Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Finding the Place Once Called Home


Finding the specific place of origin for our immigrant ancestors can be challenging. 

While as a general guide, we may know that an ancestor came from, say, Russia, when we consider just how large that country of origin might have been, we realize the size of the challenge facing us in our hope of narrowing the search to a specific city.

Furthermore, over time, locations sometimes underwent a change of identity—or even disappeared entirely—especially in war-torn regions and areas with border changes. And there is the burden of translating a place name from its spoken sound in one language to the way others heard the pronunciation, as rendered by the immigrant arriving in the new country.

So the question is: now that we've seen seaman Michael Melnitchenko arrive safely back at his home port in New York after the second World War, can we depend on the only two records we've found which reported his place of birth? Though the answer on each of the two documents we've found is different, at least they both approximate the same pronunciation. Let's see if that hint leads us to Michael's place of origin.

The first record we had found which provided a birth place for Michael Melnitchenko was a World War II draft registration card. Admittedly, I had my doubts that the card really was for our Michael. Though the middle name given had been poorly transcribed—as "Juan" instead of the more likely "Ivan"—the option of Ivan could have been an Americanized form of the patronym that Michael, as a typical Russian, might have used. But since the date of birth seemed to agree with other records, I'm willing to sweep all questions aside, at least while we explore the possibilities of a place of birth.

That first record stated Michael's place of birth was a city named "Nikolaiev, Russia."

The second mention we found was the passenger record listing his arrival back in New York City as a repatriated seaman, following the attack on the ship for which he had served as chief officer in 1943. That passenger record identified Michael's place of birth as "Necolaeff, Russia."

The problem was, once I tried finding either city in current records, I came up with zero results. There is no city called Nikolaiev, nor is there one called Necolaeff.

However, there is one city which could possibly substitute for those spelling variations, if we make a few allowances. The first is that we consider the phonetic similarities between the two spellings, and play loose with those details. The second is that we realize what the ears of English-speaking people might hear as the final syllable "-eff" might more likely be transliterated from a Russian spelling equivalent to "-ev."

One last detail: the only city name I could squeeze into a shape approximating either of our two options happened to be in a different country. That country, however, had long been occupied by Russia, thus rendering some cities in that country not one name, but two.

Thus, the seaport the Ukrainians call Mykolaiv was known for the entire time of Russian occupation as Nikolaev

If that was indeed the place of origin for our Michael Melnitchenko, there are some details which seem to corroborate this discovery. First of all, Nikolaev's long-standing history as a seaport and major ship-building center could possibly be the influence that led Michael to choose his occupation. Perhaps he followed in the footsteps of his own father. Given the position of Nikolaev in relation to the Russian Empire's ample grain exports from the nearby steppes, international commercial activity flourished by the late nineteenth century.

Another encouraging corroboration was that, despite the city being within what we now call Ukraine, at the time when Michael was born, almost two thirds of the city considered their ethnicity to be Russian, not Ukrainian. In all the documents identifying Michael Melnitchenko as a crew member of ocean-going vessels, he consistently reported himself to be Russian, and to speak the Russian language. Growing up in a city with such a history would seem plausible.

Of course, finding any records of Michael's family in such a city would present a challenge, as the government in charge of collecting those records is not the governmental body now responsible for that area. Furthermore, we can already surmise from the date of his daughter Genia's birth in France—January 6, 1924—that Michael and his wife had to have left Nikolaev some time before that point. Given the impetus of the Russian Revolution, the Melnitchenkos may have vacated their homeland long before Genia's birth.

There is one other detail which needs to be addressed, however: just how a seaman from the Russian Empire's Ukrainian coast came to marry a woman whose place of birth was on the very opposite side of the Black Sea.


Above: Excerpt from the November 23, 1943, passenger record of the S.S. John Rutledge, showing the entry for repatriated seaman Michael Melnitchenko, giving his place of birth as "Necolaeff." Image courtesy


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