The curious case of Helen Z. (or S.)

I never met my great-grandmother Helen. She died three years before I was born and I’ve never seen a photo of her (2015 update – I have now!). By most accounts, she was a polarizing figure, unhappy in life. My mother remembers her father telling her never to dye her hair red because his mother did and it looked terrible. She remembers him saying he could never have people over because she was unpredictable and hostile. My great-grandfather Fred’s goddaughter confirmed that to me as well, said they only saw Fred at their home, that she hated visitors. They were also deeply disappointed in my grandfather’s desire to leave the priesthood.

All of that has made my mother a bit ambivalent whether I find anything about Helen but not me. Sometimes I think searching for the records can solve some of the mystery, perhaps explain what happened. I don’t know if the records will make anything more clear but I do know there are NO RECORDS of her before birth. Honestly we don’t even know her maiden last name for sure. But there have to be some family in the USA, there have to be some records somewhere of her parents. I hope someone is searching for her some day and stumbles into this.

So let’s talk about what do know – or at least think – we know. All the images are clickable to make bigger.

First name: Helen/Elena/Helena Stella.

Last name: has been listed as Zuravich, Zuravici, Zurawiec (update: daughter’s BC says Zuranei) and even Shore and Shorovich in her obit. (update: AR2 forms say Shorovitz) Technically there is no V in the Polish alphabet so it would originally the Zurawiec spelling. Another spelling I saw on some other non-family ones is Czerwiec. (Perhaps both are right and when they naturalized they changed the last name – my great-granddad for example kept his italian full name Alfredo Falconieri through Ellis Island but when he filed years later to be a US citizen, he changed it by choice to Fred Falconer. We’ve seen it written Faulkner, Falcone).

Birth: from census records, she says 1898. From death stuff, 29 May 1898. (update: AR forms say May 1895) Some stuff says Warsaw, some says Wainwo di Lublin which we think is “Wieniawa Lublin” a town that no longer is a town and has folded back in Lublin. Lublin and Warsaw are not very close. I suspect Lublin is correct.

Parents: From the Diocese of Pittsburgh I was able to find some records that list her parents as Wojciech and Franciszka. Wojciech often became George or Albert in the US and Franciszka would have been Frances or Francesca. There are not records for them, anywhere I can find, outside of those Pitt ones. ZERO. (Update: AR2 form in 1941 says 0 parents were living in the US )

US Arrival: Census data says 1903 but new 1920 census says 1908 now. (update: AR2 forms now say April 1909)

Education: 3rd grade. Ouch.

Religion: My mom remembers my granddad saying Helen was jewish. She’s told me that seriously and once that he said it jokingly. But she did marry a Catholic in the church and raise her kids Catholinc.

Marriage: Marriage to Alfredo Stanislao Falconer, April 29th, 1913 Age: 14, a month before she turned 15. Supposedly at Holy Family Parish Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, USA. Witnesses were Angelo Rych and Valentine Wisiniski (spelling uncertain). The priest for the marriage and baptism was Fr. A. Smetoz. (Source: Catholic Church records). Boy that seems young. In census stuff she says she is 16 when they get married.

There was a sizable Polish population that ended up in Tyler PA where my Italian great-granddad first went. Supposedly those were the only two ethnic groups there. Did they meet there?

Pittsburgh: They settled in Pittsburgh and owned a nice home there eventually. They rented at 199 Laurel Ave and 1905 Juinata Ave. Then they bought a home. The house was listed in her name on town plot maps I found. 1923 Metropolitan Avenue.

Children’s records:

Death: They must have sold the house after the kids left because they were living in a different location when she passed away in 1967. My granddad went back for the funeral but was told he was only allowed to come in through the backdoor because of the “shame” he brought on the family.

And that’s all I have so far. Someone or somewhere out there has more, I just have to keep digging.


-Filed for search request on an Alien Registration Form at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It’s a two step process, you have to file for the search first and then get results. FOLLOWUP, she does have an AR2 form filed in 1940 but not a A file. So 01/20/14 I filed for a copy of the AR2 file. I also filed for a search on her husband (my great-granddad) eventho I have his naturalization papers.

-In a twitter chat with Ancestry, they suggested Walentovia Wisniewski might be a sibling and to check those records.

01/22/14 Update on Walentovia/Valentine. My contact at the Diocese of Pittsburgh was really helpful but as I expected, we’d need more info for them to do anything. He did suggest we try to get a civil record from Alleghany County. I filed for it but I don’t have a lot of hope because Alleghany never had my great-grandparents marriage docs either. There is a town/area somewhere that does but I just don’t know. You can get a license anywhere in PA for getting married. “If the search is successful, you should receive the records in the mail in approximately ten (10) days.” My contact there also suggested checking census records for Wisniewski, which I did lightly before but will try again

02/07/14 Update on the AR2 Alien Registration forms. Not a ton of info – no photo. But the last name listed is Shorovitz which is super rare. I think that’s a misspelling again – there is no V in Polish anyway. SIGH. The birthdate is three years earlier which would make her closer to 18 at marriage and not 15. 5-4, Brown hair, green eyes. DOB the same but a new arrival date in the US of April 1909 but no ship. She lists NO parents as living in the US. Did they go back to Poland? Did they die? This was 1941 so she was 43ish. Either is possible. (A kind poster in the forum suggested a third option – that she came alone and they never immigrated at all. Very valid, so there are really three scenarios.

Nothing matching shows up in or anywhere else as Shorovitz or Shorowitz. A few Shorovitch who were in Pittsburgh but they were Serbian or Czech.

I continue to be baffled. Last thing left is her daughter Stella’s birth certificate.

02/11/14 Update on Stella’s birth certificate – it was a vague form with yet another spelling, Zuranei. Back to the drawing board as that was the last document I was waiting on.

03/01/14 Update on property records – I’ve searched the plat maps and can’t find anyone with similar names on any of the streets around them. In fact there is a real lack of ethnic names in general.

Since their home no longer stands, I couldn’t find the records online thru the Dept of Real Estate for the county. It’s now part of a much bigger lot that is industrial warehouses. I contacted a guy there and he helped me figure it out. I found out the owner and he helped me access the file. I sent him the money for the documents but he had to pull them to confirm we were looking at the right lots and this is what he told me, “Helen took title individually from John Klein in 1922. She had to convey it to a third party, then in turn it was conveyed to herself and Fred on October, 1926.”

What the heck?? The home was valued at $5,000 – that’s a lot for a women in 1922 to have. She’d have been mid-20s then and this was a woman that had a 3rd grade education and was a homemaker. I hope the actual documents tell me more but I’m not hopeful. Pre-1920s records for Allegheny County aren’t great either.

03/04/14 Update on gedmatch – I sent my raw DNA files to gedmatch which has some amazing tools and a more international participation than other DNA sites seem to have. It’s free and can be hard to figure out but the effort is worth it. I found some interesting matches to people still in that part of Europe. I’m still working on grasping all the autosomal/X DNA/cMs/etc terminology but there are two promising matches I’m pursuing. One Russian guy has 15 kits there and I matched with a common ancestor between 5 and 7 generations ago on 12 of his 15 kits. Another match says she has ancestors from the Ukraine/Belarus/Poland area and that is just where Lublin was. So crossing my fingers these lead to some more info.

03/06/14 Update on Lublin records – FamilySearch has several Catholic church records from Lublin digitized but nothing showed up when I searched. I went thru to see if I could find anyone with her parents FIRST names as well and even a close last name nothing. A lot of the records included marriage and death records so I could rule a lot of people out. But there were a ton with her folks first names. I guess I was hoping to find siblings to people with her parents’ first names and a similar last one.

I did find out IN Lublin there is a place called “Żurawiniec”, Lublin Voivodeship, Poland. Something to file away.

I tried a bit on Josephine Jaskowiak too there in and US records but nothing definitive. I’ve emailed a guy who has a tree at ancestry but he hasn’t been there in a year.

08/01/14 Update I now have DNA from my mother and her sister (my aunt) on ancestry and gedmatch as well. That’s a generation back on that side and since my father’s is there as well, I can at least eliminate some people based on matching with me and mom or me and dad.

05/01/14 Update I have found my great-grandfather’s cousin in Italy! Giovanni Falconieri is a charming retired Naval officer living on the coast of Tuscany. He actually had old photos and gave me the holy grail of pics – one of Helen and Fred! I see my mother in her face, quite amazing. I’m so grateful to Giovanni!

helen and fred

02/25/16 Update I’ve got some interesting DNA matches with a very pleasant lady on ancestry and she has some polish links. She doesn’t show up as a match to my dad so it has to be my mom’s side (she matches my mom).

10/01/16 Update Filed a request through Social Security Admin for her SSN under FOIA but they responded back that they found no record of a SSN for her.

12/01/16 Update Well a DNA hit on my aunt C’s DNA test came up with a family with some Polish links. I reach out to anyone matches and has some Polish stuff. Well I lucked out and a very nice person responded. It was her husband’s side and they were in fact from the SAME TOWN. They had a Helen in their tree too but didn’t know much else. Years are close, dad’s name is the same too. But the name is not similar… I don’t know but there is something there.

02/10/2017 Update Found a great note about her husband Fred getting arrested for having five gallons of moonshine whisky during prohibition. Also their boarder had gun and brass knuckles – scary to think they had two kids living in the house with people like that. Also found Helen’s estate notice.


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