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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Remembering St. Nicholas

Soon that jolly, white-haired man dressed in red will visit your house at night and deliver some treats to the children that have been good.  In fact, the night he comes is tonight!  Wait, did you think I meant Santa Claus?  No, it’s time for the visit from St. Nicholas!

1914 St. Nicholas Magazine Calendar, St Nicholas Center Collection

1914 St. Nicholas Magazine Calendar, St Nicholas Center Collection

St. Nicholas lived during the 4th Century in a Greek territory that today is Turkey.  Many legends exist about his life.  Most agree that he came from a wealthy family.  After becoming orphaned, Nicholas used his wealth to help the poor and needy.  He devoted his life to God and became a bishop in the Church.  He continued to perform acts of charity, usually in secret, and he was known throughout the region for his goodness.  In giving gifts, he asked that the recipients do the same to those in need.  By the time Bishop Nicholas died, he was known as a miracle-worker, gift-giver, and a true man of God who cared about others.

It became customary around the world to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, by doing what he had done.  On the evening of December 5th, gifts would be left in secret to those in need, presumably left by the saint himself.  He would wander throughout the country and leave gifts for children.  In fact, some children would leave food for St. Nicholas’ means of travel, a donkey.

Many countries continue the celebration of St. Nicholas Day. In Germany, the area of Bavaria where my great-grandparents came from celebrated the arrival of Sankt Nikolaus. He would arrive in his bishop’s regalia with a miter and crozier and ask the children if they had been good.  Families cleaned the house and children cleaned their rooms in anticipation of his arrival!  Boots were left out, and the kindly saint would leave a gift to those who were good – or coal to those who were not.

In Poland, St. Nicholas was called Sw. Mikołaj. He also visited dressed as a bishop and an angel to help him with his sleigh full of goodies, which were usually sweets such as cookies or fruit.  He also encouraged children to be on their best behavior.  He sometimes returned on Christmas Eve with gifts the children requested in letters.

I laughed when I learned that Italy celebrates San Nicola by recalling the time they stole his earthly remains in the 11th Century and brought them to Italy.  It’s not like it sounds though, for they had a good reason!  (Though relic stealing was quite popular back then…)  The celebration of his “arrival” to Bari is celebrated in May, but he also visits children with goodies on the evening of December 5th.

Many countries have similar celebrations and traditions of the saint’s arrival.  So, what happened to him?  Did he “become” Santa Claus?  Or did Santa “replace” the bishop-saint?  In America, the blame gets distributed on the usual suspects: the Puritans, the advertising industry, and the media.  One could argue that he slowly evolved into Santa.  I don’t have anything against Santa – in fact, he’s been quite good to me over the years!  But in reading about St. Nicholas and the traditions that our ancestors celebrated made me wish he had the same PR man as Mr. Claus.  What parent wouldn’t admire a guy who gets children to clean their rooms and be good?  Sure, Santa wants you to be good, too, but St. Nicholas was more about helping those in need and sharing what we have with others.  Over the years the religious aspects of the man and the events surrounding the gift-giving seemed to have disappeared as well.  But, we can always revive the St. Nicholas tradition in our own families by spreading the news and telling the stories about him.  Nick’s stories are even more fascinating than Santa’s stories!

For more information on Saint Nicholas, his history, the evolution of Santa Claus, and how St. Nicholas Day is celebrated throughout the world, visit the wonderful site called The Saint Nicholas Center – discovering the truth about Santa Claus.  In fact, just as I noted in my recent article about the photographic reconstruction of another Nicholas, they have reconstructed what he probably looked like — familiar-looking, isn’t he?

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Researchers in Poland this week confirmed that the skeletal remains found in a Frombork cathedral are indeed those of Nicolaus Copernicus.  There are many amazing things about this story.  Copernicus has been dead for 465 years, yet genetic researchers were able to confirm the remains through DNA testing, comparing DNA found in the bones to DNA retrieved from hairs found in a book that the astronomer owned.  They were not sure that the remains were his because his grave in the cathedral was unmarked.  But what I found even more remarkable about this story was the fact that researchers used the skull to create a computer-generated reconstruction of what he may have looked like – hence the title of this post.  The image looks a lot like paintings that exist of him.  There are many articles about this discovery; this one includes the reconstructed photo.

Does anyone else find it fascinating that a 16th Century skeleton can lead to DNA verification as well as an image of what he looked like?  One dissenting view, found on the blog to Discover magazine, wonders why it is considered acceptable to do this.  The article states:

While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they’ve always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time?

I wasn’t quite as cynical when I heard the news, but the author does make a good point.  When is it acceptable to move/mess with someone’s remains?  But, I have to admit, all I could think about is what would happen if we just happened to have access to the bones of our ancestors…you know, those pesky ones that we don’t have any photos of?  It also made me think of these poor fellows:

Former residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.

Former residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, Germany.

These skulls were in an outdoor alcove of the cemetery church in Pfaffenhofen, called St. Andreas.  I’m still not sure why they’re on the shelf instead of in the ground!

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Geography Awareness Week (November 16-22, 2008) is drawing to a close.  I was delighted to learn about it from Lisa, who had several posts at 100 Years in America related to her ancestors’ countries.  Inspired, Jessica also took up the cause and made us all more aware of our own geographical incompetence!  Their posts made me realize how much I enjoy geography.  As a traveler, I love to pour over maps and figure out where I want to go, or even to figure out where I was (maps were useless in Venice, so I was only able to see where we were in retrospect).  Fortunately, I inherited my sense of direction from my father; my mother actually got lost five blocks from our house when I was a child – I thought for sure we’d never make it home.  As citizens of this earth, it’s fun to learn about all of the wonders of it.  But as genealogists, it’s absolutely vital to develop a sense of historical geographical awareness.  By this I mean a knowledge of a place’s name or boundary changes throughout its history.  Without this knowledge, we might never actually find our ancestors!

This sense of historical geography awareness, which Lisa so eloquently called going back in time, helps us track the genealogy of a place.  I’ve noted many times on this blog how important it was to learn about Polish history in order to accurately determine where to obtain vital records for my ancestors, for Poland was ruled by the Russian Empire, Prussia or the German Empire, and Austria for over a century.  Parts of the country belonged to other countries as well as Poland expanded, shrunk, or disappeared altogether. Researchers who find evidence that their ancestor was born in Danzig, Prussia, need to know that the town today is Gdańsk, Poland.

Most European countries have had similar boundary changes in their histories as well.  Why, I was delighted when a commenter informed me that the origins of my Bergmeister family may be found in Bozen.  Bozen is a town in an area known as Südtirol, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or Austria.  But I knew the town by its current name, Bolzano, which has been Italian since the end of World War I.  I finally found my Italian roots!  Who knew?

It’s important to remember that not only countries shift borders or change names, but also states and towns.  For example, the city of Philadelphia did not have its current borders until 1854; the original city limits were much smaller, and the city expanded over time.  Learning these changes throughout the years in which your ancestor lived there is a must, because you won’t know where to look for records.  Simply looking at a map is a must – if you can’t find an ancestor in a census but the state line is only five miles from where they lived, perhaps you should try the neighboring state!

I gained a greater sense of historical geography awareness in researching my Pater family.  When my 2nd great-grandfather Joseph Pater arrived in the U.S. from Poland, he went to Philadelphia.  When I found the passenger arrival records for his wife and daughters, I was surprised to see that they listed their destination as joining Joseph in “Eden, PA”.  Uh, where?  I couldn’t find a town called Eden nearby, and I had never heard of it.  I would have discounted the find entirely based on this, but the names and ages were a perfect fit.  With a little investigation into the geography of my corner of Pennsylvania, I discovered that the Borough of Eden had existed only for a few years before the name was changed to Penndel, a town I knew.  The Pater’s lived there for at least eight years, likely working in the local textile mill, before moving back into the nearby city of Philadelphia.  So remember, kids, learn your geography if you want help with your genealogy!

I’d like to close with a question to my readers: when recording your ancestral information, whether you use computer programs or just on paper, do you record the town/state or province/country as it exists today, or as it existed at the time of the event?  Do I record my great-grandparents’ birth country as Germany, but their ancestors birth country as The Kingdom of Bavaria – even though it’s the same town?  Do I record my Polish ancestors’ life events as taking place in the Russian Empire, or in Poland – even if it didn’t officially exist?  I’m curious how others deal with changing names or boundaries, so please let me know in the comments!

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Veterans Day is celebrated tomorrow in the United States.  The holiday was first established by President Wilson as Armistice Day on November 11, 1919.  The holiday originally celebrated the end of the “War to End All Wars” which formally ended at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.  To those of us generations removed from this war, it is difficult to realize its impact on the world.  It is estimated that nearly 20 million people died globally as a result.  At war’s end, four European empires disappeared: Russian, Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian.

Tomorrow has additional significance in Poland because it is celebrated as Independence Day – at the end of the war in 1918, Poland re-appeared on the map of Europe and became a country again for the first time in 123 years.  Józef Piłsudski became the leader of the new Poland.

I can only wonder how World War I affected my ancestors.  As far as I know, none of my ancestors served in the military during the war, although my one Polish great-grandfather volunteered to fight for Poland in Haller’s Army.  But all of my great-grandparents living in America had only immigrated ten or twenty years prior to the war – surely they had relatives and friends living near the battlefields in Europe.  My German great-grandparents were not naturalized citizens, so they had to register with the U.S. government as “enemy aliens”.  I am sure that there must have been ethnic tensions during the war where neighbors wondered about which “side” of the war German immigrants were on.  Even though my great-grandfather had American sons that would go on to serve in the U.S. military, I wonder if he had conflicted feelings about the war – his own cousins and nephews were fighting in the German military.  It would be interesting to know how he felt about the war’s end – the economic hardships that his former country was about to endure would set the stage for an even greater and tragic war.

For my three Polish great-grandfathers, there must have been great rejoicing after the war, for Poland was once again a country.  Though they were Polish, neither they nor their fathers or grandfathers were born in Poland, but instead in Russian-occupied Poland. I’d like to wish a Happy Independence Day to all of my Polish friends tomorrow!

As we know, the Great War was not the war to end all wars.  After World War II, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day and is a holiday to honor all veterans.  Tomorrow I’ll have a special message for all of my family members and friends who are veterans.

Here are posts from genealogy blogs this past week that are related to World War I research:

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Last week I was researching my politics article when I stumbled upon an interesting article.  Because three of my four sets of great-grandparents came from the area of Poland ruled by the Russian Empire, I googled various topics regarding the Russian Empire and the voting process.  One article from the New York Times was so interesting that I had to devote a post to it.  How could you pass on a lead-in headline such as this:

THE CZAR’S SISTER-IN-LAW A WOMAN SUFFRAGE LEADER; She’s the Widow of Grand Duke Sergius — Nicholas Sent Her to a Nunnery, But She Turned the Nuns Into Suffragists and He Had to Surrender.

The article, dated Sunday, September 17, 1911, details the women’s suffrage movement in Russia.  Read the entire article here. It begins, “Backward as Russia is in many ways, it is feeling the force of the feminist movement.”  Czar Nicholas II’s sister-in-law was the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.  According to this article, which reads more like the National Enquirer than today’s New York Times, she was very unhappy in her marriage to Grand Duke Sergei and turned to feminism.  After his assassination, she became involved in the suffragist movement.  When the Czar questioned this, she openly stated her belief that men and women should have equal political rights, and this equality should be obtained through peaceful diplomacy and influence.  The Czar promptly sent her off to a nunnery (again, according to this article), where she found kindred souls who also supported the suffrage movement.

The article is funny, though it was not written to be.  It also details the Russian suffrage movement in the universities, the Polish influence from the “poetess” (as she is referred to, although she was actually a novelist) Madame Orzesykowa [sic – should be Orzeszykowa], and another nun, Sister Veronica, who led the movement from a monastery in Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. Of course, this was written in 1911.  Russian women did get the right to vote in 1918…a full two years before American women despite the fact that the New York Times highlights just how “backward” Russia is in the first sentence of the article!

Needless to say, I became interested in the Grand Duchess, but her biography on Wikipedia tells a slightly different tale than this sensational article.  In fact, her involvement in the suffragist movement isn’t even mentioned.  Rather than an unhappy marriage to the Duke, she appeared to love him a great deal.  After his murder, she entered a convent – it didn’t mention a Czar-forced trip to the nunnery – and became known for her charitable works.  After her death she was canonized in the Russian Orthodox church for her saintly life. Sadly, Elizabeth was also murdered, apparently under Lenin’s orders.  Her life story is quite fascinating, as is her ancestry.  She may have become a Russian princess, but she was half German and half British by birth.  In fact, her grandmother is Queen Victoria!

I can’t help but wonder if the “press” slant of the article is that the Czar sent her to a nunnery to repent for her feminist views because that was easier for the world to understand than the fact that a woman of royal standing would give up all of the world’s riches in order to serve the poor. Politics may be slightly different today (at least women can vote), but I fear there’s not much difference between the news outlets of 1911 and today.

You never know what fascinating lives you will uncover as you research topics related to either genealogy or history!  They never told us in school that research could be interesting!

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As I pondered over this topic for the Carnival of Genealogy and mused about the election in the next few days, I couldn’t help but wonder how my immigrant ancestors felt about the American electoral process.  Did they vote?  What was the voting process like in their homelands?  The records don’t exist to tell me the answers to the first question, but I was able to uncover some interesting facts about the electoral process in the countries from which they came.

My German great-grandparents never voted in a U.S. election because my great-grandfather was not naturalized.  But, he may have had the chance to vote in Germany.  Joseph Bergmeister was born in 1873, only two years after the unification of Germany as a nation.  Prior to that, German states were independent of one another, and my ancestors came from the Kingdom of Bavaria.  In the new, unified Germany, called the German Empire, the country was ruled by a Kaiser or Emperor.  The Kaiser was not an elected position!  But, men were able to vote for the Reichstag or the Imperial Assembly, which was a weak representative body.  (Note: women did not get the right to vote in Germany until 1918.)

Wikipedia

Flag of the German Empire, 1871-1918. Source: Wikipedia

The problem with the Reichstag was that it could not initiate laws, but only pass, amend, or reject bills initiated by the Kaiser-appointed Chancellor.  In the beginning days of the German Empire, the Reichstag more or less was agreeable with the Kaiser’s wishes.  But, as it seems with any democratic body, they became less compliant over time.  Disagreeing with the Kaiser prompted rumors of threats that the Reichstag would be replaced with members who were in agreement with the Kaiser or, worse still, the democratic body would be eliminated completely as well as universal male suffrage.

The environment from which my great-grandfather came was a semi-constitutional monarchy, but at least the men had some say in the government.  From 1888 through to its abolishment with World War I in 1918, the argument over the best form of government continued.

I was unable to determine the voting age during this time.  If it was 18 or 20 years old, then my great-grandfather would have been eligible to vote in the 9th election of 1893.  Elections followed every five years, so his last vote – and perhaps his first if the voting age was 21, was in the election of 1898 since he left for the U.S. in 1900.  I can only imagine what he thought about the more democratic process in his new country in which men had the right to vote for the leader of the country!  As I said, he never got the chance to vote in America because he did not become a citizen.

For my Polish ancestors, their homeland’s political process was even more muddled because the country of Poland did not officially exist during my great-grandparents’ lives.  My remaining three great-grandfathers, Ludwig Pater, Jan Piontkowski, and Jozef Zawodny, all came from the area of Poland that was “confiscated” or partitioned by the Russian Empire.  It was the largest country in the world in the early 19th Century.

Wikipedia

Flag of the Russian Empire, 1721-1917. Source: Wikipedia

Similar to the German Empire, the Russian Empire was led by the Tsar, or Emperor.  Prior to 1906, the tsar’s power was unlimited.  After 1906, the tsar’s power was more limited although the country was far from having a constitutional government.  Under the Tsar, the legislative power was called the Imperial Assembly of 196 members.  Half were appointed by the Tsar, and half were elected by the men of the Empire.  (Note: women received the right to vote in Russia and Poland in 1918.)  It appears that six members were elected by Poland of the 96 elected members.

Russia’s lower body of government was called the Duma of the Empire or the Imperial Duma, consisting of 442 members.  Reading about the Duma was more confusing than when I first learned about the U.S. electoral college in grade school!  The Duma appeared to have more members allowed for the wealthier classes, and less allowed for the working class or peasants.  But it does appear that even the peasants had a vote in this system, much to my surprise.  The effect of that vote was likely minimal, but the large population of the Polish cities of Warsaw and Lodz meant that Poland was represented to some extent.

Again, it would be interesting to know what my Polish great-grandfathers thought of the electoral process in the United States.  They were each naturalized in 1923, 1925, and 1926.  One, Jan Piontkowski, could have voted in the 35th Presidential election, while the other two were eligible to vote in the next election in 1928.  I don’t know if any of them did vote, but my mother remembers her one grandfather talking about Franklin D. Roosevelt and he likely voted for him.  Each of their wives would have been eligible to vote as well since women in the U.S. could vote as of 1920, and they became citizens through marriage to their naturalized husbands.

My father was first eligible to vote in the 1956 election; although my mother is not much younger, because of when her birthday fell she would not be able to vote until the 1960 election (for President, that is).  Both were big supporters of John F. Kennedy.  Growing up, Kennedy reigned large in our house even though he had been dead for years before I was born.  My mother would never feel the same level of support for any other candidate!  The democratic nature of  my family would change as the party’s values began to change in the 1970s.  I dislike having only two main parties from which to choose, and I prefer the “Independent” label since neither party meets my personal values completely.

I received something my parents did not: the right to vote at the age of 18.  I was just shy of 18 in time for the 1984 election, so my first chance was in 1988.  Since I did not feel strongly about either candidate or politics in general, I neither registered nor voted.  While it is embarrassing to admit, I finally registered this year.  I suddenly felt guilty for squandering an opportunity that so many of my ancestors never had.  Next week, I will proudly vote for a U.S. President for the first time in my life.  I hope my ancestors are proud that I finally will take part in the process!

[Written for the 59th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Politics and Our Ancestors.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is your own ancestry Polish as well?

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

Poster designed by footnoteMaven!

October is Polish-American Heritage Month!  In honor of this national celebration, What’s Past is Prologue is hosting the Polish History and Culture Challenge.  If you have Polish ancestry, it’s a great time to learn more about those ancestors and their lives.  But, even if you do not have any Polish blood, I invite you to take the opportunity to learn more about the country, its long history, and its people.

What’s involved with the “challenge”?  Simply do one, some, or all of the following “tasks” – or similar ones of your own invention.  Then, write about it on your blog.  Email me the link and I’ll post a round-up at the end of the month to see how much we all learned.  The best part is that you don’t have to have Polish ancestry to participate!  Become an honorary Pole by joining in on the fun!

Here are some ideas on how to celebrate Polish-American Heritage Month and participate in the challenge:

Genealogy

  • Find a Polish ancestor’s hometown
  • Decipher a Polish record
  • Write about one of your ancestor’s hometowns
  • Write a biography of one of your Polish ancestors
  • Develop a research plan for a hard-to-find ancestor
  • Join a Polish genealogical society
  • Contribute to a Polish genealogical record indexing project

History

  • Read a book about Poland or its history and tell us about it
  • Research an event in Polish history
  • Write about a Polish historical figure
  • Write about a famous Pole in the arts or sciences
  • Learn about Poland’s history through maps or photographs

Culture

  • Experiment with Polish food – make a recipe or try a restaurant
  • Read a novel by a Polish author or one set in Poland
  • Write about a famous Pole that you admire
  • Watch a Polish film
  • Learn how to Polka
  • Learn about some Polish customs or folklore

The possibilities are endless, but hopefully at least one of these ideas will be interesting to you.  I hope you will join me in celebrating Polish-American Heritage Month.  If you would like to participate in the challenge, email me with the title, subject, and URL of your post at djpoint at gmail dot com.  You can either send me emails as you post, or one at the end of the month if you post on multiple subjects!  All of the posts will be published in a round-up during the first week of November. Dziękuję!

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This week I visited the local hospital when my father went to the ER (it’s okay, he’s fine now!).  It seems as though I visit there about once a year for one parent or the other, except I’ve been there three times since Christmas and once was for myself!  Fortunately, it’s very close to my parents’ house.  As I walked towards the entrance to the ER, I noticed the old building that is seemingly out of place with the rest of the hospital.  Ever since then I can’t stop thinking about the history that is all around us – history which we are often unaware.

The neighborhood in which I grew up, the section of Philadelphia called the Far Northeast, was not developed until the 1950s and 60s, but it has a rich history that goes far beyond the current housing developments and shopping centers.  It’s unfortunate that we never learned about this local history in school, like why so many things had “Indian” names or why streets had funny names or who the people were whose names were on the public schools.  Even though my ancestors are not connected to that corner of Philadelphia, I am, and I’m fascinated by what was there before me.

My parents bought their brand new house in 1961; I arrived six years later.  Frankford Hospital’s Torresdale Division was built when I was a child.  I don’t recall what the corner looked like before then, but I remember sledding on a hill that is now a parking garage needed as the hospital expanded.  But two remnants of the entire area’s past remain standing on the hospital’s grounds: the old house and a chapel.  Both belonged to the Drexel family.

The grounds were purchased in 1870 as a summer home for Francis A. Drexel, his wife, and three young daughters.  The Drexel’s were very wealthy; Francis’ father, an immigrant from Austria, made a fortune in the banking industry.  The family lived in the city on Locust Street, but packed up for the summer to escape the city heat and spend time in “the country”.  This farmland area had only been incorporated into the city of Philadelphia in 1854; prior to that, the land consisted of small villages whose names are known today as neighborhood’s names.  In 1870 when the Drexel family first came to their summer home, the area, though officially part of the city, was country-like with a lot of open space, trees, creeks, hills, farms, and very few homes.  This whole Torresdale area of the city would remain mostly “open space” until the 1950s.

The Drexel family name is remembered today for two main reasons:  Francis’ brother Anthony founded Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Francis’ daughter Katherine is a saint.  Katherine’s story is admirable no matter what religion you believe in.  In today’s language, we’d say she “had it all” because of her family’s wealth.  But she gave up all of the worldly things she could have had for a much worthier cause.

Katherine’s mother, Hannah, died only weeks after giving birth to her.  When Francis re-married to Emma Bouvier (a relative of Jackie Kennedy), Emma became step-mother to Katherine and her sister Elizabeth.  Francis and Emma had a third daughter together, Louise.

When Katherine was a young woman, the family vacationed out west.  She was appalled at the poverty endured by Native Americans.  Likewise, she saw much suffering and poverty among African-Americans in the south.  Many “rich” women like Katherine would have simply donated large sums of money to help these poor people.  But Katherine wanted to do more; she wanted to serve these people.  At the age of 33, she decided to become a nun.  She would go on to found a religious order of sisters called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose mission was to serve and educate the poor, specifically native and African-Americans.

Katherine became “Mother Katherine” as she led this order of missionary sisters in their mission, and she used much of her own personal inheritance to fund schools and convents.  Katherine died in 1955 at the age of 96.  She became “St. Katherine Drexel” in 2000 – only the second American-born saint.

Back to her early life and what she has to do with my old neighborhood…  When the Drexel’s first bought their summer estate, which has been reported to equal anywhere from 90-300 acres of Northeast Philadelphia, Katherine was 11 years old.  A chapel was built directly behind the mansion, and even today it is an impressive sight on the hill.  When Katherine founded her religious order, she housed novices on the grounds until their convent was built in nearby Bensalem.   The chapel, and the entire family estate, was called St. Michael’s.  Today, their old home is used as an office building.  The chapel was desanctified for secular use and is now used as a “wellness center”.  I once got a view inside as a teenager, and it was impressive even though it was no longer a chapel at the time.

The history of my neighborhood is much older than Katherine Drexel and her family.  But, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight one “era” of the neighborhood.  Long before the housing boom, my street was part of the Drexel grounds.  It’s somehow nice to know that a saint enjoyed summers riding horses with her sisters on what became my house, block, church, school, and neighborhood.  Maybe that’s why I always felt blessed to be there.

For more information:

[I hope to provide more posts on Northeast Philadelphia, other Philadelphia neighborhoods, and the small town in New Jersey where I now live.  All of these areas have a rich history that few seem to either know or care about today.  I’m afraid written history doesn’t go back as far as in Europe, but I should at least be able to find information about the area at least back to the 1600s!]

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Since today is “Labor Day” in the United States, I wanted to take a look at my ancestors’ occupations.  Some of the jobs are still performed in much the same way today as they were in my ancestors’ times.  My grandfather James Pointkouski (1910-1980) was born in the right century to be a truck driver, and the medium-size delivery trucks he drove are quite similar to those used by his fellow Teamsters today.  My great-grandfather Joseph Bergmeister (1873-1927) was a baker, an occupation that has changed very little over centuries – in fact, today his cousins are still making wonderful things in the same bakery his uncle founded in 1868.  My carpenter ancestors, 4th great-grandfather Karl Nigg (1767-1844) and 5th great-grandfather Johann Baptiste Höck (1700’s), would be in as much demand today as they were back then.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good carpenter these days?  Similarly, Karl’s father and grandfather, Phillip Nigg ( ?-1774) and Martin Nigg (or Nick), were masons – bricklayers.  The construction business will always be in demand!

But many other jobs of my ancestors no longer exist in the same way. Some of the factory jobs of my 20th Century ancestors, such as the Pater family who all worked in clothing factories as weavers, still exist – but you won’t find the industry as prevalent in the United States as it was when they were working.  Many of the other occupations of my ancestors have become outdated with modern times. For example, one of my 5th great-grandfathers, Franciszek Świerczyński of Mszczonów, Poland, was a carriage-maker in the 1800’s.  Since carriages have been replaced by cars, I imagine that he’d be in another line of work today.

I have shoemakers on both sides of my family.  My 4th great-grandfather, Ignacy Pluta (1821-?) from Mszczonów, Poland (he married the daughter of the carriage-maker), was one as was his father, Ludwik Pluta.  In Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Bavaria, I have traced over six generations of shoemakers from my Echerer line.  The first Echerer son to be something other than a shoemaker was Karl (1846-1880s), who took up the occupation of his mason great-grandfather instead.  While we still need shoes today, their construction has changed.  Some shoes today are still hand-crafted with leather, probably using the same methods my ancestors used.  Most shoes are mass-produced, and it would be hard to make a living as a shoemaker today unless you were a factory worker.

The more you research your genealogy and the farther back you go, the more interesting occupations you’ll find.  Some will be “modern”, like my innkeeper ancestor.  Others, like the glassmaker, still exist but today the job is more of a “craftsman” trade or art that is more specialized.  Again, modern machinery makes many of the things our ancestors once made by hand.

One of the more unique occupations in my family history is that of my 3rd great-grandfather, Franz Xaver Fischer (1813-?) from Agelsberg in Bavaria.  He was listed as a söldner, which translates as mercenary.  Mercenary?  I was intrigued and pictured a soldier of fortune, hired out to neighboring countries.  Until I learned the Bavarian meaning of the word… A sölde is a small house with a garden.  For tax purposes, there were different designations for farmers.  A bauer owned a whole farm, a Halbbauer owned half, and a Viertelbauer owned a quarter.  Then there was the söldner, who owned either 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 of a farm.  My mercenary was a poor farmer!  Well, not too poor – there was a further designation called häusler - they owned a house, but not the land.

Let’s salute all of our hard-working ancestors today.  I wonder what they’d think about some of today’s job titles.  “A program manager?  What the heck is that?”

Research tip: Translate your ancestors’ unusual occupations with these helpful sites:

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I always look forward to reading the latest edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture, but I’m always disappointed that I can’t join in.  I have no Irish ancestry, and I haven’t had time to research my friends’ Irish genealogies or my niece’s Irish genes.  So I’m thrilled that the latest topic for the Carnival is the Summer Reading Challenge!  I love learning about cultures and what makes them tick, and reading about Irish culture was especially enlightening.

My choice for the reading challenge was Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.  As book one of Cahill’s “Hinges of History” series, he focuses on “the untold story of Ireland’s heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medieval Europe”.  Cahill’s histories do not focus on one static event of history, but rather the “hinges” of history as the world moves from one static period to another.  Before Cahill can explain how the Irish saved civilization, he explains exactly what civilization was almost lost.  The first third of the book isn’t centered on Ireland at all, but on the world of the Roman Empire and how that Empire crumbled.

The second third introduces a legendary Irish figure – none other than St. Patrick himself!  This section focuses on Irish pagan culture, and what Patrick brought to Ireland and Irish culture.  Here Cahill introduces a very interesting thought — that the Christianity that Patrick introduces to Ireland is, in effect, the first “de-Romanized Christianity in human history.”  He explains that even though Rome formally received Christianity in the year 313 AD, Christianity didn’t really receive Rome.  In Ireland, however, a brand new Christian culture emerged that changed Irish thought.  Things that were a part of Irish culture, like slavery and human sacrifice, became unthinkable after Christianity was accepted.  But, the Irish managed to maintain their “physchological identity”.  Irish culture became a part of Irish Christianity.

Of course, how the Irish saved civilization is through the works of Irish monks preserving the Roman world’s literature, and native Irish literature, and later passed it back to the rest of Europe through education.  What sounds quite simple become utterly fascinating in the way Cahill describes history.  If it wasn’t for the work of these Irish monks, most of what we know today of the ancient world would have been lost.  The end of the book deals with how Irish civilization itself fell.

One quote from the book really struck me.  In a 9th Century manuscript, a monk living far from his native Ireland cites a favorite quote from the Roman Horace: “They change their sky but not their soul who cross the ocean.” How true is this quote of our immigrant ancestors?  Whether Irish or another nationality, they left their native lands but kept a part of their homeland inside.

If you enjoy history, you’ll enjoy this book.  I’ve also read the next two books in Cahill’s series: “The Gifts of the Jews”, which focuses on the cultural and religious legacy left to the world from the Jewish people, and “Desire of the Everlasting Hills”, which focuses on who Jesus was in His time as well as His impact on the world at large.  I have not yet read two others in the “Hinges of History” series: “Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea” about the Greeks, and “Mysteries of the Middle Ages” about, obviously, the Middle Ages!

I thought I would also have a fiction book that qualified for this summer reading challenge, but the book as a whole didn’t stay focused on Ireland.  Still, I highly recommend Pete Hamill’s Forever for an insightful look into Ireland’s past.  Forever focuses on Cormac O’Connor, an 18th Century Irishman.  The first third of this novel is set in Ireland and beautifully recounts Cormac’s family life and the Irish culture.  While Cormac himself is not Catholic, it also details the dreadful Penal Laws and their consequences.  After his father’s death as a result of these laws, Cormac immigrates to America to seek revenge.  He befriends an African slave, who later saves his life in a fantastical way.  The slave is actually a shaman, and he restores Carmac’s life – forever.  As long as he stays on the island of Manhattan, he will not die.  The novel moves forward throughout Cormac’s long life all the way through to 2001.  Some readers will find it too unbelievable, but isn’t that the beauty of fiction?  The novel is beautifully written.  I had hoped that Cormac’s love for Ireland would remain more closely integrated to the rest of the novel, but he becomes less of an Irishman and more of a New Yorker as the years of his long life move along.  But, the beginning offers a very detailed, beautiful, and historically accurate glimpse of Ireland in the late 1700’s.

[Written for the 7th Edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture: Summer Reading Challenge]

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

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

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

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

Did Your Ancestor Volunteer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information on Haller’s Army:

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

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Yesterday I wrote about CCC records as a resource in Civilian Conservation Corps: A Genealogical Resource – Part 1.  When I first started my genealogical research, I decided to find out more about CCC records because my grandfather supposedly served in the Corps.

My father remembered his dad talking about the CCC, but he didn’t know any details.  In 1993, I wrote to the National Personnel Records Center to find out.  I learned that my grandfather did indeed serve with the CCC…in a manner of speaking.

On April 7, 1933, James Pointkouski applied with the U.S. Department of Labor for “Emergency Conservation Work”, another name for the CCC, just weeks after President Roosevelt began the program.  His application states that he was born in Philadelphia on July 6, 1910.  His occupation is “chaueffuer” [sic], but he had been unemployed since October, 1932.  He lists his education as 1 year at Northeast H.S. and 1 year evening at Central H.S.  He lists his parents, John and Rose, as recipients of his $25 allotment each month and their address.

The very next day, Grandpop signed his “Oath of Enrollment” at Fort Hoyle, Maryland.  In the oath, he swears and affirms “to remain in the Civilian Conservation Corps for six months … obey those in authority and observe all the rules and regulations…”  The oath also relieves the government of responsibility if he suffers injury while working, and he understands that he won’t get any allowance when he is released from camp other than transportation home.

My grandfather’s physical examination record tells me that he was 5’9″ and 150 pounds with blue eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion.  He has good hearing, but his eyesight wasn’t that great – 20/50 in one eye and he suffered from strabismus, or “lazy eye”, in the other.  I didn’t remember that about him as he got older, but the lazy eye is apparent in photos of him when he was young.  Otherwise, he was quite healthy, which was good news considering that he was only 22 years old.  CCC members also had to receive shots for typhoid (3 doses!) and smallpox, all of which are annotated on the form.

Before I discuss the record of his service, fast-forward to a few years after I received these records.  I accompanied my father to my grandmother’s house to remove some belongings and prepare the house to be sold.  My grandfather was long deceased, and my grandmother was either in a nursing home or had just died (I can’t remember when the house was sold since she spent several years in a home).  I found very few photos or papers of genealogical interest in my grandmother’s belongings.  But, one of the few things I found was a handwritten note from my grandfather to my grandmother.  It is dated April 22, 1933 – while he was serving in the CCC!

My grandparents were not married until January, 1934, and the note offers some clues to their relationship.  It begins: “I didn’t mean it when I told you to forget me…” He goes on to encourage her and cheer her up as if he heard (through her letter?) that she was sad or depressed.   He goes on to say (in a run-on but touching sentence), “Do you realize that if I had been working steady last winter the ring I gave you for Xmas would have been an engagement ring so you must know I appreciate a lovely girl, but owing to the way things were (at) home and no work, how could I tell you how I felt toward you.” After cheering her up some more, he adds, presumably in case she didn’t get the ring reference above, “I hope to be more than a friend someday.”

He goes on to talk about “camp”:  “Well, our stay in camp is near over, we all have received our 3 shots and I hear we leave for the forests next week.  I’m feeling so good and don’t even think of rum, don’t care if I never see another drink.  Let’s forget about money.  Perk is well able to get by anywhere, I always did.  Well, goodbye Marge, I am Your one and only, Jimmy.” In the postscript he asks her to send a snapshot and adds at the end “Love + Lots of Kisses”.

April 22, 1933 letter from James Pointkouski to Margaret Bergmeister

April 22, 1933 letter from James Pointkouski to Margaret Bergmeister

I was amazed later to match the date to the time he was in the CCC.  For the first time, I could see the impact that the Great Depression had on my grandparents.  It was also interesting to see “Perk” as my grandfather’s likely nickname/alias.  His older brother, Joseph, simply dropped the actual surname of “Piontkowski” and used “Perk” for the rest of his life.  My grandfather by this time had already adopted the creative alternate spelling of “Pointkouski”, but he must have still referred to himself as Perk as a nickname.  What amazes me the most about this note is that my grandmother kept it for so long – to me, this means it was very important to her.  Could it be that, because of his note, she realized how much he loved her?

Regarding leaving camp for the forests, I looked back at his enrollment record.  From 8 April to 5 May (1933), he was stationed at Fort Hoyle, MD performing “general labor”.  His manner of performance was “satisfactory” (the form indicates that the choices are excellent, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory).  From 6-8 May, the location changes to Ellenton, PA and his manner of performance changed to “unsatisfactory”!  He was discharged from service on 11 May, well short of his six-month service requirement, due to “absence without leave”.

Why did he suddenly leave?  Did he miss the rum too much?  Or did he miss his girl Marge too much?  Was he tired of the physical labor, or did he get an actual job offer for his usual job driving a truck?  Neither of his children know the answer.  Perhaps he went home to Philadelphia for the weekend and decided to stay.  Based on his note, he obviously missed my grandmother quite a bit.  By January of the following year, they were married.  I’m not sure if he actually did get her that engagement ring or not – the marriage was precipitated by the news that my grandmother was pregnant!  She gave birth to a healthy baby boy, named James after his father, in August.

I’ll never know why my grandfather cut short his vow to the CCC, but one thing’s for sure – Perk was well able to get by.  He spent the rest of his life employed as a truck driver, raised two children, and lived happily with his girl Marge until his death in 1980.  Thanks to my grandmother saving that one small remnant of their past, I know without a doubt that he loved her a lot more than he loved working for the CCC!

For more information on the Civilian Conservation Corps and the great work they accomplished, see the links at the bottom of my previous post, Civilian Conservation Corps: A Genealogical Resource – Part 1.

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The CCC, or the Civilian Conservation Corps, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. In 1933 during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt found a unique way to combat the country’s unemployment crisis. The Civilian Conservation Corps was created on March 21, 1933 and today is one of the best known results of Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. Even if young people today have never heard of the Corps, it is likely that they have benefited from the Corps’ work, for it was active in every state and left a valuable “footprint” behind.

CCC members were recruited through local welfare boards. To join, a young man had to be between the ages of 18-25 and be unemployed or have an unemployed father. War veterans of any age could also join. The men committed to a six-month enrollment that could be extended for up to two years. CCC workers were housed and fed on-site at campsites, and they earned about $30 per month – with the requirement that $25 be sent home to their family. The camps were run by the Army, but it was a civilian organization.

Besides benefiting young unemployed men and their families, the CCC had a great impact on the country that is still felt today. They built roads, planted trees, strung telephone lines, and improved state and national parks by building campsites and trails. By 1935, over a half million men were members of the Corps. The CCC was disbanded in 1942, mostly because of America’s entry in the war and the ongoing draft.

Did your ancestor serve in the CCC?

If your grandfather or other relative served in the CCC, you may be able to find his enlistment papers. The records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. These records are not available online. For more information on writing to NARA, please see the CCC Alumni site guidelines or the James F. Justin CCC Museum guidelines.

Some information sites indicate that you will need to have your ancestor’s company number and year served in order to obtain the records. However, the name and state may be enough to locate the record. You will also need to know the person’s birth date and proof of death. Available records include the person’s enlistment form, record of physical examination, and discharge information. From these, there is enough information to determine where the person worked, and there are many sites available in each state about the CCC from which you can determine what the person may have actually worked on during their service. Who knows…the trees your grandfather once planted are likely still providing shade in the nearby state park today!

I remember learning about the CCC in history class, and even then I thought it was a great idea. With the current economy, unemployment, and “green” movement, I think the CCC should be re-instated as a means to give young disadvantaged men meaningful work. When I learned about the CCC, I didn’t have any personal connection to the organization…or did I? Stayed tuned for “Part 2: My Grandfather Served in the CCC…Sort Of” for a description of my grandfather’s rather brief experience with the CCC and what I discovered in his records.

For more information:

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Joseph Bergmeister

This military man in this photograph is my great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister (1873-1927). It is the only known photo of him, but we knew little about the uniform he wore or his military service, only that he was from Bavaria. Fortunately, I worked with someone who knew everything about the German military. Just from the photograph he was able to determine exactly which uniform it was, and I was later able to confirm his guess after more research.

What you can not tell from the photo is that the uniform is light blue in color! It is from the Bavarian Leib Regiment, or the Königlich Bayerisches Infanterie Leib Regiment. This roughly translates to the Royal Bavarian Infantry Life Guard Regiment. The regiment began in 1814 to protect the royal family, and it was headquartered in Munich at the royal palace.

According to my co-worker, “Such troops would have been elitist by definition, and patriotic to the core. Entrance requirements and training would have more rigorous than for normal line regiments. Peacetime service would have also been markedly different from the line troops. The Leib unit would have been called upon to serve every public protocol attended by the sovereign, much like a Presidential Honor Guard today. Everything would have been ‘spit and polish’ with a high degree of military etiquette.”

I am not sure how my great-grandfather came to be in such a unit, but I know he served for only two years: 1893-95 when he was 20-22 years old. Other than this photo, a wonderful large composite photo of his entire company, and his regimental beer stein, he left no other remnants of his service. What exactly did he do? Where did he serve? Did he like it? I’m sure he’d be proud to know that he had many grandchildren and great-grandchildren who served in all four branches of the U.S. military, including an Army Brigadier General and a Marine security guard.

If he did serve at the royal palace in Munich, he may have witnessed some interesting events. I found this article in the New York Times archive, dated November 16, 1893:

Royal Wedding

Was my great-grandfather was there? I don’t know, but I don’t think that the older sister got to marry her true love either…it looks like she married Count Otto von Seefried about two weeks later. I doubt he was a lieutenant in the Bavarian Army!

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MapMy Bavarian great-grandparents’ hometown was Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, just north of Munich. Only my great-grandmother, Maria Echerer Bergmeister, was born in the town and her family had lived there for centuries. My great-grandfather, Joseph Bergmeister, was born nearby and went there to work for his uncle. Pfaffenhofen was the site of the couple’s wedding in 1897 and the birth of their first child a year later, a daughter. He left home in 1900 to immigrate to America, and mother and daughter joined him there in 1902. Did they ever miss their hometown? What was Pfaffenhofen like?

Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm is located in the Hallertau region of Bavaria, which is the largest hop producing area in the world. The region is in Oberbayern, or Upper Bavaria, and it has a long history. The area was likely first settled by monks from the Benedictine monastery in Ilmmünster in the 8th Century. Their estate was called Pfaffenhöfe or Priests’ station and was located north of the current town. Four centuries later, Duke Ludwig I, called Ludwig the Kelheimer, founded the market town of Pfaffenhofen where the Ilm and Gerolsbach rivers meet. The town was mentioned by name as early as 1140, and by 1197 it was called a “market town”. By 1318, Pfaffenhofen was referred to as a fortified settlement.

Pfaffenhofen ad Ilm Coat of ArmsFrom 1387-1389, the Städtekrieg, a war between Swabian towns and Bavarian dukes, was fought throughout Southern Germany. Pfaffenhofen became one of the war’s victims when it was nearly completely destroyed by fire in 1388. When the town was reconstructed, it was surrounded by a circular wall with four gates and 17 towers. The Pfänderturm is one of the original 17 towers and the only one still standing today. By 1438, Pfaffenhofen officially received recognition as a “town”.

Engraving of Pfaffenhofen, 1687

[This is an engraving of Pfaffenhofen by Anton W. Ertl in 1687. The town’s wall, two of the gates, and many of the towers are clearly visible.]

Another war left a significant mark on the town. In 1632, soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War were billeted to houses in town. One of the soldiers had the plague and the disease quickly spread. Of the 1,800 inhabitants, only 700 survived the outbreak. It would take Pfaffenhofen another 200 years to reach the same population.

Population growth was never a problem after that time. The town continued to attract residents. While the population was about 4,000 at the beginning of the 20th Century, it is now closer to 23,000.

The town square, or hauptplatz, has existed on roughly the same site since the town was founded centuries ago. The square has many unique and beautiful buildings. Standing majestically at one end of the square is the town’s church, St. Johannes Baptist. The church was built in 1393 in the Gothic style to replace the Romanesque style church destroyed by the 1388 fire. After The Thirty Years’ War, the interior was renovated in the Baroque style. The steeple, about 253 feet high, was first built in 1531. Destroyed by a lightening strike in June, 1768, it was immediately rebuilt. Most important for descendents of Pfaffenhofen’s Catholic residents is the existence of parish baptismal, marriage, and death records dating back to 1597.

Hauptplatz, St. John's

[Two views of St. John’s Church in the Hauptplatz. The left photo is from 1875, the right from 1998.]

Pfaffenhofen’s maypole is in front of the church in the square. Erecting a white and blue painted maypole became a tradition in Bavaria in the 16th Century. In the 18th century, symbols and shields of different worker’s guilds were added to the pole, and this is how Pfaffenhofen’s maypole is decorated today.

Interior of St. John\'s church, Altar

You will also see evidence of the former worker’s guilds inside the parish church. Each guild had some church obligations as a part of the guild’s rules. Once a year each guilds celebrated their own special Mass, with special times for each guild. For example, the brewers’ Mass was celebrated on Monday after New Year’s while the tailors’ was on the Monday after Easter week.

Because of the guilds close association with the church, when the church was remodeled in 1671, the artist Johann Bellandt of Wessobrunn carved a number of apostle statues honoring the guilds: Mathew for the butchers, Phillip for the bakers, John for the brewers, Bartholomew for the leather artisans, Jacob for the weavers, and Simon for the tailors.

Because I do not read German very well, information about famous residents of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm is difficult to find. Two individuals seem to have made a difference in the town and are worth a mention here. When I first visited Pfaffenhofen, I was surprised to see a street named after Joseph Bergmeister. They named a street after my great-grandfather? No, but they named a street after someone with the same name – his first cousin. Cousin Joseph was born on 11 August 1874, a year and a half after my great-grandfather. Unlike his older cousin, Joseph never left Pfaffenhofen. He became instrumental in introducing electricity to the town in the early 1900s. In recognition for his work, he received a medal from the town in 1934 and an honorary doctorate from the Technical College of Aachen. He died on 31 October 1950. I’m not sure when a street was named in his honor, but you can drive down Dr-Bergmeister-Strasse today! (The first name Joseph is still valued in the Bergmeister family today – you will find Joseph Bergmeisters on both sides of the ocean who are related, whether they know it or not, as 3rd and 4th cousins. In my own family there are five generations of Joseph Bergmeister’s so far.)

Another more famous Joseph from Pfaffenhofen is the poet Joseph Maria Lutz (1893-1972). He was born in Pfaffenhofen, gained recognition as a poet, and today there is a museum in his honor in town. He is also known for adding a verse to the Bavarian anthem in 1946. As there is no longer a king of Bavaria, Lutz wrote a new verse to replace the stanza about the king.

One of Joseph Maria Lutz’s poems is entitled “Hometown.” Written in 1965, the poem shares his feelings about Pfaffenhofen. The following translation was provided by Mr. Robert Wilkinson:

Hometown

The houses line themselves cuddle cozily after a fashion,

Intermittently broad and proud, intermittently narrow and aged,

The church spire points to heaven on high,

And the people are loudly singing to the chiming tower bells.

And country lanes stream in from adjacent forest and field

To become streets of prominence in both name and importance,

And in Time’s own passage finally come to stillness.

The bemused places of childhood are rekindled yet again with laughter,

And even the old fountains cascade in a trance of stillness,

as the swirling eddies made rush, silently

like life’s Insignificant Other, just as only Love can know.

And somehow even the Wind takes on a life,

Blowing in gust after gust, through the years,

And through the days, back to childhood’s Home,

As in fairy tale nights and imagined lands.

From the squares and tedious narrow alleys echo the familiar sounds,

the rolling wagon wheels, the clip-clop of stout mares,

the staccato of the blacksmith’s hammer,

or as in years of yore, the rolling barrels and the rooster’s crow.

And all that appears Close once again, is yet so Far,

And Life itself avoiding yet the grave;

strives for heavy-hearted Contentment much like a halting

song of Greeting or Return.

You, my little Town,

even if I have forgotten much,

I behold you precious still,

I, forever at Home in you.

I had the opportunity to visit my ancestors’ hometown in 1998 and 2006. I’m sure my great-grandparents would be amazed at some of the changes that have taken place. But, in many ways, they would find a lot of things the same. The apartment they lived in before coming to the US is still there, and it probably looks much the same. They might be surprised by all of the cars though!

Last Tower Standing

[This is the last tower still standing. The “Pfänderturm” or debt-tower, was built between 1388 to 1438.]

Sources for this article:

Related Posts:

[This post was written for the 47th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Place Called Home.]

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Zyrardow on the mapMy immigrant ancestors came from many different places. Some came from large capital cities that had very old beginnings and long histories (Warsaw, Poland). Other hometowns were not as large as a city, but they were large market towns born in the 1300’s that continue to have vibrant communities today (Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, Germany and Mszczonów, Poland). Some of my ancestors came from much smaller places, centuries-old farmlands that evolved from feudal lands to modern villages (Puch, Germany and Komorowo, Poland). But of all the hometowns of my ancestors, the one that first captured my heart isn’t very old at all. In fact, compared to the ancient histories of these other places, it is modern in comparison. Although it lacks a history as long as other European towns, it makes up for it with the interesting way in which it was born. The town is Żyrardów, Poland.

The biography of Żyrardów begins in France. In 1810, the French government had a competition for inventors to create a mechanical linen spinning mill. The prize to the successful inventor was 1 million francs. One enterprising engineer, Philippe de Girard (1775-1845) from Lourmarin, succeeded. But with the fall of Napoleon, France could not pay the prize. Girard’s luck went from bad to worse as he endured debt, business failures, and bankruptcy. But his luck turned in 1825, when the government of the Kingdom of Poland invited him to help create a textile industry in Poland based on his invention.

Zyrardow coat of armsGirard originally opened a factory in Marymont, 2 miles outside of Warsaw, in 1831. For unknown reasons, Girard moved the operation two years later to a small farming village and forested area called Ruda Guzowska, approximately 27 miles WSW of Warsaw. This factory was very successful. More and more workers came to the area, and the settlement grew larger. In Girard’s honor, Ruda Guzowska was renamed Żyrardów. In the Polish language, the letter “ż” is pronounced similarly to the letter “g” in the French language: Żyrardów means “of Girard”. Girard was not able to see the success of his namesake town, however; he died in 1845, a year after returning to France to open more linen factories.

Arial View

Żyrardów continued to thrive in Girard’s absence. The factory was taken over by a pair of German industrialists, and by 1880 they employed 5,600 workers. The town literally grew around the factory building, and today it is one of the best preserved towns to see 19th Century architecture. It resembles a university town, with nearly every building – from the factory, to the apartment-style homes, to the churches and hospital – made from the same red brick. The area grew from a small farming village to an industrial settlement of approximately 175 acres. By 1880 the factory had 16,000 spindles with over 1,650 mechanical looms, and the value of their annual production (in 1880) was 2.2 million Silver Rubles. The former forest and farmland became responsible for the majority of linen production for the Russian Empire by the end of the 19th Century.

Workers in ZyrardowOne unique aspect of the town is that it was multi-cultural. The majority of workers were Poles, but there were also a large number of ethnic Germans working there as well. The factory itself had German managers, and there were also a number of Czechs, Scots, and Irish. The town itself had both a Roman Catholic church and an Evangelical Lutheran church, and there was a thriving Jewish community as well. The Słownik Geograficzny entry from 1895 indicates that the town had 7,126 registered inhabitants by 1880, including 5,134 Catholics, 1,541 Protestants, 244 Jews, and 207 belonging to other denominations.

The town was not without discord, however. Rather than ethnic disputes, there were employment disagreements. The government did not allow unions, but the workers were concerned about working conditions and low wages. There were many strikes at the factory throughout its history, beginning with the first in 1883.

Naturalization for Louis Pater

My Pater family immigrated from this town from 1905-1909; it was the place they called home. They were all weavers, which means they all worked in the factory. I don’t know why they left, but maybe they thought they could earn better wages in the United States. All of them became weavers in Philadelphia’s textile industry. My great-grandfather, Louis (Ludwik) Pater and his father, my 2nd great-grandfather Józef Pater, were born in Żyrardów (Louis in 1893, and Józef in 1864). Józef’s father, Jan, was born in Ruda Guzowska around 1834. Jan’s father Hilary pre-dates Żyrardów’s history and was born in a small village nearby.

RC Church, WiskitkiI had the opportunity to visit Żyrardów in 2001. It was a sudden visit with not enough advance planning, but I was grateful to see the town. My Pater ancestors were baptized and married in the nearby village of Wiskitki, and I was thrilled when my guide was able to sweet-talk the young priest into opening the church for me. My family probably attended this church because the main Catholic church in Żyrardów was not built until 1903. Wiskitki is a settlement that dates from 1221, with the first mention of “town” status in 1349. Over the centuries, the town declined and became smaller. After World War II, Wiskitki and Żyrardów were combined as one district, but in 1975 Wiskitki once again received rights as an independent town.

My Miller / Müller family also immigrated from Żyrardów; however, I have not yet found a birth certificate as proof that anyone was actually born in the town. My research indicates that the Miller family may be among the ethnic Germans from Bohemia that emigrated to the area to work in the textile industry. My great-grandmother’s brother, Emil, immigrated to the United States. In 1910, he and his family returned to Żyrardów – perhaps because of the death of his father. When the first World War broke out, the family could not return. Emil died in Żyrardów. His wife and American-born son later returned to the US, but his Polish-born daughter and American-born daughter remained.

Besides my ancestors, Żyrardów was the birthplace of some more famous citizens, including the Polish writer Paweł Hulka-Laskowski (1881-1946) and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller (b. 1946).

Sources for this article:

[This post was written for the 47th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: A Place Called Home.]

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Where Our Ancestors were in 1808

Several weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “1808: Where was Your Family 200 Years Ago?” I wrote about my ancestors lives two hundred years ago, at least the ones that I know for sure who lived in Bavaria. This topic was inspired by the previous challenge from Lisa of 100 Years in America who asked us where our ancestors were in 1908 (read the summary here). I challenged other genea-bloggers to take up the challenge, and many did. Here are their wonderful responses:

In “1808: Residences of My Families” Lori at Smoky Mountain Family Historian tells us about her family all over the US, mostly in the South with scattered folks in New England, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. All of her ancestors were in the US 200 years ago! What impressed me the most is her distinctly American genealogy!

John at Transylvania Dutch uses a “Time Machine” to visit his ancestors in several countries including Lithuania, Poland, Transylvania, Canada, and England. Then, just in case the question is asked by other bloggers, he takes us back to visit his ancestors in New York in 1708, and back to Holland and England in 1608. Does he know where they were in 1508? Hmm, read his story to find out!

Jessica at Jessica’s Genejournal asks “1808: Where were my ancestors?” She admits to being “not completely sure”, but she’s getting close with research back to the 1820s.

Thomas at Destination: Austin Family asks “1808: Where was my family 200 years ago?” Well, Thomas definitely knows the answer to that question: New York!

Randy at Genea-Musings knows where so many of his ancestors were in 1808 that he had to write two posts to tell the whole story. His Carringer side resided in many places, including the US, Canada, and England while the Seaver side calls Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and England home.

Becky at kinexxions asks “Where were they in 1808?” Rather than list all 59 ancestors on her mother’s side and 23 on her father’s, she gives us some interesting highlights. All but three of her ancestral families were already in the United States, and most were farmers. Becky shares some interesting stories about some of these ancestors in 1808.

“Where were they in 1808″ is what Bill at West in New England explains in his post, which has quite a mix of both known whereabouts and elusive folks.

Craig at Geneablogie also asks “Where were they in 1808?” He writes about the importance of that particular year for many of his families: “1808 was a signal year…That was the year that Congress banned the Atlantic slave trade from the United States.”

Tonia at Tonia’s Roots Blog has many ancestors around in 1808, so she’s writing a series of posts. So far, she recounts her “Butler Ancestors in 1808″ “almost all of whom were in the western part of North Carolina, with a few in South Carolina and one in Virginia.”

“Sharon” responded in the comments of my post about her Bavarian, Polish, American, and Dutch ancestors that all eventually wound up in Chicago.

Steve from Steve’s Genealogy Blog writes “The Year was 1808″ about his Polish ancestors who were scattered throughout the land including the “Przemyśl Powiat of Galicia, the Warsaw Departament of the Duchy of Warsaw, and the Vilna Guberniya of the Russian Empire.” Steve adds a nice visual with “Map My DNA” to show us where these places are on the map.

Steve’s fancy map was inspired by John at Anglo-Celtic Connections, who asks “Where has your DNA been?” John shows us his ancestors’ whereabouts in both 1808 and 1908.

Blaine at The Genetic Genealogist also asks “Where Was My Y-DNA and mtDNA in 1808?” and proceeds to show us on the map! He presents this graphical challenge “Where was YOUR mtDNA and Y-DNA in 1808?”

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this challenge – it was fascinating to see how far folks can trace their ancestry and from what areas their ancestors originated. As someone with 20th Century immigrants to America on all sides of my ancestry, I was quite impressed with the number of fellow bloggers who have what I call “American” roots! It was equally fascinating to see the mix of countries that we are all researching. If anyone responded to my 1808 challenge and I didn’t present your response here, please let me know or comment here – I tried to include all that I could find!

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In a post earlier this month, Lisa at 100 Years in America posed an interesting New Year challenge to other genea-bloggers: Where was your family in 1908? Several bloggers answered the challenge, including myself. Before I could list a round-up here, Lisa did it herself in this post entitled “Snapshots of the World Back in 1908”.

Why, it was almost like an interim carnival of genealogy! The many answers to that one question offered a fascinating glimpse, or a snapshot to steal Lisa’s description, into our ancestors’ lives one hundred years ago. Which caused me to wonder – just how far back do we all go? Do we know where our ancestors were two hundred years ago? So, now I pose this challenge to myself and anyone else who wants to answer the call: Where was your family in 1808?

In 1808, none of my ancestors were in the United States, which was only 32 years old! My own ancestors come from Poland and Germany, but they didn’t arrive in the US until the early 20th Century… Just to put things into an historical perspective, neither country actually existed as a country back in 1808! For that matter, Poland didn’t really exist in 1908 either. As a country, Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years beginning in 1795 and ending with the First World War. The area was divided through various “partitions” among Poland’s powerful neighbors: Russia, Austria, and Prussia (Germany). My family comes from the areas that belonged to both Prussia and Russia. Unfortunately, I don’t know specifics about my Polish ancestors in 1808 – not because I’ve hit a “brick wall” in my research, but I just haven’t had the time to research beyond the 1820s-1850s. The films are available for quite a few years beyond that, so I hope to go back further when I take a research trip to Salt Lake City later this year. One important note about Poland in 1808: Prussia ceded some territory after being defeated by Napoleon, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was formed in 1807. It would only last until 1815, but there were roughly 2.4 million inhabitants who could call themselves part of a mostly independent Polish state. But more importantly for genealogists, the Napoleonic Code was introduced in 1808 which mandated civil registration! Many of the records available today begin in the year 1808.

In 1808, Germany was a collection of duchies and independent states; the nation as we know it today was not unified until 1871. This is one of the reasons that I usually refer to my ancestors as “Bavarian” in lieu of “German”. In 1808, I know a lot about my Bavarian ancestors and the towns in which they lived. To set the stage, I’d like to give a little bit of the area’s history. Around 1799-1800, Bavaria was occupied by both the French and the Austrians as loyalties and friends and enemies were shuffled. In 1801, an edict of religious tolerance was declared – the area remains predominantly Catholic, but all faiths were welcome to live there. In 1802, a law was passed for mandatory elementary education. In 1806, Bavaria joined the Confederation of the Rhine under Napoleon (he sure got around, didn’t he?), and Bavaria became the Kingdom of Bavaria under the leadership of King Maximilian I. Bavaria was a unified state that abolished many of the privileges of the nobility and the clergy, and in 1808 they adopted a constitution that was fairly ahead of its time with regard to an individual’s rights. The population of Bavaria in 1808 was about 3.2 million.

My Bergmeister family was not yet in the “big” town of Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, and they lived in a rather small town nearby called Puch in “house #17”. My fourth great-grandparents were Joseph Bergmeister (1763-1840) and Kreszens Zinsmeister (1777-1852). What I find amazing is their life-spans – he lived until the age of 77 and she lived until 75, which far exceeded their later descendents who lived in more modern times. Joseph was a miller like his father before him and his sons after. The couple married in the year 1800 and would go on to have twelve children from 1800-1816. At least two children, probably more, died as infants. My third great-grandfather was their son Jakob Bergmeister, who was born on 20 March 1805. In 1808, he was only three years old and his parents were probably very happy – for if a child lived until that age, they would most likely reach adulthood. Jakob’s future wife, Anna Maria Daniel, would not be born until 1812. Jakob would live until the year 1870 and the couple would have fifteen children in nineteen years. Anna Maria was 24 when she started having babies and 43 when she stopped…no wonder she died at the age of 59!

Pfaffenhofen in 1830

My great-grandmother’s side of the family lived in Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm, which was considered a large “market town” even then. In 1808, it was officially formed as a “municipality”, but since the town existed since the 1300’s I haven’t quite figured out what that designation means. According to a book about the town, in 1811 (close enough), the town had 1,585 Catholics and 1 Lutheran (there would eventually be more since a Lutheran church would later be built). Living in “house #55, which later becomes the address of Löwenstraße, was the Echerer family. My fourth great-grandfather Ignaz Echerer (1765-?) was a fourth generation shoemaker married to Maria Kaillinger (1768-?), a glassmaker’s daughter. Of their eight children, my third great-grandfather was Ignaz who was born on 21 December 1803. He’ll become a fifth generation shoemaker and live until the age of 71. There were apparently nine shoemakers in Pfaffenhofen shortly before 1808, and based on what I’ve seen in the church records every one was probably an Echerer brother or cousin.

Ignaz’s future wife, Magdalena Nigg, was born on 17 May 1807 to Karl Nigg (1767-1844) and Maria Theresia Höck (1769-post 1814). Karl held a very important position in Pfaffenhofen as the Stadtzimmermeister or the Town Master Carpenter.  His father was the Stadtmaurermeister, or the Town Master Mason, and his father-in-law was a zimmermeister or Master Carpenter. Karl and Maria would have eleven children from 1795-1814.

That’s just a small look into the lives of a few of my ancestors two hundred years ago. We can’t tell much from a collection of names and dates, but with the help of some history books we are able to imagine what life might have been like. Where was your family in 1808?

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The idea for a second post came easily enough after reading Lisa’s recent post at 100 Years in America. Inspired after reading a Smithsonian magazine article on the year 1908, she writes about what her ancestors were doing in that year and challenges others to do the same. What a great idea, and a nice way to get my feet wet with this blog. Plus, in order to write about it I’m actually forced to organize my research (or rather, a mess of paper) to answer the question! [Photo of St. Peter’s RC Church, Philadelphia, where my Bergmeister family worshiped.] St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia

For my Bergmeister family, 1908 was probably a very busy year since the household consisted of four children under the age of ten. My grandmother was not among them though – she would not be born for another five years! Thirty-five year-old Joseph had been in the US for ten years by this time, and wife Maria and daughter Maria for eight. By 1908, he was working as a baker in Philadelphia. How different that was from working as a baker in his native Pfaffenhofen an der Ilm is anyone’s guess. Although his father was deceased and his mother was far away in Germany, Joseph wasn’t far from his immediate family because his sister Hillarie emigrated to Philadelphia first. Besides Hillarie, brother Ignatz was living in New Jersey, and half-brother Julius Goetz had just arrived in Philadelphia.

With the Piontkowski’s, my grandfather was a couple of years away from birth, and since his parents John and Rose were in their late 30s he probably wasn’t even a thought for the future. They had their hands full with a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, both of whom were born in Poland. John and Rose were probably still getting used to America because they had only arrived 2-3 years earlier. It was probably quite a challenge to learn a new language, but I’m sure that Philadelphia was as bustling as their old home town, Warsaw, Poland.

The Zawodny family had been in the US for about six years. Their family was growing and would eventually include six children. But in 1908, my great-grandparents Joseph and Wacława had three young girls at home – all under the age of four. This includes my grandmother Marianna, who was only born the previous August. Even though she was an infant, I’d like to think she was already bossing her big sisters around. Marianna Zawodna is my only grandparent that was alive in the year 1908.

The Pater family was just getting settled in the US. Joseph and Antonina arrived with their six children in various stages from 1905 through 1907. Their son Ludwig, or Louis, is one of my youngest great-grandparents and was only 15 years old that year. He was already hard at work in one of the textile mills in Philadelphia, not far removed from the family’s recent past in the textile town of Żyrardów, Poland. He may have even been awaiting the arrival of his future wife, Elżbieta Miller, since she came from the same town. Since the facts show that he arrived as a young teenager in 1907, she arrived in 1909, and they were married in 1910, it’s plausible that they already knew each other. But in 1908, 17-year-old Elżbieta was still living in Żyrardów with her parents. Her brother Emil, however, was already in Philadelphia for three years, and one can only wonder if they exchanged letters across the Atlantic.

One hundred years…a lot can happen in a century. The world has certainly changed a great deal in that time. And in just that short amount of time, four immigrant families came to a new world, had children of their own, worked, laughed, cried, lived, and died. Their legacies include hundreds of descendants, and I count myself lucky to be among them.

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