In genealogy, as in life, we often want to have 100% proof of things. Dealing with a subject as important and personal as family, we want to be totally sure of ourselves and of the information we uncover. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be able to access the gold standard of genealogy—ironclad evidence in the form of written documents which unequivocally state the answers we seek.
Unfortunately, in family history research as in life, sometimes this is not possible. Often the records will leave confusing gaps or ambiguities. Very often, the answer to one question will raise many more. Yet using a combination of research, the powers of deduction, and common sense, it is often possible to come up with reasonable explanations that best fit the available evidence.
The Curious Case of Esther Mala
When beginning my research for a client, my first task was to locate her grandmother, Esther Mala. My client did not have much information about her—only her name and that she was from Warsaw prior to coming to the United States. The only other knowledge my client had was the dates of two of her children: Toby/Topka in 1922 and Alexander in 1930.
Searching through the databases, I found only a single Mala family living in Warsaw in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. In fact, that family had an Esther Mala. The problem was that she was born in 1913. How on earth could she have been only nine years old when she had her first daughter? I assumed that perhaps a mistake had cropped up somewhere, so I set about researching this issue.
Since Esther’s son Alexander was born in 1930, I initially thought that perhaps Topka might have been born in 1932 rather than 1922. Perhaps my client had misremembered her aunt’s exact age or date of birth. However, according to the Social Security Death Index, Topka was indeed born in 1922; she died in 2005 at age 83.
My next thought was that perhaps the 1913 date given in the database was a mistranscription or some other error. At a family history center, I perused the original Russian-language records. Using my proficiency in pre-1917 Russian cursive, I found that Esther’s birth record clearly stated that she was born in 1913. This was no transcription error.
Not Originally from Warsaw
It also turns out that Esther was not born in Warsaw. According to her Warsaw birth record, she was actually born in Chmielnik, a little more than 100 miles south of the Polish capital. Intriguingly, the document describes the family not as having originated from Chmielnik, but as being current residents of that town. The birth record of Esther’s older sister, two years earlier, also described the family as being residents of Chmielnik. The most likely scenario I could come up with—and not a particularly good one—was that Esther was born there several years earlier and traveled on several occasions with her parents to Warsaw. I supposed that they had chosen to register her birth there, lying about her year of birth for some reason.
Another Candidate Emerges
After doing more extensive research, I was able to locate only one other Esther Mala in all of Poland who might conceivably have been my client’s grandmother. This Esther Mala was born in 1899—meaning that she was exactly the right age to have had children in 1922 and 1930. Not only that, but she was also from Chmielnik—the exact same town where the Mala family of Warsaw was from. This seemed like more than a coincidence.
An important caveat: not all records have survived, and not all surviving records are searchable. There may well have been other Esther Mala’s, born around the same time, whose records no longer exist. It is conceivable that the birth record for my client’s true grandmother vanished without a trace.
The two Esther Mala’s I had found were almost certainly related to one another—both coming from the same town and having the same last name. Moreover, Jews often name children after deceased ancestors or other relatives. Although less common today, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was fairly usual to have cousins with identical names, each named after the same ancestor.
It seems like the 1899 Esther Mala is the right one. It is likely that my client’s grandmother was actually born in Chmielnik rather than Warsaw as she had supposed. At some point her grandmother’s family moved from there to Warsaw, where their relatives were also living. Her family may have followed them, or it may have been the other way around.
In the near future, I will be expanding my search to see if any direct proof of my theory can be identified. In the absence of any, what I have found seems to be at least reasonably compelling evidence.
Connections to Another Field
While creative use of genealogical databases and records can offer corroborating evidence, evidence is not the same as solid, documented proof. Even when you can find convincing evidence suggesting that your family may have lived somewhere other than where you thought or that another family may be related to you, one can never be absolutely certain in the absence of written documentation.
Ultimately, genealogy is in many ways like geology—and in more ways than their spelling! In both fields, sometimes there is direct proof but frequently there is not. Many of the people we are researching have been dead for 100 or even 200 years. There is nobody alive today who we can ask in the absence of concrete verification.
This situation is a lot like how scientists form conclusions about the earth. There is nobody who was alive four billion years ago to observe how it was formed or how certain geological formations came into existence. Just like geologists study all observable evidence – patterns of rock striations, fault lines, crystalline structures—and come up with the best explanation that most closely matches the available observations, so must we infer the most likely scenario that best explains the evidence we have collected. And just like in the sciences, we remain open to the possibility that we might discovery new evidence or information that could lead us to reexamine the conclusions we have drawn.