Saturday, October 5, 2013

International Man of Mystery

I'm still working my way through the contents of The Box, and I've already found some really fun stuff. There are pictures of my uncle Willie taken before WWII; pictures of my dad looking very tidy in uniform, and pictures of him looking very scruffy on the troopship coming home; pictures of my dad's college graduation; pictures of my mother, apparently about 15 minutes before she went into labor; pictures of our first dog; family pictures with my paternal grandmother; pictures of my brother and me as little kids. And I'm not even halfway through.

This is my favorite so far. It's my paternal grandfather, Harry Spevak.

It's appropriate that I start off with Harry. He was my introduction to family history research, and my first total dead end.

Although I've probably spent more time trying to track this guy down than I've spent on anybody else in my family, I don't really know much about him. He died before I was born. This is one of only three pictures of him I've ever seen. Here's what I've patched together from naturalization documents my dad obtained years ago from the archives at Bowling Green State University, from online census and marriage records, from city directories, and from stories about him my dad told me over the years.

The first thing I don't know about him is where he was born. I knew he came from Russia, but that's a pretty big place. He said he was from a small town that sounded (to my dad, who spoke only English and had no ear for languages at all) like 'Petich', in the Russian state (or equivalent governmental entity) of 'Minskepegonia'. The nearest big city was 'Cabrusk'.

According to the passenger manifest when he arrived in New York in 1906, he was born in Karpilovka. On his naturalization papers, his place of birth looks kind of like 'Parecp':

Some quality time with old maps and the JewishGen Gazetteer turned up the following possibilities:

Parichi, Bobruisk, Minsk, Russia
Alternate names: Parichi [Rus], Poritch [Yid], Parycze [Pol], Paryčy [Bel]
25 miles SSE of Bobruysk.
Jewish population in 1900: 3,132

Karpilovka, Rogachev, Mogilev, Russia
Alternate names: Zhlobin [Rus, Bel, Yid], Zlobin [Pol], Schlobin [Ger], Žlobinas [Lith], Zlobin, Korpilovka Belarusian: Жлобін. Russian: Жлобин.
38 miles ESE of Babruysk (Bobruisk), 27 miles ENE of Parichi
Jewish Population in 1900: 1,760

I'm guessing he was born in one of those places, and unless/until more information turns up, guessing is the best I can do. I know he was born on 10 July 1884, but I don't know who his parents were, or whether he had any siblings.

He was a cabinetmaker – he bristled at being called a carpenter. He spoke several languages, including Polish, Russian, and Yiddish. He was a socialist; an admirer of Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish political activist and writer. Because of his involvement in an attempt to organize a general strike, he was forced to go into hiding, changing his name several times to avoid detention. He left Russia in 1906, leaving behind a wife and child/children. He'd been a pretty busy guy, and he was only 22.

The first real written documentation I have for my grandfather is the passenger manifest for the S.S. Petersburg, which left Libau on 18 December 1906, arriving in New York on 27 December. This document says he's 23 (close enough), married, a joiner, able to read and write. His 'Race or People' is 'Hebrew', and his last permanent residence was in Karpilovka, Russia. He paid for his own ticket to New York, and was in possession of about $50. He was not a polygamist or an anarchist, had never been in prison or an almshouse, and was in good physical and mental health. He was 5'2",  dark complexion, with blue eyes and blue hair (hey, that's what it says). All that (except the blue hair) fit with what my dad knew of him.

What didn't fit was his name. And his wife, with whom he was traveling, was a woman we've never heard of. They were going to join her brother, who lived at 177-179 Monroe St., New York City. We'd never heard of him, either.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Box

This arrived the day before yesterday, despite the ever-vigilant whippet's impersonation of a Very Large, Very Fierce Dog:

The box
I know what's in it, more or less. My mom died in January of last year, my dad about six months before that. My brother (Sparky – he's an electrician) has been cleaning out the house where they lived for some 65 years. They weren't hoarders, exactly, but they both grew up during the Great Depression. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." If there was a thing they could ever imagine finding a use for in the future, they hung on to it.

The task is beyond ginormous. Its way, way bigger than that. I know I'm a bad person for being glad it's Sparky stuck with this little chore, and not me. At the same time, I envy him the chance to discover all those things my parents had stuck away in the back of a drawer, or in a box behind some books on a top shelf, and forgotten about.

In truth, Sparky is as intrigued by these things as I am, but if he stopped to sort through all the papers and photographs and whatever else, that garage would never get cleaned out. Instead, when he turns up stuff like that, he tosses it in a box. When the box is full, he tapes it up, and sends it to me.

I've been patching together bits of family stories for some years now, and I've been meaning to make a place where I could try to put them all together without boring the stuffing out of people who don't share my fascination – OK, obsession – with this stuff. Now is probably as good a time to start as any, don't you think?