Saturday, January 6, 2018

52 Ancestors #1: Grandpa Got Me Started in Genealogy

I never knew my father's father, Grandpa Isaac Burk (1882-1943). I didn't know what he looked like, didn't know when or where he was born, didn't know when or where he died. But it was Grandpa who got me started on my genealogy journey 20 years ago.

In 1998, the genealogist of my mother's Farkas family wanted to add my father and his parents to her comprehensive family tree. There was little I could tell her other than Grandpa's name. There was no one left to ask. Of course, I couldn't resist trying to find out more. Little did I know how elusive Grandpa's trail was going to be!

As a complete novice, my first stop was the Milstein Division of the New York Public Library. In those days of microfilm research, I figured this was one-stop shopping for info and advice about finding Grandpa Isaac's records. I was sure he lived in New York City after arriving from somewhere in Eastern Europe.


With the help of librarians, I checked NYC directories and newspaper records. Yup, Grandpa Isaac and Grandma Henrietta Mahler Burk did live in NYC. I cranked that microfilm reader until I found a terse obit in the New York Times for October 10, 1943. No mention of burial place. Nothing in death record indexes. Next, I mailed a check to New York City with a search request for Grandpa's death cert. I was hooked and had to know more.

Uh-oh. No NYC death cert was on record. Nor was there a death cert in New York State. And no hint of which cemetery Grandpa might be buried in. Remember, Find a Grave was in its infancy, so I couldn't just click to search for him. The funeral folks couldn't help, either.

I continued my quest for Grandpa Isaac little by little over the next few years, locating his marriage record from 1906 and all the US and NY State Census records available at the time. But--no death cert, even though every document showed him living in NYC. Still, I was determined to solve this seemingly basic family mystery.

In desperation, I actually called New York City's vital records department and threw myself on their mercy, asking for help. A very kind gentleman lowered his voice and told me I should try searching further afield. He offered the unofficial hint that Grandpa Isaac might have died in someplace like, say, Washington, D.C.

Huh? Who would Grandpa Isaac and Grandma Henrietta know in Washington, D.C.? And why would Grandpa have died there?

I immediately wrote to the vital records department in D.C., including a check, and waited.

Two weeks later, I had Grandpa Isaac's death cert in my hand. The details fit, this was definitely him. Later, I found Isaac's naturalization record and saw his face and signature for the very first time.

Why were Isaac and Henrietta in D.C. for four days before he had a heart attack and died--in the home of Louis Volk?

The quest for a connection with Louis Volk eventually brought me into contact with some wonderful 2d cousins! But that's another story for another week in the challenge. 

I only wish Grandpa Isaac could know how he got me started in #genealogy--and that I'm making sure the family knows as much about him and his life story as I can discover.


Thank you to Amy Johnson Crow for this 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge!

#52Ancestors 

8 comments:

genealogylizgauffreau said...

I greatly enjoyed the story of how you got started in genealogy!

Dana Leeds said...

I love the story of how you got started, too. I also started 20 years ago - in 1998! But, I was just cranking through films looking at census records. I'm pretty amazed at how you started!

Diane Gould Hall said...

Wonderful story Marian. You were on the ball from the very beginning. So glad you learned more about Isaac. I’ve been at this for 15 yrs and I never get tired of the journey.

Marian B. Wood said...

Thank you ladies for leaving your comments. I'm really grateful to Grandpa Isaac for getting me interested in genealogy and the human stories behind the bare facts. Twenty years and, like Diane says, I never get tired of the journey. Still new cousins out there waiting to be found!

Cindi said...

Loved this story!

Dara said...

Happy New Year, Marian, and best of luck with the 52 Ancestors challenge. I'm looking forward to following your series.

Colleen G. Brown Pasquale said...

A terrific tale! I'm looking forward to learning more.

Anna Matthews said...

That is a great story. Looking forward to your 52 weeks.