Friday, February 26, 2021

Last Tokens of an
Almost Forgotten Life


The story of my godmother and her parents now seems such a far-removed part of my childhood. Having discovered, this month, what I now realize about the life of Genia's parents, Michael and Lydia Melnitchenko, leaves me in an almost childlike state of wonder, even after all these years since I last saw them. They had seemed, in that time long ago, to have simply faded away in all but my memories.

For closure, though I can't find the necessary records to build a family history reaching back any more generations—yet!—I wanted to at least locate where they were buried. Even though current travel restrictions limit my ability to visit their graves, I still wanted to find their location.

This attempt, however, met with some restrictions. For one thing, I have yet to locate any record of the date of Michael Melnitchenko's death. He surely died in New York City, his adopted home after leaving his Russian Empire roots in the Ukraine, and even after having moved to—and then from—Marseilles. But accessing New York City vital records presents a challenge all its own. All I had, besides a guess, was that doubtful World War II draft registration card with the offered date of birth of January 11, 1897

Finding any final details on Lydia Melnitchenko was just as difficult—although I knew in her case, on account of her difficulties with post-traumatic stress, records might be even harder to uncover. And yet, it was for Lydia, not Michael, that I located a possible entry in the Social Security Death Index, fixing her date of birth as March 2, 1899, and indicating her death as occurring in April of 1977.

Despite the lack of documentation on either of Genia's parents, I did have one other token of identification. Coming from a Russian heritage, each of them would have customarily included a patronymic form of their father's given name, embedded within their own name. Thus, I already had found records showing me to look for Michael Ivanivitch Melnitchenko. In Lydia's case, her petition for naturalization included an Americanized form of her father's name—as Theodore—telling me to look for a patronymic version of the Russian name Feodor. And her daughter's travel documents to Brazil revealed Lydia's maiden name to be Leonoff.

Still, flying otherwise blind except for those patronymic hints, it was possible to run into trouble. In fact, remembering Lydia's sister's name was Alexandra, I did locate some naturalization paperwork for an Alexandra Fedorovna Leonoff—right patronymic addition (despite misspelling)—except for one thing. That Alexandra was married; her maiden name was Danilchenko.

Even seeking burial information for Genia's Michael and Lydia presented challenges. Conveniently, just outside New York City there is one of the largest Russian Orthodox cemeteries in the United States. What were the chances that the Mikhail Ivanovich Melnichenko and Lydia Feodorovna Melnichenko buried there were one and the same as my Michael and Lydia?

A look at the dates was not encouraging. Mikhail was born January 26, 1897, and died August 8, 1972. The variation in spelling was likely due to the fact that people in a New York Russian cemetery might want to spell names the way they were spelled back home in Russia. But that date of birth? According to our Michael's draft card, his date of birth was January 11—fifteen days earlier.

For the two Lydias, the situation was much the same, with her social security record showing she was born March 2, 1899, and only giving a month and year of death: April 1977. As for the cemetery's headstone photo, that date of birth was March 15, not March 2—thirteen days later.

After having chased after—and fallen down—that research rabbit hole last weekend, bringing me on the grand tour of the devastation unleashed during the Russian Revolution, I did benefit from one observation. Although genealogical researchers in the western realm of the British Empire need only remember to adjust dates from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in the mid 1700s, apparently the Russians didn't tackle that adjustment until much later in their history—in 1918—and, for religious purposes, sometimes still employ the Old Style calendar.

While the calendar switch from Old Style to New Style should have meant a difference of eleven days, the variance between headstones and the few documents in which I could find their dates verified certainly isn't so standardized. Could this represent not a date of birth, but a date of baptism? Or could someone have handled the conversion inaccurately? Or is this just a case of mistaken identities—two couples by the names of Michael and Lydia whose dates inconveniently almost aligned?

Lacking further documentation, I have to leave open the possibility of such a coincidence. However,  I couldn't help but notice a few other details. The inclusion of their patronymics takes the edge off that "coincidence" argument, for one thing. But in addition, coming from the vantage point of a Russian Orthodox cemetery, it reveals one other detail I had been wondering about.

Melnitchenko—or any surname ending in -chenko—has always been a name which made me wonder just how "Russian" Michael and Lydia had been. True, there is more than one way to spell that surname Melnitchenko (the addition of a "t" seeming to be a customary American slip), and the surname distribution reveals quite a few Russians as well as Ukrainians claiming that name. And of course, when our Melnitchenkos left their homeland—wherever it was—they left as subjects of the then-falling Russian Empire.

Still, I found it particular gratifying, in examining those headstones, to see Lydia's patronymic name rendered as the Ukrainians would have spelled it, not the Russians. Remember, even in her hometown on the far end of the Black Sea—which, too, would have been swallowed up as part of the Russian Empire when she was born—by the time she left it, that ethnically-diverse city boasted a significant proportion of Ukrainian residents.

Perhaps, in the end, though I still can't find any documents linking the Melnitchenkos to the generations preceding them, it may turn out that Michael, Lydia, and Genia, who always listed themselves as Russian in origin, were actually ethnically Ukrainian, and only politically the subjects of the Russian tsar.



  1. Just noticed something slightly odd that might need to be rectified:

    The findagrave page and the corresponding familysearch entry for Lydia says that she was born 1889, when the gravemarker itself clearly shows 1899... (10 years off)

    1. Yes! I did spot that, Per. Which brings up a corollary to my maxim,
      "Always, always, always look at the document."

      Now add, "always, always, always look at the photograph."

  2. Some Ukrainians were ethnic Rusyns or Rusin and, at times, were then recorded as Russian.

    1. That is a good point to consider, Linda, for people living in that region, regarding such other ethnic heritages. However, from knowing Genia's family personally, they were always acknowledged to me as Russian--not just on the government documents where I also gleaned that label. Of course, I don't know the Russian language, so I couldn't have known whether Michael was speaking to his wife in Russian (she didn't really speak English in her later years) or another dialect.

      I take it as that bureaucratic direction, such as we see in census records, to record immigrants' origin by the political designation at the time of that record. Of course, Michael and Lydia left their home during the time of the revolution, so whether during the time of the Empire or the U.S.S.R., the whole region was controlled by Russia. Hard to tell, but makes me wonder...

  3. Can you contact that cemetery and see if they will email you anything in their files? It should say the name of the person paying the bill for the burial which would be your godmother, at least for the last one to pass away. Would be a good verification that these are your people! Not all cemeteries are willing to do this, Ive had some who said they werent allowed to due to privacy reasons even though the people had been dead for 100 years. :)

    1. Yes, Lara, I will definitely be following up on that--although you are right about those few cemeteries which pontificate about "privacy" issues for disclosure about long-gone ancestors. I'm hoping this won't be one of those experiences.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...