My grandfather Alex Kowal was born in Russia on March 15, 1892, and died on Staten Island in October 1979. He was probably born in what is now Ukraine although I am still working to identify the precise village or town.
Interestingly, the first time I ever heard that Alex was Ukrainian was at his funeral. I always thought my father’s side of the family was Polish. My grandmother Katarzyna Bosakowska was definitely Polish and we were all raised as Roman Catholics. But at the funeral, a woman who lived next door to my father growing up took me aside and told me, “You are not just Polish. You are also Ukrainian. You should know that your grandfather was Ukrainian.”
Alex lived until I was 19 years old so I have a vivid recollection of him. He was sweet tempered but a man of few words. Once, when I was in the seventh grade, I interviewed Alex for a class project on ancestry. (He would have been about 81 at the time and it was difficult to understand some of the things he told me.) I no longer have a copy of my actual report, unfortunately, but I remember the gist of our conversation.
He said he had a wonderful mother named Maria and that his father (I understood him to say “William”) was an abusive alcoholic. He also mentioned a grandfather named Philemon who lived to be 103. He left Russia some time after 1908 after an older brother (I didn’t get a name) was taken away and forced to serve in the Russian Navy. Alex managed to hide and, not long after that, left home to start a new life somewhere else. At the age of 15, he managed to journey to Rotterdam where he caught a boat to Canada. After staying a few years there (working as a lumberjack I think he said), he made his way to New York. There he met his future wife, Katarzyna Bosakowska.
I don’t know how accurate this account is. It would be good to find some documentation that would shed light on any of this story. I have not found any ship manifest or other documentation proving when he came to America. According to the 1920 census, Alex came to the United States in 1912. The 1930 census has him immigrating in 1913.
I was able to track down my grandparents’ marriage certificate and this provides some really important clues to Alex’s past. Unfortunately, the handwriting is hard to decipher.
The marriage certificate lists Alex’s birthplace as something like Chanuze or Chamize, Russia. It’s very hard to make out. It lists his father’s name as Felemon – must be the Philemon my grandfather was referring to but it’s his father, not his grandfather. His mother’s maiden name is listed as Wasylia Gyril. Again, this is hard to read and it’s possible the city clerk garbled the spelling. My partner Vladimir (who is Russian) tells me that Wasylia does not sound like a woman’s first name. Perhaps it was the patronymic middle name. Was her name Maria Wasylevna Gyril?
But the certificate provides one more valuable clue: it indicates that Alex and Katarzyna were married at St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on East 6th Street in Manhattan. So my next stop will be to try to find the church’s own records of the marriage. I’m hoping that a Ukrainian speaking priest will have done a better job getting the names down.
The marriage certificate also provides a window into Alex’s life on the Lower East Side. Alex lived at 182 Madison Street, one block north of the Manhattan Bridge. (That building is no longer there. It was torn down to build one of those large postwar housing projects down by the East River.) According to my father’s birth certificate, the newly married couple moved to 13 Essex Street where my father was born ten months later.
By 1920, Alex was living with his wife and two children (my father Anton and my aunt Mary) in the Charleston section of Staten Island. They moved to the remotest part of the Island which was basically rural. Alex said they wanted to get away from the Eastern European enclave of the Lower East Side because they wanted their children to grow up American.
According to the 1920 census, Alex worked as a laborer in a factory (it would be interesting to find out which). Their home was rented. By the 1930 census, the family expanded to six children (adding my aunts Nellie, Helen and Stella and my uncle Joseph) and they now owned the family home on Storer Avenue. Alex’s occupation was still listed as a factory worker but he is listed as unemployed – not surprising since it was the first year of the Great Depression. He was also still an alien.
I’ll have more on Alex in future posts. In the meantime, I’ll be following those clues to Alex’s birthplace and the identity of Alex’s parents – my great grandparents.