation to generation, but does that mean they are all verifiable? That is the question a genealogist seeks to answer.

In my case this month, pursuing the second "ancestor" research goal I've set for this year, this time the family stories I'm seeking to document don't really belong to my own family; they belong to my godmother—and my godmother was not a relative, but a good friend of my mother.

I've learned a long time ago, in the many beginning genealogy classes I've taught, that people will often bring a story to class, wondering whether it could actually be true. Many times, an initial inspection seems to indicate that it is just that: a story. We can find no substantiation to support it.

But what about my mother's friend, Genia the ballet dancer? All through my childhood, I heard the rehearsed lines of Genia's family predicament: that her parents had to escape from Russia during the awful time of the revolution, that they sailed to France, and that Genia was born there and grew up preparing to be a professional ballerina.

My presumption was that the facts were simply what I was told. Genia's parents were from Russia, just like mine were from America. Even as a child, I had learned in history class about the Russian Revolution. The story made sense.

It wasn't until long afterwards that I began to realize the immensity of such a proposition. In my schoolgirl mind, when I thought "Russia," I envisioned the U.S.S.R. Though the Soviet Union was by far more immense than the European Russia of the nineteenth century, a child's mind carries simplified concepts. It didn't occur to me that, in the midst of that "Soviet Union," there might be multiple other countries included in that federation.

There was, also, another family story to consider. This one was about Genia's mother, the strange old woman who, when I went with my mother to visit them, always remained in the shadows in the back rooms of their New York City apartment. She, my mother told me, likely suffered from all the upheaval she had experienced in her life, fleeing not one, but two war-torn homes—first from the Russian revolution, then from Nazi occupied France during World War II. 

But where, exactly, was that first home she had left? In a story which doesn't quite add up to the other ones I learned, my mother recalled that Genia's mother had come from a seaport town. She thought it was somewhere on the Black Sea. She vaguely remembered that it might have been a place like Georgia. But other times, she wasn't entirely clear on that detail. I wondered whether Genia's mother might originally have come from nearby Armenia, site of the horrific Armenian genocide during that same time period. There had to be something terrible enough to motivate the family to move far away so quickly.

Whatever it was that caused the Melnitchenkos to leave their homeland—wherever that was—I couldn't linger on those family stories, no matter how tragic. I had to heed the advice we give to every genealogist at the start of the journey of family history discovery: start first with yourself, then move step by step through the generations.

By proxy, I first needed to start with Genia and assemble what documentation I could find on a woman who has been known by three different names. Only then would we be provided with what we need to enable us to move on to the next step: exploring the details about Genia's mother—wherever she was born. Only then will we be able to evaluate how reliable those family stories actually were.


  1. This sounds like a very interesting journey. I just hope it isn't too sad.

    1. I hope it isn't either, Miss Merry. It seems we all have had our fill of sadness lately. But you know how it goes: I write as I research, so I'm not sure where this journey will lead us yet.


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