Why is it all my good finds come after 11 p.m.? I’m following trails that lead to dead ends, frustration after frustration, and then, right when I say, “It’s late! Screw this, I’m going to bed!” WHAM! A find that keeps me up another hour in both excitement and searching for more trails.

Here’s my current frustration: I’m trying to find the original name of my great-grandfather. Family stories have his last name as Braslowski. Misha Braslowski came to the U.S., moved to Michigan to work in the auto industry. He did well there as he spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English, and he translated for the union boss. The union boss told him he wouldn’t get far with the name Braslowski and that he should change it to Brown. So Misha Braslowski became Max Brown. He soon left the auto industry–the fumes were too much for him, making him ill–so he moved to New York where he worked in a hand laundry.

Only I haven’t been able to find any evidence to substantiate this story. The story, at this point, is family myth. He traveled to the U.S. on the name Marcus Bractowski (which could be merely an error in transcription; he says “Braslowski,” the ticketing agent hears “Bractowski”). I can find no records of his family in Odessa. He seem to have magically been reborn in the U.S. as Max Brown. So my task is to find his name.

One of the greatest strategies one has in genealogy is the sideways search. Max had three sisters who came to the U.S. (out of approximately seven siblings). Two were married in Odessa, so their manifests won’t give anything away. I haven’t been able to find the manifest for the third. But I thought to search on the generation below, because you never know what will give away a name. Because Max’s sister Sarah was married in the Old Country, when her daughters were asked for mother’s maiden name, they might have given the original name (this is often asked for on marriage certificates, death certificates, etc.).

So I searched on the kids. And found a complete story that I absolutely wasn’t expecting. For Sarah’s kids, I found (at about 11:45 p.m.) this document from 1911 from the New York Hebrew Orphans Asylum:


In case you can’t read that, it lists all three girls, that they were born in Odessa, and their dates of birth. It says their father, Jacob, born in 1867, was a shirt presser earning $15 a week. Their mother, Max’s sister Sarah, was born in 1873, and she was a charwoman earning $3 a week. They lived in three rooms on East 10th Street and their rent was $11 a month. But the remarks are what complete the story:

Man left home 7 months ago and his whereabouts are unknown. Woman is sick internally and will enter a hospital. She appears very weak. Woman’s sister Lena Bronfein, 102 Norfolk Street, husband second-clothing, $12 a week; 1 child. She is unable to assist. WHC [unclear: farmerly?] assisted with rent. She has not received allowances this month.

Then it notes that the children were admitted to the orphanage (in upper right hand corner). I took another look at the records I had for Sarah. I had been confused, because she was listed with just her kids in 1920, with her kids and husband in 1930, and as a widow living with her sister Lena in 1940. But a closer look at the 1930 census shows that Jacob is listed with the parenthetical “(ab).” Jacob was absent. He took off in 1911 and never came back.

So while I am no closer to determining my great-grandfather’s last name, I have an entirely new story to pursue. I’ll start with their arrival in April of 1906. And I’ll pursue that route while simultaneously making up the rest of the story. Because all this new information has me going in a “what if” direction that fuels my fiction. The fiction and the family history never cross–my family history is absolute nonfiction and my writing is absolute fiction–but they do fuel each other.

Off to the records!