Show and Tell: A Bavarian Beer Stein

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

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

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

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

Two views of the beer stein

Two views of the beer stein

Stein lid and thumblift

Stein lid and thumblift

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

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

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

View through the stein to the bottom when held towards light

View through the stein to the bottom when held towards light

Detailed view of the lithophane

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

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

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

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

In memory...

In memory...

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

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

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


1 “A History of Beer”, Concordia Enzian Schuhplattler, 2004,

2 Ibid

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

4 Ibid, 326.

5 Walt Vogdes, “Porcelain Steins with Lithophanes”, Stein Collector’s International,

6 Mark Chervenka, “Regimental Beer Steins”, Antique and Collectors Reproduction News, 2004, downloaded at

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.


Interview with William F. Hoffman: Part 4 – Latin and Other Languages

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, 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

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:

Interview with William F. Hoffman: Part 3 – Translating Records

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:

Interview with William F. Hoffman: Part 2 – More on Polish Surnames

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:

Interview with William F. Hoffman: Part 1 – Encountering Polish Names

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:

And the Winner Is…

Today is the end of the Genea-Blogger Group Games!  The five competition categories involved citing sources, backing up data, organizing research, writing, and reaching out to help other genealogists.  I only had time to post one update during the games, but here is my final medal tally:

1. Go Back and Cite Your Sources!

I first didn’t plan on competing in this category, but then I compiled 50+ sources just to write the biographical sketch of my great-grandfather, Joseph Zawodny.  However, as the deadline to write the post got closer (and as I suffered for two weeks with a pulled muscle), I never did get all of the citations in the proper format.  Oh well, you can’t win them all.  It was a good exercise in tracking down the source information, and I will continue to try to do this.  Status: no medal

2. Back Up Your Data!

I completed “Task C” by backing up all of my data and photographs to an external hard drive.  This is highly recommended to provide you with a back-up, and it’s very easy to do.  Status: Gold medal

3. Organize Your Research!

I organized multiple piles of documents into two large boxes, filed by family name.  I also scanned 300+ photos to help a friend organize her own family history project.  Status: Silver medal, unless “scan 20 documents” can be multiplied out for my 300, then I won a Platinum several times over.  Of course, if the fact that they are not my family photos matters, then I only won a Bronze.

4. Write, Write, Write!

I did well in this category.  I participated in the Smile for the Camera Carnival with my favorite photograph, the Carnival of Genealogy with “Don’t Be a What?”, and the “Soundtrack of My Salad Days” meme with my musical genealogy.  I also technically prepared several posts in draft form; I usually try to do that.  I wrote a biographical sketch of an ancestor.  One task is tricky – sign up to host a future carnival.  During the GB Games, I hosted the Carnival of Genealogy for the first time.  But, technically speaking, I volunteered for it back in June.  So, I’m not sure if this counts or not.  The easiest task I planned to do – “write a summary of what your blog is about” – I did not.  I am coming up on my 100th post, and I planned on writing a similar post at that time, which will also coincide nicely with Terry Thornton’s challenge.  I’ll take a medal hit to do it “my way”.  Status: Diamond medal (or Gold if my COG hosting doesn’t qualify)

5. Reach Out & Perform Genealogical Acts of Kindness!

I commented on a new blog, Granite in My Blood, and joined a few blog networks on Facebook.  Unfortunately, I never got around to participate in an indexing project due to time constraints.  I already belong to two genealogical societies, and I couldn’t find another one to join.  My random act of kindness was the aforementioned scanning project, which now continues as I take those photos and make a music video for her parents’ wedding anniversary.  Alas, this does not count either!  Status: Silver medal

Thanks to the GB Games’ organizing committee: Kathryn Doyle of the California Genealogical Society and Library, Thomas MacEntee of Destination Austin Family and Miriam Midkiff of AnceStories. Thanks also to footnoteMaven for creating the cool logo!  It was a great exercise to get us into the practice of doing things that we should be doing on a regular basis…the games were only a warm-up because I know we’ll all continue with these activities!

Joseph Zawodny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Zawodny, c. 1915

Joseph Zawodny, c. 1915

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Family History Project Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is extremely doubtful that she was a nurse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In 1938 Laura got sick and was hospitalized.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Musical Genealogy

Thanks, Tim, for reminding me what a freak of nature unique individual I am. You see, I’m probably one of the few people in the modern world that can’t name ten formative albums from my teen years.

After trying to participate in this meme, I finally have to admit what others have been telling me for years…I was a strange kid.  I have eclectic musical tastes today, and it started as early as I can remember.  If you would have asked 8-year-old Donna what songs rocked her boat, she would have probably answered: Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”, Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”, Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”, and the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”.  There’s really nothing wrong with the list, per se, unless you know that I was 8 years old in 1974 – other than Elton’s 1972 song, the rest are a bit before my time.  And even Crocodile Rock isn’t “current” for the 70s, but instead is a nostalgic look back to the good old days of rock ‘n roll.  I wasn’t alive for those “good old days”, but the music attracted me from an early age.

Of course, my list of favorites would have had Shaun Cassidy at the top, and may have even included the Bay City Rollers.  But in terms of long-term influence on my psyche, those wouldn’t make my list today.  I remember listening to 45s all the time (note: if you’re reading my blog and you don’t know what a 45 is, go ask your mother.  If she doesn’t know, are you sure you’re old enough to be reading my blog?).  The songs weren’t very good, and they aren’t any I’d listen to today except for a laugh.  Prominent in my memory: Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” and Bo Donaldson’s “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”.  The one 45 I remember buying that you’d not only hear on the radio today but also not mind hearing is The Four Seasons’ “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”.  But only two albums resonate from those early days: the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run.  I still listen to both today and enjoy them!

As a teenager, my musical tastes got even stranger, at least by popular standards.  Most high schoolers in the early 1980s were listening to Madonna; my friends and I were listening to songs about The Madonna.  We liked what would be called “religious” music.  Some I won’t admit to enjoying, but some of the albums I still love and will gladly tell all.  One is the original 1970 U.S. recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. Some folks won’t consider this as religious music, and I don’t either, but it’s not the “Superfreak” that my classmates were listening to.  Another is John Michael Talbot’s The Lord’s Supper.  Talbot also recorded The Painter with his brother Terry, and that was played over and over as well.  I listened to the radio more during my teen years than I listened to albums…and again my musical tastes showed a fascination for a time in which I did not live.  I was hooked on the “oldies” of the 50s and 60s, especially Motown.  I was not alone in this endeavor…my friend Kathy and I knew the words to the Temptations and Sam Cooke way more than Duran Duran.

In my 20s, I discovered the popular music that was being played during the 70s when I was a kid, and I enjoyed Bill Joel and James Taylor, as well as something that actually both current and “hip” – U2’s The Joshua Tree.  In my 30s, the Gin Blossoms’ Congratulations, I’m Sorry was played – on cd, not vinyl – over and over and over  again.  At 35, I widened my musical tastes when I met Italian pop star Eros Ramazzotti for the first time via Stilelibero, which was then two years old.  Now my music collection  isn’t complete without a little Eros.

I feel like I’m admitting to a heinous crime when I say that I thought Madonna’s music was crap back when she was a superstar (except for “Crazy for You” which brings me back to 1985 in seconds), I didn’t listen to Bon Jovi until just a couple of years ago, and I hate metal. Yes, I have eclectic tastes.  My iPod has Benny Goodman, Celine Dion, Hawaiian singer Keali’i Reichel, Semisonic, Sister Hazel, and Linkin Park.  I never got into “convention” and if everyone was doing it, I probably wouldn’t be interested in doing it until several years later. So, just as my ancestry is a mix, so are the albums that “formed” me.  And I can guarantee that no one else will share my list!

Note: What’s Past is Prologue will return to its normally scheduled genealogical articles tomorrow!

Carnival of Genealogy, 54th Edition

Welcome to the 54th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy! I am delighted to host the COG for the very first time here at What’s Past is Prologue. This edition’s theme is The Family Language – and what a wonderful variety of languages we all have.  And I don’t mean the “usual” languages, but those certain special words used within families that make others say, “What?”

To tour our virtual Tower of Babble, there is no interpreter required.  But I can guarantee that you’re sure to get a laugh when you read about one another’s family languages – especially if you thought your family had some odd terms!

Starting us off on our tour is Wendy Littrell from All My Branches Genealogy with What a Bunch of Hooey!.  I’m sure that your Mom used some of Wendy’s mom’s “Mom-isms” too!  And that’s not a bunch of hooey, either.

Debra Osborne Spindle presents Family Language posted at All My Ancestors.  She has quite an assortment of interesting words and phrases from both her father and her grandfather.  Don’t be a Ned, and check it out.

Miriam Robbins Midkiff presents Our Family Language at AnceStories: The Stories of My Ancestors.   From Miriam you’ll learn about some interesting Alaskan expressions – and that’s no balderdash, either.

Oh, Yee Gods!  What in Sam Hill was Ruth Stephens‘ grandmother talking about?  Read more as Ruth presents Oh, Yee Gods! posted at Bluebonnet Country Genealogy.

Read an assortment of family language gathered from Canada, the military, and even small children’s mis-pronunciations at M. Diane RogersWhy Do You Say That, Grandma D, or, The Family Language – Carnival of Genealogy – 54th Edition posted at CanadaGenealogy, or, ‘Jane’s Your Aunt’.

Jasia presents There Never Was A Sweeter Word posted at Creative Gene.   Wow, I sure am hungry now after reading Jasia’s post, no matter what you call it in your family!

Terry Snyder, otherwise known as “Tee Tee Brown” presents What’s in a Name? posted at Desktop Genealogist.  You won’t believe how many nicknames the Desktop Genealogist has had!

Thomas MacEntee from Destination: Austin Family brings us two posts.  First, read about some New Yorkisms at Destination:Austin Family: New Yorkisms.   Some of these New Yorkisms are familiar to us Southerners in Philadelphia!  Thomas adds another delightful look at family language with some Mom-isms.   Would it kill you to read both posts?

Susan J. Edminster presents Pit and Siz posted at Echo Hill Ancestors Weblog.  Susan shares a wonderful remembrance of her brother, Bob, who died too young.  Bob had some great expressions and nicknames for the family – and illustrations, too!

Elyse presents The Funny Names, Words and Phrases of My Family posted at Elyse’s Genealogy Blog. Wow – I’d definitely need a dictionary over at Booter’s house!

footnoteMaven presents Home To The Ear posted at footnoteMaven.   Learn about the side effects of losing the family language in this hilarious yet heartfelt lament.

Craig Manson presents Carnival of Genealogy: The Language of Families posted at GeneaBlogie.  From The World’s Smartest Sister’s Bubbas, we learn about the mix of expressions and “linguistic oddities” in his family.

Randy Seaver from Genea-Musings offers a look at San Diego Slanguage.  The man from Nasty City has some interesting “San Diego-isms” that would certainly come in handy if you’re ever in his neck of the woods.

Midge Frazel‘s family comes from Scotland and England, so Americans ought to be able to understand them, right?  Midge Frazel presents Right You Are! posted at Granite in My Blood.

Terry, er…Bill?  No wait! Teb?!  Let’s just say that Mr. Thornton presents Thwarted by Thweet Nicknames posted at Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi.  If the first paragraph doesn’t pull you right in, I don’t know what will.  Not all nicknames are welcome in Terry’s family!

Janet Iles presents Carnival of Genealogy 54th edition – Family Language posted at Janet the researcher.  If you were invited to Janet’s house for dinner, you’d get to enjoy a nice big plate of … slop?  You’ll have to read her funny post to find out exactly what she means!

Becky Wiseman presents Say What? posted at kinexxions.  Learn about some sayings that are cute and funny…just not to Becky’s nephew.

Elizabeth O’Neal presents Little Bytes of Life: Who Needs Ruby Slippers When You’ve Got Strawberries? posted at Little Bytes of Life.  Drop by for some funny musings on everything from children learning language for the fist time to Valspeak and other California-isms!

Robert Lord presents Lord and Lady: This one’s for “Dexter” posted at Lord and Lady.  Robert’s grandfather had an unusual good luck charm and a mysterious saying, “This one’s for Dexter.”  But does it involve an unsolved murder mystery?

Lisa from 100 Years in America presents The Hungarian Language and the “Poetry” of My Childhood.  In this thoughtful post, Lisa remembers the soundtrack of her childhood as provided by her Hungarian-Croatian grandmother.

Val M. presents The “Farmer” posted at One Point in Time.  Can a nickname lead you to dig deeper into your research?  Was “the Farmer” really a farmer?

Amanda Erickson presents Pittsburghese? posted at Random Ramblings.  Amanda presents quite a few interesting sayings from out west (Pittsburgh, that is!).

Lori Thornton presents Southern English posted at Smoky Mountain Family Historian.  Y’all need to tote yourself on over to Smoky Mountain for another lesson in Southern English.

Stephen J. Danko presents Polish Influences in my Family?s Language posted at Steve’s Genealogy Blog. Steve, who I will forever now think of as Staś, remembers the Polish influence is his family.  Hey, didn’t everyone have gołąbki and kapusta?

John Newmark presents A Family Language posted at Transylvanian Dutch.  John thought he had some great insight into his family’s use of nicknames, but he’s stumped by a rather unique expression found in a letter.  Exactly who is it that did what?

Sheri Bush presents The Family Language or The Mason/Dixon Line Runs Down The Middle of Our Table posted at TwigTalk.  Sheri is fluent in two languages!  North and South…

Now we’ll travel down the road a piece to Bill West‘s West in New England as he presents West in New England: DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE TO THE FORTRESS!.

Find out some unique Texas Talk native to David Bowles family in Talkin’ Texan posted at Writing the Westward Sagas.

Finally, the offering from yours truly, Donna Pointkouski, here at What’s Past is Prologue is presented in Don’t Be a What? I wrote about my grandmother’s influence on my language!

That concludes this edition of the Carnival of Genealogy – thanks so much for attending!  I hope you enjoyed learning about everyone’s family languages as much as I did.  Thanks, Jasia, for the opportunity to host!  And special thanks to footnoteMaven for the cool poster!

Call for submissions! With Labor Day and the end of summer right around the corner it’s time to think about going back to school. So, the topic for the next edition of the Carnival of Genealogy will be: Show and Tell! Remember that fun little exercise you used to do in your grade school days? Here’s your chance to do it again 🙂 Show us and tell us about an heirloom, a special photo, a valuable document, or a significant person that is a very special part of your family history. Don’t be shy now, show us what you’ve got! This is all about bragging rights so don’t hesitate to make the rest of us green with envy! This is your chance to brag, brag, brag, without seeming like a braggart (you can’t be a braggart when you’re merely following directions ;-)… so show and tell!

This next edition will be hosted by Jasia on the Creative Gene blog. The deadline for submissions will be September 1st.  Submit your blog article to the next edition of the Carnival of Genealogy using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page. See ya next time!

Don’t Be a What?

I was about seven years old when I first realized that not all families speak the same language.  I was on the back of a bicycle driven by a girl who lived up the street.  The “driver” would stand up to pedal while the “rider” sat on the seat and held on to the driver’s waist.  As we drove down the street, I started laughing.  “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Your dupa is right in my face!”

“My what?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.

“You know,” I said, pointing to her butt, “Your dupa!”

We came to a stop.  She turned around, looking bewildered.  “You mean my heiney?”

Now it was my turn to be perplexed.  “What’s a heiney?”

Truly a lesson for the ages – language, which either brings cultures together or separates them, learned by two children as they argued over the “correct” word for their buttocks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dupa and many of the other “odd” words I heard growing up came from my grandmother, who lived with us.  Although she was a first generation American who was born in Philadelphia, she learned Polish as a child from her immigrant parents.  Her husband, also U.S.-born to Polish parents, did the same, and they used Polish to communicate in front of their own children when they didn’t want them to understand what they were saying.

This explains why several Polish words crept from my grandmother’s vocabulary to ours, such as dupa.  The Polish-English dictionary defines it as:  dupa [“doo-pa”], ass (vulg.).  Because it’s a vulgar term, its true meaning leans more towards a derogatory term about how someone behaves rather than a person’s rear anatomy.  But my brother and I used it as kids for the latter term, and fortunately we did not live in a neighborhood with others who spoke Polish!

We adopted some other normal Polish words like zupa [“zoo-pa”], the Polish word for soup, and shmata [shmah-tah], which is a Yiddish word for rag that my grandmother used to refer to a “housedress”.  We also frequently used the Polish word dudek [“doo-dek”], which means fool or dummy. We pronounced it as “duh-dek” instead of the correct pronunciation.

Another word in use by my grandmother was plut. I can’t find this in the Polish dictionary, but it likely comes from the word plutokracja, meaning plutocracy or of the wealthy.  As “plut” was applied to someone with no sense of humor or someone who looked down on others, usually in reference to the expression on their faces, it seems that this might be where she coined the term.

My grandmother also had a cascade of nicknames.  My mom was always “Chick” and my aunt was “Jub” or “Jubie”.  My brother didn’t have a moniker, but sometimes she called me “Dora”.  Now my mother is the only one still living from her immediate family, and there’s no one left to call her Chick (and she is glad about that!).  Of course, it should be taken into context…my grandmother had a nickname, too, given by my grandfather.  She was called “Killer” – and she loved it!

From my father’s side of the family, his Bavarian aunt told the story that her mother used to call the father “Zeff”, a nickname for his proper name, Joseph.  My aunt, who is eight years younger than my father, called him “Brub”, which was as close as she could get to “Brother” at a young age.  Even today, my 3-year-old niece calls her same-age cousin “Bibbias”. Even though she can properly say “Olivia” now, she still insists on calling “Bibs” by her nickname.

Our family language and propensity towards nicknames expanded considerably when I was 14 years old.  I became friends with Louie; he became my adopted brother and one of the family.  Consequently, the word “dudek” took on a new life.  I can’t remember if he was familiar with the term or not – he also had Polish grandparents.  But, if he hadn’t heard it before, he certainly adopted it.  In addition to that term, there was one other that my grandmother used, origin unknown: gazeutch.  It’s hard to explain, but you’ll understand with examples.  It’s a very flexible word and can be an adverb, as in “Don’t get all gazeutch about it” or as a noun with “You’re acting gazeutch.”

For four years – and even continuing today, everyone was a dudek and we were usually gazeutched as a result.

We also called our then-favorite poison, Mt. Dew, swill.  Louie had a habit of re-naming most of the adults in our lives with nicknames; he was the king of names.  The adults who frequented our church were Bluegown, Dead Dog, Hubachi, the Russian Empress, Mad Dog (no relation to Dead Dog), and Abendego. Even our much beloved pastor was “the Wiz”, and I think he’d have probably laughed in secret had he known then.  Lou’s father was known throughout the neighborhood as “C.L.” – short for “Communist Leader”.  My father became “What the hell” since it was usually the first three words he uttered upon seeing us.  “What the hell is this mess?”  “What the hell is all the noise down there?”  You get the idea.

So, when someone is being a dudek and has you all gazeutch, don’t act like a plut – just share some swill and just remember that he’s probably just a dupa because he doesn’t speak your family’s language.

[Written for the 54th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: The Family Language]

GB Games: Days 1-3

We’re supposed to be tracking our progress in the Genea-Blogger Games, so it’s time to chime in with what I’ve been doing.  I think I pulled a muscle already, but hopefully I can keep going.

1. Go Back and Cite Your Sources!
Create proper citations of sources for as many events possible. I didn’t think I’d be competing in this category at all, but as it turns out, I’m citing many sources for my biographical sketch that’s still in process.  The work isn’t complete, but I’ll probably take home a high medal in this one!

2. Back Up Your Data!
Backup data to choice of formats (flash drives, CDs, DVDs, online) or storing hard copies properly (safety deposit box, safe, etc.). Thus far I’ve backed up all of my digital photos and genealogy data on an external hard drive.  And the thing STILL has room!  It’s great!  I also spent my Saturday scanning family photos to help a friend with a family history project – 313 photos, to be exact.  I don’t even think I own that many family photos!

3. Organize Your Research!
Take time to review your collection of documents and photos, both hard copy and digital, and work to organize those items for easy access. I’m working on it…

4. Write, Write, Write!
B. Participate in a genealogy or family history related blog carnival. My post to the Smile for the Camera Carnival has duly been submitted.  I’m also busy writing my post for this weekend’s Carnival of Genealogy.

C. Prepare several posts in draft mode (if possible with your blog platform) and pre-publish. My platform doesn’t allow pre-publishing, but I’m working on several in a word processor.

D. Write a brief biographical sketch on one of your ancestors.
I’m having a blast on this one and I’m planning to publish my masterpiece next week.

E. Sign up to host a future carnival. Hopefully the fact that I’d already volunteered to host the COG this weekend counts!

5. Reach Out & Perform Genealogical Acts of Kindness!

A. Comment on a new (to you) genea-blog.
Today I commented on Midge’s Granite in My Blood, which was a new one for me.

B. Join another genea-blogger’s blog network on Facebook Blog Networks. Today I signed up for 100 Years in America and All My Branches on the Blog Networks.  I’m already fans of both and subscribe in Google Reader.

That’s all for me so far.  Time to get back to writing and citing sources.  After I put some ice on my muscle…

One of Many Favorite Photographs

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

Wacława Zawodny

Wacława Zawodny

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

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

5 Ways that Genealogists are Similar to Athletes

There are two concurrent “games” going on during the next two weeks — the Genea-Blogger Group Games here in the blogosphere and the Olympic Games in Beijing.  There’s been a lot of fun among the genea-bloggers talking about the competition.  Naturally, our competition deals with “nerdy” non-athletic feats like properly citing sources and writing.  There may be a few athletic genealogists out there, but more than likely the majority of us are more comfortable sitting in front of a computer or in a library than competing in races or breaking world records!  Olympians are the ultimate physical athletes – the cream of the crop.  While we genealogist will never be on par with Olympians in the world of athletics, there are a few things that these two disparate groups have in common.

1. We are Skilled – Athletes are talented individuals.  Although most of us possess the basis skills from which athletes build upon, athletes develop these normal physical skills in order to excel in competition. Basic athletic skills like balance, speed, and strength are developed and enhanced to achieve new levels of performance. Like athletes, genealogists need to develop basic skills in areas such as research or investigation, organization, and communication.  As we develop by applying skills, we begin to learn more specialized skills.  For athletes, weightlifters may develop a greater upper body strength, while runners develop strong legs and lungs.  Similarly, genealogists develop additional skills.  If you search for immigrant ancestors, you may become more skilled at passenger arrival list research than others.  If you have Irish ancestors, you’ll know more about Irish records than researchers who don’t have Irish ancestry.  Other skills that genealogists can specialize in include writing, interviewing, technology, or languages.  One skill that all genealogists develop is the ability to read bad handwriting!

2. We are Hard Workers – Little league players don’t become World Series Champions overnight; it takes a lot of practice and hard work. Likewise, you can’t learn the history of your family with the push of a button or a ten-second internet search.  Both fields of expertise require a strong determination – and a lot of sweat doesn’t hurt.

3.  We are Focused – Top-notch athletes set their sights on a particular goal or achievement whether it’s winning a game, breaking a record, or beating a personal best.  Once achieved, a new goal is set with the focus always on accomplishing the goal.  Genealogists also focus on a goal related to our research: find someone’s birth record, find their parents’ names, find where they lived during the census!  Once one goal is met, another takes its place.

4. We are Motivated – Without motivation, athletes could not be successful in competition – especially at a high level like the Olympics.  But getting to such a high level of performance requires a strong sense of motivation.  Genealogists who get discouraged easily don’t last very long.  A “real” genealogist searches through some microfilm all day without finding anything, only to show up and do it again the following week.  Athletes and genealogists don’t give up.  Someday, we’ll win that race or find that ancestor!

5. We Have Fun – Yes, it may be Hard Work…but would any athlete play the game if it wasn’t any fun?  Genealogists have fun, too!  If we didn’t enjoy it and couldn’t see the humor in our research, it wouldn’t be worth it.  Unfortunately, only fellow genealogists share a genealogist’s humor.  But, we like to stick together because we all believe that finding ancestors is fun stuff!

It’s Not All Fun and Games

The press coverage is non-stop about a certain competition that’s about to take place among athletes with ancestries from all over the world.  No, not that one that starts with an “O”!  I mean the Genea-Blogger Group Games.  All the genealogy blogs are writing about it.  “Athletes”, also known as family historians, are flooding Miriam with sign-ups.  I’ve obviously gotten in some fun with the event, but I wasn’t sure about “officially” participating.  Posting my “goals for achievement” just sounded too much like something my employer would require me to do.  Genealogy is supposed to be fun!  But, it’s not all fun and games.  To be honest, genealogy is hard work!  With that in mind, I’ll join the merry band of goal-setting researchers in hopes of achieving some great things – and maybe win some prizes, too!  Wait, no prizes?  Oh well, the prize will be a job well done in completing some tasks essential to genealogical research.

There are five competition categories in the GB Games involving citing sources, backing up data, organizing your research, writing, and reaching out to help other genealogists.  All five of these things are of vital importance to any genealogical quest.  If there are any beginners reading this blog, I can assure you that you can’t be successful at genealogy without learning skills in each of these categories.  Even though I’ve been doing this for a while, I still have a few things to learn.  Although “Go Back and Cite Your Sources!” is definitely my weakest skill and the event I would most benefit from, I don’t think I have the amount of time required to be successful at this in the next two weeks.  I will, however, pay close attention to my fellow competitors and learn from their example – and hopefully their tips after they’ve completed their tasks.  (Oh my, I almost used the phrase “Lessons Learned” – another staple phrase of the full-time business world.)

“Back Up Your Data!” is another weak area, but I will take up the challenge to compete.  Even a small effort towards backing up data will bring me rewards, and it’s been on my “to do” list for a while.

I will compete in “Organize Your Research” as this is something I’ve struggled with for months.  I definitely won’t take home the platinum in this one, but, just as in backing up your data, any advancement in this area is beneficial.  My goal here is to re-organize some piles of paper I have scattered about, organize some of my photo collection, and do some scanning.

I hope to compete in the “Write, Write, Write!” category as well, especially since I am planning on participating in some of the upcoming carnivals.  Since I’ve already volunteered to be the host for the next COG, and this takes place during the GB Games, does this count as completing one of the tasks?

“Reach Out and Perform Genealogical Acts of Kindness” is another category I’ll be competing in, I’m just not sure to what extent.  I’ve been wanting to participate in an indexing project for some time now, but I may have to set my goals for this category a little lower due to some other projects I’m working on during the competition period.

It’s going to be a fierce competition…these genea-bloggers are a rough group.  Join us at the Opening Ceremonies tomorrow!  Ready, set, RESEARCH!

Top Ten Genea-Blogger Group Games That Were Cut by the Committee

If you’re a genea-blogger, by now you’ve probably heard the announcement about the Summer 2008 Genea-Blogger Group Games which are being held August 8 – 25.  But you may not know that several competition categories were cut from the event by the official Committee (Thomas, Terry, Miriam, Kathryn, footnoteMaven, and Denise). We’re not sure why these events were cut, but the rumor is that certain participants were sure to win the gold by a mile.  So as not to embarrass the other participants, it was decided that these categories would be cut due to the unfair advantage that many genea-bloggers had.  But I was able to get my hands on a copy of the original program…here are the events you won’t see, and who was expected to take home the gold (or rather, the diamond, since that is the highest medal given in the Genea-Blogger Group Games).

( 10 ) The 1000 Meter Dash – Using only online sources, quickly connect with as many living cousins as possible.  Would have won: Randy Seaver

( 9 ) Long Jump – Trace your maternal line back to the Garden of Eden using mtDNA.  Would have won: Blaine Bettinger

( 8 ) Relay Race – Quickly pass on a meme to five other genea-bloggers before they’ve been hit by someone else.  Bonus points if you find out that the genea-bloggers are actually your cousins.  Would have won:  Becky Wiseman

( 7 ) Wrestling – The genea-smackdown event!  Wrestle with boxes and boxes of uncategorized and unlabeled documents and photos, organizing and scanning as you go.  Would have won: Craig Manson

( 6 ) Parallel Bars – Determine if two families with the same surname are related or not, documenting the search with correct source citations.  Would have won: Thomas MacEntee

( 5 ) Synchronized Scanning – Scan the greatest number of documents during Scanfest while, at the same time, chatting online with a dozen genea-friends, checking out the latest info on the Facebook wall, transcribing records for FamilySearch Indexing, submitting to the Carnival of Genealogy, and publishing a post on your blog.  Would have won: Miriam Midkiff

( 4 ) 100m Backstroke – Transcribe, photograph, and index all of your local cemeteries.  Would have won: Terry Thornton

( 3 ) Hurdles – Track down an elusive female relative’s parents’ names as well as her descendants.  You know, the relative who  married five times and moved frequently.  All sources must be properly documented, and her story should be presented in the creative nonfiction format.  Would have won: FootnoteMaven

( 2 ) Balance Beam – Serve as carnival host while writing your family history project and hosting more than one genea-blog.  Would have won: 3-way tie between Jasia, Lisa, and fM

( 1 ) Pole Vault – Find your immigrant ancestor’s hometown when the only placename listed on every vital document is either “Poland”, “Russia”, “Austria”, or “Prussia”.  Would have won: Steve Danko

Oh well, these events would have been fun.  But, there are still plenty of events to choose from!  Let the games begin!

Blogging Friends Forever

The BFF (Blogging Friends Forever) meme is being passed around in the genea-blogosphere for the last few days.  I am honored to have been tagged by Becky Wiseman at kinexxions. Thanks, Becky!

The meme rules are:

  • Only 5 people are allowed to receive this award.
  • 4 of them followers of your blog.
  • One has to be new to your blog and live in another part of the world.
  • You must link back to who ever gave you the award.

This was rather difficult – not because there aren’t at least five bloggers I’d like to honor.  In fact, my personal BFF list has much more than five.  But, nearly every genea-blogger I know (and several that are new to me), have already received this award.  So, there may be some recycling in this list…if you’ve already received the BFF award, just consider yourself doubly-loved!  My BFF awards go to:

  • Lisa of 100 Years in America.  Lisa actually is the author of 3 genealogy blogs that I enjoy very much, but I chose the one I found first.  I’ve been a fan ever since.
  • Tim Agazio of Genealogy Reviews Online. Tim and I technically work for the same “company” (Uncle Sam).  I always learn something new at his blog.
  • Six talented genea-bloggers have combined their talents to create Facebook®Bootcame for Genea-Bloggers. It just appeared on the genea-blogging scene, but it’s already given me some very useful advice.  Thanks to Denise, Terry, Kathryn, Miriam, fM, and Thomas, who get a group BFF award only because they’ve already been tagged by others for their individual work.
  • Taneya at Taneya’s Genealogy Blog is a relatively new find for me.  Hopefully, you’ll like her blog as much as I do – and she’s got a brand new home for her blog that looks great!
  • As for someone that is new to my blog and lives “in another part of the world”…  Ruth Stephens from Bluebonnet Country Genealogy.  And yes, Bluebonnet Country is technically a different part of the world than Philadelphia.  Even though Ruth already received the BFF from Terry Thornton (Thanks, Ter, first you shame me into Facebook, and now this!  But, you’re still a BFF to me, too!), Ruth gets an extra one because she is willing to be my cousin (like so many other genea-bloggers have connected).  That is, she’s willing as long as I can find a family surname that she can spell!  I’m working on that one, Ruth, but my “Miller” name doesn’t have a -ski so that might qualify.  😉