How I got hooked on genealogy . . . while attempting to solve a family mystery

How I got hooked on genealogy while attempting to solve a family mystery

The following narrative of researching my grandfather Harry SHANKMAN, and other family members, is intended to illustrate the variety of materials and sources available for documenting a family history. It also illustrates how names, dates and other information varies by document and time, and must not be totally relied upon when searching for and vetting other documents.

If you are contemplating starting your own genealogy journey to learn your family history I hope my experiences will be helpful and encouraging.

This is the story of my genealogy journey of exploration and the six years it took discovering a family mystery. Here is how the journey began: Before the advent of computers my older brother had compiled a family tree by interviewing many older relatives . . . but the tree was on paper and a relative who borrowed it somehow lost it. By the time it was lost the most of the older relatives had passed away, along with their memories of relative’s names and stories of the old country. My brother never continued with genealogy after losing his years of research.

My mother and aunt told me that the family oral history was that their father lived with a family in New York city when he came to America as a teenager and he took their name because they treated him so kindly. He left New York shortly after arriving from Ellis Island and settled in Chicago with his mother and stepfather. All my mother and aunt knew of their father’s ‘real’ surname was the phonic CRASNITSKY and he came from Kiev, Russia and that his father died when he was a child.

After retiring I decided to pursue our family genealogy and especially the mystery question.   My main genealogy goal was finding the original surname of my maternal grandfather and any related family history.  What I knew about him at the time was that he was a WWI veteran who died from the effects of being gassed during a battle; I was five years old when he died. I also knew that he owned a bicycle store across the street from Chicago’s Lane Technical High School. He was in Veteran Administration hospitals in California while I lived in Chicago and I have no memory of ever meeting him.

I started my genealogy research in 1994 and eventually discovered my grandfather’s ‘real’ surname in 2000. During this time I became the family genealogist and I became hooked on genealogy as a hobby which I continue finding a never-ending quest as every new discovery leads to more questions.  Throughout my genealogy journey I educated myself in the art and science of genealogy while researching my family history.

My genealogy journey of discovery began with searching for and finding the 1920 U.S. census form which was available on microfilm and which I had requested from a FHC library in Eugene, Oregon. In 1994 the use of SOUNDEX for census and naturalization record searching was a necessity.  SOUNDEX is a complex system designed for allowing phonic surname searching.   LINK to a NARA discussion of the  SOUNDEX system .   Harry SHANKMAN’S SOUNDEX code was S525. Verifying the 1920 census form entries was the start of a steep learning curve beginning my research and journey looking for my grandfather’s ‘real’ surname.

The 1920 census listed my grandfather Harry SHANKMAN as age 26 (estimated date of birth being 1894), immigrating in 1912, naturalized in 1917, and unable to speak English.


My research ultimately revealed that Hershel KRASNITZKY had arrived by himself at Ellis Island in 1910 age 16, was naturalized in 1920, and was born May 5, 1893 . . . but 1894 on some documents, and he spoke good English.  I also was able to discover his WWI military service history.

When I asked my mother why my grandfather could not speak English but served in the Army and was a WWI veteran she told me he had a heavy Russian accent but spoke good English.


Harry SHANKMAN, born Herschel KRASNITZKY in Rzeshtchieve (Rzhyshchiv 49°57′40′′N 31°02′37′′E, near Kiev, Russia on May 5th, 1893, was the son of Lazar KRASNITZKY and Chani (Bessie) KAPLAN.

Harry’s father, Lazar, died before he emigrated from Russia. Harry’s mother remarried in Russia and had four children with her second husband, Max SKOLNICK, before immigrating to America. Harry’s stepfather Max had arrived in America in 1907 and lived in Chicago; Harry arrived in 1910; and Harry’s mother and her four children, Harry’s half-siblings, arrived in 1911.

In this c1893 photo taken in Russia, Harry’s parents Lazar and Bessie are on the right. Photo interpretation indicates that Bessie’s hands folded over her stomach was indicative of pregnancy; best guess is that she was carrying Harry. My guess is that the older woman on the left is Harry’s grandmother, and the man behind her Harry’s brother. I have not been able to discover their names.





Herschel (Harry Shankman) arrived at Ellis Island in 1910 at age 16. Harry’s ship manifest lists his occupation as shoemaker. He was detained for being a likely public charge (LPC), but was granted entry. It is assumed that he was able to verify he would be living with his stepfather and would not be dependent on government assistance. Family oral history is that Harry lived with a family in New York City named SHANKMAN before he came to Chicago to join his mother’s family. Herschel took the name Harry SHANKMAN and settled in Chicago living with his mother and his stepfather Max SKOLNICK. My aunt Millicent recalled visiting the SHANKMAN family in New York when she was young but could not remember any names, addresses, or other details in the intervening 50 years.  I certainly wish that school genealogy programs existed when I was a child.

                                           Harry’s mother, Bessie SKOLNICK nee KRASNITZKY died in 1929.

Bessie Kaplan on swingSkolnick_Bessie1929







Bessie SKOLNICK’S death certificate with cause of death: Cancer.



Bessie’s sister, Harry’s aunt, Chani KAPLAN, died 1926. Tombstone translation resources are available.  Chani KAPLAN address at death: 1522 S. Kildare, Chicago. NOTE: This is Harry SHANKMAN’s 1920 Census address; Chani not listed and assumed to have moved in some time after the census and before her death.  Chani’s husband is listed in the cemetery records as Louis Wolf KAPLAN. Source: Illinois, Deaths and Stillbirths Index; FHL Film Number: 1877896.

Buried Silverman & Weiss Cemetery: BMA Lot 204, grave 6. GATE #41.
BMA: B’nai Mosche Alexandrovsky

Kaplan, Chani - STONE 1926

The Ellis Island Data Base website was one source for my grandfather’s arrival passenger manifest information. My grandfather arrived on the ship named Russia which left Libau, Russia (Port on the Baltic Sea) on July 19th and arrived in New York, Ellis Island, on August 1, 1910.

Close inspection of his actual ship manifest reveals that his given name was Herschel, NOT Gerschko as is shown below on the version of the actual ship manifest.  However, knowing the ship name and date of arrival and manifest page it was possible to find the actual ship manifest.



Harry made his way from his home in Kiev, Russia (now Ukraine) to the Baltic port of Libau.


The ship he traveled to America, was the M/V Russia . . .


was built by Barclay, Curle & Co.Ltd, Glasgow in 1908 for the Russian American line. She was a 8,596 gross ton vessel, length 475ft x beam 57.7ft, two funnels, four masts, twin screw and a speed of 15 knots. Accommodation for 40-1st, 56-2nd and 1,626-3rd class passengers. Harry SHANKMAN was one of the these 3rd class passengers. The ship was sold to Japan in 1924 and renamed “Fuso Maru” and rebuilt with two masts. In 1938 her name was respelt as “Huso Maru” and on 31/7/1944 she was torpedoed and sunk off Luzon, Philippines by the US submarine “Steelhead”.

 Immigrant ship manifests are one or two pages, depending on the year, and are approximately two feet wide. In some cases only an index card of the manifest data exists.  The images can be difficult to read and interpret.  Few actual paper manifests exist; most were microfilmed and destroyed.

Harry’s passenger manifest part 1 of 2.  Select the image to view larger version.

Harry’s passenger manifest part 2 of 2.  Select the image to view larger version.


Below is an extract of Harry’s ship passenger manifest of his 13 day voyage showing his entry line #24. The manifest below reads: KRASNITZKY Herschel – age 16 – born Russia – Hebrew – Relative in Europe: Kiev – Destination: Chicago, Illinois. – he was Enroute to his uncle Max Skolnic. – and he was born in Reshiza, Russia.

I’ve expanded the pertinent sections of the above manifest entry so you may see the difficulties in interpreting written ship manifests and other documents you will discover.Manifest-Krasnitzky

 The above manifest entry reads Krasnitzky, Herschel (as I see it), age 16. The translator of this manifest recorded his name as Gerschko but if you look closely the correct interpretation is Herschel.


The above manifest entry is his place of birth: Rzeshtchieve, Kiev; and his destination: ILL, Chicago.


The above manifest entry is to whom he was en-route: His uncle Max Skolnic, 469 Wabash Ave, Chicago, ILL.

Herschel (Harry) was retained on Ellis Island as a LPC (Likely Public Charge) and was subject to deportation until he convinced officials otherwise. The LPC documents were added to the manifests by Ellis Island immigration inspectors after the ship arrived and the passengers were processed. Note the spelling of his typed name; it was easier reading than the written manifest page that the ship deposited with Ellis Island. The person transcribing passenger names into electronic databases most likely used these typed entries instead of the written entry where possible.  Note the names that were corrected.


Harry SHANKMAN was approved as a US citizen on April 7, 1920 as indicated by his Naturalization Petition and he married my grandmother Rosabel GOLDEN ten days later, on April 18, 1920, althought his Naturalization Certificate has the effective date as May 14th, 1920.

Marriage license information may be available.  This is from the clerk of Cook County, Chicago, online website that includes marriages; the listing shows Harry’s marriage license application:


Harry’s mother-in-law, his wife Rosabel SHANKMAN’s mother, was Sophie GARFINKEL who was married to Charles GOLDENBERG in Philadelphia in 1893. Charles GOLDENBERG maintained his surname throughout his life, while his children took the name GOLDEN.

This is a portion of her marriage license showing she was born in Russia. The 1920 census listed her as born in Pennsylvania. Family oral history, from my mother’s records, indicated that she was born in Philadelphia in c1877.  According to her marriage license she was born in Russia in c1874.



Sophia’s father had to approve the marriage and thus his American name, Henry, was discovered.


Sophia’s parents Henry & Millicent took trips to Europe.  
I have not been able to trace them past this entry showing they had tickets for a return trip to America in 1908.  While other GARFINKEL relatives are buried in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area I have found no burial records for Henry or Millicent. UNTIL . . . .

June 29, 2016: I’ve discovered Sophie GARFINKEL’s parents names and graves! I started searching for this information in 1993 after I retired.  My original goal was finding Harry SHANKMAN’s original name (Hershal KRASNITZSKY).  Then I added the goal of finding Vera and Millicent SHANKMAN’s mother, Rosabel GOLDEN’s, grand parents . . . . and found them: Elijah GARFINKELand his wife Mollie nee RUBINSTEIN.  Elijah and Mollie are my GG Grandparents.   It’s been a long convoluted journey and I couldn’t have ‘connected the dots’ without the help of our cousin Leslie (4C1R) who’s great grandmother Taube ’Toby’ FREEZMAN (who married Moishe Shimon GARFINKEL (Moses Simon) and was from Philadelphia.  Leslie and I have been corresponding since 2005 trying to resolve our family connection.  We have succeeded and have documented our GARFINKEL ancestors to 1790 . . . . with more discoveries possible as archives are made available.  We know our 1790 GARFINKEL’s that settled in Lyublin were part of a colonist movement that began in the Kiev area about 1830.

UPDATE November 2017:  Ely A. GARFINKEL is Ikhel Avrum, as listed in the 1854 Bessarabia Revision (Census) List.  He was living in the town of Lyubin,  as Simon’s son Yechiel = Ikhel for sure.  So we have finally confirmed for sure how we are related.  Moses Shimon was Eli’s first cousin since their fathers (Geinikh and Simon were brothers living in the same household in Lyublin  (Town),  county of Soroki (Uyzed) in the Province of Bessarabia (Today’s Moldova and the city is now called Nimereuca), in the Russian Empire (Pale of Settlement).

UPDATE July 2018: Leslie and I have discovered our GURFINKEL’s to the 1835 Revision List (Bessarabia Census) which documents this branch to 1750.


My Grandfather Harry’s step-father Max SKOLNICK (also spelled SKOLNIK in records) had a child named Harry, they were called Big Harry (SHANKMAN) and Little Harry (SKOLNICK). Harry worked in the shoe industry; Max SKOLNICK was a shoemaker. The assumption is that Harry learned the shoe trade while in Russia, from his stepfather Max who arrived in America in 1907.  Doing the math it becomes probable that Harry’s father died sometime between 1894, when he was born, and 1900 because Harry’s oldest half-sister was born in 1900.

Harry’s mother-in-law Sophia GOLDENBERG divorced my great-grandfather Charles GOLDENBERG in 1915. The divorce papers, located in the Superior Court of Cook County, revealed what would be a good soap opera melodrama. Here is a portion of the decree that is directly genealogy related as it lists their marriage information with children’s names and ages.


In 1917 Harry was drafted and served overseas during World War I.


The certificate below, dated 1929, certified that Harry was a member of Company “L” in a veteran’s fraternal organization that held gatherings annually.  My mother remembered attending picnics that were sponsored by the organization.  Col. Abel, the regimental commander, attended these events and wrote a history of the 132nd Infantry’s WWI involvement.



Harry’s WWI Draft Registration shows him born Kiev, Russia May 5th, 1894 and working as a shoe examiner at Sears & Roebuck.


When Harry Shankman first arrived in France in May 1918 the Division trained with the British, then rotated trench duty. A myriad of details concerning WWI is contained in a variety of military documents and unit histories that are available in libraries, online, and at the NARA military archive in College Park, MD.

From August 8 – 13th he participated in the Somme Offensive Operation. During this time, the 3rd battalion of the 132nd Infantry Regiment, which included Harry’s Company “L,” fought at the battle of Albert. During much of this time his company also rotated trench duty on the front lines.

His 3rd battalion took part in the Meuse-Argonne Operations and took part in the attack on Bois De Fays. Hary’s battalion was exposed to intense artillery and machine gun fire and gas. The advancing lines were subject to artillery fire and gas causing the unit to suffered many casualties. Hand-to-hand fighting occurred frequently and machine gun nests were numerous and strongly placed. Every foot of the advance was contested. The fighting was so fierce that the troops could not be provided with proper rations.

Harry Shankman’s Company “L” had every officer killed or wounded. Company “L” was commanded by the Company First Sergeant until the objective had been reached. Harry might have been gassed during this battle; he died in 1949 from the after effects of being gassed. The battalion also captured 400 Germans. After the battle of Bois de Fays the 3rd battalion attacked the enemy in Buttneville and drove them to the north edge of town. Later, they received word of the armistice (Signed at the 11th hour, of the 11the day, of the 11th month of the year). During this last day of the war Company “L” suffered 1 killed and 6 wounded. LINK: Read more details about Harry’s World War I war service with the 33rd “Prairie” Division.

132nd Inf Welfare Assoc plaque




Military veterans have been given Naturalization preference since 1862. Harry used an updated May 9, 1918 Act of Congress to apply for his citizenship without having to wait 5 years.

Extract from NARA document discussing veteran’s naturalization laws:

An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged Army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization . . . . an act of May 9, 1918, that allowed aliens serving in the U.S. armed forces during “the present war” to file a petition for naturalization without making a declaration of intent or proving 5 years’ residence.

Harry’s Naturalization Certificate yields little genealogy information. Note the petition number and court where his Naturalization Petition was filed, and his date of Naturalization May 14, 1920.  However, the petition number and court name allow discovery of  the Naturalization Petition which contains genealogy data.



FAMILY MYSTERY SOLVED!  The extract below is Harry SHANKMAN’S Naturalization form revealing his original surname which in this Naturalization Petition document is spelled Harshel CRASNITZSKY and on his ship manifest is spelled Krasnitzsky. And note that since his ‘real name’ is added after the entry of Harry SHANKMAN it seems obvious that the person reviewing his application must have asked if Harry was known by any other name which led to his naturalization approval, and also to making official his name change from Harshel CRASNIKZKY to Harry SHANKMAN.


This page of his Naturalization Petition shows that Harry’s naturalization was based on Hershel CRASNITZSKY being naturalized . . . who was also known as Harry SHANKMAN.



On April 7, 1920 Harry was certified as eligible to become and American citizen.  On April 18, 1920 he married my grandmother Rosabel.  She died 1926 after giving birth to my aunt.



Harry’s WWI draft registration card listed his employment as a shoe inspector at Sears Roebuck & Co. The 1920 Census listed his occupation as a store shoe clerk. The 1923 Chicago City Directory lists him as a shoe cutter.

Polk’s 1923 Chicago City Directory

chicago city directory cover 1923









chgo 1923 directory shankman

The Chicago City Directory (1923) entry, right, shows Harry as a shoe cutter, living at 3332 Grenshaw. Address information is often useful for census searches and validating other documents.

Harry later opened “Harry’s Bicycle & Tire Shop” on North Western Avenue in Chicago – across from Lane Technical High School. The 1930 Chicago City Directory entry, shown below, lists Harry’s Tire Shop.

The 1930 Chicago City Directory has his store listed:

1930 chgo dir_harry tires hop



Harry in front of his tire store c1929 with my aunt Millicent who was named after her great-grandmother Millicent GARFINKEL.

Harry’s (1942) WWII draft registration shown below is updated listing him as living in Los Angeles. My assumption is that Harry was required to keep the draft board advised of his current address. Note his place of work is still Harry’s Tire Shop, 3435 N. Western Ave, Chicago, and his Chicago address was 3049 N. Claremont.  Harry registered in 1942 for the 4th of six WWII draft registrations that was called the ‘Old Man’s Draft’ because of the men’s ages.  They did not register to serve in the military but as an effort to determine an inventory of wartime manpower.

wwII draft harrys hankman



Harry Shankman was active in veteran organizations after WWI
Photo c1948 based on the California shoulder patch and 1942 WWII draft registration and 1948 date of California American Legion Post Application.


This is Harry’s 1948 American Legion membership card. It notes his WWI service dates.  Harry was also a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Jewish War Veterans. Over the years he served as Commander of his local chapters.  I obtained this application by contacting the American Legion.



During WWII Harry provided photos to the Naval Intelligence Service that he had taken during his WWI service. They were returned to him in 1944.

Army Intel-1944 letter


My grandfather Harry died in 1949 at the age of 55. My mother received a Western Union telegram. I attempted, unsuccessfully, obtaining his medical records from the Veterans Administration Hospital.



The California Death Index, available via has his correct birth date as confirmed by funeral home family entered record. It’s the wrong father’s surname, but does have his social security number so a Social Security Form-5, used to register and listing place of birth and parents names, could be requested.



On Harry’s grave stone, below, Note the incorrect date of birth listed: 1883 instead of 1894. And his photo was vandalized probably for the metal value. The grave stone image is from


Family photos were able to document the SHANKMAN family although many were ruined or lost over the years. My personal experience with having lost all my genealogy materials and research collected when Hurricane Katrina destroyed my house while I was away and had no opportunity to rescue them before 28 plus feet of water covered our one story home. All I had was my laptop containing some records and photos. Family members and friends were able to provide their copies of some materials, but most were lost.

It should be obvious that I would conclude with the admonition to back-up your genealogy data. And you must keep in mind that technology changes. I have some old files that cannot be easily read due to file and software changes.  Many new word processors will not open older files created by earlier versions, and some file formats cannot be opened or images viewed. You don’t need a scanner to copy photographs as most cameras, including smart phones, have adequate resolution for preserving documents and photos. Having a photo of an artifact is better than having no record if they are destroyed by fire, flood or other calamity.


Harry’s second wife Ruth nee BRISKIN, my mother Vera, Harry, my aunt Millicent, (not identified). c1931

Harry divorced Ruth in 1945.



Harry’s tire store (water damaged photo).

The end result of my quest to discover my grandfather’s ‘real’ surname was a success, and I also discovered a treasure trove of family history along the way. And I created a family history website which is used by many young relatives as they discover their family history. Schools today teach an introduction to genealogy and my website is used by them to learn about their ancestors’ emigration from the old country seeking a new life and freedom in America.

While researching my grandfather’s original surname, and researching other family members, I self-taught myself a great deal of genealogy through readings (E.g. research library); using the Internet (E.g. Google, JewishGen, Rootsweb, Yad Vashem,,, National Archives (NARA),, and many more.); visits to NARA facilities (National Archives and Records Administration) where personal visits are sometimes required to view records that cannot be put on inter-NARA-loan (Chicago, Washington D.C, Birmingham AL, College Park MD, Kansas City, KS); visiting the LDS archives at Salt Lake City; visiting local historical societies; using local FHC libraries (visits and requesting mircofilm); various state, city, county vital records; the courts (federal, state and local); researching naturalization, divorce, ship manifests, birth, death, marriage, military, and other records.  I learned to use a variety microfiche readers and print the results.   Contacts with the Library of Congress genealogy staff, National Archives Genealogy Resources, newspaper morgues, city directories, Cemeteries E.g. Waldheim Cemetery Chicago, libraries (E.g Newberry Chicago), relatives, friends and Internet contacted volunteers often added important information.  Family memorabilia added to the family history.  Some documents and websites are in foreign languages and must be translated.  There are a variety of options for obtaining translations including online (E.g. JewishGen’s ViewMate program and Google Translate to translate documents, webpages, or even entire websites).  And there are many mapping websites, like Mapquest.  Many genealogy software programs are available to record and preserve information.  I used a variety of genealogy software over the years and found all had pro’s and con’s associated with their use depending on ones objectives.

A wealth of information is available revealing the history of the Pale of Settlement where my Russian ancestor’s shtetl’s (villages) were located, and how they migrated from the Middle East centuries ago. Memorial websites preserve their memories, like JewishGen’s KehilaLinks ( and other websites located on the Internet. Yizkor books exist commemorating the memory and history of these villages; many available online; many translated into English: or at libraries including some online access. You can view an photo of the Rzhyschiv area where my Harry’s family lived:  or a map of the area using MapQuest and there are other mapping programs providing geography perspectives.