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Image – Polish Army in France recruitment poster, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Image – Polish Army in France recruitment poster, courtesy of Wikipedia.

One unusual record source for those with Polish ancestry is Haller’s Army records.  What was Haller’s Army?  During World War I, Poland did not exist on any “official” map of the world.  General Jozef Haller formed a regiment of Poles in France to join the fight in the name of their homeland, with the ultimate goal of Polish independence.  They were also known as the Blue Army because of the color of their uniforms.

Many people have never heard of Haller’s Army or of their contributions during “the Great War”.  Because it isn’t well known, many Americans of Polish descent may be very surprised to find out that their ancestors, who had already immigrated to the U.S. prior to 1917, volunteered to fight for the Polish Army in France under Haller.  It is estimated that nearly 25,000 Polish men, immigrants to the U.S. and Canada, volunteered and fought in France.  Most were recent immigrants who had not yet become American or Canadian citizens.  Despite immigrating to a new country, these young men were fiercely proud of their homeland.  They willing volunteered to fight for Poland’s democracy and independence.  Because of the Partitions of Poland, none had grown up in a free Poland, and Haller’s Army was the first free Polish Army since Napoleon’s time.  At the war’s end on November 11, 1918, when Poland officially regained its independence, Haller’s Army continued the fight in the Polish-Soviet War until 1921.

Did Your Ancestor Volunteer?

The Polish Genealogical Society of America holds the recruitment records, and while the records themselves are not available online, the index is searchable by surname at the PGSA site.  If you find a match, the records can be obtained through PGSA by mail for a minimal donation – see complete information on how to order copies at http://www.pgsa.org/hallerreqform.htm.

I’ve referred to this as an index of those that volunteered for Haller’s Army, but if you find your relative’s name it does not necessarily mean they served.  A search for the surname “Pater” found several matches, but I was surprised to find “Ludwik Pater” from Philadelphia.  Ludwik is the Polish form of Louis, my great-grandfather.  I ordered a copy to see what I could learn.  The form is in Polish, as are the applicant’s responses, but the volunteer who looked up the record also provided a translation for most of the entries.  An online copy of the form is available in English here.  For the responses, a Polish-English dictionary will help.

The record provides a wealth of genealogical information including date and place of birth, address, marital status and number of children, name and address of nearest relative in both America and Poland, and a full physical description.  The U.S. WWI Draft records are similar and from the same time period, but the form for Haller’s Army is more detailed regarding relatives both at home and in Poland as well as the physical description, which includes not just the eye and hair color, but also height, weight and other features such as teeth, chin, and “distinguishing marks”.

Another feature of the Haller’s Army recruitment papers is some very detailed questions that could offer clues for searching other records.  The form asks:

  • Are you a citizen of the United States of America (second papers)?
  • Did you serve in the Army?  Type of arms?  How long?  Rank upon discharge?
  • What Polish organizations in America do you belong to?
  • If you belong to the Falcons, for how long…and do you hold any office?

Responses to these questions could lead you to naturalization, military, or fraternal organization records.  [Note: The Falcons were established in Chicago in 1887 as an immigrant aid society concerned with physical education, Polish culture and heritage, and gaining Polish independence.  The organization still exists today.]

My great-grandfather filled out his registration card for the U.S. Draft on June 5, 1917.  At the time, he was 23 years old with a wife and 3 young children.  On November 12, 1917, he volunteered for Haller’s Army.  I had never heard about military service during a war by any member of the family, so I assumed he wasn’t accepted because he had a family to support (which is why he was not drafted by the U.S.).  As I researched this article and found the English translation of the form, I learned, with some surprise, that he was sent to the training camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario on November 18, 1917 – less than a week after he volunteered.  But the information provided by the PGSA didn’t indicate an actual record of service in the Army, so what happened?

I’m not sure, and I’m rather puzzled to finally notice that he went to training camp!  I will have to investigate this further.  I do know that he was home in Philadelphia by May, 1918 because his fourth son, Victor Pater, was born the following January.  If he did make it through the training camp successfully, he could not have served in the Army long enough to make the journey to France to fight.

It does speak volumes about the Polish character if young men like my great-grandfather were willing to fight for their homeland – even though they no longer lived there.  My great-grandfather immigrated at the age of 14 and had lived here ten years by the time he volunteered, but he felt strongly enough about the cause for Polish independence to fight in a foreign land.

If you have Polish ancestry, it’s worth typing your surname into PGSA’s index search to discover if your ancestor played a role in Haller’s Army.  The Haller’s Army website best describes these Polish immigrants, recent arrivals to a new country but with a deep love for the old country.  The site proclaims: “They fought for their family. They fought for their ancestors. They fought for their freedom. Most of all they fought for their homeland – Poland.”

[Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image: Polish_Army_in_France_WWI_recruitment_poster.jpg]

For more information on Haller’s Army:

[Posted for the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: research experiences and techniques.]

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Courtesy of footnoteMaven.com!

Courtesy of footnoteMaven.com!

“Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.” ~ Mark Twain

The 52nd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy focuses on the topic of “age”:
Take some time to look over the data that you have collected on members of your family tree, and share a story of age with us … With the understanding that “age is often a state of mind”, share your family story about someone whose story stands out because of their age, either young or old.

I am one of those people that will read an obituary for any centenarian.  I am amazed by their lives, simply because of their sheer length and how much they saw the world change during that time.  Some graduated from high school and college before my parents were born, and many spent my entire lifetime as a widow or widower.  Their lives fascinate me, and I really wish I was related to one of these long-living people because it would make a great story.  My friend’s grandmother lived to 101!  But, as you will see in my musings on age, none of my ancestors have made it that long (yet).  I have no ancestors who climbed Mt. Everest or graduated from Harvard at advanced ages, nor do we have any child prodigies either…yet.  But, hopefully I’ve found just a few fascinating “age” facts among my seemingly boring ancestors that make them “stand out” in the crowd.

Who Lived the Longest?

My Ancestor Who Lived the Longest is my grandmother, Margaret Bergmeister Pointkouski.  She died at the age of 84 years 9 months, beating my other grandmother by six years.  My grandfathers died young by comparison at 69 and 60 years old.  I do not have all of the exact dates for my entire family tree, but I was surprised to discover that of all those “greats”, none lived as long as Margaret (even though some came close).

Margaret’s older sister, Marie, wins the distinction of being my Collateral Relative Who Lived the Longest.  She died in 1990 a few weeks past her 92nd birthday.  She will not hold the title for much longer though, because my Oldest Living Collateral Relative is “Aunt Dot”, my other grandmother’s younger sister, who is currently 92 years, 6 months, and counting!

While these older relatives all lived in the 20th Century, I was surprised to discover that some of the ancestors further back in my family tree actually lived much longer than some of my other “modern” ancestors.  For example, my grandmother Margaret far outlived her own parents.  Her father Joseph Bergmeister died at the age of 54, and her mother Marie Echerer was only 43.  Yet each of her parents had ancestors who survived to what I thought were very old ages for the times.  Even though her father Joseph lived longer than his own father by more than ten years, his great-grandparents lived to the ages of 77 and 75 in the mid-1800s.  His wife Marie’s great-grandfather also lived to 77 around the same time.

Variable Marriage Ages

My research has shown that marriage customs vary from country to country.  In Bavaria, the groom was usually in his mid-to-late 30s – or even his early 40s – while the bride was usually in her 20s.  I think this was mostly due to the long period of training for craftsmen to become a full member of a guild, which would then give them the economic capability to support a family.  In fact, the guild required that a newly professed member become married shortly after being accepted into the guild or they were disqualified.  Many young women died in childbirth, so the widower would seek to marry another young woman – in some cases, this further increased the age discrepancy.  If the woman was strong and survived many pregnancies, sometimes the men would die in their 50s or 60s – leaving a widow with many small mouths to feed.  Further research will tell me if these ages were common only to craftsmen – my assumption is that farmers married much younger than their 30s!

In Poland, the marriage custom was very different.  My research has shown that most couples married when they were in their early 20s, or even at 18 or 19.  The Ancestor Who Married at the Youngest Age is my Polish great-grandfather, Louis Pater, who married his almost 19-year-old bride the day after his 17th birthday (here in the U.S.).

Your Mamma was So Old…

While the media might make you believe that “older” mothers, meaning women over 40, are “new” to the modern age, this isn’t quite true.  My “Oldest Mother” Ancestor is my great-grandmother, Rozalia Kizoweter Piontkowska, who delivered my grandfather in 1910 just weeks before her 44th birthday!

But I have some even crazier mammas in my family tree… Jakob Bergmeister married Anna Daniel in 1835 when they were 30 and 23 – young by Bavarian marriage standards.  They proceeded to have 15 children in 19 years – Anna was 24 at the birth of her first child and 43 at the birth of her last!  Infant mortality was very high though – at least 7 died as infants.  Of the rest, the fate of 5 are not certain, but 3 others lived to adulthood.  As for the parents, Jakob died at the age of 65 in 1870.  Anna died one year later at the age of 58 (probably from exhaustion!).

Maybe Jakob was trying to model his prolific marriage on that of his own parents, Joseph Bergmeister and Kreszens Zinsmeister.  When they married in 1800, Joseph was 37 and Kreszens was considerably younger at 23.  They started having children right away.  In the end, they had 12 children in 16 years, with Kreszens 23 years old for the first and 39 for the last.  Of these children, I can not yet account for the fate of 8, but there are 2 confirmed infant deaths and at least 2 who lived to enjoy adulthood.

Age is Mostly a State of Mind

I don’t know much else about her other than “vital statistic” dates and a few other facts, but based on numbers alone I’d have to award my 3rd great-grandmother, Franciszka Wojciechowska Pluta, the Most Amazing Feat for an Older Woman award.  At the “young” age of 69, she boarded a passenger ship to travel from Poland to the United States, alone.  According to the passenger arrival record, she was 4’10” and limping, but she made the journey!  She spent those last years in the U.S. living with her daughter’s family, and she died at the age of 73 in 1914.

So there you have it – just a few “facts of age” from Donna’s family tree.  While I don’t have any centenarians, you really can’t say “never” when it comes to genealogy.  Who knows what I’ll discover next as I record and transcribe dates?  And who knows how long the current generation will live?  We might just have a centenarian in the family yet!

[Written for the 52nd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Age]

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Your ancestors were from the Big City! Or were they? I recommend using caution when it comes to researching “big city” ancestors… That’s not because it’s harder to find ancestors in big cities – in fact, sometimes it’s much easier than finding them in small towns. But researchers should use caution because sometimes the information your ancestor gave on “official” records may not be entirely accurate after all.

Well, almost from there…

Years ago my brother joined the Marines and went to boot camp. Most young adults away from home for the first time feel a combination of joy and excitement mixed with a fair amount of homesickness, and strong young men joining the Marines are no exception. To combat the homesickness, many would try to seek out others “like” them; that is, people from their hometown. On day, my brother heard, “Hey, Ski, there’s a guy in Company C from Philly, too!” When he got a free moment, he sought the guy out – “Hey, I’m from Philly – what neighborhood are you from?” The guy sheepishly replied, “Uh, I’m actually from Reading.” Reading is a town in Pennsylvania about 50 miles outside of Philadelphia. My brother must have looked confused, because the young man added some clarification, “Nobody outside of the Delaware Valley ever heard of Reading, but if I say Philly they know where I’m from!”

My brother’s tale this serves as a modern example of something our ancestors occasionally did – not quite tell the truth about their birthplace. If you’re not careful, such “white lies” can lead you down the wrong road of research.

Close enough

WarsawMy great-grandfather, Louis Pater, duly noted his birthplace as “Warsaw” on his draft registration for World War I and also World War II. Genealogists looking for the magic answer might immediately act on that vital piece of information. But careful genealogists know that it’s better to verify that fact and weigh it against all possible record sources before zoning in on the one town. You see, Louis was a lot like the young Marine from Reading – not many Americans ever heard of Żyrardów, but nearly everyone has heard of that other town nearby…Warsaw.

Weighing the evidence

Would other record sources for Louis, his siblings, and his parents match up to Louis’ draft cards? Yes and no. Some records also listed Warsaw, including his mother’s and sisters’ passenger arrival records. Other records, like his marriage and death certificates, only listed “Poland” or “Russia” as the birthplace. But the majority of other sources did list Żyrardów – most notably his passenger arrival record and naturalization papers. In fact, for immigrants, the information on the naturalizations usually holds more weight than most other documents (except, of course, for an official birth or baptismal record).

My German great-grandfather similarly named Munich, or München, as his place of origin on his passenger arrival record, as did his wife. Most of his other records, such as the draft registration or death record, listed “Germany”. When I did finally find a town name, there were at least a dozen towns with the same name to choose from. But, only one was near Munich, and that proved to be the correct one. Why did he list Munich on his passenger list? Either because he actually was living in the city prior to his departure, or because it was the closest big city to his small hometown and therefore easier to identify to a stranger. Sometimes, that big city they name may be pointing you in the right direction for further research.

Bottom Line

Does that mean you shouldn’t trust the word of ancestors from big cities? Of course not. But it does mean you have to be more careful. No matter if your ancestors emigrated from Europe or moved around a lot in the US, it definitely pays to collect all possible evidence before making a decision. And sometimes, what you read is true – one of my great-grandfathers really is from Warsaw!

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Zyrardow on the mapMy immigrant ancestors came from many different places. Some came from large capital cities that had very old beginnings and long histories (Warsaw, Poland). Other hometowns were not as large as a city, but they were large market towns born in the 1300’s that continue to have vibrant communities today (Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Germany and Mszczonów, Poland). Some of my ancestors came from much smaller places, centuries-old farmlands that evolved from feudal lands to modern villages (Puch, Germany and Komorowo, Poland). But of all the hometowns of my ancestors, the one that first captured my heart isn’t very old at all. In fact, compared to the ancient histories of these other places, it is modern in comparison. Although it lacks a history as long as other European towns, it makes up for it with the interesting way in which it was born. The town is Żyrardów, Poland.

The biography of Żyrardów begins in France. In 1810, the French government had a competition for inventors to create a mechanical linen spinning mill. The prize to the successful inventor was 1 million francs. One enterprising engineer, Philippe de Girard (1775-1845) from Lourmarin, succeeded. But with the fall of Napoleon, France could not pay the prize. Girard’s luck went from bad to worse as he endured debt, business failures, and bankruptcy. But his luck turned in 1825, when the government of the Kingdom of Poland invited him to help create a textile industry in Poland based on his invention.

Zyrardow coat of armsGirard originally opened a factory in Marymont, 2 miles outside of Warsaw, in 1831. For unknown reasons, Girard moved the operation two years later to a small farming village and forested area called Ruda Guzowska, approximately 27 miles WSW of Warsaw. This factory was very successful. More and more workers came to the area, and the settlement grew larger. In Girard’s honor, Ruda Guzowska was renamed Żyrardów. In the Polish language, the letter “ż” is pronounced similarly to the letter “g” in the French language: Żyrardów means “of Girard”. Girard was not able to see the success of his namesake town, however; he died in 1845, a year after returning to France to open more linen factories.

Arial View

Żyrardów continued to thrive in Girard’s absence. The factory was taken over by a pair of German industrialists, and by 1880 they employed 5,600 workers. The town literally grew around the factory building, and today it is one of the best preserved towns to see 19th Century architecture. It resembles a university town, with nearly every building – from the factory, to the apartment-style homes, to the churches and hospital – made from the same red brick. The area grew from a small farming village to an industrial settlement of approximately 175 acres. By 1880 the factory had 16,000 spindles with over 1,650 mechanical looms, and the value of their annual production (in 1880) was 2.2 million Silver Rubles. The former forest and farmland became responsible for the majority of linen production for the Russian Empire by the end of the 19th Century.

Workers in ZyrardowOne unique aspect of the town is that it was multi-cultural. The majority of workers were Poles, but there were also a large number of ethnic Germans working there as well. The factory itself had German managers, and there were also a number of Czechs, Scots, and Irish. The town itself had both a Roman Catholic church and an Evangelical Lutheran church, and there was a thriving Jewish community as well. The Słownik Geograficzny entry from 1895 indicates that the town had 7,126 registered inhabitants by 1880, including 5,134 Catholics, 1,541 Protestants, 244 Jews, and 207 belonging to other denominations.

The town was not without discord, however. Rather than ethnic disputes, there were employment disagreements. The government did not allow unions, but the workers were concerned about working conditions and low wages. There were many strikes at the factory throughout its history, beginning with the first in 1883.

Naturalization for Louis Pater

My Pater family immigrated from this town from 1905-1909; it was the place they called home. They were all weavers, which means they all worked in the factory. I don’t know why they left, but maybe they thought they could earn better wages in the United States. All of them became weavers in Philadelphia’s textile industry. My great-grandfather, Louis (Ludwik) Pater and his father, my 2nd great-grandfather Józef Pater, were born in Żyrardów (Louis in 1893, and Józef in 1864). Józef’s father, Jan, was born in Ruda Guzowska around 1834. Jan’s father Hilary pre-dates Żyrardów’s history and was born in a small village nearby.

RC Church, WiskitkiI had the opportunity to visit Żyrardów in 2001. It was a sudden visit with not enough advance planning, but I was grateful to see the town. My Pater ancestors were baptized and married in the nearby village of Wiskitki, and I was thrilled when my guide was able to sweet-talk the young priest into opening the church for me. My family probably attended this church because the main Catholic church in Żyrardów was not built until 1903. Wiskitki is a settlement that dates from 1221, with the first mention of “town” status in 1349. Over the centuries, the town declined and became smaller. After World War II, Wiskitki and Żyrardów were combined as one district, but in 1975 Wiskitki once again received rights as an independent town.

My Miller / Müller family also immigrated from Żyrardów; however, I have not yet found a birth certificate as proof that anyone was actually born in the town. My research indicates that the Miller family may be among the ethnic Germans from Bohemia that emigrated to the area to work in the textile industry. My great-grandmother’s brother, Emil, immigrated to the United States. In 1910, he and his family returned to Żyrardów – perhaps because of the death of his father. When the first World War broke out, the family could not return. Emil died in Żyrardów. His wife and American-born son later returned to the US, but his Polish-born daughter and American-born daughter remained.

Besides my ancestors, Żyrardów was the birthplace of some more famous citizens, including the Polish writer Paweł Hulka-Laskowski (1881-1946) and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller (b. 1946).

Sources for this article:

[This post was written for the 47th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Place Called Home.]

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Ever since my first transatlantic trip in 1985, I’ve been stricken with the travel bug. There is no cure. Symptoms include a desire to wander to far-away places, hopeless daydreaming, and a joy brought on by traipsing on planes and trains. I did not think my condition was genetic as no one else in my immediate family seems to have this disease. But then I realized that about a hundred years ago, my ancestors had the ultimate travel experience. It was no Grand Tour though… It certainly wasn’t a vacation to travel thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean to begin a brand new life. In most cases, they never returned to their homeland again or saw the family that stayed behind.

836571. New York Public Library

While the immigrant experience in itself is quite inspiring no matter who made the journey, I am especially fascinated by my female ancestors and relatives that made this trip-of-a-lifetime. In every instance they either traveled alone or with small children to meet their husbands or other family members who were already in the United States. I can only imagine what this experience was like.

First, the hard decision was made to pack up, leave their homes behind, and travel to a foreign land – not just temporarily, but most likely forever. I stressed over moving ten miles away from my childhood home! What were the conditions like in Germany or Poland/Russia that inspired these women to leave? Was the economy bad? Little or no chance of employment? What did they hear about America that made it seem better? How long did it take to afford the move across the pond?

The next difficult part of the journey was the separation that couples endured. If you were married, usually the husband made the journey first. Presumably it was necessary for the man to find housing and employment, and then save money to send for the rest of the family’s trip.

When it came time for the women to travel, the first part of the journey involved getting to the port. In my family, several ports were used including Hamburg and Bremen in Germany, Southampton and Liverpool in England, and Antwerp in Belgium. I don’t have any first-hand accounts of their lives or of their journeys to America, but I know that travel back then was not as quick and easy as it is today (TSA rules and flight delays notwithstanding, travel really is “easy” today by comparison). So it’s my guess that even this land-based part of the trip may have been complicated. Fortunately, the railways in Europe were probably as good as they are today. But, life was different. No one had cell phones to keep in touch up to the minute. There were no baby carriages, so toddlers walked and babies were carried. My guess is that the majority of immigrants came with one suitcase at most – travelers today probably take more for an overnight trip then our ancestors carried for the trip of their lives.

The time at sea wasn’t exactly a cruise ship experience! The vast majority of immigrants, including every one of my ancestors, came over in third class steerage on steamships. If the weather was good, folks could go up on deck to pass the time. The journey, at least during the years that my ancestors traveled, took about two weeks. After arriving through Ellis Island, not everyone was reunited with their families immediately. Today we complain about security or passport lines and slow baggage retrieval. Back then, the immigrants stood in line for processing. During the peak years that my ancestors came to the US, a busy port like New York at Ellis Island processed up to 5,000 immigrants a day! In addition to the processing time, occasionally immigrants were detained. If someone looked ill, they were kept for further examination. In some cases, the unlucky person or family was deported. Can you imagine finally arriving and you still can’t see your family? Or worse still, being told you can not enter the country?

Although these ladies weren’t travelers in the “pleasure travel” or vacation sense of the word, I find their stories to be amazing…even if they settled down in the US and never traveled more than ten miles for the rest of their lives. Here are some brief portraits of the courageous women travelers in my family:

1888 – Hilaire Bergmeister
Hilaire, my great-great-aunt, is my “premiere” female traveler both in terms of being the first as well as the gutsiest! She traveled to the US on the SS Friesland alone at the age of 23. She had no family here. That alone makes her journey truly impressive to me. I’ll write more about Hilaire and her life later this week for the next Carnival of Genealogy.

Marie Bergmeister

Marie Bergmeister, Munich, Germany, circa 1890-1900

1901 – Marie Bergmeister (nee Echerer)

My great-grandmother Marie is Hillaire’s sister-in-law, but they probably had never met until both were here in the US. Marie traveled from 13-27 June on the SS Kensington via Antwerp, which is 460 miles from her home in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Germany. Marie was 26 when she made the journey with her 3-year-old daughter, Marie. They had not seen their husband and father, Joseph, for just over one year.

1903 – Wacława Zawodna (nee Slesinska)
My great-grandmother Wacława is my only ancestor to travel through the port of Philadelphia instead of Ellis Island. She sailed from Liverpool on the SS Westernland for two weeks in July. Just getting from Dobrosołowo, Poland to Liverpool was an amazing 1,100-mile trip! She was only 18 years old and traveled to meet her husband, Jozef Zawodny. He had been in the US for over a year, but the young couple had only just married weeks before he left Poland. One can imagine how anxious she was to see her new husband after such a long separation. Wacława would never see her parents again – parents who were quite unhappy with her marriage and apparently refused to communicate with her even by mail. She was the oldest daughter, and she would not see her four younger sisters for many years. In fact, when she left Poland, her youngest sister was only 2 years old!

1906 – Rosalia Piontkowska (nee Kizoweter)
Great-grandmother Rosalia gets extra credit in the “gutsy” category for traveling with her 3-year-old son, Jozef, and her 1-year-old daughter, Janina, on the SS Armenia from Hamburg to New York, arriving on 10 November. She wasn’t a young mother either at age 41, and she hadn’t seen her husband Jan for over six months. I have no photos of Rosalia, but her passenger list record describes her as 5’3″ with brown hair and blue eyes. I try to picture her juggling Janina and a suitcase while trying to hold on to her toddler at the same time! If that weren’t brave enough, the journey from Warsaw, Poland to Hamburg, Germany was about 540 miles!

1906 – Antonina Pater (nee Pluta)
The Pater family arrived in the US in stages. My 2nd great-grandmother Antonina, age 42, and two of her daughters, 18-year-old Regina and 2-year-old Victoria, arrived second, which was nearly 18 months after their husband and father Jozef settled here. She would have to wait nearly a year to see another daughter and three young sons, and it would be nearly three years before she would see her mother again. Antonina and her daughters traveled on the SS Blücher from Hamburg, about 520 miles from her home in Żyrardów. I have no photos of her or these daughters, but the passenger list offers descriptions. Antonina was 5’2 3/8″, she had a sallow complexion, brown hair, blue eyes, and a wrinkled forehead (as any mother separated from her children would have!). Regina was 5’3 1/2″, fair, with blond hair, gray eyes, and a round face, and little Victoria had her big sister’s coloring.

Frances Pater and Paul Nieginski

Frances and Paul Nieginski, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1940s

1907 – Franciszka Nieginski (nee Pater)

My great-great-aunt Franciszka (Frances) and her husband Pawel (Paul) were responsible for bringing my great-grandfather and his brothers to the US since their parents were already here. They traveled on the SS Grosser Kurfurst in August. Franciszka was only 20 herself, and she brought 17-year-old Wacław, 14-year-old Ludwik, and 12-year-old Stefan with her since they would not be allowed entry alone. Because Wacław suffered from some sort of illness (short left leg and a deformed chest according to the passenger list), the entire group was detained for two days for further examination, which must have been quite stressful to all.

1909 – Elizabeth Miller
My great-grandmother, known in her native language as Elżbieta Müller, was 18 when she made the long journey from Żyrardów, Poland, to New York on the SS President Grant. Not yet married, she traveled alone and met her brother, Emil. My only photo of her much older, but I’ve heard she was quite attractive in her youth. The list describes her as 4’11” with a fair complexion, light brown hair, and gray eyes. She would marry a slightly younger man, Ludwik (Louis) Pater, a little more than a year later. Both were from Zyrardow, but he came to the US almost two years before her trip.

1909 – Franciszka Pluta (nee Wojciechowska)
How I wish I had a photo of Franciszka! She is my 3rd great-grandmother, and the oldest ancestor to have made the journey to America at age 69. And she traveled alone! She is the mother of Antonina Pater, and she joins her daughter’s family after a 2-day wait in detention for a medical exam. They determined she was an “LPC” or Likely Public Charge, probably because of her age and/or health. The list describes her as 4’10”, limping, with dark hair, blue eyes, and a dark complexion. What an amazing journey for a woman her age! She lived with her daughter’s family until her death in April 1914.

Slesinski Sisters

Clockwise from top left: Jozefa/Josephine, Wacława/Laura, Marianna/Mary, Zofia/Sophie, and Janina/Jane, McKeesport, PA, circa late 1920s

1920 – The Slesinski Sisters

As mentioned above, Wacława Zawodna (nee Slesinska) had four sisters that came to the US. I haven’t yet located the arrival of Jozefa, but Marianna, Janina, and Zofia all arrived together on the SS Adriatic from Southampton in October 1920. The sisters were 24, 22, and 19 years old, and their parents had died the year before – within two days of each other on 30 December 1918 and 01 January 1919. They are coming to join their sister Jozefa and her husband in McKeesport, PA. Although they pass by big sister Wacława, who had been here for 17 years by then, the five later reconnected since I have photos of the group together.


So there you have it…some courageous travels of some amazing women. I remember the first thrill of traveling alone, the fear at being in a place where no one spoke my language, and the joyful excitement of setting off on a journey to a new place. The trip that these women made wasn’t for vacation, but was it thrilling, fearful, and joyous all at the same time? I’d like to think so, and I’d like to thank them for their inspiring courage to make that trip and begin a new life here in America.

For more information on the immigrant experience, see the following sites:

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The 41st Carnival of Genealogy asks the question: If you could have dinner with four of your ancestors who would they be and why? Since I have four grandparents, it’s only fair to invite one ancestor from each “side”. It would be nice to see all of my grandparents again, but since I had the opportunity to know them all to some degree, I wanted to choose other ancestors. The setting will be at my house, and my boyfriend will be in the kitchen making the meal. He’s a fantastic cook and he’d probably rather hide in the kitchen than meet any more of my relatives. He always makes a wonderful menu, and for this occasion we’d have foods from various nationalities to make everyone feel at home, including a pork dish for the Germans and pierogi for the Poles. But, he’ll also throw in some Italian food to liven things up. There will definitely be wine…several bottles of it! And most importantly, a camera! Although I can only invite four deceased ancestors, the carnival rules didn’t say anything about other living relatives allowed to attend, so I’m sure that my parents, aunt, brother, and other relatives might want to meet these particular guests of honor.

At the head of the table will be my great-grandfather, Joseph Zawodny (1879-1944). He was the first person I thought of without question simply because there are so many mysteries surrounding this family. Even though we all love a good mystery, it’s about time we learned the truth! As we pass the food around the table, the first question posed to Joe is: Are you really Joseph Zawodny? The short version of this particular legend is that after my great-grandfather’s death a man came to the house claiming to be the “real” Joseph Zawodny. The stranger said, “He used my name to get into the country – he’s really Joseph Mueller.” I’d dismiss the story outright if my mother wasn’t there. Though still a child, she was old enough to remember the event. I’ve found records that appear to prove he was exactly who he said he was, but…what if he was someone else? There are some other interesting questions for Joe while we have the time. Did your wife’s parents really disown her for marrying you? Why? What exactly happened that caused her to be committed to a hospital as a schizophrenic? And what happened to your brother Stefan who seems to disappear shortly after his arrival in the US?

I could pester Joe with questions all night about his family and where he came from in Poland. But let’s not ignore our other guests around the table! From my Piontkowski side, I chose the “Mrs”, Rose Piontkowski (1866-1937). Rose is my great-grandmother, but I have no photos of her and I know practically nothing about her. Because of his, she seemed like an interesting candidate to attend our dinner party. I’m intrigued by her for several reasons. Her maiden name, which I’ve yet to verify through a birth or marriage record, appears to be some variation of Kiesewetter or Kisoweter. She was born in Warsaw, but the surname sounds German, not Polish. So, tell me about yourself, Rose! Was Grandpop a “surprise” to you and John back in 1910 when you were both in your 40s? Where did your daughter disappear to and whom did she marry?

Next around the table is one of my other great-grandmothers, Elizabeth Pater (1891-1972), who was born Elżbieta Müller (or Miller). I actually met her! But, she died when I was five so I have no memory of her. I want to meet her because my mother says I have her eyes…and because I can’t figure out what town she was actually born in even though some records say she was born in Żyrardów. So, Liz, was your family really from Bohemia originally? Why did they go to Poland? You were in the US for less than a year when you married Louis, who had been here for three years…what’s up with that, Liz? You were both from the same town – did you promise to marry as young teenagers? Did you have any other siblings here besides your brother Emil? When he went back to Poland in 1910 with your nieces, what became of them? Tell me about your mother-in-law since you’re my only great-grandmother who didn’t have an ocean between the two of you!

My Bergmeister-Echerer ancestors from Bavaria are the only ones not yet represented. As much as I’d love to meet one of my great-grandparents, I decided to reach farther back. Way back…I’ve researched back to the 1600s with the Echerer family and they are still located in the town of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm as shoemakers. But for this event I’ve chosen my 4th great-grandfather, Karl Nigg (also Karl Nick, 1767-1844), whose daughter married one of those Echerer shoemakers in 1844 just months before his own death. Karl was the stadtzimmermeister (Town Master Carpenter) of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm around 1800, roughly two hundred years ago. He was also the son of the stadtmaurermeister, or Town Master Mason, Phillip Nigg (or Phillip Nick). I’m fascinated by what life was like in the town back then. So, Karl, how’s work as a carpenter? Tell me what happened when Napoleon’s troops came around near Pfaffenhofen. When Napoleon declared that all monasteries had to be “secularized”, you went to Scheyern Abbey to literally measure the church to determine its worth for the state – was that problematic for you, or was it simply part of your job? Why did you decide to become a carpenter like your father-in-law instead of a mason like your father and grandfather? What was it like having eleven children? I think Karl would be fascinated by the 21st century, even more so than the other guests who were born in the late 1800s. There would be a language barrier since he probably spoke only German, but we have a translator already present – Joe Zawodny spoke German!

All in all, I think there would be some VERY interesting conversation around the table! But, you know how family gatherings go…Isn’t it always the same with these family dinners? After a couple of hours I’d have a hard time keeping Joe away from the wine, keeping Rose out of the kitchen where she’d show the cook how gołąbki should really be made, keeping Liz away from my boyfriend, and keeping Karl from demolishing and re-building my poorly-constructed house. Okay, folks, it’s time for you to go home!

[Submitted for the 41st Carnival of Genealogy: Dinner with 4 Ancestors]

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Name days, which are the church’s feast day of the saint that bears one’s name, have long been considered important in many Catholic cultures. Even today in Poland, a person’s name day, called imieniny, is celebrated in lieu of or in addition to a birthday. But in the past, the name day and the birthday were the same day, because Catholic Polish tradition held that you actually named the child after the saint who held the feast on the day the child was born or baptized! Sometimes the saint’s name was used if the feast was within a few days of the child’s birth and not the same day.

My family isn’t one for tradition, but I was quite surprised when I noticed this naming trend with some of my Polish families. Józef PATER ( 1864-1945 ) and Antonina PLUTA ( 1863-1938 ) had seven children. I don’t have birth dates for the two oldest, but the others proved the “name day” theory.

Child’s Name

Day of Birth

Saint’s Feast Day

Ewa

24 Dec

22 Dec

Wacław

28 Sep

28 Sep

Ludwik

24 Aug

25 Aug

Stefan

02 Sep

02 Sep

Wiktoria

16 Dec

23 Dec

Since the family obviously took this tradition to heart, I probably could easily find the birth records for the two oldest girls without much effort – I’d simply check the dates near the feast days of Sts. Regina and Franciszka. What’s interesting to note is that all of the family members were born in Poland, and the tradition did not continue with their own children as far as I can tell. Of the children, I only have detailed descendant information on my great-grandfather, Ludwik. Despite the fact that his wife, Elżbieta MILLER (1891-1972) has a birthday on St. Elżbieta’s feast in the same way that he owes his name to his birthday, they did not carry this tradition on with their own five children.

I was curious if this was simply a quirk of this one family or not, so I checked a different side of my family tree, the ZAWODNY family. Interestingly, I found the same thing with few exceptions. Józef ZAWODNY (1880-1944) birthday was on St. Józef’s feast. His wife, Wacława ŚLESINSKI (1885-1956), does not share the feast of her patron saint, but four of her seven siblings do. Of the couple’s own six children, all born in the US from 1904 through 1916, four out of six match. I may not have the most up-to-date version of the Church’s liturgical calendar as it existed during that time period either. From what I can tell, these children didn’t follow the Polish tradition with their offspring either.

Does this hold true for every Catholic Polish family? No, of course not. But, if you see it with one or more children, then chances are it isn’t just “chance” and it can provide a clue as to other birth dates in the family. For a listing of names and a chronological listing of feasts, see the Poland Gen Web’s list of common Polish first names. Also, if you really want to know everything there is to know about Polish first names, I highly recommend First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins & Meanings by William “Fred” Hoffman and George W. Helon.

Why did Poles follow this tradition? Was it an expression of their Catholic faith, or just a cultural tradition? I can’t answer that for my own family, but I’d like to think it was a little of both. But just imagine if that tradition were revived in the US today! Consider the possibilities – wouldn’t this save expecting parents from one more thing to worry about? There’s no use arguing over baby names, whether or not to use a name from his side or her side, the name of a deceased relative, or the latest celebrity fad-name. Just wait until the child arrives, look at a church calendar, and there you go – the decision is made for you! There is some risk, of course. Just two days separate your chances of being either Adam or Zenon. Or Zofia and Wacława. But I think it’s a charming glimpse into our ancestors’ lives. Today, feast days and name days are still celebrated of course. My nephew’s name day is December 6th, the feast of St. Nicholas, even though his birthday is in June. But if we lived one hundred years ago in Poland (or had Polish parents here in the US), his name would be Paul!

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The idea for a second post came easily enough after reading Lisa’s recent post at 100 Years in America. Inspired after reading a Smithsonian magazine article on the year 1908, she writes about what her ancestors were doing in that year and challenges others to do the same. What a great idea, and a nice way to get my feet wet with this blog. Plus, in order to write about it I’m actually forced to organize my research (or rather, a mess of paper) to answer the question! [Photo of St. Peter’s RC Church, Philadelphia, where my Bergmeister family worshiped.] St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia

For my Bergmeister family, 1908 was probably a very busy year since the household consisted of four children under the age of ten. My grandmother was not among them though – she would not be born for another five years! Thirty-five year-old Joseph had been in the US for ten years by this time, and wife Maria and daughter Maria for eight. By 1908, he was working as a baker in Philadelphia. How different that was from working as a baker in his native Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm is anyone’s guess. Although his father was deceased and his mother was far away in Germany, Joseph wasn’t far from his immediate family because his sister Hillarie emigrated to Philadelphia first. Besides Hillarie, brother Ignatz was living in New Jersey, and half-brother Julius Goetz had just arrived in Philadelphia.

With the Piontkowski’s, my grandfather was a couple of years away from birth, and since his parents John and Rose were in their late 30s he probably wasn’t even a thought for the future. They had their hands full with a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, both of whom were born in Poland. John and Rose were probably still getting used to America because they had only arrived 2-3 years earlier. It was probably quite a challenge to learn a new language, but I’m sure that Philadelphia was as bustling as their old home town, Warsaw, Poland.

The Zawodny family had been in the US for about six years. Their family was growing and would eventually include six children. But in 1908, my great-grandparents Joseph and Wacława had three young girls at home – all under the age of four. This includes my grandmother Marianna, who was only born the previous August. Even though she was an infant, I’d like to think she was already bossing her big sisters around. Marianna Zawodna is my only grandparent that was alive in the year 1908.

The Pater family was just getting settled in the US. Joseph and Antonina arrived with their six children in various stages from 1905 through 1907. Their son Ludwig, or Louis, is one of my youngest great-grandparents and was only 15 years old that year. He was already hard at work in one of the textile mills in Philadelphia, not far removed from the family’s recent past in the textile town of Żyrardów, Poland. He may have even been awaiting the arrival of his future wife, Elżbieta Miller, since she came from the same town. Since the facts show that he arrived as a young teenager in 1907, she arrived in 1909, and they were married in 1910, it’s plausible that they already knew each other. But in 1908, 17-year-old Elżbieta was still living in Żyrardów with her parents. Her brother Emil, however, was already in Philadelphia for three years, and one can only wonder if they exchanged letters across the Atlantic.

One hundred years…a lot can happen in a century. The world has certainly changed a great deal in that time. And in just that short amount of time, four immigrant families came to a new world, had children of their own, worked, laughed, cried, lived, and died. Their legacies include hundreds of descendants, and I count myself lucky to be among them.

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