Push Not the River: An Interview with James C. Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is your own ancestry Polish as well?

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

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

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


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

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]


Michigan Polonia: An Interview with Ceil Jensen, CG

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

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

The header from the Michigan Polonia site - mipolonia.net

The header from the Michigan Polonia site - mipolonia.net

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

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

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

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

Przytula Family, Detroit c. 1908

Przytula Family, Detroit c. 1908

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your top three practical suggestions for Polish researchers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you decide to write about cemeteries?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

Loving the Phillies…It’s in My Genes

We’re nearing the end of a competition between two tough opponents.  It’s red vs. blue, but my hometown is seeing only red.  Wait – I hope you don’t think I’m talking about the election!  It’s all about baseball, America’s pastime.  More importantly, the fuss is about the “fall classic”!  The Philadelphia Phillies are poised to win their first World Series in 28 long years…and their second ever since the club was founded.  Considering that they were founded in 1884 and are the longest one-city one-name club in baseball history, that means Phillies’ fans have endured a lot more defeats than wins – which is why this town gets so excited when we have a winner!

I am definitely not a sports fanatic, but I really enjoy baseball and, occasionally, hockey.  When you come from a city that loves sports as much as Philadelphia, you can’t help but get swept up in the excitement of it all.   (Well, except for football…I think if the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl I’d go out shopping that night since there wouldn’t be any lines.  I just don’t like the sport and can’t get excited about it.)

Watching the games for both the National League Championship Series and the World Series has brought back a lot of memories – surprisingly, a lot of family memories.  Sporting events of historic proportions, at least those for the teams you root for, burn into your memory.  The act of remembering where you were when the team won becomes similar to remembering when JFK was assassinated or the Challenger exploded or the Towers fell – everyone seems to have a memory.

My family isn’t as crazy about sports as the rest of the city, but we do love the Phillies.  My grandfather used to take my father to see the team play at Shibe Park in the 1940‘s and ‘50‘s.  My mother as a teenager in the ‘50s was smitten by Richie Ashburn and the Whiz Kids.  One of the most striking stats of this entire World Series has been the revelation that several of the Phillies – and most of the opposing team, the Tampa Bay Rays – were not even born the last time that the Phillies won the Series in 1980!   I was thirteen years old, and while I do not remember my family watching a lot of baseball in general during my childhood, I have specific memories of watching the NLCS and World Series that year.  The team included such greats as Mike Schmidt, Garry Maddox, Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, Pete Rose, and Larry Bowa.  I remember the excitement when they won!  Little did we know that it would be a long wait to feel that sort of excitement again.

In 1993, my parents and I once again became infected with the baseball bug – only this time much earlier in the season, not just fair-weather fans at the end.  We became hooked by the spunky “Fightin’s” and watched every game that season.  Unfortunately, this made their ultimate demise even harder to bear.  But let’s not spoil the memory…  The 1993 team had the image of being loud, dirty, and obnoxious.  But not to their fans!  We loved the hairy, drinking bunch because they could play ball so well.  Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk – you couldn’t make those sorts of characters up in a movie.  My favorite wasn’t quite the “bad boy” as the others, right fielder Jim Eisenreich.  The best part about that year was how the team worked together as a team…you never knew who would become the hero of the game, or the villain.  For the championship series we beat our nemesis, the clean cut boys called the Atlanta Braves who were unanimously loathed by this city despite their ball-playing talents.  The World Series that year had many memorable moments, but none as devastating as the loss of the series – the moment closer Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams gave up a homer to Toronto Blue Jay Joe Carter.  Recall the moment to anyone in Philadelphia and they’ll react with either a sad sigh of what might have been or some interesting curses involving Mitch’s parental makeup.  But, what a ride it was…that year’s team is still much beloved.

In fact, the 1993 team is so loved that the new kids on the block – our present team – is actually sick of hearing about them.  Tonight I hope our 2008 team will jump up a step in the city’s regard by doing what the 1993 team could not – win the World Series.  I hate to admit it, but this year I’m a fair-weather fan.  I stuck with the Phillies for several years after the ’93 defeat, watching every game on tv and some at the Vet.  But, one can only take losing for so long.  I gave up (losing cable contributed, since the games are mostly broadcast on a cable channel).  This year I jumped on for the NLCS, hesitant to get invested in another loss.  How wrong could I have been!  A team with good pitching?  Good relief pitching?  In Philadelphia?  When did this happen, and why didn’t anyone tell me?  I’m in love with the new Phillies and excited to watch history in the making.  Cole Hamels reminds me of the legendary Steve Carlton with his poise and his pitching.  Ryan Howard, Jimmie Rollins, Shane Victorino…what’s not to love?  They play hard, and just like my old favorite team someone always steps up to the plate (pun intended).  So, I feel fairly confident at tonight’s winning combination – Cole Hamels, home turf, and a team that finally started hitting last night (here‘s hoping the wind dies down and the rain goes somewhere else until tomorrow). I can’t wait to hear Harry Kalas, the Phils’ legendary “voice”, announce the win (when Harry announced the starting line-up last night for Fox, one of the broadcasters remarked, “If I had that voice, I’d sit around the house all day talking to myself just so I could hear it.”)

When the 2008 Phillies take the field, they aren’t alone…the hopes and dreams of past teams, the city, and our ancestors who rooted in the past are with them.  Go Phils!  We love you even if most of you guys aren’t old enough to remember the 1980 championship!

Featured Site: PolandGenWeb

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

Can you describe PolandGenWeb – what’s its purpose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

From a Far Country

They have called [me] from a far country — far, but always so close through the communion in the Christian faith and tradition…

October 16, 2008 marked the 30th anniversary of Karol Wojtyła becoming Pope John Paul II – the first Slavic Pope ever and the first non-Italian Pope since the 16th Century.  In 1978, this was a remarkable event.  It was the beginning of a papacy that would not only leave a lasting imprint on the Catholic Church, but on the entire world.  When John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, 27 years after the conclave that elected him, billions of people around the world would mourn the loss, regardless of their own faith or creed.  He may have ruled over the Church, but his message and the love he shared was for all people.

For Polish-American Heritage Month, I wanted to write about a Pole that I admire, and John Paul II is definitely my favorite Pole.  But much has been written about the Pope; instead I wish to focus on the Man Who Would Be Pope, Karol Wojtyła.  To understand Karol, one must discover Polish culture and history.  For the cardinals may have taken Karol out of Poland, but no one could ever take Poland from his heart and soul.

Karol was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920.  The town today appears to be relatively quiet, small by American standards – one might even use the adjective “quaint” because of its Old World European charm and its bucolic setting among the rolling hills of Ślaskie province.  But Wadowice was far from a “backwater” town even back in the 1920s – it was actually a “hot spot” for Polish culture, literature, and theater.  Polish culture so permeated young Karol’s life that its ideals and philosophy influenced him for the rest of his life.

Yesterday I wrote about some of the authors of the Polish Romantic movement.  As a youth in Wadowice, Karol first learned and loved Sienkiewicz, Mickiewicz, and Słowacki.  Their view of history and its spiritual dimension greatly affected the future Pope.  From them, he learned about the ideals of freedom and truth.  In addition to developing a love for Polish literature, young Karol was exposed to the theater.  Wadowice had a very active amateur theater which performed everything from Polish classics to Greek tragedies and Shakespeare.  Karol decided on his vocation in life…to become an actor.  He was very well regarded as a performer, and he began to write plays himself in addition to poetry.  It was the second love of his life behind the love he had for God.

At college, Karol continued his studies of language and literature, still intending to become an actor.  Hitler interrupted his plans.  As the Germans advanced into Poland, Polish life changed.  University professors were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, but the intelligentsia that remained decided to operate the college covertly, which allowed Karol to continue his studies.  During that time, he and his friends founded the Rhapsodic Theater.  The theater group was essentially a resistance movement, albeit one that resisted the Nazis with culture instead of weapons.  For Polish cultural expression was forbidden in Nazi-occupied Poland; participating in cultural or religious activities was a capital offense.  Chopin’s music could not be performed, and libraries were destroyed.  The goal of the Rhapsodic Theater was resistance through culture – they sought to save Polish culture from extinction, and by keeping that flame burning they believed that Poland as a nation would survive.

Such a non-violent form of resistance may strike some as odd, but it was as daring as a more overt or violent expression of resistance.  Under the Nazis, it did not matter whether a gathering of people in someone’s home were occupied with reciting Polish poetry or assembling incendiary devices, for the result was the same: all would be arrested.  The group of young actors and playwrights prepared productions and practiced in hiding, avoiding military patrols, after they had worked all day at various “hard labor” jobs such as Karol’s job at a stone quarry.   Their clandestine rehearsals and performances were all with a purpose: to save Polish culture from extinction, and to restore the very soul of Poland so that it could one day recover.

It was also during this time of war that Karol realized a calling to the priesthood – since the Church’s activities were curtailed with over 3,500 priests imprisoned in concentration camps, his religious training was in an “underground” seminary.  It is a fascinating period of Karol’s life, and if all you know is “the rest of the story” and where his priesthood eventually leads, I encourage you to read more about his life.

Of course, Karol didn’t just read and recite poetry; he wrote his own.  His poetry is deep, moving, emotional.  One of my favorites is one that he wrote in 1939 at the age of nineteen in which he reflects on the death of his mother who died just before his ninth birthday:

Over this, your white grave
the flowers of life in white–
so many years without you–
how many have passed out of sight?
Over this your white grave
covered for years, there is a stir
in the air, something uplifting
and, like death, beyond comprehension.
Over this your white grave
oh, mother, can such loving cease?
for all his filial adoration
a prayer:
Give her eternal peace–
–“Over This, Your White Grave”

To know Pope John Paul II is to know Poland, but do not think that he was exclusive or closed to others.  The opposite was true.  Polish culture defined who he was, but also imbued him with an openness and a love for other cultures that made him loved and be loved the world over.

The author meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, March 6, 2000

The author meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, March 6, 2000

I met him face to face in 2000.  In an all-too-brief moment – one that I purposely rushed in an attempt to give my traveling companions a brief chance to touch him as well – I held his hand in mine.  In the years since I have tried many times to write about it, but I can not find the words to adequately describe this meeting.  To use the adjective “surreal” seems like a stereotype, but that is the word in my mind as it happened.  To sum up the feeling: I have never been in the presence of someone that radiated love like he did.  I can’t explain it.  You “felt” it.  A scripture quote that I often think of in connection with this memory is “Were not our hearts burning within us?” [Luke 24:32] when the disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  I do not mean to imply that meeting JP2 was like meeting Christ, for the Holy Father himself would be the first to agree that he was merely His servant.  But, I felt my soul on fire as I stood near him that day, the fire of Love.  There is simply no other way to describe it.  Over eight years later, I still feel the burn, and the love he had for all.

Read an interview with Tennessee poet Lynn Powell about John Paul II’s poetry.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

Polish Literature

As an English major in both college and grad school, I’ve read a fair amount of literature.  But in my entire academic life I never encountered a Polish author on the syllabus other than Joseph Conrad, who, though Polish, wrote in English and can be found in English lit books as opposed to “World” lit.  I became interested in the subject partly because of my heritage, but also thanks to a penpal relationship with a young Polish college student.  The third thing that led me to learn more was when I began to learn about the life of a Polish man I greatly admire…you could say that Pope John Paul II led me to discover Polish literature!  In honor of Polish-American Heritage Month I thought I would briefly highlight some of the great authors that have shaped Poland’s cultural life, and in a separate post I will write more about John Paul’s early life, how Polish culture affected his views, and the time we met.

Please note that Poland’s history is long and full, and its literature is no exception.  In this post, I will merely highlight just a few of the many talented authors; this is by no means complete.  As such, I’m skipping over hundreds of years worth of works until arriving at the period known as “Polish Romanticism”.    Throughout 19th Century Europe, literature reflected the revolutionary ideals of the time. But while most of these writers wanted to break away from the past, Poland’s writers suggested returning to it, for they felt that something had been lost and needed to be reclaimed. For most of the writers, the “something” was the country’s Catholic values.  With the Romantics, history took on a spiritual purpose.

One of the most famous of the authors from this period of Polish literature is Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916).  He is perhaps best known for what is commonly called “The Trilogy” – a series of three histoical novels about events from the 17th Century Polish-Lituanian Commonwealth.  The three titles are With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe.  Each dealt with Polish history: the Cossack rebellion, the Swedish invasion, and wars with the Ottoman Empire.  The novels are sweeping in scope and quite lengthy, but Sienkiewicz was a gifted writer so the size of the novel is irrelevant. One of Sienkiewicz’s most popular novels is Quo Vadis, which was another historical novel.  This one, however, takes place in Rome during Nero’s reign and involves a star-crossed romance between a Christian woman and a pagan Roman patrician.  While the Trilogy is still on my “to be read” list, I had the pleasure of reading Quo Vadis, and it is truly a great story.  You may recogize the name from the 1951 Hollywood movie, which was based on the novel.  The quality of his work is evident by the honor he received in 1905 when he won the Nobel Prize for achievement in literature.  If you enjoy historical sagas, you will enjoy Sienkiewicz!

Another of Poland’s literary greats is Adam Mickiewicz (1789-1855).  Mickiewicz was primarily a poet, but he also wrote plays.  His most famous work is Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem that takes place during the period of the partitions.  The work is so famous in Poland that it is considered to be the national epic and it is required reading in schools.  Mickiewicz was the driving force of the Polish Romantic movement, and he believed in the redemptive quality of suffering and that Poland’s destiny would emerge from the country’s brokenness (as the country did not exist as a country after the partitions). He was a patriot more than a writer, and he left his writing career at its prime to devote the rest of his life to politics.  I found a good page that not only highlights his writing, but also his politics and his family history.

Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849) was another poet and playwright who deeply influenced Polish culture.  He was influenced himself by Byron and Shakespeare, and he shared the belief that Poland’s suffering would one day end.  I was fascinated to learn that in 1848 he wrote a beautiful poem about a future “Slavic Pope” who will be a “brother to all mankind” and lead all of humanity beyond suffering.  I’m not certain that this is an exact translation from the Polish, but the only English text I found of the poem is at this blog.  Rather prophetic…

One of my favorite authors that I encountered in college was Joseph Conrad (1857-1924).  I was surprised to learn that his real name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, he was born in Poland, and he learned English when he was an adult.  The novels I read were not translations from Polish, but written in English.  His prose is beautiful, and I can not fathom how talented a writer you have to be to write in a language that is not your “first”.  English was actually his third language, after Polish and French.  Yet his prose flows so fluidly, so poetically, that I can only wonder what he would have produced in his native tongue.  In The External Solitary by Gillon, Conrad is quoted as saying that Polish literature is in “too high esteem to introduce it to my poor writing.”  Among his many novels, the most famous are Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent.  One interesting aspect of his work is his focus on the themes of loyalty, fidelity, and self-sacrifice, which all relate to his Polish heritage and the fate of his homeland.  The theme of being set apart in exile or being solitary from the rest of the world also permeates his work, perhaps due to his own isolation as a Pole living away from his country.

I copied this quote into my notebook when I was in college, and although it is merely from a letter Conrad wrote to a friend, it offers a fine glimpse of his talent:

…old Father Time, always diligent in his business, has put his eraser over many men, things, and memories: yet I defy him to obliterate from my mind and heart the recollection of the kindness you and yours have shown to a stranger, on the strength of a distant national connection.  I fear I have not expressed adequately to your wife and yourself all my gratitude: I do not pretend to do so now, for in my case when the heart is full the words are scarce, and the more so the more intense the feeling I wish to express.

These are only four of the many famous Polish authors in the history of Polish literature.  Jumping ahead to modern times, perhaps you are familiar with the names of the Nobel-prize-winning poet Czesław Miłosz or the science fiction writer Stanisław Lem.  One of my favorite Polish poets is none other than Karol Wojtyła, the nan more commonly known as Pope John Paul II.  He wrote poetry and dramatic works both before and after he became a priest and pope.   I will share one of his poems, one that is actually genealogy-related, in my next post.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

Tagged By Thomas

Today I was tagged by Thomas of Destination: Austin Family to reveal five things about me in various categories.  While this doesn’t have much to do with genealogy, sometimes blogging is about getting to know one another.  Besides, how can I say “no” to Thomas?  Here you go…

**10 years ago I:
1. was buying ecclesiastical supplies for military chaplains
2. lived with my parents
3. had a cat named Stanley
4. traveled to Bavaria for the first time
5. was dating a guy who lived two states and four hours away

** 5 things on today’s “to-do” list:
1. go for a walk (done)
2. buy a car (almost done – I pick it up tomorrow)
3. finish some blog posts (not done due to time spent buying car)
4. call a guy about new windows (still not done)
5. watch the Philadelphia Phillies win the National League Championship Series! (game starts in a half hour!)

**5 places I have lived:
1. Philadelphia, PA
2. a small town in New Jersey
3. Rome, Italy
4. Honolulu, Hawaii
5. U.S. Virgin Islands
Okay, so the last three aren’t the truth, but it is nice to see it in print and dream a little.  I’ve only lived in two houses in my life.  I lived in the same house in Philadelphia for 35 years, now I live in another.  I travel a lot, but home doesn’t move much.

**5 jobs I have had:
1. acquisition executive for the DoD
2. writer
3. clerk at a supermarket with duties ranging from the video rental counter to stocking shelves in the “non-foods” department
4. wedding videographer
5. “rectory girl” (what we called ourselves when we worked at our church’s rectory answering the phone and door as well as serving dinner to the priests)

As a “twist” on this meme, since I can’t do anything by following the rules, I’ve added a  category and I encourage my “tagged” friends to add on their own variations as well…

**5 places I’ve been that I want to return to:
1. Rome, Italy
2. Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Germany
3. Poland
4. Paris, France
5. Island Beach State Park, NJ

Here are five genea-bloggers that I pass this meme to:
1. Lisa at 100 Years in America
2. Steve at Steve’s Genealogy Blog
3. Terry at Hill Country of Monroe County
4. Craig at GeneaBlogie
5. Becky at Kinexxions

Feel free to leave your own answers in the comments!

Edit 10 minutes later: Ooops, it appears that I was also tagged by Jasia at Creative Gene – I just hadn’t read her post yet!  She also tagged Lisa and Steve…you can’t get to these things fast enough.  If you’re reading, consider yourself tagged!

Polish History and Culture Challenge Reminder

Designed by footnoteMaven!

Designed by footnoteMaven!

We’re nearly half-way through Polish-American Heritage Month!  Have you found the time to learn more about Polish genealogy, history, or culture?  If not, it’s not too late!  The Polish History and Culture Challenge runs for the month of October, so there is ample opportunity for you to learn more about all things Polish…even if you’re not Polish at all!

I also wanted to take the opportunity to apologize to my readers for the lack of new posts recently.  Hosting a challenge and then failing to offer any posts for it is a bit like inviting everyone to a party where I show up late or not at all.  Unfortunately, circumstances beyond my control have prevented me from completing several posts in the last week.  But I have several articles in the works related to this challenge, so hopefully there will soon be a flurry of posts.

I can’t wait to find out if Sheri found a polka partner yet!  Thanks again to the lovely footnoteMaven for not one, but two great posters to represent this challenge!

German-American Day

Happy German-American Day!

Happy German-American Day!

Regular readers know that we’re celebrating Polish American Heritage Month during October with a special Polish History and Culture Challenge.  But today is German-American Day so I feel I owe some “equal time” to the other portion of my heritage.  So, Happy German-American Day to all!  Did you know that the first Germans came to America in 1683?  That settlement, appropriately called “Germantown”, later became part of the city of Philadelphia and was the first German settlement in the colonies.  My own German immigrants did not arrive for another 300 years!  Prost!

My Father, the Comedienne

The word prompt for the 6th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival is Funny Bone: Show us that picture that never fails to bring a smile to your face! An amusing incident, a funny face, an unusual situation.  Well, I’d say that this photo combines an amusing incident, some funny faces, and a rather unusual situation…

Frank and Jim, 1977

Frank and Jim, 1977

No, they are not really ugly women.  And they’re not transvestites either!  They are the two guys who tickled my funny bone throughout my childhood: my dad and his buddy, Frank.

Jim and Frank were not only comedians (or should I say comediennes?), but also dancers.  They got their start in “show business” because of their wives, Anita and Lillian.  Both women were active in the “Mother’s Association” of Archbishop Ryan High School for Boys1.  Every year, the moms would “put on a show”, and many of the dads joined in.  While my mom and her friend stuck to dancing, my dad and Frank were funny guys, so they became the principal comedy directors of the shows.

The guys’ comedy routines didn’t always involve dressing up as women, but some did.  This kept me, as a child, alternating between laughing hysterically and embarrassed to death.  For example, one of their first cross-dressing comedic stunts involved them playing the “Tinettes” – back-up singer/dancers in an Ike and Tina Turner number, “Proud Mary”.  Since the costumes were designed and purchased by the performers, there was much discussion concerning what they would wear.  I remember tagging along with the two couples to the local K-Mart.  Both men grew quite excited to find a display of inexpensive silver sandals that would go perfect with their shiny silver dresses.  You’ve never truly been embarrassed until your dad (or your husband, looking at things from my mom’s point of view now), takes off his shoes in the middle of the aisle at K-Mart to try on ladies’ shoes.

Their performances were anything but embarrassing though – they were really good!  The pair made a terrific Elton John and Kiki Dee (with Frank showing some leg as Kiki), as well as the Tin Man and Scarecrow in a funny Wizard of Oz skit.  Once, the two performed a great tap-jazz routine (as men, not women!) with the show’s choreographer, who – many years later – would become my eldest niece’s maternal grandmother.  Neither man knew how to dance before these shows – at least not the “performing on stage” kind of dancing.  The choreographer was an excellent dance teacher, and the ladies performed all sorts of amazing dances from tap to jazz and even a routine on roller skates!  As I look back now, I realize that 31 years ago my parents were the age I am now, and I am amazed by the wonderful shows they put together!

Back to the funny guys as shown above…their final performance in these shows was their pièce de résistance.  I don’t remember how it came about, but the plan was for them to perform a ballet.  It could have been a slapstick routine full of pratfalls, but unless you’re as talented as Ray Bolger, there’s a chance that it wouldn’t “work”.  Instead, the men decided to dress in women’s costumes – tutu included – and perform a straight ballet (no pun intended).  That is, an actual ballet that two women would perform, with all of the technically correct dance steps, without cracking so much as a smile.  They practiced for what seemed like forever; they were determined to get it right.  I still have my father’s typewritten instructions to himself to help him memorize the steps.  The music?  Why, a serious ballet with a comic twist requires one piece of music: The Nutcracker Suite.

The night was November 19, 1977 and the show was called “Musical Moments” that year.  After intermission, it was the third number.  The auditorium was dark; the crowd restless.  Anticipation was in the air, at least from where I sat with my aunt and my mother, who was not performing that year.  The curtains opened, and the music began…the audience became quiet, subdued by the classical music.  Then, the dancers appeared on stage, each starting from opposite ends of the stage.  We held our breath…there were some seconds of polite silence – did the audience think they were unattractive women?  Suddenly someone in the audience yelled, “Oh my gosh, they’re men!”  The entire auditorium erupted into laughter…and the men continued their dance, straight-faced, hitting all of their marks and dancing a saut de chat that would make any female ballet dancer envious.  They tickled some funny bones that night!  And some of us are still laughing about it.

[1] I would later go to Archbishop Ryan High School for Girls.  The two schools shared the library, the chapel, and the auditorium.  We were separated by gates, shark-infested waters, and some don’t mess with me nuns and friars.  We used to joke that they’d have to rename the school Archbishop Ryan High School for People if it ever went co-ed.  It did become co-ed (shortening the name after the words High School) three years after I left; it is one of the largest Catholic high schools in the country although the student population isn’t nearly as high as the combined population when I was there.  My graduating class of just girls totaled 525; the boys’ school had a similar number that year.  The school’s auditorium holds around 2,000 people.  On my first day of high school I was nervous, but we all had to report to the auditorium first.  Since I had spent so much time there while I was still in grade school and my parents were practicing for the shows, it put me at ease.

[Written for the 6th Edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival: Funny Bone.]

What it Means!

Since I started What’s Past is Prologue, I’ve had many visitors find this site by searching for its title.  I presumed they were not searching for my blog in particular, but for information about who coined the famous phrase.  That’s understandable, because not many of us were fortunate enough to study The Tempest in high school or college.  However, many people add “meaning” after the search term, so it may not be that they are searching for which of Shakespeare’s plays the phrase comes from, but instead what the phrase means.

My non-genealogy visitors desperately searching for what “past is prologue” means increased dramatically on Friday – thanks to Senator Biden.  In response to an accusation that his camp always looks to the past instead of keeping an eye on the future, he flashed his million-dollar smile and proclaimed, “Past is prologue.”  I was watching, and I laughed out loud.  But, I didn’t realize that 500 people would visit my blog the next day.  So, thanks Joe, for the surge in visitors here.  I do apologize that I won’t be voting for you, but I have admired you in the past.  Because of this increase, I decided to tell the poor folks looking for answers what “what’s past is prologue” means.

In The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Act II, scene i, the character of Antonio utters the phrase “what’s past is prologue”.  In Antonio’s speech, he was trying to convince the character of Sebastian to murder his sleeping father so that Sebastian could become king.  All that had happened up until then – their past – was merely a prologue to the great things to come if they went through with the deed.  A prologue was a preface to a play or novel that “set the scene” and provided some background information.

The phrase that Shakespeare invented came to mean that the past is a preface to the future – we can’t forget the lessons of history.  The National Archives and Records Administration has a dramatic sculpture entitled “The Future” which has the phrase inscribed on its base (albeit with “what is” in lieu of the contraction that Mr. Shakespeare used in his play).

I chose the title for this blog years before blogs were invented – I wanted to use it for a genealogy web page that I never got around to creating.  For me, the phrase emphasizes the importance of our own personal genealogy and history as a force in shaping our own lives.  We can’t forget our ancestors that have gone before us; history has lessons to teach us about how we can live today.

So, if you are visiting this blog to find out where the now famous sound bite came from, there you have it.  If you searched for the term because you’re writing about the play, you may want to visit The Tempest Study Guide.  But do read the play.  Better yet – see it!  That’s how it was meant to be “heard” and it’s one of the best.

And now back to our regularly scheduled genealogy blogging…