Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Breaking the Brick Wall - Step By Step

What's Brick Wall?
Where you ancestors are just beyond your reach!
What is a brick wall? A brick wall is what separates you from those ancestors whom are just beyond your reach! 

Are you frustrated by brick walls blocking you from your ancestors? I have plenty of imposing walls and I bet you do too. Recently, one of my most imposing walls came tumbling down. This post will be the first in a new series which will use Mollie Bogdanow (Katz)'s story as a case study and share some tips of how to bring down brick walls.

Allow me to refresh your memory. Mollie, my great-grandmother, has been somewhat of a mystery. For years, knew very little about her. What the earlier posts which featured Mollie on this blog, as part of the Fearless Females series and on the Friday's Photos from the Past: Bogdanows have in common, is that they demonstrate how little I knew about this elusive ancestor.

Step 1: Examine the Wall Itself

The first step in breaking down a wall, is to examine what you know, which in Mollie's case could be summarized in a few bullet points:

Mollie Bogdanow:
  • Maiden name: Katz
  • Father: Jacob Katz 
  • Birth: 8 Dec 1884 (according to the her death certificate) or 1886 (according to her tombstone), in Galicia, Austria.
  • Arrival in the US: between 1900-1902 (1920 and 1930 census respectively).
  • Marriage: Abraham Bogdanow, 15 Oct 1911, NYC.
  • Additional names: Mollie Cohen. (Katz is a Hebrew acronym, caf"tazdik which stands for Cohen Tzedek (which means righteous priest). Many families used both names interchangeably). 
  • Children: Morris and Gwen Bogdanow.
  • Residence: 
    • NY until after 1915. 
    • Jersey City, NJ between about 1920 and 1943 
    • Houston, Texas 1943- 1952.
  • Death: Houston on 23 Feb 1952.

Step 2: Evaluate What You Have

Looking at this data, I noticed that there is very little information about Mollie before she married. I had failed to locate census records for Mollie prior to the marriage. Her common last name did not help. There were several Mollie Cohens and Mollie Katzs living in New York around the turn of the century and since I didn't know much about Mollie, I couldn't pin point, which one was my Molly. 

Mollie's ship manifest was also frustratingly evasive. It was impossible to identify the correct record without knowing her town of birth or the name, which she may have used in Austria. Most Jewish immigrants entered the country using their Yiddish or Hebrew banes. They tended to Americanize their names within a few years of living in America. I had no idea what first name Mollie may have used and compounded with the Cohen/Katz surname, there was no easy way to find her ship manifest.

Another set of missing records were the immigration and naturalization records for Mollie and Abe. According to the 1920 census, Abe's papers were pending and Mollie was an alien. By 1930 they were both naturalized. Mollie may have become naturalized with her husband; however since in 1922 immigration law changed and women applied for their own citizenship, Mollie may have had her own naturalization file. The Bogdanows were living in Jersey City at the time. These naturalization records are not available online. I realized I had yet to request them. Since my research covers so many ancestors, I usually try to obtain all the records I can find for free and online before I begin spending a lot of money on documents. 

The last document, which was most glaringly missing, was Mollie and Abe's original marriage certificate. I located this record on German Genealogy Group but I realized that I had never ordered the original (probably another money saving measure I had taken). I had the information from the index, but clearly the original needed to be reviewed.

Undoubtedly, I didn't have much, but at least some documents were within reach. If I hoped to break down this particular brick wall, it was time to start paying for documents. 

Step 3: Order Documents
I requested the marriage certificate from the City of New York and ordered an Index search from the US Citizenship and Immigration records. An Index search is the first step to obtain the immigration file from the USCIS when you don't know the file number. The problem is that it can take up to three months just to get a reply. Then, if they find your ancestor, it can take a few more months to obtain the record. I'm still waiting!

Step 4: Evaluate What You Do Not Know 

There was a lot I didn't know about Mollie. I could think of so many questions and things I wanted to know about this Austrian great-grandmother. Where in Austria was she from? What is the name of the village where she was born? What was her given name when she was born? What was Mollie's mother's name? Did she have any siblings? When did Mollie arrive in the US? Did she have any family in America? Where did she live in NY before she married Abe? 

Step 5: Focus the Research

There were too many unknowns. One of the most important lessons I learned at the BU Genealogical Research course was to focus my research. Mollie's case truly needed focus. I chose to tackle one question. Before I share with you the question, I would love your feedback. If you had to choose one question to answer about Mollie, which of the above questions would you chose? And why?


  1. Great post, Smadar. You laid out the problem very well. I think I would try to answer either:
    -- Where did Mollie live before marrying Abe?
    -- When did Mollie arrive in the U.S.?
    Of course I would want to see that marriage certificate. It might give more clues to answer either question. I chose these two questions because they occur closest in time to Mollie marrying Abe.

    1. Both are excellent questions Lisa and I like the reasoning. I can tell you that the Marriage certificate was the key and it did answer your first question. It took a few more steps from there to be able to determine when Mollie arrived in the US.

  2. Here's hoping their marriage record includes details on their parents' names. I remember sending to NYC for one marriage record from that time period and finding parents' names for both bride and groom. If that is indeed your good fortune when you receive the Bogdanow record, that will provide you with a handy next step.

    1. You are correct Jacqi, most of the NY marriage certificates do have parents names for both bride and groom and includes maiden name. Lucky for me Mollie and Abe's marriage certificate did have this information as well as an address for Mollie. In full disclosure, I was frustrated with myself for taking so long to order the record. This brick wall may have fallen a lot faster if I had the original in my hands, though it still took some advanced research skills to keep going. I'm planning to share the record on my next post, so come again soon!


Thanks for sharing your comments!