Enjoying my Polish Christmas Feast and Staying Safe

Wesołych Świąt

Many of my ancestors are Polish and celebrating holidays are essential to the lives of Polish families. They used the calendar of holidays to set the rhythm for activities during the year. Christmas was a favorite because it seemed to be a magical time. The festive activities surrounding Christmas helped brighten the atmosphere from the dark days of the winter. Family, relatives, friends, neighbors, and strangers seem to become kind, friendly, and generous.

This year with the threat of Covid-19 still looming around us, our holiday celebrations may seem even more critical to our lives as we pray to return to normal activities. Will the magical feeling we get from celebrating Christmas with our family make this return to normalcy possible? Or will family gatherings bring unwanted results? Vaccination minimizes but does not prevent the spread of Covid. We need to have a balance between celebrating with our families and practicing safe contact. How can we carry on the traditions of our Polish ancestors and still stay safe?

Decorating the house inside and out can quickly and safely get the family into the Christmas Spirit. The decorations can give our family the warm, welcoming feeling of Christmas as soon as they drive up to our home. However, inside the house, the risk of transmitting Covid-19 increases, and we should take steps to minimize this risk.

Here are my common-sense suggestions:

  1. Do not travel long distances to attend the family party. Everyone needs to stay close to home – different states and different counties follow different rules and cause confusion.
  2. Schedule your family gathering at a large enough house to maximize social distancing in the sitting areas. Do not congregate in one room such as the kitchen.
  3. Add tables to increase elbow room at the tables when eating
  4. Deliver food, beverages, and presents a few days before the gathering. Avoid last-minute shopping.
  5. Minimize who handles food, dishes, and utensils
  6. Minimize who handles Christmas presents
  7. Before the party, ask family members if they have Covid-19 symptoms and vaccination status. The non-vaccinated and those who have symptoms should stay home
  8. Ask family members who have attended holiday parties at work or with friends at bars or restaurants to wear masks or stay home
  9. Have masks available for all family members to wear if they need to.
  10. Have hand sanitizer dispensers available at multiple places at the party and encourage their use
  11. Inform family members about these practices in writing before the party

These may seem like extreme measures, but they will minimize the risk of transmission of the virus at your party. I feel they are needed because I would be devastated if a family member became infected with the virus at my family celebration.

Even with the above practices, you can still enjoy the festivities. Focus on enjoying a traditional Christmas meal with all the favorite foods from past Christmas meals. What will you serve? I have memories of cheese, sauerkraut pierogi, fish, ham, mushroom soup with noodles, herring, boiled potatoes, dumplings with plums and poppy seeds, stewed prunes with lemon peel, and a fruit and poppy seed cake. Today, our feast includes kiełbasa, sauerkraut, red cabbage, cucumber sour cream salad, pierogi, and a poppy seed cake. This menu has far fewer items than a traditional Polish Christmas table but still satisfies our appetites and produces leftovers. It includes traditional Polish foods and tries to honor the memories of our ancestors.

Bring out the family photo albums and scrapbooks. Try to create an atmosphere that encourages everyone to remember family stories. If there are small children, read Christmas stories to them. Sing a few Christmas carols to bring the group together. Take pictures and write down the family stories.

Best wishes, and I hope you follow many of my suggestions. Have fun but stay safe.

Where Were Our Ancestors Born?

How can we find the records for our immigrant ancestors? Most are available online and are cataloged by the name of the town where officials created the record. So, we need to find documents or stories that will give us town names. It is also essential to find as many names as possible – do not stop when you find the first town name even if it is stated as their birthplace. There are usually more than one location with the same name so you will need more than one name to find the correct location on a map.

Here is the list I used to find these clues:

  • Documents and letters from the old country – Look in the shoeboxes and desk drawers for the papers your immigrants saved. I was lucky when researching my grandfather’s origins because I found a copy of his birth record. He needed to prove his age for his Medicare application. The document listed the village where he was born, the parish of his baptism, and the diocese. We also found copies of birth records for my wife’s great-grandparents that they brought with them. Note: officials, clerks, and priests transcribed these copies, and we should find the original registers later.
  • Family oral history – Interview older relatives for immigration stories because this may be a great source of clues. However, be careful. Many immigrants gave the name of a large city and not the small villages where they left. Also, the town name may have a phonetic spelling. Still, use all town names as clues to be sorted out when you have completed your list.
  • Marriage records – Civil and church records may list where the bride and groom were married. I was lucky and found town names listed on these records for my ancestors. I also found many priests insisted on listing in the church marriage registers where the bride and groom were baptized
  • Naturalization Petitions – In 1906, the U.S. Congress changed the immigration law and required specific additional information in the naturalization petitions. The petition then included when and where the immigrant arrived. It also listed when and where they were born.
  • Passenger Manifests have various formats, but all have columns indicating their last residence, and some include where the passengers were born.
  • Death records such as death certificates and obituaries may include information but not always. Another caution is that these documents may not have accurate information because the person giving it may not know what is correct.

Do not stop the search when you find one name.  Collect as many names as possible. Save all of the names that you find even if you believe the spelling is not correct. Remember that some clues give a phonetic spelling. Save every name because most countries have multiple locations for towns with the same name. So, you will need to have more than one place name to point the way.

Additionally, you should research the documents of children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends of your ancestors if they were born in Europe. The place names on documents for these relatives should point to the same area as your ancestors.

This process is similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle. The town names are on the pieces, and the completed jigsaw puzzle is similar to a map showing most of the town names from the list that we compiled.

After you have exhausted your search through the documents, you will find that one of the names may be the name of the county (powiat), another one the township (gmina), another town will be the location of the parish church. Other towns on your list may be surrounding villages. All are needed to find your ancestors. You will know where you are going when you see the cluster of the names on a map.

Should you give a DNA test kit as a Christmas Present?

Have you started shopping for your Christmas gifts? The DNA testing companies have started their sale ads on TV suggesting their test would be a great gift, and you are probably wondering which company offers the best test.

I can rate each company for my use but can not suggest one for you to take without knowing what you want to learn from the test. The test results give you two types of information. The basic data set is a list and diagrams showing the possible areas your ancestors left and imply these are your Roots! The second set of information is a list that matches your DNA in varying degrees to other people and gives a range of relationships, such as 2nd to 4th cousins or 4th to 6th and more. The test results will not magically present you with a complete family tree as some ads suggest. To get your family tree, you will have to commit to many days and nights of work uncovering your family history.

If all you want is to know your ethnic origins take the test and review your results. However, this set of data is the least accurate. Also, each company bases its projections on different base data, so comparing results from different companies may present a confusing picture. (Note, this comparison may happen when your siblings or cousins each use different companies for their test samples.) I have not found data that points to one company’s results being more accurate than the others. All are updating their data to improve their accuracy, but I have found comparing the results does give me clues that help. The results are not 100%, but they will provide a general idea. I am sorry, but they can not point to a specific village.

If you want to start uncovering your family history, DNA testing is not the first step. You need to collect family stories, documents and compile a family tree showing at least four generations before submitting a sample for DNA testing. The DNA results will give clues that may tell you how you relate to your cousin matches. If the relationship is not clear, you need that information when you contact your matches.

DNA testing is not magic. It is a science and a tool that may give you clues to your family history. Genealogy Research also is not magic. It is detective work where you need to apply sound and detailed research to be successful.

Please don’t jump into DNA testing without knowing why you are doing it. It may lead to something fantastic, or it may be a waste of your money.

Find the details, do the research, and have fun.

Getting to the Family Stories

Family stories are what our family members want to read in our family histories.

  • Go beyond the records by placing our ancestors in the context of their surroundings.
  • Record accurate information so your family can believe your narratives.
  • Fully document the facts and relationships.
  • Include maps, charts, and photographs that help explain the stories and add visual details.
  • Write for the non-genealogists with organized and understandable information

I found information for my family histories by reading accounts about the daily lives of Polish villagers living close to where my ancestors left. I discovered vintage pictures of the Polish towns and churches and looked through our family albums for early images of life in America. Pictures are essential when describing their lives in Poland and America.

Ask questions about what would affect their experiences in Poland and America. What challenges did they face? What did they experience on their immigration journey? Remember, you will not find answers to most of these questions. However, asking the questions will give you a better perspective of their experiences.

I try to bring my ancestors alive by adding as much social history as I can. However, I try to be careful not to fictionalize their lives by forcing them into events that were not part of their lives. For example, I included a brief history of the railroad shops in Bloomington, Illinois, to explain why they were seeking jobs there. I also described the details of the work that my grandfather did. However, I did not explain the workings of all of the various departments because it would not be relevant to my grandfather.

It is also vital we save our memories of the ancestors that we knew, especially of our parents and grandparents. I feel writing down our memories in a first-person voice seems to personalize my family histories and brings the memory to life. Here are some memories I included at the end of my grandmother’s narrative that relate directly to me.

  • “After I entered St Pat’s Grade School, I began walking with my grandmother the two blocks to Sunday mass. This walk was always pleasant, and I would ramble on with stories on various topics that she would patiently listen to before sometimes commenting. She was always very patient with me.”
  • “Dinners at grandma’s table were very basic because she did not bring any Polish recipes with her from the old country. Our meals consisted of simple meat, potato, and vegetable American-type menus.”
  • “I was picky about what I ate, and grandma would usually make something special for me. Later as an adult, I was frustrated when my children and grandchildren were picky, but I have a special love for my grandmother for spoiling me.”

Most of my writing starts in an encyclopedic format, such as:

“My grandfather Stefan Zuchowski was born on December 26, 1893, to Leopold Zuchowski and Anna Dmochowski in Dmochy Kudly, Poland.”

However, as I find more information and details, I can make the stories more interesting. Here is a later more interesting version with added details:

“My grandfather’s, Steve Zuchowski, birth was in a small cottage in the farming village of Dmochy Kudly, Poland, on December 26, 1893. The next day, his parents Leopold Zuchowski and Anna Dmochowska, carried him five miles down the dirt road to be baptized at Peter and Paul the Apostles Catholic Church in Czyzew. Steve’s parents were descendants of minor Polish nobles who had owned large estates.”

Here is where I got the details to make the story appealing:

  • Birthplace, location of the church, birth, and baptismal dates were from Steve’s baptismal record
  • Being descendants from nobility was listed in notations in the baptismal and marriage records of his parents.
  • The size of the cottage and condition of the roads came from vintage pictures of the village.

Remember, our collections of family stories, photos, and documents are incomplete unless someone writes an explanation of how they are related. The narrative creates our unique family history and is essential for the future enjoyment of our children and grandchildren. If you feel you do not have the skills to do this, who in your family can? If you like to do the research, is there someone that can work with you to write it? Also, my encyclopedic format is a simple and easy method to start writing your family history. Expand the stories with the details and make them hard to put down.  

I hope you develop the same passion for genealogy as I have, and “Remember to have fun.”

Helpful Books in Polish Research

The Christmas season will quickly be upon us, and here are some gift ideas for your family genealogist or your Christmas wish list to pass along. I am sure they will find these books very useful in Polish genealogy and make great Christmas gifts. All are available online from various sources. First, check availability at the book stores for the Polish American Journal (http://www.polamjournal.com/bookstore.html) and the Polish Genealogy Society (https://pgsa.org/product-category/books/). Another source is the Polish Art Center (https://www.polartcenter.com/).

Research and Translation

  • Polish Genealogy: Four steps to success by Stephen Szabados (2013) – The book outlines a simple process that will help identify where your ancestors were born and where to find their Polish records.
  • In Their Words: a genealogist’s translation guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian documents (4 books (2003, 2007, 2013, 2017) – each covers a different language) by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman – Four separate books covering the languages found in Polish records. The books discuss documents and extracts from American and European sources, analyzed and translated
  • Going Home – A Guide to Polish American Family Research by Jonathan D. Shea (2008) – Another great guide discussing where to find U’S’ and Polish records for your ancestors.
  • Sto Lat: A Modern Guide to Polish Genealogy by Cecile Wendt Jensen (2010) – This is a workbook that offers a plan for researching based on the techniques developed by the author over thirty years of research and teaching.
  • A Guide to Chicago and Midwestern Polish-American Genealogy by Jason Kruski (2018) – Learn to access the Chicago and Midwestern records relayed to your Polish ancestors using both paper records or the wealth of information available on websites.
  • The Family Tree Polish, Czech and Slovak Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Family Tree in Eastern Europe by Lisa Alzo (2016) – This is an in-depth guide that will walk you through a step-by-step process of finding your Polish, Czech, or Slovak roots.
  • Polish Roots. Second Edition 2nd Edition by Rosemary a. Chorzempa (2014)
  • The Study of Obituaries as A Source for Polish Genealogical Research by Thomas E Golembiewski (2009) – This book provides information on deciphering and using Polish language obituaries.
  • Haller’s Polish Army in France by Paul S Valasek (2006) – An excellent reference for information if your ancestor was part of the Polish Army in France, aka Haller’s Army, aka the Blue Army.
  • Slownik Geograficzny by Filip Sulimierski, Bronisław Chlebowski, Władysław Walewski and others, Warsaw, multiple volumes published between 1880 and 1902 – available on DVD from Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA.org)
  • A translation guide to 19th-century Polish-language civil registration documents: including birth, marriage, and death records by Judith R. Frazin. Great translation guide for Polish records found in the Russian Partition.
  • First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins & Meanings by William F. Hoffman and George Wiesław Helon (1998) – This is an excellent reference to decipher the correct first name for your ancestors.
  • Polish surnames: origins and meanings by William F. Hoffman (2012) – must have reference to determine the proper Polish surname for ancestors.

Books on History, Culture, and Customs

  • Polish Immigration to America by Stephen Szabados (2016) – This book gives excellent insights into the emigration and arrival in America. A must-read for the family historian.
  • Daily Life in Immigrant America 1820-1870 by James M. Bergquist(2019)  – This book will give us great insights into the lives of our ancestors who arrived in the 1800s.
  • Daily Life in Immigrant America 1870-1920 by June Granatir Alexander (2009) – This book will give us great insights into the lives of our ancestors who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
  • Jadwiga’s Crossing: A Story of the Great Migration by Aloysius A. Lutz, Richard J. Lutz (2006) – Must read to gain insights to challenges to crossing the Atlantic on sailing ship in the 1800s. It will change your perspective of your ancestors.
  • God’s Playground: A History of Poland: In Two Volumes by Norman Davies (2005) – Best and most accurate Polish history book.
  •  by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab (1996) – Must have to learn more about your Polish heritage.
  • Creating Kashubia, History, Memory, and Identity in Canada’s First Polish Community by Joshua C. Blank (2016) –
  • Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago: Workers on The South Side, 1880-1922 (1991) by Dominic A Pacyga – Great reference with many stories of Polish life in Chicago.
  • Chicago’s Southeast Side by Ron Sellers and Dominic  A. Pacyga (2001) – Great details of life in the southside Polish neighborhoods.
  • Chicago’s Polish Downtown (Images of America) by Victoria Granacki (2004) – Book contains many pictures detailing Polish life in Chicago.
  • Forgotten Doors, The Other Ports of Entry to the United States edited by M. Mark Stolarik (1988) – Not all immigrants arrived through New York. This book covers the history and describes coming through the other major U.S. ports.

Wesołych Świąt

October is Polish Heritage Month

Polish workers were among the craftsmen who English agents recruited to produce materials needed to build the Jamestown and to manufacture tar and resins needed to repair the ships. The Polish workman also setup the first glass works in America. Your Polish ancestors may not be in history books but their labor helped build America.

When did your Polish ancestors immigrate? Why did they leave their homes? If you do not know, explore some possible reasons. Do not assume that the cause was economic or to avoid the military draft. Did other siblings immigrate? Did their parents immigrate? What was the status or occupation of your ancestors in Poland?  Multiple factors forced the migrations from Poland, and your immigrant may have been affected by more than one element. Remember that each immigrant has a unique story, and it is part of our Polish heritage. We need to search the records and write down our oral history to save it for our future generations.

My Polish grandparents came from neighboring parishes, but different circumstances caused their immigration. My grandfather, Stefan, had ancestors who were nobility, but his family worked their farmland because their farm was very small. It could barely support their family. My grandfather, a brother, and a sister had to leave home to find a better life. My grandmother, Anna, came from the same area as Stefan and also had ancestors who were nobles. Her family farm was also very small and could only support one family. However, her life in Poland and the immigration story is different from Stefan. She and two older brothers were the only members to survive World War I. However, Anna had to find a husband, but her brother could find one for her in Poland. She was sent to her brother in America to find her husband.

It was not easy to immigrate to America. Leaving home was a very emotional decision. Those who left saw immigration as their only chance to escape the poverty of their life in Poland. Not only were they leaving their family and friends, but the emigrants were leaving their beloved homeland behind. Some may have been excited about emigrating, but there was also fear of the unknown — most left home with tears in their eyes.

They were mostly farmers who were forced to leave Poland. If they were married, they left to find food for their children. If they were single, they left to find work because there was an excess of farm labor and no room for them on the family farm.

After the immigrants arrived in America, they felt joy and relief as they walked past the gate into the United States. However, their journey was not over. They were tired and probably hungry from their trip. They were thrilled and bewildered by what they saw of their new land.

Try to describe their lives in America. Look through old pictures in family albums and also history books of the local area and neighborhoods. Pictures of their homes, neighborhood, and their church are vital. Identify where they worked because this would have been a significant part of their lives. Look at their overall experience in America. How did they enjoy their new life? Did they do anything outside of work? Did they have a hobby? Were they active in a fraternal group? Did you find pictures of family gatherings? How was their life here better than what they would have had in Poland?

You will not find answers to most of these questions. However, asking the questions and doing the research will give you a perspective of what your ancestors experienced and give you a better understanding of their character and your Polish Heritage.

Our immigrant ancestors were heroes, and they are the foundation of our roots in the United States. Our lives would be much different if they did not endure the challenges of emigration from Poland. Do not underestimate their contributions. They may have left us some material wealth, but their most significant contribution is their role in the factories and farms of the United States. Their names will not appear in history books, but their efforts impacted American history, and without their sacrifices, our country would not have developed as it did. Their lives were the building blocks in the growth of their new country, and their immigration influenced the quality of our lives today in the United States. Remember that they made many sacrifices for you and helped build the United States.

Save the stories for your future generations

Have fun, and enjoy your Polish Heritage.

Converting FTM facts to Family History Narratives

My initial efforts in genealogy research were adding as many names, dates, and facts to my family tree using a tree on Ancestry.com and offline using FamilyTree Maker. This format gave me a massive warehouse of information but a challenging landscape of organization when trying to use the genealogical reports to analyze my facts. It was even worse when I tried to share the trees and charts with my family members.

I began converting my FTM data to text documents to become more organized and have a better, more readable format to share with my family. My initial conversion methods used the Descendant Reports and Individual Reports to copy and paste their contents to Microsoft Word documents for each direct ancestor. Today, I use FTM’s Smart Story function to generate my initial text document.

My first step in editing the text document is to make each fact a Bullitt Point. Next, I organize each fact into chronological order. This method seems tedious, but I get excited when I see my ancestor’s life story start to appear. Seeing the facts come together then encourages me to add photos and maps. I search for pictures of my ancestors, their homes, schools, places of employment, vintage images of the area, and maps. I place them next to the text where appropriate or at the end of the narrative. These pictures bring my ancestors more alive.

My individual narratives now become my primary research document. I save all new facts, photos, and documents to this summary of my ancestor. First, the facts and stories are added to the narrative with references to my sources. When I find a new document, I add the information from the document in the narrative. Then, place the copy of the document at the end of the narrative with a citation of its source.

I still use FTM as a reference for names, dates, and relationships. In addition, I refer to it often when I am writing to get the family group information correct or to review where to place a new name in the family tree. However, I do not run another Descendant Report, Individual Report, or Smart Story. Instead, I run Pedigree Charts when I need to add them to a section of the family history to show how the individuals are related.

I have found that using narratives as my research document makes most of the challenges of using linage software disappear. Narratives are flexible in adding information, more readable, and can be easily shared. Converting your FTM data to narratives may be tedious, but you will see more of your ancestry in the narratives.

Make Sharing Your Genealogy Research Exciting for Your Family

Trying to share our family histories with our family memories can be an exciting aspect of our work. However, sharing can be very frustrating if our approach is boring or filled with genealogical jargon. Whatever your first sharing attempts were, keep trying. Besides the feeling of fulfillment when you notice family members getting excited, sharing can also open doors to find more information.

Once you began researching your family history, did your family ignore you when you tried to tell them what you were doing? Did they avoid you by moving to another room? You were excited when you found records and wanted to tell everyone how you did it. Why did they ignore you? Are they genealogists?

My experience has been that non-genealogist wish to know about the family history but not how we found the information. I found genealogy forms, charts, and documents were boring and hard to understand by most non-genealogists. They wanted to see the stories of what’s in the documents.

When I began writing narratives that include photos and maps, the attitude of family members changed, and they started asking questions about my research. As a result, my research began to advance faster because my narratives helped me become organized, and relatives began offering photos, documents and told me stories.

There are several ways to share our family history narratives. Genealogists have used newsletters for many years, but the internet has introduced blogs and social media as additional avenues to share our stories. I have taken a more significant step by expanding my narratives into published books. I feel a bound book will be saved by my descendants, thus saving my hard work. Posting online could give my family instant access to my narratives, but I need to be cautious of privacy issues. Also, I believe my online posts may disappear in the future. Newsletters are easy to write and distribute, but they are easy to throw out when someone cleans off their desk. Some people save their newsletters by putting them in a ring binder, so this becomes almost like a book. These are some of the reasons why I use one of the online platforms to self-publish my family histories in bound books. Note, my research does not stop once I publish. I keep digging for more stories and trying to answer those nagging questions about why my ancestors did something or settled where they did. I update my narratives and use them as my primary research documents, so the book content is always up-to-date.

Start saving your research in a narrative format. Then, your genealogy work will be accepted and enjoyed by your family members and help your family remember your ancestors more.

Save their stories and honor them.

My interview on researching and writing my family history

I was recently interviewed by Polatron which is a group in Australia helping Polish descendants gaining dual citizenship. We discussed how I got started with my research and tips on researching, saving and writing it down in an organized method.

Does Recent Changes at Ancestry.com Matter?

The recent changes in Ancestry’s Terms of Service do not mean the “sky is falling.” However, people with posted family trees are in turmoil because Ancestry added “perpetual” and “non-revocable” to their Terms of Service. These words are profound, and people should be concerned with the rights they are granting Ancestry when they upload their content to their trees. Yet, Ancestry had the right to do what they wanted with our content before adding these words. The difference is that the new terms do not expire.

Another point to remember is you still own the copyright to your content. Therefore, Ancestry cannot violate any copyright laws if they use you’re your content. They would be foolish to do so without asking your permission.

The current dilemma points to the fact that we need to consider how we use the online family trees and how careful we should be in posting content to our trees.

  • What is your goal in posting an online family tree?
  • Do you use your tree as the central depository of your family history?
  • Should you be posting all information?
  • Do you consider privacy issues before you post?

Online family trees are an essential communication tool, and they must be very public to be effective towards this goal. Nevertheless, we do not have to post everything for it to be effective. I use my online trees to connect with unknown cousins and exchange information with them. My trees are not complete. They may mention information but not include the documents. I use my online tree to attract unknown cousins to contact me.

The new issue with Ancestry unmasks the problems when using online family trees as the primary tool in saving and compiling our family history. Family trees are just the skeletons of our ancestors. A family history is much more. It should contain stories that bring our ancestors alive. Please consider, there are better and more private tools than online trees to compile, save and share the stories and documents associated with your family history.

Contemplate compiling your research offline into notes and summaries of your ancestors. This method gives you the flexibility to add stories and facts in a readable format. The format allows you to embed the documents and add the needed citations. Using the summary of facts will help your research be more efficient. As a text document, you can share it at any time with your family because it is readable in a language they understand and not in our genealogy jargon and forms. Offline, your family history is on your computer and can remain private and within your control. You decide who sees your pages.

Online family trees are important but remember they are public. Most family members do not refer to them because they are difficult for the non-genealogist to understand. Save your family history using another method that remains private and understandable by your family.