Decoding a mystery of parentage

back to Family Stories, Spring 2020

by Logan Khelil

As a Villanova student in a brand-new genealogy course, I was fortunate enough to be given the tools to embark on a journey back in time to research my family’s history. Along the way, I ran into a few roadblocks and discrepancies which, while certainly frustrating at first, I was able to resolve through critical thinking as well as the traditional genealogical skills I learned during my course. Some walls were unfortunately impossible to break down (I have my Middle Eastern half of my family to thank for that) but today I would like to focus on a line that yielded positive results.

Roman Surma (1868 – 1928)

My maternal grandmother comes from a very proud, very Polish family, so I knew what to expect while tracing back through her side of my tree. My grandmother would always tell me stories about her father, who my mom affectionally refers to as “Grandpa Joe,” and the pharmacy he owned while she grew up, but I never had the chance to meet him as he died shortly after the birth of my older brother, about two years before I was born. Seeing actual, historical records of his military service as well as documents alluding to the “Factor Family Pharmacy” (Factor being my maternal grandmother’s maiden name) almost felt surreal! As I shared these documents and the concept of this course with my mother and grandmother, they became invested in following their own lines back as far as possible. However, I quickly ran into a discrepancy surrounding the parentage of one of her ancestors, my maternal second-great-grandfather.

Roman Surma was born on 25 June 1868 in German-occupied Poland. He immigrated to the United States in 1883, where he married Konstancya (Constance) Syzbatka in 1894. He earnt his keep working as a “merchant” as described by multiple iterations of the U.S. Federal Census and had a daughter named Regina who had a daughter named Elaine who had a daughter named Jennifer who had a son named Logan who eventually wrote this blog. Roman lived an interesting life himself, being a first-generation immigrant tasked with building a life in a new country, learning a new language, and supporting himself and his family before dying young at the age of 60, but his parentage is what gave me a headache for a bit.

Konstancya (Szybatka) Surma (1873 – 1963)

Ancestry’s “hints” feature directed me to a couple of different public family trees from other users as well as some documents (including a Federal Census) listing Roman’s father as “Sinem Harky.” Sinem immigrated the same year as Roman and his mother, Catherine Harky (née Nowak), and since they shared a household and he was listed as his father it seemed to make sense to plug into my tree. However, I did not understand why Roman would suddenly change his last name, and I could find no record of Roman being referred to as anything other than a Surma, so I decided to dig deeper. After digging through death records as well as a couple of obscurer sources, I was able to find mention of a Maciej Surma, born in Poland, who never immigrated to the United States. As Roman’s birth pre-dates the marriage year listed for Catherine and Sinem (1880), I realized that Catherine most likely had Roman as a result of a relationship before meeting Sinem, but later married Harky before moving the whole family to the U.S in search of a new life. 

Having the opportunity to research not just my own family history, but the genealogy process itself, has taught me to scrutinize genealogical records (especially the family trees created by collateral relatives of yours). While it was easy enough to recognize that something may be off in other people’s trees, it took the skills I learned over the course of the semester to actually go deeper and “right the ship” in order to correct the mistake and bring a new level of accuracy to my family tree curated during my genealogical research!

The grave of Roman and Konstancya Surma, Saint Joseph Parish Cemetery, Natrona Heights, PA