What a difference a "k" makes.
Gary Mokotoff, a Jewish genealogist by vocation and avocation, had over the last 22 years created a family tree spanning seven generations and 1,000 names. He had traced the history of relatives, knew where many of them lived and what kind of lives they lived. But there were some gaps in his personal roots research: like details about the arrival at Ellis Island of his great-grandparents from Poland on the eve of World War I.
So with insider’s knowledge, he looked forward to the day when a new Web site offered by The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, with previously inaccessible or hard-to-obtain emigration records, went on-line a year ago.
"Within the first 24 hours," from the computer in his Northvale, N.J., home, he typed in the site’s address (www.ellisislandrecords.org) and started looking for documents about Chaim and Gitla Mokotow; that’s the original spelling of his family name.
Nothing turned up. Then he used the site’s spelling variant feature, which suggests alternative spellings for names. He tried Monkatoff, Mankotow and Monkohoff: nothing.
Then Montohoff. He found his great-grandparents.
The k, handwritten by an immigration official in 1913, "looked like an h" when it was typed into the Ellis Island database a few years ago, Mokotoff explains. "Never in a million years could I have done this [found the spelling under which his forebears’ records are stored] by using the microfilm index" where the information was earlier available.
The Web site of the foundation’s American Family Immigration History Center contains the records of 22 million foreign-born people who came to the United States via Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924.
For Mokotoff, it provided nuances: unknown facts about his grandparents. For novices doing genealogical research, the site, which marked its first anniversary last week, can offer volumes of unimagined facts, like the existence of unknown relatives, he said.
It has proven an instant success. The site recorded 26 million hits, requests to access information, in its first 54 hours and some 2.3 billion in the first year, says Peg Zitko, the foundation’s director of public affairs. "It’s still quite popular," she said.
"We had thought of doing this many years ago, but technology was not what it is today. Most of those records were handwritten and quite difficult to decipher," Zitko says.
In cooperation with the Mormon Church, which maintains an extensive collection of genealogical records, the foundation spent six years and $22 million creating the site.
"For us, this is a service," Zitko says. For years, she says, Ellis Island officials would hear the question, "Where are the immigration records?" The answer: They were stored at the National Archives, on microfilm, hard for most people to reach.
Information on the site, also available at Ellis Island in its gallery of 41 computer terminals, includes such details as the emigre’s age, marital status, date and place of birth, and pictures of passenger ships.
"It’s one of the most important databases in Jewish genealogy," Mokotoff says, "because 95 percent of Jewish Americans owe their heritage to people who came to the U.S. since 1891," during the height of immigration from Eastern Europe.
Using the on-line information, he says, can save "hours and hours" of work.
Mokotoff, a native of the Lower East Side and co-owner of the Avotaynu Jewish genealogy journal, still uses the site "extensively: a minimum of once a week. I help people trace their ancestors."
The retrieved documents can be used to complete family trees, compile family stories and foster reunions with unknown relatives, he says.
The other day Mokotoff received an e-mail from the city archives in Hamburg, Germany’s major port. The archives, creating its own computer listing of immigrants, had typed in its millionth name, a refugee from Bialystok, Poland, who traveled to the U.S. in the 1930s. Could Mokotoff find that person’s descendants?
Using the Ellis Island site, he tracked down the grandchildren, in New York, New Jersey and Mexico.
Hamburg will honor the grandchildren next. And the city invited Mokotoff, too. "I’m going there for the ceremony in the mayor’s office."
What a difference a "k" makes.