Writing Family Histories for the Nonwriter

Genealogy research should go beyond finding documents and filling in names and dates on charts. After finding my first family documents, saving the information in a family history for my children and future generations became a priority. However, I was reluctant to write a family history because I was uncomfortable with the grammar rules and organizing my thoughts into clear statements. I also felt I could not give my research to another person to write the narrative because they could not feel my connection with my ancestors as a researcher and a family member. Fortunately, I developed a method that overcame my reluctance, and this process should also work for most nonwriters.

My strategy for writing my family history is to initially focus on transcribing the information into summaries for each ancestor. These entries can be bullet points; I use sentences, but they do not have to be. This method helps me start the process and should work for most people to overcome their fear and reluctance to start writing their family history.

I visualize my initial entries for an ancestor as just recording information. As a result, my first entries have an encyclopedic format and could be considered boring. Here is a sample:

“The baptismal record for my grandmother, Anna Chmielewska, indicates she was born on June 26, 1899, in Pierzshaly, Poland, to Aleksander Chmielewski and Julianna Zaluska.”

This format is mechanical. After using it frequently, remembering specific words, phases, and the sentence structure for each type of record is easy. Each entry begins with the name of the record type, followed by a verb such as lists, indicates, or shows. Next, enter the person’s name and then list the information in the document. Using this method, I can record the information quickly and accurately in my summaries for each ancestor because the words flow freely. In addition, frequent use has trained my eyes where to look for the information.

I use summaries as my primary research document and refer to them when needing facts to do more research. I also update them conscientiously when I find new information. Having all the information for an individual in one place is another benefit because it helps find new info faster. Additionally, I list the information in chronological order, which will slowly tell the stories. Finally, the latest info, details, and stories help me expand the initial encyclopedic entry into an appealing narrative. For example, here is the current narrative describing my grandmother’s birth and the walk to the church for her baptism.

“Anna was born at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 26, 1899, to Aleksander Chmielewski and Julia Zaluska in a small cottage in the farming village Przezdziecko-Pierzchaly, Polish Russia.

“In Poland, fathers choose the names of their sons, and mothers select their daughters’ names. Additionally, Polish parents often give their children saint’s names, and usually, the name is associated with the saint for the day of the birth. However, the saint’s name for June 26 was not Anna, so I do not know why my grandmother received her name.

On the day after Anna’s birth, Aleksander put Julia and the baby onto his horse cart and led them down the dirt road three miles to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Andrzejewo for Anna’s baptism. Walking behind their father were Anna’s four siblings – Marianna (age 17), Boleslaw (age 14), Stefania (age 12), and Hipolit (age 6).

“Also joining the procession were Grandfather Adam Chmielewski and the godparents Franciszek and Emilia Uscinski. Emilia was Julia’s first cousin, and, as godmother, she was responsible for dressing the infant for the christening.

“Another group accompanying the family to the church were Jozef Sutkowski, age forty-two, and Aleksander Sutkowski, age forty, who were needed as witnesses to the birth. They were farmers in Pierzchaly and brothers to Anna’s grandmother Teodora who had died four years prior.

“Grandmother Franciszka Zaluska and other family members met them in Andrzejewo because they lived near the church. Babka, who helped with Anna’s birth,  stayed behind in the village to organize the christening party.”

I may seem creative in my words in the second example, but I did not make up the details. They came from the documents and photos:

  • Birth and Baptismal Dates – from Anna’s baptismal record
  • Birthplace and location of church – from Anna’s baptismal record
  • Descendant from Nobility – from Anna’s baptismal record and the baptismal and marriage records of her parents
  • Size of the cottage – from vintage pictures of the village
  • Condition of roads – from vintage photos of the area
  • Origins of her name – from books on Polish customs
  • The list of people attending the baptism- from birth, marriage, and death records for the friends and family of the Chmielewski family and the village of Pierzchaly
  • Distance to the church – calculation from a map

Remember that sources of details and stories that go beyond the traditional documents are county histories, books on ethnic customs and traditions, maps, newspaper articles, and stories about daily life in the same area. Most of these sources do not mention your ancestors, but they give you insights into their lives.

Another essential resource is the older photos in family albums. Ask relatives to identify the event and the people. Also, review the images that show the inside of the homes. Also, there were clues and details related to my ancestors in the photos I saw in books and online collections – especially those depicting the neighborhood where they lived and worked. Additionally, the details sometimes may give clues to areas needing even more research.

Another source of clues is asking questions about the information you have found. The lack of an answer points to areas that need more research.

  • Where did they live? Find pictures of the home
  • Why did they move? Read the history of the area, focusing on what drew your ancestors to the area or drove them away
  • What was their occupation? Read accounts that describe the skills and effort they needed to do their jobs
  • What social history affected their lives? Only include events that directly affected them

The last essential part of my method is to write entries with an audience in mind. Picturing the audience helps to write for them in clear narratives. In my case, I try to envision my grandchildren or great-grandchildren reading my stories.

Whatever format the summary has, it serves two purposes: first, as research notes, so you can quickly research further, and second, as a readable document, you can easily share it with your family. In addition, the information is in a format your family does not have to know the genealogical jargon to understand what you share with them.

Points to Remember:

  • Be accurate in recording the data from documents
  • Add descriptive information to your statements found in other sources
  • Add first-person accounts when available
  • Use your voice, style, and vocabulary
  • Do not exaggerate
  • Omit needless words (keep it simple)
  • Focus on recording the information and saving stories, and your family history will appear

However, I must caution you that once you start, you may get addicted to this exciting journey along your family’s past. My research has brought many ancestors back to life. Sometimes, I can feel them looking over my shoulder as I enter their stories onto their pages. That feeling may seem crazy, but that’s the connection that may occur.

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Saving Our Polish Heritage for Our Grandchildren

Now is a time for us to celebrate our Polish heritage, and the story of our immigrant ancestors is the foundation of that Heritage.

I spent much of my early life with my Polish grandparents, and my genealogy research began because I wanted to learn more about their lives in Poland. The success of my early research shifted my goal to saving my discoveries for my children and grandchildren. I decided that I could best do this by compiling a written Family History that is a narrative and contains stories, photos, maps, and documents. I envision my family histories as greatly enhanced scrapbooks focusing on the narratives that explain the images, maps, and documents. I also describe my family histories as collections of summaries of individual ancestors that I have organized into one large document.

I started my research by collecting family photos, family papers, and oral history and quickly moved on to census, naturalization, passenger, and marriage records. These records led me to identify their birthplace and more documents for my Polish ancestors.

I found accounts that described Polish life in the places where they lived. I also found vintage pictures of the town, church, and homes. Polish relatives also gave me copies of the family members who stayed. I included all of this information in my family histories as it was related to my ancestors.

As I compiled my family history, these steps started to bring my grandparents and their ancestors back to life. Note that this process did not happen quickly or with one significant revelation. Instead, the vision of my ancestors came together one piece at a time and over many years.

Capturing the immigration story is an essential step in honoring our Polish Heritage. Envisioning the challenges that our Polish immigrants faced on their journey to America is another critical aspect. Identify the port they left and the size of the ship. Review the passenger manifest. How was life on board the ship? What was their destination? Link the information in the documents and find the stories.

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. Some may have been excited about emigrating, but there was also fear of the unknown — most left home with tears in their eyes.

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. Next, identify where they worked because this would have been a significant part of their lives. Finally, 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?

We will not find answers to most of these questions. However, asking the questions and doing the research will give us a perspective of what our ancestors may have experienced and better understand their character and our Polish Heritage.

Our immigrant ancestors were heroes, and they are the foundation of our roots in the United States. 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.

Be patient. Keep asking questions and looking for records and stories. Then, write down the stories and organize them in family histories.

Save the stories for your future generations

Have fun, and enjoy your Polish Heritage.

The International Tracing Service (ITS): 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 post-war who fled their homes to escape communist rule.

Were your ancestors willing to tell you about their lives during and after the war, or did they avoid telling you these stories? The International Tracing Service may be able to help you find some of these details. They had the task of saving the refugees’ documents and giving us hope of completing their stories.

The work of tracing refugees 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. In 1944, The Red Cross gave the work to the newly created Central Tracing Bureau. The Bureau initially worked out of London but then moved to Versailles. Later it moved to Frankfort am Main and then to its current location in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Finally, in July 1947, the International Refugee Organization (ICRC) took over the Bureau’s administration and changed the Bureau’s name to International Tracing Service (ITS) in January 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. 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.

The original goal of the authorities at the refugee camps was to repatriate the refugees to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. Authorities soon changed their strategy after reports of mistreatment of refugees who returned to communist countries, which caused a growing resistance of the refugees to return. Immigration to western countries became the new destination 

In late 1947, Belgium became the first country to adopt refugee immigration and accepted nearly 22,000 people. The United Kingdom accepted 86,000 refugees, in addition to 115,000 Polish army veterans who resettled in England and 12,000 former Ukrainian members of the German SS. By 1951, Canada had accepted 157,687 refugees, Australia took 182,159 refugees, and France accepted 38,157 displaced persons. In addition, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina accepted almost 80,000 refugees.

From the end of the war to 1948, nearly 50,000 refugees had entered Palestine (many illegally due to immigration restrictions).

The United States was late accepting displaced persons, and then only after considerable lobbying for a policy change. There was significant opposition in the U. S. Congress to taking Central and Eastern Europeans and Jews. Nevertheless, President Harry S. Truman signed the first act in June 1948, allowing entry for 200,000 refugees, followed by the second act in June 1950, allowing entry for another 200,000. The American program was the largest and most idealistic of the Allied programs but also the most bureaucratic, which required a sponsor and the promise of a job. Charitable organizations, such as the Lutheran World Federation and ethnic groups, undertook much of the humanitarian effort.

ITS has a wealth of information in the documents that could add to your family history. The information will identify the camps where your ancestors lived. It may list their occupations, residence before entering the camps, birthplaces, and jobs while in the camps. Research the history of the camps to add background information about where they lived.

Pay attention to the details which you may have to translate. The details will reveal the picture of your ancestors’ struggles to survive after the war and how they rebuilt their lives. The details will also give you insights into the character you see in them.

Save their stories and honor their memory.

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.

Memories of Celebrating Easter

What are your memories of Easter when you were young? How are you capturing your family stories?

My first memories are an image of Sister Valentine marching us first-graders to a pew in the church on Ash Wednesday to receive the ashes on our foreheads from the priest. Over the next few years, the Dominican Sisters at St Patrick’s Grade School taught us the symbolism for Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday in our religion classes. However, living with my Polish grandparents when I was in grade school, I realized that celebrating Easter had significant meaning for them, especially my grandmother. The importance of Easter for her seemed to go beyond attending the masses, Easter egg hunts, and the food on Easter Sunday.

After writing my grandmother’s story, I now see our focus during the Easter season should go beyond the merrymaking of Mardi Gras or celebrating Fat Tuesday with the Polish jelly-filled donuts, Paczki. Of course, reflecting on the tenets of our faith during Lent and celebrating the Easter week liturgy is essential, but it is also a time to be with family. Therefore, it is crucial to record and save our family memories before losing them. Easter was an important celebration for our Polish ancestors, and I find it exciting when I connect to them through writing the family history.

I try to bring back memories by reflecting on how our family followed Lenten traditions. For example, how did our meals change – more fish, less meat. What did I give up for Lent? Of course, my fellow grade-schoolers and I always promised to give up candy, but later I began attending daily mass, the Stations of the Cross and doing specific good deeds as I matured.

My memories of Easter identify Lent as a private time. The general emphasis of Easter relating to my family memories starts with the end of Lent and the arrival of Palm Sunday. I helped Grandma collect palms on Sunday and later saw she had woven them into crosses and hung them around the house. This Polish tradition encouraged good health and the protection of the house. What traditions did your immigrant ancestors follow after Palm Sunday?

The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is a flurry of activities and memories. I attended Mass on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and watched the rituals associated with these ceremonies, culminating with the extended reading of the gospel on EasterSunday. Sometimes I was in a pew with my family, and other times in the choir loft singing with my classmates. Often, I was one of the altar boys attending to the priests.

Did you have an Easter egg hunt for the children? Were the eggs decorated a solid color or have traditional Polish designs? For Poles, the egg symbolized fertility and played a critical role in many Polish celebrations. In the 1800s, the Poles gave elaborately decorated and ornamental Pisanki eggs as gifts. Unfortunately, the small Polish community where I grew up did not continue this practice. I learned of this tradition only after beginning my family history research.

The crucial time for our family history was gathering at the family feast on Easter Sunday. Do you remember what was on the menu? Of course, you do. Are you saving grandma’s recipes? For our feast, traditional Polish foods were not available. So my grandmother cooked a Polish ham instead. Today my favorites are Kielbasa (Polish sausage) and pierogis (meat or cheese-filled dumplings), but when I was young, our Polish community was small, and it was rare to see these foods on our table.

Who attended the feast? How large was your family? Who were the storytellers? This gathering is the best time to make new memories and the best source to collect the family stories that need to be saved. Unfortunately, I did not take the time to preserve these stories until after my parents and grandparents had died.

Today, I write down notes of family stories as soon as possible. Sometimes, I jot them down in quiet corners on Easter or when I get home. I find that taking notes at the table or using a recording device destroys the moment’s atmosphere. I write the narrative within a few days and then send a copy to the storyteller for corrections. Everyone knows I am writing the family history and seem to expect they will appear on its pages. Stories about the Easter celebrations of my Polish ancestors give me a different perspective of them, and my visions of them seem to come alive. Capture the stories and let your children and grandchildren see their ancestors.

Celebrate St Patrick’s Day by Remembering Your Irish Ancestors

Who were the first Irish immigrants in America?

Why did they immigrate; when did they leave; how did they get here; where did they settle?  

Some historians point to the Scotch-Irish, who began arriving in Philadelphia about 1713. Most were born in Northern Ireland, but their ancestors came from Scotland. King James I of England recruited their Scottish ancestors from Scotland’s lowlands to resettle the Irish land that the English King had confiscated in 1608 from rebellious Irish Ulster nobles. The first Scottish immigrants began arriving in Ulster in 1609. However, the Scotsmen felt disappointed with the reception from the Anglican English and the Catholic Irish. They had difficulties assimilating into their Irish lands.

The Catholic Irish resented the Scots because the English Crown gave the Scots land confiscated from the deposed Irish Lords. Further English authorities discriminated against the Scots by not giving them equal rights after inviting them to Ireland. English laws also required the Scots to pay tithes to the Anglican Church of England, even though they also paid tithes to their Presbyterian churches. This double discrimination caused tensions to grow, and the Scots began a mass exodus within three generations after arriving in Ireland. In the early 1700s, the Scots started leaving Ireland for the Pennsylvania and South Carolina Colonies in America to enjoy the religious tolerance and the vast new lands that the colonies offered.

Small groups of Irish Catholics also came to the American colonies in the early 1700s from the southern Irish counties. They left from the ports of Cork and Kinsale along the south coast. They were answering the invitation from the governors of the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland. The governors hired agents to recruit European men because their colonies needed workers to build their settlements, clear the land for farming, and produce goods for export.

The Scotch-Irish immigrants receive more recognition as early Irish immigrants because of their numbers and contributions to the settlement of western Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachian region of America. The Catholic Irish were in the colonies in the early 1700s, and in the mid-1800s, they began coming to America in large waves.

If you are researching your family history, finding the origins of your Irish roots is crucial. Study the phases of Irish and United States history that affected immigration to America.

Remember that each immigrant has a unique story. Many Irish immigrants kept the details of their stories hidden in their hearts and memories. It was very personal and painful to discuss with anyone. Our challenge is to dig out as many details of their immigration saga as we can for our family history. Match some reasons for immigration to parts of their stories and then merge them with the rest of your family’s oral history.

Our immigrant ancestors laid 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 Ireland. Do not underestimate their contributions. They performed vital roles in the development of America. Many of them cleared fields on the frontier and worked on farms. Many Irish were unskilled and toiled constructing the canals and railroads or in factories. Yet, their lives became building blocks in the growth of their new country.

The voyage and arrival process was a tremendous challenge to our ancestors, and understanding what they overcame should give more respect for their lives. I had a very different picture of my grandparents after identifying the challenges they overcame to settle in the United States.

Hopefully, your efforts will bring your ancestors’ story alive for your future generations.

German Names in Genealogy

A crucial factor in finding our ancestor’s records is knowing the correct name to use for our searches. However, even if we search the correct source, we may not find them because we do not recognize the name.

As we work backward when searching American records, we may find a document that should belong to our ancestor but has a slightly different name – either surname, given name or both. We need to be patient when we encounter these variations. Look for other details in the document to confirm this belongs to our ancestor and save the name for future reference. I have found that passenger lists and naturalization papers indicate the name closest to the original German name.

Also, do not be confused by the myth that immigration officials changed the names. They did not change any immigrant’s name at arrival. If you found your family changed their name, the immigrants probably modified their name after arrival due to problems with pronunciation and spelling of their names in their daily life.

Here are some tips to help sort through the variations we find in the records.

Surname variations in American Records

Phonetic Spelling – Most of the surname spelling variations occurred as clerks wrote the name as it sounded in English. The clerk did not speak German, and many immigrants had heavy accents. Also, they may have been illiterate or changed to minimize future problems. Simple examples of this substitution are:

  • Miller for Müller
  • Wineberg for Weinberg.

English Translation – During World War I, many Germans anglicized their names by substituting the English translation such as :

  • Kieffer to Pine
  • Feuerstein to Firestone
  • Fassbinder to Cooper
  • Schwaiger to Shepherd
  • Zimmermann to Carpenter

Since many immigrants could not read or write, phonetic spellings of names are very common. This practice is one explanation of the name change.

Names with Umlauts – If the German surname contains an AE, OE, or UE, it will have an umlaut over these letters in its German spelling. Including the name with the umlaut in your search criteria will help find your records in German databases.

My biological father’s surname may have been changed using both types of variations and includes an umlaut. German records list the family name as Wüertemberger. However, it was altered on Colonial and early American records to Whittinghill. One cousin pointed out that “berg” in German translates to mountain or hill. Therefore, when we say the name Wüertemhill with a heavy German accent, it sounds similar to Whittinghill.

Other practices that may confuse:

One situation causing name confusion in American records was the practice by the German immigrants of using both an anglicized name and their German name. The immigrants listed an anglicized name on civil records such as census and land records. However, they continued to use their German name within the German community. For example, their German name may be found in church records, German-language newspapers, and rosters of clubs and fraternal groups.

Another confusing situation found among immigrants occurs when different branches adopt different spellings for the surname. For example, among my Wuertemberger family in America, multiple branches have adopted similar but different surnames such as Whittinghill, Wurtenberger, Whittenberg, Wattenbarger.

German Given Names

I have also found that given names can cause confusing search results. In Germany, children were given multiple names at baptism – usually two but as many as four. The first name is a spiritual name, such as a favorite saint’s name, although biblical names were preferred among protestants after the reformation. Also, some families would repeat the first name for multiple children. The second or middle name was the name that was generally used to call or identify the person. The middle name was usually determined using various patterns each family had used to name their children after specific family members. If the child received more than two names, the additional names were of the parents or other relatives. Often the child dropped these additional names as they matured.

In American records, our ancestor may have used their middle name, and this practice initially confused me on a few occasions. However, in German documents, we will probably find them in records with two names, with the middle name being the name we are accustomed to seeing.

Below is a sample of a pattern German families used for naming their children:

          Sons                                                            Daughters

1st son after the father’s father
2nd son after the mother’s father
3rd son after the father
4th son after the father’s father’s father
5th son after the mother’s father’s father
6th son after the father’s mother’s father
7th son after the mother’s mother’s father
1st daughter after the mother’s mother
2nd daughter after the father’s mother
3rd daughter after the mother
4th daughter after the father’s father’s mother
5th daughter after the mother’s father’s mother
6th daughter after the father’s mother’s mother
7th daughter after the mother’s mother’s mother

If an infant died, many parents would name the next child born of the same gender with the name of the child who died. However, seeing two children with the same name does not always mean the elder child died. So always look for a death record.  

Another practice that may confuse us when searching church or civil records is the language used in creating the record. Changing borders has caused our German ancestors’ civil records to be created using German, French, and Polish, depending on location. As the various provinces and principalities fell under the rule of different countries, the language used in records could change. Church records may be in one of these three languages but I usually find Latin. Below are a few examples of how language changes the spelling of given names:

GermanLatinFrenchPolish
AlbrechtAdalbertusAdalbertWojciech
ElisabethElisabethaIsabelleElżbieta
FranzFranciscusFrançoisFranciszek
GeorgGeorgiusGeorgesJerzy
Johann (Hans)JoannesJeanJan
KatharineCatherinaCatherineKatarzyna
LorenzLaurentiusLaurentWawrzyniec
LudwigLudovicusLouisLudwik

The last example of name variation I have seen in my research is the use of nicknames such as Anny for Anna or Anne. For Barbara, I have seen Barbel, Bäbi, and Barbola.

Be flexible with the spelling of the surnames and given names – you will probably find multiple spellings. I save all of the variations and refer to my list as I research.

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.

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.

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