The Importance of  Polish Immigration Story to Polish Research

Taking your first step in finding Polish records can be very challenging. At the beginning of my research, I found it essential to review the history of Polish immigration to America: when, why, where, and how. Understanding this aspect of Polish history was critical to my success because knowing the immigration story helped me find the seemingly hidden records for my Polish ancestors.

Poles in America

The first Poles arrived in America at Jamestown in October 1608. They were among the craftsmen the Virginia Company hired to produce materials such as export glassware and make tar and resin needed to repair arriving ships. In addition, our history books mention Polish military leaders Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko and banker Haym Saloman having crucial roles in the American Revolution. Finally, although I have not found any reference of other Poles in Colonial America, there were probably small numbers of Polish workers, intellectuals, and sons of noblemen who immigrated.

The first significant events that affected Polish emigration were the three partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795 when Prussia, Russia, and Austria carved up Poland, and it disappeared from world maps. However, few Poles fled  Poland after the partitions, and generally, the refugees who could afford to leave went to European countries. The farmers, who made up the large waves of later Polish emigration, could not leave because the nobles would not allow it. However, pressure to leave grew as the new rulers of Polish partitions did not treat their Polish subjects as full citizens and gradually enacted policies that had significant adverse effects. Accordingly, their policies helped build the Polish national unity that we see today.

The first wave of Polish emigration began in the 1850s when Poles left Silesia to settle in Texas, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Their documented histories listed that they left due to the harsh poverty, high taxes, military conscription, and social discrimination at the hands of their Prussian rulers. Poles also began emigrating from other Prussian areas in the late 1860s after the German Empire enacted the Kulturkampf Laws meant to eliminate the Polish culture in Prussian-controlled lands. The laws banned the Polish language from schools and newspapers. In addition, traditional Polish songs and dances were forbidden. In 1886, the Prussian Colonization Policy forced Poles to sell their lands to Germans recruited to re-settle in these new “German” lands. Polish farmers were now day laborers and could not find steady work. Emigration was the only solution to their growing poverty. Records show that over 400,000 Poles left between 1869 to 1899 from German-controlled Poland. Passenger lists indicate most left in family groups.

Polish emigration in the Russian and Austrian partitions began in earnest in the 1880s and generally affected the younger generation because of a lack of jobs. Investors did not build factories in the Polish partitions because they had seen the past uprisings by the Polish people and had fears of future turmoil. Farms could not be sub-divided when the father died. Only the oldest son inherited the land. Owning land became the key to economic stability. Without jobs or land, the younger sons had to leave. Also, fathers had to find the “right husband” for their daughters, someone with the prospect of inheriting the family farm. The other alternative was sending them to relatives in America to find work or a husband. Passenger manifests indicate that most Polish emigrants from the Russian and Austrian partitions were single men and women. This mixture differed from the family groups leaving the German partition.

With the lack of opportunities in rural Poland, and growing unemployment in the cities, emigrating to the United States became an attractive alternative. Letters from earlier immigrants and advertisements circulated by the shipping companies further fueled thoughts about leaving.

Once in America, Polish men worked in the mills and factories that were driving America’s economic growth in cities and areas such as Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New England. They worked at the hardest jobs that nobody else wanted. Single Polish women also worked in the factories or as servants until they found a husband. Also, some Poles were able to buy farms in America.

Many emigrants left Poland to earn money in America and then returned home to buy Polish farmland. As a result, almost a third of the Polish immigrants returned home after a few years in America. Nevertheless, the majority of the Poles found it hard to abandon their new home once they saw how much better their life was staying in America. These are the immigrants who are our ancestors.

Learn your ancestor’s immigration story. Identify their challenges. Write and preserve their family stories to honor your Polish heritage for future generations.

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.

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.

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.

SAVE THE DATES: October 22, 23, 29 and 30

The  2021 GENEALOGY CONFERENCE is coming with 7-8 speeakers and 10 presentations that help you trace your Polish-American and Eastern European roots.

Sponsored by The Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast, Inc. and The S. A. Blejwas Endowed Chair of the Polish and Polish American Studies, Central Connecticut State University.

More information coming soon. Check back later at https://pgsctne.org/

Hiring a Polish Researcher

Not all records are available online yet. If you are in this situation, you may want to consider hiring a professional researcher. They can help you find the documents that organizations have not digitized yet. Since this may be an expensive option, you will need to be specific in your request, and you should try to use researchers recommended by trusted friends or groups. Also, check with one of the Polish genealogy societies for recommendations.  I have used this option when I could not find a birth record for my grandmother and a marriage record for my great-grandparents. I have also asked a researcher to track down living descendants of my grandparents’ brothers to find older pictures of the family and exchange family stories. I found that paying a researcher to find these documents and people was a bargain compared to the travel costs to perform the research myself in Poland.

Other tips in hiring a researcher in Poland:

  • Your request should be for specific documents. Please do not ask for a generic search.
  • Also, ask how they require payment and be careful with your payments.
  • If you are contacting an archive of Polish group, be prepared to send your email or written request in the language of the country. The Polish Genealogy Society of America (PGSA) offers form letters that you can use for these requests. This jester is a sign of respect, and it may generate a more positive response from the archive. I usually send my request in English and Polish.

Another tip is to use books, local genealogy programs, genealogy societies, genealogy conferences, online educational offerings, and social media to sharpen your genealogy skills. Again, once you start your journey, it will probably be a lifelong passion.

“Remember to have fun.”

Polish Genealogy Websites

PGSA (Polish Genealogical Society of America) has compiled a list of over 45 websites that give us access to Polish records or information about local history and customs.

https://pgsa.org/polish-sites/

International Tracing Service (ITS) – Where can we find the stories for Post-WW II Displaced Persons?

Did your parents or grandparents immigrate to the United States shortly after WW II? If so, they probably told you stories of staying in one or more of the refugee camps at the end of the war. The Allied forces established these camps to handle the masses of displaced persons coming from the German work camps or death camps or who fled their homes to escape communist rule.

Did your ancestors tell you the details of their lives during and after the war, or were they reluctant to talk about their experiences? The International Tracing Service had the task of saving the documents of the refugees and gives us hope to complete their stories.

The work of ITS began in 1943 when the Headquarters of the Allied Forces asked the British Red Cross to set up a registration and tracing service for missing persons. ITS grew out of the Central Tracing Bureau, which was approved on February 15, 1944. The bureau initially worked out of London but was moved from there to Versailles, then to Frankfort am Main, and then to its current location in Bad Arolsen, Germany. On July 1, 1947, the International Refugee Organization (ICRC) took over administration of the bureau on July 1, 1947, and changed the name of the bureau to International Tracing Service on January 1, 1948.

ITS collects and controls the documents, information, and research on Nazi persecution, forced labor, and displaced persons. The archive in Bad Arolsen contains about 30 million records from concentration camps, details of forced labor, and files on displaced persons. The archives have been accessible to researchers since 2007. Requests for information from individuals or descendants can be made by mail or on the ITS website (Home Page – https://arolsen-archives.org/en/). In 2015, ITS began adding records to an online database and today has over two million records in an online searchable collection of documents. Family historians should search the online archive at https://arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/ to confirm their ancestors are in the archive. However, the results will show one or two documents but not the complete file. Use the inquiry page (arolsen-archives.org/en/search-explore/inquiries/) to request the entire file. Be patient because the average delivery time for the files is about four months and can take as long as eleven months.

NEW BOOK – My Polish Grandmother: from Tragedy in Poland to her Rose Garden in America

This book is about my grandmother. When researching her life, I found she endured many challenges that made her the strong person that I admired as I grew up around her. In writing my grandmother’s story, I wanted to go beyond the names, dates, and pictures in the photo albums. She was more than that. It is very important to ask why she did what she did.

This book asks questions about her fears when growing up, immigrating to America, and making her new life. How did she face these fears? How did she overcome them? Although I found no answers, I still found new insights about my grandmother.

Our ancestors were part of the wave of emigration that left Europe with the hope of finding work and a better life. It was not easy to immigrate to America. Our ancestors saw immigration to America as their last chance. They had to overcome obstacles getting from their village to the ships and hardships crossing the Atlantic. Then they had to prove they were worthy to be admitted to the United States. Once here, they faced challenges and discrimination to find work and make the better life they were seeking. My grandmother’s story is different because I tried to show how immigration was different for women.

Remember our ancestors made many sacrifices for us and helped build the United States. They could not appreciate what they were doing because they were working hard and surviving each day. However, what they did each day was important. I believe that our role should be to leave something that will help our children remember them. We need to capture the memories by writing our family history. This story is my attempt to preserve my grandmother’s memory.