Arts, Culture & Media

Roots Redux: Using Crowdsourcing to Find Kashuki



If you heard my story about using DNA to trace my ancestry, you'll know that I've been interested in my family history since I was a kid. When I was 11-years-old, I interviewed my father's mother, Ray Zall, about her childhood in what is now Belarus (the first five minutes of that recording are here).

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It's a recording that I treasure, both for the precious opportunity to hear my grandmother's voice again, as well as for the wealth of detail it contains about her girlhood.

One of the first questions I asked my grandmother was where she was born. "I was born in a small place," she answered me. "The name was called Kashuki".

"What?" my 11-year-old self blurted out. I couldn't get my head around that word. So my grandmother repeated the name to me several times in her heavily-accented English. It sounded like "Kashuki" — kind of.

She also told me that the village was in "Russian Poland," which was confusing to me at the time, since even at age 11, I probably knew that "Russian Poland" wasn't the name of a country. "It belonged to Russia years back," she added, to further confuse things.

I've never been able to find a place called "Kashuki" on any map, and when my story aired on The World, I included a line saying as much, in the hope that someone who heard the piece might be able to help me find the village.

I should say that I did have a general idea of where the village might be, since my grandmother had told me that it was not that far from the town of Baranovich (also spelled Baranavichy — and various other ways), which is located in present-day Belarus. Still, I didn't know if it was north, south, east or west of the city, and to actually find the exact spot on a map would be something else.

I didn't have long to wait before I started hearing from people with helpful advice. The very first person to contact me was my 9-year-old nephew, who'd heard the story the day it aired and was very excited about it. "I tried Googling Kashuki," he told me, "but I couldn't find it."

Another person to get in touch was a close friend of mine who's originally from Bosnia. She wrote to me saying, "I'm turning into a genetics detective… I just heard the entire recording of your interview with your grandmother and my Slavic ear is hearing a "ch" sound in the name of her village: KashCHuki, rather than Kashuki."

This came as no surprise to me: I could hear that sound myself, but wasn't sure how it would be spelled in Polish or Belarussian — and I am not familiar with Cyrillic script, another reason why looking at old maps had proven difficult over the years.

I also had an email from a helpful listener, who wrote to say that my grandmother was quite right to use the term "Russian Poland". Before World War I, he said, there was no separate country called Poland. "What had been Poland in 1764," he wrote, "had, by 1795, been entirely divided among Austria, Prussia and Russia. The part taken by Russia came to be called 'Russian Poland.' It became a newly re-established Poland after WWI." I also was aware of this history, vaguely… but it was useful to have it so clearly explained.

Yet another listener wrote to say that many Jewish villages in Eastern Europe had names that were different than those you could find on a map. She went on to add that there were different Yiddish words for different sized towns (my grandmother's first language was Yiddish): "shtetls" were market towns of 10 to 20,000 people, she said, while "dorfs" were very small places.

Bingo: I suddenly recognized the word "dorf" as one of the hitherto unintelligible words from my 1978 recording with my grandmother. "That was a village," my grandmother says on the tape, then breaks off and asks my grandfather: "A 'dorf' is a village, no?" — to which he answers "Yes". I'd never known what they were saying there — but now I did, and I also knew that Kashuki was definitely a small place, a dorf.

I won't keep you in suspense for much longer. The most helpful messages came from listeners who had superior linguistic skills to mine, and who engaged in a bit of sleuthing and map scrutiny before suggesting some possible locations for Kashuki.

Using additional information from my grandmother, it was possible to narrow down the possibilities. For instance, my grandmother had told me that Kashuki was seven miles from another town that began with an 'N' — but I couldn't tell what the name of that place was on the tape. One listener kindly went over the recording again, and told me that the town was Navajelnia (listen to my conversation with Lisa Mullins about Navajelnia after the jump). Using this information, and the fact that my grandmother had said that Kashuki was three stations away from the city of Baranavichy on the train, it was possible to eliminate certain locations, and to identify what I am convinced is the right place: a village called (variously) KoÅ?ciuki / Kastyaki / Kastyuki (and more names in various languages using the Cyrillic alphabet!) that is located at roughly 53 °27'N 25 °42'E.

I had in fact identified this location some years ago as a potential "Kashuki" — but without the necessary skills, I had no way of really knowing if it was the place.

Thanks to the listeners who helped me, my family and I finally have a location on a map. From what I can tell, there's not much there; but if I want to travel in my grandmother's footsteps someday and see the place she once called home, I'll know where to go.