Friday, October 13, 2023

"K-u-s-f-k-r . . . Say, What?!"


It was Mrs. Emma Jones, the eminently patient census enumerator tasked in 1910 with documenting the many foreigners resident in Brooklyn's district number 885, who may finally have had her patience tried by the responses from the household of one Rose Muller. Rose, my paternal grandfather's sister, was married at the time but living solely with her mother Anna.

It was Anna's surname, given to the enumerator, which stumped her. I can just hear the conversation now: bilingual Polish immigrant Rose speaking on behalf of her aging mother Anna, trying to re-size a Polish surname to fit an English-speaker's ears.

"K-u-s-f-k-r...say what, now?" the enumerator Mrs. Jones might have repeated, as she wrote those letters on the census record. Unfamiliar with the workings of Polish phonics, the government worker may simply have resorted to asking Anna's daughter to spell the name. But with a target answer sounding something like Kusharvski, I can understand why the resultant entry ended up being the clearly-written but hopelessly inaccurate entry that it was.

Since I have yet to find any confirmation of my great-grandmother Anna's arrival in the United States, I've needed to decode that surname just as much as that 1910 enumerator might have wanted to do. I still am lacking significant sections of the immigration story of my great-grandmother and her two children, Aunt Rose and her brother, my paternal grandfather. Even the surnames I've found don't seem to line up with other records on file for Anna. And I've since found more versions to complicate matters.

Step one was to see if I could locate an actual correct spelling for what surely was an English speaker's rendition of Polish phonics. Though I had already learned about the differences in pronouncing consonants "w" and "v" in both Polish and German, a few years ago I made it a point to learn the basics of Polish phonics. For a name which might have sounded like Kusharvski, for instance, I now know that the sound we write in English as "sh" would have been rendered as "sz" in Polish. The "v" might actually have been written in Polish as a "w." And for the version of the surname used to refer to women, the ending would most definitely have been changed from "-ski" to "-ska."

But would that "Kuszarwska" have been the actual appearance of Anna's name in American records? Likely not—unless, of course, the English-speaking official writing the record understood the particulars of the Polish language. In between the proper Polish rendering of the name and the American transcription of what they thought they heard could lie a multitude of guesses.

To find those possible versions of Anna's surname, then, I resorted to testing out a wildcard key. On, using an asterisk to represent the letters I was unsure of, I entered the query as "Kus*ski" and its feminine version, "Kus*ska."

One alternative spelling suggested from this search was "Kuszajewski," a possibility from a Buffalo city directory which I will keep in mind as I continue my search for Anna and her children—although I'm sure there will be other suggestions. The goal is to find alternate possibilities to see if I can use those suggestions to then move on to find Anna in passenger records. Up until this point, I've been unsuccessful in this, using the name Anna Krauss which had been listed in census records after her arrival. There has got to be some way to connect Anna to her past—and, following that trail, to discover the documents for her two immigrant children, as well.

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