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Continuing with the Family History through the Alphabet Challenge… N is for Napoleon! Napoleon may have been a dictator, but he did a few other things as well – one thing in particular that may even have an impact on your family history research today. In 1804 he instituted the Civil Code, which is now known as the Napoleonic Code. It was adopted throughout many of the lands he conquered, and it remained in effect after his death. The Civil Code granted many things we take for granted today such as freedom of religion and equality. Of course, it stated other things that we wouldn’t necessarily be happy with today like patriarchal power – in other words, husbands rule the household. But genealogically speaking, we have Napoleon and his code to thank for civil registration of vital events such as births, marriages, and deaths. The Roman Catholic church had been keeping records prior to this – in some places for centuries – but the Civil Code made the record-keeping a state function.

The Code spelled out exactly what must be recorded in the vital records, and the information required was more than what was customarily kept in church record books. For example, a religious baptismal record would likely indicate the child’s name, date of birth, date of baptism, parents’ names, godparents’ names, and the location. Napoleonic birth records required the exact time of birth as well as the full names, ages, residences, and professions of the parents and witnesses. Napoleonic marriage records are rather detailed and include the ages, residences, and professions of the bride and groom, their parents, and the witnesses. I don’t think the Napoleonic death records are as detailed as those for birth and marriage because it lacks the cause of death and the birthplace of the deceased. But, the Civil Code required that these events be registered within the community whereas prior to this it was merely a religious function.

The Civil Code was adopted in countries occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars and became the basis of law in Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Romania, and parts of Germany. I gave an example of a Napoleonic birth record in the Baptism of Jozef Piontkowski. Learn more about translating Polish vital records in the Napoleonic format at this link.

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet Challenge]

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Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge…H is for History. Researching your family history isn’t just about the history of your family, but it’s about how your family fit into the history of the world. Genealogy puts a face on history – the faces of your ancestors. When we learn about a particular time period, we wonder how our ancestors were affected by the events. And just maybe we can learn something from our family’s past.  After all, what’s past is prologue, right?

While researching my family, I’ve learned a lot of interesting historical facts that I never knew before. Some of these events are not well known and would have held little interest to me, but knowing my own ancestors were a part of it makes it more significant and meaningful. I’ve learned about Haller’s Armythe Polish Army in France during World War I led by General Haller. Over 25,000 Polish immigrants to the United States and Canada volunteered to serve and fight for their homeland’s independence including my great-grandfather, Louis Pater, who had been in the U.S. for ten years.

I also learned about Häuserchronik - house histories published in Germany that present  a centuries-old city directory loaded with extra-special information such as marriages and occupations. It was great to learn the name of the hometown of my Bavarian immigrants, but knowing that several generations of my family lived in the same house for over a hundred years makes the town’s history more personal.

So many other Historical events took on a more personal connection through my research, whether it was the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Holocaust, an obscure battle in the War of Austrian Succession, or the saint who once played in my own backyard. History is all around us! Take the time to learn all about the time periods, places, and events during which your family lived.

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge]

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Józef Pater's prisoner photo. Source: Office for Information on Former Prisoners, The State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau

Who was Józef Pater?  I came upon Józef by accident while searching for my 2nd great-grandfather of the same name. I discovered that this particular Józef was my ancestor’s nephew, his brother Marcin’s son. What I learned with that search result was a forgotten story of a family – my family – who perished in the Holocaust.

If Józef’s cousins in the United States knew of his fate, it never reached the ears of their descendents. Most of what I learned about my courageous cousin came from sources written in Polish, but even those sources were limited and hard to find. The few facts I was able to piece together paint an interesting portrait of the man.  Who was Józef Pater?  He was an artist, a decorated soldier, a government employee, and a leader in the Polish Resistance.  He was a son, brother, husband, and father. He was Catholic, and he was Polish. He died at Auschwitz. Who was Józef Pater?  He was my cousin.

Józef Pater was born on 31 July 1897 in Żyrardów, Błoński powiat, Warszawske gubernia, Vistula Land, Russian Empire. He was the son of Marcin and Paulina (nee Dreksler) Pater, both 37 years old. The family moved to Częstochowa by the time Józef was in middle school. Beginning in 1914, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow to study painting.

As a teenager – as early as age 15 – Józef Pater became involved in politics by joining the Polish Socialist Party – Revolutionary Faction (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna – Frakcja Rewolucyjna), or PPS. The PPS was a pro-Polish independence party founded in 1892 that sought ideals such as equal rights for all citizens (regardless of race, nationality, religion and gender), a universal right to vote, freedom of speech, assembly, and press, and basic labor laws such as minimum wage, an 8-hour workday, and a ban on child labor. The “Revolutionary Faction” developed in 1906 under the leadership of Józef Piłsudski and the primary goal was to restore a democratic, independent Poland.

In November 1914, at the age of 17, Józef Pater served in the Polish Legions, a Polish armed force created in August of that year also by Józef Piłsudski.  The Legions became an independent unit within the Austro-Hungarian Army.  Józef Pater’s service began in the 1st Squadron of the 1st Lancer regiment in the First Brigade led by Piłsudski.  In July 1916, Pater was in the 6th Infantry regiment.  During these years, the Polish Legions, many of whom like Józef were citizens of Russia, took part in many battles with the Imperial Russian Army.

A short biographical sketch of Józef Pater that I found in Słownik biograficzny konspiracji Warszawskiej, 1939-1944 indicates that beginning in November 1916, he worked in boards of recruitment in Siedlce and Łuków. However, it is highly likely that Pater was part of the Polish Legions that were involved in the so-called Oath Crisis.  When the Central Powers created the Kingdom of Poland on 05 November 1916, it was essentially a “puppet state” of Germany and not independent at all. In July 1917, the Central Powers demanded that the soldiers of the Polish Legions swear allegiance and obedience to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany.  Based on the example of their leader, Piłsudski, the majority of the soldiers of the 1st and 3rd Brigades of the Legions declined to make the oath. The soldiers who were citizens of Austria-Hungary were sent to the Italian front as part of the Austro-Hungarian Army, and the soldiers from the rest of occupied Poland were sent to prisoner of war camps.  Since Pater is listed later in life as a member of the Association of Former Political Prisoners of the former Revolutionary Faction, it is assumed that he was one of the young soldiers interred for refusing to take the oath.  Later, in 1932, he was the president of the Kutno branch of the Association of Former Ideological Prisoners.

On 04 October 1917, the 20-year-old Józef Pater married Helena Feliksa Palige in All Saints Church (Wszystkich Świętych) in Warsaw.

Signatures on the marriage record of Jozef Pater and Helena Palige.

From November 1918 to November 1920, Józef Pater served as a volunteer in the Polish Army. At some point he must have continued his studies at the Academy, for he was awarded a diploma in 1921 as an artist-painter.  Pater rejoined the army in November 1924 and served there as non-commissioned officer in 4th air regiment.  He retired from military service on 31 December 1929.

While I have little more than dates and assignments about Pater’s time in the military, I found one fact that speaks volumes: he was decorated four times with Cross of Valour and also with the Cross of Independence with Swords.  The Cross of Valour is a Polish military decoration created in 1920 for one who has demonstrated deeds of valor and courage on the field of battle.  Józef received the decoration the maximum amount allowed – four times.  It is unknown if he received the commendation for his actions with the Legions in World War I, or if it was for any actions during the Polish-Soviet War from 1920 – 1923.  The Cross of Independence is one of Poland’s highest military decorations.  There are three classes, and the Cross of Independence with Swords is the rarest of the three.  Developed in 1930, it was awarded to those who laid foundations for the independence of Poland before or during World War I. Józef Pater received this honor in 1931.

Józef Pater may have been a painter, but I’m not sure he ever painted for a living because following his busy military career he began to work as a clerk for the government.  From 1930 to 1933 he worked in the towns of Toruń, Kutno, and Grodzisk Mazowiecki, and from January 1934 to June 1935 he worked as a clerk in the Broadcasting Agency of the Polish Radio in Warsaw. In 1935, Józef Pater became town councilor in Grodzisk Mazowiecki and he still held this position when Poland was invaded by Germany in September 1939.

The invasion by Germany was far more than a military occupation.  According to Poland’s Holocaust by Tadeusz Piotrowski, the Germans attempted to remove Polish culture and way of life through closing the banks, devaluing the currency, confiscating possessions, destroying libraries, forbidding the teaching of Polish history, and banning Polish music.  Himmler would announce on 15 March 1940:

“All Polish specialists will be exploited in our military-industrial complex.  Later, all Poles will disappear from this world. It is imperative that the great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task.” (Piotrowski, 23)

Within a month of Poland’s invasion (by one source, another says a few months later), Józef Pater became the chief commanding officer (listed in narratives as having the rank of “Major”) of a Polish Resistance group called the Gwardia Obrony Narodowej (National Defense Guard) or GON.  In April 1940, the GON was joined with the Związek Czyny Zbrojnego (Association of Arms) or ZCZ.  This group joined with several other Resistance groups in October 1940 to establish the Konfederacja Narodu, or National Confederation – the main Polish underground organization throughout the war. The National Confederation organized a single armed force for the good of the Polish nation.

Józef Pater became one of the many leaders of the underground.  From January 1941, he was in charge of police and security issues for the movement.  Most participants in the Resistance movement were known to each other only by code names.  Józef Pater used the names of “Inżynier” – in English, “Engineer” – as well as the name “Orlot,” which does not have a direct English translation but is a fighting eagle.

The symbol of the Polish Underground is the flag of the Armia Krajowa; the symbol on the flag is a combination of letters "P" and "W" for Polska Walcząca or Fighting Poland.

The role of the Polish Underground during the German occupation was twofold.  First, they were to do everything possible to make the lives of the German military as miserable as possible.  That meant sabotage, disruption of supply lines or communication, theft, damage to equipment, and similar acts. In addition to acts of destruction, the Resistance movement also sought to keep hope alive for the Polish people. Since the only authorized press was German, the Underground published and disseminated accurate information about the war to the Poles as well as getting the message out of the country. In addition, the Underground movement’s message fostered a sense of fierce pride among the Poles and offered hope that their culture and nation would survive.

On 15 February 1941, Józef Pater – and presumably his wife, Helena – were arrested in Grodzisk Mazowiecki and sent to Pawiak Prison in Warsaw.  Pawiak was used by the German Gestapo for interrogations, usually brutal in nature, as well as for executions.  It is estimated that at least 100,000 Catholics and Jews were sent to Pawiak – approximately 37,000 were executed there, and 60,000 were sent to various concentration camps.

In a book called Meldunek z Pawiaka I was able to learn about Józef’s character as well as the bravery of those involved in the underground movement.  Franciszek Julian Znamirowski, commander of the ZCZ, became friends with Józef Pater in 1940 as co-conspirators when their two resistance organizations joined forces.  Znamirowski survived the war and described Pater in a letter to author Zygmunt Śliwicki in 1970:

“The man was courageous, generous, friendly, a great patriot, the soul of a painter, and devoted to his family.  He downplayed the danger.  He lived in Grodzisk Mazowiecki with his family. He had a radio and listened to messages, sending them in a secret letter. At this he was caught, and we lost him. When I learned about the arrest and his confinement in the Pawiak, without much thinking I decided to move out and help him escape.”

It was rumored that Pater had typhus and was in the prison hospital, so Znamirowski obtained fake documents that identified him as a doctor of infectious diseases.  Znamirowski told the guards that he was Pater’s family doctor, and he bribed them with money for entry to the prison.  He described Pater as being very surprised to see him.  Contrary to the rumor, he was not sick at all.  He was wearing pajamas, and the two retreated to the bathroom to talk without fear of wiretaps.  They talked “freely about everything” for an hour.

Znamirowski explained that he was there to help Pater escape – he believed it was possible.  However, Józef’s wife, Helena, was also imprisoned there.  Józef feared that if he escaped without her, there would be reprisals and she would suffer even more.  He asked Znamirowski if he could return with enough money to buy their way out of the prison with the guards.

Znamirowski recalled in 1970:  “He [Pater] asked urgently for help by buying him out, and it was a lot of money.  We were not able to collect the cash.  He was being interrogated, but he did not incriminate anybody. He held out heroically. He authorized me to take over the organization and manage it in accordance with his ideas.”  It was the last time Znamirowski ever saw him.

On 17 April 1942 Józef Pater was transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim.  He was registered as Polish political prisoner and received the number 31225.  He died there on 24 June.

Józef’s wife, Helena Palige Pater, was presumably arrested at the same time and also sent to Pawiak.  On 22 September 1941, she was transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and was killed (date unknown). Ravensbrück, located in northern Germany, was known as the women’s concentration camp.

Józef’s older brother, Bronisław (born 06 September 1890), was also involved with the Resistance. On 17 January 1943 he was sent to Majdanek concentration camp and was killed (date unknown).

One source (Za Murami Pawiaka) reports that there were two sons of Józef and Helena that were also killed in the camps.  Another book, Słownik biograficzny konspiracji Warszawskiej, 1939-1944, reports that one son, also named Bronisław (born 1920), was killed at Majdanek; however, there is conflicting information because there were two men named Bronisław Pater, one the brother and one the son of Józef. One of these two was transported to Majdanek on 17 January 1943 and never returned.  They may have both died at that particular camp, but I lack the appropriate evidence to say for sure.

Reports differ widely on the number of deaths in the country of Poland at the hands of the Nazi regime. The commonly accepted number is six million Poles – both Catholics and Jews – died, which was roughly 17% of the total population of Poland before the war. It is estimated that of the six million Polish deaths, three million were Jewish and three million were Catholic. As the Jewish population of Poland was much smaller, Germany killed about 85% of Poland’s Jewish population and about 10% of Poland’s Catholic population.

Józef, Bronisław, Helena, Bronisław.  Their names were forgotten in my family.  May we never forget them again.

###

The brothers Józef and Bronisław Pater are first cousins of my great-grandfather, Louis (Ludwik) Pater and his brothers (Wacław, Stefan) and sisters (Franciszka, Ewa, Wiktoria).  Louis’ father, also Józef Pater, is Józef’s uncle and a brother to his father, Marcin Pater.  My ancestor Józef immigrated to America in 1905.  His nephews would have been 15 and 7 years old at that time.  My great-grandfather Louis did not leave Poland until August, 1907, and he was living with his adult sister, Franciszka.  Given that Franciszka married Paweł Niedzinski (Nieginski) in Częstochowa in June, 1906, it is likely that both branches of the Pater family left Żyrardów and were living in Częstochowa together.  Louis/Ludwik was nearly 14 years old when he left Poland; cousin Józef was 10 and Bronisław was 17.

This post has literally been a couple of years in the making.  I had help with some initial research by footnoteMaven, and I would not have known much without some translations by Maciej Róg.  I was further assisted with both research and translations by Matthew Bielawa .  Their help is greatly appreciated!

Source: Ilustrowany Przewodniak Po Polsce Podziemnej, 1939-1945

Sources used for this post:

Vital Records:

Parafia Matki Bożej Pocieszenia (Żyrardów, Błoński, Warszawske, Vistula Land, Russian Empire), “Akta urodzeń, małżeństw, zgonów 1897 [Records of Births, Marriages, Deaths 1897],” page 160, entry 637, Józef Pater, 31 Jul 1897; digital images from Projekt indeksacji metryk parafialnych, http://metryki.genealodzy.pl,  Archiwum Państwowe m. st. Warszawy, Oddział w Grodzisku Maz. (http://metryki.genealodzy.pl/metryka.php?zs=1265d&sy=134&kt=1&skan=0635-0638.jpg)

Parafia Wszystkich Świętych (Warszawa, Warszawaske, Regency Kingdom of Poland), “Akta małżeństw 1917 [Records of Marriages 1917],” page 67, entry 133, Józef Pater and Helena Feliksa Palige, 04 Oct 1917; digital images from Projekt indeksacji metryk parafialnych, http://metryki.genealodzy.pl, Księgi metrykalne parafii rzymskokatolickiej Wszystkich Świętych w Warszawie (http://metryki.genealodzy.pl/metryka.php?zs=9264d&sy=341&kt=1&skan=133.jpg)

Death record 12625/1942, Józef Pater, 24 June 1942. Biuro informacji o byłych więźniach, Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau (Office for Information on Former Prisoners, The State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau)

Books:

Dębski, Jerzy and State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Death Books from Auschwitz: Remnants. München : K.G. Saur, 1995.

Kunert, Andrzej Krysztof.  Ilustrowany Przewodniak Po Polsce Podziemnej, 1939-1945. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1996.

Kunert, Andrzej Krysztof. Słownik Biograficzny Konspiracji Warszawskiej, 1939-1944.  Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX, 1987.

Lukas, Richard C. Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

Lukas, Richard C. Forgotten Survivors: Polish Christians Remember the Nazi Occupation. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Piotrowski, Tadeusz.  Poland’s Holocaust. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Inc., 1998.

Wanat, Leon. Za Murami Pawiaka. Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1972.

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How is Josef Bergmeister related to “my” Josef Bergmeister?

Our story began when I discovered a reference to a Josef Bergmeister who died fighting for Germany in World War I.  This Josef was from Puch, the hometown of my great-grandfather of the same name.  The town is very small, so I assumed they were related.  Thanks to Ancestry’s release of the Bavarian World War I Personnel Rosters, I learned more about Josef, including when he was born, his parents’ names, and how he died in 1916.  In fact, I learned about many other Bergmeister men, too.  Although the indexing is not yet complete (see the main search page for more details), there are thirteen Bergmeister men listed.  Of these, eight are directly related to my great-grandfather – including Josef whose name was inscribed on the memorial in Puch.  With the help of my cousin Armin Bergmeister, I’ve assembled the following tree showing the names of the Bergmeister men up until the World War I timeframe. Click on the image to enlarge.

The soldier Josef and my great-grandfather Josef are first cousins once removed.  Josef’s own first cousin, Anton, also died in the war just weeks before him.  With their deaths, the Bergmeister family in the town of Puch ended.  Other Bergmeister relatives had moved to other towns in Bavaria as well as the United States, but nearly three hundred years of the Bergmeister family in Puch came to an abrupt end.  Both Josef and Anton were second cousins to my grandmother and her three brothers that were born in the United States (and their German-born sister).

My great-grandfather also lost two of his second cousins in the war, Sigmund and Hermann.  Two of his third cousins (Andreas and Magnus) fought as well as his third cousin’s son, Anton, and his 5th cousin Ignatz.

I chose to focus on the soldier Josef for this story, but each of the soldier’s stories – as gleaned from the rosters – is worth remembering.  Unfortunately, we have no photograph of Josef, but thanks to my cousin Armin I can share a photograph of one of these Bergmeister soldiers, Sigmund – Armin’s grandfather.  Sigmund died on 15 August 1916 at the age of 31, leaving behind one child.   His brother Hermann died less  than two years later at the age of 24, leaving behind two children.

Lieutenant Sigmund Bergmeister, 1885-1916

There are many men named Josef on the Bergmeister family tree.  I am currently familiar with cousins from three distinct lines of descent: 1) my own family’s descent through Josef (son of Josef, son of Jakob, son of Josef), 2) the line descended from Johann (son of Castulus, son of Jakob, son of Josef), and 3) the line descended from the soldier Sigmund (son of Sebastian, son of Simon, son of Josef).  In my own American line, the name Joseph Bergmeister was passed on and is currently owned by a handsome young man, my second cousin once removed.  He is the sixth straight Joseph/Josef Bergmeister – and would have been the 8th straight if it weren’t for his 4th great-grandfather, Jakob.  There is also a current Josef Bergmeister in Germany, my 3rd cousin once removed and a very charitable host along with his brother Hans and their wives.  They are both descended from the Castulus line. (See a photo of Castulus as well as my Josef on The Bergmeister Family page!)

So, one mystery was solved.  Thanks to the Bavarian military rosters, I now know more about Josef Bergmeister, the previously unknown soldier, as well as many other Bergmeister cousins my great-grandfather left behind when he came to America.

But wait!  Now there’s a new mystery…how are we all related to the other five men named Bergmeister listed in the personnel rosters?  We already have a hint that the “other” Philadelphia Bergmeister family is originally from the town of Hoerdt and is related to at least one of these men.  As to how far back we have to go to connect the two, and who the other four men are, those are mysteries still waiting to be solved!

Need help figuring out relationships and what “removed” cousins are?  See The Family Relationship Chart

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What happened at the battle that cost Josef his life?  How were his American cousins affected by the same war?

In Part 3 we read Josef Bergmeister’s service record and discovered that he died as a result of injuries sustained during the battle of Fleury-Thiaumont in July, 1916.  Today’s post will discuss this battle in more detail.

The town names of Fleury and Thiaumont may not be familiar, but surely everyone has heard of the Battle of Verdun, the bloodiest and perhaps the longest battle in history.  The Battle of Verdun was a series of battles from 21 February – 19 December 1916 between the German and French armies on the Western Front.  The numbers alone paint a picture of what happened there.  In the end, an estimated 250,000 men were killed, and another 500,000 were wounded.  Approximately 40 million artillery shells were used by both sides during the fight.  The battlefield itself was not very large – just a long and narrow piece of land.

During the Battle of Verdun, the town of Fleury changed hands between the German and the French sixteen times.  The town was completely destroyed and is uninhabited today.  To the German army, the small town was the gateway to Verdun, which in turn would lead directly to Paris.  During the month of June, 1916, the Germans fought hard to move into the town.  By the end of June, it was reported that it was unbearably hot.

On 23 June, the Germans launched a chemical attack with 110,000 grenades of poisonous gas.  Although many French soldiers died from the chemical attack, their gas masks withstood the gas better than the Germans had expected.  But the chemical gas, constant bombardment from artillery, and the oppressive heat were all affecting the troops; both sides described the terrible stench from corpses rotting in the heat.  Josef Bergmeister’s first cousin, Anton Bergmeister, from the 10th Infantry Regiment, was killed here on 24 June at the age of 19.

By mid-July, the Germans were in control of Fleury, but there were many small attacks in the area in an effort to gain high ground and some fortifications.  On 12 July, the French received orders to regain Fleury.  A fierce battle was fought from 15-19 July in which each side attempted to gain more ground.

A photo of Bavarian soldiers in the trenches at Fleury used with permission from The Soldier's Burden, http://www.kaiserscross.com/40047/124001.html.

Josef Bergmeister’s brigade (8th Company, 11th Bav. Infantry Regiment, 12th Bav. Brigade, 6th Bavarian Division) has missed the fighting in this area and had been fighting in St. Mihiel.  His regiment went into the front lines on 17-18 July and suffered such losses that a telegraph was sent to immediately send 500 replacement troops.  Did Josef know that his cousin Anton was killed at Thiaumont just weeks earlier?

Josef was injured by an artillery shell on 18 July in his arm and leg.  After being transferred to a hospital, he died on 01 August.  His comrades and his enemies continued the fight, and with each battle the area around Fleury and Thiaumont is captured and re-captured over and over with little meaning to the overall war effort.  Thousands lay dead on the battlefield.

Josef’s entire division left Verdun on 5 August, and by early September they were fighting another well-known and long series of battles: the Somme.  The division again endured considerable losses.  The Battle of Verdun continued through December 1916.  The final statistics show French casualties at Verdun as 371,000, including 60,000 killed, 101,000 missing and 210,000 wounded. Total German casualties are recorded as 337,000 men. The statistics also confirm that at least 70% of the Verdun casualties on both sides were the result of artillery fire.  Men like Josef Bergmeister that were taken from the battlefield to hospitals were given burials in cemeteries, but it is estimated that 100,000 men remain on the battlefield today – buried where they fell.

The site The Soldier’s Burden offers a detailed glimpse into the lives of the soldiers on all “sides” of the war and gives testament to their struggles and losses.  On a page recounting the battle in which Josef Bergmeister died, another Bavarian soldier, Hans Heiß of the Bavarian Leib Regiment, describes the battle.  I have reprinted most of the description with permission here:

A red streak in the starry night, then another, then another. They burst into red stars. Are they fireworks? A game? No, they are serious, deadly serious. Whizzing over Fleury and Douaumont. The Frenchies had noticed that we were being relieved and had called up an artillery barrage. A barrage meant hell!

Run Comrades, run for your lives!

There is the railway embankment… a ghostly area, keep running. The first salvo comes screaming in… flames, smoke… keep running… move forward. Into the hollow ground beyond… here hell opened up! Whizzing, Howling, gurgling the shells come in. Black earth, smoke and flames shoot up into the air. A wall of death.

Panting, the breath is stilted. Jumping from shell hole to shell hole… through! then FORWARD! Keep running!

Up the embankment, stumbling, falling. The heart beating in the throat…falling, getting up, continuing. Foam on the lips… up there, the large shell crater… get into it! Once there you can get your breath back. Almost there, there where they are all headed for.

Whizz, bang! Flame and smoke… right in the heavy shell hole! Don’t go in, pass it by!

Here they crawl forward, blood stained and blackened by smoke “Kamerad! Kamerad! For God’s sake… help me!” “And me!” “And me!”

Cannot, have to get forward into position… don’t listen, don’t look! Go past! Move… faster!

…. There! There! It is terrible, someone is burning. He tosses his burning backpack away but his uniform is burning. Ha, ha, ha! Laughing, laughing at the sky…he has gone mad.

Burying the head in the sand. See nothing, Hear nothing, think nothing!  Think nothing!

Then it was over and we could move forward.

It will be four days in the front line now. Four endless, terrible, desperate days. And four terrible nights. And if we survive… the same road through hell back again.

Two men pass carrying in a wounded man wrapped in a shelter half.  A whizz and a bang. Flame and smoke, all three men are swept away, the medics and wounded man ripped apart, gone forever. No! No! No further! Throw it all away, the backpack, rifle, gasmask… and now run! Run! Run far away.. far away from this hell…

Fleury today. The depressions remain from the artillery fire. Photo courtesy of Chris Boonzaier.

New York Times headline, December 31, 1918.

Meanwhile, in the United States German immigrants were far from the battlefield, but life was difficult in other ways.  The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.  Germans living in the U.S. were warned to obey the law and surrender any weapons, explosives, or radios.  Any who did not comply were arrested.  Any non-naturalized German that was believed to be aiding the enemy were arrested and interred.  By December, 1917, all male Germans in cities with populations over 5,000 had to report to either the post office or police station to register; the same rules applied to female Germans the following May.

Most of these records no longer exist, but I did once see the list of Philadelphia “enemy alien registrations” (now missing).  In it were the names and addresses of my great-grandparents, Josef (now known as Joseph) and Marie Bergmeister, and their 20-year-old German-born daughter, Marie.  My great-grandfather had not yet declared his intent to become a citizen of the United States, but he had lived in the country since 1900.  Their four American-born children were safe from the registration requirements.

The Joseph Bergmeister living in America, despite being considered an “enemy alien” required to register with the authorities, was also required to register for the selective service act.  On 12 September 1918, he registered for military service with the U.S. draft board in Philadelphia, PA, but he was never called into service by the U.S. military.  Joseph’s brother Ignatz also registered with the draft board in Elizabeth, NJ on the same day.

Joseph Bergmeister's WWI draft card. Note that the German-born "Joseph" still signs his name Josef!

My relatives left no diaries or letters to reveal what they thought about these regulations, or about the war with their homeland, or if they knew the fate of their cousins in Germany or even kept in touch after immigration.  One can only wonder what it felt like to suddenly be considered “the enemy” in the country you called home for so many years.

In Part 5, the final post in this series on the Bavarian Military Rosters, we will discover how closely the two Josef Bergmeister’s are related and see how many Bergmeister men were involved in the war fighting for Germany.

Sources:

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No matter where your ancestors were from, chances are that they endured tumultuous events such as famines, epidemics, and wars.  In researching my Bavarian ancestors, I’ve tried to immerse myself in the history of their towns and villages to try to understand the customs, beliefs, and society in which they lived.  If you dig deep enough, you’ll uncover many interesting events that took place during the lives of your ancestors. There aren’t any records that allow me to fully understand how these events impacted my ancestors in particular, but learning about these historical events helps to imagine what their lives were like.

Maria Theresa in 1759 (SOURCE: Wikipedia public domain image)

Maria Theresa in 1759 (SOURCE: Wikipedia public domain image)

The town of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm has a long history dating back to the 12th century.  Like most areas of Europe, Pfaffenhofen has witnessed many disasters over the years.   In the middle of the 18th Century, a war raged throughout Europe called the War of Austrian Succession.  Although it is largely forgotten in history books, it could almost be called the first world war since it involved almost all of the powers of Europe. While war is often considered to be a man’s game, this one all started because of a woman – Maria Theresa of Austria.  Her father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, died without a male heir.  Charles hoped to enable Maria Theresa to take his place by persuading the various German states to agree to her succession in 1713 with the Pragmatic Sanction.

After the death of Charles in 1740, King Frederick II of Prussia protested her reign by invading  Silesia.  Thus began a long war that was a competition among various courts for a male heir with the genealogical claim to the throne to take precedence over Maria Theresa’s rule.  Frederick joined forces with France, Spain, Bavaria, and Saxony, while Austria garnered support from several other European forces.

The Bavarian army fought with French forces in both Silesia and Bohemia over the next few years.  This war had several campaigns fought in several countries.  Throughout, both Austria and Prussia gained allies and lost allies with some countries even switching sides.  But the war continued, and the succession issue remained unresolved although several claimed the throne.

By 1742, the war came much closer to home for my ancestors living in Pfaffenhofen.  By this time, the Bavarian army was still aligned with the French, and Austria had turned to Hungary for support.  The capital of Bavaria, Munich – only 33 miles south of Pfaffenhofen – fell to the Austro-Hungarian army on February 13, 1742.  Four days later, Pfaffenhofen and all of the surrounding towns located in the area between the Inn and Lech rivers were under Austrian control.

An Austrian Pandur

An Austrian Pandur

Some of the Austro-Hungarian forces were Croat mercenary soldiers called the Pandurs.  Pandur forces swept through the Bavarian countryside.  The Pandurs’ tactics would be known as guerrilla warfare today.  They were also known for their lack of discipline in which plunder was more important than their military orders.  Histories of Pfaffenhofen do not record all of the details of this invasion, but one notes the “wild hordes of terror” as the Pandurs occupied the area and resorted to robbery, murder, and fire.

All throughout this war, the simple townsfolk of Pfaffenhofen and the local farmers were expected to pay increased taxes to support the armies.  If anyone refused to pay, they were arrested.

By the end of 1742, the forces shifted and Pfaffenhofen was no longer occupied by enemy forces.  The following year, Bavaria was again invaded in May and occupied through October.  But the year of the war that is most remembered in Pfaffenhofen is 1745.  By April 12, 1745, the two armies again amassed just outside of the city.

The Franco-Bavarian army was led by General François de Ségur with about 7,000 forces.  However, Ségur was unaware that his Bavarian and Hessian reinforcements under General Törring had retreated several miles away, and he was caught off guard when the Austro-Hungarian forces arrived.  The Austro-Hungarian army was led by General Karl Josef Batthyány and consisted of 10,000 Austrian and Hungarian forces.  Batthyány  was aware of Ségur’s isolation, and attacked Pfaffenhofen on the morning of April 15, 1745.

Like most medieval cities, Pfaffenhofen was a walled town with four gates to get in or out of town.  The Austrian army, consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery units, broke through the town wall and fighting ensued on the streets of the town with the Croat Pandurs engaging in house-to-house combat.  The French army defending the townspeople took on heavy casualties, and 300 French soldiers were captured by the enemy.

Outnumbered, Ségur was forced to withdrawn or else his army would have been completed encircled.   Some of Ségur’s Palatinate forces panicked, and in their retreat the fierce Pandurs and Hussar cavalry attacked the retreating troops.  The French forces hastily retreated with their heavy equipment getting stuck in the muddy fields outside of Pfaffenhofen; when the horses were cut free, they fled as well.  Ségur’s retreating army was literally chased by the Batthyány’s forces until that evening when the Austrians gave up pursuit.

Red line shows Austrian forces; Blue shows Franco-Bavarian forces

Red line shows Austrian forces; Blue shows Franco-Bavarian forces

Austria, with about 800 casualties, was the clear “winner” of the battle, while the Franco-Bavarian forces lost 2,400.  As a result of the defeat, Bavaria’s leader Maximilian III Joseph gave up the war that his father had begun.  He made peace with Maria Theresa through the Treaty of Füssen on April 22, 1745.  Oh, and Törring, the guy who left Ségur outnumbered?  He was fired.  The peace treaty took Bavaria officially out of the War of Austrian Succession, leaving Austria with only three other fronts to fight in Silesia, Italy, and the Netherlands.  In the end, after years of bloodshed, Maria Theresa’s claim to the throne did prevail when her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, became Emperor on September 13, 1745.

The battle definitely had an impact on the townspeople of Pfaffenhofen.  One can only assume that they were all inside the walls of the town when the attack occurred.  The only place of refuge nearby would have been the monastery at Scheyern, where it was reported that the monks only escaped the looting of the Pandurs because a wounded Austrian officer being tended by the monks would not allow it.  Two brave priests left the walls of the monastery to administer last rites to soldiers dying in the fields.

Most of the accounts of the battle were in German, and I relied on poor translations from online translators.  I was able to get the general idea that the invading Army left the town a mess.  Some of the town’s court records seem to indicate that residents petitioned the town for assistance after their homes were looted and severely damaged.  One resident, Georg Gerhauser, reported that he, his wife, and their eight children could not even attend church services on Good Friday because they lacked the appropriate clothing after Austrian soldiers looted their home.  Food was also scarce in the days following the battle.

This battle must have been quite terrifying to the farmers and merchants of the area.  The battle took place on the day of the calendar that happened to be Holy Thursday in the Roman Catholic Church calendar that year.  This is the feast prior to the day Christ died when Catholics remember His Last Supper and the gift of the Eucharist.  As a special feast, this likely would have been a religious holiday in the town in which everyone would have attended Mass – but I doubt their plans went as scheduled that fateful day.

At this time I have several ancestors living in Pfaffenhofen.  Bernhard Eggerer, my 5th great-grandfather, was born in 1721 and would have been about to turn 24 at the time of the battle.  Did he fight in the army?  Did he defend his town as a simple shoemaker?  I don’t know, but he did survive this event.  He would marry 17 years later and have 8 children before dying in 1778 at the age of 57.

Other ancestors residing in Pfaffenhofen in 1745 include Matthias Kaillinger, a glassmaker, Michael Paur, a carpenter, and possibly Phillip Nigg, a mason.  I have not found Philip’s birth record yet, but he marries in town eight years after the battle.  One thing is certain – after all of the street fighting and looting, the skills of all three gentlemen would have been put to good use after the battle ended!  I also had my Bergmeister ancestor, Johann Paul Bergmeister, living in the nearby town of Puch and running the grain mill.  With all of the havoc in the fields, one can only wonder the impact on the family’s business as a result.

In reviewing my ancestral records, I do not appear to have any deaths on that day, so my families were safe after the fighting ended.  Now that I have learned about this event, I want to review the death records to see if any soldier or civilian deaths are recorded in the church books. It is apparent in these few accounts I uncovered that although the battle itself was relatively short in duration, the town took a long time to recover from it.

[Written for the 77th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Disasters Our Ancestors Lived Through]

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71st Carnival of Genealogy

Welcome to the 71st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy!  The topic for today was Local History! As genealogists, we are used to tracing our ancestors and the history of the places they lived. But not all of us live where our ancestors did – do we take the time to see the history all around us? Well, based on the response – yes, we do take the time!  Come and read some fascinating entries on what proved to be an interesting topic.  In the twenty-five submissions presented here, you will read about some amazing historical places, events, and people located in sixteen U.S. states and two Canadian provinces!

Carol Wilkerson presents MacArthur Left But Volckmann Remained posted at iPentimento | Genealogy and History. Even though Russell Volckmann was a WWII hero, Carol’s husband was never taught about him in any of his schooling.

Kiril Kundurazieff presents Hunting Down the Honeymoon Hotel: A Genealogical Adventure posted at Musings of a Mad Macedonian. This picture filled Detective Tale is about a, um, Honeymoon Hotel, on the Boardwalk in Newport Beach, Ca., a hotel with a history going back to 1904. With just a receipt with no address, or city, for the hotel, Kiril used his investigative skills to find the place, which was where his parents spent their honeymoon in 1958. $43 for a 6 day stay.  You can’t buy a Love Nest for that much money today, hee, hee!

Elyse Doerflinger presents A California Port Town – COG posted at Elyse’s Genealogy Blog. Elyse wrote about San Pedro, California – the port town right next to the Los Angeles Harbor.

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino presents My Hometown: Methuen, Massachusetts posted at Acadian Ancestral Home. My Hometown: Methuen, Massachusetts provides an insight to local history as well as the history of America. As an Acadian researcher it also tells about the Acadian families exiled to Methuen in the winter of 1755-56 when exiled from Nova Scotia by British Governor Charles Lawrence.

Elizabeth Powell Crowe presents Wordless Wednesday/Carnival of Genealogy 71st Edition posted at Crowe’s Nest by Elizabeth Powell Crowe.  Huntsville, Alabama (where Elizabeth was born) recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding at the Big Spring.

Earline Bradt presents COG Local History – “The Tomato Capital of Canada”, Leamington, Ontario posted at Ancestral Notes. Though close to one of the first areas to be revealed after the last ice age, and 40 miles away from one of the earliest explored areas of the New World, Leamington, in Essex County, Ontario was one of the last to be settled.

Leah Kleylein presents Random Notes: COG – Historic King of Prussia Inn posted at Random Notes. Leah offers a short history of the King of Prussia Inn, located in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

Evelyn Yvonne Theriault presents Kahnawa:ke – Home of the Haudenosaunee « A Canadian Family posted at A Canadian Family. Evelyn lives on land that rightly belongs to the Mohawk of Kahnawake.

Linda Hughes Hiser presents Carnival of Genealogy–George Ornan Willet posted at Flipside. Linda writes: “What a great topic! I found out that the street where I live was named for my town’s first mayor.”

Denise Olson presents Living History posted at Moultrie Creek. Denise’s family research turns up centuries-old ties to her home town.

John Newmark presents July 2, 1917 – East St. Louis posted at TransylvanianDutch. 92 years ago one of the bloodiest race riots in our nation’s history occurred three miles from the office building in which John works today.

Ruby Coleman presents Rails Then and Now in Nebraska posted at Nebraska Roots and Ramblings. The railroad coming through Nebraska was instrumental in the history of the nation as well as locally. North Platte, Nebraska as a terminal had a colorful history that is to this day of historical interest.

Cheri L. Hopkins presents “GERONIMO”, High Flying War Dog of the 507th ! posted at THOSE OLD MEMORIES. Geronimo, the WWII CANINE paratrooper of the 507th, was a favorite figure in the history of Alliance Nebraska. This a short story tribute to this awesome soldier.

Midge Frazel presents Williams LATHAM posted at Granite in My Blood. Gravestones and their resting places in greater Bridgewater MA owe a great debt of gratitude to Mr. Williams Latham, local author and historian.

Kris P presents Carnival time! Peabody, MA « From the seed to the branches posted at From the seed to the branches. Read about a “proud Southern girl” who winds up on the North shore of Massachusetts.

Amanda presents The Erie Canal posted at A Tale of Two Ancestors.  Amanda connects her current location, Syracuse, NY, with the home of her ancestors in Buffalo, NY.

Sheri Fenley presents San Joaquin County Local History – A Sack of Flour posted at The Educated Genealogist.  Read about San Joaquin County and the famous sack of flour!

Randy Seaver presents A Victorian House in San Diego – turned into a box posted at Genea-Musings. Randy’s favorite house in San Diego has a history, but it’s hidden beneath the exterior paint and stucco.

Bill West presents West in New England: LOCAL HISTORY – THE NORTH ABINGTON RIOT posted at West in New England. One August day in 1893 all heck broke loose in North Abington Center and became the North Abington Riot!

Cherie presents 71st Carnival of Genealogy: Local History posted at Still Digging for Roots.  Cherie recently discovered a local hero of the Spanish-American War.

Julie Cahill Tarr presents David Davis (1815-1886) posted at The Graveyard Rabbit of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. Bloomington, Illinois is rich with history. There are many places and people of interest, but this post focuses on one gentleman, David Davis.

Greta Koehl presents Tinner Hill: Desegregation, Graveyards, and My Fireplace posted at Greta’s Genealogy Bog. What could desegregation, graveyards, and my fireplace possibly have in common? They all have a connection to Tinner Hill. Greta feels very privileged to live within walking distance of this community and thinks you will find its history as fascinating as she does.

Jasia presents Brief History of Saint Joseph, Michigan posted at Creative Gene. Jasia’s new home town is Saint Joseph, Michigan. It’s a wonderful resort town on the shores of Lake Michigan. Come read about it’s history and see some fabulous vintage postcards of days gone by!

footnoteMaven presents From the Flames My Home posted at footnoteMaven.  fM’s home was built as the result of the careless act of John E. Back, June 6, 1889.  But she writes, “Perhaps he did us all a favor.”

And finally, Donna Pointkouski presents Shadows of History in My Backyard posted here at What’s Past is Prologue.  Donna wonders if the history of her new town in New Jersey could compete with her hometown of Philadelphia, PA.  It can! Read about the shadows of history she discovered right in her backyard.

This concludes this edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.  I hope you enjoyed learning about each other’s hometowns and their fascinating histories, people, and places as much as I did.

Now it is time for the next Call for Submissions! The topic for the next edition of the Carnival of Genealogy will be: Mothers! Mother’s Day is right around the corner and this is the perfect time to honor your mother, grandmother, godmother, step mother, den mother, aunt, neighbor, or friend who happens to be a mother. If you’ve written about your own mother for the COG before, consider writing about another mom on your family tree. Let’s make all our moms famous! The deadline for submissions is May 15th and next edition will be hosted at Creative Gene.

Submit your blog article to the next edition of the Carnival of Genealogy using the carnival submission form. Please use a descriptive phrase in the title of any articles you plan to submit and/or write a brief description/introduction to your articles in the “comment” box of the blogcarnival submission form. This will give readers an idea of what you’ve written about and hopefully interest them in clicking on your link. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Thanks for the COG poster, fM!

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I was born and raised in Philadelphia, one of the most historic cities in the U.S.  Even so, my neighborhood was far removed from the main historic sites like the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house, or Independence Hall.  So far removed that the neighborhood is usually called the Far Northeast.  As the name implies, it is to the far northeast of the city bordering Bucks County, Pennsylvania and it was not fully incorporated into the city limits until 1854.

Since this area of the city was mostly “settled” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, we never knew that it even had a history.  But local streams had exotic Indian names like Neshaminy and Poquessing so we could only imagine what that history may have been.  I eventually learned that the area was once the land of the Lenape. The Lenape land became farm land for English and Swedish settlers, then summer homes for Philadelphia’s wealthy elite, then the sprawling middle class pseudo-suburb that it remains today.  Within all of those various uses for the land lies a rich history.  A saint played in my backyard.  A Founding Father was born just a few miles away. William Penn’s surveyor, who planned the city of Philadelphia, chose this area to live.  And perhaps most exciting of all, George Washington’s army camped a mile away on their way to Yorktown and marched down what is now called Frankford Avenue.

When the time came to purchase a home, I decided to leave my old neighborhood and I set my sights on “East Philadelphia” – otherwise known as New Jersey.  I used to drive through the area of Palmyra and Riverton, and I liked the old houses and charming vibe.  But could these sleepy towns compete with Philadelphia’s history?  I soon learned that history is all around us – sometimes even in our own backyard.

Palmyra, my new hometown, was only officially formed in 1894.  But the history of the land itself was as fascinating as my old neighborhood’s history!  Originally this area was also the land of the Lenape and served as a vast hunting area for the community.  In 1689, the first settlers showed up – the Swedes – and it became the northern portion of New Sweden.

About three generations later, descendants of one of those first Swedish settlers, Elias Toy, built a stone farmhouse in 1761.  That house, slightly modified in the ensuing years, still serves as a residence — about 100 yards from my backyard!  It is the oldest house in Palmyra and the surrounding area.  The view of it from my backyard  is blocked by trees, but here’s a view from the road on its other side.

The Toy-Morgan House, Palmyra, NJ, originally built in 1761.
The Toy-Morgan House, Palmyra, NJ, originally built in 1761.

The Toy family had about 300 acres of farmland and orchards, and most of this area forms the town of Palmyra today, most notably my own property and street!  According to Life on the Delaware: A History of Palmyra, “legend has it that Benjamin Franklin paused here more than once while on his voyages to visit his son.”  The house remained in the possession of the Toy family until 1848, when it was sold to the Morgan’s – another family that had lived in the area for many generations. He  expanded the size of the house in 1853 to its present form. You can read more about the house in a recent article or see a rather historic drawing of the house that looks remarkably like today’s photo.

This is the view from the Toy-Morgan House looking north at the Delaware River
This is the view from the Toy-Morgan House looking north at the Delaware River. That’s an abandoned Philadelphia factory to the left on the other side.

The area surrounding this house changed over the years.  In the 1830s the railroad tracks were laid and the Camden & Amboy Railroad made the area more town-like than farmland.  Then it was referred to as “Texas” – and perhaps there was a bit of a wild west feel with horses and farms.  But in 1849, the name Palmyra first appears on a map of Burlington County, reportedly christened by another Toy family descendant.

What I find interesting about the Palmyra, Riverton, and Cinnaminson area in New Jersey is that you can still see remnants of several eras of the area’s history – the shadows of history left behind.  These shadows create some remarkable juxtapositions.  For example, the Toy-Morgan house reminds us of the early settlers, but its view of the river is now partially blocked by condominiums. The local produce market, Hunter’s Farm in Cinnaminson, has a sign announcing “Settled 1760″, but there is a Wal-mart and a highway about a mile down the road.  In Riverton and in some sections of Palmyra, there are brightly colored Victorian houses that have been gracing the streets for 150 years with newer homes mixed in between.  The new “light rail” uses the old railroad tracks from the 1830’s.  Along the river, some of the magnificent summer mansions of wealthy Philadelphians mingle with newer, more modest, modern homes.  And, though the median income for the town was $51,000  according to the 2000 census, it’s the home of a car dearlership where you can buy a Bentley or an Aston-Martin.  If you look beyond the new and the modern, you’ll see a fragment or a shadow of  history from one time period or another.

I have taken great pride in researching the places my ancestors lived and worked.  Some of the town histories from Poland and Bavaria go back to the middle ages!  Back when their hometowns were established, mine was wilderness whose history remains hidden. Who would have thought there could be so much history in my own backyard?

Spring beckons as the sun sets over the Delaware River in Palmyra, NJ.
Spring beckons as the sun sets over the Delaware River in Palmyra.

[Written for the 71st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Local History.]

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To the Nines!

2 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 9

Nearly everyone is familiar with the phrase “dressed to the nines”, which means dressed up fancily or fashionably.  But why to the nines?  Why not dressed to the eights or sevens?

No one really knows where the phrase “to the nines” originated.  Some think that the earliest reference is a poem by Robert Burns in 1791 called Poem on Pastoral Poetry in which he notes that “Thou paints auld Nature to the nines.”  Did Burns invent the phrase?  Other theories link the phrase to the nine muses of classical mythology or the Nine Worthies of the Middle ages.  Or, perhaps being “to the nines” is close to being perfect on a scale of one to ten.  Whatever the origin, the phrase has become a part of the English language to mean superlative, or to the highest degree.  Therefore, in honor of the new year of 2009, I offer a salute “to the Nines” – the years of history ending in 9!

It takes 9 months to be born, cats have 9 lives, there are 9 choirs of angels, and there’s even a “Love Potion No. 9″!  In honor of 2009, I plan on taking a look at those other years ending in 9 throughout history – or at least throughout the history of my ancestors.  Beginning with the earliest period that I’ve traced my family history to, I’ll look back on certain decades in history and significant events that occurred in “9” years –  both in terms of world history as well as my family’s history.  I’ll skim along through decades in the beginning, but once I reach the twentieth century I’ll take a closer look at the decades that made up my grandparents and parents lives.  My first “9 Year” was 1969, but since I was only two years old, I can’t say it made a big impression on me.  But 1979, 1989, and 1999 did make an impression, and I will write a memoir-style post about the impact of those specific years on my life.

Welcome to 2009, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading my “To the Nines” series over the next several months!

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When Times Change

The other day I learned of the death of an old friend – the VCR.  A news report told me that VHS tapes are no longer being produced.  While that does not come as a complete surprise, it still shocked me.  Why? Because it means that I am getting old.  When inventions of your childhood are replaced by newer, better inventions and you start to reminisce about the “good old days”, you’ve become a relic yourself!

SYSTEM, Video Home.  Died 27 December 2008 after a long period of declining health. Mr. System, called VHS by his friends, was the son of the late Mr. & Mrs. Betamax.  He was thirty-two years old and was predeceased by his spouse, VHS-C.  VHS is survived by children, DVD and HD-DVD, and grandchildren Tivo and Blue-Ray.

Several years ago my parents began to reminisce about their childhoods.  After listening to them wax poetic about the ice chest, ice deliveries, wood burning stoves, gas lamplighters, horse-drawn wagons, radio programs, and incoming phone calls to the store down the street, I jokingly asked, “What century were you guys born in?”  I knew they were born in the 1930s, but the things they remembered seem so far removed from my own life that surely they were kidding.  But then my mother posed an interesting response: “Look at all the changes that have happened just in your lifetime and you’ll see what we mean!”

She was right, of course – mothers always are, and it suddenly dawned on me that the future was now.  When I was in the second grade, the phone company (or rather, The phone company since there was only one back then) sponsored a fun contest – design the phone of the future. For kids reading this today, realize that phones had cords back then.  I’m even old enough to know what a rotary phone is – and to have actually used one!  So, we all designed fabulous phones that were more akin to science fiction than to reality.  One of the most popular designs was a phone to go in your car…just imagine!  A phone in your car!  Others tried to imagine a way to know who was calling.  My design was a “video phone” where you could actually see the person you were talking to on a little screen.  We all had fun with that contest, but I don’t think any of us imagined that most of our dream phones would be a reality by the time we were 30.  They became reality, and then some.  Cell phones, caller ID, VoIP? My first cell phone was barely worthy of being labeled a “mobile” phone – it was a ten pound clunky box with the receiver attached by a cord.  Today’s cell phones are smaller than we ever thought possible, and they do things that would simply astound my grandparents, like take photos and play movies.

There have been many other inventions since my youth.  The ATM is an amazing concept – really, kids, you used to have to go inside of a bank during working hours to get some money. Over the years I’ve said good-bye to vinyl and cassettes and I’ve embraced CDs and MP3s.  Digital photography took longer to gain a hold on me, but now I can’t go back to my once-beloved film.  But the VCR and its VHS tapes was simply one of the most magical inventions of my youth.  When the Betamax appeared, I begged my parents for one.  I loved television, and the thought of being able to watch my favorites whenever I wanted to was intoxicating.  But, the price tag was much too high – similar to today’s “flat screen” tvs – and it was out of the question.

We finally got a VCR in 1985, rather late to the party.  Amazingly, that same machine still works after hundreds of hours of recording and many more of playback.  While I prefer my movies on DVD now for quality, I continue to use a VCR to tape tv shows I want to watch later.  But apparently not for much longer…

Is this how my parents felt when record albums went away? Or how my grandparents felt when that last horse-drawn delivery cart came down the street?

I can’t even begin to imagine what devices will be part of my nieces and nephews lives 30-40 years from now.  All I know is that, back when I was their age, if you would have shown me a DVD player that you could hold on your lap in the back seat of the car, I’d have been dumbstruck.  You see, back in the “good” old days, all we had for entertainment on car rides was looking out the window, conversation, and fighting with siblings.  Well, at least they still have that…

Which generation is living the good days?  All of us! What do inventions have to do with genealogy? While reminiscing about them won’t help you find any ancestral names, realizing we are all a part of history is important – even “historical” things we take for granted like telephones and televisions.

Good-bye, VHS.  I will miss you.  But, all things must pass.  And, in time, we’re all replaced by the next generation!

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A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

Today we commemorate December 7, 1941, the date which has lived in infamy.  My family was not directly affected by the attack on Pearl Harbor; we had no relatives in the military , and my parents were young children.  However, as an American, all were affected by the attack, including those of us that were not born yet, for it set events in motion that changed the world and made history.

The USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, HI

The USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, HI

I have had two unique opportunities to visit the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  My visits were unique because they were a bit outside of an ordinary tourist’s experience.  My first visit was in February, 1999 with a group of U.S. Army chaplains.  The site was closed to just our group, and since they were all chaplains of various faiths, we said a brief, multi-denominational prayer for the souls of the more than one thousand men entombed beneath the memorial, as well as the many other men, women, and children who died that day.  To stand on that spot in total silence while surrounded by men who were in service to both God and country, all offering up a prayer for the dead, was inspiring. The impact of that day and the horror of the sinking ships is felt in full force on that site. Sometimes sights, smells, or sounds will cause us to remember an event.  For me, whenever I hear the sound of a lanyard clanging against a flagpole, I remember this day, because that was the only sound as we prayed and remembered in silence.

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My second visit to Pearl Harbor was in December, 2002.  I was there with a group of government employees, and there were so many of us in the group that we had a VIP visit to the memorial.  We stood silently to remember.  A few days later, we had the great honor of being at the 61st memorial ceremony on December 7, 2002.  The speaker for the ceremony was John William Finn, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism on that fateful day.  But Mr. Finn, still vigorous at the age of 92 (now 99), insisted that he wasn’t there to talk about “me, me, me or I, I, I” – he was there, he said, “to remember my shipmates” as the heroes of that day.  What a privilege to have heard Mr. Finn recount his experiences.

President Roosevelt’s famous “infamy” speech (SOURCE: HyperWar) concludes with these words before he asks Congress to declare war on Japan:

But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.

Today, let us remember the 2,350 who died that day, which included 68 civilians and 1,177 sailors stationed on the Arizona. Let us also remember the men whose lives were changed by this day as they were inspired to fight for America!

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Remembering St. Nicholas

Soon that jolly, white-haired man dressed in red will visit your house at night and deliver some treats to the children that have been good.  In fact, the night he comes is tonight!  Wait, did you think I meant Santa Claus?  No, it’s time for the visit from St. Nicholas!

1914 St. Nicholas Magazine Calendar, St Nicholas Center Collection

1914 St. Nicholas Magazine Calendar, St Nicholas Center Collection

St. Nicholas lived during the 4th Century in a Greek territory that today is Turkey.  Many legends exist about his life.  Most agree that he came from a wealthy family.  After becoming orphaned, Nicholas used his wealth to help the poor and needy.  He devoted his life to God and became a bishop in the Church.  He continued to perform acts of charity, usually in secret, and he was known throughout the region for his goodness.  In giving gifts, he asked that the recipients do the same to those in need.  By the time Bishop Nicholas died, he was known as a miracle-worker, gift-giver, and a true man of God who cared about others.

It became customary around the world to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, by doing what he had done.  On the evening of December 5th, gifts would be left in secret to those in need, presumably left by the saint himself.  He would wander throughout the country and leave gifts for children.  In fact, some children would leave food for St. Nicholas’ means of travel, a donkey.

Many countries continue the celebration of St. Nicholas Day. In Germany, the area of Bavaria where my great-grandparents came from celebrated the arrival of Sankt Nikolaus. He would arrive in his bishop’s regalia with a miter and crozier and ask the children if they had been good.  Families cleaned the house and children cleaned their rooms in anticipation of his arrival!  Boots were left out, and the kindly saint would leave a gift to those who were good – or coal to those who were not.

In Poland, St. Nicholas was called Sw. Mikołaj. He also visited dressed as a bishop and an angel to help him with his sleigh full of goodies, which were usually sweets such as cookies or fruit.  He also encouraged children to be on their best behavior.  He sometimes returned on Christmas Eve with gifts the children requested in letters.

I laughed when I learned that Italy celebrates San Nicola by recalling the time they stole his earthly remains in the 11th Century and brought them to Italy.  It’s not like it sounds though, for they had a good reason!  (Though relic stealing was quite popular back then…)  The celebration of his “arrival” to Bari is celebrated in May, but he also visits children with goodies on the evening of December 5th.

Many countries have similar celebrations and traditions of the saint’s arrival.  So, what happened to him?  Did he “become” Santa Claus?  Or did Santa “replace” the bishop-saint?  In America, the blame gets distributed on the usual suspects: the Puritans, the advertising industry, and the media.  One could argue that he slowly evolved into Santa.  I don’t have anything against Santa – in fact, he’s been quite good to me over the years!  But in reading about St. Nicholas and the traditions that our ancestors celebrated made me wish he had the same PR man as Mr. Claus.  What parent wouldn’t admire a guy who gets children to clean their rooms and be good?  Sure, Santa wants you to be good, too, but St. Nicholas was more about helping those in need and sharing what we have with others.  Over the years the religious aspects of the man and the events surrounding the gift-giving seemed to have disappeared as well.  But, we can always revive the St. Nicholas tradition in our own families by spreading the news and telling the stories about him.  Nick’s stories are even more fascinating than Santa’s stories!

For more information on Saint Nicholas, his history, the evolution of Santa Claus, and how St. Nicholas Day is celebrated throughout the world, visit the wonderful site called The Saint Nicholas Center – discovering the truth about Santa Claus.  In fact, just as I noted in my recent article about the photographic reconstruction of another Nicholas, they have reconstructed what he probably looked like — familiar-looking, isn’t he?

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Researchers in Poland this week confirmed that the skeletal remains found in a Frombork cathedral are indeed those of Nicolaus Copernicus.  There are many amazing things about this story.  Copernicus has been dead for 465 years, yet genetic researchers were able to confirm the remains through DNA testing, comparing DNA found in the bones to DNA retrieved from hairs found in a book that the astronomer owned.  They were not sure that the remains were his because his grave in the cathedral was unmarked.  But what I found even more remarkable about this story was the fact that researchers used the skull to create a computer-generated reconstruction of what he may have looked like – hence the title of this post.  The image looks a lot like paintings that exist of him.  There are many articles about this discovery; this one includes the reconstructed photo.

Does anyone else find it fascinating that a 16th Century skeleton can lead to DNA verification as well as an image of what he looked like?  One dissenting view, found on the blog to Discover magazine, wonders why it is considered acceptable to do this.  The article states:

While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they’ve always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time?

I wasn’t quite as cynical when I heard the news, but the author does make a good point.  When is it acceptable to move/mess with someone’s remains?  But, I have to admit, all I could think about is what would happen if we just happened to have access to the bones of our ancestors…you know, those pesky ones that we don’t have any photos of?  It also made me think of these poor fellows:

Former residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.

Former residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.

These skulls were in an outdoor alcove of the cemetery church in Pfaffenhofen, called St. Andreas.  I’m still not sure why they’re on the shelf instead of in the ground!

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Geography Awareness Week (November 16-22, 2008) is drawing to a close.  I was delighted to learn about it from Lisa, who had several posts at 100 Years in America related to her ancestors’ countries.  Inspired, Jessica also took up the cause and made us all more aware of our own geographical incompetence!  Their posts made me realize how much I enjoy geography.  As a traveler, I love to pour over maps and figure out where I want to go, or even to figure out where I was (maps were useless in Venice, so I was only able to see where we were in retrospect).  Fortunately, I inherited my sense of direction from my father; my mother actually got lost five blocks from our house when I was a child – I thought for sure we’d never make it home.  As citizens of this earth, it’s fun to learn about all of the wonders of it.  But as genealogists, it’s absolutely vital to develop a sense of historical geographical awareness.  By this I mean a knowledge of a place’s name or boundary changes throughout its history.  Without this knowledge, we might never actually find our ancestors!

This sense of historical geography awareness, which Lisa so eloquently called going back in time, helps us track the genealogy of a place.  I’ve noted many times on this blog how important it was to learn about Polish history in order to accurately determine where to obtain vital records for my ancestors, for Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire, Prussia or the German Empire, and Austria for over a century.  Parts of the country belonged to other countries as well as Poland expanded, shrunk, or disappeared altogether. Researchers who find evidence that their ancestor was born in Danzig, Prussia, need to know that the town today is Gdańsk, Poland.

Most European countries have had similar boundary changes in their histories as well.  Why, I was delighted when a commenter informed me that the origins of my Bergmeister family may be found in Bozen.  Bozen is a town in an area known as Südtirol, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or Austria.  But I knew the town by its current name, Bolzano, which has been Italian since the end of World War I.  I finally found my Italian roots!  Who knew?

It’s important to remember that not only countries shift borders or change names, but also states and towns.  For example, the city of Philadelphia did not have its current borders until 1854; the original city limits were much smaller, and the city expanded over time.  Learning these changes throughout the years in which your ancestor lived there is a must, because you won’t know where to look for records.  Simply looking at a map is a must – if you can’t find an ancestor in a census but the state line is only five miles from where they lived, perhaps you should try the neighboring state!

I gained a greater sense of historical geography awareness in researching my Pater family.  When my 2nd great-grandfather Joseph Pater arrived in the U.S. from Poland, he went to Philadelphia.  When I found the passenger arrival records for his wife and daughters, I was surprised to see that they listed their destination as joining Joseph in “Eden, PA”.  Uh, where?  I couldn’t find a town called Eden nearby, and I had never heard of it.  I would have discounted the find entirely based on this, but the names and ages were a perfect fit.  With a little investigation into the geography of my corner of Pennsylvania, I discovered that the Borough of Eden had existed only for a few years before the name was changed to Penndel, a town I knew.  The Pater’s lived there for at least eight years, likely working in the local textile mill, before moving back into the nearby city of Philadelphia.  So remember, kids, learn your geography if you want help with your genealogy!

I’d like to close with a question to my readers: when recording your ancestral information, whether you use computer programs or just on paper, do you record the town/state or province/country as it exists today, or as it existed at the time of the event?  Do I record my great-grandparents’ birth country as Germany, but their ancestors birth country as The Kingdom of Bavaria – even though it’s the same town?  Do I record my Polish ancestors’ life events as taking place in the Russian Empire, or in Poland – even if it didn’t officially exist?  I’m curious how others deal with changing names or boundaries, so please let me know in the comments!

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Veterans Day is celebrated tomorrow in the United States.  The holiday was first established by President Wilson as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919.  The holiday originally celebrated the end of the “War to End All Wars” which formally ended at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.  To those of us generations removed from this war, it is difficult to realize its impact on the world.  It is estimated that nearly 20 million people died globally as a result.  At war’s end, four European empires disappeared: Russian, Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian.

Tomorrow has additional significance in Poland because it is celebrated as Independence Day – at the end of the war in 1918, Poland re-appeared on the map of Europe and became a country again for the first time in 123 years.  Józef Piłsudski became the leader of the new Poland.

I can only wonder how World War I affected my ancestors.  As far as I know, none of my ancestors served in the military during the war, although my one Polish great-grandfather volunteered to fight for Poland in Haller’s Army.  But all of my great-grandparents living in America had only immigrated ten or twenty years prior to the war – surely they had relatives and friends living near the battlefields in Europe.  My German great-grandparents were not naturalized citizens, so they had to register with the U.S. government as “enemy aliens”.  I am sure that there must have been ethnic tensions during the war where neighbors wondered about which “side” of the war German immigrants were on.  Even though my great-grandfather had American sons that would go on to serve in the U.S. military, I wonder if he had conflicted feelings about the war – his own cousins and nephews were fighting in the German military.  It would be interesting to know how he felt about the war’s end – the economic hardships that his former country was about to endure would set the stage for an even greater and tragic war.

For my three Polish great-grandfathers, there must have been great rejoicing after the war, for Poland was once again a country.  Though they were Polish, neither they nor their fathers or grandfathers were born in Poland, but instead in Russian-occupied Poland. I’d like to wish a Happy Independence Day to all of my Polish friends tomorrow!

As we know, the Great War was not the war to end all wars.  After World War II, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day and is a holiday to honor all veterans.  Tomorrow I’ll have a special message for all of my family members and friends who are veterans.

Here are posts from genealogy blogs this past week that are related to World War I research:

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Last week I was researching my politics article when I stumbled upon an interesting article.  Because three of my four sets of great-grandparents came from the area of Poland ruled by the Russian Empire, I googled various topics regarding the Russian Empire and the voting process.  One article from the New York Times was so interesting that I had to devote a post to it.  How could you pass on a lead-in headline such as this:

THE CZAR’S SISTER-IN-LAW A WOMAN SUFFRAGE LEADER; She’s the Widow of Grand Duke Sergius — Nicholas Sent Her to a Nunnery, But She Turned the Nuns Into Suffragists and He Had to Surrender.

The article, dated Sunday, September 17, 1911, details the women’s suffrage movement in Russia.  Read the entire article here. It begins, “Backward as Russia is in many ways, it is feeling the force of the feminist movement.”  Czar Nicholas II’s sister-in-law was the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.  According to this article, which reads more like the National Enquirer than today’s New York Times, she was very unhappy in her marriage to Grand Duke Sergei and turned to feminism.  After his assassination, she became involved in the suffragist movement.  When the Czar questioned this, she openly stated her belief that men and women should have equal political rights, and this equality should be obtained through peaceful diplomacy and influence.  The Czar promptly sent her off to a nunnery (again, according to this article), where she found kindred souls who also supported the suffrage movement.

The article is funny, though it was not written to be.  It also details the Russian suffrage movement in the universities, the Polish influence from the “poetess” (as she is referred to, although she was actually a novelist) Madame Orzesykowa [sic - should be Orzeszykowa], and another nun, Sister Veronica, who led the movement from a monastery in Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. Of course, this was written in 1911.  Russian women did get the right to vote in 1918…a full two years before American women despite the fact that the New York Times highlights just how “backward” Russia is in the first sentence of the article!

Needless to say, I became interested in the Grand Duchess, but her biography on Wikipedia tells a slightly different tale than this sensational article.  In fact, her involvement in the suffragist movement isn’t even mentioned.  Rather than an unhappy marriage to the Duke, she appeared to love him a great deal.  After his murder, she entered a convent – it didn’t mention a Czar-forced trip to the nunnery – and became known for her charitable works.  After her death she was canonized in the Russian Orthodox church for her saintly life. Sadly, Elizabeth was also murdered, apparently under Lenin’s orders.  Her life story is quite fascinating, as is her ancestry.  She may have become a Russian princess, but she was half German and half British by birth.  In fact, her grandmother is Queen Victoria!

I can’t help but wonder if the “press” slant of the article is that the Czar sent her to a nunnery to repent for her feminist views because that was easier for the world to understand than the fact that a woman of royal standing would give up all of the world’s riches in order to serve the poor. Politics may be slightly different today (at least women can vote), but I fear there’s not much difference between the news outlets of 1911 and today.

You never know what fascinating lives you will uncover as you research topics related to either genealogy or history!  They never told us in school that research could be interesting!

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As I pondered over this topic for the Carnival of Genealogy and mused about the election in the next few days, I couldn’t help but wonder how my immigrant ancestors felt about the American electoral process.  Did they vote?  What was the voting process like in their homelands?  The records don’t exist to tell me the answers to the first question, but I was able to uncover some interesting facts about the electoral process in the countries from which they came.

My German great-grandparents never voted in a U.S. election because my great-grandfather was not naturalized.  But, he may have had the chance to vote in Germany.  Joseph Bergmeister was born in 1873, only two years after the unification of Germany as a nation.  Prior to that, German states were independent of one another, and my ancestors came from the Kingdom of Bavaria.  In the new, unified Germany, called the German Empire, the country was ruled by a Kaiser or Emperor.  The Kaiser was not an elected position!  But, men were able to vote for the Reichstag or the Imperial Assembly, which was a weak representative body.  (Note: women did not get the right to vote in Germany until 1918.)

Wikipedia

Flag of the German Empire, 1871-1918. Source: Wikipedia

The problem with the Reichstag was that it could not initiate laws, but only pass, amend, or reject bills initiated by the Kaiser-appointed Chancellor.  In the beginning days of the German Empire, the Reichstag more or less was agreeable with the Kaiser’s wishes.  But, as it seems with any democratic body, they became less compliant over time.  Disagreeing with the Kaiser prompted rumors of threats that the Reichstag would be replaced with members who were in agreement with the Kaiser or, worse still, the democratic body would be eliminated completely as well as universal male suffrage.

The environment from which my great-grandfather came was a semi-constitutional monarchy, but at least the men had some say in the government.  From 1888 through to its abolishment with World War I in 1918, the argument over the best form of government continued.

I was unable to determine the voting age during this time.  If it was 18 or 20 years old, then my great-grandfather would have been eligible to vote in the 9th election of 1893.  Elections followed every five years, so his last vote – and perhaps his first if the voting age was 21, was in the election of 1898 since he left for the U.S. in 1900.  I can only imagine what he thought about the more democratic process in his new country in which men had the right to vote for the leader of the country!  As I said, he never got the chance to vote in America because he did not become a citizen.

For my Polish ancestors, their homeland’s political process was even more muddled because the country of Poland did not officially exist during my great-grandparents’ lives.  My remaining three great-grandfathers, Ludwig Pater, Jan Piontkowski, and Jozef Zawodny, all came from the area of Poland that was “confiscated” or partitioned by the Russian Empire.  It was the largest country in the world in the early 19th Century.

Wikipedia

Flag of the Russian Empire, 1721-1917. Source: Wikipedia

Similar to the German Empire, the Russian Empire was led by the Tsar, or Emperor.  Prior to 1906, the tsar’s power was unlimited.  After 1906, the tsar’s power was more limited although the country was far from having a constitutional government.  Under the Tsar, the legislative power was called the Imperial Assembly of 196 members.  Half were appointed by the Tsar, and half were elected by the men of the Empire.  (Note: women received the right to vote in Russia and Poland in 1918.)  It appears that six members were elected by Poland of the 96 elected members.

Russia’s lower body of government was called the Duma of the Empire or the Imperial Duma, consisting of 442 members.  Reading about the Duma was more confusing than when I first learned about the U.S. electoral college in grade school!  The Duma appeared to have more members allowed for the wealthier classes, and less allowed for the working class or peasants.  But it does appear that even the peasants had a vote in this system, much to my surprise.  The effect of that vote was likely minimal, but the large population of the Polish cities of Warsaw and Lodz meant that Poland was represented to some extent.

Again, it would be interesting to know what my Polish great-grandfathers thought of the electoral process in the United States.  They were each naturalized in 1923, 1925, and 1926.  One, Jan Piontkowski, could have voted in the 35th Presidential election, while the other two were eligible to vote in the next election in 1928.  I don’t know if any of them did vote, but my mother remembers her one grandfather talking about Franklin D. Roosevelt and he likely voted for him.  Each of their wives would have been eligible to vote as well since women in the U.S. could vote as of 1920, and they became citizens through marriage to their naturalized husbands.

My father was first eligible to vote in the 1956 election; although my mother is not much younger, because of when her birthday fell she would not be able to vote until the 1960 election (for President, that is).  Both were big supporters of John F. Kennedy.  Growing up, Kennedy reigned large in our house even though he had been dead for years before I was born.  My mother would never feel the same level of support for any other candidate!  The democratic nature of  my family would change as the party’s values began to change in the 1970s.  I dislike having only two main parties from which to choose, and I prefer the “Independent” label since neither party meets my personal values completely.

I received something my parents did not: the right to vote at the age of 18.  I was just shy of 18 in time for the 1984 election, so my first chance was in 1988.  Since I did not feel strongly about either candidate or politics in general, I neither registered nor voted.  While it is embarrassing to admit, I finally registered this year.  I suddenly felt guilty for squandering an opportunity that so many of my ancestors never had.  Next week, I will proudly vote for a U.S. President for the first time in my life.  I hope my ancestors are proud that I finally will take part in the process!

[Written for the 59th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Politics and Our Ancestors.]

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Historical fiction does not merely tell a good story – the reader also learns about the time and place of the novel’s events.  In conclusion of What’s Past is Prologue’s celebration of Polish-American Heritage Month, I can think of no finer novel to highlight than Push Not the River by James Conroyd Martin.  Genealogists will be delighted to learn that the novel is based on an ancestor’s diary!

As the Polish proverb says, “Push not the river; it will flow on its own accord.”  That sentiment is a perfect reflection on the sweeping events that occurred in Poland in the late 1700’s, the setting of the novel.  Anna Maria Berezowska is a 17-year-old countess whose life is changed by a series of tragic events.  The tumultuous time in Anna’s life coincides with an equally revolutionary time in Poland’s history: the Partitions and the Third of May Constitution.

During this time period, from 1772 to 1794, Poland was repeatedly divided – or “partitioned” – by its neighbors Prussia, Austria, and Russia.  The Third of May Constitution was modeled on the United States Constitution and was the first democratic constitution in Europe.  For the first time, some of the rights of the nobility were decreased, putting them on equal footing with the “middle class” townspeople.  The constitution also provided protection for the peasant serfs – another first.  Although the constitution was only in effect for a short time, its effect was revolutionary as Poland’s restless neighbors fought against these ideas which threatened their power.

These dramatic historical events provide the backdrop for Push Not the River.  Because of the divided loyalties of the time, it is a rich setting.  Anna’s life is affected by these events in multiple ways.  Her life as a noblewomen changes with the political events, and her love for patriot Jan is threatened by both the ensuing insurrection and her conniving cousin Zofia.

As a novel, this book is well worth reading if you enjoy romance, drama, history, or a mix of all.  From a historical perspective, readers will learn much about Poland’s history and its people.  But the most amazing fact of all is that the story is based on a true story!  James Conroyd Martin’s friend, John Stelnicki, is a descendant of the real-life Anna Maria Berezowska.  Anna kept a diary during the years of these events, and the diary is the basis for the plot of the novel. To quote from the author’s own website, “Vivid, romantic, and thrillingly paced, Push Not the River paints the emotional and unforgettable story of the metamorphosis of a nation—and of a proud and resilient young heroine.

I was delighted when I found out that James wrote a sequel entitled Against a Crimson Sky.  This novel explores the Napoleonic era in Poland and the loyalties that continued to divide Poland.  The story culminates with the dramatic but doomed 1812 march into Russia.  Ultimately, it is a story of the love that Anna and Jan have for each other as well as their country.

Both of these novels made me an immediate fan of author James Conroyd Martin.  He graciously agreed to chat about these novels, their origin, and what’s next in his writing future.  And, he also offers some advice to those genealogists who want to write about their ancestors!

Push Not the River was based on your friend’s ancestor’s diary recounting events in her life.  How many of the events in the novel were presented in the diary as real-life events, and how many events did you “fill in” based on the historical events of that time?

I’m often asked what events are true-to-life right from the diary and what things I have added to the story.  For the most part the big events in each of the six parts are absolutely faithful to Anna’s account.  These include the rape, attempted murder by her husband, her being kept by the clan, Zofia’s scheming, her imprisonment by her (real cousin, not adoped one), and escape from the Russians across the bridge. I had to deepen characterization, bring in historical information that Anna assumed people would know, and help an occasional character exit the story for closure.  I also had to imagine the short chapters from Jan’s point of view.  Push Not the River has been optioned for film.  I’m not buying a tux yet, as the producer needs to secure funding. And in this economy!

Was Against a Crimson Sky based on events in the diary as well?

Push Not the River ends just where the diary ended. Anna was running out of pages and her life was becoming more settled so she hoped not to need the therapy of the diary.  When St. Martin’s Press asked for a sequel, I took the characters I knew so well and placed them into the milieu of the Napoleonic era.

I was happy to see that you’re planning a third book based on these characters called The Warsaw Conspiracy.  What can we expect, and when will it be published?

The Warsaw Conspiracy, the final book in my trilogy,  continues with the familiar characters and their children; however, this will be a bit of a political thriller revolving around the attempted kidnapping of the Russian Grand Duke, brother to the Czar, who had charge of Poland.

Is your own ancestry Polish as well?

I’m Irish and Norwegian, but I certainly feel I’m an honorary Pole. On November 9th I’ll accept a second major Polish award, this one from Wisconsin’s Polish American Congress. Last year I received a gold medal from The American Institute of Polish Culture. Maybe I should get busy with my own lineage!

Recently genealogy-bloggers have been discussing “creative nonfiction” as a technique in writing about their ancestors’ lives.  This is where you take the factual events of an ancestor’s life and bring it to life using literary techniques found in fiction.  To some extent, this is what you’ve done – although you added fictional material to flesh out the story line, and your intent was to create fiction.  Do you have any advice for genealogists who want to use the “creative nonfiction” techniques?

Absolutely! I would just say, Go for it!  A good story will always find its way in the world.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thanks, Jim!  I can’t wait to read the third book!  For more information on James C. Martin and his novels, including some excerpts and a “video trailer” of Push Not the River, visit his website at http://jamescmartin.com.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

October is Polish-American Heritage Month!  In honor of this national celebration, What’s Past is Prologue is hosting the Polish History and Culture Challenge.  If you have Polish ancestry, it’s a great time to learn more about those ancestors and their lives.  But, even if you do not have any Polish blood, I invite you to take the opportunity to learn more about the country, its long history, and its people.

What’s involved with the “challenge”?  Simply do one, some, or all of the following “tasks” – or similar ones of your own invention.  Then, write about it on your blog.  Email me the link and I’ll post a round-up at the end of the month to see how much we all learned.  The best part is that you don’t have to have Polish ancestry to participate!  Become an honorary Pole by joining in on the fun!

Here are some ideas on how to celebrate Polish-American Heritage Month and participate in the challenge:

Genealogy

  • Find a Polish ancestor’s hometown
  • Decipher a Polish record
  • Write about one of your ancestor’s hometowns
  • Write a biography of one of your Polish ancestors
  • Develop a research plan for a hard-to-find ancestor
  • Join a Polish genealogical society
  • Contribute to a Polish genealogical record indexing project

History

  • Read a book about Poland or its history and tell us about it
  • Research an event in Polish history
  • Write about a Polish historical figure
  • Write about a famous Pole in the arts or sciences
  • Learn about Poland’s history through maps or photographs

Culture

  • Experiment with Polish food – make a recipe or try a restaurant
  • Read a novel by a Polish author or one set in Poland
  • Write about a famous Pole that you admire
  • Watch a Polish film
  • Learn how to Polka
  • Learn about some Polish customs or folklore

The possibilities are endless, but hopefully at least one of these ideas will be interesting to you.  I hope you will join me in celebrating Polish-American Heritage Month.  If you would like to participate in the challenge, email me with the title, subject, and URL of your post at djpoint at gmail dot com.  You can either send me emails as you post, or one at the end of the month if you post on multiple subjects!  All of the posts will be published in a round-up during the first week of November. Dziękuję!

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This week I visited the local hospital when my father went to the ER (it’s okay, he’s fine now!).  It seems as though I visit there about once a year for one parent or the other, except I’ve been there three times since Christmas and once was for myself!  Fortunately, it’s very close to my parents’ house.  As I walked towards the entrance to the ER, I noticed the old building that is seemingly out of place with the rest of the hospital.  Ever since then I can’t stop thinking about the history that is all around us – history which we are often unaware.

The neighborhood in which I grew up, the section of Philadelphia called the Far Northeast, was not developed until the 1950s and 60s, but it has a rich history that goes far beyond the current housing developments and shopping centers.  It’s unfortunate that we never learned about this local history in school, like why so many things had “Indian” names or why streets had funny names or who the people were whose names were on the public schools.  Even though my ancestors are not connected to that corner of Philadelphia, I am, and I’m fascinated by what was there before me.

My parents bought their brand new house in 1961; I arrived six years later.  Frankford Hospital’s Torresdale Division was built when I was a child.  I don’t recall what the corner looked like before then, but I remember sledding on a hill that is now a parking garage needed as the hospital expanded.  But two remnants of the entire area’s past remain standing on the hospital’s grounds: the old house and a chapel.  Both belonged to the Drexel family.

The grounds were purchased in 1870 as a summer home for Francis A. Drexel, his wife, and three young daughters.  The Drexel’s were very wealthy; Francis’ father, an immigrant from Austria, made a fortune in the banking industry.  The family lived in the city on Locust Street, but packed up for the summer to escape the city heat and spend time in “the country”.  This farmland area had only been incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854; prior to that, the land consisted of small villages whose names are known today as neighborhood’s names.  In 1870 when the Drexel family first came to their summer home, the area, though officially part of the city, was country-like with a lot of open space, trees, creeks, hills, farms, and very few homes.  This whole Torresdale area of the city would remain mostly “open space” until the 1950s.

The Drexel family name is remembered today for two main reasons:  Francis’ brother Anthony founded Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Francis’ daughter Katherine is a saint.  Katherine’s story is admirable no matter what religion you believe in.  In today’s language, we’d say she “had it all” because of her family’s wealth.  But she gave up all of the worldly things she could have had for a much worthier cause.

Katherine’s mother, Hannah, died only weeks after giving birth to her.  When Francis re-married to Emma Bouvier (a relative of Jackie Kennedy), Emma became step-mother to Katherine and her sister Elizabeth.  Francis and Emma had a third daughter together, Louise.

When Katherine was a young woman, the family vacationed out west.  She was appalled at the poverty endured by Native Americans.  Likewise, she saw much suffering and poverty among African-Americans in the south.  Many “rich” women like Katherine would have simply donated large sums of money to help these poor people.  But Katherine wanted to do more; she wanted to serve these people.  At the age of 33, she decided to become a nun.  She would go on to found a religious order of sisters called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose mission was to serve and educate the poor, specifically native and African-Americans.

Katherine became “Mother Katherine” as she led this order of missionary sisters in their mission, and she used much of her own personal inheritance to fund schools and convents.  Katherine died in 1955 at the age of 96.  She became “St. Katherine Drexel” in 2000 – only the second American-born saint.

Back to her early life and what she has to do with my old neighborhood…  When the Drexel’s first bought their summer estate, which has been reported to equal anywhere from 90-300 acres of Northeast Philadelphia, Katherine was 11 years old.  A chapel was built directly behind the mansion, and even today it is an impressive sight on the hill.  When Katherine founded her religious order, she housed novices on the grounds until their convent was built in nearby Bensalem.   The chapel, and the entire family estate, was called St. Michael’s.  Today, their old home is used as an office building.  The chapel was desanctified for secular use and is now used as a “wellness center”.  I once got a view inside as a teenager, and it was impressive even though it was no longer a chapel at the time.

The history of my neighborhood is much older than Katherine Drexel and her family.  But, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one “era” of the neighborhood.  Long before the housing boom, my street was part of the Drexel grounds.  It’s somehow nice to know that a saint enjoyed summers riding horses with her sisters on what became my house, block, church, school, and neighborhood.  Maybe that’s why I always felt blessed to be there.

For more information:

[I hope to provide more posts on Northeast Philadelphia, other Philadelphia neighborhoods, and the small town in New Jersey where I now live.  All of these areas have a rich history that few seem to either know or care about today.  I'm afraid written history doesn't go back as far as in Europe, but I should at least be able to find information about the area at least back to the 1600s!]

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