Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Filling in the Blanks


Searching for Uncle John's mother-in-law has been only a partially successful effort. While I've found some records on Aniela Zielinska and the family she and husband Felix—or Anton—Aktabowski raised in Jersey City and New York City, there are large gaps in that paper trail. Filling in the blanks has become harder than I would have expected, even given the opportunities for misspelling a surname like theirs.

For instance, while I could find transcriptions of birth records for the older Aktabowski children and a digitized copy of the 1900 census after their move from New Jersey to New York, Aniela disappeared from federal census records beyond that point until the 1940 census—and then, once again, from any mention from that time forward. Indeed, if it weren't for widowed "Nellie" Aktabowski's appearance in New York State enumerations with her remaining children in the interim, she would have vanished from my view entirely.

Vanished, that is, except for one strange detail: a New York City municipal marriage license index in 1908 for one Aniela Aktabowska and a man whose name was carefully written as Joseph Sadzriewicz.

The curious thing about a surname such as this is that I have not been able to locate it in any records digitized in a number of online resources. Instead, I've found records for Sadziewicz, or Sadzewicz, but not with that "r" inserted in the middle of the surname. In fact, though I looked in a number of newspaper archives, the only version in which I could find that surname in that time period was in a Lithuanian newspaper, Lietuva, located through the Old Fulton New York Post Cards website.

Yet, in state census records after that supposed marriage date in 1908, I could find Aniela in the enumeration for 1915, still under the name Aktabowski. Without being able to locate anything more on that 1908 marriage, I had no way of knowing the ages of the bride and groom to guide me in guessing whether this might be our Aniela, or someone much younger. This was, after all, New York City where a population of that size was sure to present many opportunities for name twins.

Still, I wasn't able to find any death record for Aniela under the name Aktabowski, either. I was stuck, not knowing whether to believe that marriage record was for our widowed Aniela or for another bride.

That's when I remembered that odd entry on the Social Security Application completed by her son Gustave. 

The form had shown Gustave's mother's name to be Nelly Sagwit—an odd entry, given that Aniela was likely born in Poland, a place where a name like "Sagwit" didn't seem to fit.

Deconstructing the information on the transcription, I already knew that some of her sons had changed their name from Aktabowski to Hark, supposedly because they were trying to market themselves as stage performers. Gustave was already using that shortened, Americanized surname by the time of the 1930 census, and certainly when he completed his World War II draft registration card in 1942. So Gustave Hark was certainly Aniela Aktabowski's son. Despite Gustave's father's surname being spelled with a "u" instead of a "w," that was not a problem, and seeing his father's name given as John instead of Felix—his dad died when he was eleven years of age—can be overlooked.

But Nelly Sagwit?? That was a puzzle—until I considered how Polish pronunciations might sound to American ears. The American treatment of the suffix "wicz," for instance, has easily been misunderstood as "witz"—which if omitting the "z" could end up as "wit." 

That's the easy part. The "Sag" might seem a bit more of a stretch. What the "dz" in Sadziewicz might have sounded like—to a less careful ear—could have been a soft "g," somewhat like the word "judge." Could some clerical worker have heard the name pronounced and interpreted the first syllable to sound like "Sadge"—but compound the problem even further by writing only the "g," which we then read as a hard consonant, literally like sag-wit?

While I considered that possibility, I popped over to FamilySearch which, as one reader has already commented here, sometimes provides more complete transcriptions of retracted documents. Sure enough, there was the typewritten version of Aniela's 1946 death record from Brooklyn, filed under the surname Sadzewicz—close enough to convince me that it was our Aniela who had married Joseph "Sadzriewicz" back in 1908.

Though the death record had provided her burial place as Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, I have yet to find any confirmation of that information—but I'll keep looking. As death records go, I'll also keep in mind that the names given for her parents—Felix and Anna Zielinski—might have mistakenly swapped the reporting party's father for that of the decedent's. But I now have far more than I did when I began this search a month ago.

And that's a start.


  1. Wow - that took some deciphering!

    1. You know, it might have made things easier if it involved sloppy handwriting at the start. There was no questioning that clear printing in the marriage index. Sometimes, I think it's just a matter of convincing myself that I'm on the right track.


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