The Sad Tale of the Zieliński Family of Mistrzewice

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Stanisław Zieliński was born on 6 April 1863, the third child and oldest son of the known children of Michał Zieliński and Antonina Ciećwierz. He married Marianna Kalota, daughter of Roch Kalota and Agata Kurowska, circa 1885, probably in Marianna’s home parish of Młodzieszyn. Unfortunately, most vital records for Młodzieszyn were destroyed, including all marriage records prior to 1889, which likely explains why their marriage record has not been found.  The Zieliński family were ethnic Poles living in historically Polish lands that were at that time part of the Russian Empire. Like his father, Michał, Stanisław Zieliński was a gospodarz, which Shea and Hoffman define as a “farmer (one fairly well off, owning his own land), landlord.”Stanisław and Marianna made their home in Mistrzewice, where his parents were living, rather than in the nearby village of Budy Stare, where Marianna was born.

On 16 September 1886, Stanisław and Marianna welcomed their first child:  a son, Franciszek.  A second son, Antoni, was born on 6 May 1889. However, he only lived for 5 months before passing away on 5 October 1890.  Families were all too accustomed to high infant mortality in those days, so perhaps it was some consolation to Marianna and Stanisław that she was already pregnant with their third child as they buried little Antoni.  Their third son, Piotr, was born on 4 May 1891, but his death was recorded in the parish books of Mistrzewice only one week later.

Little Franciszek had already turned six years old when his brother Józef was born on 10 October 1892. Two years later, on Christmas Eve, another brother, Szczepan, joined the family. Stanisław and Marianna welcomed two more sons, Władysław and Jan, on 20 March 1897 and 20 March 1899, respectively, and then three daughters were born:  Władysława, on 25 June 1901, Marianna, on 14 September 1903, and Zofia, on 25 November 1907.  Sadly, little Marianna lived for just two and a half months2 before she joined her brothers Antoni and Piotr in the parish cemetery.

In March of 1907, Franciszek decided to head out into the world and seek employment opportunities in America.  A young man, 21 years of age, he had already completed three years of compulsory military service in the Russian infantry, which was a distasteful obligation for most Poles. It’s not clear what factors influenced him in his decision to leave his homeland, but at the end of March in 1907, Franciszek departed from the Port of Bremen, arriving at Ellis Island on 7 April 1907. He was bound for Buffalo, New York.

There is some evidence to suggest that Frank’s younger brother, Joseph, joined him in the U.S. circa 1909 and then returned to Poland prior to his “official” arrival in the U.S. in 1912. The best match for Frank Zielinski in the 1910 U.S. census was to a man who was boarding with Anthony and Mary Lapinski in Buffalo, New York, along with another boarder, Joseph “Rzolek,” — and one Joseph Zielinski, all immigrants from Russian Poland. In this document, Frank and Joseph Zielinski are reported to be ages 26 and 20, respectively, suggesting birth years of 1884 and 1890, making them both exactly two years older than expected for my relatives. Frank reported arriving in the U.S. in 1906, while Joseph reported arriving in 1909. (No good match for his passenger manifest circa 1909 has been located as of yet.) Both men were working in a foundry (possibly Lackawanna Steel Company), Frank as a molder and Joseph as a core maker.  These occupations are interesting in light of the fact that Joseph reported his occupation as molder on the record of his 1915 marriage to Genevieve Klaus. Nonetheless, Zielinski is a very common Polish surname — so much so that the 1925 New York State Census shows a 35-year-old boarder named Joseph Zielinski living with the family of my great-grandparents Joseph and Genevieve Zielinski in North Tonawanda. When I asked my grandfather, John Zielinski, about that boarder, he remembered the man and insisted he was not a relative, it was just a crazy coincidence.

There is no evidence to suggest that Frank returned to Poland after his arrival in the U.S. in 1907. However, if the Joseph in the 1910 census is my great-grandfather, then he must have gone back to Poland some time after April 27, 1910 and then returned to the U.S. on 3 September 1912 on the S.S. Grosser Kurfürst, which is the date which corresponds to his arrival per his naturalization papers. The passenger described on this manifest is an incontrovertible match to my great-grandfather. On line 3, “Josef Zelinski” is reported to be a 20-year-old Pole from Russia whose last residence was “Mestanice,” and whose father, Stanisław Zelinski, was living in “Mistrzewice, Warsaw.” Joseph was headed to North Tonawanda, New York, and the second page reveals that he was specifically headed to his brother, Franciszek Zielinski at 7 Sawyer Avenue. His place of birth was recorded as something vaguely akin to “Mistrzewice.” Interestingly, Joseph’s answers to the questions about any previous travel to the U.S, support the idea that he was not in the U.S. previously, and it’s difficult to state with certainty that the Joseph Zielinski in the 1910 census is indeed the same man.

By 1915, Frank was boarding with the family of Joseph and Mary Brodowski at 65 7th Avenue in North Tonawanda and working as a laborer in the steel mill.  His brother Joseph was similarly working in the steel mill while boarding down the street with the family of Peter and Bronisława Kwiatkowski at 44 7th Avenue in North Tonawanda — but not for long.  On 5 October of that year, Joseph married 18-year-old Genowefa (Genevieve) Klaus.

Figure 1:  Józef Zieliński and Genowefa Klaus, 5 October 1915, North Tonawanda, New York.Genowefa Klaus and Jozef Zielinski wedding.jpg

Joseph’s brother, Frank, seated on the bride’s left, was his best man (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Wedding party of Józef Zieliński and Genowefa Klaus, 5 October 1915. Genevieve Klaus & Joseph Zielinski wedding party

Genevieve was born in North Tonawanda to Andrzej and Marianna (née Łącka) Klaus, Polish immigrants from the Galicia region of the Austrian Empire. As Józek and Genia (Joe and Jenny, as they were called in English) settled into married life, however, his family in Poland was experiencing dark days. World War I was raging in Europe, and Mistrzewice, situated in the path of the advancing German army on its way to Warsaw, found itself in the midst of battle. The period from December 1914 through July 1915 witnessed the harshest devastation at the hands of both the Germans and the Russians.  German soldiers stripped homes and farms in Mistrzewice, Młodzieszyn, and the surrounding villages of whatever materials they could repurpose for the building of fortifications and trenches. As the Germany army advanced, many Polish peasants became refugees, fleeing eastward in the hope of survival.  However, as the Russian army retreated, they were ordered to “expel the ‘enemy’ nations within,” killing Poles, Jews, and other ethnic groups in keeping with the Tsarist policy of ethnic homogenization. It is estimated that 70,000 soldiers were killed on both sides during this battle of the Rawka-Bzura, some of whom were buried in the cemeteries in Mistrzewice and Młodzieszyn, and there are no good estimates for the number of civilian peasants from this area who were casualities of the war.

It was on August 13 of that year that Frank and Joseph’s youngest sister, 7-year-old Zofia, died. Her death certificate does not reveal her cause of death. Did she die of some childhood illness like her siblings?  Was her death a direct cause of the war — being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of a stray bullet? Or did her family try to flee the village, and she perished as a result of the typhus, choleratyphoid, malaria, or dysentery that were prevalent among both soldiers and refugees? What is clear from her death record is that her death was not reported until 31 December 1915 because of the war (Figure 3).

Figure 3:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Zofia Zielińska, 1915.Zofia Zielinska death 1915 cropIn translation, this document states,

“#102. Mistrzewice. This happened in the village of Młodzieszyn on the thirty-first day of December in the year one thousand nine hundred fifteen at five o’clock in the afternoon. They appeared, Piotr Szewczyk, age fifty, and Ludwik Grzegorek, age sixty-eight, farmers residing in the village of Mistrzewice, and stated that, on the thirteenth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred fifteen, at six o’clock in the afternoon, died in the village of Mistrzewice, Zofia Zielińska, a girl having seven years of age, daughter of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna nee Kalota, the spouses Zieliński, land-owning farmers residing in the village of Mistrzewice; born and residing with her parents in the village of Mistrzewice. The delay in the registration of this act happened due to the war. After confirmation of the death of Zofia Zielińska, this document was read aloud to the witnesses but was signed only by Us. [Signed] Fr. K. Kopański, administrator of Młodzieszyn parish performing the duties of civil registrar.”

Just four months after Zofia’s death and two months after his son Joseph’s wedding in North Tonawanda, Stanisław Zieliński passed away on 23 December 1915.3  At the time of his death, his sons Szczepan, Władysław and Jan were 21, 18 and 16, respectively, and daughter Władysława was 14 years old. It’s not clear how, or if, the boys managed to avoid conscription into the Russian Army. Szczepan’s death record in June of 1916 mentions only that he was born in the village of Mistrzewice and was residing there with his mother (Figure 4).

Figure 4:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Szczepan Zieliński, 1916.4Szczepan Zielinski death 1916 cropTranslation:

“#78. Mistrzewice. This happened in the village of Młodzieszyn on the sixteenth day of June in the year one thousand nine hundred sixteen at six o’clock in the morning. They appeared, Piotr Szewczyk, age sixty, and Ludwik Grzegorek, age sixty-two, farmers residing in the village of Mistrzewice, and stated that, on the fourteenth day of June in the current year, at six o’clock in the morning, died in the village of Mistrzewice, Szczepan Zieliński, bachelor, aged twenty, son of Stanisław and Maryanna nee Kalota, the spouses Zieliński, landowning farmers; born in the village of Mistrzewice and residing there with his mother. After eyewitness confirmation of the death of Szczepan Zieliński, this document was read to the illiterate witnesses and was signed only by us.[signed] Administrator of the parish of Młodzieszyn acting as civil registrar, Fr. Kaj. Kopański.”

Although no mention is made of military service, it is nonetheless possible that the Szczepan was fighting in the war.  A genealogist friend in Poland explained that death records would sometimes state that the deceased was a soldier, and indicate what country he was killed in, but that it depended on the priest.  Many priests were afraid to disclose such information. In the parish of Baranowo, he explained, a priest was killed by a Russian officer for singing the song, “Boże, coś Polskę” Many people lived in fear.

Meanwhile, in North Tonawanda, Joe and Jenny welcomed their first child, John Frank Zielinski (my grandfather), on 18 October 1916 (Figure 5).

Figure 5:  John Frank Zielinski, circa early 1917.John Zielinski circa 1916

But while the family in North Tonawanda thrived and grew, the family in Mistrzewice continued to suffer, and on 13 April 1917, Joe Zielinski’s brother Jan died at the age of 18 (Figure 6).5 

Figure 6:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Jan Zieliński, 1917.Jan Zielinski death 1917 crop

Again, no mention was made of the cause of death, and whether it was a direct or indirect result of the war. The record only states that he was born in the village of Mistrzewice in the local parish and was living there with his mother.

On 6 April 1917, the U.S. declared war on the German Empire, and in June of that year, Joseph and Frank were required to register for the draft. As resident aliens, they were supposed to be placed in Draft Class V:  Exempt and Ineligible. However, local draft boards had the authority to assign draft classes on a case-by-case basis, and Frank Zielinski’s status as a single man with prior military experience and no dependents made him a desirable candidate for the draft, regardless of the fact that he was a Russian citizen. The particulars of Frank’s military story are an interesting tale in themselves (and a topic on which I’ve lectured previously), and deserve to be told in depth at another time. But as his service record indicates, Frank was inducted on 24 February 1918, and sent overseas on 7 April 1918 as a member of the 307th Infantry Regiment, Company C. Frank Zielinski was killed in action on 25 October 1918, shot through the head by a sniper’s bullet.6 The oldest son of Stanisław and Marianna Zieliński is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France, although available evidence suggests that he was never naturalized, and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever wished to be an American citizen (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Gravesite of Frank Zielinski.MA-Zielinski, Frank, C-14-10

Joe and Jenny Zielinski’s second child, Frank Walter, was born  on 2 September 1918, named after his uncle who was serving in the war.  The following spring, Joseph Zielinski filed his Declaration of Intent to Naturalize on 18 March 1919. 7 His family in North Tonawanda was growing, and he must have felt that life in the U.S. was good.  As further evidence of Joe’s intentions to remain in the U.S., correspondence with the U.S. Quartermaster General’s office, dated 13 March 1919, indicates that Joe wished to have his brother’s remains returned home for burial in North Tonawanda (Figures 8a and 8b), although he was concerned about the expense of shipping the body.8 

Figure 8a:  First page of letter from Joseph Zielinski to the Quartermaster General’s Office, dated 13 March 1919.Page 23 March 13 1919 Letter from Joseph Zielinski cropped

Figure 8b:  Second page of letter from Joseph Zielinski to Quartermaster General’s Office.Page 24 Letter from Joseph Zielinski p 2

As the family flourished in the U.S., it continued to diminish in Poland. That autumn, on 30 September 1919, Joe’s 17-year-old sister, Władysława, died in Mistrzewice.7 Her death left only 22-year-old Władysław to manage the family farm and care for his aging mother, Marianna. However, eighteen months later, tragedy struck the Zieliński family in Poland once more, as Władysław Zieliński died on 23 March 1921, a few days after his 24th birthday.10  It’s difficult to imagine what a great loss this must have been for Marianna.  She had borne 10 children, and 9 of them preceded her in death, including 8 children who died before the age of 30. Her only surviving son was living in the U.S., leaving her alone in Poland to manage the farm as a 64-year-old widow.

Władysław’s death was almost certainly the impetus for Joe Zielinski’s decision to move his family back to Poland. Although his uncle’s death was not mentioned by my grandfather, Grandpa clearly remembered traveling to Poland as a young boy, and living there for a period of time that he remembered as about 6 months. Their exact departure date is not known, but they were definitely gone by 28 April 1921.  Additional correspondence from Frank Zielinski’s burial records file indicates that a letter sent to Joe Zielinski was returned on that date, marked “undelieverable” by the Post Office in North Tonawanda with the additional note, “Old Country” (Figure 9):

Figure 9:  Copy of envelope returned to the Quartermaster General’s Office by the North Tonawanda, New York post office.Page 31 Apr 28 1921 Envelope to Jos Zielinski marked undeliverable.jpg

When they departed for Poland in the spring of 1921, Joe and Jenny’s family included 4 1/2 year old John, almost-3-year-old Frank, and baby Helen, born 2 August 1920.  Jenny was also newly pregnant with their fourth child, Stanley Joseph (named after his paternal grandfather Stanisław and his father), who would be born on 11 November 1921. The family traveled on board the R.M.S. Olympic — sister ship to the Titanic (Figures 10a and 10b).

Figure 10a: Original postcard from the Zielinskis’ voyage to Poland, showing the Olympic.R.M.S. Olympic postcard

Figure 10b:  Reverse of the postcard.Reverse of postcard from RMS Olympic

Although he was very young, my Grandpa vividly remembered certain experiences from the trip:  tasting bananas for the first time on board the ship, chasing oranges that the sailors would roll across the ship’s deck for the children, and staring at all the soldiers’ helmets still lying in the creek behind his grandmother’s farm, a grim reminder of the recent war. He recalled riding in a horse-drawn wagon to the markets in Sochaczew and Warsaw. And he remembered his grandmother, Marianna, as a rather unkind woman.  This impression was confirmed by Grandpa’s maternal cousin Julia Ziomek, who was three years older than he, and who shared with me her memories of conversations with her Aunt Jenny about that trip to Poland.  Julia’s stories suggest that Joe and Jenny may have considered this as a permanent relocation.  She recalled that Aunt Jenny had shipped packages of household supplies to Poland in advance of their journey, with the expectation that her mother-in-law would keep these things and have them ready for Jenny to set up housekeeping upon their arrival.  Instead, Marianna deemed the items unnecessary, and donated them to the parish priest, which caused some consternation upon Jenny and Joe’s arrival. Cousin Julia also recalled Jenny’s comments about the unkindness of her mother-in-law to her children, scolding them harshly and calling them “dim-witted.” After only a few months, Jenny was ready to go back home to North Tonawanda, and apparently, Joe was persuaded. On 10 August 1921, my American-born grandfather entered Ellis Island with his family to resume the life they’d left behind.

Marianna Zielińska’s remembered harshness seems much more understandable in light of these new death records that tell the whole story of her suffering and loss.  One can easily forgive a lack of patience with the children, given that she had just buried her ninth child when my grandfather and his family arrived in Poland.  Perhaps she was embittered by so much loss and heartbreak, leaving her fearful of becoming emotionally close to her grandchildren. Perhaps Joe and Jenny tried to persuade her to sell the farm and return with them to North Tonawanda, and Marianna’s ill-temper arose from the stress of having to choose between her surviving son and her homeland.  Although those details are lost, it is known that Marianna remained in Poland, moving in with her sister in Budy Stare. She died on 4 April 1936 (Figure 11).11 

Figure 11:  Death record from Młodzieszyn for Marianna Zielińska, 1936.Marianna Zielinska death 1936Translation:

“No. 16, Budy Stare. It happened in Młodzieszyn on 4th April 1936 at 8:00 in the morning. They appeared, Stanisław Wilanowski, age 40, farmer of Mistrzewice, and Kazimierz Tomczak, farmer of Juliopol, age 26, and stated that, on this day today, at 5:00 in the morning, in Budy Stare, died Marianna née Kalota Zielińska, widow, age 79, born and residing with her sister in Budy Stare, daughter of the late Roch and Agata née Kurowska, farmers. After eyewitness testimony to the death of Marianna Zielińska, this document was read aloud to the witnesses but signed only by us. Pastor of the Parish of Młodzieszyn acting as Civil Registrar.”

Rest in peace now, Marianna.  Your story has been told.

Sources:

Where possible, sources are linked directly within the text. Citations for sources not available online appear below.

1 Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman, In Their Words:  A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin and Russian Documents:  Volume I:  Polish, (New Britain, CT: Language & Lineage Press, 2000), p. 305.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1903, #102, death record for Marianna Zielińska.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1915, #101, death record for Stanisław Zieliński.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1916, #78, death record for Szczepan Zieliński.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1917, #20, death record for Jan Zieliński.

Report from Private Henry Davies regarding Frank Zielinski’s cause of death, Records of the Quartermaster General’s Office, 1915-1939, Burial Case File for Private Frank Zerlintski, serial number 1680271, Record Group 92, National Archives Identifier 595318, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

Niagara, New York, Naturalization Records, Declarations of Intent to Naturalize, #4244, record for Joseph Zielinski, 18 March 1919.

8 Letter from Joseph Zielinski to the Quartermaster General’s office regarding disposition of remains of Private Frank Zielinski, dated 13 March 1919, Records of the Quartermaster General’s Office, 1915-1939, Burial Case File for Private Frank Zerlintski, serial number 1680271, Record Group 92, National Archives Identifier 595318, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1919, #75, death record for Władysława Zielińska.

10 Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1921, #24, death record for Władysław Zieliński.

11 Akta stanu cywilnego parafii rzymskokatolickiej w Młodzieszynie, 1936, #16, death record for Marianna Zielińska.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Niagara River Stories

Rivers seem to run through my blood.  I was born in Western New York, and my first home was on Grand Island, in the middle of the Niagara River.  I have no memory of living there, because we moved to Omaha, Nebraska before I turned three, and then to Cincinnati, Ohio when I was four, but we would often return to Buffalo to visit family, and eventually moved back to Western New York when I was ten.  Even as a child I was impressed by how the narrow, muddy Ohio River just couldn’t compare to the blue depths of the mighty Niagara.

My Dad grew up on the Island, surrounded by the River.  His family moved there from Buffalo when he was about eight. As a teenager, he and his brother Peter played the dangerous game of going down to the water’s edge in winter and jumping from ice floe to ice floe to see how far out they could get, away from the shore.  As a young man, he would borrow Peter’s boat to court my mother, who lived on the other side of the river in North Tonawanda.  And at the age of forty-three, he survived a plane crash into the Niagara, when the water was only thirty-eight degrees and he had to save the pilot’s life and start swimming to shore while hypothermia was setting in.  But that’s another story for another day.

The Niagara River has been a part of my family history since the late 1700s, when my Loyalist ancestors, Robert and Catherine (née Sternberg) Spencer were granted land overlooking the Niagara River in what is now Niagara Falls, Ontario, in gratitude for Robert’s service in Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolutionary War. Before the war, another river featured prominently in their lives — the Mohawk River in what is now Central New York State.  How do I know this? I’m blessed to know a surprising amount about the lives of these ancestors, thanks to the memoirs written by their grandson, Adam Spencer, which were published after his death as a series of newspaper articles in the Norwich Gazette in 1889.  At present, I have a transcript of these articles published in 1977 in the newsletter of the Canadian Friends Historical Association (Adam Spencer was a member of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers.)1 A transcript isn’t as good as the actual newspaper articles on microfilm, of course, so that’s on my to-do list for needed documents, but this is what I’ve got right now.

canadian-quakers-newsletter1

Most of these memoirs concern the life of Adam Spencer himself, not surprisingly, and my direct line goes through his aunt, Sarah Spencer, who married John Hodgkinson, rather than through him.  So the parts that are most interesting to me are the parts about his grandparents, Robert and Catherine Spencer.  I’ll let Adam tell their story in his own words:

adam-spencer-memoirs-p-1

adam-spencer-memoirs-p-22

I have my doubts about the historical accuracy of certain parts of Adam’s story, particularly regarding Robert Spencer’s birth in Ireland, but that, too, is another story for another day.  Today what impresses me is all the lush detail presented in this passage — so many glimpses into the lives of these ancestors who lived so long ago. I like the image (historically accurate?) of Catherine as a girl of about 10, maybe, rowing across the Mohawk to travel to different parts of her parents’ farm in an era when many girls her age might be stitching samplers.  I can picture her and her young husband Robert as newlyweds, hosting the log-rolling bee to clear the land of timber as they set up their new farm near her parents along the Mohawk.  I honor her courage in packing up her six children and traveling to Montreal to wait out the war, hoping and praying for her husband’s safety. I imagine her affectionate smile as she bundled the child up in warm clothing before climbing into the rowboat on that fateful day as they attempted to cross the river to Fort Niagara.  I like to think that maybe she was watching over her 5x-great-grandsons, my Dad and his brother, keeping them safe when they were jumping from floe to floe in the river in the 1950s.  And maybe she was watching over Dad again on the day his plane crashed, when he was  rescued from the frigid waters of the Niagara before he lost consciousness.

It’s just one river, but it has so many stories to tell.

Sources:

1Spencer, Adam.  “OId Time Experiences In the Bush and On the Farm”.  Canadian Friends Historical Association 19 (March 1977):  p. 1.

2Ibid, p. 7-8.

Cover photo:  Sailboat on the Niagara River in front of Old Fort Niagara, courtesy of MaxPixel.FreeGreatPicture.com, is in the public domain.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

A Geneteka Christmas

The Advent season, with its preparations for Christmas, is always nostalgic for me.  I was very close to my grandparents, John and Helen Zielinski, and Grandpa told me stories of how his mother, Genevieve (née Klaus) Zielinski, loved Christmas, too.  He was the oldest of the five children in his family, and at some point before Christmas, she would draw him aside and show him the gifts that she had gathered to give to his younger siblings, sharing with him her anticipation of the joy that those gifts would bring.  Of course, she didn’t show him the gifts that he himself would receive, but the honor of being co-conspirator in creating Christmas joy for his siblings was clearly a source of pride for Grandpa.  Grandpa’s family also had a tradition of giving the children one gift before Christmas.  Whether this custom had its origins in the Polish tradition of gift-giving at the feast of St. Nicholas (Święty Mikołaj) on December 6 is unclear, but Grandpa and Grandma strongly felt that children should not have to wait throughout the whole of Advent without some small gift.  As a child, I certainly had no objections to this practice.

Grandpa passed away in the pre-dawn darkness of a February night in 2003.  He had been suffering from prostate cancer for some time, and we knew the end was near. At the time, I was pregnant with my fourth child, Catherine, and when I spoke with him on the phone for the last time, a few days before he died, Grandpa told me that he was holding out to know that Catherine had arrived into this world safely.  Catherine was born a few minutes after dawn, just hours after Grandpa died.  He never got to meet her, but I know in my heart that he knew all about her.  I’ve tried to share my memories of my grandparents with all my children, especially at Christmas when those memories are so dear and Grandma and Grandpa feel so close.

So what does this have to do with Geneteka?  Fast-forward to October of 2012. I was still plugging away at my research on Grandpa’s Zieliński’s family, but I hadn’t obtained any information prior to the emigration of Grandpa’s father, Joseph Zielinski, and Joseph’s brother, Frank Zielinski. I had progressed to the point where I had identified the Zielinskis’ ancestral village of Mistrzewice, Mazowieckie province, and I had determined that some records for this parish were held at the Archiwum Państwowe w Warszawie Oddział w Grodzisku Mazowieckim (the Grodzisk Mazowiecki Branch of the Polish State Archive of Warsaw).  In October 2012 I wrote a snail-mail letter to the archive to request a copy of my great-grandfather’s birth record, hoping that at last I might have some documentation from Poland for this family.  Most of my research in Polish records at this point had been done in LDS microfilms, and I was as yet unaware of the growing treasure-trove of Polish vital records coming online in greater numbers each day.

It was while I was waiting for my reply from that archive, that Grandpa gave me my best Christmas gift that year, on December 16 — a little early, because no one should have to wait all the way until Christmas without some small gift.  That was the day I discovered Geneteka, and found the birth records for his father, Joseph Zielinski, as well as for Joseph’s brother, Frank Zielinski, and eight other siblings who were previously unknown to our family (Figure 1).

Figure 1:  Geneteka search results for children of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota.zielinskis-in-geneteka

For me, finally reading great-grandpa’s baptismal record, after so many years of seeking it, was such a thrill (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Baptismal record for Józef Zieliński, son of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota.joseph-zielinski

As you may notice, the record is in Russian, which was the required language for all legal documents from this part of Poland at that time. Having this fantastic data set that I couldn’t read because all the records were in Russian, was also a gift in its own way.  Although I’d dabbled in Russian translations with a few records before this, it was these records that forced me to finally get serious about learning to read Russian vital records.  During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, while we were in Buffalo visiting with our extended family, I sat down and immersed myself in these records and in Shea and Hoffman’s game-changing translation guide until they finally started making sense and I could read them with relative ease.  The fact that my family indulged me in that, and gave me the time and space for genealogy research in the midst of holiday cheer, was yet another Christmas gift.

(If you’re curious about what that baptismal record says, here’s the translation.)

“This happened in the village of Mistrzewice on the 30th day of September/12th day of October 1892 at 4:00 in the afternoon. He appeared, Stanisław Zieliński, farmer residing in Mistrzewice, 28 years from birth, in the presence of Tomasz Kęska, farmer, age 33, and Piotr Szewczyk, farmer, age 33, residents of the village of Mistrzewice, and showed us a child of the male sex, stating that it was born in the village of Mistrzewice on the 28th day of September/10th day of October of the current year at 6:00 in the morning of his lawful wife Marianna, née Kalota. (Marginal note, whose text should be inserted here, reads, “To this child at Holy Baptism was given the name Józef.) and godparents were Tomasz Kęska and Waleria Zakościelna. This document to the declarant and to the illiterate witnesses was read, and signed only by us.”

Unfortunately, Mistrzewice and Młodzieszyn, the two parishes which held records for my Zieliński family, were in the path of the Nazis in 1939.  Many records were destroyed, as was the parish cemetery in Mistrzewice, so my knowledge of the family is incomplete.  I do know that my 5x-great-grandparents were Wojciech and Katarzyna (maiden name unknown) Ciećwierz, probably born in the 1790s.  Their son, Jan Ciećwierz, married Katarzyna Grzelak about 1836.  Jan and Katarzyna’s daughter, Antonina Ciećwierz, married Michał Zieliński circa 1853, and together they had 7 children, including my great-great-grandfather, Stanisław Zieliński, who married Marianna Kalota.  Michał Zieliński died in February 1872, a fact which I know only because it was mentioned in the marriage record when his widow Antonina remarried Ludwik Grzegorek. Surviving marriage records for Mistrzewice only go back to 1855, and death records only go back to 1890, so I will never be able to determine Michał’s parents’ names from either his marriage or his death record.

On the Kalota side, I can trace back as far as my 4x-great-grandparents, Antoni Kalota and Marianna Wilczek, whose son Roch Kalota married Agata Kurowska, daughter of Andrzej and Katarzyna (maiden name unknown) Kurowski, circa 1855.  Had they married in Mistrzewice, their marriage record might have been captured in the surviving records, but unfortuately the Kalota family was from Młodzieszyn, where all the records prior to 1885 were destroyed.  Roch and Agata Kalota had six children that I have been able to discover, including my great-great-grandmother, Marianna (née Kalota) Zielińska.

Geneteka’s interface has changed considerably since I began my research that Christmas, and it offers more powerful and flexible search options than it did four years ago.  Moreover, records are being added to Geneteka regularly, so it’s well worth your time to revisit your research periodically, even if you think you’ve been thorough.  For example, a new feature that has been added since I first began researching my Zieliński family is the ability to conduct a province-wide search using both a surname and a maiden name.  So I can now search all of Mazowieckie province for records which mention both the names Ciećwierz and Grzelak — which I just did, while writing this blog post, with exciting results (Figure 3)!

Figure 3:  Search results for Ciećwierz and Grzelak in Mazowieckie province.ciecwierz-and-grzelak

If you’ll notice, there are three marriages that occurred in Mistrzewice, and I knew about those already.  However, there are two births for children of Jan Ciećwierz and Katarzyna Grzelak in the parish of Mikołajew — Feliks in 1838 and Marcjanna in 1840.  The dates are right on the money to make them siblings of my 3x-great-grandmother, Antonina (née Ciećwierz) Zielińska.  Moreover, there is an 1830 marriage record for a Marianna Ciećwierz to a Karol Grzelak, also in Mikołajew, as well the death record for this same woman five years later. If you hover your cursor over the “i” in that indexed entry for the death record, you see that Marianna was age 25 when she died and her maiden name was indeed Ciećwierz. The death index specifies that the parents of Marianna (née Ciećwierz) Grzelak were Wojciech and Katarzyna, which means that Marianna was most likely a sister to my 4x-great-grandfather Jan Ciećwierz. Jan’s death record from 1897 states that he was age 82 when he died, suggesting a birth year of 1815, and if Marianna was 25 when she died in 1835, then she was born in 1810 — just 5 years older than Jan.

The fact that these records are from Mikołajew is also fascinating to me.  My great-grandfather, Joseph Zielinski, emigrated in 1912 with his cousin, Stanley Mikołajewski. Although he initially settled in North Tonawanda, New York, where my family lived, Stanley eventually moved on to Cleveland where he changed the family surname to Michaels. The families remained close and would often travel back and forth between North Tonawanda and Cleveland for visits.  Etymologically, “Mikołajewski” is a topographic surname, deriving from the names of towns such as Mikołajew.1 So essentially, the surname “Mikołajewski” means, “that guy from Mikołajew,” and I have long suspected that the Mikołajewskis who settled in Młodzieszyn and married into my Kalota family, must have been from the nearby village of Mikołajew originally (Figure 4).

Figure 4:  Map showing proximity of Mikołajew to Młodzieszyn and Mistrzewice.map

Surnames were often surprisingly changeable in the first half of the 19th century in Poland, and as I consider these new data, I wonder if perhaps it was Stanley Mikołajewski’s grandfather or great-grandfather who might have used a different surname previously, but migrated to Młodzieszyn, perhaps at the same time as my Ciećwierz ancestors, and became known as “Mikołajewski.”  Further pondering and research are required to fully understand all this, but at the moment, I’m thrilled with this wonderful new discovery!

Somehow, it seems like another Christmas gift from Grandpa in heaven.

Sources:

1 William F. Hoffman, Polish Surnames:  Origins and Meanings (Third Edition), (Chicago: Polish Genealogical Society of America, 2012), p. 450

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016