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Joan Pater, 1932

Joan Pater, 1932

Joan Delores Pater was born on August 30, 1932 in Philadelphia, PA.  She was the first born child of Henry and Mae Pater.  Their family was made complete three years later with the birth of a second daughter, Anita Jane, who was born in 1935. Despite their closeness in age, the two sisters did not get along from the time they were children.  Each had different interests and hobbies from their youth through to adulthood.  Both, however, had a great sense of humor!  For several years, the Pater girls and their parents lived on Mercer Street with their maternal grandfather, Joseph Zawodny, until his death in 1944.

Joan's wedding portrait, 1949

Joan's wedding portrait, 1949

Anita Pater, Henry Pater, Joan & Richard

Anita Pater, Henry Pater, Joan & Richard

In 1949, Joan married at age 17 – the third generation of Pater’s to do so.  Both her father, Henry, and her grandfather, Louis, were 17 when they got married – both to slightly older women.  She married a boy from the neighborhood, Richard.  Although they were happy while dating, marriage was not what she expected.  Her husband’s personality seemed to change overnight, and he became verbally and physically abusive.  Despite these difficulties, the couple had a son, Richard, on August 22, 1951.

Ricky

My cousin Ricky

Baby Ricky became the joy of their lives, but he also brought great sadness.  Ricky was born with a heart defect, and he never properly matured or learn to talk or walk.  He was a happy baby, and he loved to flirt with ladies!  His short life ended on December 9, 1952.  He was only fifteen months old.  His entire family was devastated by the death — his mother Joan most of all.  After that experience, she knew that she did not want to have any more children because the pain of losing one was too great. Joan and Richard remained married, but their son’s death added to their marital problems.  The couple split up about five years later.

Joan began to work as a secretary at Anheuser-Busch in Philadelphia – much to her family’s amusement for she lacked the two skills essential for secretarial work, stenography and typing.  Joan simply made up her own style of shorthand, and she must have learned how to type because she remained with the company for several years!

Aunt Joan holding Donna Joan (that's me), April 1967

Aunt Joan holding Donna Joan (that's me), April 1967

Joan’s sister, Anita, married in 1956 and had two children, Drew in 1959 and myself in 1967.  We gave Joan a new job: Aunt Joan.  She relished the role of aunt; we became “her kids”.  When Drew was very young, Joan lived with the family for about two years.  Even after moving, she visited on weekends to “play”. When I was in kindergarten, Aunt Joan accompanied my mother as chaperones on a field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.  One day several weeks after the trip, she came with my mother to pick me up from school.  One of my classmates who had been in our group on the field trip recognized her.  The girl shouted loudly, “I know you - you’re from the zoo!”

Another memorable recognition, or more appropriate, a mis-recognition, occurred years later.  In 1978, my mother had surgery.  Aunt Joan went with my brother and I to pick her up from the hospital.  As we all stood with my mother waiting for her discharge, a nurse brought over a wheelchair.  Wheeling past my mother directly to Aunt Joan, the nurse asked her to get in.  “It’s not for me! How bad do I look?” she yelled as we all laughed.

Joan and Ken Silvers, 1993

Joan and Ken Silvers, 1993

In 1978, Aunt Joan became re-acquainted with someone she knew from the neighborhood where she lived as a teenager – Ken Silvers.  Ken had also been married and divorced, and he had two preteen daughters.  Joan and Ken fell in love, and this time the marriage was forever. Ken was a former Navy submariner who had served on the USS Tusk. That experience, as well as time spent as a commercial tugboat captain, gave him a love for boating that he passed on to Joan.  For many years, they belonged to the Wissinoming Yacht Club in Philadelphia.  Despite the name, there was nary a yacht among the members’ boats, which were mainly powerboats, sailboats, or cruisers – which is what my new Uncle Ken owned.  On their small boat, Uncle Ken’s seat was labeled as “the Captain’s Chair” – but Aunt Joan’s was labeled as “the Admiral’s Chair”!

Ken served as “Commodore” of their yacht club for some years, and he occasionally wore a “Captain’s” hat.  Once, around 1978-79, the pair took the boat down to Atlantic City for the weekend.  While at a bar at one of the brand new casinos, they couldn’t believe how nice the bartender was and how they kept getting free drinks.  Later that night, they realized why – Captain & Tennille” were playing at the casino!  While my aunt & uncle did not necessarily resemble the singing duo, a huge hit at the time, my uncle’s mustache and captain’s hat were enough to confuse the bartender!

Aunt Joan and Aunt Donna on "the boat" with Natalie, 2001

Aunt Joan and Aunt Donna on "the boat" with Natalie, 2001

As I grew up, I tried to visit Aunt Joan when I could.  At a minimum, visits would take place for birthdays and other holidays.  My favorite visits were during the summertime when I would not visit their house, but the boat instead.  Occasionally, my uncle would take us for a ride on the Delaware River.  Other times, we’d simply sit on the boat at the dock.  We’d always have food – with my aunt trying to get me to eat as much of it as possible.  This became a much-loved ritual.  Often, Uncle Ken would grill lobster tails on a little propane grill.  Alternately, we’d have steamed crabs or even steak.  As we enjoyed the food, Uncle Ken would smile, wink, and remark, “What are the poor people eating tonight?”  It became our signature comment every time we feasted on the boat.

In 2004, I visited on August 29th to celebrate Aunt Joan’s 72nd birthday, which was the next day.  It was a great visit!  The weather was beautiful – sunny, but not hot, with a cool breeze.  We took the boat out for a short ride on the river, then returned to the dock for a meal of crabs and beer.  And birthday cake!  It was relaxing and fun, and I remember talking with my aunt about how good she looked for her age.  She commented on how good she felt.  Looking back, I wish I had stayed just a little longer to visit.  My last memory of my aunt is her waving good-bye from the dock as I drove away.  She died suddenly six days later from a heart attack.

I realize now that there are a lot of things I never got to know about my aunt’s life.  But, after her death, I realized one thing for sure – I was loved – truly, deeply, unconditionally.  I didn’t always give her the respect or love I should have, but I loved her – just probably not as much as she loved me.  Since I am also an aunt without any children of my own, I now understand her in a completely different way.  I hope that my nieces and nephews will know how much I love them like the way I know Aunt Joan loved us all.  I miss you, Aunt Joan!

frame2In Loving Memory

Joan Delores Pater Silvers

30 Aug 1932 – 04 Sep 2004

[Written for the 68th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Tribute to Women]

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Several genea-bloggers are celebrating “Celebrate Your Name Week” from March 2 through 8.  I’ve missed out on some of the events, but today, March 4th, is set aside as “Unique Names Day”. Since my surname is unique enough, I’m glad my name isn’t quite that unique (although it’s definitely not as common as it was in the decade before I was born).  To honor the unique names in my family tree, I’m going to link to an “oldie but goodie” post that I already wrote on this topic – “Call Me Ishmael”.  While Ishmael doesn’t show up in my genealogy, several other unique first names do – and, like that opening line, you tend to remember them!  Read all about my personal favorites among my family’s names, including Dionys, Kreszens, Wolfgang, and Walburga from Bavaria, and Hilary and Teofila from Poland.  And if my sister-in-law is reading this (she who is expecting her third child next month) – I know you’re still looking for suggestions, but don’t even think about using any of these “favorites”!

What unique names are found in your family tree?  Tell me!

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It snowed last year too:  I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea. ~Dylan Thomas

My father James was the first-born son of James and Margaret Pointkouski.  Just before his eighth birthday, a new addition arrived to the household – a baby sister, Jean.  As my grandmother recuperated in the hospital, her son sent a note:

Dear mother, How are you and how is baby sister.  I am doing find. I am a good little boy.  I forgot to tell the Ladys in school that baby sister just looks like me.  I am having a good time playing after school.  I will be seeing you.  Kisses for you and baby sister. xxxxxxxxxX  P.S. By your son Jimmy

James and Jean Pointkouski, 1949
James and Jean Pointkouski, 1949

Little did Jimmy know then that history would repeat itself.  Jimmy grew up and got married.  His wife was surprised at the large age difference between brother and sister – surely they wouldn’t have children that far apart.  Their first child was a stillborn baby girl.  But a son was born the following year, James Drew.  Despite efforts to provide brothers and sisters to only-child Drew, none came.  None, that is, until shortly before Drew’s eighth birthday when a new addition arrived to the household – a baby sister, Donna.

Drew was happy at first, but quickly became dismayed and suggested that perhaps our parents ought to “return” me to the hospital as if I was broken.  When asked why, he replied, “She can’t talk and she can’t walk – she can’t do anything!”  Fortunately I got a repreive from my parents, and eventually I learned how to talk, walk, and do everything.

Drew and Donna Pointkouski, 1973
Drew and Donna Pointkouski, 1973

Having an 8-year gap between brother and sister has its ups and downs. My aunt and I had a big brother to look up to; my father and brother had a little sister to protect.  But by the time my aunt and I were old enough to really “get along” with our brothers, they were out of the house on their own.  Because of that, both brother and sister experienced life as an “only child” while also knowing the joys and sorrows of being a sibling.  One thing is for sure – no matter how old we all get, no matter if we see eye to eye or not, or have anything in common, as my mother always says, “Blood is thicker than water” – which means we’ll always be there for each other no matter what.  That’s what brothers and sisters are for!

brosista


[Written for the 11th edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival: Brothers & Sisters.]

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One of my more popular posts has been Philadelphia Marriage Indexes Online.  As that post indicates, the FamilySearch site’s collection of Philadelphia Marriage Records is great online tool for searching for marriage information.  The collection is a listing of marriage licenses issued in Philadelphia from 1885-1951.  While these records are technically an “index” they are not searchable – to find a particular person, you must browse through the records.  This is easy for the years 1885 to 1938 because the list is alphabetical.  For the remaining years, the last names were entered in the order of application, so it takes some manual searching to find a particular person.

In my previous post, I lauded the availability of these records – not only can we search online, but they are free!  But I’ve also come across some comments on mailing lists and message boards from some disappointed individuals who were unable to find their ancestors’ marriage records in this index.  When you know a couple lived in the city, and you have an approximation of when they married, why can’t they be found in the index of Philadelphia marriage license records?  Simply put, many Philadelphia residents went elsewhere to get married.  This occurred mostly due to marriage laws that differed from state to state.  These laws that govern how marriages may be entered into and officiated are at the state level, not federal, so the rules vary.

For this reason, some couples married out of state, or at least outside of the borders of the city of Philadelphia.  The Pennsylvania rules that they may have been circumventing usually involved age or the waiting period.  In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a law was passed on October 1, 1885 that required marriage licenses to be obtained prior to a couple marrying.  The county clerk of the orphans’ court was required to keep the records.  At this time, the information required by the couple was rather simple and included the names of the couple, birth dates and places of birth, occupations and current residences, any previous marriage(s), and if the parties are related or not.

On September 11, 1885, the New York Times printed a short article about the new law that was excerpted from The Philadelphia Times:

Some of the interrogatories will be embarrassing in special cases, but the law is inexorable and they must be answered.  The clerk of the court will be liable to fine if he fails to enforce the law to the letter, and parties answering falsely will be subject to the penalty of perjury.

One of the requirements of this new law made the marriageable age 21.  For anyone under 21, the consent of the parents was required.  Suddenly, an out-of-state marriage market was born!

Camden, NJ

One of the earliest locations for Philadelphians to marry was one of the closest and easily reached: Camden, New Jersey, located directed across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.  By 1888 the newspapers were complaining that Pennsylvania’s marriage license law was creating a “knot-tying business” for “love-sick couples” in Camden, “where impertinent questions are not asked, and where the performance of the marriage ceremony is not hedged about with restrictions.”

By 1891, Camden was called “the Gretna Green of the Union”.  Gretna Green was a small town in Scotland known for runaway weddings.  A New York Times’ article explains that those “unable or unwilling to procure a license” in Philadelphia simply traveled to Camden for a quick and quiet marriage.  The statistics cited in the article show that only 634 marriages were performed in Camden in 1885, the year that Pennsylvania changed their law.  By 1890, the entire state of New Jersey had 15,564 marriages with one-third performed in Camden – “although the population of that city is less than one-fifteenth of the population of the State.

My great-grandparents were Philadelphia residents who contributed to the booming marriage trade in Camden.  In 1910, Louis Pater celebrated his 17th birthday on August 24th.  Three days later, he married Elizabeth Miller.  On the marriage certificate, Louis’ age is listed as 22.  Elizabeth is listed as 20 although she would only turn 19 in another three months.  Elizabeth’s parents were in Poland – she had only immigrated the previous year – but her brother Emil served as a witness.  It is assumed that Louis did not think his parents would approve of the marriage at his young age.

Although Ancestry.com has marriage records from “Camden County, NJ, 1837-1910″ it is likely that these are moreso county records than those from the city of Camden.  Not only did I not find my great-grandparents’ marriage in this database, but it consists of only 6,000 records.  Given the marriage boom in Camden after 1885, it is assumed that the city of Camden’s records are not included here.

The city of Camden’s web page indicates that “Birth, Death, and Marriage Certificates can be aquired (sic) for anyone that was born, died, or married in the City of Camden. These certificates can be picked up in room 103 of City Hall or mailed directly to you.”

Elkton, MD

Another town famous for out-of-state marriages was Elkton, MD.  Located in northern Maryland, the town is situated close to Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  Until 1938, there was no waiting period required between the marriage application and the ceremony, so the town became known for “quick” weddings similar to Las Vegas decades later.  The following sign recognizes Elkton’s role in the history of marriage in the Northeastern US:

Historical Marker in Elkton indicating that the town was the "Marriage Capital of the East"

Historical Marker in Elkton indicating that the town was the "Marriage Capital of the East"

I do not have any direct ancestors who got married in Elkton, but I’m sure there are some collateral relatives who did.  If you can’t find a marriage record, try Elkton.  Records can be searched through the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cecil County, Maryland.  See their site for more information.

Other Pennsylvania Counties

It makes sense to travel across state lines to marry if Pennsylvania had “restrictive” laws regarding the marriageable age and a waiting period.  However, there was another option – the couple simply didn’t tell the truth on their applicatoin.  But, sometimes they did not want to lie about their ages in the city of Philadelphia.  In my own family history, both sets of grandparents got married in Delaware County – despite the fact that it is in Pennsylvania and therefore governed by the same laws as the city of Philadelphia.  Perhaps they were afraid that the city could “look it up” and discover their fib?  All I know is that both towns are a bit out of the way for me today and I have a car and highways; my grandparents did not.

In the Pater family, history repeated itself with another 17-year-old groom.  My grandfather, Henry Pater, was two months shy of his 18th birthday when he traveled to Broomall, PA with his intended, Mae Zawodna.  On the license application, Henry lists his birth year as 1907 instead of 1912, therefore making himself almost 23 years old.  Mae, who actually was born in 1907 and was five years older than Henry, listed her birth year as 1908 – making herself appear to be 21 rather than 22 and a half.  Neither family looked kindly upon the wedding, and in fact in the 1930 census a few months later they are each enumerated with their own parents – living a few doors away from each other.  Eventually they told their families they were married, and in June of the same year their marriage was blessed in a Catholic church.

My other grandparents traveled to Media, PA for their wedding in 1934.  James Pointkouski accurately reported his age as 23, but Margaret Bergmeister makes herself one year older – reporting her age as 21.  In reality, she would turn 21 a few months later.  She also provides an address for her parents; however, both had been deceased for some time.  They may have feared someone in Philadelphia confirming her birth record, which would have made her ineligible for marriage without the consent of her guardian.  But they also did not want to wait an extra few months – their son would be born seven months later.

Couples had many reasons to marry in seemingly unlikely places.  If the law required parental consent, a waiting period, or even proof of either a divorce or death of a prior marriage, some couples traveled to avoid the hassle.  Or they traveled to the next county to avoid the neighbors seeing the marriage notice published in the newspaper.  This was by no means unique to the Philadelphia area – Elkton, MD received couples from up and down the East Coast, and other states have similar “Gretna Green” locations such as the Kentucky and Ohio River Valley border. If you have trouble finding Grampa’s marriage record – look around the neighboring counties or states!

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Last month, I shared photos of my great-grandmother’s sisters.  I have several more unidentified photos; I know they are of the sisters, but which one?  The three photos below are perfect for the latest edition of  the Smile for the Camera Carnival, for they certainly offer the distinctive style of dress of the 1920s.  These all appear to be photos of the same sister…is it Jane or Mary?  See my previous posts on the Slesinski sisters for other photos (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).  If you enjoy identifying persons in photos, let me know which sister you think it is in the comments!  She was certainly into fashion and “costume” – the 1920s version of a “Project Runway” or Glamour fan!

photo-2photo-3photo-1

[Submitted for the 10th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival: Costume.]

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Part 1 of this series presented the photographs that led me to investigate the lives of my great-grandmother and her four sisters.  In Part 2, I detailed my genealogical research.  Years after I had completed this research, I received a happy confirmation in a rather unusual way.  My mother reconnected with her elderly aunt – the last surviving child of my great-grandmother, Laura Slesinska Zawodny.  When I met this aunt for the first time in many years, I naturally asked, “Do you have any photos?”  I hoped for more photos of her parents or of the siblings as young children.  To my surprise, she gave me a pile of photos – and nearly all were of her aunts – the Slesinski sisters.  Even more surprising?  The photos that she gave me were new to me, but they were from the same “photo session” in front of the house in McKeesport that originally prompted my research!  As a bonus, some of the photos were labeled in such a way that they actually confirmed my research.  Now I had even more faces to put to my collection of family names.

The first was labeld in a non-photo-friendly way – but there’s no doubt as to who’s who.  Here is my great-grandmother (Mom) with her sister Jane, Jane’s husband John Smilowicz, and their son Henry.  Since the 1930 census listed Henry’s age very specifically as “3 11/12″, it even provides me with an estimated time that the photos were taken – probably right around 1930 or 1931.  The back of the photo also listed thier addres – the same as the house in the 1930 census.  [I love the shadow – is that the photographer?  By the look on Henry’s face, you can certainly tell where the sun was even without the prominent shadow!]

The Smilowicz Family
The Smilowicz Family with “Laura” Zawodny

Next, sister Josephine makes another appearance, this time with her husband, Vincent Sierdzki, as well as my great-grandmother.  The caption is the same as what is written on the back of the photo – in the same handwriting, and humor, as the rest of the series.

Mr. Sierdzki Incorporated
“Mr. Sierdzki Incorporated”

Jane and John Smilowicz appear in another photo, captioned “Still in Love”:

Jane and John Smilowicz
Jane and John Smilowicz

In a photo captioned “Enjoying the fun”, three children appear.  Henry Smilowicz is identified in the photo above.  In my original photo featured in Part 1, Irene Goreski was also identified.  Based on the 1930 census research, it would appear that the third child is their cousin, Boleslaw Majewski.  In 1930, he was six, Irene was five, and Henry was nearly four, so this photo is further confirmation dating the photo close to 1930.

Irene Goreski, Henry Smilowicz, and Boleslaw Majewski
Three cousins: Irene Goreski, Henry Smilowicz, and Boleslaw Majewski

Next there is a photo of the husbands.  Well, the four husbands that lived in McKeesport, anyway. I wasn’t sure based on the photos I originally had, but it appears that my great-grandfather was not present for his wife’s visit to her sisters.  Or, if he was present, he opted not to appear in the photos!  I was able to identify them based on the other photos, with the fourth man identified by default as Sophie’s husband, Joseph Goreski.  The humorous caption is again from the back of the photo.

"The Four Horsemen"
“The Four Horsemen”  from top to bottom: John Smilowicz, Vincent Sierdzki, Adolph Majewski, and Joseph Goreski – the husbands of 4 of the 5 Slesinski Sisters

Finally, the last photo from the series shows my great-grandmother, Laura Zawodny, with her brothers-in-law.

Laura and her brothers-in-law
Laura and her brothers-in-law

The above photo had the best caption of all on the back.  Based on the humorous way it is worded, I’d bet that Sophie is the writer and her husband Joseph is the photographer of the other photos!

Caption on the back of the "Laura and her brothers-in-law" photo
Caption on the back of the “Laura and her brothers-in-law” photo

I also obtained some other photos of both the sisters and their husbands that were unlabeled and not from this same photo-party.  I feel confident that I can identify who’s who in the unlabeled photos based on the job that was done to identify everyone in these photos!

Now they tell me…I did all that research to obtain the sisters’ married names when the answers were sitting in a box in my grand-aunt’s house!  Some questions still remain, however, like how my great-grandmother traveled to McKeesport to visit her sisters, if she went alone, and how long she stayed.  In any event, I am grateful to my great-aunts for not only taking these photographs during her visit, but also mailing them back to her in Philadelphia as a remembrance.  Even though I wasn’t there, I can join in their fun!

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In Part 1 of “The Slesinski Sisters” I presented some photographs passed on to me by my grandmother that showed her mother and aunts: Laura, Josephine, Mary, Jane, and Sophie Slesinski, from “somewhere” in Poland.  The remaining photograph that I inherited from my grandmother is shown below.  All I had to begin my research were their (maiden) names – would I be able to find anything with such little information?

The Slesinski Sisters

The Slesinski Sisters

I had already researched my great-grandmother; her Polish name was Wacława, but in America she used Laura.  She came to the U.S. in 1903 following her husband, Józef Zawodny, who arrived a year earlier.  While the couple was easy to find in passenger list records, the key to Wacława’s birthplace would later come through researching her sisters.

I could not locate any of the Slesinski sisters in the census records, so I had to assume that they were married either at the time of arrival into the U.S. or at least at the time of their first census.  If they were married before they arrived here, I had no idea how to find their married names.  So I began with the assumption that they were single when they arrived – or at least some of them!

With luck, I found 3 of the 4 sisters on the same passenger arrival record: the SS Adriatic sailing from Southampton to New York, arriving on 15 October 1920. On the record, their surname was spelled Sleszynska and the first names fit with the information I had from the photographs.  Sailing together were Janina, age 19, Zofia, age 17, and Marianna, age 23.  They were all listed as dressmakers from Dobrosołowo.  Their destination was to their “brother-in-law Mr. Sioracki” at 600 Hazel Street in McKeesport, PA.

Research Tip: Be flexible with first names.  This can apply to either foreign translations like Zofia=Sophie, “adopted” names that are not translations like Wacława=Laura, or “like” variations of a name like Maria=Marianna=Mary.

Also, don’t discount similar spellings of the last name.  “Sleszynska” was similar enough to “Slesinska” to warrant a look at the record.  If the first names and ages offer a good match (and in this case, the destination), it may be the correct record.

This information meant that their sister Josephine was already married and living in McKeesport by 1920 – now I had a name to search on the 1920 census.  I wouldn’t find anything under “Sioracki” though, nor under the Soundex search, so the name was not spelled correctly.  However, I did find her using the address instead: Vincent and Josephine “Shieraski” at 600 Hazel Street.  Vincent is 33 and immigrated in 1904, while Josephine is 29 and immigrated in 1911.  One sister’s married name down, three to go!

Research Tip: Can’t find a name in an index or soundex?  It may be spelled or indexed wrong.  An alternate is to look up by address, which can be found in a variety of sources including city directories, marriage licenses, passenger lists, or personal records like photographs or family papers.

Because the three younger sisters arrived too late for the 1920 census enumeration and were not listed on the 1930, it was easy to assume that all three were married sometime during the 1920’s. The next step in the research was a search of Allegheny county marriage records through the mail.  Amazingly, all three marriage licenses were found!

  • On 14 October 1922, Maria Slesinska married Adolph Majewski
  • On 17 January 1924, Sophia Slesinska married Joseph Goreski
  • On 22 June 1925, Janina Slesinski married John Smilovicz

Research Tip: Some Polish surnames have masculine and feminine endings.  A daughter or a wife of a man with a name ending in -ski would use a -ska ending to the name.  However, this is not set in stone – especially once the couple or the woman immigrated to the U.S.  For purposes of searching records, search for both variations of the name.

Armed with the sisters’ married names, I searched the 1930 census in McKeesport.  The Majewski family lived at 804 Park Way: Adolph, age 38, Mary, age 28, and son Bolesław, age 6 (born in PA). Adolph works in a steel mill and is a WWI veteran.  This solved the mystery of who “Mr. Adolph Majewski” was on the photograph (see Part 1).  Because of his marriage to Maria/Mary, it also confirmed that the labeling on the photograph of the sisters was likely correct since Mary matches the woman standing with Adolph as “one of the family”.

Two of the sisters lived at 1202 5th Avenue.  The first family was Joseph Goreski (age 30), wife Sophia (age 21), and daughter Irene (age 5, born in PA).  Joseph also works at a steel mill.  Although listed on a different sheet, the “Sieradzki” family lived at the same address: Wincenty (age 41) and Josephine (age 38).  Wincenty (Vincent) worked as a die caster.

Finally, at 2817 Garbett Street were John Smilovicz (age 39), wife Jane (age 27), and son Henry (age 3 and 11/12, born in PA).  John works in a tin mill and was also a WWI veteran.

By researching just a few record sources I managed to find all four sisters’ marriages and a few children born by 1930.  After one sister’s social security application pointed back to Dobrosołowo, Poland – matching the passenger arrival record – I decided to find the births records of my great-grandmother and her sisters.  The three sisters’ marriage records in the U.S. provided some clues as to their parents names.  One did not list the parents at all, but the other two agreed on their father’s name – Vincent Slesinksi.  Their mother’s name was listed on one as Stella and the other as Stanislawa, but the surname matched: Drogowski (Stella was often used as an English variant for Stanislawa).  This was more information than anything I was able to uncover about my great-grandmother through her own records in the U.S.

Research in Poland proved to be difficult despite these many facts.  Fortunately, the youngest child, who happened to be Sophia (Zofia), was born in Dobrosołowo – the other children were found in nearby towns.   And there were more than five children in the family!  Birth records were found for the following children of Wincenty (Vincent) Slesinski and Stanislawa Drogowska:

  • Wacława Marianna, 29 Aug 1880
  • Józefa, 01 Jan 1883
  • Feliks, 24 Dec 1885
  • Konstancja, 18 Jul 1888 – 13 Aug 1889
  • Wincenty, 03 Apr 1893 – 02 Apr 1896
  • Marianna, 06 Apr 1896
  • Janina, 12 Dec 1898
  • Zofia, 10 Aug 1901

The birth records proved what the photographs showed: there was a large gap in the ages between the oldest and youngest sister – 21 years!  In fact, Zofia (Sophie) was only two years old when Wacława (Laura) left for America!   The sisters also seemed to shave a few years off of their ages for the census-takers, but that was common and is the main reason why census records are not completely reliable for ages. It is uncertain what became of their brother Feliks – no death record was found in Poland, but no definitive immigration record was found in the U.S. either.

I was even able to find the “end of the story” with regard to my great-grandmother’s sisters – they are all buried in St. Mary’s Polish Cemetery in McKeesport, PA, and a survey of the tombstones is available online.  While the birth years on tombstones can never be regarded as accurate, at least the death years can. The deaths are recorded as follows:

  • SIERADZKI, Wincenty 1888 – 1969
  • SIERADZKI, Jozefa S. 1891 – 1964
  • MAJEWSKI, Adolph 1892 – 1973
  • MAJEWSKI, Marya 1900 – 1955
  • SMILOWICZ, John 1888 – 1974 (Pvt US Army WWI)
  • SMILOWICZ, Jennie 1904 – (no death date listed)
  • GORESKI, Joseph 1900 – 1976
  • GORESKI, Sophia 1908 – 1990

Research Tip: EVIDENCE…which record do you believe?  For a birth year, birth or christening records obviously hold more weight than a person’s marriage record (they may have been underage, considered “too old” to be getting married for the first time, or older than their spouse), census record (they may be trying to stay young, or embarrassed if they are older than a spouse), or a death record (the person giving the information may not know the truth).

I assumed this was “the end” of my research into the Slesinski sisters.  While I had not done any research on the three children identified on the 1930 census – my grandmother’s first cousins – I had gone back to Poland and learned the names of not only their parents, but also their grandparents!  I was well on the way to continuing my research backwards into the Slesinski ancestry.  But a funny thing happened on the way…my research was “confirmed” in an unusual way.

Coming up in Part 3 – My research is confirmed!  By more photographs!

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Genealogists know that finding the “married names” for women is can be difficult.  Is it possible to research women without knowing who they married?  In the case of my great-grandmother’s sisters, the answer was surprisingly “Yes!”  This story is also interesting because it involves photographs – some that began the investigation, and some that proved the facts much later.  In this three-part series of posts, I’ll introduce my great-grandmother and her sisters.  This post, Part 1, shows what they looked like and offers the few bare facts I had to begin my research some twenty years ago.  Part 2 will present the facts I uncovered through genealogical records (and some tips to remember for your own research).  Part 3 will “prove” some of those facts in an unusual twist of fate involving more photographs.

It all began with a photograph.  Four photographs, to be precise.  My family did not possess many photos of our ancestors, but my grandmother did have several that were precious to me.  She gave me the four photos – three of which I will show here and one I’ll save for post #2.  The first showed her mother, my great-grandmother, on a visit to her four sisters.  My great-grandmother, Wacława Slesinska Zawodny (in Polish, the feminine form of her married last name would be Zawodna), lived in Philadelphia, PA.  Her four sisters, the Slesinski sisters, all lived in McKeesport, PA, which is located in Allegheny county near Pittsburgh, PA.  My grandmother said her mother once traveled across Pennsylvania to be reunited with her sisters.

"The Hollywood Review" - the Slesinski Sisters.

The back of the photo reads: "The Hollywood Review" - the Slesinski Sisters.

Caption of "The Hollywood Review" photo shown above.

Writing on the back of "The Hollywood Review" photo shown above.

My mother knew that the woman in the middle of the back row is Wacława, who went by the name of Laura in the U.S.  Fortunately, someone had also written everyone’s name on the back of the photo.  Because it lists Laura as “Grandmother Laura”, the unknown identifier is likely my grandmother (or one of her sisters).  The back of the photo, which is undated, had “The Hollywood Review” written in ink, presumably by one of the sisters, sent to my great-grandmother to commemorate her visit to McKeesport.  The names are written in pencil in a different handwriting.  The only incorrect label is “Great Aunt” applied to Josephine – perhaps it was meant to show respect to the fact that she and Laura are older than their sisters, but the truth is that evidence would later show all five women to be sisters.

In addition to this photo, my grandmother had one of the sisters without the child Irene in what appeared to be the same photo session – that photo will illustrate my second post on the research into the sisters’ lives.

The third photo offered a close-up of my great-grandmother and one sister.  The back of the photo is labeled, in the same pencil-handwriting as the group photo above, “Grandmother Laura and Aunt Josephine”.  I love two things about it – the close-up view of their faces, and the fact that it identifies who they are!  The photo was originally full length, but it was cut in half.  While the background appears to be the same house as the above photos, their dress is different.  Was it taken on a different visit, or just on a different day of the same visit?  Although they both look rather austere, I was amazed by the resemblance between my great-grandmother and my grandmother (her daughter).

"Laura" and Josephine

"Laura" and Josephine

Finally, the fourth photograph shows Laura and one of her sisters.  Based on the label to the above photo, it seems to be Mary with what appears to be her family.  Luckily, it was also labeled with a clue as to their identities.  Their dress is the same as the above photo.

The Majewski Family

The Majewski Family

Back of "The Majewski Family" photo

Back of "The Majewski Family" photo

The handwriting is the same as the above photos – can I assume that “Mr. Adolph Majewski” is Mary Slesinski’s husband and the boy is their son?  Is the address the house where all of these photos were taken?  When were the photos taken?

These four photographs contained the only information that I knew about my great-grandmother’s sisters.  My grandmother could not remember any of her aunts married names.  All I knew came from the photos:

  • the sisters’ first names
  • one possible husband’s name
  • one address in McKeesport

Just knowing these bare facts, could I find out more about my great-grandmother’s sisters?

Coming up in Part 2 – The Research performed to find out more about the sisters

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Miriam recently challenged genea-bloggers to write about their brickwall ancestors.  In my case, I don’t have brickwalls so much as avenues of research I have not yet pursued.  One of my goals for 2009 was to find some missing details in my Bavarian ancestors.  In the case of my great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister, I can document his ancestry back to the 1600’s, and I’m still going backward once I find time to get back to the family history library.  I was fortunate that the church records exist for the towns of Puch, Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, and surrounding towns.  But, my research is far from complete – even though I can provide death dates for Joseph’s paternal grandparents, great-grandparents, and even his 2nd great-grandparents, I have no idea when his parents died.   But, I do have some clues from my research.  Here I present my research plan and ask readers to examine my evidence, logic, and path forward, and offer a critique or advice to set me on the right path.

Goal: Find death records for Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Dallmeier Bergmeister Goetz

Facts:  Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Dallmeier were married on 10 May 1871 in Vohburg a.d. Donau.  He was a flour merchant, born on 9 Feb 1843 in Puch as the son of Jakob Bergmeister, a miller born in Puch, and Anna née Daniel, born in Niederscheyern.  Ursula Dallmeier was born in Aichach on 17 Mar 1847, the daughter of innkeeper Joseph Dallmeier from Aichach and Ursula née Eulinger.  The date of the secular marriage was 11 Apr 1871, and it occurred in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm.  [Source: marriage record from Kath. Stadtpfarramt, Vohburg a.d. Donau, obtained 11 Dec 1995]

Joseph and Ursula went on to have at least 4 children:

1)      Hillaury Bergmeister, b. 12 January 1870 [Source: her marriage and death record, birth record not yet found]

2)      Maria Bergmeister, b 17 November 1871.  It is unknown if Maria survived infancy.  [Source: Vohburg parish register, FHL film 1271862]

3)      Joseph Bergmeister, b. 12 February 1873 (my great-grandfather) [Source: Vohburg parish register, FHL film 1271862]

4)      Ignaz Bergmeister, b. 23 April 1876 [Source: New York City marriage record in 1907 and WWI draft card in 1918; birth records not yet searched]

Clues:  In November 1897, their son Joseph gets married in Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm (for more details, see The Bergmeister Family page).  There is an important clue in the marriage record.  It records the bachelor Joseph as the son of the “deceased flour merchant Joseph Bergmeister of Munich and Ursula Dallmeier (who later married a Goetz), residing in Regensburg.”  [Source:  Marriage record for Joseph Bergmeister and Maria Echerer, Standesamt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm, obtained 04 Nov 1993.]

Portion of the 1897 marriage record that details the status of Joseph Bergmeister's parents.

Portion of the 1897 marriage record that details the status of Joseph Bergmeister's parents.

The re-marriage of Ursula to Mr. Goetz (whose first name was later identified as Herman in their son’s marriage record) did not come as a complete surprise, because my grandmother had an “uncle” Julius Goetz.  More research revealed at least two more children of Ursula Bergmeister Goetz, half-siblings to the Bergmeister children.  They are:

1)     Herman Goetz, born 14 May 1885 [Source: Marriage license 1913, WW I Draft card 1918]

2)     Julius Andreas Elias Goetz, born 09 Nov 1886 in Regensburg [Source: Declaration of Intention 1908, Naturalization 1911, WW I Draft card 1917]

On the marriage record for Julius in 1919, the license lists the “residence of father” as “Germany” and “residence of mother” as “dead”. [Source: Clerk of Orphans’ Court, Philadelphia, Marriage License #1919-415062.]  The marriage license for Herman in 1913 is a different format and does not ask about parents.

Based on the above facts, I can make reasonable assumptions about the approximate time and place of the deaths of Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Goetz.

Assumptions – Death of Joseph Bergmeister

Estimated years: 1876 – 1884 – based on the birth of his youngest identified son, Ignaz, and his wife’s first child in her re-marriage.

Estimated place: Munich – based on his son Joseph’s marriage record.

Alternate place: Regensburg – based on the location of his wife’s re-marriage

Negative search: Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm

Assumptions – Death of Ursula Dallmeier Bergmeister Goetz

Estimated years: 1897 – 1919 – based on the fact that she was still alive at the time of son Joseph’s marriage and she was not by the time of Julius’.  It is noted, however, that Julius immigrated in 1902 at the age of 16 – perhaps she died in that year.

Estimated place: Regensburg – based on her residence at the time of Joseph’s marriage and her Goetz sons’ birthplace.

Next step – where do I search for these death records?

Unfortunately, the FHL does not have church records on microfilm for such large cities as München (Munich) or Regensburg.  In each instance, I would have to write to either the civil or the episcopal archive. I am not sure if the lack of a date will be problematic – the ranges are too broad.  Although I have written to the archives in the past to get some of this information, it has been so long that I am not even sure which office to write to, or if they can perform such a search without a more specific date.  I could either make an attempt with a letter, or I can find a researcher in Bavaria to investigate further.

More clues – I may be able to narrow down the years by searching additional records (none of which are available either online or through the Family History Center) including:

  • Census records – After Germany was united in 1871, a census was conducted every five years between 1880 and 1910.  I am not sure where to obtain this information.
  • City directories – Both Munich and Regensburg are large cities.  If city directories exist, they may help pinpoint not only the year of death (especially for Joseph), but also a potential parish to find a church record.
  • Marriage record of Ursula Bergmeister and Herman Goetz – it is possible that the record of Ursula’s second marriage may reveal more about her husband Joseph’s death.

Any comments on my research to date, the assumptions, or where to go next will be greatly appreciated.  The following is a map that outlines the German locations noted above.

Detailed map of Bavaria showing all locations from Regensburg in the northeast to Munich in the south which are mentioned in the records for the lives of Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Goetz.  Where are their final resting places?

Detailed map of Bavaria showing all locations from Regensburg in the northeast to Munich in the south which are mentioned in the records for the lives of Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Goetz. Where are their final resting places?

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A funny thing happened on my way to the 9th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival…  I found a pile of photos with unidentified persons that fit this edition’s theme:

Who Are You – I Really Want To Know? Show us that picture that you found with your family collection or purchased, but have no idea who they might be.

However, as I sorted through the pile, I actually figured out who some of the unknowns were!  In one instance, I had some photographs of some World War I soldiers.  I knew they were not blood relatives, but after rummaging through the photos I realized the gentlemen strongly resembled some older guys in another photo (my great-grandmother’s brothers-in-law).  Since I knew who the old guys were, I performed some “facial recognition” and reasonably concluded who was who (stay tuned for those photos in a future post).  For two other photos, I decided to ask my mother.  I thought I asked once before, but perhaps I didn’t write down her answers.  She identified one unknown boy and half of a pair of unknown men.  But that was just a small portion of several unknowns – there are still many more to identify.  Here’s an interesting one for the carnival:

cimg0095The photo has no identifying markings.  I obtained it while visiting my cousins in Bavaria.  We were searching through boxes of their old, unlabeled photos in an attempt to find one that looked like my great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister, who was their ancestor’s first cousin.  It’s debatable if we found one or not, but in the course of our investigation my cousin Emilie found this one.  She reasoned that it must have been taken in the United States because of the English words, so therefore someone in my family may have sent it back to Germany.  Unfortunately, I don’t recognize any of these men. My great-grandfather’s brother, Ignaz, listed his occupation as “driver” in the 1910 Census, but it was for a brewery.  On his World War I draft registration card, he indicates he is a driver for “Rising Sun Brewery” in Manhattan.  So, although he was a driver, I can’t say for sure if the driver is him since I have no photographs of Ignaz.

I have not had the time to investigate further, but if I were the photoMaven, I would probably pursue it this way:

  • What is the approximate date of the photo based on the clues provided by the car (style of the car, the tires, etc)
  • Where was the “Broad Way Garage Livery”?  (I have tried simple Google searches without success.)
  • Can the fashions of these gentlemen offer any clues about the time period?

Who are you guys?  I really want to know!

[Written for the 9th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival: Who are you?]

See some of my other Photo Mysteries.

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The Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture is always a challenge for me; I don’t have any Irish ancestry!  But sometimes I just can’t resist the challenge.  Besides, genealogical skills and research techniques can be used in researching any ethnic background, right?  Well, in trying to do my Carnival homework, that is, to work back a few generations on one branch of someone’s Irish family tree, I discovered that Irish research is hard!  I’ve traced many a Polish and German immigrant, and even a few Hungarians and Italians, but most of those came to this country during what can be called the “Ellis Island era” – or, between 1892 and 1924.  The few Irish folks I have tried to research are much older immigrants, arriving in the mid 19th century before both Ellis Island and Castle Garden and before detailed passenger arrival records.  Because of this, I haven’t gotten back to Ireland yet…but I did trace back a few generations and develop a plan to further research this family.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably know by now that my ancestry is Polish and Bavarian.  But there is some Irish in the family, in a manner of speaking.  My one niece is partially Irish – her maternal grandfather’s side is a mix of Irish and what I call “American”, for in tracing her grandfather’s surname, Rudolph, I am back to the 1700’s and the birthplace is still Delaware.  But my niece’s grandfather, Ed Rudolph, never talked much about his German-American Rudolph ancestry – he always insisted he was Irish on his mother‘s side.  I found him at the age of 3 on the 1930 Census and learned that his parents were Edward and Catherine Rudolph.  Through sheer luck, the record also revealed Catherine’s maiden name, for 14-year-old “sister-in-law” Edna Lee was living with them.  But is anyone Irish?  Not yet…the Lee girls’ and their parents were born in Pennsylvania, as was Rudolph’s mother, and he and his father were born in Delaware.

Looking back at the 1920 Census, both Catherine and Edna are living with their parents, William and Nellie Lee.  The ages match the facts in the 1930 Census, and there are no other families with similar names and ages. In another stroke of luck, Nellie’s father is living with the Lee family – Edward McGeehan.  William Lee and his parents were born in Pennsylvania.  Edward McGeehan was born in PA, but his parents are from Ireland.

In 1910, the McGeehan’s are being elusive; there appears to be a match in a New Jersey town close to Philadelphia, but the ages are slightly “off” and more research is needed to straighten it out.  However, William C. Lee, wife Nellie, and young daughter Catherine are living with their in-laws, Frank and Sophia Beatty.  The 1900 Census explains this relationship further: Sophia and William C. Lee are siblings, the children of widower Christopher Lee.  Christopher was born in PA in 1854, but his father is from Ireland.

Technically, what I described above “counts” as working back a few generations on an Irish family tree.  But I didn’t know who the Irish immigrants were yet, only who their children were.  In looking at my niece’s great-grandmother, Catherine Lee Rudolph, I had two choices for researching Irish ancestry further.  Catherine’s paternal great-grandfather was the Irish immigrant who was in Philadelphia by July 1854 for his son Christopher’s birth.  Similarly, Catherine’s grandfather Edward McGeehan was born in Philadelphia in 1858 to Irish immigrants.  Could I find out more about either the LEE or the MCGEEHAN families?

I hope I can, but the limits of online research may be exhausted. For Christopher Lee, further Census research revealed that his wife’s name was Catherine, and they also had a daughter named Catherine born in 1879.  As Christopher is a widower by 1900, it is assumed that Catherine died between 1887, the year their son William was born, and 1900.  The death records for Philadelphia at Family Search reveal some possible matches, but the record does not contain definitive information (for example, it includes the fact that the person was married but not the spouse’s name).  I found Christopher’s own death record in 1911, but it does not list his parents’ names.  On the 1870 Census, instead of a 16-year-old Christopher I found a 19-year-old living with 31-year-old Thomas Lee, a gardener, and 20-year-old Mary A. Lee, a domestic servant.  Thomas is listed as having been born in Ireland.  If Christopher is really 16, it is possible that Thomas is his father, but not if Christopher is 19!  Mary may be a sister.  Going back to the 1860 for clarification, it gets more confusing.  Instead of finding a young Christopher, there is a 50-year-old Christopher Lee, born in Ireland, with a wife Catherine and sons Charles and Walter.  A search for Thomas Lee revealed many matches, but none that match with the previous info or also contain a young Christopher in the household.  More research is definitely needed to sort out all of the Lee families living in Philadelphia during that time.  One problem is that birth registration was not required in Philadelphia until 1860 – Christopher was born in July 1854 according to the 1900 census, or in July 1853 according to his death certificate.  The only option would be to determine where the family lived and search for a baptismal record.

The McGeehan research also came to a halt because of conflicting information in the census records.  There is also the same problem with vital records as Edward was born around 1858, prior to civil registration requirements.  However, he is still alive in 1920 at the time of his daughter Nellie’s death, and the death records after this date contained more information.  It is possible to find his record to yield his parents’ names.  Another lead is that one of the inconclusive census records shows a young Edward as the son of Edward McGeehan, an Irish immigrant who is a Philadelphia police officer.  As Edward Jr’s son-in-law William Lee becomes a police officer as well, it is possible that this is the correct family and that both Edward and his father Edward were police officers.  This is another path of research to pursue.

Thanks to my Irish genealogy homework assignment, I learned that Irish research is difficult!  First, the names are more common than some of the Polish and German names I have worked with in my family tree.  There are several Lee and McGeehan families in Philadelphia during this time period, so you can not rely on census information alone.  Second, because the immigrants came to the U.S. in the mid 1800’s, they are not as easy to pinpoint as my later immigrants who had such records as detailed passenger arrival lists, draft registration cards, and social security applications to lead the way to their hometowns.  Third, once you need birth records that go beyond when birth records were officially kept, it is obviously more difficult to trace.  Continuing with my niece’s maternal ancestry will be difficult, but challenging.

[This post was written for the 8th Edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture.]

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Trendy names are all the rage now, but if you recognized the title as the opening line to Moby Dick, then you’ll realize that some names are memorable because they “stand out” from the rest — which is why parents often seek the unusual.  Many of the first names in my family tree wouldn’t have seemed unusual at the time they were used, but today in America they would be.  Maybe they’ll make a comeback, since today’s it’s all about “unusual” names.  In my ancestors’ times, names followed certain conventions.  In Poland, I’ve already written about name days or imieniny, in which the baby’s name was usually chosen based on the feast day of the saint on or near the day of birth.  Most of my Polish families followed this without exception.  In Germany, specifically in Bavaria, the church’s calendar was occasionally used for names, but more likely the child was given the name of the parent or someone in the family.  Certain saint’s names were extra popular though – in the town where I’ve done the most research, Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, a great majority of the boys were named Johann or Josef and most of the girls were either Maria Anna or Anna Maria.

Given my entire ancestry comes from those two regions, I have my whole family tree to work with in discussing the topic of first names.  I’ve documented roughly one hundred ancestors so far, with half of that number coming from my Bavarian quarter and the rest from my Polish sides.  The most popular boy’s name in my family tree in both cultures is Joseph, which is Josef in German and Józef in Polish.  Two of my great-grandfathers were named Joseph, and several of my great-greats.  The name John, or Johann in German and Jan in Polish, is also popular in my family tree.  For girls, the Bavarian ladies are mostly the Maria Anna – Anna Maria combination.  But on the Polish sides, the most popular female names are Elżbieta and Katarzyna, or Elizabeth and Katherine.

In a family tree full of Joe’s and Mary’s, what are the unusual names that really stand out?  I have several favorites among the more unusual names.  I don’t consider them favorites because I’d name a child that myself, but because they add a little spice to the family history.

Among my Bavarian ancestors, my favorite unusual names are Dionys, Kreszens, Wolfgang, and Walburga.

Dionys is the German form of the name Dionysius, the Greed god of wine, revelry, and debauchery.  I wonder if young Dionys was a rabble-rouser that lived up to the name or the complete opposite?  Of course, the name shouldn’t only be associated with the infamous Greek god – it is also the name of several saints, and there are monasteries and churches dedicated to St. Dionys throughout Bavaria.  The given name belongs to my 3rd great-grandfather, Dionys Daniel.  Interestingly enough, Dionys married a woman with one of the other unusual names on my list: Walburga.  While the name isn’t as popular today in Germany, it was more common in earlier centuries.  The name itself if of German origin and means either “ruler of the fortress” from wald meaning “rule” and burg meaning “fortress”, or it could also mean “one who guards or protects” using the meaning of the Old High German word bergen.  (I can’t resist the side comment that if the couple lived up to their names one would assume that Walburga kept Dionys in line!)  The name Walburga was popular in Germany due to St. Walburga, who was the daughter of King Richard of England and came to Germany in the 8th century as a missionary.  What name did Walburga and Dionys give their daughter?  Anna Maria…of course.

Kresensz is another of my favorites.  It is a female name derived from the Latin Cresentia, which means “to grow in fame or power”.  Kresensz Zinsmeister Bergmeister is my 4th great-grandmother who lived from 1777 to 1852.

These three unusual German names all come from my great-grandfather’s side of the family.  On his wife’s side, the one name that stands out is that of her own great-grandfather, Wolfgang Fischer (1775-1820).  The name Wolfgang literally means “to go wolf”, so one can only wonder why his parents used the name.  But, it is also the name of another Bavarian saint, St. Wofgang, who was a 10th Century bishop in Regensburg, a town not far from where my Wolfgang spent his life.

In Poland, I find that most of the names that seem unusual to American ears are merely spelled differently from their English translations, such as my 2nd great-grandfather Wawrzyniec Zawodny.  The name looks exotic, but it is a Polish version of Laurentius or Lawrence.  One name that does not translate at all into English, and is therefore unusual by American standards, is his daughter, Wacława.  The name is the feminine form of Wacław, which means “may he gain fame and glory”.  It doesn’t have a direct English translation though, which is why she used “Laura” in the U.S.

My favorite unusual male Polish name is Hilary.  Yes, we forget today that Hilary is actually a male name!  It comes from the Latin hilaris which means “merry” and “joyful”.  I hope Hilary was a happy guy to have a name like Hilary – today he‘d be ridiculed.  Hilary Pater is my 4th great-grandfather and the oldest ancestor I have found so far in my Pater family.

My favorite unusual female Polish name is Teofilia.  Again, this name is a feminine derivative of the name Teofil, which means “dear friend of God”.  Hilary’s son, with the more common name of Jan, married a girl name Teofilia.  Their son is one of the many Josephs in the family tree!  Too bad they didn’t use Teofil, and he would stand out a little more from the average Joe!

[This post was written for the 11th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: First (Given) Names.]

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Since today is “Labor Day” in the United States, I wanted to take a look at my ancestors’ occupations.  Some of the jobs are still performed in much the same way today as they were in my ancestors’ times.  My grandfather James Pointkouski (1910-1980) was born in the right century to be a truck driver, and the medium-size delivery trucks he drove are quite similar to those used by his fellow Teamsters today.  My great-grandfather Joseph Bergmeister (1873-1927) was a baker, an occupation that has changed very little over centuries – in fact, today his cousins are still making wonderful things in the same bakery his uncle founded in 1868.  My carpenter ancestors, 4th great-grandfather Karl Nigg (1767-1844) and 5th great-grandfather Johann Baptiste Höck (1700’s), would be in as much demand today as they were back then.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good carpenter these days?  Similarly, Karl’s father and grandfather, Phillip Nigg ( ?-1774) and Martin Nigg (or Nick), were masons – bricklayers.  The construction business will always be in demand!

But many other jobs of my ancestors no longer exist in the same way. Some of the factory jobs of my 20th Century ancestors, such as the Pater family who all worked in clothing factories as weavers, still exist – but you won’t find the industry as prevalent in the United States as it was when they were working.  Many of the other occupations of my ancestors have become outdated with modern times. For example, one of my 5th great-grandfathers, Franciszek Świerczyński of Mszczonów, Poland, was a carriage-maker in the 1800’s.  Since carriages have been replaced by cars, I imagine that he’d be in another line of work today.

I have shoemakers on both sides of my family.  My 4th great-grandfather, Ignacy Pluta (1821-?) from Mszczonów, Poland (he married the daughter of the carriage-maker), was one as was his father, Ludwik Pluta.  In Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, I have traced over six generations of shoemakers from my Echerer line.  The first Echerer son to be something other than a shoemaker was Karl (1846-1880s), who took up the occupation of his mason great-grandfather instead.  While we still need shoes today, their construction has changed.  Some shoes today are still hand-crafted with leather, probably using the same methods my ancestors used.  Most shoes are mass-produced, and it would be hard to make a living as a shoemaker today unless you were a factory worker.

The more you research your genealogy and the farther back you go, the more interesting occupations you’ll find.  Some will be “modern”, like my innkeeper ancestor.  Others, like the glassmaker, still exist but today the job is more of a “craftsman” trade or art that is more specialized.  Again, modern machinery makes many of the things our ancestors once made by hand.

One of the more unique occupations in my family history is that of my 3rd great-grandfather, Franz Xaver Fischer (1813-?) from Agelsberg in Bavaria.  He was listed as a söldner, which translates as mercenary.  Mercenary?  I was intrigued and pictured a soldier of fortune, hired out to neighboring countries.  Until I learned the Bavarian meaning of the word… A sölde is a small house with a garden.  For tax purposes, there were different designations for farmers.  A bauer owned a whole farm, a Halbbauer owned half, and a Viertelbauer owned a quarter.  Then there was the söldner, who owned either 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 of a farm.  My mercenary was a poor farmer!  Well, not too poor – there was a further designation called häusler - they owned a house, but not the land.

Let’s salute all of our hard-working ancestors today.  I wonder what they’d think about some of today’s job titles.  “A program manager?  What the heck is that?”

Research tip: Translate your ancestors’ unusual occupations with these helpful sites:

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My original title for this post was “Nothing to Show; What Can I Say?” and began with a humorous lament over my family’s lack of family heirlooms.  However, I’ll save my attempt at humor for the Family Heirloom meme and instead focus on the one heirloom that I do have!  The theme of the 55th Carnival of Genealogy is: Show and Tell! Show us and tell us about an heirloom, a special photo, a valuable document, or a significant person that is a very special part of your family history.

My family isn’t big on holding on to things that may become heirlooms.  I have very few things that belonged to my grandparents or great-grandparents.   I cringed at the topic for this edition – the embarrassing lack of interesting things to show and tell about took me back to 3rd grade.  I brought in my “teddy bear” while a classmate brought in his grandfather’s Olympic bronze medal (I’m not kidding).

Fortunately, as I dug deeper into my roots I met a second cousin, whom I’ll call “Sis”.  We share the same great-grandparents, Joseph and Marie Bergmeister; her grandfather was my grandmother’s brother.  Apparently my grandmother’s older siblings got all of the cool stuff.  Sis showed me our great-grandfather’s regimental beer stein!  All males were required to serve in the military for two years, and he served in the Bavarian Army from 1893-95.  Regimental beer steins commemorated their service in a particular unit as a remembrance of their time in the military.  Sis also had a large, nearly poster-size photo that showed each of the individual photos of his entire military unit!  Of course, I did not have a camera with me at the time, and to this day we haven’t been able to get these artifacts in the same room as my camera.  Hopefully we’ll both have time to get together soon, but until then they are only etched in my memory so there isn’t anything to show or tell about yet.

But, later that year Sis gave me a Very Special Christmas Present.  Another beer stein that belonged to our great-grandfather!  She was willing to give it up because of my love for the Bergmeister family. I’ll never forget her generosity and love for me with that gift.  It doesn’t have the same “Wow!” factor as the military stein, but, to be honest, it’s a “wow” to me because it was his.  I have only done a small amount of research thus far – I had no idea that German beer steins have such a multitude of scholarly studies!  I’ve learned a little so far about steins in general, so for my “show and tell” I present to you…a Bavarian beer stein!

Two views of the beer stein

Two views of the beer stein

Stein lid and thumblift

Stein lid and thumblift

First, the basics…why are Germans so big on beer steins anyway?  Because Germans are big on beer.  Beer was brewed in Germany as far back as 800 BC.1 By the Middle Ages, German monasteries were brewing beer as a commercial enterprise. 2 With this much beer consumption, one needed a cup to drink it!  Our usage of stein comes from the German word steinzeugkrug, meaning a jug or tankard. In the 14th Century, Europe was hit with both the bubonic plague as well as a swarm of flies.  Some ingenious person came up with the idea of a cover for the stein to keep things out of the beer.  Laws were passed in Germany in the early 1500s that required food and beverage containers to be covered.  Hence, the beer stein as we know it today was born.  When we think of a stein, it is not just a large tankard, but one with a hinged cover that you can open with your thumb.  By the 1800s, the “covered container” laws were no longer enforced, but the lids were here to stay.3

From reading about steins, I learned that they are often difficult to date.  Usually, as in the case of this stein, there are no markings at all to indicate where or when it was manufactured, or by whom. However, there were a few things to look for in order to verify that a stein is old enough to have belonged to my great-grandfather.

This stein is made from porcelain.  The sole reason I could discern this was that the stein has a special feature found only in porcelain steins – a lithophane.  A lithophane is a panel with a relief decoration that is visible only when light passes through it.4 It is found at the bottom of the stein.  If you merely peek in at the bottom, you will not see anything at all, but the bottom will look textured and not smooth.  The image itself is visible only when you hold it up to the light – presumably, once you have tilted your head back to finish the last of your beer!  Lithophanes are created by the thickness of the porcelain.  Thinner areas allow more light to pass through and are lighter in color; thicker areas are darker.  The transparency of the porcelain creates a 3-dimensional image of intricate detail as light passes through the bottom of the stein.5 It is simply stunning, and these photos do not truly represent how beautiful it is.

View through the stein to the bottom when held towards light

View through the stein to the bottom when held towards light

Detailed view of the lithophane

Close-up view of the lithophane - note the details!

The rust-colored lines you see underneath the deer are the result of a small crack at the bottom of the stein.  The lithophanes are rather fragile and can be easily damaged.

The scenes depicted on lithophanes were quite detailed.  Subjects included wildlife, as shown on my great-grandfather’s, or scenes from taverns, occupational life.  They could also show romantic scenes such as a man and a woman holding hands.  But beware – if the scene is erotic in nature, chances are it is a reproduction and not an original stein (1850-1914).  Any lithophanes of naked women or couples were produced after World War II.6

The handle and the lid also have clues that indicate it is an original in lieu of a reproduction.  The handle is smooth, missing the “bump” that newer steins have.7 The lid, likely made of pewter, is darker on the outside than on the inside.  In newer steins, the lid is often treated with chemicals so that it is uniformly dark, or “aged”, on both the inside and the outside.  But an authentic stein lid will be darker on the outside due to oxidation. 8

In memory...

In memory...

Amid the flowers, a banner reads “Zur Erinnerung“, which means “in memory” or “remembrance“.  I have found other steins with this phrase at various online auction or memorabilia sites, but I haven’t been able to find a good explanation of its meaning.  The only time I saw this phrase in the books I consulted, it was on a regimental stein.  The main difference is the level of detail –  regimental steins are decorated in a completely different manner and show scenes of military life or the unit’s information in addition to the phrase.  This stein is more simply decorated.  It may be an anniversary stein…but what is it in remembrance of?  Did Bavarians offer steins in memory of people in addition to in memory of jobs, schools, or military service?  Unfortunately, this is one question I won’t find the answer to, even with more research.

But, it’s a beauty, isn’t it?  I’m not sure what makes it more special to me – the fact that it belonged to my great-grandfather, or the fact that it was given to me by my cousin. Thanks to her, at least I have something to Show and Tell!  Hmm, I’m suddenly quite thirsty…I think I’ll go have a beer in honor of my great-grandfather!

[Written for the 55th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Show and Tell!]

Sources:

1 “A History of Beer”, Concordia Enzian Schuhplattler, 2004, http://www.enzian.ca/history_of_beer.htm

2 Ibid

3 Gary Kirsner and Jim Gruhl, The Stein Book, (Glentiques, Ltd., 1984), 7.

4 Ibid, 326.

5 Walt Vogdes, “Porcelain Steins with Lithophanes”, Stein Collector’s International, http://www.steincollectors.org/library/articles/Lithopha/lithos.html

6 Mark Chervenka, “Regimental Beer Steins”, Antique and Collectors Reproduction News, 2004, downloaded at www.repronews.com/web_pdf/samples/06_04_cv.pdf

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

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In Part 1 of my interview with William “Fred” Hoffman, I introduced Fred as the author or co-author of several books about names, surnames, and translating genealogical documents.  Today, we continue our conversation about surnames.

WPiP: When they began using surnames in Poland, were they standardized – passing from father to son – or not?

Fred: When surnames first started in Poland, there was no sense of any hard and fast rules that had to be followed.  Second names were just a convenience, a way of distinguishing this Jan from that Jan, this Piotr from that Piotr. At this point, they were not really what we’d consider surnames; they were more like nicknames. Some, by their nature, were appropriate to pass from father to son. Others were not. As time passed, circumstances made it more and more useful for people to bear a consistent surname. Given that universal literacy did not become a reality until the 19th century and even later, it should be no surprise that spellings could vary quite a bit. People were just sounding names out much of the time, and if they didn’t really have a good grasp of spelling, the results could be, well, interesting.

Spelling isn’t the only issue; the actual forms of surnames could vary greatly. Many researchers are perplexed when they see the same person or family called by several different names in documents. But there is usually some rationale to it, if you can just grasp it. For instance, if your father was called Jan, “John,” and you were, too, it wouldn’t be strange if people got my habit of referring to you as Janowicz, which means “son of Jan.” Then when you got older, you might become THE Jan, and your son would become Janowicz. Or you might remain Janowicz, and maybe they’d call him Janik, which means basically “son of Jan.” Or they might tell him Janczyk, which means the same thing. Or they might call him Janowski, which means “of the kin of Jan” or “one from the place of Jan.” Any of these names — as well as others I haven’t mentioned — might seem appropriate because they are all perceived as connected; they all refer to Jan in some way.

Remember, this was not a highly regimented, centralized society. No one had to fill a computer forms or apply for Social Security, so there was no great pressure to be absolutely consistent when it came to what you called someone.  Most folks lived in villages or on farms where everyone knew everyone else. It didn’t matter what you called a local person; everyone knew who you were talking about. (If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you known what I mean.) Until comparatively recently in Poland’s history, there was no social consciousness of a need for consistency in terms of surnames.

To be honest, from what I’ve read, surname consistency in Poland was not emphasized until after the partitions. The Austrian, Prussian, and Russian governments tended to insist on unchanging surnames, because it made their new subjects easier to keep track of. I get the impression a lot of Poles were baffled by this, thinking “Only some Prussian with a stick up his butt could possibly be so obsessed with something so trivial.”  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some Poles intentionally played games with their surnames, just to give their foreign masters a little aggravation.

By the way, I am pretty certain that some immigrants intentionally gave misleading questions to answers about their names and other personal information, because they didn’t want to be too easily traced. We may laugh now, but many of them still feared the secret police back home. Besides, their experience with authority on the whole was not pleasant, so they had no incentive to be cooperative. What if they left home to avoid military service, and suddenly wham! they’re deported right back to the village they tried to escape from? I have no doubt a lot of them felt it would be stupid to be too forthcoming when snooping authorities — census takers and the like — went around asking questions.

WPiP: What’s the strangest (hardest) name misspelling you’ve encountered? (Hopefully Pointkouski isn’t it!)

Fred: POINTKOUSKI is a good one, but it’s not one of the tougher ones I’ve seen. My experience with Polish names suggested immediately that it had to be a mangled version of PIĄTKOWSKI/PIONTKOWSKI. It wasn’t too hard to recognize.

Let’s see, I’ve seen first names mangled pretty badly. In one case, Kazimierz turned into Kagimu; in another, Hieronym (Jerome) turned into Heroin. As for surnames, I’ve seen NIEDZIAŁKOWSKI turned in to COSKEY, and INDYKIEWICZ converted to ENDECAVAGE. I think the worst mangled surname I’ve seen was WĘGRZYN, with nasal E, which sounds kind of like “VENG-zhin,” becoming WING CHING. Someone told me about this the other day, and I thought, “OK, that one takes the cake!”

WPiP: How did you become interested in name research?

Fred: Studying languages has always been my favorite thing — naturally I couldn’t be a doctor or lawyer or someone who makes good money, I had to be a linguist! My B.A. and M.A. was in foreign languages, specifically German, with Russian as a second language. When I finished earning my M.A. and discovered that employers weren’t lining up to hire me, I tried different jobs, and had some success in the area of free-lance writing and editing.

In the 80s, a relative of my wife introduced me to the Polish Genealogical Society (now the Polish Genealogical Society of America, PGSA). Its founder and president, Ed Peckwas, also edited the society’s newsletter, and needed someone to give him a little help with articles that involved translating some Polish. I had never studied the language and didn’t speak it, but my wife is of Polish descent, and that link made me kind of interested in the language. Polish had the reputation of being hard, and if you’re a linguist, you love challenges! So even before I met Ed Peckwas, I had started trying to teach myself Polish, and found that my study of Russian at the University gave me a leg up on understanding. This helped me do translations, and more and more Ed began to rely on me to help him with material for his newsletter.

Ed was always looking for books the Society might publish, and from his contact with researchers, he realized that a book explaining Polish surnames might go over well. I guess I was the only person he knew who could do the research in Polish necessary for such a book. He asked me if I’d be willing to work on this project.  At first I thought “God, no!” because I had some notion how much work it would require. Still, I was rather intrigued by the idea, if only because there was so little in English on this subject. If you have the itch to write a book, it’s hard to resist the idea of being the first person to write on a subject. So gradually, I got more and more interested in studying Polish names, and eventually I thought I had enough material to write a book.

The task was enormously simplified when a Polish researcher I’d met, Rafał Prinke of Poznań, found out I was interested in Polish names and sent me a copy of a recent book on that subject by a Polish expert, Kazimierz Rymut. It wasn’t a very big book, but it was a revelation to me. Rymut had come up with a workable way to deal with Polish surnames, organizing them by the roots they came from.  I took the same basic approach he did, and used much of the material he provided, trying make it very clear to all readers that he was the one who’d done all the work, not me. That’s still true; I don’t do much in the way of original research, I just help people who don’t read Polish learn what the experts have said about their names.

Anyway, the Society published my book, and it sold well, for such a niche item. I started corresponding with Professor Rymut, and by then, I was hooked! I’ll never get rich by sharing analyses of Polish names in English, but it is something I enjoy doing. I can honestly say I learn something new every day. The only bad thing about that is, when I look back on my work in the early 90s, I’m really embarrassed by it. I guess that’s the way it goes; if I live another 10 years, and look back on the work I’m doing now, I’ll probably think “What a moron!”

Still, I think this work is some help to researchers — at least I’ve heard from plenty who said I was a godsend. As long as that’s true, and I think I’m doing someone a little good, I’d like to keep going.

Well, the book was certainly useful in my own research of the Polish names in my family!  For more information on Fred’s books and where to purchase them, see Part 1 of our interview.  Stay tuned for Part 3 when we’ll move on to the topic of translations…do you need to be fluent in a language to properly translate? What about using computer programs or online translations?  Find out Fred’s answers tomorrow!

Update, September 1, 2008 – The 4-part series is complete, so here are the links to each segment of our Interview with William F. Hoffman:

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This week, What’s Past is Prologue is delighted to host an interview with author William F. Hoffman.  Those readers with Polish heritage are probably thinking “Cool!” while those without may be asking “Who?”  William “Fred” Hoffman is the author or co-author of several key works that are highly useful to genealogists.  Two of his books deal primarily with names and surnames:

  • Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings (Second Edition) was published by the Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA) in 1997 and remains the premier work on Polish surnames (the first edition was published in 1993).  If you have a Polish or Eastern European name in your ancestry, this is the work that will offer some clues as to what the name means and where it may have originated.
  • First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins and Meanings was co-authored with George W. Helon and published by the PGSA in 1998.  “Polish” first names come from many different languages; this book sorts it all out and carefully explains their origins and meanings.

Fred isn’t just known as a “name” expert though…he’s also an expert in translating genealogical documents!  He has co-authored several books with Jonathan D. Shea including

  • Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide offers help with German, Swedish, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian.
  • In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents is available so far in Volume I: Polish and Volume II: Russian.  If you are researching documents in these languages, Fred and Jonathan’s guide is simply indispensable.  I own Volume I, and it’s nearly 400 pages of  record samples, translations, and explanations about the Polish language and handwriting.

So, readers, if you didn’t recognize the name “William F. Hoffman” you may be realizing by now that perhaps you should have.  I encourage you to consult his works.  The “name” books are available through PGSA and the “translation” guides are available through Avotaynu.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of things to discuss with someone as knowledgeable as Fred is about these topics.  My interview will be divided into four parts and posted throughout the week.  I invite you to pour a cup of your favorite beverage and join us as we chat…

WPiP: What do you think is the biggest myth or misconception about researching Polish names?

Fred: I’d say the biggest misconception I’ve encountered consistently is that surnames (not just Polish, all surnames) are etched in stone — that they’re unique, utterly stable, and indispensable in research.

Of course, a correct surname can help enormously in tracing your family roots. But anyone with significant experience quickly realizes that very few surnames are unique; they are vulnerable to misspelling and outright mangling; and they aren’t necessarily all that helpful. I tell people all the time that the correct place name can be far more valuable than a correct surname. Records are kept locally, so if you can find the village where your ancestors lived and get access to the local records, you can often spot your family while looking through those records, even if you have the surname wrong, by matching up names and dates and places. If all you have is the surname, even if it’s correct, you’re in the same position as a person wandering through the streets of Kraków or Warsaw yelling “Does anybody know who my family is?” Good luck with that!

You have to remember: surnames are human inventions. Humans do not usually do things perfectly and logically and consistently; we tend to do the best we can at the time with what we have. A surname is not a graven image. It’s more like a snapshot, a picture of something that was appropriate to an ancestor at the time. There is no guarantee it remained appropriate. An ancestor might have gotten the name BYSTRON (from _bystry_, “quick, rapid”) because he was quick, he moved rapidly. The name stuck, and his descendants were called by it. They might have been a pack of slugs, but once the surname was in place, it tended to hang on. What started out as a perfect description of an ancestor could become downright misleading within a generation or two!

Plus there could be a hundred other families in various parts of Poland who also went by that name because they, too, had quick ancestors. So much for unique and reliable! We know very well that a name like Smith or Jones is hardly unique — why are we surprised when Kowalski or Jankowicz, which basically mean the same things in Polish, are not terribly helpful in tracking down a given ancestor?

As for stability, what bothers me most about researchers and names is that people don’t apply their everyday experience to this question. We’ve all had our names misheard, misunderstood, misspelled — why are we astonished when this also happened to our ancestors? My colleague Jonathan Shea tells me I wouldn’t believe how many ways people have mangled his name. It’s four letters, for God’s sake!

So I advise people to keep an open mind about surnames, especially their spelling. Bring your own experience to bear, and you’ll realize names are not unique, they’re subject to change, and therefore they can only be of limited help. That may depress some folks; but with no false notions, they’ll be in a better position to deal with what they actually encounter in the course of their research.

WPiP: Some researchers focus on one spelling of a name only with no variations.  Is this the best way?

Fred: As my answer to the first question indicates, no, this is almost a guarantee of failure. If you find that your name has been absolutely consistent in form and spelling for generations, you are one lucky individual! You should forget genealogy and head for Las Vegas.

In trying to deal with name variations, maybe the best practical suggestion is to try to learn a little about how Polish is pronounced.  You don’t need to become fluent in the language, and you don’t even need to pronounce it perfectly. If you can just develop a basic notion how names sound, you have a better chance of understanding how they changed. More often than not, mangled spellings can be traced back to people’s efforts to write down what they were hearing. Most Americans have a hard time pronouncing and spelling Polish names, so there was a lot of room for error, even if everyone involved was trying to get the names right. If you know, the Polish name DZIĘGEL (with a hook or tail under the first E) is pronounced a lot like our word “jingle,” you won’t be thrown if that name morphs into JINGLE, as it often did in America.

Now, sometimes you find that names were changed in ways that can’t possibly be predicted. I’ve heard of cases where someone with a long Polish name like WOJCIECHOWICZ had his name changed by his boss at work. The boss would say, “Look, you, I can’t spell or pronounce your name. If you want to be paid, from now on your name is Jones.  You got a problem with that?” And since the immigrant usually needed the job more than he needed his name, he’d shrug and say, “OK, boss.” Just like that, Władysław Wojciechowicz turns into Joe Jones. You have to do really outstanding research not to be thrown off the track by that twist!

When it comes to immigrants and their name changes, I’ve seen four basic scenarios:

1) The immigrant knew how to read and write his name and was stubborn about holding onto it, so it remained unchanged. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Poles can sometimes be a teensy bit stubborn! So some immigrants’ names survived with little or no mangling, despite the worst their new neighbors could do.

2) The immigrant needed to find a way to get along, and realized his foreign-sounding name was getting in the way, so he changed it to an American name that sounded kind of similar. Someone named Mieczysław might choose to go by Mitchell because it sounded American and had an M sound, and a CH, and an L sound, kind of like his original name. If you’ve grown up answering to “Mieczysław,” it might be easer to get used to answering to Mitchell than, say, Butch. There’s just enough continuity of sound with the old name. This is not unique to Poles, by the way; there are jillions of cases where people of all different nationalities did the same thing.

3) Despite the best efforts of all concerned, the name was butchered, often past recognition. In this case, the Americanized version might retain nothing more than the same 1st letter, if that. If you have the Americanized form, you can’t reconstruct the original form; but once research tells you what the original form was, you may be able to backtrack and grasp how and why it was changed.

4) Immigrants got sick and tired of spelling and pronouncing their names, only to have them mangled. So they said “To hell with it” and junked their old names, choosing something short and easy for Americans to handle. A WOJTALEWICZ in Chicago might become WRIGLEY because he passed a sign advertising Wrigley gum and thought, “Hey, that’s a good American name.” Or the change might not have been their choice, as in the case I mentioned earlier about the boss laying down the law.

It’s worth noting that when they did change their names, immigrants often went for a clean break. For many of them, it hurt too much to remember the old country. All that was in the past, over and done with — so why not be a new man, with a new name? The basic law in England and the U.S. (at least until recently) has always been that you can call yourself anything you like, as long as you’re not trying to evade the police. So immigrants didn’t need to file any kind of papers about a formal name change, and usually did not. They went by a new name, and that was that. More often than not, when their children or grandchildren asked about any aspect of life in the old country, they clammed up, because they’d closed that door and had no intention of reopening it. I KNOW many people have told me that’s how it was in their families! This could extend to names as well.

As you can imagine, for a genealogist, scenarios 1 and 2 are fairly easy to work with. Number 3 is tough. Number 4 is impossible — the only way you’ll figure it out is if you do some very good, thorough research. It also doesn’t hurt to get lucky.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which Fred will discuss surname “rules” and the worst misspellings of Polish names he’s encountered! Later this week, in Parts 3 and 4 we’ll talk about translating records and tips for reading difficult handwriting.

Update, September 1, 2008 – The 4-part series is complete, so here are the links to each segment of our Interview with William F. Hoffman:

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Joseph Zawodny

In 1880, Poland was a divided land.  Officially, the country of Poland no longer existed.  The former Polish Kingdom was partitioned in three stages among Prussia/Germany, Austria, and Russian from 1772-1795.  Poland, with its long national history and cultural heritage, became only an idea.  The area that was southern Poland now belonged to Austria, while northern and western provinces were governed by the newly formed Germany.  Central and eastern Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire.

This map shows the distance between Joseph and his wife's birthplaces and the border of Germany in 1880.

This map shows the distance between Joseph and his wife's birthplaces and the German-Russian border in 1880.

Along the border between Germany and Russia, just fifteen miles into the new outline of Russia, lay a small village called Komorowo.  The village was so small that it did not have its own church.  Instead, residents traveled almost two miles away to the larger town of Dobrosołowo for their religious services. Dobrosołowo itself was hardly a large town; in 1827 it was reported as having only 19 houses and 194 residents.  But the town had a parish church, Św. Jakóba (St. James), which served as the only parish for surrounding villages.

In this small Polish town or Komorowo on the new border of the Russian Empire, Józef Zawodny was born on January 26, 1880.  His father, Wawrzyniec Zawodny, was a 27-year-old farm worker.  Józef’s mother was Katarzyna Mariańska, also 27 years old and born in Komorowo.  The couple had been married for almost five years before Józef’s birth.  Józef was baptized at St. James in Dobrosołowo.

Little is known about Józef’s early life.  He had at least two sisters and one brother.  Parish registers record the birth of a sister, Aniela, on September 18, 1876, but no additional information is known.   Research of the parish records is ongoing, but from U.S. record sources it was determined that Józef’s also had a brother, Stefan, and a sister Mary.  By 1902, Józef had met a woman named Wacława Slesinska; he wanted to make her his wife.

Wacława was born on August 29, 1880 to 29-year-old Wincenty Slesinski (also spelled Ślesiński), a blacksmith, and 20-year-old Stanisława Drogowska.   She was their first child; the couple had only been married for almost one year.  Wacława was born in a larger town, Wilczyn, which was about thirteen miles from Dobrosołowo and less than a mile from the German border.  Wilczyn was large enough to be considered an “urban” area with nearly 500 residents.  Wacława was the oldest of eight children, and by the time the youngest was born in August, 1901, the Slesinski family was living in Komorowo and attending church at Dobrosołowo, the same towns as Józef.

Józef and Wacława on or near their wedding day, 1902.

Józef and Wacława on or near their wedding day, 1902.

Józef and Wacława wed on January 29, 1902, one day before Józef’s 22nd birthday.  Years later their children would report that Wacława’s parents were very upset by this marriage.  Whether they disapproved of Józef or the couple’s plan to immigrate to the United States is not known.  But Józef told his children that Wacława’s parents never spoke to her again and letters home were returned unopened.  Neither Józef nor Wacława would ever see their parents again.  Józef’s father died in 1917; his mother in 1923.  Wacława’s parents died two days apart – her mother on December 30, 1918 and her father on January 1, 1919.

On March 23, 1902, only two months after the wedding, Józef boarded the S.S. Graf Waldersee in Hamburg, Germany.  He arrived in New York on April 6, 1902, with only the equivalent of $2 in his pockets.  His sister Mary’s husband, Piotr Szymanski, met him in New York at Ellis Island.  Piotr (Peter) and Mary Szymanski lived at 2830 Ann Street in a neighborhood of Philadelphia known as Port Richmond.  While Józef and Wacława would live in many houses over the years, the neighborhood of Port Richmond was always their home.

Photo from "Our Faith-Filled Heritage" prepared by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Photo from"Our Faith-Filled Heritage" prepared by the Archdiocese of Phila.

The Port Richmond section of Philadelphia is an area along the Delaware River that was not only an industrial area, but also had streets with rows of houses for those employed in the various factories.  It was, and remains, a “blue collar” neighborhood.  At the time, it was a mix of ethnicities including Irish, German, and Polish.  The mix is most evident by a lasting landmark on the neighborhood’s primary east-west thoroughfare, Allegheny Avenue – three large Catholic churches were built within a quarter mile.  Nativity of the B.V.M. was the first church established in 1882; though built for the German community, it became known as the Irish church.  The Germans built their church next, Our Lady Help of Christians, which was finished in 1905.  The Polish community’s church, St. Adalbert’s, was founded in 1904 although the building itself was not completed until 1909.

Józef was living with the Szymanski’s in July 1903 when Wacława arrived in the United States.  She traveled on the S.S. Westernland from Antwerp, Belgium, which went directly to the Port of Philadelphia.

When Wacława arrived, the couple had been married for eighteen months but had only been together for two.  They settled down to raise a family together – a family of American children christened with Polish names living in a Polish section of an American city.  In their Polish community, Józef and Wacława’s names remained the same.  To Americans, Józef used the English spelling of his name, Joseph.  The name Wacława does not have a direct translation into English, so she became known as Laura.

Joseph and Laura began their family almost immediately.  Nearly one year after she joined her husband in Philadelphia, their first child was born, a girl, on July 9, 1904.  Her name was Janina; later she would be known as “Jennie”, “Jen”, or “Jane”.

The family grew quickly.  Following Jen’s birth were Helena (Helen) on October 30, 1905, Marianna (known as Mary or Mae) on August 3, 1907, and Stanisław (Stanley) on May 8, 1909.  By 1910, the growing Zawodny family lived at 2826 Livingston Street.  Another son was born on February 1, 1911, Kazimierz (known as Charley), followed by Bolesław (William) on August 4, 1912.

Tragedy would befall the family for the next few years.  On March 8, 1913, Bolesław died from acute gastroenteritis – the stomach flu.  He was only seven months old.  The burial took place at the nearby St. Peter’s Cemetery.

Joseph Zawodny, c. 1915

Joseph Zawodny, c. 1915

Another son was born on January 18, 1914, Władisław (Walter).  He would also have a short life, dying on March 27, 1915 at the age of 14 months.  The cause of death was enteritis and a gum infection from teething complications.  He was buried with his brother in St. Peter’s.

Sometime between the two deaths, the family moved to 2618 E. Birch Street.  It was there that their last child was born on January 13, 1916, a daughter named Zofia (known as Dorothy).

Joseph supported his large family by working as a boilermaker.  He also worked as a file maker for G.H. Barnett Company on Frankford Avenue at Richmond Street.

After Laura’s parents died in 1919, her younger sisters all immigrated to the U.S.  Józefa (Josephine), Marianna (Mary), Janina (Jane), and Zofia (Sophie) all moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and Laura visited them on occasion.

By 1922, the Zawodny family was living at 2650 E. Birch Street, just down the street from their previous home.  On February 20, 1922, Joseph declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen.  He entered his Petition for Naturalization on April 26, 1926 and it was finalized on January 7, 1927. Joseph and his wife were now naturalized citizens of the United States.

By 1930, the family had moved to 2512 E. Indiana Street.  As with their previous residences, it was within the same Port Richmond neighborhood of Polish immigrants in Philadelphia.  Although Laura did not attend church services, Joseph was very active in St. Adalbert’s.  His children were baptized at the church, and with most of the children he followed the Polish tradition of naming the child after the “saint’s day” in the Catholic calendar.  In 1929, Joseph was even the president of one of the charitable societies at St. Adalbert’s.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Joseph and Laura’s adult children got married and began families of their own.  The first to be married was the second oldest child, Helen.  In 1923 at the age of 17, she married John Tiernan, a 22-year-old plumber.  The next wedding took place in 1925 as the eldest, Jane, married Sigmund E. Galecki at St. Adalbert’s Church.  Younger sister Mae served as her maid of honor.

Next to be married was Mae, who married Henry M. Pater on February 1, 1930.  Henry and his family lived on the same street as the Zawodny’s — the Pater’s were at 2506 E. Indiana Ave. while the Zawodny’s were at 2512.  Henry was only 17, five years younger than Mae, so the couple married in Media, PA where he would not need his parents’ permission.  They later had the marriage blessed at Joseph’s Zawodny’s insistence.  The blessing took place at St. Adalbert’s in June of the same year.

In 1934, Stanley married Elizabeth Tiernan, the sister of his brother-in-law, John.   Next, Charley married Frances Adamczek, who was the daughter of his father’s best friend.  Finally, Dorothy married Bennet Rozet.

By 1938, Joseph and Laura lived at 3553 Mercer Street.  But Laura was not well.  On December 6th of that year, she was admitted to Philadelphia State Hospital, known as Byberry.  Her diagnosis was “dementia praecox”, or schizophrenia.  Joseph made the long journey to Northeast Philadelphia to visit her on a regular basis, but she would never again return home to live with him.

After Laura was hospitalized, their daughter Mae moved in with her husband Henry and their two young daughters – 6-year-old Joan and 3-year-old Anita.  They would live with him until his death.  Joseph occasionally argued with his daughter over running the household, but he enjoyed having his granddaughters with him.  He especially enjoyed dressing up in their “Sunday best” to visit friends and relatives.  Unfortunately for the girls, this meant walking long distances in uncomfortable shoes.  But their aunts provided welcome moleskin when they reached their destinations.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Joseph fell ill with pneumonia and pleurisy.  He died three days later on June 9 and was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery.  He shares his resting place with his wife Laura, who lived until May 20, 1956, as well as his daughter Helen, her husband, their young son, and in-laws.

Four of the six Zawodny children lived into their 70s.  One, Charley, died at 58.  Dorothy is still living and is now 92 years old.  Joseph and Laura Zawodny had seventeen grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.

[See Part 1 for my “original” biographical sketch of my great-grandfather written in 1980.  This sketch, Part 2, is based on documented sources.  All source information is available upon request.  As an endnote, the factual story ends as noted above, however, there is considerable speculation after a mysterious visitor identified himself as the “real” Joseph Zawodny after my great-grandfather’s death.  See Part 1 for details on the myth.  However, if you find this page because you are also descended from a Joseph Zawodny, and you grew up hearing about a man who stole your ancestor’s name, contact me!]

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The Family History Project Revisited

Did everyone have a “Family History Project” in school?  I received my assignment in 8th grade, December, 1980.  Even though I was inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots three years earlier, I still knew very little of my family’s history except for my great-grandparents’ names.  Our assignment was to write an essay about one of our ancestors.  My grandmother lived with us, so I turned to her for help.  “Tell me about your parents!”  My Nan told me some stories, and I wrote it all down.  I received an “85” for the assignment, and I recently found that document.  As I read through it, I couldn’t help but laugh.  Not at my grade school grammar or writing style, but at all of the errors!  I began my genealogical research years later after college, and I proved “false” many of the so-called facts I thought I knew.  But, those errors created the basic information that I had when I began my research; it was all I knew.  I’ve since proved names and dates with the correct source information instead of relying on “word of mouth.”  As for my essay, well it certainly is an interesting story.  But is it true?

While there was some element of truth in the tale, overall it’s mostly false.  My grandmother did have a tendency to tell tall tales.  She may have told me a good story so that I’d have something interesting to write about for the assignment, because I didn’t know any stories about any other ancestors.  Or, she may have told me what she believed to be true based on her fuzzy childhood memories or the tall tales her own parents told her.  Let’s see how the story stands up against the truth as learned through real genealogical research.  I’ll look past the poor writing – I was 13 years old and I still had a lot to learn.  My 1980 essay is in bold, followed by my comments today.

“My great-grandfather Joseph Andrew Mueller came to America in about 1900.  Though his name was Mueller, he used Zawodny because it was his stepfather’s name.”

My great-grandfather was Joseph Zawodny.  Legend has it, as told by my grandmother and my then-nine-year-old mother, that after Zawodny’s death a stranger came to the door.  The stranger told my grandmother that he was Joseph Zawodny and that her father had used his name to “get into the country.”  His real name, according to that version of Joseph Zawodny, was Joseph Mueller.  Interesting…what a great story!  I was so sure that I’d find some evidence of it somewhere, somehow.   Instead, I found Joseph Zawodny’s birth and marriage record in Poland, with information that matches what he provided in the U.S. on documents such as his naturalization papers.  In order for this interesting tale to be true, the imposter would have had to assume the name Zawodny prior to his marriage.  Since the town in Poland was not very large, it is unlikely that a priest would have performed the wedding ceremony and recorded it with a false name, because he would have known both the bride and groom.  Evidence has revealed only the name Joseph Zawodny.

Regarding “Andrew” as his middle name, it was not recorded in either his birth or marriage record, but on his SS-5 application for Social Security, he wrote his own name as “Joseph Andy Zawodny”.

He did come to America “about 1900″ – the precise date was April 6, 1902.  He arrived at the port of New York on the SS Graf Waldersee.  Of course, one could argue that this record only shows that a Joseph Zawodny arrived and intended to go to Philadelphia – what if he was using an assumed name?  Immigrants had to have the proper papers from their native land in order to obtain a ship ticket in the first place, so it is still difficult to imagine identity theft back then.

According to Joseph’s birth record, his father was Wawrzyniec Zawodny, who was born in 1853.  He was a farm worker who married Katarzyna Marianska on 10 May 1875 in Dobrosołowo.  She was born around 1853 in Komorowo and died on 29 July 1923 in Dobrosołowo.  Wawrzyniec died on 13 Dec 1917 in Dobrosołowo.  Based on these records, there is no evidence of a stepfather.

“He was born in Berlin, Germany on March 8, 1882, which is the same day I was born 85 years later.”

Joseph (Józef in Polish) Zawodny was born on 26 Jan 1880 in Komorowo, Poland near the town of Dobrosołowo.  I did hear the “same birthday” story growing up from my grandmother and mother.  I am not sure why my grandmother thought her father’s birthday was on March 8.  Several other documents throughout Joseph’s life, including some written in his own hand, confirm the birthdate, including baptismal record, WWI draft registration card, Social Security application, WWII draft registration card, a life Insurance policy, and his death certificate.

As for being born in Berlin, my grandmother thought he was German and named a German city.  Why?  He did speak German, but the area of Poland from which he came bordered Germany and many people spoke both languages.  He spoke Polish at home, lived in a Polish neighborhood, and attended a Polish church.

“Joseph was an infantryman in the German Army and he was serving as a guard in a prison.  One day he was caught giving cigarettes to the prisoners and he was sentenced to a court marshall.  Since he had to leave, he deserted the army and boarded a ship as a stowaway.”

Joseph was 20 years old when he left Poland for the United States.  The area in which he was born was in the Russian Empire a few miles from the German border.  The country was not at war when Joseph would have been the right age to serve in the military – would the army be guarding a prison?  I have found no evidence of his service in any army.

The stowaway myth was proven false by finding his passenger arrival record (noted above) as well as his departure record in Hamburg.  He definitely paid for passage on the ship!

“When he arrived in New York he spoke several languages, but not one was English.  One of his first jobs was loading logs on wagons.  Once he was putting them on and the foreman kept saying, “Push, push!”  Since he didn’t understand English very well, he did what the Polish “push” meant – he let go.  Needless to say, he lost his new job.”

I was amazed to discover in the Polish-English dictionary the word puszczać, which is pronounced poosh-chach.  It means to let go, let fall, or drop.  So, perhaps there is some truth to this story!

“Within two years he came to Philadelphia and got a job as a toolmaker at Nicholson File Company.  It was then his wife came over.”

Joseph arrived in New York on 06 April 1902.  Joseph’s passenger list indicates he is going to his brother-in-law P. Szymanski on Ann Street in Philadelphia, and his brother-in-law met him at Ellis Island.  It is unlikely that he stayed in New York at all.  His wife, Wacława, traveled directly to Philadelphia on the SS Westernland on 26 July 1903; her husband’s address is the same as his sister’s from the year before.

Joseph probably did work for the Nicholson File Company, or at least their subsidiary in Philadelphia, the G. H. Barnett Company.  Nicholson was a major manufacturing firm in the early 1900s.  On Joseph’s draft registration for World War I, he indicates he is a file maker for Barnett Co located at Richmond and Frankford Avenues in Philadelphia.

“Joseph Zawodny and Laura Slezinski were married at a young age sometime before he came over.”

A true fact!  Józef Zawodny married Wacława Slesinska on 28 January 1902 in Dobrosołowo, Poland.  Wacława adopted the name “Laura” in the U.S.  Slesinska is the feminine form of the surname Slesinski, which can be found in some older church records spelled as Śleszyński.  When they married, Joseph was one day shy of his 22nd birthday and Wacława was 21.  The ages are typical for Polish marriages around that time – even a little on the “old” side.

“Daughter of a rich slaughterhouse owner, she was born in Warsaw, Poland on September 28, 1884.”

Daughter of a blacksmith, she was born in Wilczyn, Poland on August 29, 1880.  Her parents are Wincenty (Vincent) Slesinski and Stanislawa Drogowska.  Wilczyn is a large town close to Dobrosołowo.

“They probably met because she was a nurse and could have been helping the army.”

It is extremely doubtful that she was a nurse.

“After Laura arrived they bought a house on Livingston Street, where they went on to have eight children.  From oldest to youngest, their children were Janine, Helena, Marya (my grandmother), William, Walter, Stanley, Charles, and Dorothy.  Both William and Walter died when they were babies.”

True.  According to the 1910 Census, the family lived at 2826 Livingston Street in Philadelphia.  The official names for the children were in the Polish and were Janina (b. 09 Jul 1904), Helena (b. 30 Oct 1905), Marianna (b. 03 Aug 1907), Stanisław (b. 08 May 1909), Kazimierz (b. 01 Feb 1911), Bolesław (b. 04 Aug 1912), Władysław (b. 18 Jan 1914), and Zofia (b. 13 Jan 1916).  The names used in English (not all are direct translations) were Jen/Jane, Helen, Mae, Stanley, Charley, William, Walter, Dorothy.  Bolesław died at 7 months old; Władysław died at 14 months.

“After Joseph got fired for an incident at the file company, he got a job at Baden Housing, which was located in Cornwells Heights.  With this job he installed most of Atlantic City’s heating in the hotels.”

There is no way to confirm that he was fired.  It is unlikely that Joseph worked in Cornwells Heights, located just outside the Philadelphia city limits and close to where I grew up, and even more unlikely that he worked in Atlantic City.  He did not own a car to travel far distances to work.  The job that Joseph had with the file company was in the same neighborhood in which he lived, a section of Philadelphia known as “Port Richmond”.  Many Polish immigrants settled there, and more than likely he walked to work.

“When the Depression came, Joseph lost some land in Merchantville, New Jersey.  He also lost money in Richmond Bank, which is one of the big banks that collapsed.”

I can not substantiate the land claim.  Again, even though Merchantville is only directly across the river from the Richmond section of Philadelphia, would he have had the money to do this?  It is probable that he did lose money in Richmond Bank, but probably not much.

“He retired, but when World War II started he went back to work, this time for the Coast Guard.”

Philadelphia did have a large volunteer contingent for the Coast Guard during World War II.  However, in January of 1942 Joseph turned 63.  I haven’t researched this because I don’t think he would have volunteered at his age.

“In 1938 Laura got sick and was hospitalized.”

While I do not know all of the circumstances that led to this, Laura was admitted to Philadelphia State Hospital for schizophrenia on December 6, 1938.

“Joseph’s daughter Marya, her husband Henrick, and their daughters Joan and Anita (my aunt and mother) moved in to take care of him.”

My grandparents, Henry (Henryk in Polish) and Mae and their daughters did live with Joseph, although I am not certain of when they moved in with him.  They lived at 3553 Mercer Street in the Richmond section of Philadelphia.  My mother, who would have been three years old if they moved in after Laura was hospitalized, fondly remembers her grandfather and how proud she was to live with him.  Her scattered memories: he always wore a suit jacket at the dinner table; he listed to a shortwave radio in another language which sounded, to her ears, like German; he would take them out on the weekends to visit relatives, but they’d walk so far in their Sunday shoes that they’d have blisters by the end of the day.

“Five and a half years later he died on June 6, 1944, which also happened to be D-Day.”

Joseph died on June 9, 1944 – three days after D-Day.

There ends my quasi-biography of my great-grandfather.  It was interesting to see how the stories stacked up against the “truth” available in genealogical records.  While it may not have been a genealogically accurate biography of my ancestor, these family history projects are highly beneficial for children.  Today, the availability of so much information on the internet would have allowed me to disprove some of my grandmother’s memories immediately!  But regardless of whether what she knew was true or not, projects such as these were designed to get the children to talk to their older relatives to find out the family history stories.

For years now, I’ve been hoping my niece gets such a project since I’d be the one she’d call as “keeper of the family information”.  She has many interesting stories about ancestors on both sides of her family, all of which can be substantiated with actual records!  But I am beginning to wonder if they do these projects anymore with the prevalence of divorce, adoptions, and other family relationships that would have been considered unusual back in 1980.  Then again, maybe this is the year – she’s about to enter the 8th grade!

In Part 2 to this post, I’ll offer my biographical sketch of Joseph Zawodny based on information I have discovered in genealogical records.  It may not be as interesting as my grandmother’s tale, but it’s all true.  Well, it’s true as far as I can tell, anyway – supposing he was who he said he was!

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When I saw the topic for the 4th Edition of the “Smile for the Camera” Carnival, I had the same reaction as many other genea-bloggers: “Maven, what? Are you kidding?  Just one?!”  The theme is “My Favorite Photograph” – but when it comes to photographs there are no favorites because I love so many of them.  When put in the context of genealogy, this is a truly impossible task.  I have few photos of my great-grandparents, so every one I have is precious.  However, in using the “Ace of Hearts” as the prompt, the carnival asks to see a photo that won your heart.  Again, many of the photos in my personal collection have won my heart, but I had to choose only one.

Wacława Zawodny

Wacława Zawodny

This is my great-grandmother, Wacława Zawodny (in Polish, the feminine form of her married last name would be Zawodna).  This is presumed to be her wedding photo – readers will see the corresponding photo of her husband later this month in his biographical sketch.  Wacława, maiden name Slesinka, was born on 29 August 1880 in Wilczyn, Poland to Wincenty Slesinski and Stanisława Drogowska.  On 28 January 1902 she married Joseph Zawodny in Dobrosołowo, Poland.  Joseph left for the United States about two months after the wedding, and she followed in July, 1903.  I have several photos of Wacława, who used the name Laura in the U.S., when she was older.  This one captures my heart to see her as a young woman 21 years old.  She sure captured my great-grandfather’s heart!

[This post was submitted for the 4th edition of Smile for the Camera: A Carnival of Images.]

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Author Diana Raab made some interesting discoveries about her family history.  The first is a sad discovery, one that no one wants to find – her grandmother’s suicide.  The other discovery is one that every genealogist longs for – her grandmother’s journal.  In Regina’s Closet, she tells her grandmother’s life story in a mix of memoir, history, family documents, and – naturally – her grandmother’s own writing.

Regina, the grandmother, wrote a journal in her later years that recounted her harrowing youth and young adulthood.  Born in Galicia in 1903, her youth in Poland was spent among the difficult years of World War I and cholera epidemics.  Orphaned at a young age, Regina’s descriptions of loneliness and poverty are heartbreaking.  She also writes about her immigrations to Vienna, Paris, and eventually the United States prior to World War II.  But despite the hardships Regina endured and the glimpses of depression that would later cause her to take her life, the book also shows the strength of her spirit – a strength her grandaughter Diana inherited.  The focus of the short book is not necessarily her grandmother’s suicide, but the life she lived.  It’s about family and relationships, and it offers an interesting glimpse into history and how it affected people’s lives.

I was attracted to the book for several reasons.  Any book that involves a “secret journal” peaks my interest!  Who wouldn’t want to find a relative’s secret journal, something in their own had that would give us more than just simple dates and facts that we dig up in historical records.  A journal is personal, revealing – it offers insight into who the person was and how they felt.  I have no such documents in my family history, so I’m left to wonder about what my ancestors were really like.  But the way Raab weaves her own story into her grandmother’s poses an interesting question to genealogists – what are you doing to tell your own story for future generations?

Another reason I read this book was the fact that her grandmother committed suicide.  I also have a suicide in my family history, my great-grandfather John Piontkowski.  He hung himself from a rope in the basement of his house when he was 71 years old.  It happened five years after the death of his wife.  My father was a boy, and his father never told him much about it in later years.  In an attempt to uncover some insight into his death, I even located the inquest case file from the Medical Examiner’s Office.  It revealed very little: he was likely dead for three days before being found, the police found “nothing suspicious” about his death, and his son signed an affadavit saying “There did not seem to be anything wrong with him, he was not under any doctor’s care.”  Yet another family mystery regarding the only great-grandfather of which I have no photograph, no sense of who he was or how his personal history affected him.

Stories like Regina’s Closet remind us that all of us have a story to be told, and it inspires us to try to discover our ancestors’ stories.  Diana Raab has a wonderful quote in the book from Francois Mauriac in The Desert of Love:

We are, all of us, molded and remolded by those who have loved us, and though that love may pass, we remain nonetheless their work — a work that very likely they do not recognize and which is never exactly what they intended.

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