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Archive for the ‘Interviews with the Experts’ Category

In Part 1 of my interview with Zenon Znamirowski, the founder of PolishOrigins™, we learned about the company’s mission, the online forum, and the Forefathers Traces Tours.  In Part 2, I asked Zenon about the site’s databases as well as what resources he uses to find living relatives.

What are some of the techniques you use to find living relatives of clients whose ancestors emigrated from Poland to America a hundred years ago?

First and foremost I encourage everyone to add the surnames of relatives they are looking for and places where their ancestors come from to our PolishOrigins Surnames & Places Databases (click here for surnames and here for places). Only a few days ago I myself experienced that it works! A gentleman from New Jersey, USA, contacted me the with information that in his family there were people with the same surname as one of my grandmother’s, and they came from from the same tiny village! We are working now on proving our relationship.

We have plans to enable Polish speaking people to take advantage of the Surnames & Places Databases. I think the Database will gain additional, significant value with their  participation.

When a client wants us to try to find living relatives we follow a three-step procedure.

After we receive information about known relatives in Poland and their last known place of residence, we first check all possible sources available on line and in our databases. If we find any matches, we make phone calls and try to find relationships.

The second step is a personal visit to the area of last known residence of the relatives. From our experience it is a very effective way of finding people, especially in the country. People are very helpful and willing to talk to us. Usually everyone knows each other and if only there is in the town or neighboring villages someone who may be related to a client, the chances of finding him are really high.

If the personal visit doesn’t bring results, maybe because the family moved away from the town, we try other ways. We contact local historical societies in search of any mention in local records (not necessarily vital records but sources such as newspapers), try other sources like factory documentation, school records etc., or we contact people through popular social networking websites.

Tell us more about the Surnames and Places databases.

The goal of our Surnames and Places (S&P) Databases is to make it possible for everyone to search for people who are interested in the same surnames or places and to enable the exchange of information and findings. I mentioned about the S&P Databases in the context of sharing research information and relatives search. Now I would like to add  the most important features and benefits for users:

  • Privacy. We never reveal email addresses of our members to any other third party, including other members. All communication between people is done through the Private Messages system on the Forum. All you need as a registered member to contact other member is his or her ‘username’.

  • Indexed content. Our Datbases have such a structure, which allows search engines to index the content. Most of known to us genealogy databases are “invisible” to search engines, they don’t exist for websites like Google.com or bing.com. This means that if you add your surnames and places to our Databases, the chances are high that someone who is looking for the same combination of surname and place through, for example Google.com will find you. In the case of a rare surnames an entry in our Database can be found by someone who enters only the surname into a search engine (try, for example, a search for ‘Anazewski’).

  • Simplicity. The way of adding information into Database is very simple and user-friendly. Click here to see the registration form.

  • Personal pages. Aside from adding your surnames and places you can share with others more details about your achievements and search goals in the ‘More info’ box. For example, click here for my personal page in S&P Databases.

Currently, after a year of existence, more than 1,850 surnames and 1,100 places have been added by researchers.

The newest feature to PolishOrigins™ is “Polish Genealogy Databases”, which is advertised as “In one place. In one click. In English!”  Tell us more about this exciting search feature.

This is our youngest “child” in its infancy. We hope to raise it to become a strong and useful “member” of the PolishOrigins.com tools family.

The goal of the Polish Genealogy Databases or PGD tool is to allow all visitors to access the increasingly rich Polish genealogy resources that are available online and to understand the content.

By entering keywords (like surnames, places, dates) in the search box you can gain access to the content of English and Polish language genealogy sources and instantly get the results automatically translated into English all with one click!

I would emphasize the three most important features of the PGD tool:

  • Automatic translation of Polish language sources into understandable English.
  • Selection of the best searchable Polish genealogy websites. Very often, because of the language barrier, people are even not aware of the existence of great databases and websites.
  • Continual updating of the resources that are accessed. We will be gradually developing the tool by adding addresses for the most relevant and useful new websites that appear online every month.

Just try it for yourself: http://polishorigins.com/databases/ .

Thanks for sharing your insights with What’s Past is Prologue readers, Zenon!

Donna, if you would allow me, I want to express my deep gratitude to my wife Magda, Michał our web developer and “geek”, and to Shellie, James and of course, Nancy. Without their support, ideas and active participation throughout of this adventure nothing would have been possible.  I would like to also thank you, Donna, for the opportunity to discuss and to share with “What’s Past is Prologue” readers our PolishOrigins.com projects, services and plans.

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What’s Past is Prologue is pleased to welcome Zenon Znamirowski, the founder of PolishOrigins™.  The PolishOrigins™ web site, PolishOrigins.com, offers a variety of information useful to those researching Polish genealogy.  In this 2-part interview, I asked Zenon to describe the background of the site as well as some of its key features.  Here is what he had to say…

On the site, PolishOrigins™ is described as “a virtual space of collective wisdom”. This refers to the site’s forum as a place to learn from other researchers.  Can you tell us more about the forum and how members have learned from each other?

Before creating PolishOrigins.com, I was replying to many email requests related to the wide subject of Polish genealogy research and I was doing my best to respond with timely, knowledgeable replies, sometimes after consultation with other experienced Polish genealogists. I noticed three main things over the years. First, although the individual inquires were unique, my initial replies with suggested first steps, useful websites and online tools, and tips for understanding Polish language were often similar. Second, I was often amazed by the detailed knowledge that many of these people had acquired before contacting me. Third, their desire to help others and share the knowledge gained from countless hours of work, was remarkable.

If shared, this collective wisdom could save hours of pointless and frustrating work for others. This is especially true when two (or more) persons are researching the same surname or geographic area. This is why the PolishOrigins™ Forum may be so valuable.

Even with the vast amount of information and tools available on the internet, many people feel lost or isolated while struggling to begin their family history research. The PolishOrigins Forum gives people the chance to share with a wide audience. When sharing knowledge and experience, I believe that the equation 1 + 1 may equal more than 2.

I think Shellie from our Forum expressed the idea best in one of her very recent Forum posts when she commented to another researcher, “You have come to the right place. I was in your shoes just a short time ago and thanks to Zenon and the members of PolishOrigins I’ve learned how to uncover my roots. It has been a very rewarding experience for me. There is a spirit of sharing and discovery here among the members of PolishOrigins and I think that you will enjoy being part of the crowd.”

The mission of Polish Origins™ sounds rather philosophical when you say that a genealogical search is really a search to discover more than just where we came from, but WHO WE ARE.  Can you tell us a little bit more about this philosophy and how you got started in genealogical research?

I don’t think that I have the typical background of a genealogy researcher. I wasn’t  bitten by this “bug” because of a family member or a school genealogy project. A few years ago, while offering some Polish folk items on an online auction website, I met Nancy. While we were corresponding, she asked me if I knew any genealogists in Poland because she was planning to visit Poland in a few months. I asked her about the area she was interested in. Nancy replied, naming a few villages that were located … in the county I come from! And one of the towns of her ancestors was the exact town where I was born!

Nancy and her husband arrived a few months later and we had a very successful tour. Together with my cousin, who is a very experienced genealogist, we had the good-luck to not only visit all the villages and find much information in parish books, but we also discovered and met living relatives that Nancy had not known existed!

This is how my adventure with genealogy started. Nancy encouraged me to try to help other people looking for their relatives and became PolishOrigins.com ‘godmother’. She has actively supporting our efforts for years. Thank you Nancy!

Returning to your question about our “philosophy” and mission. Over the years, I have had many opportunities to observe people’s reactions when they make new discoveries about their families, see them walk through villages of their ancestors, or stand by the graves of older family members and talk what this all meant to them.

I am not a philosopher, and I am not sure if it is possible for me explain it clearly enough (not to mention that English is a foreign language for me) but I believe many of us doing genealogy for some time may have similar experiences. Usually we start with an interest in the lives of our closest family members – grandparents, great-grandparents. Then we become curious about the times and places they lived and this curiosity expands to other ancestors, also in collateral lines. We want to know more about local history and people living at that time. From local history we move further to the history of the country or nation where ancestors came from. We read or watch more and more about history, culture and heritage of the nation. And we want to go still deeper and deeper into our family investigation. I think each of us could it describe it his or her on words even better. We hope that by providing our services and building useful tools we will assist our visitors with this adventure and help find answers to the questions: “Where are my roots?” and “Who am I, really?”.

Your Forefathers Traces Tours to Poland give people the opportunity to see their ancestral hometowns and even meet relatives.  What can people expect from the tour? If they can’t travel, do you give “virtual” tours?

As I described on our Forefathers Traces Tours page, each trip is unique…and very personal. What is invariable, and what I have observed each time (no exceptions!) is an incredibly strong emotional experience accompanying visits to ancestral hometowns or homesteads and meeting relatives for the first time.

Of course, before any tour we discuss its main purposes and interests of our guests. We set the itinerary together, we assist in finding and booking lodging, and organizing transportation. On the tour we drive on Polish roads, very often in rural areas, interpret, and negotiate with local institutions.

A Forefathers Traces Tour itself is a great opportunity to perform research on the spot, especially if there are no other records available outside of our client’s ancestors’ home parish. It is very exciting to witness the moment when one of our guests sees their grandfather’s actual birth record, or when they enter the church where their great-grandparents were married.

As a rule, we are very flexible. As I always emphasize to our guests, “This is YOUR tour”. If there is a need or desire, we can together change our plans within minutes or hours. Unscheduled stops and side trips along the way are always welcome and often add to the excitement of the tour, especially when it leads to an ancestral home site, or the discovery of relatives. You will not be able to ask for this on trips organized by a tourist company for  large groups, where itineraries are strictly followed.

In my opinion Forefathers Traces Tour can be the crowning jewel in years of genealogical treasure hunting. Just read and view photos from our Forefathers Traces Tours Blog.

I haven’t mentioned it anywhere yet, but we are working on expanding our Tours offer to include Belarus. Soon, official information will appear on the Tours page.

If someone is not able to travel to Poland we can perform “virtual” tour for him. We can visit the place he is interested in seeing and take pictures there. We can also try to find relatives. We will prepare a report of what we find and send photographs.

Learn more about Zenon’s efforts to find relatives as well as some of the unique databases found on the PolishOrigins™ site in Part 2 of the interview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is your own ancestry Polish as well?

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

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

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

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

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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October has been a celebration of Polish-American Heritage Month here at What’s Past is Prologue.  Today I’d like to introduce my readers to Ceil Wendt Jensen, CG and her website, Michigan Polonia.  In our interview you will read about how she developed an interest in genealogy, her experiences with finding her Polish roots, and get some of her expert advice!  Ceil had over thirty years of experience as a teacher of art and social studies.  In 1998, she became a professional genealogist.  Since then, not only has she traced her Polish ancestry back to the 1600s, but she has used her teaching skills to become an international speaker on Polish genealogy.

Ceil has authored numerous articles in genealogy magazines and journals, as well as several books, including Detroit’s Polonia, Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery and Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery.  Her upcoming book, Sto Lat: A Quick Guide to Polish Genealogy, will offer both traditional and digital research techniques to finding your Polish ancestors in North America and Poland.

The header from the Michigan Polonia site - mipolonia.net

The header from the Michigan Polonia site - mipolonia.net

Visit the Michigan Polonia site for more information on Ceil’s books, speaking engagements, and articles. Ceil is currently upgrading the site to include adding audio and video files.  She also maintains the following blogs:

I can’t imagine how she had any free time with all of the above activities, but Ceil somehow found the time amid blogging, writing, teaching, and researching to graciously respond to my questions.

I read that you became interested in genealogy with a grade school project (as I did).  Can you tell us a little about that and how that led you on the path to become a certified genealogist?

My father was my first genealogical interview. He showed me a canvas wallet that held the documents my grandfather and great grandfather carried to the US from Mühlbanz (Milobadz), Dirschau (Tczew), and West Prussia (Poland). His death a few months later made me start asking questions of living relatives.

Przytula Family, Detroit c. 1908

Przytula Family, Detroit c. 1908

I visited with my maternal grandparents and great aunts who willingly borrowed documents from their cousins to get our research started.  One of my best collaborators was my Great Aunt Lilly- we went cemetery hopping together.  She provided me with a copy of the birth certificate of our uncle Mikołaj Przytula, born in Cibórz, Kreis Strasburg (now Brodnica – the certificate was issued in Lautenburg [Lidzbark]), and a great family photo of Mikołaj, his sister Stanisława and parents Adam and Johanna (Pszuk) Przytula. I featured it in my book Detroit’s Polonia. Unfortunately, when I took the documents to the local Family History Center in the 1970s the volunteer tried helping me find the villages with a current map of Europe. I needed a pre-World War I map to find the locations.  I set the research aside during the years I taught high school. But even as I traveled overseas with my high school students, I wondered how and when I would visit Poland.

When my great Aunt Lilly died at the age of 102, I pledged at her funeral that I would finish the research we had started in the early 1970s. It was a great time to resume my research. The Internet was developing sites for genealogical research, and I had earned a teaching degree in Social Studies and knew how to use primary and secondary sources.  In 2000 I attended the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy and found many of the teaching techniques I used in the classroom would segue into genealogy.  I also realized that most researchers were text based, and my background as an art teacher allowed me to bring maps, graphics, photos, and other media into the genealogical field.

I submitted my certification portfolio to the Board of Certification in Washington DC, and the judges awarded my credentials on December, 13, 2003. I am currently updating my materials for recertification.

What do you think are some common mistakes made by beginning researchers?

I volunteer at our local Family History Center and see several common mistakes new researchers make when they begin their Polish research. The first problem is putting the name into proper Polish.  Searching for William, Betty, or Chester will not yield any results. I help the patrons find the correct given name and surname by using Fred Hoffman’s books.  I also have them use Steve Morse’s Gold Form for searching ship manifests since it has the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex created to work with Slavic languages.

The second technique I offer researchers is the trick of putting a syllable of a name in a search engine instead of all the information known about their ancestor.  In fact, I found my great grandmother’s passage to America by entering just the first three letters of her infant son’s name into the ancestry.com search engine along with his year of birth and possible passage.  Jac*, born in 1888 and traveling between 1888 and 1889 brought up the manifest for Jacob Watkowiak (sp) , age  9 months. The last name was misspelled as WATKOWIAK instead of WOJTKOWIAK.  They sailed on the same ship that her husband Piotr took a year earlier.

What are your top three practical suggestions for Polish researchers?

1.  Use the Polish spelling of the given and surname when looking for them in their first US Census. They may not have immediately anglicized their names.

2. Research collateral lines- aunts, uncles, and cousins. They may have recorded needed information that is not noted in your direct ancestor’s documents. And, don’t forget to request records of family members who joined religious orders, their archives hold personal histories and necrologies.

3.  Use Google Images to find maps, photos, and stories about your ancestral villages in Poland. Try using Polish words instead of English such as “Rogalinek Parafia”. Google Web and Images will return interesting hits from Poland.  I found Marek Wojciechowski’s website featuring current photos of the region using this technique.

Your specialty is Michigan, specifically Detroit.  Can you tell us how your books came about?

While some Polish families first settled in an Eastern state before coming to the Midwest, my ancestors all came directly to Michigan.  The Adamskis and Wojtkowiaks first settled in Calumet, Houghton Co., Michigan but soon came to Detroit, where my Przytulski, Wendt, and Zdziebko ancestors resided.  So, it was natural that when I began to think of developing genealogy projects my hometown of Detroit would be featured.

Like so many other genealogists, I enjoy vintage photos and the local histories published by Arcadia Publishing.  I taught both black and white and digital photography in my classroom, so I felt prepared to develop Detroit’s Polonia – a book of vintage photos that could serve as a community photo album. I contacted Arcadia to find out the process of becoming a published author. They offered a complete package and outlined how to bring a book from an idea to a product. All along the way the staff offered constructive criticism, encouragement, and an editor.  I started with my own collection of family photos, and my colleagues in the Polish Genealogical Society of Michigan shared images. I visited local private such as the Felician Sisters in Livonia, Michigan and public archives like Detroit Public Library’s Burton Collection to find poignant images. We held a Detroit’s Polonia “Launch Lunch” for the book around Pączki Day, 2005 at the American Polish Cultural Center in Troy, Michigan.

The book was arranged on the cycle of life, and the last chapter featured Bill Gorski’s collection of tombstone portraits photographed in the 1970s. The chapter on burial practices let to the next two books Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery and Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. I wrote the books with the intent to use the royalties to place headstones on the unmarked grave of my ancestors buried at the cemeteries. On Memorial Day, 2008 we placed a ledger on the gravesite of our great grandfather Piotr Wojtkowiak.

Why did you decide to write about cemeteries?

In my case it’s a matter of honoring my ancestors. I have grandparents and great grandparents buried at Mount Elliott and Mount Olivet Cemeteries. They died before I was born – but I feel I know them after researching our family history in Michigan and Poland.

Piotr Wojtkowiak – my maternal great grandfather- was like so many other immigrants in the late 1880s. He took a chance on America. There are no photos of him but historical records tell his story. He was born in Tulce, Sroda, Posen to Mateusz Rychlewicz Wojtkowiak and Franciszka Szymnkowiak – the ninth of ten children. He worked as a locksmith on the manor farm of Count Edward Raczyński and ledgers for the manor reveal he was paid in grain and marks.

Piotr sailed from Bremen and arrived at the port of Baltimore Nov. 11, 1886. Her was headed to Calumet in the UP to join Finns, Italians and Cornish in the mines. Employed by the Calumet and Hecla mining company he was employed until he broke his leg in an accident.

After the injury Piotr settled in Detroit with his young family. Babies arrived every two years. They were to be „half orphaned” when Piotr contracted typhoid leading a crew of Detroit city workers digging sewers.  He died and was buried in an unmarked grave at Mt. Elliott Cemetery. Three weeks after his death, his wife Marianna gave birth to their seventh child. The curly haired infant  was named Peter in honor of his father.

In 1975 I started searching for my great grandfather’s grave at the oldest extant Catholic cemetery in Detroit. I was told by the office that he wasn’t in the ledger. I drove down there and sure enough, he was in the book- his name was entered as Peter Wojskowiak instead of Peter Wojtkowiak. He was buried in a single grave without a marker. In fact, in that area of the cemetery there were very few grave stones.

His unmarked grave was my incentive in writing the book Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery published by Arcadia.  I dedicated the book to Piotr Wojtkowiak (1863-1897) who died in Detroit at the age of 37. He left six children behind, wife Marianne giving birth to their seventh child three weeks later. A local newspaper writer picked up the story: Remembering Piotr.

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Thanks, Ceil!  I enjoyed this opportunity to chat, and I certainly hope my readers were as inspired by your own search for your family’s history as I was.  We look forward to your upcoming book! I hope to make it to the next United Polish Genealogical Societies conference for which Ceil is one of the main organizers.  Mark your calendars for April 23-26, 2010 at the Salt Lake Plaza Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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In our continuing celebration of Polish-American Heritage Month, What’s Past is Prologue is delighted to highlight one of the best sites on the internet devoted to Polish genealogy – PolandGenWeb.  I’ve invited PolandGenWeb’s coordinator, Marie Dallas, to tell us more about the site and what researchers can find there.  Marie and I have known each other for quite some time now, and unlike some other “virtual” friends I’ve made on the internet, we are actually “real live” friends that went to college together.  In fact, we started on our Polish genealogy quest together about twenty years ago!  We still haven’t discovered if we’re related or not, but we’re working on it!  I am also a PolandGenWeb province host for two provinces, though I admit I don’t spend as much time as I should to update those sites (both will be updated by the end of the year).  My name is also listed on the site as “creative consultant” but I really can’t take any credit for all that you’ll see there – it’s all Marie’s talents that have put it together.  Marie, on the other hand, spends most of her time keeping the main PolandGenWeb site up-to-date by providing relevant and useful information to family researchers, especially beginners.  I don’t know how she finds the time, because she does all of this for free while running a household with a husband, three beautiful children, and several pets!

Can you describe PolandGenWeb – what’s its purpose?

PolandGenWeb is part of the WorldGenWeb Project, a non-profit organization devoted to providing free genealogical information and resources. The site is intended to help genealogical researchers uncover their Polish ancestry by providing research guidance, maps (historic and present day), town locators and town lists, translation aids, archives addresses, and much more. In addition, each Polish province has its own website devoted to researching one’s ancestors specifically within those boundaries and can be accessed from the PolandGenWeb home page. The site is free to access and run by volunteer effort. Over the past 10 years, it’s grown tremendously in content.

What are some of the good resources we can find there? Do you have anything no other site has?

One of the better resources of PolandGenWeb, I think, is the Basics of Research page. It covers “newbie” information, such as how to effectively begin one’s research and what resources can be used to find the information one is looking for. Another good resource is the Poland Catholic Records Microfilms set of pages. Peter Gwozdz maintains the content and has provided very detailed information on how to work with the parish and civil records microfilmed by the LDS. I’m very grateful for his contribution to PolandGenWeb.

And of course, there’s Rafał’s Polish Surname List. This unique resource is an alphabetical list of surnames submitted by those researching ancestors of Polish ethnicity or those who lived in Poland (occupied territories or present-day boundaries). Each entry includes an email address to contact the submitter and most include the town or region where the submitter’s ancestors were from. At present, there are over 37,000 entries.

Tell me about the “Records Transcription Project” – it looks like you have quite a collection! What’s on your site? Is it hard for others to contribute?

The Records Transcription Project is the highlight of PolandGenWeb.  All of the content housed on the site is contributed by volunteers, and the majority of transcribed records are births/baptisms, marriages, and deaths from parish or civil records microfilmed by the LDS. There are a couple of sets of records whose content was taken directly from the parish registers in Poland and has not yet been microfilmed by the LDS. While the project does include resources outside of Poland, such as ethnic Polish cemeteries in other countries, the focus is on providing data from Poland (both historical and present-day areas).

In addition to the vital records, PolandGenWeb has a growing collection of transcribed cemetery inscriptions and War Memorials.  Debbie Greenlee is spearheading the effort to encourage folks who either live in or visit Poland to transcribe the names found on memorials erected to commemorate those town residents who were killed during war time – particularly those who were killed during WW2. Most are not soldiers’ memorials but memorials to murdered civilians.

It’s relatively easy for anyone willing contribute to the project.  If one rents a microfilm containing parish or civil records in Poland, instead of extracting the information from only the records for one’s ancestors, one can can extract additional information for the Transcription project. If one is visiting Poland, one can photograph and/or transcribe the names found on tombstones and war memorials in the places they visit. More details on how to contribute to the transcription project can be found here.

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Thanks, Marie!  I hope others find PolandGenWeb as useful as I do.  Take a look at all the site has to offer, especially if you are just beginning your research.  Once you’re an experienced researcher, give back by contributing to one of the transcription projects.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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This week we’re interviewing author William F. Hoffman (see Part 1 for more info on his books).  In Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview, we discussed surnames. Yesterday, in Part 3 Fred discussed translating records.  Today we wrap up our conversation with more on translations.

WPiP: What’s the easiest language for non-linguists to learn with regard to research, not fluency?

Fred: The answer to that question is always a little bit subjective.  I mean, we find Polish hard, but young Polish babies have no problem learning it at all.

But I understand what you mean by this question, and I think most people would say the answer is Latin.  Many of our words derived from Latin words with similar or related meanings, so the terms you run into are often familiar, or at least not completely alien. That, in turn, makes you feel like you have a fighting chance.

Also, during the period when English (and other European languages) were developing their standard written forms, Latin was the language of educated people. So the way writers said things in Latin had a lot of influence on the way they said things in English or German or Polish. As time has gone by, we’ve gotten farther and further away from that — but even in the 19th century, there’s just enough similarity and continuity to give you a hand.

I think most English speakers would say German is harder than Latin, but still not too bad. English and German are from the same family of languages, and there are basic similarities in the ways these languages express ideas. Polish is quite a bit harder. Russian … Well, it is a challenge. Still, the harder a language, the more gratifying the moment when you realize you’re starting to make progress with it.

WPiP: When can we expect to see your Latin book?  Can you give us a sneak peak at the highlights?

Fred: I’m sure you’re referring to the Latin volume of the In Their Words series of translation guides, on which Jonathan Shea and I collaborate. Jonathan took the lead writing the first drafts of the Polish and Russian volumes, because those are his strongest languages, and he knows them better than I do. He wanted me to write the first drafts of the Latin and German volumes, because I have more experience with them. Of course, once the first draft of any of these books is written, we both work on refining and improving it.

I keep hoping we’ll have a chance to finish the Latin book this year. But it seems like every time a week comes when I scheduled working on the first draft, something else comes up absolutely has to be done right away. I’ve been promising the Latin book for years now, and it’s still not done. I still HOPE to finish a first draft before the end of the year, so that we can publish it late this year or early next year. That will clear the way for us to tackle the real monster: the German volume.

But don’t hold your breath. One thing about writing books — they almost always take longer than you think they will. We started working on In Their Words as a single book on four languages, more than a decade ago.

As for the highlights, the Latin book will follow the same basic pattern as the Polish and Russian volumes. We’ll talk a little about the language itself, then show and analyze sample documents, emphasizing terms and expressions that tend to show up again and again. There will be a large vocabulary section, including words we’ve run into that don’t generally appear in dictionaries. We’re also planning a section on common first names and their equivalents in English, French, German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. That can be very important, because the Latin forms of specific names may be very different from the ones people actually sent by in everyday life. You need to know that a Pole called Adalbertus in a Latin document probably went by Wojciech.

When the book is ready, you can be sure Jonathan and I will not be shy about saying so. There will be notes on various Polish genealogy mailing lists. I just may mention it in PolishRoots’ free monthly e-zine, Gen Dobry! And we will announce it on the home page of our Web site, www.langline.com. I’m also keeping a list of people who want to be informed when it’s done; you can ask to be added to the list if you write me at wmfhoffman@sbc.global.net.

Fred, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us!  This concludes our interview with Mr. Hoffman.  He offered some great tips to researchers, including 1) surname spellings were not “set in stone” throughout history, 2) pay attention to how the name SOUNDS for clues on how it may be misspelled in records, 3) when trying to decipher a handwritten record, copy more than just the entry for more clues to decipher individual letters.  I wish I had known those things when I started my research; it would have saved me some time and frustration!  I am looking forward to Fred’s Latin volume of “In Their Words” since many of the older church records for my family are in Latin, and some of the phrases can be a challenge for my high school Latin memories.

I hope to interview other authors and genealogists over the coming months – please be sure to leave a comment if this interview series was helpful to you!

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 we’re interviewing author William F. Hoffman.  In Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview, we discussed surnames.  But that’s only part of “Fred” Hoffman’s area of expertise – he’s also authored several books on how to translate genealogical records (see Part 1 for more info on his books).  Today, we’ll begin discussing translating genealogical records once you find them!

WPiP: Do you need to be “fluent” in a language to translate records?

Fred:  When it comes to the kinds of records genealogists rely on most, you don’t really need to be fluent. It helps, of course; but I’ve dealt with plenty of people who were not fluent in a given language, yet succeeded in extracting the information they really needed. Their translations usually weren’t perfect, but they were close enough. I’ve found that patience and persistence can be more important than innate linguistic ability — though you do need at least a little of that. Some folks simply have no talent whatsoever for languages, and they’re not likely to have much luck.

Most of the records genealogists use rely on a certain basic format, so that you can reliably expect to find the same specific information given in a specific order, time and time again. You also see the same words and phrases showing up again and again. It’s not hard to learn to recognize them and understand what they mean. Once you get familiar with the standard layout of specific documents, you can spot, say, the name of the person who was born. You recognize where his parents should be named, followed by how old they were, followed by where they lived, and so on. Remember also, these documents don’t usually come at you from out of the blue. You have some idea where they came from, and when they were drawn up; that info provides a context that makes interpreting them easier.

Now, once you get past your basic records —  birth, marriage, and death records, that sort of thing — translation gets tougher. You could say that, by definition, once you depart from the norm, and you don’t know what to expect, that’s when fluency is required. You may have to rely on the assistance of a professional translator. But it never hurts to try yourself first. Much of the time, you have a real shot at figuring out what you want.

WPiP: Do you recommend use of computer translations, either online or with software?

Fred:  On the whole, no, I really can’t — at least, not unless you understand up front that the results are unreliable, and may even be downright hideous.

I know a lot of people rely heavily on the online translators you can find on various websites, or on various translations software packages. I admit, in some cases, computer translations may be adequate. The simpler a given passage, the better those non-human translators do with it. If you’re taking a text in Polish and trying to turn it into English, computer translations may get just enough of it right to give you a basic idea of what’s being said. So if you’re trying to figure out what a Polish text says, it does no harm to run it past a computer and see what you get.

But I definitely cannot recommend using them to turn English into Polish, as, for instance, when writing letters. Too often, what comes out is absolute gibberish. One sentence may be comprehensible, while the next produces only howls of laughter. And you have no way of knowing which is which! I haven’t seen a non-human translator yet that can handle Polish grammar adequately; and the choice of words is typically iffy. Think about it: in English a _nut_ can be a specific kind of food, a piece of shaped metal, a slang word for a crazy or eccentric person, or a vulgar term for a testicle. Do you really want to leave it up to a computer to figure out which meaning you intend?

A further huge problem with using them on records of genealogical value is that the vocabulary and style in those documents tends to be older. Most translation software is designed for use in business or everyday life in the modern world. It simply will not recognize some of the terms and expressions that recur consistently in vital records. Languages have changed quite a bit over the last century, and turns of phrase that used to be standard are often archaic — whether you’re talking about Polish or English.

WPiP: How do you deal with bad handwriting (any tips to overcome?)?

Fred: I often find I can’t make heads or tails of a handwritten document the first time I look at it. I don’t panic; I look it over, make out any letters or words I can, and set it aside. A few days later, I come back to it, and usually I can make out a little more. I keep chipping away at it and eventually figure it out. Patience and determination — those are the keys, whether you’re talking about translation or research.

One mistake a lot of researchers make is that they limit themselves to copying too small a sampling of the handwriting. Don’t just copy a couple of entries — go on and copy several pages while you’re at it. Then before you go to work trying to translate an excerpt, take a little time first to just look over all the pages, paying close attention. Don’t force anything, not yet. Just familiarize yourself with them before you try to translate them. After a while, you start to recognize things, especially if you have a large enough sampling to allow for good comparison. If you think that mystery letter is a D, look for a variety of places where the same person wrote a D in words you recognize, and compare it. A larger sampling lets you do that. What is at first incomprehensible gradually reveals its secrets.

So whenever possible, copy more pages, not less. It’s amazing how often those extra pages turn out to have something that makes all the difference. And don’t just plunge into translating; take a little time to get acquainted with the text first.

Stay tuned for our final part of the interview tomorrow.  Is one language any easier to learn than another?  What about Fred’s next book?  Find out 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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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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