“This happened in the town of Mszczonów”

This edition of the Carnival of Central & Eastern European Genealogy highlights “The Village of my Ancestor”.  Several of my ancestors came from very small villages in Poland.  In fact, my great-grandmother Rozalia Kizeweter Piątkowski was born in Mała Wieś, which translates into English as “small village.”  Eighteen villages in Poland bear this name, so  hers is also called Mała Wieś Promna because it is located in Promna borough. The village was so small, that according to Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego there were only 7 houses and 71 inhabitants in 1827 (that’s a lot of people per house!).

But, there’s not much to write about such a tiny village, so instead I’d like to introduce you to another village of another ancestor, Antonina Rozalia Pluta Pater, who was born on 11 June 1863 in Mszczonów.  The title of this post was my first introduction to the name of the town, which came from the birth record of Antonina.  The record begins, as all vital records did at that time, with the words “This happened in the town of  Mszczonów…”

Mszczonów is located nearly in the center of Poland in  Żyrardów County and the Masovian Voivodeship.  As of 2004, the town had 6,310 inhabitants and could be described as a small city rather than a village.  Mszczonów has a very old history.  It was first mentioned in a document written in 1245 by Duke Konrad I, but it is believed that a settlement existed in the area from the mid-twelfth century.   A local church was established by 1324.  In 1377, Mszczonów was declared a city by Ziemowit III, Duke of Mazovia.

The area was heavily forested and was directly on a trade route that went north to south through Poland.  Initially this location attacted residents, but in the 16th century the entire town became the property of the Radziejowski family, owners of adjacent Radziejowice.  Under the family’s control, the town was not developed.  Other factors that stagnated development of the town were the wars with Sweden from 1655-1657 and the partitioning of Poland that began in 1795.  Because of the wars, the population was reduced and the lack of craftsmen reduced trade with neighboring towns.  The situation changed during the partition years of 1795-1918, when Mszczonów fell under Russian rule.  Slowly the town’s population grew, and by the early nineteenth century the town was one of the largest in Mazovia.

This is the time that my ancestors lived in Mszczonów.  My 2nd great-grandmother was Antonina Rozalia Pluta Pater, born on 11 June 1863.  Her father, Ludwik Pluta, was a 19-year-old shoemaker whose father and grandfather were also shoemakers from Mszczonów.  Antonina’s mother, Franziszka Wojciechowski, was also 19 and the daughter of another shoemaker from the town.  Both Antonina and her mother would eventually leave Mszczonów to immigrate to the United States.   The records for Mszczonów held by the LDS only go back to 1808, which is not far enough back to find the birth record for Ludwik and Franziska’s grandparents who were all born around 1795-1800.  The Polish National Archives may have older records (availability can be checked online, but the site is down for service as of this writing).

Here are some photos from my visit to Mszczonów in 2001:

St. John the Baptist church in Mszczonów

A plaque on the church listing the names of the pastors from 1658-1982. Rev. Filipowicz baptized Antonina's father in 1843.

[ Submitted for the 27th edition of the Carnival of Central & Eastern European Genealogy: The Village of My Ancestor ]


Say It in Polish

As a Polish-American interested in genealogy, I quickly learned that pronunciation is the key to everything.   How can you properly research a family if you can’t say the language correctly? I realized that there are American English pronunciations of Polish surnames and place names, and then there is the real way it is pronounced in Polish.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things about the Polish language with its “different” letters and consonant combinations, and I can usually figure out how a word is pronounced.  But sometimes…I get stumped.  Just the other day I learned that my great-grandmother was born in a town near Warsaw called Przybyszew.  Przybyszew?  Where do I begin?  I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat!

Fortunately, I discovered an awesome website thanks to Zenon Znamirowski from PolishOrigins.com that allows you to hear Polish words pronounced by Polish speakers!  So, how do you say Przybyszew?  Click on this link to hear it!

The site, Expressivo, is a text to speech program.  To test it out, you can enter up to 200 characters of text here and listen to the results read by several voices: Eric (male US-English), Jennifer (female US-English), Carmen (female Romanian), Jacek (male Polish), or Ewa (female Polish).  To hear Polish names or place names, I highly recommend using the two Polish voices to hear a true Polish pronunciation.

Here are several of my ancestors’ names and the towns they lived in – click the link to hear it in Polish:

Many Americans may have seen these town names in Poland and thought they knew how to pronounce them.  Try it, then click on the link and see if you were correct – you might be surprised!

Łódź Gdańsk Kraków Wrocław Częstochowa Poznań

You can tell that I had a lot of fun “playing” with this site, but other than it being cool to hear your ancestor’s name and hometown properly pronounced, why is it important?  Because knowing the correct pronunciation in an immigrant’s native language can often help you find your ancestor in records that are not spelled correctly, but are written as English-speakers heard the foreign tongue pronounced.  Obviously, this does not only apply to the Polish language, but any language other than American English.

[Submitted for the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: Tips, Tricks, and Websites]

Research Roadblock: Names

Do all genealogists encounter roadblocks like this?

Do all genealogists encounter roadblocks like this?

The topic for the 22nd edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy is roadblocks and breakthroughs.  I like the using the term “roadblock” for those genealogy research problems rather than the term “brickwall” because a roadblock seems more like an obstacle I can “get around” or overcome.  We can always detour our way around a roadblock; knocking down a brickwall is possible, but it requires some heavy duty equipment.  I’m an optimistic genealogist, because I believe you never really encounter a brickwall unless all possible records for an individual or a locality do not exist.  Roadblocks, however, crop up all the time – even on what seems like the simplest genealogical task.  Just like a real roadblock you might encounter while driving, you usually don’t expect it and may not know the way around it.

The most common roadblock in my research has been related to NAMES.  That is, you know what name you are looking for, but you can’t seem to FIND it in an index.  Causes for these name roadblocks include foreign spelling, foreign accents, bad handwriting, nicknames, and name changes.  Many of my ancestors’ Polish and German names have caused delays in my research, but you can often detour around the roadblock if only you know the way.  In this post, I’ll offer a few tips that may help you with name roadblocks.  Although my own ancestry is Central and Eastern European, the tips to breaking through this particular roadblock are useful no matter where your family’s history began.

1. Use alternate searches – if possible, search for the first name and other identifiers rather than the surname.  If you can’t find a family on a census record, find the possible address using other sources and then search for the address instead of the name.  I was able to find my Zawodny family this way when the census had them listed as Cawodny.

2. Get creative – if the first letter of the last name is incorrectly indexed – whether through bad handwriting or bad indexing, try variations.  Try writing out the name in the style of handwriting used at the time the record was compiled.  Would a handwritten “P” resemble an “F”?

3.  Watch out for nicknames – don’t overlook your ancestor because they are using a nickname, their middle name, or the “foreign” first name from their home country.  Ludwig, Louis, Lewis, or Lou could all be the correct first name for an individual.  Some researchers get stumped looking for Uncle Bill or Aunt Stella only to discover that they could have found the record looking for Bołesław or Stanisława.

4. Learn all about the surnames from your immigrant’s home country.  In Poland, surnames can have masculine or feminine endings – so Piontkowski’s wife or daughter is Piontkowska and Zawodny’s wife or daugher is Zawodna.  These practices were still used in the US in the early 20th Century.  Russian and some other Slavic languages use similar feminine forms.  In German, feminine forms are uncommon today, but in older records you may see the suffixes –in, -yn, -s, -z, or –en added to the male surname for feminine forms of the name.

5. Try phoenetic sound of name for alternate spelling that Soundex might not pick up.  Sometimes we forget that our immigrant ancestors had accents.  Since the information in some records came from your ancestors speaking directly to someone collecting the information, it is important to remember their native language and its pronunciations.  In many cases, the use of Soundex in indexing will cover up for many of these phoenetic mistakes – but not all.  Take time to learn the nuances of your family’s native languages.  A simple example of a mis-spelled name on a census record that was likely caused by the immigrant’s accent is my great-grandfather’s Polish surname, Pater.  It is a relatively simple name as far as Polish names go!  Rather than the English pronunciation of the name, PAY-ter, the Polish pronunciation is PAH-ter, much like the Latin word.  On the 1910 census, the family is listed as “Potter” – a reasonable assumption based on how it is pronounced.  Fortunately, Soundex will catch this error.  But what happens when the pronunciation is very different?

Many foreign languages have letters that the English alphabet does not, and each of these letters has a unique pronunciation.  Unless you know how to “say” the name in the foreign language, you may hit a roadblock.  Some examples include:

Polish ą – pronounced “ahn” but it is often transcribed as a simple “a” in English.  So the Polish surname Piątkowski may be indexed as Piatkowski.  But, if you heard the name pronounced, the English transcription should be Piontkowski.  If searching for “Piontkowski” using the Soundex code, an entry under “Piatkowski” would not show up.

Polish Ł or ł – pronounced with an English “w” sound, this Polish letter confuses non-Poles.  It may be transcribed as a simple English “L”, or the lowercase version may become a “t” since that is what it looks like.   Or the record-writer has heard the name pronouced and makes it a “W” so that the surname Łaski is indexed as it sounds to the American ear – Waski.

German ü – Americans don’t know what to make of German umlauts.  Sometimes the umlaut is simply ignored, so the surname Müller is spelled Muller.  Other times it is listed as Mueller, since the “ü” has a “ue” sound.  But just as often I have found it as Miller, as if the ü is two letter “i” – and since English doesn’t have words like Miiller, it becomes Miller.

I could continue with examples of the different letters found in foreign languages from the French ç to the Hungarian Á to the Croatian Ð.  Aside from the unique letters, researching foreign names has to take the language into consideration – a “ch” combination in one language may sound like an “English” “ch” or a “k” instead.  In German, the sound of an initial consonant “B” often sounds like a “P”.  The point is to be aware of the way the immigrant’s original language sounded, because it may account for some of the incorrect spellings you will encounter.

I can’t emphasis enough the importance of learning about the language from which the name is derived.  It may give you enough knowledge to break through that roadblock!

Recommended reading:

Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, Second Edition by William F. Hoffman (Polish Genealogical Society of America, Chicago, IL, 1997).

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).

Dictionary of German Names by Hans Bahlow (Max Kade Institute, 2002).

[Written for the 22nd Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: Roadblocks and Breakthroughs]

Happy Dyngus Day!

The readers who are smiling at my subject line are of Polish descent – or they live in a city that has a big Polish population.  To my confused readers, let me explain – Dyngus Day (called Śmigus-dyngus in Polish) is a unique Polish tradition celebrated on Easter Monday.  On this day, boys get up early, sneak into girls’ houses, and douse them with a bucket of water.  Seriously!  The holiday is complicated, and like most holidays that combine pagan and Christian traditions, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  But it is a great excuse to party!

Dyngus Day is a blend of both pagan and Catholic customs that has evolved through the ages to become a fun day of celebration after the hardships of Lent.  The pagan practice of the pouring of water was once a fertility rite and a symbol of purification.  But the pouring of water also has the Catholic connotation of purification through baptism.  It was on Easter Monday in 966 AD that Prince Mieszko I was baptized into the Catholic faith – and Poland became a devout Catholic nation thereafter.  The sprinkling of water on this day became a way for Poles to celebrate this event and also celebrate the Easter resurrection of Christ.

However, Dyngus Day relies more heavily on the pagan elements of Polish culture, specifically the fertility element.  The idea behind boys splashing the girls indicated that the girls who were doused would get married that year.  In fact, after being splashed, the girls would give the boys an Easter egg in return – although some sources say that eggs were given to avoid a soaking.  On Easter Tuesday, the girls would get their revenge, or get their chance to flirt depending on how you look at it, by hitting the boys with pussy willows that traditionally bloom during this time of year.

In other words, Dyngus Day is an elaborate courting ritual.

My grandmother, who was born in America to Polish parents, remembered the holiday somewhat differently.  All of the essential elements were there, but instead of the courting aspect the day was more like an opportunity to play water pranks on unsuspecting individuals!

So, whether you are trying to woo someone, chase them away, or simply laugh as you completely soak someone, Dyngus Day is a day to celebrate.  Maybe you’re celebrating the joy of Easter Week, or that Lent is finally over, or that Spring is here (if you’re lucky enough to have Spring yet where you live), or that you’ve found someone you want to marry.  Whatever the reason to celebrate today, it’s everyone’s chance to be Polish!  Happy Dyngus Day!

[Written for the 18th Edition of the Carnival of Central & Eastern European Genealogy: Easter and Passover Traditions]

Call Me Ishmael

Trendy names are all the rage now, but if you recognized the title as the opening line to Moby Dick, then you’ll realize that some names are memorable because they “stand out” from the rest — which is why parents often seek the unusual.  Many of the first names in my family tree wouldn’t have seemed unusual at the time they were used, but today in America they would be.  Maybe they’ll make a comeback, since today’s it’s all about “unusual” names.  In my ancestors’ times, names followed certain conventions.  In Poland, I’ve already written about name days or imieniny, in which the baby’s name was usually chosen based on the feast day of the saint on or near the day of birth.  Most of my Polish families followed this without exception.  In Germany, specifically in Bavaria, the church’s calendar was occasionally used for names, but more likely the child was given the name of the parent or someone in the family.  Certain saint’s names were extra popular though – in the town where I’ve done the most research, Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, a great majority of the boys were named Johann or Josef and most of the girls were either Maria Anna or Anna Maria.

Given my entire ancestry comes from those two regions, I have my whole family tree to work with in discussing the topic of first names.  I’ve documented roughly one hundred ancestors so far, with half of that number coming from my Bavarian quarter and the rest from my Polish sides.  The most popular boy’s name in my family tree in both cultures is Joseph, which is Josef in German and Józef in Polish.  Two of my great-grandfathers were named Joseph, and several of my great-greats.  The name John, or Johann in German and Jan in Polish, is also popular in my family tree.  For girls, the Bavarian ladies are mostly the Maria Anna – Anna Maria combination.  But on the Polish sides, the most popular female names are Elżbieta and Katarzyna, or Elizabeth and Katherine.

In a family tree full of Joe’s and Mary’s, what are the unusual names that really stand out?  I have several favorites among the more unusual names.  I don’t consider them favorites because I’d name a child that myself, but because they add a little spice to the family history.

Among my Bavarian ancestors, my favorite unusual names are Dionys, Kreszens, Wolfgang, and Walburga.

Dionys is the German form of the name Dionysius, the Greed god of wine, revelry, and debauchery.  I wonder if young Dionys was a rabble-rouser that lived up to the name or the complete opposite?  Of course, the name shouldn’t only be associated with the infamous Greek god – it is also the name of several saints, and there are monasteries and churches dedicated to St. Dionys throughout Bavaria.  The given name belongs to my 4th great-grandfather, Dionys Daniel.  Interestingly enough, Dionys married a woman with one of the other unusual names on my list: Walburga.  While the name isn’t as popular today in Germany, it was more common in earlier centuries.  The name itself if of German origin and means either “ruler of the fortress” from wald meaning “rule” and burg meaning “fortress”, or it could also mean “one who guards or protects” using the meaning of the Old High German word bergen.  (I can’t resist the side comment that if the couple lived up to their names one would assume that Walburga kept Dionys in line!)  The name Walburga was popular in Germany due to St. Walburga, who was the daughter of King Richard of England and came to Germany in the 8th century as a missionary.  What name did Walburga and Dionys give their daughter?  Anna Maria…of course.

Kresensz is another of my favorites.  It is a female name derived from the Latin Cresentia, which means “to grow in fame or power”.  Kresensz Zinsmeister Bergmeister is my 4th great-grandmother who lived from 1777 to 1852.

These three unusual German names all come from my great-grandfather’s side of the family.  On his wife’s side, the one name that stands out is that of her own great-grandfather, Wolfgang Fischer (1775-1820).  The name Wolfgang literally means “to go wolf”, so one can only wonder why his parents used the name.  But, it is also the name of another Bavarian saint, St. Wofgang, who was a 10th Century bishop in Regensburg, a town not far from where my Wolfgang spent his life.

In Poland, I find that most of the names that seem unusual to American ears are merely spelled differently from their English translations, such as my 2nd great-grandfather Wawrzyniec Zawodny.  The name looks exotic, but it is a Polish version of Laurentius or Lawrence.  One name that does not translate at all into English, and is therefore unusual by American standards, is his daughter, Wacława.  The name is the feminine form of Wacław, which means “may he gain fame and glory”.  It doesn’t have a direct English translation though, which is why she used “Laura” in the U.S.

My favorite unusual male Polish name is Hilary.  Yes, we forget today that Hilary is actually a male name!  It comes from the Latin hilaris which means “merry” and “joyful”.  I hope Hilary was a happy guy to have a name like Hilary – today he‘d be ridiculed.  Hilary Pater is my 4th great-grandfather and the oldest ancestor I have found so far in my Pater family.

My favorite unusual female Polish name is Teofilia.  Again, this name is a feminine derivative of the name Teofil, which means “dear friend of God”.  Hilary’s son, with the more common name of Jan, married a girl name Teofilia.  Their son is one of the many Josephs in the family tree!  Too bad they didn’t use Teofil, and he would stand out a little more from the average Joe!

[This post was written for the 11th edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy: First (Given) Names.]

Haller’s Army

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

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

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

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

Did Your Ancestor Volunteer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information on Haller’s Army:

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