This past weekend I went to New York for a getaway with friends. Once a year, my parents get together with my dad’s fraternity buddies, leaving the apartment for me and my friends. I try to go up a day earlier to see them and to spend a day in the city on my own. Despite the heavy rain, I had a great time having breakfast with my folks, lunch with a college friend, and then seeing another college friend, who has a book out, give a reading.

In between, though, I snuck off to the New York City Municipal Archives for a bit o’ research. For the longest time, I had no idea when my great-great grandparents (Max and Fanny) passed away. I knew about when they were born, when the immigrated, where they lived, what they did, but I could find a date of death. I knew they weren’t buried in the same cemetery as my great-grandparents, because I’d been out there and looked (and had the cemetery search their records).

After trying my variations of spellings of names, I finally found Max’s record (you can find death, marriage, and birth certificates for New York on the Italian Genealogical Group, even if your family isn’t Italian). Still no luck on his wife though.

A few months ago, I asked my dad to go get the death certificate for Max, which was in the New York Municipal Archives, which gave a wealth of info, including my great-great-great grandparents names and where Max was buried. The name of the cemetery changed over the years, but I called around and located where he was, which is Paramus, New Jersey (even though Max and Fanny lived in Manhattan, by the time they passed away, they were living with my great-grandparents in the Bronx. Most people couldn’t afford to be buried within Manhattan and the Bronx had no Jewish cemeteries, which is why they crossed the river [no, not the River Styx; the River Hudson] into Jersey). The cemetery was able to confirm that Fanny was buried there, and they told me she died in 1941. And then they also told me she wasn’t actually buried under Fanny (or Frieda, as I knew her name to be), but under Esther.

With that info, I went back and found her death certificate listed online. Her age was off, but it had to be her; the name was too close of a match and the death date was correct. With that certificate number (the death records aren’t online; just a catalogue of how to find them), I went to the archives and got the certificate. Again, a wealth of info, including her parents names, that Frieda was her middle name and Esther her first, and that she died from being hit by an automobile (my father was surprised by this–no one had ever mentioned it to him).

But, wait, there’s more. Before going to the archives, I looked again at the 1920 census that had listed Max and Fanny, and I noticed for the first time that a William Litskie lived with them, and he was listed as a nephew. Now, I had no idea if he was on Max or Fanny’s side, as neither of them had Litskie as a last name. But I looked him up online and I found that he had tried to become a citizen in New York (I say tried because he was denied the first time). Those papers weren’t online, so I had no access. But while I was at the archives, I asked if they had naturalization papers.

“Go up to the seventh floor,” I was told. Which room? “Just one big room. You’ll see.”

The archives are in one of those beautiful old building with the painted ceilings and gorgeous windows, but it’s also dark and has that library feel. The kind of place I love.

I took the elevator up to the seventh floor, and walked out into a massive room filled with old file folders, practically falling off the walls.

The place seemed deserted. I wandered around and finally found a bunch of men just sitting in this big room, which had a sign that read “New York County Clerk.” One guy was reading a novel at the table.

“I’m looking for naturalization papers,” I said to him. “Are they available?”

The guy waved his hand around the room. “We’ve got New York County Supreme Court Naturalization Petitions.”

“Yep, that’s what I’m looking for.”

“They’re in the books on the wall. Find the one you want. You can take pictures of the pages.” (Which is unusual–most archives make you pay for copies. The death, marriage, birth certificates are $11 for a certified copy.)

I wandered around the room, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it all. Luckily I had written down the year, volume, and page number, because if you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t find anything. At first I was worried the volume I wanted was missing, but it just turned out the spine was peeling off.

The book crackled as I opened it. The pages were brittle and many were ripped. It was difficult to turn the pages, yet I found the right page. And boy did it pay off. I found his last name–which is the same as Fanny’s maiden name–as well as the various names he changed it to (he changed it twice, it seems). It told me his birthday and what ship he arrived on and what his name was on the ship’s manifest.



Of course, some of these were red herrings. His birthdate is listed differently on various documents. And the ship turned out to be wrong. He did not arrive on the President Grant. But I had a hunch about the “President” part and sure enough, I found him on Ellis Island as arriving on the President Lincoln. But I never would have found him had I not known what name he traveled under. William Litskie was actually Welwel Tcerpelcki.

And what did I get from the ship’s manifest? A confirmation that he was going to stay with his uncle, Max. As well as the name of William’s father (Fanny’s brother), Leiser. Another leaf on the tree!

I’m still trying to puzzle where this family was from. The name changes from document to document. It appears they were most likely from a place called Brazlaw, which I believe is actually Bratslav, Ukraine (as opposed to Braslaw, Belarus; Breslau, Poland; or any of a number of other towns in the Ukraine with a similar sound). This would fit because: 1) I know that Max’s family is from Odessa, Ukraine, and Fanny and Max met and married in the “old country,” so it would make sense they would be from the same area; 2) while many of the papers give Brazlaw as a location (though some give names that I don’t know what they are!), some give Podol or Podolsk (as in the form above), and Bratslav is in a province of Podolia, which is why I think it’s this particular place in the Ukraine.

If I could, I would spend hours in those archives, leafing through the pages. Amazing to think that on each page is another story.

After my trip through the seventh floor, heading back to the municipal archive was a bit of a let-down, although I went through some of the tax photos taken in the 1930s and was able to find a picture of the laundry that my great-grandfather worked at (and possibly owned).

A fruitful day. Now all I need to do is climb up that new branch and see what I find!