Thursday, August 25, 2016

A New Home for Old Stories

They may just be old pieces of paper, but they tell the stories of people long gone from a place no longer in existence. The papers are marriage records from well over one hundred years ago. The place was once known as the Province of Posenat least to those who took over the territory. To the natives in that area, at least those claiming a Polish heritage, the region was called Poznań.

Poznań was where my father's maternal grandparents were born, and wheresometime after their 1879 weddingthey bid goodbye to their extended family and headed for America.

Finding any proof of that sequence of events had been difficult, until I located the mention of at least Anton's wife and children in a passenger list for the Wieland, arriving in New York in 1889. The ship's document indicated that Marianna Laskowska had reported her last place of residence to be in a small village in Poznań. That place was called Żerków.

Now, knowing the town and the province, one would think I would be equipped to launch out into the wide research world and capture my prize: documents proving the existence of my ancestors. Think again. Not in the international collections at Not at the far-ranging collections offered for free at

My only alternative was to launch out into the deep and brave the international waters, rife with the risks of undecipherable, handwritten notations in languages I cannot read. After all, learning to speak my grandmother's mother tongue is not a genetic propensity.

When a reader at A Family Tapestry passed along the welcome word that there was a website in which I might be interested, I was primed to brave those waters. When I followed the link shared by Patrick Jones, it led me to this site called Geneteka. That became an open doorway to a cache of Polish genealogical records.

There was, of course, one drawback: even in the English language version, it was hard to get around the siteor even to understand exactly what the collection contained.

One bright spot in that struggle, though, was finding a note at the bottom of the website's landing page. It was headed "other databases," followed by clickable links labeled in Polish.

As confusing a language as Polish might seem, with its interminable strings of consonants and its unfamiliar diacritical marks, it does render some words recognizable to English-speaking people, probably because so much of our own lingual heritage is owing to old German words.

Right away, in that list of databases, I spotted the words, "Wielkie Księstwo Poznańskie." I recognized Poznań in that phrasesure enough, Google Translate confirmed that hunch when it told me the phrase means "Grand Duchy of Poznań"and I was headed in a direction sure to yield me my heart's genealogical desire.

I clicked on that link, and it brought me to the website of the Poznań Projecta site made possible by volunteers dedicated to transcribing the nineteenth century marriage records of the historic Province of Posen and ordering them in a free to use, searchable database.

The Poznań Project began in 2000. As of this past June, volunteers from several countries have transcribed 1,389,141 marriage recordsan impressive feat, considering the population of the region was only two million total by 1900. The project's coordinators estimate that number of transcribed records covers about seventy five percent of the total records currently accessible for the time frame they have chosenthe entire nineteenth century. Of course, some documents have been destroyed by ravages of war and other hazards, but for those still in existence, this becomes a wonderful resource, especially for those unable to travel to Poland for research.

An impressive cast of players coalesced to make this genealogical dream possible. The idea started with current coordinator, Łukasz Bielecki who, himself, brings an impressive resume to the table. The computer programming enabling the project to materialize is the work of Maciej Glowiak, who created the search engine. The website itself is hosted by the Poznań Supercomputing and Networking Centre. But the numerous names catalogued in the project itself are there, thanks to the efforts of "dozens" of dedicated volunteer indexers. They even have a Facebook page, albeitof coursemostly in Polish

Just as I've already mentioned about my own ancestorsand their relatives who also emigrated from the regionmost people who find themselves fortunate to have discovered their ancestors were from "Posen" turn out to descend from residents from the region, not the city. There is more to do to locate the actual residence of an ancestor whose documents indicate, simply, "Posen." This website helps researchers drill down to the locale where further documents may be located.

There are success stories, of course. The website includes a brief summary of what one researcher did to locate the roots of a high profile U.S. governmental official, using the Poznań Project. I found another victory report of a more common sort in an article posted at HubPages.

While these may be heartwarming stories, there's nothing like being able to tell about your own victory. And so, putting the Poznań Project through its paces, I looked for any sign of my great grandparents, Anton and Marianna.

Without much trouble at allI did have to ditch my original approach of searching for all Laskowskis and drill down to first names, as wellI found what I was looking for: Anton and his bride were married in 1879, with records found both at the local parish and the civil registry.

Above: Image of the search results for marriage records related to the terms Anton Laskowski and Marianna Jankowska, courtesy of the Poznań Project. Bonus gift from the civil registry: confirming Anton's parents' names (which I already knew) and correcting those for his bride (specifically, her mother's maiden name as Olejniczak, instead of Aktabowski).  



Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tracing Places No Longer on the Map

It's one thing to research your forebears when they come from a recognizable location like France. Or Spain. You know, those places you can find on a map.

When it comes to finding the records to verify your family's origin in a country no longer in existence, that search presents a new question: how do you find the repository for records from such a place?

For most of the census enumerations conducted since my great grandparents arrived in the United States before 1890, the entry made on their behalf was usually "Germany." And for the decades in which that was noted, it would be correct. At that timewhether it was 1900, 1910, or 1930, the last census conducted before they diedthe region Anton and Marianna Laskowski once called home had changed hands from one set of rulers to another.

If you had paid attention to reports of their origin in the earlier census records, you might have thought Anton and Marianna immigrated from Germany. It wasn't until that slip up in the reporting ritual for the 1920 census that I discovered not the country but the region they once considered their home.

That place was enumerated as Posen.

In trying, now, to go back and locate records of their family's births, marriages and deaths, the key is to find the repository for a political jurisdiction which has long since ceased to exist.

In retracing those steps, the first thing I wanted to do was familiarize myself with not only the history of that region, but the current events of the time frame in which the Laskowski familyand their relatives, the Gramlewiczeschose to leave their homeland.

As I've mentioned before, Posen was how the Germans referred to a city the Polish called Poznań. Learning about Poznań brought up many fascinating details. For instance, it is one of the oldest of Poland's cities, dating back to the tenth century. It is also home to Poland's first cathedral. Political struggles over the centuries meant that the city changed hands often. It also meant the area was often war-torn. By the time my ancestors were ready to flee the area, the cityby then under Prussian rulehad begun building a series of new fortifications in response to all the turmoil.

Knowing that about the city of Poznań was informative, but it missed one crucial point: that name was not just used to designate the city by that name, but also the region surrounding it. Similar to my own circumstancesin which, when I say I'm from New York, I could be indicating either the city or the statewhen my great grandparents told that census enumerator in 1920 they were from Posen, they meant the region, not specifically the city.

That region of Poznań had a history of its own, as well. Established in 1815 following the Napoleonic Wars, it was to be a semi-autonomous part of the Kingdom of Prussia. Designated the Grand Duchy of Posen, it turned out not to be, in practice, the theoretical haven of rights for its Polish residents as had been promised with the Congress of Vienna.

With changes in Prussian governmental dictates, Poles saw increasingly difficult times, which eventually led to revolution in 1848. The main result of the fighting was that Posen lost some autonomy, though it continued, as part of the Prussian domain, to be referred to as the Province of Posen, up through the year 1918.

Of course, with the conclusion of the Great Warnot to mention, the war that followed the War to End all WarsPrussia as a political entity ceased to be. By that point, my direct line ancestors were thankfully long gone from the region of Poznań. But because they once called that region homeand the place where they married and raised their childrenI wanted to retrace the steps of their lives and see what documentation could be found to verify their stay in Poznań.

But where do you look for records from a country no longer in existence?

As it turned out, at least in this case, an intrepid cadre of genealogical volunteers have found a way to help people like me find those records I've been desiring to see. In a website primarily set in the Polish languagebut fairly easily negotiated, thanks to translation servicesI've found (and can't wait to share) the digital home for at least the marriage records of what was once the Prussian Province of Posen.     

Above: Charge of Poznań Cavalry during November Uprising; 1886 oil on canvas by Polish historical painter Juliusz Fortunat Kossak; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Giving Those Online Translators
a Workout

In order to find and put to use those foreign online databases promising to help discover my Polish roots, it wasn't just a matter of clicking "translate this page" and jumping in. Before I could track down those Polish roots of my Gramlewicz relatives, I had to do some foundational preparation.

For one thing, websites like the one recommended in a recent comment by fellow genea-blogger Patrick Jones included clickable icons signifying on-site translation services. Those were, however, abysmal in my opinion.

There was another option. As I've mentioned before, Google Translate has become my friend. I got quite handy at popping back and forth between the open window for my Polish webpage and the window for the Google translation service.

Still, there were problems with this option. If it had been a translation from a language often used in the U.S.—Spanish comes to mind here—results would likely have been far more satisfying in their accuracy than the results I got, moving from Polish to English. There were far too many sentence results that seemed to make no sense whatsoever in the target language—results like "lack of position" or "crawl your Świerczyńska." Obviously, someone needed to head back to the drawing board on these.

There are more options in my translation bag of tricks, obviously. The main tool turned out to be an outright switch from one browser to another. I'm generally a habitual user of Firefox and never opted to make the move to Chrome when it was developed. However, I'm aware of the translating powers of Google Chrome, so when faced with these sticky translation messes, I simply cut and pasted the URLs into a different window, using the Chrome browser.

I have several websites that I've stumbled upon, now that I'm researching my Polish roots, and it helps immensely to be able to understand what those jaw-breaking, consonant-packed multi-syllabic words are saying to me. Between Google Translate for shorter phrases, and Chrome to handle the heavy lifting of entire webpages, I've made some research headway. And even if those failed to provide understandable results, I found that if I just googled the actual website name—or even a portion of what I was trying to find—it would sometimes produce leads to other websites which provided translations in a more intact state.

Still, in researching my roots in a very specific part of Poland, I needed to add yet another step to my preparatory work. Because my family left Poland back in the late 1800s when national borders in that part of Europe were very different than they are today, getting up to speed on which part of Poland would be the correct geo-political location for that time frame became essential. 

Part handiwork in using what translation services were available online, part detective work via search engines themselves, and part putting resultant Polish websites through their paces, all of these steps required yet another process: the work of discovering the very history of a region now no longer in existence: the region the Germans used to call Provinz Posen, and the Polish referred to as Prowincja Poznańska.

Above: "Four-in-Hand," 1881 oil on canvas by Polish artist Józef Chełmoński; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, August 22, 2016

She's Back!

It was only one week ago when I was telling about my Polish cousin—the one I met online, seemingly by accident, over ten years ago—and how, after sharing so much about our mutual Gramlewicz ancestors, she seemed to vanish just as suddenly as she had appeared in the first place.

I had tried many times to reconnect with this cousin, but it seemed it was just not to be. Though I missed our exchange of emails over the years, by 2013, I had succumbed to the thought of never hearing from her again.

While ours was never more than a "virtual" friendship, I did miss the connection. Sometimes, more than others—for instance, when our daughter was accepted to study in Ireland in the Fall of her senior year, and my husband and I were able to travel to visit her during her time there. In preparing for that trip, I discovered that Ireland has a sizeable Polish population, owing to their place in the European Union. How I wished that my Polish cousin and I could have rendezvoused during that visit to Ireland. But I got no replies to my emailed attempts to connect.

Sometimes, it pays to try once more, even though the last time—and the time before that—ended in failure. Last week, after writing my post on my Polish cousin, I figured, what do I have to lose? I sent her another email.

The next morning, I awoke to a wonderful surprise: a response from Poland! I certainly hadn't expected anything, and was just going through my morning routine in checking email.

The note was short—with the nine hour time difference between us, she had just gotten to work when she found my email—but it's the connection that counts. Of course, there will be years of news to catch up on. Much has happened in the lives of family on both sides of the ocean separating us. And perhaps we will be able to work on figuring out the puzzle of our mutual roots, once again.

Hopefully, the new discoveries I'll be sharing this week will help in moving that search ahead in a significant way.

Above: "The Letter," 1896 oil on canvas mounted on cardboard by Polish painter, Władysław Czachórski; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Now Indexing:
U.S. District Court
Naturalization Records 1824 - 1946

When it comes to genealogical giving back, I like to work on projects that contribute to the data sets I'm currently using. Since I've been pursuing my Polish roots in New York City, this month's choice for my indexing project has been New York City's Southern District of the U.S. District Courts. The focus: naturalization records.

You know I'm wishing I could find some of my family's records there.

Working on this set has been a far cry from my experience last month, when I was sifting through records from Chicago instead of New York. Even though the level of difficulty of the project was assessed at the same "3" ranking for intermediate challenge, it seems to be more of a slog to get things done this month. Perhaps it was just that the instructions for indexing didn't seem to match up with the records being presented for the work.

Just to make sure, I did not try just one set, but three, in order to make sure I hadn't been delivered an aberration in the set. Three times a charm and all that.

It didn't help. I'm afraid my 98% score for entries in agreement from last month (each data set is done twice, and an arbitrator becomes the tie breaker in case of disagreements in transcription) is due to plummet with this month's fiasco.

And I thought I would be helping...

Helping or not, when I participated in indexing at FamilySearch last month, I was doing my part during their Worldwide Indexing Event, when they hoped to coax seventy two thousand volunteers worldwide to do as much indexing as possible over the weekend of July 15 through 17. Preserving old records and all, you know.

Fortunately for the cause, they more than exceeded their goal, garnering the assistance of 116,475 indexers, who completed over ten million records that weekend—and hopefully will continue their gesture of selfless service. Each new digitized record which becomes converted into searchable material adds another tool which may help a researcher chip away at a genealogical brick wall. Who knows? It may be yours. It may be mine. Every little bit makes that difference.

So I found myself bumbling around, yesterday, attempting another afternoon of service to the cause. I find if I regularly schedule my good intentions, they are more likely to happen; right now, I choose to sequester myself away in air conditioned comfort on a Saturday afternoon, when not much of anything else is happening. It helps to think I'm being productive when I'm desperately attempting to stay cool.

New York, however, does not present as cooperative a record set as did Chicago. Part of me wants to do more—just to see if I can work my way out of a sticky spot. Another part of me shrinks away in horror that I've really gone and messed things up.

But then, it's encouraging to scroll down this page and see how progress is being made on some select indexing projects. I can see some projects on Irish records are just getting their start—a thought, since I like to participate in regions where I am researching my roots—and can see the encouraging signs that others are closing in on completion, like marriage records for the states of Kentucky and Massachusetts. When we each do our part, eventually we see ourselves crossing those finish lines.

Above: "The first horse races in the Field of Mokotów in Warsaw" by Polish painter, January Suchodolski; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Off the Shelf:
The Stonecutter's Aria

There's a reason why I've delved into examples of stories based on personal family history: I want to sample what other writers have been doing with their own stories. A very different style from the ones I've mentioned before is the book I pulled off the shelf for this month's read.

Last month, I shared a book taken mostly from the journals kept by the ancestors of one writer. For this month's read, I headed in an entirely different direction in exploring how researchers are sharing their family history.

Styled as a three-act play—or more likely, given this writer's Italian roots, an opera—The Stonecutter's Aria, the book I chose to read for August, was a complicated story, yet delivered in a straightforward and warm manner. I guess there are as many ways to share a family's story as there are families.

Told through the voices of the various people in her family tree, Carol Faenzi's 2005 publication is actually billed as "a work of creative non-fiction." It is also part memoir, as the author's search for her family's roots served as a therapeutic antidote to unfortunate events which occurred in her own life.

In filling in the blanks in her family's story, Carol Faenzi of course fictionalized many of the day-to-day events in the lives of her great grandparents. There is no possible way to know the minutiae of what was said, done, and thought during the everyday lives of these residents of the Tuscan village of Carrara. What might be considered, in the eyes of a trained genealogist, as a detractor to her work is amply made up by the life she breathed into the story. It is more likely that the reluctant family audience whose eyes might have glazed over in the strict adherence to verifiable fact alone would not remember as much of their family's saga as would someone treated to Faenzi's handling of her own family tale.

In contemplating how to eventually share my own family's story, I've tried on many different styles and versions—with many more such examples to share as I work my way through my collection. It's become quite obvious to me that, if anyone is to remember the details of an ancestor's life, the writer needs to be able to breathe fresh life into the assemblage of facts from long-gone centuries. With all the twists and dramatic turns in the story of the Faenzi family's generations, Carol has indeed produced a legacy by which her ancestors may be remembered.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Little Surprise of the Family

If Anton Laskowski had reported a niece by the name of Gramlewicz in his household for the 1915 New York State census, that must have meant he had a sister who married a man by that surname. It only stands to reason. After all, each relationship reported in census records was to be given in reference to the head of the family, and that was indeed my great grandfather Anton.

And yet, when I was first contacted by my Polish cousin, she knew of no such occurrence. She clearly outlined for me her family tree—the maiden name of the woman her father had married, then that of her father's father's wife. Not one Laskowska in those women's family names.

Of course, there was always that possibility that Anna Gramlewicz wasn't really Anton's niece. She could be his grand-niece. She could have been staying in the home of a relative so distant, the only culturally appropriate thing to do might be to call him "uncle" out of deference for his age, or his role in her life. Worse, there could be absolutely no relationship between them at all, and I was fooled into researching this line merely because someone was afraid a fellow countryman's vulnerable daughter might be deported when she so strongly wished not to be.

As it turned out, though, I had another reason to support the bloodline connection between the Laskowskis and the Gramlewiczes: Anton's death certificate revealed his own mother was a Gramlewicz.

Contemplating that sort of relationship connection became too messy for me. I opted to believe—for research sanity's sake—that Anna had to be related to Anton, and went with the married sister theory.

But who could it have been? It was already abundantly clear—thanks to New York City birth certificates for the Gramlewicz's many children—that Anna's mother's maiden name was spelled in one of several variations which, I decided with help from Polish genealogy forum members who spoke the language, should correctly be rendered as Zyczynska. That's a far cry from Laskowska.

Complicating the matter was my Polish cousin's report that her grandfather's name was Hieronym. I had no record of any such son in the household of the Gramlewiczes, as late as I could find them in the census records—which happened to be in 1910.

I later found out why I couldn't find any sign of the Gramlewicz family after that 1910 census: according to Anna's sister, they had returned to Poland in November, 1912.

I also discovered why I never found any record of a son by the name of Hieronym: he was supposedly born in that very same year. But not in New York; in Poland.

Of course, I now realize I'm burdened with yet another discrepancy: the date I have for the family's return to Poland occurs after the date my Polish cousin provided for her grandfather's birthday (September 30, 1912).

The date I have for the family's return to Poland was provided, thanks to a verbal report to the officials filling out the passenger list for Anna's sister Helen's return trip to New York in 1920. Perhaps she got the date wrong. Even governmental records can be no better than the information provided to them by mere mortals.

Just as had many families from, likely, the beginning of time, with Hieronym's appearance in 1912, Mieczyslaw was presented by Jozefa with a little surprise: a baby boy when she had turned forty two and her husband was over fifty years of age. This became not only the caboose of the family, but the only Gramlewicz son to survive to adulthood.

Hieronym, in turn, married a woman by the name of—remember, we're back in Poland now—Wanda Jastrzebska, and had two sons of his own. The younger of those two sons became the father of the woman who contacted me, out of the blue many years later, and announced that she and I are distant cousins from that same Gramlewicz family.

While my Polish cousin didn't share much with me about her grandfather Hieronym, she did remember her grandmother, Wanda. Although she didn't know where the family had settled, once they returned home from New York, she did know one thing: upon Wanda's death in 1994, she was buried in a little Polish town called Żerków—the very location for which I'd been receiving so many confirmations.

As it turned out, thanks to a link shared in a comment by fellow blogger Patrick Jones of Frequent Traveler Ancestry, I discovered Żerków was indeed a good place to inspect for further signs of the Gramlewicz family.

Above: "Première tentative de navigation" (first launch), undated (before 1922) oil on canvas by Évariste Carpentier; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...