There’s one in every family…the one who vanished. Or at least seems to have vanished. That mysterious figure that family members whisper about. That person known in name only with no photographs as a remembrance. That relative about whom know one really knows what happened.
My grandfather’s sister, the aunt my father never met, ran away and disappeared. At least that’s how the story goes. I was successful in documenting the beginning of her life, but then she disappears from public records without a trace. She is the family legend – the one who disappeared.
Janina Piątkowska was born on December 29, 1905 in Warsaw, Poland to Jan Piątkowski and Rozalia nee Kizoweter. The family lived in the Wola section of the city, and she was baptized at St. Stanisława Church. Janina had an older brother, Józef, who was born two years earlier.
Just a few months after Janina was born, her father left for the United States. He settled in Philadelphia, PA and found work in the same occupation he had in Poland – leatherworking. He also began using his Americanized name, John Piontkowski. It would be over six months before the rest of the family could join him in America. In late October, 1906, Rozalia boarded the SS Armenia in Hamburg, Germany with 3-year-old Józef and almost 1-year-old Janina. They arrived at Ellis Island on November 10, 1906.
By 1910, the Piontkowski family was living on Huntingdon Street in Philadelphia (listed as the Kilkuskie family in the census). On July 6, 1910, my grandfather James was born. He would later be called the “surprise” baby; mother Rose was 44 and father John was 39.
In 1920, the family lived on Waterloo Street in Philadelphia. John worked in a leather factory, 18-year-old Joseph worked in a file factory, and teenager “Jennie” worked as a cigarette-maker in a cigarette factory. Nine-year-old James attended school, and mother Rose did not work outside of the home. Later that year, John formally declared his intent to become a U.S. citizen.
In 1922, John filed his petition for naturalization, and all three children – Joseph, Jennie, and James – were still listed as living with him. His naturalization was finalized on May 11, 1923.
In the 1930 census, the family lives in yet another Philadelphia residence – this one on N. Front Street. Joseph is now married, and his wife Catherine and their 2-year-old daughter Josephine are living with John and Rose. Twenty-year-old James is living with them, but his sister Jennie is no longer with them. Where did she go?
The story of “Jennie” – also called by her birth name “Janina” and “Jean” or “Jeannie” – was passed on from my grandfather to his children. I have no other documented facts about her beyond the 1922 petition of her father, just the story as told by her younger brother. He said that she was working as a waitress and met a “rich” doctor. They fell in love, he offered to “take her away” from the drudgery of the family’s working-class life, and they “ran off” to Florida. End of story.
My grandfather never heard from his sister again. I searched the Philadelphia marriage indexes for a marriage record, but did not find one. This isn’t necessarily unusual – although my grandparents and one set of great-grandparents all lived in Philadelphia at the time of their marriage, they actually got married in three different towns outside of the city’s limits. But without knowing Jennie’s married name, I haven’t been able to find out any more information about her. The only certainty is that she did either run away or move away and never had contact with her family again. Did she know that her mother died in 1937? Or that her father tragically took his own life in 1942? Her older brother Joseph, who used the surname Perk, died in 1953, leaving young children from two different marriages.
At the age of 43, my grandfather had lost all of his immediate family members – except possibly for his big sister. He even named his daughter Jean in honor of his sister, but neither Jean nor his son James would ever meet their mysterious aunt.
If Jennie really did fall in love and run away to get married, it may be most romantic story in my family’s history – even more so if she married a wealthy doctor who could give her luxuries she never knew in childhood. Did she live happily ever after? Or did she encounter tragedy? I certainly hope that her life was long and happy. Did she have children? If she did, did she tell them her birth name and where she grew up? Unfortunately, there are some questions that are not easily answered when researching family history, especially when it’s a family mystery.
There’s one unsolved mystery in every family, and mine is my grandaunt Jennie. I know a little about the beginning of her life; I hope to one day learn the truth about the rest of it. Whether it’s a romantic dream or a tragic tale, you probably have one, too – there’s one in every family!
Photo courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales. No, this isn’t Jennie, but I thought it best represented her story!
[Submitted for the 100th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy – There’s One in Every Family!]