Favorite Find – A Description of My Ancestor, the Smuggler

The theme for Week 2 of the 2022 edition of “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” is “Favorite Find.” I’ve had several favorite finds in the many years of researching my ancestors, and my favorite tends to be the the latest record, fact, photo, or person I found. But I have to admit that this find was rather unique and still makes me smile.

Prussia’s Most Wanted!

When I research my family tree, most of the ancestors are merely names and dates without any stories or context about who they really were as people. But, depending upon the circumstances, or the peripheral information about their occupation or town or family, some ancestors seem to call to me as if they have a story to tell. Jan Drogowski, one of my 3rd great grandfathers, is one of those ancestors. Maybe because he was the son of a farmer who became a linen merchant. Or because he lived during most of the 19th century (from 1818 to 1894). Or because he had ten children and I have dozens DNA matches among his many descendants. But his story got even more interesting with my favorite find.

I wrote about Jan’s life for the 2015 “52 Ancestors” challenge for Week 17 (“Prosper”). I assumed he had prospered since he was the son of a farmer who, at age 20, was already a linen merchant when he married the daughter of a farmer. He also was literate, which was not common at the time. He and his wife Konstancja had ten children together.

Years after I wrote that post, I used a rather unscientific form of research: a quick Google search. I put in just the surname and town name (Wilczyn) and found a reference to Jan on a list in a German newspaper. At first glance, I could tell it provided his physical description, so I was excited about that. I thought it might be a military draft listing. But then it dawned on me — he was from the Russian partition, so why would he be on a draft list for Prussia?

Upon closer inspection and translation, it is a list of people for whom the police have issued warrants! Both he and his uncle Kajetan (who is six years younger than Jan) were seen smuggling merchandise across the border. They were extradited for being “burdensome, troublesome.” My ancestor was a smuggler! Since he was sticking it to both Prussia and Russia who had divided up Poland, I felt proud of that fact.

Wilczyn is circled in red – the dotted line above & to the left represent the border between Prussia and Russia

In 1856, my ancestor Jan Drogowski, age 36, and his uncle Kajetan, age 30, both linen weavers from Wilczyn, are listed in a Prussian newspaper for outstanding warrants from 1855. Jan is described as 5’6” with blond hair, blue eyes, a blond beard, an oval face, a healthy complexion, and medium build. Kajetan is 3 inches shorter with dark hair and no beard.

Jan and his uncle were only six years apart due to a 50-year age difference between Jan’s father, Wojciech, and Wojciech’s half-brother. The pair not only smuggled together, but they must have been close friends since they married sisters.

I guess they never got caught, and now I know how Jan was able to support ten children! His granddaughter (my great-grandmother) lost the blond hair and blue eye connection and had brown hair and eyes.

It’s incredibly rare to obtain a physical description of an ancestor from the early or mid 19th century. It’s also rather rare to get a sense of story or personality from that far back. Usually all we have are names and dates. So I’m very happy with this accidental find. Wilczyn was really right on the very edge of the border between the two countries. I’m sure it was profitable to sell goods on the “other side.” At the time, he had about seven kids. My great grandmother wasn’t born until 1860, so I’m happy he wasn’t caught.

Newspaper SourceAmtsblatt der Königlichen Preußischen Regierung zu Bromberg. Published 1856. Original from the Bavarian State Library, digitized November 3, 2009. Pages 48-49. Accessed via Google Books.

Map Source: Józef Michał Bazewicz, Atlas geograficzny ilustrowany Królestwa Polskiego  (Litografia B. A. Bukaty, Warsaw, 1907); digital images, Mapster, http://igrek.amzp.pl/mapindex.php?cat=BAZAKP1907, Powiat słupecki guberni kaliskiej (Note: original has been cropped and edited to highlight Wilczyn.)


Life in America (Part 3)

This 3-part series of posts uses my cousin’s interview in 1985 with the Ellis Island Oral History Project. Part 1 tells the story of Ludwig and Mary Schultz, who came to America in 1912 and temporarily left their five children with Mary’s parents. In Part 2, their daughter, Louise, discusses  living with her grandparents and the eventual journey across the ocean to join their parents.  In today’s post, Part 3 will tell more about what happened after their arrival, how the family left behind fared in Poland after they left, and how everyone’s life eventually turned out.

The Family Left Behind

Before discussing the Schultz family’s life in America, one interesting question asked by the interviewer in 1985 was: “Do you have any idea of what would have happened to you if you stayed in Poland, if you hadn’t come here?”

Louise responded: “Pretty awful, because we came in 1913 and in 1914 the first World War broke out.” What happened to the grandparents, uncles, and aunts they left behind?

The children’s grandfather and Alfred’s father, Jan Miller, died just three weeks after they left Poland. He passed away on 25 August 1913, leaving Elżbieta a widow with three children still at home: Paweł, Ludwik, and Zofie.

When the war began, Żyrardów was on the front line. Hundreds of workers were drafted into the army. Because of the decrease in workers and the lack of raw materials, the factory began to reduce production. Food prices increased. As German troops made their way through Russian Poland, martial law was declared.

In early 1915, goods, raw materials, and machines were removed from the factory. The town was deserted due to forced digging of trenches, general displacement, and epidemics of infectious diseases. The worst came after the collapse of the front line of Płock-Bzura-Rawka. On the night of July 16, 1915, the retreating Russian army blew up the main factory buildings. By the end of 1915, the town was under German occupation. During that time, charity committees were abolished and strict food regulation was imposed.

In an article in The New York Times on October 26, 1915 (originally printed in The Chicago Tribune on September 24), reporter James O’Donnell Bennett writes about crossing “Russian Poland” which at that time in the war was in German or Austrian control. He writes:

Often in the last five days I have made the experiment of looking out over the wide landscape to see if I could find an unscathed tract of country. Always the experiment is a failure. Always a shattered church tower notches itself against the sky or a battered village lies crumpled at the edge of fields.

The reporter mentions several towns his party traveled through, including Żyrardów. He describes the whole country as “flyblown and sodden and a ‘nobody cares’ atmosphere envelops it…It is all waste and wreckage, wreckage and waste, a land of grime and ruin and sour smells, of silent fields and slatternly women, of weary sentries…”

Louise said her aunt eventually told her what it was like during the war and “how awful it was when the German army went through the town.” Louise realized that she and her siblings “just missed the horror of a war. They used to hide in cellars and had no food. My grandmother went from one farm to another to beg for a piece of bread.”

Ludwik Miller

I am not certain exactly what happened to Paweł Miller. According to Louise, her aunt Zofie said he was part of the Soviet roundups in Żyrardów that sent residents to Siberia. He did not return from the exile and presumably died there. Their sister, Karolina Miller Razer, may have suffered the same fate; Zofie said she died “in prison”.

Ludwik Miller, a young teenager, either joined or was conscripted into the Russian Army sometime during the Great War. He survived the experience and lived a long life. Ludwik did not immigrate to America. He married twice and had no children, and owned a footwear store in Żyrardów. He died there sometime after 1977.

Elizabeth Smetana Miller with great-granddaughter, Lucille (Louise’s daughter). Long Island, NY, 1925.

The oldest brother, Emil Miller, who was the first of the family to immigrate to America, actually returned to Poland in 1913 after the death of his father. He brought his wife and their children, two of whom were born in America, but after the war began there was no way to leave. Emil and one of his daughters died in Poland during the war. Emil’s wife, Zofja, and American-born son Edward could finally return to America in 1927 (Edward) and 1929 (Zofja). Another daughter stayed behind in Żyrardów.

Widowed Elżbieta and her youngest child, Zofie, would eventually immigrate to America themselves. They sailed aboard the Megantic from Liverpool and arrived in Portland, Maine on 10 December 1920.  Elżbieta, or Elizabeth as she was called in America, lived for a time with Alfred in New York, then with Mary in New Jersey.  She died on 08 November 1944.

The Schultz Family in America

Finally in America after a long, scary journey, Louise said, “My first impression was pretty awful! Because [in Poland] we lived surrounded by trees and orchards and little houses by themselves.” In America, they lived in downtown Manhattan “on 16th Street, that’s where we moved first. The place looked dirty to me, crowded dirty.”  But the family adjusted. Louise was particularly good at learning the new language and communicating on behalf of her parents who, according to her, did not make as much of an effort in assimilating.

The Schultz Family in America, circa 1923. Top row from left: Louise, Mary, Ludwig, Edward. Bottom row from left: Walter, Julia, Henry.

The Schultz family enjoyed their new lives in America. They lived in Brooklyn, then in New Jersey’s Somerset county. Eventually they moved to Metuchen in Middlesex county, New Jersey. Ludwig died in 1950 at the age of 77, and Mary in 1969 at the age of 85.

Henry, who never married, was the first of the Schultz children to die in 1954 at only 46 years old. Edward married and had three children; he died in 1984 at the age of 75. Walter, a decorated U.S. Army Air Corps veteran, died in 1986 at the age of 78. Louise, the source of this wonderful story, married twice and had two daughters; she died in 1990 at the age of 87. The youngest, Julia, married and moved to California where she had two children; she died in 2003 at the age of 93.

I should also note what happened to Alfred Miller, the brave teenaged uncle who brought his nieces and nephews to America! Alfred lived with the Schultz family for some time. In 1921, he got married. The couple had a daughter in 1922 and a son in 1926. Alfred died in 1969, two months after his sister Mary, in Piscataway, NJ.

The only Miller sibling that I did not provide an update on was Elizabeth, my great-grandmother. See her story and a photograph of her with her brother Alfred, sister Mary, and some of the Schultz children here.

Louise Schultz Nagy

When Louise was 82 years old, she was interviewed about the journey she took as a young girl for the Ellis Island Oral History Project. Thanks to that transcript, I was able to learn not only about traveling by ship to America, but also a little about her family, what life was like in Poland before and after she left, and her impressions about life in America. Thank you, cousin Louise, for sharing your journey with all of us!

The Case of Chicken Charley

Sometimes while researching a particular family I will become distracted by another find that is so interesting or humorous that I can’t help but follow that trail just to find out how the story ends. Such was the case with “Chicken Charley”.

I was researching a friend’s family. Much to his surprise, I discovered that his Rodda ancestors had been to California for the gold rush, and his 3rd great-grandfather died there. This was a surprise because he wasn’t aware of that fact, nor that his 2nd great-grandparents had immigrated to California for several years, but then returned to Cornwall, England to have a family and spend the rest of their lives there. It was that couple’s son who is my friend’s great-grandfather; he was born in Cornwall and immigrated to Pennsylvania as a young man.

While researching the Rodda family in California during the gold rush days, I discovered a wonderful resource for people with California ancestors – the California Digital Newspaper Collection. There I struck gold with a wildly humorous story about another Rodda – Charles “Chicken Charley” Rodda. How could a researcher not be distracted by this story?

08 November 1889 – Rodda’s Raid

A Chicken Thief on Whom the Habit Had a Firm Hold

The other day Charles Rodda was arrested by officer Carroll on suspicion of being a chicken thief. Sufficient evidence, however, was not obtainable to insure conviction, but a charge of vagrancy was placed against him. In the Police Court he succeeded in satisfying Judge Buckley that he was not guilty. Late Wednesday night, as officer Crump was patrolling his beat, he spied Rodda acting in a suspicious manner, and followed him into a yard on Thirteenth and J streets, where Rodda concealed twenty-one chickens. He was at once arrested, and, with the chickens, was taken to City Prison. On his way down he resisted the officer, and threw the chickens into a yard. The stolen property is at the police station awaiting an owner.[i]

Two days later, on 10 November 1889, this appears in the “Brief Notes” section of the newspaper:

The chickens captured by officer Crump from a thief the other night are still at the police station awaiting the owner.[ii]

Well, if the chickens were stolen, why didn’t anyone claim them? I’m starting to feel sorry for Charley. Then, the story gets more colorful with a delightfully descriptive (and potentially slanderous) article. I wish that the newspaper reporter was given a byline, because this reads as if it was written by Mark Twain:

Talked Himself to Jail

12 November 1889 – Talked Himself to Jail

An Aged Chicken-Thief’s Idea of Defense. “Call the case of Charles Roder, charged with petit larceny,” was Police Judge Buckley’s first utterance upon taking his seat yesterday.

“Here I be,” said a wild-eyed, shockheaded old man jumping up from the prisoner’s dock.

Clerk Larkin informed Roder that he was accused of stealing chickens, and asked him if he was guily or not guilty.

“Not guilty, by dang,” shouted Roder, smiting himself upon the breast. “I never stole no chickens, ner anything else. I never was —.”

“That’ll do now; sit down,” admonished Baliff Rowland, motioning to the witness.

“Sit yerself down, yer wall-eyed scalpeen,” roared the petty larcenist, stamping with his feet and swinging his arms wildly. “Yer a set of blackmailers, and I’ll —“

“Shut up and sit down!” This was from Judge Buckley, and Roder only needed to glance at his Honor before concluding that it would be a good idea to sit down. But his tongue never ceased. He denounced the police force and everybody in general, and kept up a constant jabber all through his trial.  Police officer Crump testified to having caught Roder in the vicinity of Fifteenth and K streets, early in the morning, with two sacks full of chickens, which he could not explain how he came into the posession of. Officers Carroll and Farrell both stated that Roder had admitted in their presence of having stolen the chickens. Roder denied all of this, of course, and never ceased in his denunciations.

“Where did you get those chickens, Roder?” asked City Attorney Church.

“I got ‘em honestly,” replied Roder, doggedly.

“But where?”

“Well, that’s my business, and not yours,” was the reply.

Judge Buckley tried to get some information on the subject from Roder, but fared no better than the City Attorney. As a result Roder was found guilty and will be sentenced to-day.[iii]

This “news” reporting conjures up quite an image of what the town and townspeople were like in 1889. But it must have been a slow news day for the story of the infamous chicken thief to get such press! As a side note, the spelling of Charles’ name is “Roder” while it was “Rodda” just days before – and it will show up in other editions of the paper in other forms.

Charley didn’t fare too well at sentencing after talking back to the judge (did they find people in contempt back then?).  On 13 November 1889 it was reported in the “Brief Notes” section of the newspaper that “Charles Rodda, convicted of stealing chickens, was sentenced to three months imprisonment in the County Jail yesterday by Police Judge Buckley.”[iv]

The newspapers are quiet about Charley until nine months later. On 20 August 1890, the following appears:

Who Lost the Chicks?

At an early hour yesterday morning E. R. Dole, Captain of the chain-gang, encountered that incorrigible poultry fiend, “Chicken Charley,” at Fifteenth and I streets, coming from the northeastern part of the city. Dole examined his load and found it to comprise nineteen fowls. Surmising that Charley had been on one of his periodical raids, he arrested him. The fowls are at the police station, and as policemen do not like chicken-meat, they are in the way. The owner is requested to call and identify them.[v]

I had to laugh picturing the chickens at the police station getting in the way. While this chicken thief named Charley isn’t identified by a surname, it became clear that it was the same man by looking at entries for the next few days (although they still keep varying the spelling of the surname).

22 August 1890: “Chicken Charley’s” Plunder

Yesterday Daniel Healy visited the police station and identified several of the fowls found in the posession of Charles Reddy as his. It looks as though the officers now have a case against the slippery fellow that will stick. He generally manages to escape conviction when up for robbing hen-roosts, in which business he is said to be an expert.[vi]

23 August 1890: Chickens Need Not Roost So High

Charles Rodda, known to fame as “Chicken Charley,” was held to answer before the Superior Court yesterday on a charge of petit larceny and a prior conviction. Rodda, as usual, denied having stolen any chickens, but his explanation of how he got them was so lame that Judge Buckley concluded it was a good case for a jury to look after.[vii]


The next mention (that I found, anyway) was not until 15 January 1891:

Rhodda Acquitted. The Veteran Chicken-Parloiner is at Liberty Again.

Charles Rhodda, a tottering old man of seventy years, who has a mania for stealing chickens, and who has in consequence become familiar with the interior of various prisons, was tried before Superior Judge Van Fleet and a jury, yesterday, on another charge of chicken larceny.

He was arrested something like six months ago, and not being in affluent circumstances, has had to remain in jail until his trial was called.

When the jurors became aware of this fact, they evidently felt that Rhodda had been punished sufficiently already, for they acquitted him readily.[viii]

At this point I’m almost rooting for poor Chicken Charley…

But, he’s back to his old ways soon thereafter. On 12 March 1891 it was reported that Charles Rodda, alias “Chicken Charley,” was charged with vagrancy. He pled not guilty and “demanded” a jury trial. The article said his case was set for Friday[ix], but I was unable to find any reference to it in the newspapers that week.

Interestingly, he may appear once more – but not in Sacramento. The Marin Journal reports on 21 July 1892:

“Chicken Charley” is the euphonious and approriate title of a man arrested in Grass Valley the other day. He confessed to stealing over 300 fowl in that town and vicinity within a comparatively short space of time.[x]

Grass Valley is about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento. Is this the same Chicken Charley? Maybe, because he’s talented enough a thief to steal much in a short amount of time. But maybe not, because Sacramento’s Chicken Charley always pled not guilty! Oddly enough, Grass Valley is where my friend’s Rodda relatives lived. But I haven’t yet found any connection to his family.

Charley was portrayed as such a colorful character in these newspaper articles that I would love to learn more about his life and ultimate fate. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dig up any information on a Charles Rodda in California that definitively connects to Chicken Charley. But, I’m glad to have discovered this character who distracted me from my more serious research pursuits. The writing in these newspapers was so entertaining that I began to search for other articles with the “characters” of officer Crump and Judge Buckley. I wish I had ancestors in Sacramento!  Thanks, Chicken Charley, I hope you either mended your ways or continued to evade conviction for the rest of your life.


[i] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 62, Number 68, 08 November 1889. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[ii] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 1, Number 26, 10 November 1889. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[iii] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 62, Number 71, 12 November 1889. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[iv] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 62, Number 72, 13 November 1889. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[v] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 79, Number 151, 20 August 1890. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[vi] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 79, Number 153, 22 August 1890. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[vii] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 79, Number 154, 23 August 1890. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[viii] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 80, Number 125, 15 January 1891. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[ix] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 81, Number 16, 12 March 1891. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >

[x] Marin Journal, Volume 32, Number 19, 21 July 1892. California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, < http://cdnc.ucr.edu >


L is for Libraries

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kyz/3962573662/ Date; 2009-09-26, Author: Stuart Caie, http://www.flickr.com/photos/77047514@N00 Stuart Caie from Edinburgh, Scotland

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet challenge…L is for Libraries! I have long been a lover of libraries. When I was a little girl, I loved to visit the library for a stack of new books to read (I still love it as a big girl, too). Since I went to high school and college in the stone age before Wikipedia, Google, and computers, I relied on the library to research my term papers (and I relied on typewriters to write them, but that’s another story…). I was downright giddy on a visit to The British Library, and the Library of Congress was also impressive. The worst thing about the big, beautiful libraries in other countries is that I can’t read all the books because I’m not fluent in foreign languages, but I can still admire the beauty of the collections. But aside from my love of books in general, where would my family history research be if it weren’t for libraries? Long ago before a multitude of information was available on the internet, the library was the sole source for any serious research.

My first visit to the Family History Library in April, 2010.

My family history research began shortly after I graduated college. My friend Marie and I were attending grad school and we started talking about family history. Specifically, we talked about our desire to know more about our respective family histories. We asked each other, “How do you get started with genealogy, anyway?” By that point in our academic lives we knew there was one place to find the answer – the library! We visited the college library together and left with a stack of genealogy how-to books (Angus Baxter’s In Search of Your European Roots is still in print!). Thus began my 20+ year journey among records, archives, microfilm, and – eventually – computers.

Libraries have always been my favorite source of books to read, but they can also be a great resource for books and other media related to genealogical research. Even though many records are now available online, the Free Library of Philadelphia remains the only place where I can see the city’s newspapers after 1920 and city directories from certain years.

Then, of course, there is the Ultimate Library for genealogical research, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is truly a mecca for genealogists no matter your family’s country of origin. If you’re a genealogist and you haven’t been there yet, put it on your “bucket list” – you won’t be disappointed!

[Written for the weekly Family History Through the Alphabet challenge]

Bavaria’s Most Wanted

While doing some random Google searches, I stumbled upon a fascinating resource on Google Books – the Bayer[ische] Zentral-Polizei-Blatt, or the Bavarian Central Police newspaper.  In short, Bavaria’s Most Wanted.

While my German language skills are lacking, it seems that this paper was distributed throughout Germany and perhaps neighboring countries – presumably to police departments.  Each edition lists many individuals that are wanted by the police for various crimes or for further questioning, or they are wanted by the court to serve their time. The paper is a multi-purposed resource: a “Wanted Dead or Alive” for criminals, a “Beware” list of shifty characters, and a “Who is This?” for unidentified persons.  Some listings are quite detailed and others are brief, but many include the person’s physical descriptions, identifying information such as birth dates, birth places, and occupations), and occasionally even photographs of the individuals.

The collection found on Google Books was digitized from originals at Harvard University’s Law Library. The collection includes papers published in Bavaria from 1866 to 1910.

Crime hasn’t changed much since then. The first edition found online from 1866 has a wide variety of crimes listed including rape, fraud, theft, forgery, violence, and vagrancy – and the alleged criminals are both men and women.  Maria Balthasar, a seamstress from Austria who also claims to be an actress, was wanted for misdemeanor theft. Johann Schäffer from Brixen, Tyrol, was wanted for questioning for an investigation about a brawl.  Johann Gieselbreth, a goldsmith from Linz, Tyrol, apparently disappeared with quite a bit of gold that did not belong to him. Katharina Pfeifer, a cook working for Baron Eichthal, was accused of “the crime of theft by misappropriation of silver spoons and forks, then the crime of fraud embezzlement.”

The paper does not include the type of information about the crimes that a newspaper account would, but the brief descriptions left me wanting to know more.  One particularly intriguing crime is “returning from exile” – which seems to indicate that perhaps exile from the country is a punishment for one crime and returning early is another crime on top of it.  Is that similar to breaking parole?

Naturally, the individuals I became most fascinated by were those that had their photographs printed in the paper.  I found quite a few great stories browsing through the 1903 edition.  Many photos were the typical “mug shots” – front and side view like you see today.

Bayer. Zentral-Polizei-Blatt, 1903, page 631. Unknown man wanted for grand larceny.

Under the headline “Unbekannter Verhafteter” – “Unknown Arrested”, this man is described as being approximately 60 years old, 1.75 meters tall, with gray hair, graying mustache, and gray eyes.  He committed grand larceny – either at the Neunkirchen train station or else that is where he was last seen. The courts believe he might be a carpenter named Sebastian Maier, who was born on 23 Mar 1853 to Christoph and Margarete Maier.

Other photos looked like upstanding, law-abiding individuals such as this attractive couple:

Bayer. Zentral-Polizei-Blatt, 1903, page 581. Mr. & Mrs. Ellenrieder from Munich.

This is Hugo Ellenrieder, a banker from Munich (born 1871), and his wife Elise (born 1876) nee Kahl.  The happy couple are traveling together – apparently away from Munich, where they are wanted for a fradulent admission of bankruptcy.

Some of the photos were a bit creepy, particularly the ones of dead guys in coffins:

Bayer. Zentral-Polizei-Blatt, 1903, page 13. Unidentified victim pulled from a river.

This poor guy is not a criminal, but an unidentified body found in the river near Bamberg.  Since the police were unable to identify the body, they printed a the photo as well as a detailed description including scars on his body and the clothes he was wearing.  His pocket contained a wallet with 7 pennies and one room key.

Just browsing through one year’s worth of the Bayerische Zentral-Polizei-Blatt and looking at only the stories with photos would provide me with several interesting blog posts.  There were sad stories like the deaf and dumb man wanted for vagrancy or the entire Gypsy family, parents and four children, wanted for begging.  These two particular crimes seem to show up frequently, and the culprits seemed to be foreigners, mentally ill, or deaf.

Occasionally the paper had photos of missing people.  One of the sadder ones was a photo of a cute young boy who had been missing from his home for months.

Some stories make me want to know more about what happened – both before the crime and after!  What ever happened to the studious-looking, bespeckled notary clerk who was wanted for embellzement?  Then there was the well-dressed, attractive, mustached Italian named Guido Wölfler.  He was a watchmaker’s assistant from Florence traveling in Germany also using the alias “Bonvini”.  It seems that Guido was wanted for embezzling a significant sum of money “to the detriment of Italian workers”.  No wonder he was in Germany…

As I wondered about “the rest of the story” for these individuals, I came upon a surprise – a name I knew. I don’t know the beginning of the story or the circumstances of the crime, but here was one tale I could tell further!  Stay tuned for my next post to learn more about the relative I found listed in Bavaria’s Most Wanted.


Bayer[isches] Central-Polizei-Blatt. Published 1866. Original from the Bavarian State Library, digitized November 22, 2010.  Accessed via Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=OQZFAAAAcAAJ

Bayer[isches] Central-Polizei-Blatt. Published 1903. Original from Harvard University, digitized August 5, 2008.  Accessed via Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=4cAqAAAAYAAJ.

It was a Dark and Stormy Night

Münchener politische Zeitung Issue 162, July 1813

Weather has always been big news, and the more severe the weather, the bigger the news. I was surprised to discover that the media obsession with weather-related events isn’t new – it also happened in my Bavarian ancestors’ hometown back in 1813. I recently found this newspaper account of a violent storm that occurred in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm and the fire that resulted from lightning strikes. It reads:

Bavaria. Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, 3 July 1813.  The big storm that occurred in our town on 30 June caused a great havoc, since the lightning that accompanied him seems to have uniquely discharged only here. The clouds stood so low that one flash of lightning followed another, and almost every flash fell down on earth but mainly fell on the high-pointed tower of the town’s church. A lightning flash hit a barn filled with straw in a side alley, which immediately ignited nine other hay and straw-filled barns that were mostly very old already and not well built.

Despite very nearly all the possible obstacles of nature united so that even the most determined men gave up all hope of rescuing even one single house throughout the city, every attempt was made with the greatest consternation to stop the fire line that was spreading with enormous speed during the continuing storm, which turned in all directions in rapid alternations, and with the rain pouring down where you could barely see what was in front of you.

Miraculously, after the toughest six-hour battle against the violent storm wind, the flames were pushed down on the floor and prevented from spreading further; the fire itself could only be put off today.  The courage in the apparent dangers,  the skill and presence of mind of Master Carpenter Nigg and Master Mason Pickl, which both have distinguished themselves so often in similar cases, could not be praised enough.

The fire would not have burned down so many buildings if these old buildings were not built so badly and if they had been equipped with proper fire walls. As lucky as the town was with this great misfortune, the damage that was suffered on the buildings and the carriages can be estimated at approximately 80,000 fl., not considering the fire insurance sum of 14,000 fl. for a total of 5 houses, 4 stables and 9 barns.  Several smaller building nearby were enflamed which included the buildings of three farmers, that of Franzbräuer, Kreitmaierbräuers and Zuhammers. However, no one was seriously injured during their work.

According to news received from the state court, this terrible thunderstorm was spread over many miles and caused great devastation in the forests and woods. The lightning hit very often, but nothing else was set on fire. Highly remarkable is the strange fact that two years ago on 01 July, a similar thunderstorm along with a tornado-like storm caused great devastation when a lightning strike hit the church tower of Pfaffenhofen, set a farm in the area on fire, and caused a damage of at least 50,000 fl. due to a severe rainstorm and hail.

On 30 June between 9 and 10 in the evening, a severe thunderstorm and hailstorm developed in the area of Regensburg, but it caused no significant harm in the area near the city. The storm that accompanied the thunder storm, however, destroyed century-old lime trees along the surrounding walk ways and tore down many fruit trees in the gardens within the neighborhood.  Two hours later, a torrential thunderstorm erupted in the area of Karlovy Vary (Bohemia).

The reason I was drawn to this story? Master Carpenter Nigg, one of the two named men credited with fighting the fire, is my 4th great-grandfather. Since I have difficulty finding my 20th century ancestors in newspapers, imagine my surprise when I found an ancestor in the press who lived from 1767 to 1844! I’m happy to know that he was well-regarded in the town for his courage, skill, and “presence of mind” and that it did not appear to be the first time he distinguished himself in that manner.  The storm of 30 June 1813 and the resultant fire must have been terribly frightening for his family.  At the time, Karl Nigg and his wife Maria Höck had eight young children. While I am not entirely sure if all eight children were still living since infant mortality was high at the time, at least one child was alive – my 3rd great-grandmother, Magdalena, who was six years old at the time of the storm.

SourceMünchener politische Zeitung: mit allerhöchstem Privilegium. Page 757, Issue 162, July 1813.  Publisher: Wolf, 1813. Original from the Bavarian State Library, digitized Sep 17, 2010.  Accessed via Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=DidEAAAAcAAJ

Many thanks to my friend Marion for the translation.  I broke up some of the paragraphs and sentences for easier reading. And I can’t believe I was able to find a perfect post to actually use “It was a dark and stormy night” for the title!

Vote for Your Favorite Genealogy Blogs!

Once again, Family Tree Magazine has announced the nominees for the “40 Best Genealogy Blogs” for 2011.  And once again, I’m honored to be in the running – thanks for anyone who nominated What’s Past is Prologue.  There are many great genealogy blogs on the list!  The voting polls close at midnight on December 20th, so head on over to the voting page where you can choose 5 nominees in the following categories: Everything, Cemeteries, Technology, Heritage Groups, Research Advice/How-to, Local/Regional Research, New Blogs, and My Family History.  Results will be announced in the magazine’s July 2011 issue.

Psst…What’s Past is Prologue is in the “My Family History” category!  If you’re a fan, please cast a vote!

Family Tree Magazine’s Top 40 Blogs – Thanks for Voting for Me!

What’s Past is Prologue has been named one of Family Tree Magazine’s 40 Best Genealogy Blogs!  Many thanks to all of my readers and friends who voted for me.  It is truly an honor to be recognized.  I am also honored to be in the company of the other 39 Best – for they truly are the very best that genea-blogging has to offer.  Visit Family Tree Magazine’s site and read the names and descriptions of all of the Fab Forty!  Thanks also to Family Tree Magazine’s managing editor, Diane Haddad, and Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective, who wrote the article about the Top 40 and said such nice things about all of us.

A Blog-Caroling We Will Go

Today it’s time for the esteemed (if not old) tradition of Christmas blog caroling!  This great tradition was begun by footnoteMaven and continues this year as geneabloggers everywhere “sing” their favorite carols.  First up – in the non-religious category – one of my favorite Christmas songs when I was growing up: We Need a Little Christmas!  I think I liked it because it is perky enough to get you in the mood for the holidays and uncommon enough so that you didn’t hear it every time you turned on the radio.  May I present We Need a Little Christmas (ahem) ~

Haul out the holly ~ Put up the tree before my spirit falls again

Fill up the stocking ~ I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.

For we need a little Christmas, Right this very minute

Candles in the window, Carols at the spinet

Yes, we need a little Christmas, Right this very minute

It hasn’t snowed a single flurry ~ But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry!

So climb down the chimney ~ Turn on the brightest string of light I’ve ever seen

Slice up the fruitcake ~ It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough.

For I’ve grown a little leaner, Grown a little colder

Grown a little sadder, Grown a little older

And I need a little angel, Sitting on my shoulder

Need a little Christmas now!

For we need a little music, Need a little laughter

Need a little singing, Ringing through the rafter

And we need a little snappy “Happy ever after”

Need a little Christmas now!

For religious songs, it’s hard to top my absolute favorite – last year’s Blog Caroling Choice, O Holy Night.  If I had to choose another carol, I would pick another song that you don’t hear as often as some others: Mary’s Boy Child

Long time ago in Bethlehem,
So the Holy Bible say,
Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ,
Was born on Christmas day.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
Them see a bright new shining star,
Them hear a choir sing,
The music seemed to come from afar.

`Now Joseph and his wife Mary,
Come to Bethlehem that night,
Them find no place to born her child,
Not a single room was in sight.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

By and by they find a little nook
In a stable all forlorn,
And in a manger cold and dark,
Mary’s little boy was born.

Hark, now hear the angels sing,
A new king born today,
And man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

Trumpets sound and angels sing,
Listen to what they say,
That man will live forever more,
Because of Christmas Day.

O Night Divine

Today many genea-bloggers will go blog-caroling together by blogging about our favorite Christmas carol.  The flannel-jammied yet stylish footnoteMaven will post a round-up of all of our favorite carols.  And the best part?  You don’t have to hear us actually sing.

If I had been asked about my favorite Christmas song as I was growing up, I’m not sure what my answer what have been.  Today, I wouldn’t miss a beat before I answered – “O Holy Night”.  I like to listen to Christmas songs as I decorate or wrap presents.  Several years ago, “O Holy Night” was playing in the background (either the Mariah Carey or Celine Dion version).  I had heard the song countless times over the years, but, for the very first time, one line jumped out at me and I truly listened to it for the first time in my life.  The line that struck me was: Long lay the world in sin and error, pining, ’til He appeared and the soul felt its worth. My soul (and my eyes) flooded as I understood the meaning of those words like never before, and the beautiful, wondrous mystery of the Incarnation, the true meaning of Christmas, became clear to me.  So join with me in singing my favorite Christmas song:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels’ voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Behold your King.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

This song also has an interesting history behind it.  The words were written by Placide Cappeau, a French wine merchant who wrote poetry in his spare time.  In 1847, his parish priest asked him to write a Christmas poem, and Cappeau obliged by imagining the night Christ was born.  The poem, Cantique de Noel, was written in a coach as he traveled to Paris.  When Cappeau arrived, he sought out his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to compose music to accompany it. The result? A Christmas classic!  But not immediately – the song fell out of favor as Cappeau drew away from the Church and towards the socialist movement.  An American abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight, was struck by the last verse of the song.  He translated the song into English.  The hymn was published during the Civil War and quickly became a favorite.  It’s certainly my favorite!

For more information on the song, its lyrics, and its history, visit the following sites:

8 Things About Me*

*that you probably don’t need to know…

It’s meme time again, and this one’s an all about me meme.  I’ve been tagged by Thomas once again!  The Rules:

1. Each player starts with eight random fact/habits about themselves.

2. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.

3. A the end of your blog post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their name.

4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged and to read your blog.

Here are 8 things you probably have no reason to know about me, but I hope you’re amused, fascinated, and/or generally not horrified by the “real” me:

  • 1. I hate tomatoes. I love pizza, and I eat tomato sauce on pasta.  Just no tomatoes, please.  Don’t even get me started on the horrors of ketchup.
  • 2. I once spent a lovely afternoon riding around with the German Army (Bundeswehr) on a tank, somewhere in the middle of a German wilderness that I did not know existed.  I have photos to prove it!
  • 3. My most unusual destination for a work/business trip has been the DMZ in Korea.
  • 4. I once had tea with Betsy Blair in her home (surely you remember the movie Marty).  The moment was captured on my camera, and the photographer was Stephen Frears.  He knows how to direct films really well, but he was mystified by how to operate my camera.
  • 5. I hate loud noise.
  • 6. Like Jasia, I’ve taken tap lessons.
  • 7. I absolutely adore palm trees.
  • 8. I successfully completed the United States Marine Corps obstacle course in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.  But I didn’t quite complete it the way the recruits are required to do.  It wasn’t done in the allotted time, and I had the help of others literally pushing and pulling me through it.  But, we did it, and it was truly a team effort.  And I couldn’t lift my arms for a week.

As for tagging…when we do this as a “tag four” game, it’s nearly impossible to find four bloggers that haven’t already been tagged.  I officially give up with finding eight un-tagged individuals.  If you haven’t played yet, please do!

While I’m playing tag, I’ll double-post and answer Randy’s game from Saturday night.  The rules:
* Grab the book nearest you. Right now.
* Turn to page 56.
* Find the fifth sentence.
* Post that sentence along with these instructions in a note to your blog (or a comment to this blog).

My answer:

And yet some diligent little cell of the brain, resolutely doing guard duty while the others were resting, must have been listening.

Source: Finney, Jack.  “The Woodrow Wilson Dime.” 3 by Finney. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. 56.

Science Fiction for Genealogists

One of the great loves of my life has been science fiction.  After just one sentence, I can guarantee that about a quarter to a third of you readers are nodding your head in agreement, or saying, “I knew I liked her for a reason!”  But the rest of you probably groaned – that is, assuming you didn’t skip the post totally based on the title alone.  To all of you groaners – this post’s for you!

Many people dislike science fiction (sf) because their image of it consists of spaceships, aliens, and other planets.  But sf is much more than just those topics, and its range is so broad that there is truly something for everyone – even genealogists.  One category of science fiction that is sure to please genealogists is time travel.  Fantastic?  Unrealistic?  Yes, that’s why it’s called fiction.  But, boy, is it fun! Don’t we travel back in time every time we search through old documents to find our ancestors?  Or look at old photographs trying to imagine what life was really like back then?  When I read some sf authors, especially Jack Finney, I feel as though I am walking through the doors of the Virtual Dime Museum or entering the past by stepping into a Shades of the Departed photograph.  Here are my picks for the best science fiction stories for genealogists.

The Love Letter ~ by Jack Finney

This is my favorite short story by Jack Finney, whose most famous work is the novel Time and Again about travel to 19th Century New York.  Finney’s love and respect for the past permeates this story as well, which was written in 1959 and takes place in 1962.  A young man named Jake buys an antique desk, one that is full of pigeonholes and little drawers.  One night he examines his find more closely and finds a hidden compartment behind one of the drawers.  There he finds some old writing paper, envelopes, and a bottle of ink.  But there is also a letter – a love letter.

The letter is dated 1882 and a young woman, Helen, laments her impending marriage by writing with longing to her “Dearest”, who exists only in her mind.  “I speak with you in my mind and heart: would you existed outside of them!”

Touched by this woman’s words from so long ago, Jake is moved to write in response.

The night is a strange time when you’re alone in it, the rest of the world asleep.  If I’d found that letter in the daytime I’d have smiled and shown it to a few friends, then forgotten it.  But alone here now, window partly open, a cool late-at-night freshness stirring the quiet air, it was impossible to think of the girl who had written this letter as a very old lady or maybe long since dead.  As I read her words, she seemed real and alive to me, sitting, or so I pictured her, pen in hand…  And my heart went out to her as I stared down at her secret hopeless appeal against the world and time she lived in.

Jake writes a short note telling Helen that she’s a girl he could like.  “Do the best you can,” he writes, “in the time and place you are.”  Feeling satisfied with his late-night amusement, he suddenly feels moved to mail the letter.  He finds a vintage stamp from his childhood collection, and walks to an old post office that had been there since Helen’s time – he even stops at the old house that Helen wrote from, though in the present is suffers from neglect and age.  He mails the letter, “feeling foolish but at the same time secretly pleased.”

About a week later, Jake is working at his desk late at night when he thinks of Helen.  He realizes that there are two other desk drawers – do they have hidden compartments as well?  Finney writes that “the night is a strange time” and even though the city of New York had changed considerably over the decades, there are still “little islands – isolated remnants of the way things once were” and “the boundary between here and then wavers.”  Remarkably, Jake finds another letter in the second drawer – addressed to him!  By using the stationary, ink, stamps, and post office of Helen’s time, he feels that it crossed that boundary between “here and then”.  Helen is desparate to know who he is, and how he knew of her thoughts.

Jake responds again in the same way, but this time he tells her that he is writing from 1962.  He tells her he has fallen in love with her, but he can’t explain what was happening.  He realizes there is one drawer left that he has not opened, and because he already discovered the contents of the first two, that can not be changed.  Since he hasn’t opened the third drawer, there is one more chance for Helen to speak to him.

Mailing the letter in the same way, he nervously waits a week.  Opening the final hidden compartment, he finds no letter – but a photograph of Helen.  Across the bottom, she writes “I will never forget.”

A long time later, Jake realizes there was one final way for Helen to communicate with him over time.  Frankly, any genealogist would have figured this out sooner, but Jake apparently wasn’t into genealogy back in 1962!  I won’t spoil the ending and Helen’s final message to Jake, but it is a sweet ending to a bittersweet and magical love story.

What does “The Love Letter” have to do with genealogy?  At the end, Jake uses records we use daily to receive his final message.  But I chose this story because of the interaction between the past and the present.  As genealogists, we “travel” to the past, at least in our minds, when we do our research.  I’m sure many of us would like the persons we research to reach out from the past to communicate with us!  “The Love Letter” may not seem very science fiction-like, but if you have ever wondered about the past after seeing a document, photograph, or antique, you will enjoy this trip.

Second Chance ~ by Jack Finney

Most of Finney’s short stories involve some blurring of the lines between the past and the present, which is the attraction for genealogists.  Another good example of this is his story “Second Chance”.  A young man in 1956 has a penchant for “classic” cars, and he spends most of his time restoring a 1923 Jordan Playboy that was nearly demolished in an accident in which its occupants were killed.  He takes great care to restore the car by using original materials instead of replacing old parts with newer, modern ones.  He finally finishes and takes the car out for a drive.  He takes an old road into town, one that had been there before the highway was built, and he amuses himself by singing old songs from the 1920s and enjoying the ride.  He begins to think he is in the 1920s…

But my car and I–the way I felt about it, anyway–were almost rejected that night, by the time I live in.  And so there in my Jordan, just as it was the year it was new, with nothing about me from another time, the old ’23 tags on my car, moving along a highway whose very oil spots belonged to that year–well, I think that for a few moments, all the chains hanging slack, we were free on the surface of Time.  And that moving along that old highway through the summer evening, we simply drifted — into the time my Jordan belonged in.

When he reaches town he realizes that he had somehow driven back in time, and he parks the car to marvel at the old sights.  But his car is stolen, and he nearly gets killed as the thief races by him.  After walking around town that night, he finds himself back in his own time in the morning – without his cherished car.

Time passes, and the young man falls in love.  It just so happens that the girl’s father enjoys old cars, too.  In fact, he has a 1923 Jordan Playboy!  The narrator realizes it is the car he restored once before, and after hearing the father’s tale he realizes that his trip back in time saved that man’s life.  By changing the past without even realizing it, he made it possible to meet the woman he now loved.

“Second Chance” is an easy-going story with a nice twist at the end.  While it doesn’t seem like “science fiction”, any story with some sort of time travel is automatically part of the genre.  Finney’s sort of time travel rarely involves machines, but instead is brought about by desire and love for the past.  If the lines between the past and the present were truly flexible, I’m sure many a genealogist would jump at the chance to take a peak!

Unto the Fourth Generation ~ Isaac Asimov

One of the undisputed kings of the science fiction genre is Isaac Asimov.  Indeed, while he is most known for science fiction literature, Asimov should be remembered as one of the most prolific writers of all time, and the most eclectic.  He wrote every day, and the end result was hundreds of books ranging from sf to humor and mysteries to non-fiction works on science, religion, and history.  His science fiction covered all sub-genres like alien worlds and robots, with an occasional journey into time travel.  If traditional sf subjects don’t turn you off, by all means read the story that I consider to be Asimov’s best – “Nightfall”.  But, for my genealogist-audience, I wish to highlight a more unusual work in the Asimov canon – “Unto the Fourth Generation”.

Sam Marten is making his way across New York City for an important work appointment.  But with every move he makes, he encounters some variation of the same surname.  It appears in signs, trucks, businesses, and the address directory of the building he enters. Lewkowitz, Lafkowitz, Lefkowicz.  They don’t sound right, he thinks, but he doesn’t know why.  All of these coincidental encounters with the strange name makes him restless; his work meeting does not go well. He now feels haunted by these sightings of the variations of this unknown name. Sam walks, running at times, seemingly guided by unknown hands, to a park.

And there on a bench was an old man; the only man in the desolate park.  He wore a dark felt cap, with a visor shading his eyes.  From underneath it, tufts of gray hair protruded.  His grizzled beard reached the uppermost button of his rough jacket.  His old trousers were patched, and a strip of burlap was wrapped about each worn and shapeless shoe.

Marten stopped.  It was difficult to breathe.  He could only say one word and he used it to ask his question: “Levkovich?”

The old man rises and greets Sam Marten by name.  He has been looking for him.  Marten intuitively knows this old man is named Phinehas Levkovich, and he asks why they are there.  The man answers, “because I prayed.”  The old man’s daughter left for America with her family.  He grew old, and after his sons died he longed to see if his daughter had any sons “in whom [his] soul might yet live and not die.”  The man is given two hours to find the first son born of his daughter’s line in America.  “My daughter’s daughter’s daughter’s son, have I found you, then, amidst the splendor of the city?”

Sam asks his great-great grandfather for his blessing, one to be passed on to his future sons.  The old man says he can go in peace now that he has laid eyes on him, and he disappears.  Suddenly, “there was an instant of renewing motion” and Sam finds himself back where the story begins earlier in the day.  “Somehow he knew that all would be well with him.  Somehow, as never before, he knew…”

One of the more interesting aspects of this story is how it came about.  Asimov’s editor remarked that he had been seeing various signs with the name, and he asked if Isaac could write a story about it.  When it was published in April 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the main character was not affected by the “meeting” with his ancestor.  Afterwards, a fan was talking to Asimov when his editor asked her what she thought of the story.  Her opinion was that the meeting should have affected Sam in some way.  When the story was re-published in one of Asimov’s story collections, the ending had changed.  And the fan? Years later she became Asimov’s wife, Janet!

“Unto the Fourth Generation” is a rather unusual story, but one that a genealogist might like.  Did the meeting really take place since the great-great grandfather had died years before?  Why did Sam go back in time a few hours to the beginning of his day?  Does it matter?  What matters is his sudden feeling of confidence and well-being.  Have you ever suddenly felt a calming come over you?  Or feel loved?  Perhaps we’re being blessed by our great-great grandfather.  The story works because of the emotion showed by both the old man and his descendant, and the meaningfulness of their meeting.

Who’s Your Grandaddy? ~ The Grandfather Paradox

Time travel stories can get a little confusing, and there is actually an issue known in the genre of science fiction as the “Grandfather Paradox”.  If a time traveler goes back in time and accidentally kills his own grandfather (or any other ancestor) before children are born, wouldn’t the time traveler cease to exist because he never would have been born?  There are two short stories by one of the masters of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein, that seem to get around this paradox.  I’m reluctant to write about them, however.  Even though I love Heinlein’s work, these two stories give me a headache!

The first is called “All You Zombies” and was written in 1959. A “temporal agent” goes back in time to recruit a young writer.  The agent plays the role of a bartender, and the writer tells his life story.  The agent/bartender convinces the writer that if he could go into the past, he could change many of the troubled events he described. He goes back to the time of his birth, but…things get a little complicated.  It seems as though his past was more troubled than he originally thought.  Can you be your own ancestor?  Let’s just say that the plot is complicated and includes a sex change operation.  It also has a fair amount of humor, given the hilarity of the situation the main character finds himself (herself?) in.  Many years before this story, Heinlein used a similar theme in “By His Bootstraps,” published in 1941. Let the lesson be “beware of time travelers” because it could be your future self tricking you!

A story called “Dear Charles” by Murray Leinster, written in 1953, also touches on the theme, but without the confusing paradox.  In the 34th Century, Charles receives a letter that was written in the 20th Century by his own 52nd great-grandfather!  Charles’ ancestor explains that a series of unfortuanate events are about to unfold, but he urges him not to try to stop them.  The ancestor is about to appear, through a time machine from the past, and he will take Charles’ fiance Ginny back with him.  As it turns out, Ginny is actually Charles’ 52nd great-grandmother!

And then I smashed Professor Hadley’s time-transporter. I stamped on it, while Joe gazed stupidly at Ginny. I had reason to smash the device. Naturally! If anybody else traveled in time, they might not be as smart as I am, or their descendants might not be as dumb as you, Charles. Something might get messed up. Somebody might marry the wrong person somewhere in the next fourteen centuries, and Ginny might not get born. I wouldn’t risk that!

This story is more light-hearted, and it is told entirely in the form of the letter that the ancestor sends to Charles.  I think we’d all like to receive a personal letter from an ancestor, but I doubt anyone would be happy to find out that their betrothed is actually their own ancestor!

That’s a quick peek into the world of science fiction from a genealogist’s perspective!  My goal was to “convert” someone who didn’t think they liked science fiction at all into someone who is willing to take a closer look, perhaps at one of the authors I mentioned.  Please let me know if I accomplished my goal!  And for my fellow science fiction fans out there – and I know there are several genea-bloggers who belong to that group – please add some of your own ideas in the comments!  What sf stories do you think a genealogist would love?


  • Asimov, Isaac.  “Unto the Fourth Generation.”  The Complete Stories, Volume I. New York: Doubleday, 1990.  575-581.
  • Finney, Jack. “Second Chance.” About Time: 12 Short Stories.  New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1998. 183-202.
  • Finney, Jack.  “The Love Letter.”  Tales in Time.  Edited by Peter Crowther.  Clarkston, GA: White Wolf Publishing, 1997. 41-55.
  • Heinlein, Robert A.  “–All You Zombies–.” Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, March, 1959. Available online at <http://ieng9.ucsd.edu/~mfedder/zombies.html&gt;
  • Leinster, Murray.  “Dear Charles.” A Logic Named Joe.  Baen Publishing, June 2005.  Available online at <http://www.webscription.net/10.1125/Baen/0743499107/0743499107___3.htm&gt;

Fact or Fiction? Only Research Will Tell!

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.  ~ John F. Kennedy

In the current issue (December 2008) of Discovering Family History magazine, I have an article entitled “Fact or Fiction?  Top Genealogical Myths.”  I define a “genealogical myth” as a dramatic family history story that is often untrue, and if we fall into the trap of believing in it, it may bring our research to a halt. I’m not going to reprint the article here as I’m sure my editors would like you all to purchase a copy of the magazine while it’s on the newstands, but I would like to briefly list the myths included.

  • The “Name was Changed at Ellis Island” Myth – in which the immigrant’s “ethnic name is changed upon arrival in America!
  • The “Our Family Hid from the Census” Myth – which is why they’re nowhere to be found in the records!
  • The “Stowaway” Myth – in which the brave immigrant traveled to America “illegally” and unnoticed by authorities!
  • The “Name’s Not Spelled That Way” Myth – in which the family surname absolutely, positively was never spelled any other way!
  • The “If They’re Not in the SSDI, They Don’t Have a Social Security Number” Myth  – in which we take the various SSDI online databases as gospel!
  • The “Famous Ancestor” Myth – in which you are descended from royalty, outlaws, or some other famous figure because Grandpa said so!
  • The “There Were No Records Back Then” Myth – in which you have no hope of finding any ancestors because either all the records were destroyed or they just didn’t keep any!

That’s a sneak peak, but there are several other good genealogical myths like the story of the three brothers that came to America and settled in different areas, or the story about the family inheritance that’s waiting to be found.  In my own personal genealogical quest I had to deal with three of the myths listed above.  The stories were persistent, but, to quote JFK, unrealistic.  A good, determined  researcher will find the truth.  And trust me, there really were some stowaways!  But not all of us are lucky enough to have one in our family tree.  If you do have one, good research will help you prove it!

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.]

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.]

Distracted By Books

The illustrious footnoteMaven has presented a distraction-challenge!  As you can tell by my recent lack of posts, I need no help whatsoever in getting distracted, especially if the distraction involves books.  This challenge was to write your life story from the spines of the books in your collection.  For many this would be hard, but I own a lot of books!  What was hard was choosing which titles to use.  Although this is only semi-related to genealogy (it is my autobiography, so to speak), I have little else prepared to post today and therefore offer my distraction, er, make that my life story in books…

My Past

My Past

My Present

My Present

My Future

My Future

Here’s a counter-challenge…are you able to present a photo of your life story by using the titles of music CDs or albums in your collection?

10 Essential Books in My Genealogical Library

The 56th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy asks us to tell about the ten books we can’t do without.  I thought this would be hard at first for two reasons.  First, when I first decided to learn how to research my roots in 1989, my friend Marie and I had no idea how to go about it.  So, we headed straight for the library and came out with an armful of books.  Those basic “how to” books taught us how to get started, and neither of us have stopped since.  But, because I got many of these books from the library, I wasn’t sure I had many genealogy-related books in my personal library.  Second, much of the specific information I need to look up today related to genealogy I find online – something that you couldn’t do in 1989.  Despite these two reasons, I went to my library shelves and was happy to find that I had at least ten books that are worthy of praise.  Hopefully you’ll find at least one interesting enough to add it to your own library.  My ten essential books are:

1.  The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny (Ancestry Publishing, Salt Lake City, UT, 1984).  If you’re looking for the most up-to-date genealogical resource book, this won’t be it.  But for a beginner in 1989, this 700+ page book taught me almost everything I needed to know on all aspects of genealogy from “major record sources” to resources unique to different ethnic groups.  Appendices provided the kind of information we all google daily, like addresses on societies, archives, and libraries in every state.  Apparently there is now a Third Edition with different editors (but the same title) that was published in 1996.  If you’re a beginner, I highly recommend it.  You will consult it many times over and it’s well worth the hefty cost.

2.  Polish Roots by Rosemary A. Chorzempa (Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., Baltimore, MD, 1993).  Again, this was one of the first books I acquired when I began my genealogical research.  It contains all of the basics from where to start in the United States to what’s available in Poland.  There are also chapters on Polish Genealogical Societies, geographic areas of Poland, surnames, and the Polish language.  According to Amazon.com, this book was updated in 2000.

3.  If I Can, You Can Decipher Germanic Records by Edna M. Bentz (Self-published, San Diego, CA, 1982).  Simply put, I doubt that I could have ever found a name in handwritten German church records without first devouring this book.  What makes it unique is that it has actual samples of what the handwriting styles look like instead of merely a list of German to English translations of common words found in the records.  When a German “B” resembles a “L” and an “e” looks like our “r”, do you really think I could have traced my Bergmeister ancestors without this book?

4.  Germanic Genealogy, Second Edition by Edward R. Brandt, Ph.D., Mary Bellingham, Kent Cutkomp, Kermit Frye, Patricia A. Lowe (Germanic Genealogical Society, St. Paul, MN, 1997).  This is another compendium of where to find basic info, only specific to Germanic peoples.  It has everything from how to find the immigrant’s place of origin to place names and more.  There are now newer books out there, but this one is still in print.

5. Following the Paper Trail: A Multilingual Translation Guide by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman (Avotaynu, Inc. Teaneck, NJ, 1994).  This bookoffers help with German, Swedish, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian genealogical records.  Talk about being worth it – you won’t get that much help for the money anywhere else!

6. In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian DocumentsVolume I: Polish by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman (Language & Lineage Press, New Britain, CT, 2000).  Jonathan and Fred do it again, only bigger and better. If you are researching documents in these languages, this guide is indispensable with nearly 400 pages of  record samples, translations, and explanations about the Polish language and handwriting.  Only native Poles can decipher Polish records without the help that’s found in this book!

7.  Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, Second Edition by William F. Hoffman (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1997).  I’ve extolled “Fred” Hoffman recently in my 4-part interview.  If you have Polish ancestry and you want to know anything about your surnames, you need this book for the clues about what the names mean and where they may have originated.

8. First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins and Meanings by William F. Hoffman and George W. Helon (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1998).  “Polish” first names come from many different languages; this book sorts it all out and carefully explains their origins and meanings.

9.  Häuserchronik der Stadt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm by Heinrich Streidl (W. Ludwig Verlag, Pfaffenhofen, 1982).  One of my earlier posts describes a häuserchronik as a city directory listed by street address that happens to include personal information such as occupations, spouses, and deed transactions.  This book was given to me on my first visit to my great-grandparents’ hometown, and I quickly went back a few generations with the information it contained.  If you have German ancestry, read my post noted above to see where to find out if your town has one of these books available.

10.  Stadt Pfaffenhofen a.d. Ilm by Heinrich Streidl (W. Ludwig Verlag, Pfaffenhofen, 1979).  This is a 400+ page history book about my great-grandparents’ town.  It’s in German, which I can’t read at all.  But, it doesn’t stop me from trying!

Those are my top ten “essential” genealogy books in addition to a very detailed atlas of Poland and several dictionaries (English, Latin, German, and Polish).  As I said, I find a lot of information these days online.  But, I’ll always need books.  On my “to buy” list are Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills and In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents, Volume III: Latin by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman which may be published later this year (read Fred Hoffman’s answer on what we can expect to see here).  I’m also looking for more local history books on Northeast Philadelphia where I spent most of my life.

[Written for the 56th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: 10 Essential Books in My Genealogy Library.]

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:

What Secrets are in Your Family’s Closet?

Author Diana Raab made some interesting discoveries about her family history.  The first is a sad discovery, one that no one wants to find – her grandmother’s suicide.  The other discovery is one that every genealogist longs for – her grandmother’s journal.  In Regina’s Closet, she tells her grandmother’s life story in a mix of memoir, history, family documents, and – naturally – her grandmother’s own writing.

Regina, the grandmother, wrote a journal in her later years that recounted her harrowing youth and young adulthood.  Born in Galicia in 1903, her youth in Poland was spent among the difficult years of World War I and cholera epidemics.  Orphaned at a young age, Regina’s descriptions of loneliness and poverty are heartbreaking.  She also writes about her immigrations to Vienna, Paris, and eventually the United States prior to World War II.  But despite the hardships Regina endured and the glimpses of depression that would later cause her to take her life, the book also shows the strength of her spirit – a strength her grandaughter Diana inherited.  The focus of the short book is not necessarily her grandmother’s suicide, but the life she lived.  It’s about family and relationships, and it offers an interesting glimpse into history and how it affected people’s lives.

I was attracted to the book for several reasons.  Any book that involves a “secret journal” peaks my interest!  Who wouldn’t want to find a relative’s secret journal, something in their own had that would give us more than just simple dates and facts that we dig up in historical records.  A journal is personal, revealing – it offers insight into who the person was and how they felt.  I have no such documents in my family history, so I’m left to wonder about what my ancestors were really like.  But the way Raab weaves her own story into her grandmother’s poses an interesting question to genealogists – what are you doing to tell your own story for future generations?

Another reason I read this book was the fact that her grandmother committed suicide.  I also have a suicide in my family history, my great-grandfather John Piontkowski.  He hung himself from a rope in the basement of his house when he was 71 years old.  It happened five years after the death of his wife.  My father was a boy, and his father never told him much about it in later years.  In an attempt to uncover some insight into his death, I even located the inquest case file from the Medical Examiner’s Office.  It revealed very little: he was likely dead for three days before being found, the police found “nothing suspicious” about his death, and his son signed an affadavit saying “There did not seem to be anything wrong with him, he was not under any doctor’s care.”  Yet another family mystery regarding the only great-grandfather of which I have no photograph, no sense of who he was or how his personal history affected him.

Stories like Regina’s Closet remind us that all of us have a story to be told, and it inspires us to try to discover our ancestors’ stories.  Diana Raab has a wonderful quote in the book from Francois Mauriac in The Desert of Love:

We are, all of us, molded and remolded by those who have loved us, and though that love may pass, we remain nonetheless their work — a work that very likely they do not recognize and which is never exactly what they intended.