eja Genealoogia

How did I find my relatives

(a practical example)

the ship I remember my father mentioning that one of his relatives (probably an uncle, but he was not sure) left Estonia at a young age for America.

As usual, I started to be interested in my roots only when there was no one more to ask for details…

I did not know this uncle's first name. I had no idea of what year he may have come to America, but still decided to give it a try. Another complication was the surname. One could spell it in many different ways: Rybak, Ryback, Ribak and so on. Apart from that it was not uncommon to change the surname after arriving in a new country. It could easily be that Rybak was transformed to the “better sounding” Fisher…

The first simple search on the Internet produced many matches, but nothing significant. OK, it could be that I found some younger relatives, but how do I know that they actually are my relatives? There was nothing connecting the name to Estonia. And another very significant point: there are many people of Polish and Russian origin with the name of Rybak. I have to look for a Jewish person.

From the start I have to mention the “bible” of the Jewish Genealogy at http://www.jewishgen.org. It contains alot of useful information, but mainly about the XIX century and the period related to the holocaust. I will give an example of what I found there later. However, in this particular search, I needed data from 1920s or 1930s.

In those days the main root of going from Europe to USA was by sea. So I started to look for the sea passenger lists and found the Ellis Island site. This site can be searched for passengers who arrived at Ellis Island (New York) - http://www.ellisisland.org/search/passSearch.asp?. And what a surprise – searching for Rybak of Estonian origin produced just one result:

the ship

To see the passenger record and ship manifest you need to register on the site (it is free).

Later I found a great site of Steve Morse that allows for a “one-step” search of various sources (yes, it is the same famous Steve Morse, the designer of the 8086 processor, not to be confused with a guitarist…) - http://stevemorse.org.

And here it is:

Ship record

As there were no other Rybaks in Estonia at that time (at least as far as I know), it was safe to assume that I found what I was looking for. So now I knew the name – Benjamin, the year of birth – 1906, and that he arrived in New York in 1924 on board of the "Nieuw Amsterdam." He spells his name as Ryback. Already this gives much information. This is the extract from the original ship manifest (3 parts):




From this record I know Benjamin's address in Tallinn and that he came to his uncle Dave Sellin who lived in Bronx. Not bad!

The address proved that we are talking about the family (I knew that part of the family lived at this address) and it also clearly stated the relationship. He is the son of my grandfather’s brother. He was the oldest. After him was his brother David Rybak (I only heard about his existence) and a sister - the piano teacher Dora Rybak, whom I remember very well. Later I discovered that she was actually a half-sister from father’s second marriage.

Great! It was 2005 and Benjamin was born in 1906, so I could hardly expect to find him alive. But what about his family? Internet search did not produce anything. Then I decided to use a fee based site, for example http://www.ancestry.com. This site has many USA records (birth, death, immigration etc). I bought a one month subscription (for around 30$) and settled for a thorough search. Regretfully there was just one relevant document – a 1930 US census record:



Thus I knew now that Benjamin came in 1924 to the home of his uncle in Bronx, NY (probably a brother of Benjamin’s mother whose maiden name I did not know), but in 1930 was working as a waiter in a hotel in Detroit, Michigan. So far, so good, but I have no records indicating his marriage or death. How to find out whether there is a family somewhere? The only clue was his uncle. Maybe I will have more luck with his records?

After some search in the same database I found 2 records about David Sellin: one from the 1930 census and another from the 1918 military registration card. In 1930 David Sellin also lived in Detroit (good!), and worked as a polisher in the piano factory. I also found the names of his immediate family. But all this was more than 70 years ago. I started to become frustrated when suddenly I discovered a message in one of the numerous genealogical forums from someone named Alexis who was looking for her mothers relative, also named Sellin, with Estonian origins. Wow!!!

I wrote to the address indicated in the forum and nervously waited for the reply. Instead, I got the usual message that there is no such person on that address… End of the world! But now at least I was looking for a person that lives somewhere in USA these days, and not 70 years ago… I will omit here all my attempts to find Alexis. I will just say that I got polite replies from an university professor, from a cinema producer (all by the same name), but no one had an Alexis in his family. I wrote 5 postcards to the various addresses I found from the phonebooks and, finally, got a reply. Alexis was found! She introduced me to her uncle and we had a nice exchange of messages regarding the Sellin family. But, no one in their families knew anything about Benjamin Ryback. This seemed to be a real dead end…

But Fortuna has her nice sides as well sometimes. I already forgot about my attempts to find traces of Benjamin. In summer of 2006 I was walking in the Jewish cemetery in Tallinn (Rahumäe). I passed the grave I have seen many times before – that of David Rybak, half-brother of Dora. Then something struck me and I stopped. The old grave had fresh flowers! But I knew of no children of David. Were there some? To make the long story short, I found David’s grandson Klaus and finally met with him. We looked into the old pictures he brought with him and some were obviously not made in Soviet Estonia. You know the difference. I assumed that it might be Benjamin and his family in USA. And then Klaus remembered that mother told him that they received some packs from her uncle in USA, some nice dress. That’s it! Benjamin Finally I saw the pictures of Benjamin and his family. So he was happily married and, yes, he had a son.

I forgot to mention that I also placed a message looking for Benjamin Ryback in one of the genealogy forums.

And about the same time I was looking at the pictures, I received a message asking whether I am still interested in the information about Benjamin Ryback. Mary Ann, who wrote the message, told me that her mother had a sister who was married to Benjamin Ryback who came from Estonia (!) Whether I am interested??? I wrote her back in no time and since then we exchange messages with her, Benjamin’s son Eddy and his grandson David… David Rybak, David Sellin and now a young David Ryback… the history never ends.

PS I promised to tell you about my findings on the JewishGen site. Here is just one example. From my grandfather's birth record I knew that the family was from Raguva (Rogovo) in Lithuania (then Russia of course). How do I know? At those times everyone was registered with the indication of where the family comes from (where it was registered). My grandfather had "Роговский мещанин" (the petty bourgeois from Rogovo). Searching the site for Rybak and Raguva I found the following entries. These are my ancestors from early 1800's...



PPS. And here they are! Visiting Tallinn in 2008 -
Eddy, David and Tracy Ryback.

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