Archive for the ‘Genealogical Records’ Category

The theme for Week 18 of the 2015 edition of the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge is “Where There’s a Will” and my ancestor is my 3rd great-grandfather, Józef Ślesiński. None of my ancestors left wills behind, or if they have I didn’t find them yet. I don’t have a single ancestor named William or even Wilhelm. Many were strong-willed, but I’ve written about several of these folks in recent weeks. Therefore, I’ve taken a rather broad approach to the theme…for Józef Ślesiński, it’s more like “Where there’s a Wilczyn…there’s a wife.”

Józef ‘s Story

Józef Ślesiński was born on 21 November 1821 in the town of Ślesin, Konin county, woj. Wielkopolskie (Greater Poland Voivodeship) which was under Russian rule during the partitions of Poland. His parents were the farmers Maciej Ślesiński and Agnieszka Bogacka. It is easy to tell that the surname Ślesiński is toponymic – it is  derived from the place name of the town in which they lived, Ślesin.

The records from Ślesin are available, but I haven’t yet researched the other children of Maciej and Agnieszka. The only sibling I have a record of is Tomasz who was born 19 years after Józef – I am sure there were other children in between!

When Józef was 22 years old, he left his hometown to move 12 miles south to a town called Wilczyn to marry his bride, 19-year-old Elżbieta Michałowska. The couple had at least eight children together. My great-great grandfather was their son Wincenty, born in 1850. Two children died as youngsters: son Ignacy in 1860 and daughter Marianna in 1864.

Jozef's death record from the 1866 Wilczyn parish books. The priest had beautiful handwriting. There was also a duplicate church book in Latin.

Jozef’s death record from the 1866 Wilczyn parish books. The priest had beautiful handwriting. There was also a duplicate church book in Latin.

Józef died on 30 November 1866 at the age of 45. He left behind his wife and six children, 3 sons (ages 19, 16, and 11) and 3 daughters (ages 15, 6, and 5). His widow marries widower Marcin Rosinski in 1867, which would have been helpful due to the young ages of her children and the need for support.

While it is Józef’s granddaughter who is my immigrant ancestor, I recently discovered through a DNA match that his daughter Apolonia immigrated to America with her husband, Wacław Polski, in the 1890’s. I now wonder if my great-grandmother, who immigrated to Philadelphia, knew that she had an aunt living in Milwaukee.

For Józef Ślesiński, where there was a town called Wilczyn, there was a wife! The town name is derived from the wilk, or “wolf”, but I’ll take it as my family’s will.

Just the Facts

  • Name: Józef Ślesiński
  • Ahnentafel: #60 (my 3rd great-grandfather)
  • Parents: Maciej Ślesiński (1786-1848) and Agnieszka Bogacka
  • Born: 21 November 1821 in Ślesin
  • Siblings: Tomasz (b. 1840)
  • Married: Elżbieta Michałowska (1824-?) in Wilczyn
  • Children: Ignacy (?-1860), Marianna (?-1864), Józef Ślesiński (b. 1847), Wincenty Ślesiński (1850-1919), Antonina Ślesińska Zaborska (b. 1851), Antoni Ślesiński (b. 1855 marries in 1880), Apolonia Ślesińska Polska (1860-1936), Weronica Ślesińska Warszawska (b. 1861)
  • Died: 30 Nov 1866 in Wilczyn
  • My Line of Descent: Józef -> Wincenty ->Wacława Ślesińska Zawodna -> Marianna Zawodna Pater -> mother -> me



Written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: 2015 Edition– Week 18: Where There’s a Will


See all of my 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks stories on the 52 Ancestors page!

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The theme for Week 17 of the 2015 edition of the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge is “Prosper” and my ancestor is my 3rd great-grandfather, Jan Drogowski. The theme asks for an ancestor that had a “rags to riches” story. I don’t know what Jan’s net worth was, but I think he was prosperous because his occupation in life was quite different from his father’s.

Jan’s Story

Jan Drogowski was born on 14 Jun 1818 in Wilczyn, Wielkopolskie, Poland (Poznań) to Wojciech Drogowski and Marianna Przygoda. Wojciech was a farmer in Wilczyn as was his father, Grzegorz Drogowski. But the reason I chose Jan for the theme of “prosper” is because he did not become a farmer like his father and grandfather. In 1838, the nearly 20-year-old Jan marries 16-year-old Konstancja Kubińska, and in the marriage record Jan is referred to as the “young linen merchant”. I found it interesting that the son of a farmer could become a merchant at a young age. I wondered if he was “marrying up” and gaining the profession of his father-in-law. But Konstancja’s father, Józef Kubiński, was also a farmer.  Jan must have worked hard to learn the linen industry at such a young age. And, I can assume he was good at it because over the years he’d have a lot of mouths to feed.

Jan's signature from the 1847 birth record of his daughter, Michalina. The "w" is missing from his signature as surname spelling was a bit flexible (the priest spells his name as Drogowski, however).

Jan’s signature from the 1847 birth record of his daughter, Michalina. The “w” is missing from his signature as surname spelling was a bit flexible (the priest spells his name as Drogowski, however).

Another sign that Jan prospered in his merchant profession is his ability to write. Polish vital records after 1808 include the signatures of the witnesses and essential parties (bride and groom for weddings, parents for the birth of a child). For most records in my ancestral towns, the vast majority of individuals were illiterate – this fact was recorded when no one could sign the church book. In 1838, Jan was illiterate and did not sign his wedding document. However, by 1845 his is able to sign his name to the birth record of his son, Franciszek. I find this significant and indicates a profession that would require literacy to run the business. Of all my Polish ancestors, I have only found two men that were able to sign the records and Jan’s recorded literacy is the oldest I’ve found.

Jan and Konstancja had ten children together over a 26-year period: six girls and four boys. Their eighth child, Stanisława, was born in 1860 and is my 2nd great-grandmother. One son, Ignacy, died as an infant. I have not yet indexed all of the Wilczyn records to find death dates for all of the children, but I do know that at least three daughters and the other three sons all lived to adulthood, got married, and started having children of their own in the same parish in Wilczyn.

Jan died on 29 Oct 1894 in Wilczyn, Wielkopolskie, Poland at the age of 76. His wife Konstancja would live another two years until she passed away on 18 Dec 1896.

Just the Facts

  • Name: Jan Drogowski
  • Ahnentafel: #62 (my 3rd great-grandfather)
  • Parents: Wojciech Drogowski (1773-1833) and Marianna Przydoga (1790-1855)
  • Born: 14 Jun 1818 in Wilczyn, Wielkopolskie, Poland
  • Siblings: Marianna Rozalia Drogowska (b. 1811), Franziska Drogowska (b. 1814), Ignacy Drogowski (b. 1828)
  • Married: Konstancja Kubińska (1818-1896) on 08 May 1838 in Wilczogóra
  • Children: Ludwika Drogowska Skowronska (b.1839), Józef Drogowski (b.1842), Franciszek Drogowski (b. 1845), Michalina Drogowska Przybylska Wajnert (b. 1847), Antoni Drogowski (b. 1852), Antonina Drogowska (b. 1855), Maryanna Drogowska (b. 1857), Stanisława Drogowska Ślesińska (1860-1918), Ignacy Drogowski (1863-1863), Józefa Drogowska (b. 1865)
  • Died: 29 Oct 1894 in Wilczyn, Wielkopolskie, Poland (age 76)
  • My Line of Descent: Jan -> Stanisława Drogowska Ślesińska -> Wacława Ślesińska Zawodna -> Marianna Zawodna Pater -> mother -> me


Written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: 2015 Edition– Week 17: Prosper


See all of my 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks stories on the 52 Ancestors page!

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My great-grandfather, Joseph Zawodny, 1915 and a sepia-enhanced photo of actor Jon Hamm playing his character, Don Draper, on Mad Men

One day I realized that my great-grandfather may have been like Don Draper. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight years or really don’t watch television at all, “Don Draper” is a character on AMC’s Mad Men played by actor Jon Hamm. He’s quite a character, so let me explain before you get the wrong idea about my great-grandfather! I certainly don’t mean to imply that he’s an unfaithful womanizer like Don; in fact, my great-grandfather was faithfully married to the same woman for 42 years (which ended then due to his death). I also don’t mean to imply that he was a raging alcoholic like Don; my great-grandfather enjoyed drinking with his neighborhood buddies, but he’s the only one of my great-grandfathers that’s never been called a drunk by the family. Great-grandpa also wasn’t an “ad man” like Don – he worked for a tool and dye factory. Great-grandpa was also not a really awful father like Don – he had eight children and loved them all far better than Draper shows his love on tv.

So, if he was opposite from Don Draper in all of Don’s most identifying habits, why do I compare them? Because, like Don, he may have had a secret.

If you’ve never watched the show (which returns tomorrow night for its final seven episodes), go binge on Netflix. Mad Men is worth it for the storytelling alone not to mention the characters, fine acting, and overall style of the show. But I’m not going to call this a spoiler alert, because it happened way back in the first season of the show in 2007: Don Draper is not Don Draper. Don is really Dick Whitman. In the Korean War, he switched dog tags with the real Don Draper in an effort to get away from Dick’s sorry past. He returned from the war with the new identity – a man running from his past who reinvented himself only to still suffer the effects of the past.

In my great-grandfather’s case, it’s all mystery and conjecture. His name was Joseph Zawodny…or was it?

If the story had been told to me by my grandmother, I’d have enjoyed the tale and laughed about it later. Because Nan was like that, telling stories that were better than the actual truth. But this particular story was told by my mother – an extremely trustworthy source even considering she was about 8 years old when it happened.

What happened was Joseph died. It was 1944, three days after D-Day. Joseph was 64 years old and died rather suddenly after falling ill with pneumonia. My mother, with her parents (her mother was Joseph’s daughter) and sister, lived in the same house as Joseph for several years prior to his death. Shortly after his death, she recalls a knock on the door. A man presented himself to my grandmother and declared that his name was Joseph Zawodny…the real Joseph Zawodny. He claimed that my great-grandfather used his name to get into the United States. The man revealed that Joseph’s real name was Joseph Andrew Müller. My grandmother became quite irate at the man’s accusation and told him to leave. But my mother, the 8-year-old listening quietly in the corner, never forgot how shaken her mother looked afterwards.

When I began my genealogical research, I assumed I’d find the truth. My mother believed wholeheartedly that this mystery man, the other Joseph Zawodny, was telling the truth. I started my research. I found Joseph’s – make that my Joseph’s – entry into the United States on April 6, 1902. His wife, Wacława, followed him to Philadelphia the following year. Since they were already married prior to immigration, once I learned the town name I was able to research their marriage record. There it was: only two month’s prior to Joseph’s emigration, the couple got married.

I explained my findings to my mother – based on what I found, I don’t think the story of the fake name was correct. It was one thing to enter the United States on a “fake” passport, but I found his wedding with that same name. The town was small enough that others would surely have known if the man wasn’t who he said he was.

Rather than being happy about my research conclusion, my mother disagreed. “So he used his name to marry her then. In fact, maybe she married the real Joseph (Józef) Zawodny, but was really in love with our Joseph Müller. Rather than scandalize her family, they left…with him using her real husband’s name.”

Mom seemed pretty proud of this “assumed a new identity for love” theory. I had to admit, it was a good story. And one other little family history fact led credence to it – for some reason, my great-grandmother’s parents were so upset at her either marrying or leaving Poland that they never communicated with her again. My grandmother told my mother that Wacława’s letters to her parents were returned unopened. Her parents were alive for almost twenty years after she emigrated, so it did beg the question – why were they so upset with her?

For good measure, I actually started researching some of the other Polish immigrants named Joseph Zawodny. There were a few, and I figured if I could tie one back to Dobrosołowo, where my guy was married, or to the nearby town where he was born, it would give me reason to pause. But so far, the other immigrants named Joseph Zawodny arrived from elsewhere.

Genealogists love a good story. But we love proof of a good story even more. So far, all of my research into Joseph’s life is consistent. He always provided the same date of birth, which neatly turned out to be the birth date of a man named Józef Zawodny in Komorowo, a small town in Russian-occupied Poland quite close to the German-occupied border.

There’s just one thing… Józef’s baptismal record and marriage record indicated that his name was Józef with no middle name. On almost all of the American records, the man now called Joseph also did not indicate a middle name. No middle name on his draft cards, insurance applications, children’s birth or death records. No middle name ever provided until 1938 when Joseph applies for Social Security. On the application, he writes his name as “Joseph Andy Zawodny.” Andy? As in Andrew (or Andrzej in Polish). Ironically, he filled it out on 4/1, April Fools’ Day, but I doubt that is significant…humorous, but not significant.

If this were a television show, the camera would zoom in on the name “Andy” and fade to black for a commercial break.

I know who my great-grandfather was. He was a loving father and husband and a devout Catholic. That should be enough, but I want to know the story because, as my Mom puts it, why would someone take the trouble to come to the door and make that story up?

The genealogical proof standard has led me to believe he did not pull a “Don Draper” and he was the man he claimed to be in all the records I’ve found. In fact, the only way to possibly dispute it is through DNA testing, because his Y-DNA line is still active. Unfortunately, none of Joseph’s other children ever heard the story of the mystery man at the door – or if they did hear it, they heard it from my grandmother who liked to tell stories. So I haven’t yet attempted convincing a cousin to help me solve the mystery.

Was Joseph Zawodny really Joseph Müller? Even if I find out through DNA testing, I will never know the true story of what would compel a man, much like the fictional character of Don Draper, to reinvent his identity by assuming another man’s name. If he did, he’s the anti-Don Draper in a sense, because no matter who he had been, he became a good man – for that’s the man his family knew here in America. On television, poor Don already was a good man as young Dick, but in trying to elude his past and creating Don he’s become a man who tries to be a good man, but is never quite sure if he’s really good enough and fails at being truly good. Hopefully, Don’s story will end well in the upcoming weeks. I may never know the end of Joseph’s real story – or rather, the beginning!

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The theme for Week 12 of the 2015 edition of the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge is “Same” and my ancestor is my 3rd great-grandfather, Ignaz Echerer. In modern times, Ignaz might be called “Junior” – for he had a lot of the same details of his life in common with his father.

Ignaz’s Story

Ignaz Echerer was born on 21 Dec 1803 in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria. A lot of the facts of Ignaz’s life are remarkably the same as his father, and the similarities begin at birth. First, they have the same name – both are named Ignaz Echerer. Next, they were both born in the same house in Pfaffenhofen. Today that address is called Löwenstraße 14. From 1810 to 1861, house numbers were used in lieu of numbered street addresses, so it was house #55. Prior to the official mapping of the town in 1810, the same house was known as house #67 in the 2nd quarter. But, no matter what you call it, the house was the same structure. The street (formerly called Judengasse), is located a block away from the main hauptplatz – or the town square. Ignaz (the younger) would later move in 1847 to a different house.

Portion of an 1810 map of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm - the house of Ignaz Echerer is marked with the red arrow

Portion of an 1810 map of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm – the house of Ignaz Echerer is marked with the red arrow. The town’s church is in the lower left marked with the cross.

As most sons in 17th through early 19th century Bavaria, young Ignaz followed in the footsteps of his father – no pun intended by that phrase, for his occupation was shoemaker! It was common to run the business for the craft in the bottom floor of the house in which the family lived, so Ignaz would have grown up learning the trade – just as his father learned from his father and grandfather.

Ignaz (the younger) got married to Magdalena Nigg on 19 Feb 1844; he was 40 years old and the bride was 36. This was a common age for men to marry in that time and place, although the bride is slightly older than usual and explains why the couple did not have as many children as most couples, including Ignaz’s parents. This is one fact that is not the same as his father, for Ignaz the elder was about 31 when he got married. However, there is another marriage fact that is the same between the two men: both married a woman who was not only also from Pfaffenhofen, but both were the daughters of a different kind of craftsman. In my Bavarian research I’ve found that brides were often daughters of the same craft but from a different town. In other words, both men might have married a shoemaker’s daughter from a neighboring town. Instead, Ignaz the elder married the daughter of a glassmaker in town, and their son Ignaz married the daughter of a carpenter in town (profiled in Week #10).

The entry in the marriage index for Ignaz Echerer and Magdalena Nigg. Note the look of the name "Echerer" in German  Sütterlin script.

The entry in the marriage index for Ignaz Echerer and Magdalena Nigg. Note the look of the name “Echerer” in German Sütterlin script.

Ignaz and Magdalena had at least three children. Unlike his father, he didn’t give his son the same name, but instead named him Karl, quite possibly after his father-in-law.

Ignaz died on 01 Feb 1874 at the age of 70. His wife lived another four years. I can’t say if Ignaz had the same life span has his father, because I haven’t found his parents’ death records. One great thing about this 52 Ancestors challenge is that I’m finding out where my research could use some additional re-search! The Echerer line in Pfaffenhofen was the very first ancestral line I “found” – but as a beginner I didn’t document my facts as well as I should have. Not to mention that those were the days before you could make a digital copy of the records you found.

Ignaz Echerer and his father has a lot of things about their lives that were the same: same name, born in the same house, born and likely died in the same town where they lived their entire lives. They were both shoemakers, and likely worked side by side in the same shop. And they both married women in the same town who were daughters of non-shoemakers. They also had many things that were different though – the elder Ignaz lost his own father when he was only 13. He also got married younger and had more children, and quite likely died in that same house in which he was born.

I wonder if their personalities were the same or if they were polar opposites?

Just the Facts

  • Name: Ignaz Echerer
  • Ahnentafel: #44 (my 3rd great-grandfather)
  • Parents: Ignaz Echerer (1765-?) and Maria Anna Kaillinger (1768-?)
  • Born: 21 Dec 1803 in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria
  • Siblings: Rosalia Echerer (1796-1880); Xaver Echerer (*1799); Johann Evangelist Echerer (*1802); Johann Nepomuk Echerer (*1806-aft 1842); Anton Echerer (*1808); Elizabeth Echerer (*1810); Xaver Echerer (*1812)
  • Married: Magdalena Nigg (1807-1878)
  • Children: Therese Echerer (*1845); Karl Echerer (*1846-aft 1882); Barbara Echerer Dichtl (*1849-aft 1894)
  • Died: 01 Feb 1874 in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria
  • My Line of Descent: Ignaz Echerer-> Karl Echerer-> Maria Echerer Bergmeister-> Margaret Bergmeister Pointkouski-> father-> me


Written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: 2015 Edition– Week 12: Same


See all of my 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks stories on the 52 Ancestors page!

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"Records" from my archive...the early days of the search

“Records” from my archive…the early days of the search

This weekend many of my genealogy friends are attending the RootsTech 2015 conference in Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, I’m not there. I figured that February travel ought to include someplace warm… Little did I realize that the high tomorrow for Salt Lake City would be 54 degrees while we’re expecting a wind chill of 0 here on the East Coast. But hearing about all of the new technology and how it can relate to or help our genealogy research is in stark contrast, much like the weather this weekend between those two locations, to what genealogical research used to be.

In the last few weeks I’ve been organizing and de-cluttering my home office, and I found my notes from a non-credit genealogy course I once taught. From about 2000-2002, my friend Marie and I taught the basics of researching your family history in a 5-week class at a Philadelphia university. It wasn’t until I looked over those notes that I realized just how much genealogical research has changed in the last fifteen years – mostly due to computers, the internet, and digitization projects. Not to mention DNA testing!

The first week of the class we focused on Federal Census records (at the time, the latest year that was released was 1920 and none were online), and the first thing we “taught” was all about Soundex. Today, while newcomers to genealogy might hear about Soundex and understand it conceptually, there is no need to really use it anymore. When I first started my research back in 1989, figuring out the Soundex code for my surnames almost added to the thrill of the search because it appealed to the cryptogram and code-loving days of my childhood. Today, it really doesn’t matter that my name converted to P532 because we no longer have a 2-step manual search through various microfilms (yes, microfilm constituted high technology back then)-just a short wait after the click of a button to see the possibilities.

But besides the onslaught of the availability of online digitized records (which we sparingly covered in the last week of our class in 2000), I realized that much of what we taught still applies as much today as it did a decade ago – or two hundred years ago. Step #1 in researching your family history – then, now, and forever more – is gathering all of the information you already know from talking to relatives.

As evidenced by the photograph above, I used whatever means available at the time to capture that information. Yes, friends, that is a paper plate. And an envelope. You see, back in those beginning days of research, I’d constantly pepper my parents with questions. Once I’d find something, perhaps a fact or person they hadn’t mentioned, and I asked again, it would jog their memory to reveal more information that I’d hurriedly write down. My parents’ house is renowned for never having notepaper, or a pen, available when one needs it, so I’d reach for whatever would serve as paper.

Not as cool as Evernote, Family Tree Maker, or even Notepad – but it got the job done. Looking back on these relics of research (before I finally toss them in the recycle bin), one thing is certain – those little tidbits of information I wrote down were, eventually, all either proved or disproved by my research. They were clues, and the search – whether you are using a computer and the latest technological advances or not – begins with basic family information.

Don’t get me wrong – I am so happy with all of the technological advances that have happened since I started my research. But don’t forget about the how-to lessons that will never change no matter how much more easier technology makes our search:

  1. Write down everything you know.
  2. Talk to living relatives about everything they know.
  3. Remember that spellings can change and were flexible in the past.
  4. Remember that history is important to know and geographical boundaries change over time.
  5. Document your sources!

One other tip that people just getting started in genealogy in today’s age of technology just don’t quite fathom…not every record you need to trace your family can be found online. That doesn’t mean it can’t be found, it’s not not as easy as clicking a button. Happy Ancestor Hunting!

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On January 12, 2009, I wrote a post entitled Research Plan: Finding Death Dates for Joseph Bergmeister and Ursula Goetz, my great-great-grandparents. I knew their birth dates, but hadn’t yet found their death dates. I could go backwards several generations on Joseph’s side to include birth, marriage, and death dates, but I was still perplexed as to when he died. So, I developed a solid plan based on what I knew. Plans are great, but in order for them to work you actually have to put it into action. I didn’t. However, luck was on my side…without trying, I found the death date of Ursula!


I had some errors in my original post. I wrote:

Ursula Dallmeier was born in Aichach on 17 Mar 1847, the daughter of innkeeper Joseph Dallmeier from Aichach and Ursula née Eulinger.

The bold items were incorrect. The correct information is as follows:

Ursula Dallmeier was born in Prittlbach on 21 Sep 1846, the daughter of innkeeper Joseph Dallmeier  (or Dallmayr) of Asbach and Ursula née Eichinger.

The Plan

Based on the dates of the births of her children, I made some assumptions on the death date of Ursula Dallmeier Bergmeister Goetz. Based on the fact that she was alive at the time of her son Joseph Bergmeister’s marriage and she was not by the time of her younger son Julius Goetz’s marriage, I assumed she died between 1897 and 1919. The place was assumed to be Regensburg.

The Find

Funeral card of Ursula Götz

Funeral card of Ursula Götz

As I said, I never actually put the research plan into action, but I continued to research the family by tracking down some cousins. When I found her son Julius’ grandson, he shared a treasure trove of documents and photos with me. Among the pile were some funeral cards…and suddenly, I knew when Ursula died – 21 January 1911.

I still don’t know when her husband, my ancestor Joseph Bergmeister, died, and I don’t know when she married her second husband, Herman Goetz. But I now think that both events happened in Regensburg based on some of the information my cousin gave me. But there was something even better than filling in that piece of information about Ursula’s life. Some of the photos were labeled, and some were actually of Ursula. This is one of Ursula, approximately from the late 1870’s, taken at the Photographie von Martin Kraus, Ostengasse H 163, Regensburg:

Ursula Dallmayr Bergmeister Götz (1846-1911)

Ursula Dallmayr Bergmeister Götz (1846-1911)

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Ulica Piwna (Beer Street) in Old Town Warsaw. Yes, my great-grandfather lived on Beer Street!

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series… W is for Warsaw! When I officially began my family history research and my father told me his grandfather, Jan Piątkowski (John Piontkowski) was from Warsaw, Poland, I thought: Yeah, right! Being a native-born Philadelphian, I am familiar with people “borrowing” my city as their place of birth because no one ever heard of the tiny suburban town they were born in. The fakers exclaim: “Well, it’s near Philadelphia!” So when I heard my great-grandfather was from Warsaw, I wondered exactly where he was born. My other great-grandfather said he was from Warsaw sometimes too, but he was from a town 27 miles away. Close doesn’t count when you’re searching for birth records.

But then a funny thing happened…I discovered he really was from Warsaw! Thanks to numerous Warsaw church records that are available online, I found my great-grandfather’s baptismal record that confirmed his birth as he reported on his Declaration of Intention. My Piątkowski family was from Warsaw!

Prior to this discovery, I visited the city in 2001. I unknowingly visited some of the family’s sights such as the Archcathedral of St. John (Archikatedra św. Jana). At the time, I had no idea my great-grandfather was baptized there. Technically, of course, it is not the same church – most of Warsaw was completely demolished in 1944-5. It is estimated that 80% of the old buildings were destroyed, including most of the Old Town area and the churches. Eventually the buildings were rebuilt – some are exact replicas of what once stood, others are not.

There is still a lot of research to do (or more accurately, there is a lot of deciphering Russian to do), but so far I have discovered that my great-grandfather’s father, Stanisław Piątkowski, was in Warsaw by 1863. It was then he married Apolonia Konopka in Holy Cross Church (Kościół św. Krzyża). Neither was originally from the city: Stanisław was from Mogilev (Belarus) and Apolonia was born in Konopki in the Augustów province.

Stanisław was listed in records as a “private official” and a valet. I have yet to determine for whom he worked, but there is one characteristic of Stanisław that sets him apart from EVERY SINGLE OTHER POLISH ANCESTOR – he could write his name. My factory workers and craftsmen – even some merchants – could not. I continue to wonder what a private official did in late nineteenth century Warsaw. At that time, Warsaw was undergoing a population boom – the city’s population more than doubled in twenty years.

Not all church records are available yet, but so far I’ve discovered two other sons of Stanisław and Apolonia, Jan’s marriage record and two children’s baptisms, and several records for the family of the brother of Jan’s wife, Rozalia Kizoweter (aka Kizeweter or Gizeweter). Since the addresses are provided in the church record, on my next visit to Warsaw I can re-visit some of the streets where they lived!

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

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Proud descendant of the two gentlemen below coming it at nearly 3′ tall!

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet series… V is for Vital Statistics! Line up your ancestors and check out their vitals!


1: statistics relating to births, deaths, marriages, health, and disease
2: facts (as physical dimensions or quantities) considered to be interesting or important; especially : a woman’s bust, waist, and hip measurements
~ Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When genealogists speak of “Vitals” we are usually referring to the information obtained from Vital Records: Births, Marriages, and Deaths. The term “Vital Statistics” refers to stats relating to these records. Although the second definition is primarily used for a woman’s physical “stats,” I’m using it in a slightly different non-sexist way. For me, Vital Statistics are the information I’ve obtained from genealogical records about my ancestors’ physical descriptions such as their height, hair color, eye color, and more. This information is especially relevant to me for the ancestors for whom I have no photograph – these “stats” are the only way for me to see what my ancestor looked like.

Where does one find such information? If your ancestor immigrated to the United States in 1906 or 1907, the passenger arrival records include the immigrant’s physical description: height, complexion, color of hair and eyes, and identifying marks. Draft registration cards are a great source of physical descriptions for male ancestors. Naturalization records also ask for physical descriptions. Other resources might include military records or employment records.

Joseph Zawodny, age 22

 When my great-grandfather Joseph Zawodny filled out his WWI draft registration card in 1918, he was  38 years old. The cards were not very specific, and he listed his height and build as “medium” with brown eyes and dark hair. But what was considered medium height and build back then? The more specific information requested for his Declaration of Intention four years later in 1922 might answer that. He lists his height as 5’7-1/2″ and his weight as 164 pounds. He had a fair complexion, brown hair, and brown eyes – which fits with the black and white photograph I have of him.

Louis Pater, age 54

Then again, the records may not always be correct or consistent. Take, for example, my other great-grandfather, Louis Pater. When he arrived in the U.S. in August, 1907, he was only 14 years old. He was only 5′ tall with blond hair and blue eyes. On his WWI draft card at age 23, he said he was “tall” and “slender” with brown hair and green eyes. Four years later on his Declaration of Intention, he lists his height as 5’10” and weight as 150 pounds. He has a “dark” complexion, “dark brown” hair, and “grey” eyes. Finally, on his WWII draft card at age 48, he seems to have shrunk to 5’9″ and put on a few pounds at 190. He has a “ruddy” complexion, “brown” hair, and “brown” eyes! So, were his eyes blue, green, gray, or brown? Likely gray – that was the color of the eyes for the entire Pater family and he passed them on to his son!

I don’t have any photograph of my great-grandmother Rose Piontkowski. But because she arrived here in 1906, I know from the passenger list that at the age of 41 she was 5’3″ with brown hair and blue eyes. It’s not much, but at least it gives me some idea of what she may have looked like. I don’t have a photograph of her husband John either. He was too old for either draft, but he filed his Declaration of Intention in 1920 at the age of 49. He was 5’8″, weighed 150 pounds, had a dark complexion, brown hair, and gray eyes.

Sometimes the descriptions on the passenger lists aren’t very flattering! Take my great-great grandmother Antonina Pluta Pater. Thanks to her passenger arrival record, she will forever be known as having a “sallow” complexion and a “wrinkled forehead” in addition to her 5’2-3/8″ frame, brown hair, and blue eyes!

Vital stats such as height or eye color are obviously not as useful as actual vital statistics like birth and death dates. But, it does give us a nice “look” at our ancestors. It is also fascinating to create family trees that show things like eye color – biology class in high school suddenly becomes more interesting. So as your family tree grows, take some “measurements” along the way and see which ancestors you most resemble!

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

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“Do not be afraid! Open, in deed, open wide the doors to Christ!” ~ Blessed Pope John Paul II, October 22, 1978, homily at the Mass beginning his pontificate

In honor of the Catholic Church’s “Year of Faith” which opens on October 11, 2012, genealogy bloggers whose ancestors were members of the Catholic Faith are celebrating by showing some of the churches that inspired or comforted our ancestors or were otherwise part of their lives. Since the majority of my ancestors were Catholic (and so am I), there are a lot of churches in my family’s history. For this celebration, I chose to highlight one because I had the opportunity to walk through these doors of faith on a trip to Poland in 2001. The photos below are from that journey.

St. John the Baptist ( św. Jana Chrzciciela) church in Mszczonów, Poland

My great-great grandmother, Antonina Rozalia Pluta, was from the town of Mszczonów, Błoński Powiat, Warsaw Gubernia, Kingdom of Poland. She was baptized in św. Jana Chrzciciela (St. John the Baptist) Church in 1863 and married Józef Pater there in 1885. Antonina’s parents, Ludwik Pluta and Franciszka Wojciechowska, were also baptized there (1843 for Ludwik and 1840 for Franciszka) and married there in 1862. The earliest record I have found for an ancestral sacrament at the church is the baptism of my 4th great-grandfather, Jan Wojciechowski (Franciszka’s father), in 1816 – although, as you will see below, the church in 1816 was not the same as the church in 1863 through today.

The church has a very long history, as does the town. From the town’s website, I learned that the first church on the grounds was erected at the turn of the Twelfth Century and made from wood. In the years 1430-1440 Prince Ziemowit IV built a brick church, which was completely destroyed in the fire of the city in 1603. It was rebuilt 1660, but  burned down again in 1800. For many years after this fire, church services were held in a wooden chapel. The current brick church was built between 1861-1864. The cornerstone was blessed by the Archbishop of Warsaw on 11 May 1862 and the church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

A plaque on the church listing the names of the pastors from 1658-1982.

[Written for the “Doors of Faith” celebration at The Catholic Gene]

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Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet series… U is for Unusual Resources! I already devoted a whole post to my Uncles, so in looking for a “U” term I decided to take a look at some of the more unusual resources that are available for genealogical research. The “usual suspects” include birth, marriage, and death records, quickly followed by records related to the census, immigration and naturalization, or the military. But sometimes fantastic genealogical information hides in the most unusual places…here are some of my favorite unusual resources:

Bank records – Ancestry.com has an interesting collection of immigrant bank records. Sometimes immigrants would open an account at a bank specifically for the amount of money needed for relatives to immigrate to this country. These can serve as an alternate resource for finding immigration records. They also may provide clues to the name or address of other relatives.

Fraternal organizations – Many immigrants belonged to fraternal organizations, and some of these provided things like insurance policies – which, if available, are an alternate source for death records. I found my great-grandfather’s life insurance policy through the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA) on the Polish Genealogical Society of America’s (PGSA) website. Recently I noticed that Ancestry has a similar collection of enrollment and death benefit records for Pennsylvania chapters of the Order of the Sons of Italy.

Employment records – I haven’t yet found any of my ancestors’ employment records, but I know that they exist for many companies. Sometimes these records can be found in special collections at libraries. If you’re not sure exactly where your ancestor worked, try getting a copy of their SS-5 application for Social Security, and for male ancestors try their draft registration cards.

Funeral home records – Sometimes funeral home records can provide additional information about family members that aren’t found on a death certificate. Obviously the type of information that was requested – and kept on file – varies with the funeral home. Some are available online (Ancestry has been posting more of these collections lately), but most probably reside with the funeral home itself if it’s still in existence.

Other unusual records I’ve used include consular records, coroner’s reports, police records, ethnic press newspapers, and church jubilee books. Each of these has the potential to provide some small nugget of useful information about your relatives. The key, of course, is actually finding where these unusual resources are hidden.

“Unusual” doesn’t have to just apply to the type of record or resource, but it can also describe the “out of the box” thinking that helps a researcher find information and solve research problems. Genealogist Steve Danko applies the scientific method to his research. I’ve found inspiration from a television show and use the Castle “murder board” approach. My “Pointer Sister” Caroline Pointer often takes a techno-approach to problem solving. If your usual method of problem-solving doesn’t work, try a method that is unusual to you!

Here’s to all the unusual means, methods, and records that help us find all the usual information we seek for our ancestors! What records have you used that would be described as “unusual”?

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

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Procession of First Communicants, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Philadelphia, PA, May 11, 1941.

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series… R is for Religion! The faith of our fathers (and mothers) is important to genealogical research, because often times your ancestors’ places of worship kept records before the state or civil authorities did. Or, in the years after civil vital registration was mandatory, church (or synagogue, or other religious institution) record books can serve as an alternate record source to verify birth dates and other important data like parents’ names. But besides all of the wonderful record-keeping, religion can be important to family history on a much more personal level, especially if you share the faith that your ancestors handed down. Visiting the churches where your ancestors worshiped is a wonderful way to “connect” your family history from the past to the present!

My family is Roman Catholic. In records, it is hard to ascertain a person’s actual belief. In other words, just because they were baptized or married in a particular faith doesn’t mean they were devout. In my own research, I discovered that my one great-grandfather, Joseph Zawodny, probably was a faith-filled Catholic – he was a founding parishioner of St. Adalbert’s in Philadelphia, a “Polish” church for all the immigrants in the Port Richmond section of the city. The parish jubilee book also lists him as president of one of the charitable societies.  For other ancestors, I have no idea how active they were in the church – or not. I know that my maternal grandfather was a self-declared atheist at one point, regardless of his baptism in the Church.

As my research progressed, I discovered that not all of my ancestors were Catholic after all. My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Miller Pater, was Baptist. In researching her family I discovered that she descends from a unique group of individuals called the Unity of the Brethren, also called the Czech or Bohemian Brethren. The group was a Christian denomination that followed the works of the pre-reformation priest Jan Hus.

Around 1620, the counter-reformation was in full swing in Bohemia, and members of this faith were given the choice of leaving the country or practicing in secrecy (or, presumably, the choice to convert back to Catholicism). The sect continued despite persecution. In 1803, a group of these Brethren decided to leave Bohemia and they immigrated to Poland where they purchased a large amount of land and founded a new town called Zelów. It is in this Polish town that my Czech great-great grandparents were born. A sizable group of Czechs from Zelów, all textile workers, migrated north to two other Polish towns, Łódź and Żyrardów. My great-grandmother was born in Żyrardów in 1890…which explains why there are no records of her birth/baptism in the Catholic records of the town.

I’ve always been proud to be Catholic – like my Bavarian and Polish ancestors – but I was very happy to learn about this group of Protestant ancestors. Because of their faith, they took a bold step and left their homeland behind forever. Moving to a new country because of religious persecution in their homeland reminded me of the story of many of the colonial immigrants to the United States. To give up your homeland for your faith is truly a testament to your faith! The town of Zelów, Poland that was founded by the Czech immigrants is still known as the “Czech village”. I found a video online (subtitled in English) that shows the church and the town.

No matter what the religion of your ancestors was, finding out about their faith adds much to your family’s story. Some other family history faith-related posts I’ve written include Faith of Our Ancestors, Praying with My Ancestors, and First Communion, 1941 Style (from which I borrowed the great photo above). I thought religion was so pertinent to family history that I even started a whole blog about it – the Catholic Gene is a collaborative effort that reflects on the Roman Catholic faith and family history. We’ve been quiet lately, but hopefully we’ll be back to posting soon.

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

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Continuing with the Family History through the Alphabet Challenge… N is for Napoleon! Napoleon may have been a dictator, but he did a few other things as well – one thing in particular that may even have an impact on your family history research today. In 1804 he instituted the Civil Code, which is now known as the Napoleonic Code. It was adopted throughout many of the lands he conquered, and it remained in effect after his death. The Civil Code granted many things we take for granted today such as freedom of religion and equality. Of course, it stated other things that we wouldn’t necessarily be happy with today like patriarchal power – in other words, husbands rule the household. But genealogically speaking, we have Napoleon and his code to thank for civil registration of vital events such as births, marriages, and deaths. The Roman Catholic church had been keeping records prior to this – in some places for centuries – but the Civil Code made the record-keeping a state function.

The Code spelled out exactly what must be recorded in the vital records, and the information required was more than what was customarily kept in church record books. For example, a religious baptismal record would likely indicate the child’s name, date of birth, date of baptism, parents’ names, godparents’ names, and the location. Napoleonic birth records required the exact time of birth as well as the full names, ages, residences, and professions of the parents and witnesses. Napoleonic marriage records are rather detailed and include the ages, residences, and professions of the bride and groom, their parents, and the witnesses. I don’t think the Napoleonic death records are as detailed as those for birth and marriage because it lacks the cause of death and the birthplace of the deceased. But, the Civil Code required that these events be registered within the community whereas prior to this it was merely a religious function.

The Civil Code was adopted in countries occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars and became the basis of law in Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Romania, and parts of Germany. I gave an example of a Napoleonic birth record in the Baptism of Jozef Piontkowski. Learn more about translating Polish vital records in the Napoleonic format at this link.

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet Challenge]

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Księgi Parafialne

Continuing the Family History Through the Alphabet Challenge…K is for Księgi Parafialne (Polish for “Church Books”) via the website <EDITOR’S NOTE 10/2015 – the site this article referred to no longer exists; another site uses the same name but does not offer the same content>. If your family history is Polish, this site is a must and yet it is not mentioned very often among guides to Polish research or “best of” lists. What is it? A site that lists, by province, every town that has church books indexed. The indexes (indices) are all on other sites – this is merely an index of indexes and links are included to get you there. As such, this site is only helpful once you’ve discovered the name of the town from which your ancestors came.

First, click on “Województwa” to find the province. Since the entire site is in Polish, you must look for the Polish name of the province (Pomorskie for Pomerania, etc). Each province has a separate page with a list of towns. Find the town name in the first column, parafia / USC. If available at one of the online sites, it will be listed. The dates in the columns show what records have been indexed for Chrzty/Urodziny (Baptisms/Births), Małżeństwa (Marriages), and Zgony (Deaths). Under Strona www is a link to the web site with the indexed records. There are over a dozen sites that have images (or at least indexes) of the records available. Included among them are Geneteka, which I’ve praised here before, and the Polish church books included on FamilySearch.org. What’s not listed? Anything on microfilm available via FamilySearch – this site lists only records/indexes available online. As with any record site, some provinces have many more towns with online records available than others. But towns are added weekly and the site is a great way to keep track of  what’s available for your ancestors’ towns. There are hundreds listed – is your ancestors town among them?

On the main page next to “Województwa” you will also see “II Rzeczpospolita” or “Second Republic”. This list includes areas once associated with Poland during the interwar period. There is also a heading “Dokumenty metrykalne” which offers documents that describe the format of the records. However, as the documents are in Polish, it will not nearly be as helpful as various translation guides in English.

For those of you with Polish ancestry, how cool is it to have a site that lists all available online records? I think it’s great…I just wish Germany had a similar site! Happy searching…

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

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Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series…C is for Census! Federal Census Records are one of the first tools that U.S. researchers turn to when beginning their family history research. It was my first stop when I began my research 23 years ago – back then, the most recent available census at the time was the 1910! I think the census records are even more valuable today.

While census records don’t give you exact dates or vital statistics about your family members, they do provide vital CLUES to assist in further research. The census teaches us:

  • family relationships – including occasional maiden names if in-laws are living with the family
  • approximate ages
  • addresses
  • occupations
  • for immigrants, the approximate immigration year and if naturalized or not

How accurate is the information? Well, in my family that all depends on several factors, including who provided the info, how well the informant understood English, and how close to the “event” they were at the time (for example, the immigration year is more likely to be correct five years later than 25 years later).

I’ve found a lot of family members in quite a few federal censuses, so I’ve created some rules – of course, they may only apply to my family, who tend to shy away from being “found” by future generations. But perhaps I’m not alone, so I present Donna’s Census Rules:

1. Women get younger every decade. Or so it seems…

2. Rule #1 is applied more vigorously in instances where the wife is older than the husband. Although the wife was older in one set of my grandparents, two sets of greats, and my 2nd great-grandparents, she is always either the same age as the husband or younger so as to prevent the raised eyebrows of the neighbors.

3. Just because adult children are listed with their parents doesn’t actually mean they live there, it just means the parents misunderstood the question. Keep looking, because you’ll probably find them listed elsewhere on their own. My family has inflated the official population number for decades with this rule!

4. The spelling of immigrant surnames are irrelevant for the first 25-30 or so years after immigration, then enumerators finally get it right. Overall, the 1940 census has been the most accurate with both names and ages for all of my ancestors.

5. Don’t be surprised to find extra, unknown siblings listed. Or existing, known siblings not listed. I may never know why. Or why not.

So there you have it….researching census records can be a wild, fun ride. You never know what you’ll find, but one thing’s for sure – there’s always a “happy dance” involved when you find your ancestor! Maybe someday I’ll get to explore census records for other countries, too!

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet Challenge]

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Józef Pater's prisoner photo. Source: Office for Information on Former Prisoners, The State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau

Who was Józef Pater?  I came upon Józef by accident while searching for my 2nd great-grandfather of the same name. I discovered that this particular Józef was my ancestor’s nephew, his brother Marcin’s son. What I learned with that search result was a forgotten story of a family – my family – who perished in the Holocaust.

If Józef’s cousins in the United States knew of his fate, it never reached the ears of their descendents. Most of what I learned about my courageous cousin came from sources written in Polish, but even those sources were limited and hard to find. The few facts I was able to piece together paint an interesting portrait of the man.  Who was Józef Pater?  He was an artist, a decorated soldier, a government employee, and a leader in the Polish Resistance.  He was a son, brother, husband, and father. He was Catholic, and he was Polish. He died at Auschwitz. Who was Józef Pater?  He was my cousin.

Józef Pater was born on 31 July 1897 in Żyrardów, Błoński powiat, Warszawske gubernia, Vistula Land, Russian Empire. He was the son of Marcin and Paulina (nee Dreksler) Pater, both 37 years old. The family moved to Częstochowa by the time Józef was in middle school. Beginning in 1914, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow to study painting.

As a teenager – as early as age 15 – Józef Pater became involved in politics by joining the Polish Socialist Party – Revolutionary Faction (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna – Frakcja Rewolucyjna), or PPS. The PPS was a pro-Polish independence party founded in 1892 that sought ideals such as equal rights for all citizens (regardless of race, nationality, religion and gender), a universal right to vote, freedom of speech, assembly, and press, and basic labor laws such as minimum wage, an 8-hour workday, and a ban on child labor. The “Revolutionary Faction” developed in 1906 under the leadership of Józef Piłsudski and the primary goal was to restore a democratic, independent Poland.

In November 1914, at the age of 17, Józef Pater served in the Polish Legions, a Polish armed force created in August of that year also by Józef Piłsudski.  The Legions became an independent unit within the Austro-Hungarian Army.  Józef Pater’s service began in the 1st Squadron of the 1st Lancer regiment in the First Brigade led by Piłsudski.  In July 1916, Pater was in the 6th Infantry regiment.  During these years, the Polish Legions, many of whom like Józef were citizens of Russia, took part in many battles with the Imperial Russian Army.

A short biographical sketch of Józef Pater that I found in Słownik biograficzny konspiracji Warszawskiej, 1939-1944 indicates that beginning in November 1916, he worked in boards of recruitment in Siedlce and Łuków. However, it is highly likely that Pater was part of the Polish Legions that were involved in the so-called Oath Crisis.  When the Central Powers created the Kingdom of Poland on 05 November 1916, it was essentially a “puppet state” of Germany and not independent at all. In July 1917, the Central Powers demanded that the soldiers of the Polish Legions swear allegiance and obedience to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany.  Based on the example of their leader, Piłsudski, the majority of the soldiers of the 1st and 3rd Brigades of the Legions declined to make the oath. The soldiers who were citizens of Austria-Hungary were sent to the Italian front as part of the Austro-Hungarian Army, and the soldiers from the rest of occupied Poland were sent to prisoner of war camps.  Since Pater is listed later in life as a member of the Association of Former Political Prisoners of the former Revolutionary Faction, it is assumed that he was one of the young soldiers interred for refusing to take the oath.  Later, in 1932, he was the president of the Kutno branch of the Association of Former Ideological Prisoners.

On 04 October 1917, the 20-year-old Józef Pater married Helena Feliksa Palige in All Saints Church (Wszystkich Świętych) in Warsaw.

Signatures on the marriage record of Jozef Pater and Helena Palige.

From November 1918 to November 1920, Józef Pater served as a volunteer in the Polish Army. At some point he must have continued his studies at the Academy, for he was awarded a diploma in 1921 as an artist-painter.  Pater rejoined the army in November 1924 and served there as non-commissioned officer in 4th air regiment.  He retired from military service on 31 December 1929.

While I have little more than dates and assignments about Pater’s time in the military, I found one fact that speaks volumes: he was decorated four times with Cross of Valour and also with the Cross of Independence with Swords.  The Cross of Valour is a Polish military decoration created in 1920 for one who has demonstrated deeds of valor and courage on the field of battle.  Józef received the decoration the maximum amount allowed – four times.  It is unknown if he received the commendation for his actions with the Legions in World War I, or if it was for any actions during the Polish-Soviet War from 1920 – 1923.  The Cross of Independence is one of Poland’s highest military decorations.  There are three classes, and the Cross of Independence with Swords is the rarest of the three.  Developed in 1930, it was awarded to those who laid foundations for the independence of Poland before or during World War I. Józef Pater received this honor in 1931.

Józef Pater may have been a painter, but I’m not sure he ever painted for a living because following his busy military career he began to work as a clerk for the government.  From 1930 to 1933 he worked in the towns of Toruń, Kutno, and Grodzisk Mazowiecki, and from January 1934 to June 1935 he worked as a clerk in the Broadcasting Agency of the Polish Radio in Warsaw. In 1935, Józef Pater became town councilor in Grodzisk Mazowiecki and he still held this position when Poland was invaded by Germany in September 1939.

The invasion by Germany was far more than a military occupation.  According to Poland’s Holocaust by Tadeusz Piotrowski, the Germans attempted to remove Polish culture and way of life through closing the banks, devaluing the currency, confiscating possessions, destroying libraries, forbidding the teaching of Polish history, and banning Polish music.  Himmler would announce on 15 March 1940:

“All Polish specialists will be exploited in our military-industrial complex.  Later, all Poles will disappear from this world. It is imperative that the great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task.” (Piotrowski, 23)

Within a month of Poland’s invasion (by one source, another says a few months later), Józef Pater became the chief commanding officer (listed in narratives as having the rank of “Major”) of a Polish Resistance group called the Gwardia Obrony Narodowej (National Defense Guard) or GON.  In April 1940, the GON was joined with the Związek Czyny Zbrojnego (Association of Arms) or ZCZ.  This group joined with several other Resistance groups in October 1940 to establish the Konfederacja Narodu, or National Confederation – the main Polish underground organization throughout the war. The National Confederation organized a single armed force for the good of the Polish nation.

Józef Pater became one of the many leaders of the underground.  From January 1941, he was in charge of police and security issues for the movement.  Most participants in the Resistance movement were known to each other only by code names.  Józef Pater used the names of “Inżynier” – in English, “Engineer” – as well as the name “Orlot,” which does not have a direct English translation but is a fighting eagle.

The symbol of the Polish Underground is the flag of the Armia Krajowa; the symbol on the flag is a combination of letters "P" and "W" for Polska Walcząca or Fighting Poland.

The role of the Polish Underground during the German occupation was twofold.  First, they were to do everything possible to make the lives of the German military as miserable as possible.  That meant sabotage, disruption of supply lines or communication, theft, damage to equipment, and similar acts. In addition to acts of destruction, the Resistance movement also sought to keep hope alive for the Polish people. Since the only authorized press was German, the Underground published and disseminated accurate information about the war to the Poles as well as getting the message out of the country. In addition, the Underground movement’s message fostered a sense of fierce pride among the Poles and offered hope that their culture and nation would survive.

On 15 February 1941, Józef Pater – and presumably his wife, Helena – were arrested in Grodzisk Mazowiecki and sent to Pawiak Prison in Warsaw.  Pawiak was used by the German Gestapo for interrogations, usually brutal in nature, as well as for executions.  It is estimated that at least 100,000 Catholics and Jews were sent to Pawiak – approximately 37,000 were executed there, and 60,000 were sent to various concentration camps.

In a book called Meldunek z Pawiaka I was able to learn about Józef’s character as well as the bravery of those involved in the underground movement.  Franciszek Julian Znamirowski, commander of the ZCZ, became friends with Józef Pater in 1940 as co-conspirators when their two resistance organizations joined forces.  Znamirowski survived the war and described Pater in a letter to author Zygmunt Śliwicki in 1970:

“The man was courageous, generous, friendly, a great patriot, the soul of a painter, and devoted to his family.  He downplayed the danger.  He lived in Grodzisk Mazowiecki with his family. He had a radio and listened to messages, sending them in a secret letter. At this he was caught, and we lost him. When I learned about the arrest and his confinement in the Pawiak, without much thinking I decided to move out and help him escape.”

It was rumored that Pater had typhus and was in the prison hospital, so Znamirowski obtained fake documents that identified him as a doctor of infectious diseases.  Znamirowski told the guards that he was Pater’s family doctor, and he bribed them with money for entry to the prison.  He described Pater as being very surprised to see him.  Contrary to the rumor, he was not sick at all.  He was wearing pajamas, and the two retreated to the bathroom to talk without fear of wiretaps.  They talked “freely about everything” for an hour.

Znamirowski explained that he was there to help Pater escape – he believed it was possible.  However, Józef’s wife, Helena, was also imprisoned there.  Józef feared that if he escaped without her, there would be reprisals and she would suffer even more.  He asked Znamirowski if he could return with enough money to buy their way out of the prison with the guards.

Znamirowski recalled in 1970:  “He [Pater] asked urgently for help by buying him out, and it was a lot of money.  We were not able to collect the cash.  He was being interrogated, but he did not incriminate anybody. He held out heroically. He authorized me to take over the organization and manage it in accordance with his ideas.”  It was the last time Znamirowski ever saw him.

On 17 April 1942 Józef Pater was transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim.  He was registered as Polish political prisoner and received the number 31225.  He died there on 24 June.

Józef’s wife, Helena Palige Pater, was presumably arrested at the same time and also sent to Pawiak.  On 22 September 1941, she was transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and was killed (date unknown). Ravensbrück, located in northern Germany, was known as the women’s concentration camp.

Józef’s older brother, Bronisław (born 06 September 1890), was also involved with the Resistance. On 17 January 1943 he was sent to Majdanek concentration camp and was killed (date unknown).

One source (Za Murami Pawiaka) reports that there were two sons of Józef and Helena that were also killed in the camps.  Another book, Słownik biograficzny konspiracji Warszawskiej, 1939-1944, reports that one son, also named Bronisław (born 1920), was killed at Majdanek; however, there is conflicting information because there were two men named Bronisław Pater, one the brother and one the son of Józef. One of these two was transported to Majdanek on 17 January 1943 and never returned.  They may have both died at that particular camp, but I lack the appropriate evidence to say for sure.

Reports differ widely on the number of deaths in the country of Poland at the hands of the Nazi regime. The commonly accepted number is six million Poles – both Catholics and Jews – died, which was roughly 17% of the total population of Poland before the war. It is estimated that of the six million Polish deaths, three million were Jewish and three million were Catholic. As the Jewish population of Poland was much smaller, Germany killed about 85% of Poland’s Jewish population and about 10% of Poland’s Catholic population.

Józef, Bronisław, Helena, Bronisław.  Their names were forgotten in my family.  May we never forget them again.


The brothers Józef and Bronisław Pater are first cousins of my great-grandfather, Louis (Ludwik) Pater and his brothers (Wacław, Stefan) and sisters (Franciszka, Ewa, Wiktoria).  Louis’ father, also Józef Pater, is Józef’s uncle and a brother to his father, Marcin Pater.  My ancestor Józef immigrated to America in 1905.  His nephews would have been 15 and 7 years old at that time.  My great-grandfather Louis did not leave Poland until August, 1907, and he was living with his adult sister, Franciszka.  Given that Franciszka married Paweł Niedzinski (Nieginski) in Częstochowa in June, 1906, it is likely that both branches of the Pater family left Żyrardów and were living in Częstochowa together.  Louis/Ludwik was nearly 14 years old when he left Poland; cousin Józef was 10 and Bronisław was 17.

This post has literally been a couple of years in the making.  I had help with some initial research by footnoteMaven, and I would not have known much without some translations by Maciej Róg.  I was further assisted with both research and translations by Matthew Bielawa .  Their help is greatly appreciated!

Source: Ilustrowany Przewodniak Po Polsce Podziemnej, 1939-1945

Sources used for this post:

Vital Records:

Parafia Matki Bożej Pocieszenia (Żyrardów, Błoński, Warszawske, Vistula Land, Russian Empire), “Akta urodzeń, małżeństw, zgonów 1897 [Records of Births, Marriages, Deaths 1897],” page 160, entry 637, Józef Pater, 31 Jul 1897; digital images from Projekt indeksacji metryk parafialnych, http://metryki.genealodzy.pl,  Archiwum Państwowe m. st. Warszawy, Oddział w Grodzisku Maz. (http://metryki.genealodzy.pl/metryka.php?zs=1265d&sy=134&kt=1&skan=0635-0638.jpg)

Parafia Wszystkich Świętych (Warszawa, Warszawaske, Regency Kingdom of Poland), “Akta małżeństw 1917 [Records of Marriages 1917],” page 67, entry 133, Józef Pater and Helena Feliksa Palige, 04 Oct 1917; digital images from Projekt indeksacji metryk parafialnych, http://metryki.genealodzy.pl, Księgi metrykalne parafii rzymskokatolickiej Wszystkich Świętych w Warszawie (http://metryki.genealodzy.pl/metryka.php?zs=9264d&sy=341&kt=1&skan=133.jpg)

Death record 12625/1942, Józef Pater, 24 June 1942. Biuro informacji o byłych więźniach, Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau (Office for Information on Former Prisoners, The State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau)


Dębski, Jerzy and State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Death Books from Auschwitz: Remnants. München : K.G. Saur, 1995.

Kunert, Andrzej Krysztof.  Ilustrowany Przewodniak Po Polsce Podziemnej, 1939-1945. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1996.

Kunert, Andrzej Krysztof. Słownik Biograficzny Konspiracji Warszawskiej, 1939-1944.  Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX, 1987.

Lukas, Richard C. Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

Lukas, Richard C. Forgotten Survivors: Polish Christians Remember the Nazi Occupation. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Piotrowski, Tadeusz.  Poland’s Holocaust. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Inc., 1998.

Wanat, Leon. Za Murami Pawiaka. Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1972.

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“One hour, okay?”  He looked at me skeptically. “Then you have to come back to me. We have places to go!”

“One hour – got it!” Wow, even time travel has restrictions. I turned on the machine and within a minute I was back in 1940 and walking the streets of Philadelphia. I didn’t have much time, but fortunately I had a good idea of where to go. I was a bit nauseated at first, but my focus became clearer and I could see where I was – Thompson Street. I needed to turn down Venango Street to get to Mercer Street, my first destination.

The weather in Philadelphia on April 4, 1940 was warmer than the previous day – nearly 63 degrees and dry. People were going about their daily business and the streets were not deserted – people were out walking. Cars were few. I could hear faint sounds of Big Band music coming from a house fortunate enough to own a radio. The music was great, but I also love the fashions of the 1940’s – there’s a guy in a suit and a fedora walking down the street. I look great dressed up in a skirt, blouse, and pumps – and only in 1940 could I get away with wearing a hat!

I quickly found Mercer Street. I knew the real census enumerator had been there the day before; I was just an interloper. I hoped my plan would work to avoid any suspicion as to who I really was. I tried to look official and get to know the neighbors on my way to almost the center of the block – 3553 Mercer Street. As I passed by #3505, a young girl came out carrying an even younger girl.  Were they sisters? I heard the older say, “Come on, Peanut, I’ll get you home.”  Oh my, I thought, that’s Rita Mroz and – no way!  Rita lived with her 3 sisters, 2 brothers, and Polish-born parents, but the little “Peanut” she was carrying was definitely not her sister. In fact, she was heading right towards my destination!  I watched while Rita safely delivered the young girl back home.

There it is!  3553 Mercer Street.  A 7-year-old girl sat on the front step, looking quite unhappy that her younger sister arrived back home.

Wow, this is too much! If I could only tell Aunt Joan about this, she would laugh so hard!  “Hi!” I said, “I love your curly hair.”

“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” replied the girl. And with that, she ran inside.

I knocked, and a handsome man came to the door. I was momentarily stunned, but I quickly recovered. “I work for the Government,” I stammered. Well, at least that’s not a lie. I explained that although the census enumerator had been there the day before, I was a supervisor performing a spot-check to ensure that the responses were recorded properly.

“Sure,” said the man, “come on in.”

As I sat down, I tried to look around without looking like I was casing the house for a future robbery. I could smell something wonderful – Oh my God, it’s Nan’s chicken soup! I silently wondered how I could ingratiate myself to the point of being invited for dinner. I heard a female voice call out from the kitchen, “Henush, who is it? Whoever it is, we don’t want any.” I thought, Hi, Nan! If she only knew…

The Pater Family, circa 1937

Her husband yelled an explanation back and I saw her take a peek from the kitchen. She looked so young! And pretty!

“Now, let’s see,” I said. I acted professionally and began asking all of the enumerator’s questions. “Name?”

“Henry Pater.” Boy, I thought, Mom was right about those grey eyes! He’s so much more handsome than any photo I ever saw.


“Twenty-eight.” Wow, kudos for telling the truth, Grandpop. Once we got to the same question for his wife, Mae, I heard her yell, “Twenty-seven!”  He looked over his shoulder and whispered, “I told the enumerator yesterday 31, but she’s really 32. Just don’t tell I told you!”

I learned about 7-year-old Joan and 4-year-old Anita, the “peanut” I saw earlier. Upon hearing her name, she appeared and hid behind her father’s leg. “This is Anita,” he said, “but I like to call her Chick!”  Anita giggled.

Finally, Henry told me his father-in-law, Joseph Zawodny, also lived there. Henry told me that Joseph was married. I didn’t need to ask where his wife was – I knew she was in a mental hospital. I would visit her on another trip back to the past. Where are you, I thought.  As if he heard me, I saw an older man peer out of the kitchen and ask Henry something in Polish. If only I could answer back or get the chance to talk to him! There is so much I want to know, and I’d like to know him so much.

I knew my time was running out.  Reluctantly, I thanked the Pater family and took my leave, waving bye to little Anita on my way out. I’m off to see your future husband now.

How do I get from the Port Richmond neighborhood to Northern Liberties fast? Sometimes future technology has its advantages, and I found my way more quickly than I thought possible.  Suddenly I was walking along Germantown Avenue. I couldn’t go up and down every street with my limited time – when I saw the meat packing plant on the corner of 3rd and Thompson, I knew I was in the right place. The census-taker wouldn’t walk these streets for two more days, but fortunately my destination was right on the corner so I didn’t have to fake my way through several houses.

Right on the corner at 1300 Germantown Avenue, I spotted a young boy sitting on the front step. I was stunned and forgot where I was. “Nick?” I asked.

The Pointkouski Family, circa 1938-9

The curly-haired boy looked up at me and smiled. “No, I’m Jimmy and I’m 5. I’ll be 6 this summer,” he said proudly, blue eyes sparkling.

“Oh,” I said, “it’s nice to meet you, Jimmy! I have a nephew named Nick – he’s 4 going on 5 this summer and he sure looks a lot like you!”

Suddenly a woman came to the door and she didn’t look happy that I was talking to her son. After I explained about the census, she invited me in and once again I tried to look around the home’s interior. This house rented for $5 more than my last stop, and I wanted to see if it was worth the extra money.  I also couldn’t stop looking at the woman, Margaret Pointkouski.  As I took down the information she provided, I questioned the spelling. “That’s with a U, not a W?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “that’s right.”

Margaret looked so – what was the word? Young! She was 28 years old – well, that’s what she told me, but I knew her 28th birthday would actually be the following week!  Just then the door opened and a young man entered. “Well, hello!” he said as he tipped his hat and leaned over to kiss Margaret.

Just as with Henry, the 29-year-old James looked so much more handsome than any photos I had ever seen. I couldn’t help but smile back.  When he heard who I was, or at least who I was pretending to be, he commented that he didn’t know there were “lady census takers”.

At that, Margaret rolled her eyes, “Oh, Pop!”

I said, “They thought some people might answer more questions from a woman.”

“Sure,” the elder Jimmy said, “I’ll tell you anything!”  He added, “I hope you get all of your info recorded.”

“Oh, I will,” I assured him. Just maybe not today.

The Pointkouski household was small with only the couple and their young son, Jimmy. I was bursting to tell Margaret that she would get pregnant late the following year and have a daughter, but I knew it wasn’t my place to speak of such things.

I asked my questions – not the ones I wanted to ask; I could not ask those questions. Like where are your siblings living right now? I hadn’t visited them yet. Oh, there were so many questions I could not ask. But I asked the “official” questions and I was very happy to hear the answers. All I kept thinking was: this is so cool!

I said my good-byes to 1940 and powered down the machine. Suddenly my boyfriend appeared, “Time’s up – let’s go out to eat. Did you find everyone you were looking for?”

“Not everyone, but it’s a start.  They’ll all still be there when I go back.”


[Written for the 117th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: 1940!]

I actually wrote this the night before the carnival topic was announced. I’ve told a few stories on this blog, but I never presented factual information in such a fictional way.  Technically, I’d call this creative non-fiction. To me, talking about finding a genealogical record (on my “machine”, aka my laptop) can sound a little boring, at least to non-genealogists. But how could a science fiction lover like myself resist seeing that search for the record as time travel! The idea took hold and would not let go.  Face it – bringing up those images, walking through the neighborhoods, reading all about the families – it is the closest thing we can get to time travel!

The Census facts came from the actual 1940 Census (source citations upon request, I used Ancestry to access). I saw the path the enumerator took and learned about the neighborhood layout from a combination of current maps and a 1942 map of Philadelphia courtesy of the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. What was the weather like on those April days in 1940? Well, I learned about temperature and precipitation totals from The Franklin Institute! I knew about fashion from the movies and my parents. I have an idea what the characters looked like from photographs. As for the personalities of the individuals – everything I know, I learned from my parents. Of my grandparents, I knew my maternal grandmother the best.  Second would be my paternal grandmother, with my paternal grandfather third.  Least of all, I knew, or rather didn’t really know, my maternal grandfather – he died when I was five years old and I only met him a few times. I’m glad I could get to know them all in the 1940 Census!

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Recently Ancestry.com put up a new set of records called “Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records.” The collection contains a wide variety of miscellaneous records from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  I actually found a few items of interest in the collection.  One subset of records comes from the Wackerman Funeral Home, a funeral home which still exists today but is no longer in its former location.  In these records, I found information on the funeral arrangements for my great-grandmother, Marie Bergmeister, who died in 1919 at the age of 43.  Marie (or more usually, Maria) left behind a husband, Joseph, and five children – including my grandmother Margaret, the youngest, who was not quite six years old.

The funeral home record for the costs of Marie Bergmeister's funeral, 1919.

I knew that my grandmother’s family was poor, but it was interesting to compare the bill for my great-grandmother’s burial to some of the others who died at the same time.


  • $55 – Gray crape
  • $65 – Chesnut
  • $90 – Square chesnut with ext handles
  • $125 – Solid maple
  • $200 – Solid mahoghany


  • $14 – Pine
  • $35 – Chesnut


  • $10.50 to $13.00


  • $5 – Low Mass
  • $25 – Solemn Requiem

A more costly funeral found in the same records.

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In my quest to prepare for the 1940 Census by documenting all of my relatives and their potential 1940 addresses, I realized there was a relative or two I never found in earlier censuses.  One such relative was my great-grandfather’s half brother, Herman Goetz. Herman and his brother, Julius Goetz, left a rather good paper trail except I was never able to locate Herman – with certainty – in either the 1920 or 1930 Census.  The name “Herman Goetz” was not exactly “John Smith” but it was a common name among German immigrants, and I never really tried to determine if any of the Herman’s I found was “my” Uncle Herman.  Did he move out of state?  Did he return to Germany?

In genealogy, as in life, sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one.  I couldn’t find Herman in the 1920 Census because he died.  It’s almost comical that I never considered that possibility until I discovered it, quite by accident, in one of Ancestry’s newer databases: Pennsylvania, Church and Town Records, 1708-1985.

There does not appear to be a complete list of what records are included in this collection, but in my searching of various surnames I’ve found some hits in funeral home records and some Catholic cemetery records.  I found Herman in the Record Books for the John Kimmerle Funeral Homes.  He died on 11 October 1918 from pneumonia and was buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery on 18 October.  His sister, Hilaury “Laura” Bergmeister Thuman, paid for the burial.

His death in 1918 finally answers the question of why my father never heard of him – my grandmother barely knew him since she was only 5 years old when he died.

When I first began my genealogical research, I asked my dad about relatives and he said to look for his mother’s “Uncle Julius Goetz”.  Neither of her parents was named Goetz, so I wasn’t clear how he was an uncle until I found her parents’ marriage record. Joseph Bergmeister and Maria Echerer were married in November 1897 in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Oberbayern, Bayern (Bavaria), Germany. The record indicates that the bachelor Joseph was the son of the “deceased flour merchant Joseph Bergmeister of Munich and Ursula Dallmeier (who later married a Goetz), residing in Regensburg.”

Portion of the 1897 marriage record that details the status of Joseph Bergmeister's parents.

My great-grandfather’s mother re-married a man named Goetz, so any children from her second marriage are half siblings to my Bergmeister’s.  While I have a record in Julius’ hand that lists Ursula as his mother, I only have circumstantial evidence that Herman is also her son. (The circumstantial evidence is his “connection” to both Julius and the Bergmeister family – I can now send for his death certificate to verify his parents’ names.) Even if he was a step-brother to both Julius and the Bergmeister children, he was certainly involved in their lives based on the documents I have found. Here is Herman’s “paper trail” in the United States:

22 Apr 1911 – Herman sets sail from Antwerp aboard the S.S. Finland.  He is listed as Herman Götz, a 26-year-old locksmith from Regensburg whose father, also named Herman Götz, lives in Regensburg. He is traveling to his brother, Julius Götz, who is living at 500 Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia, PA. On 03 May 1911, Herman’s ship arrives in New York City.

24 Mar 1913 – Herman receives a marriage license to marry Florentina Bottner. He is living at 6078 Kingsessing Street (the address of his half sister, Hilaury Bergmeister Thuman, and her husband, Max) and was born on 14 May 1885 in Germany. Florentina lived at 3458 Amber Street and was born on 14 Aug 1877 in Germany.  Parents’ names were not requested on the license, and neither had been married before.

11 Apr 1913 – My grandmother, Margaret Hermina Bergmeister, is born and apparently named after her Uncle Herman. She is baptized on 13 July 1913 and her godparents are Uncle Herman Goetz and Aunt Laura Bergmeister Thuman.

12 Aug 1914 – Herman’s wife dies. Her death certificate lists her name as Mrs. Flora Goetz with the same birth date as the marriage license above. Although she is listed as married, the information is provided by her mother and the address given is that of her mother’s and the same as provided in her marriage license. She died from peritonitis “due to ruptured uterus during child birth”.

12 Sep 1918 – Herman registers for the draft. His draft card shows he is living with his sister and brother-in-law at 6078 Kingsessing Street and Laura is listed as his nearest relative. He was born on 14 May 1885.  He is naturalized, although I have not yet found his papers. He is employed as a machinist at Standard Roller Bearing Co. at 49th and Merion. His physical description: tall, stout, grey eyes, red hair.

Front of Herman Goetz's WWI Draft Registration Card.

11 Oct 1918 – Herman died from pneumonia based on information found in the funeral home records. His address is the Thumans’ address on Kingsessing Street, which is directly across the street from the cemetery in which his is buried on 14 Oct 1918, Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

What little I do know of “Uncle Herman” is sad – although he quickly found love in his new country, his wife died in childbirth the following year and he died only four years later at the age of 32.  It is also the beginning of a very sad chain of events for my great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister. First, in October, 1918, his half-brother Herman dies.  Less than six months later, in February, 1919, his wife Maria dies at the age of 43, which leaves him as the single parent of five children.  Later that year, in November, his brother Ignaz Bergmeister dies at the age of 43.  Joseph would only live to 54 himself, dying in 1927. Of the Bergmeister and Goetz siblings, despite the young deaths of Herman Goetz and Joseph and Ignaz Bergmeister, their sister Laura Thuman lived to 73 and Julius Goetz lived to 84. There was a 16-year age difference between Hilaury and Julius, however, so Julius was the sole surviving sibling for many years after Laura’s death in 1943.

Although my grandmother never knew her “namesake” Uncle Herman, I assume she had some familial relationship with Uncle Julius.  Although my father knew who he was, he didn’t recall meeting him and their lives overlapped by quite a bit – Julius did not die until 1971.

If it wasn’t for the “accidental” searching of this new record collection on Ancestry, I would not have solved the mystery of what happened to Uncle Herman any time soon. Although Pennsylvania death indexes were recently made available, I would not have ordered any record for a man with the name Herman Goetz without more evidence as to the correct one, which I now have. I hope to eventually find a photograph of both Uncle Julius and Uncle Herman – I recently learned the name of Julius’ grandson and plan on contacting him soon.  Even if I can’t see what Herman looked like, I’m glad I learned what I did about him so his too-short life can be remembered. That’s what family is for…

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In only 35 days genealogy geeks everywhere will rejoice in the release of the 1940 Census. It will be the first Federal Census in which my parents make an appearance. When I came up with 12 Genealogy Goals for 2012, goal #3 was to “Find all my relatives in the 1940 census.”  But just how many relatives is that? Until I started gathering notes, I didn’t realize just how much my great-grandparents’ families grew from the time of their immigration between 1900 and 1909 to 1940.  Here is a chart that outlines the, er, relative growth of the families:

The additions in the great-grandparent generation or above were immigrations, and decreases were due to deaths. The additions for the grandparents and below were births. I’m counting my paternal grandmother in the above counts because she was alive, but I’ve yet to actually find her on any census ever. And I’m not double counting the several relatives that were counted more than once in prior censuses!  The spouse category includes all spouses of any generation that are not directly related to me. So, it appears I only have to find 108 relatives. 

The good news is, this is roughly about 32 households.  Of those 32 households, 27 live in the city of Philadelphia which had a 1940 population of “only” 1.93 million.  It appears I have my work cut out for me! 

What am I doing to prepare for the research? Well, other than mapping out the list of individuals that should be alive, I’m trying to determine their 1940 addresses.  Mostly I’m relying on the 1930 addresses, but in some cases I’m using other available documents like death or marriage records if the events took place closer to 1940. I even have my grandfather’s driver’s license from 1940, so I am confident I can find my father at that address with his parents.

After compiling a list of the possible addresses and/or what the 1930 ED (enumeration district) was if I’m using that address, I then head to Steve Morse’s Unified 1940 Census ED Finder. Unfortunately, for a city as large as Philadelphia the result usually yields two or more possible ED numbers based on either the 1930 ED or an actual street address.  To narrow it down even further, I am literally mapping out the address and relying on Steve’s links to the descriptions or maps of the EDs.

While this whole exercise would bore most of my non-genealogy friends to tears, the research has been fun.  Well, not as much fun as converting surnames to Soundex codes back in the day and scrolling through microfilm, but fun. While an index will certainly make research easier, I’m still confident that the ease of using free digitized images will make finding all 108 relatives relatively easy.  And I’m sure I’ll find some surprises once I find these families!

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Ryan, Beckett, and Castle in front of the murder board (Seamus Dever, Stana Katic, and Nathan Fillion in Castle's Season 3 episode "Close Encounters of the Murderous Kind"). Accessed via Castle-Fans.Org on January 9, 2012.

A few months ago I watched all the past episodes of the television crime drama Castle (ABC, Monday nights at 10:00 PM Eastern). I’ve always had a thing for romantic comedy shows about crime-solving duos. Castle didn’t disappoint and it’s now one of my favorite shows. It has good plots, interesting and well developed characters, subtle humor, and a hint of romance. While I enjoy the show more for the character relationships, I have to admit the characters’ crime-solving skills are impressive. I had a sudden realization of why that might appeal to me…those skills would work equally well in genealogy! After all, we may not be solving crimes, but we genealogists are solving mysteries all the time!  So I offer my favorite detectives as our new research role models…

On Castle, the NYPD homicide unit, led by Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), sets up a “murder board” for each new case.  They take a white board and start with a photo of the victim and some pertinent facts. Next they add information on potential suspects, witnesses, and a timeline of events leading up to the murder.  The character of Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is a best-selling mystery author who “assists” the detectives on their cases.  Castle usually adds the “outside the box” thinking on how all of the pieces of the mystery fit together with how he, as a writer, would have written the story.

The “murder board” concept is perfect for solving genealogical mysteries. In fact, I realized I’ve had a murder board for years without calling it that.  The victim is the research problem – in my case, the birthplace of my great-grandmother Elizabeth (Elżbieta) Miller Pater. The suspects are the potential places based on clues I’ve found in my research of documents such as passenger list records and other documents that contain information about an immigrant’s birthplace.

On the show Castle, sometimes the detectives really think a particular suspect is the killer – the suspect was in the right place at the right time, had means and motive to commit the crime, and all of the facts seems to support the person as the one who did it.  But sometimes there’s a problem…the suspect “alibis out”.  That’s the term the show uses when a suspect has an alibi that checks out upon further review, so he or she could not have committed the crime because there is some evidence that places the person in another place at the same time.  In genealogical research, we often think we have the right answer based on sources that seem to indicate it’s correct.  But then the answer alibis out.  All records – including some in my great-grandmother’s handwriting – point to the town of Żyrardów as her birthplace.  But Żyrardów  is the wrong suspect – the town alibis out!  When the records were checked, the record for her birth was not found.

What’s next? In solving the murder mystery on Castle, the team turns to other sources such as witnesses or financial records that might lead to more clues or more suspects.  Sometimes they take a closer look at the timeline to see if they missed something in their initial research.  All of these actions have a lot to teach genealogists looking to solve their mysteries when the Number One Suspect alibis out.  In short, look for more clues!  Are there any witnesses?  Maybe older family members recall information that was passed down about the mystery.  Who else was connected to the mystery/victim?  Turn to records for siblings, collateral relatives, or even neighbors of the person you are trying to find. When did things happen? Sometimes just creating a timeline for an individual can help cross some suspected places, times, or events off of the list of suspects.

No matter what avenue your research takes, using the murder board concept can be very helpful – write it all down and plot it all out.  Even the negative searches – the suspects with alibis – need to be listed so you remember what resources you’ve already checked. Often in the show, the characters literally stare at the board trying to see if they missed something that will lead to a new search for a new suspect – or a new search for a former suspect who’s alibi was questionable or unproven. Often Castle will find a new direction based on his unique writer’s view of the “story”. Likewise, it benefits genealogists to re-view information, and to re-search, in order to find that missing piece to the puzzle.  It also helps to get help from someone like Castle – someone not so closely related to the case who might have a different view of those same facts.

I don’t have an actual physical board of information for the case of my great-grandmother’s birthplace, but after watching a few seasons of Castle I’m beginning to think it might be a good idea to throw all the pertinent facts up on the wall, or at least down on paper. This will enable me to review the facts and review the suspects and perhaps finally solve this mystery.  Where is Mr. Castle when I need him? I could use his help!

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While we’re at it, let’s use a murder board to solve the mystery of how the actor who plays Castle, Nathan Fillion, who has French-Canadian and Irish ancestry, can look like the long-lost twin of genealogist Matthew Bielawa, who has Ukrainian and Galician Polish ancestry.  Hmm, have we ever seen Nathan and Matthew in the same room together?  I think a DNA test is in order…

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