The Three Most Shocking Things I Learned From Studying My Polish Genealogy

Since not much had been told to me about our family’s Polish roots, I had no idea what to expect. I thought it would be easier to research. I didn’t expect surprises. Researching my Polish genealogy has been a lot more labor-intensive than I thought it would be. I know so many people who signed up for Ancestry or other websites and their experience sounds like a fairy tale. That’s not the experience I’ve had so far in climbing up my family tree! Here are the three discoveries that shocked me from studying my family’s Polish genealogy.

It’s been a year since I began studying my Polish roots. Here are my takeaways so far.
  1. The first most shocking aspect of researching my Polish Genealogy — The Role of Women

It was shocking to me to find out my great-grandmother was giving birth until her last of 14 children was born at age 44. My mother had prepared me for this information as a child but I didn’t fully grasp it until, as an adult, I was doing the math on all the birth dates. My mother said she came from a big Polish-Catholic family in Cleveland and had 100 cousins — most of whom she didn’t really know.

Polish-Catholics didn’t believe in using birth control. I am assuming my Great-Grandma Lottie’s only relief from nearly-incessant childbirth was the advent of menopause because I just don’t know. My mother wasn’t close to her grandparents, whom I now spend endless time researching.

When a woman has that many children and grandchildren, of course few grandchildren could be close to her. So I have very little knowledge of Lottie Zadzielka through my mother. I have so far not found any record of her citizenship in the USA or Poland. I will keep trying, of course.

I’ve always been career and education-oriented, so I can’t imagine taking care of 14 children. I’m sure my great-grandmother wouldn’t understand my life today if she were here. What I see as “nearly-incessant childbirth” may have been her dream, or something she was at least content with — I’ll never truly know. It could have been the only way she knew.

I also recently found out I can’t use her lineage to apply for Polish citizenship by descent as women “didn’t count” for citizenship. Polish and German citizenship were not able to be handed down through the mother — only through the father — during my great-grandparents’ time. (This was told to me verbally by a lawyer, so do your own research to find the exact years/laws of this). This could also be why I can’t find much about her citizenship. I am wondering if maybe she stayed stateless until her death, or if she obtained U.S. citizenship later in life. Which brings me to the next shocking item…

  1. My great-grandfather didn’t become a U.S. citizen for 43 years

This one shocked me because it had never been talked about. I’d never thought about it. I recently found all of my great-grandfather’s citizenship papers and they say he was in the USA for 43 years before becoming a citizen. I have yet to find any record of either great-grandparent declaring Polish citizenship from the United States after 1920 so I can only assume they didn’t do this.

My great-grandfather may have been stateless for most of his life. This is amazing to me! (Now, if I can find proof my great-grandfather declared Polish citizenship from the U.S. after 1920, that changes my citizenship application immediately; again, if my great-grandmother did it, it doesn’t count for me).

My great-grandfather traveled from Bremen, Germany to Ellis Island in New York, to Cleveland, Ohio where he stayed for the rest of his life. After 43 years, living in the U.S., he finally became a citizen. I can’t imagine living in a country for decades before becoming a citizen! This idea is wild to me! I say this as I work to become a citizen of Poland while staying in the U.S. during a global pandemic. The paths to citizenship are many.

After I learned of how long my great-grandfather Wincenty Zadzielka had lived in the U.S. before being granted citizenship, my worldview changed. The longest I’m personally aware of someone who waited to become a U.S. citizen in modern times is a former colleague who was “in the pipeline” for eleven years. I do not know what held up my great-grandfather or what the requirements were in his time to become a citizen. Was it lack of learning English? Lack of funds? Lack of free time — I mean, he was raising 14 children! Which brings me to number three…

  1. Like most families new to the USA, my Polish family was eager to erase much of its immigrant status

My grandfather’s generation wanted to downplay my great-grandparents’ immigrant status — possibly because they didn’t become citizens for so long. I believe there was shame and embarrassment over their immigration status and their inability to speak English. I can’t find them on the 1910 or 1920 Census, so I am assuming they avoided it for not being able to speak English. They are on the 1930 Census as not being able to speak English, so I’m not sure how much either ever learned of it.

My family’s anti-immigration sentiment was handed down to my mother, who imparted very little Polish knowledge to me. While my family wanted to hide or erase our immigrant past, they did try to preserve our Polish culture — to an extent.

I remember my grandfather and mother speaking in Polish when I was very small. But that stopped as soon as they realized I could repeat it. I am reminded of this now as I study the Polish language. I’ve had moments where I “just know” how to pronounce something or simply recognize certain words. My mother taught me to speak very few words in Polish.

She mother did tell me her grandparents were from “The Old Country” and that they were poor and from “the country.” They made duck’s blood soup (Czarnina), which my mother always refused to eat as a child. This wasn’t made in my family. My mother would tell me, “They were so poor, they used every part of the animal!”

My mother’s mother would make us “pork and dumplings,” which was spoken about in English. I think that this was my grandmother’s English name for pierogi. But she would make us cookies, or Kolacki — keeping at least that Polish word. That was her spelling of word and she made them with pineapple filling. Not a lot of pineapples grown in Poland…not sure where she got the pineapple idea.

My mother’s father left Cleveland for Phoenix when my mother was a senior in high school. There were no trips back to Cleveland to visit and no trips by my great-grandmother to see where one of their 14 children had moved, so I never met her. Great-Grandpa Vincent died when my mother was a child. Once in Phoenix, my family didn’t preserve the culture as time went on. I only remember one crazy family gathering when two of my grandfather’s brothers came to visit. There was an accordion, Polish music, Polka dancing, and a lot of drinking. This was the Polish cultural event of my life — Polish food was served and I heard more Polish language spoken.

My grandfather even changed the family last name as did some of his siblings, so there became three different versions of the family name that I know of; Zadzielka was the original. As all my great-grandparents’ children were born in the USA, they were given American-sounding names. Anton became Anthony, for example. Much of the family stayed in Ohio, while my grandfather picked Arizona and one of his brothers headed to California.

I think this is the saddest and most shocking thing — how much my family worked to erase our Polish-ness. They chose to forget names, language, customs, food, music, and dance over the years. They wanted to be seen as American, not as immigrants. They didn’t want to be seen as Poles and I may not know all of the reasons why. I’m sure some had to do with society at the time as well as the two world wars. Whatever their reasons were, they saw their only solution as erasing our cultural history. They saw assimilation as their solution — they actually chose it.

There’s a very good chance my great-grandfather was escaping the Russian Empire and so he had to hide his Polish nationality at a time when his country didn’t exist. One hypothesis I’m working is that he was born in what is today Navahrudek, Belarus. More on this in a future post.

I wish that my elders had handed down to us the story of how and why my great-grandparents came to America. I can only assume they came due to the state of affairs in Poland around the turn of the 20th century. It’s also what everyone was doing — immigrating by steamer ship to the new land of opportunity in the U.S. My grandfather moved his family west from Cleveland to Arizona because he wanted opportunity, too. Must be in the blood; now I want to get to Poland because I see better opportunity there. Our family in a few generations has come full circle.

I am sure my great-grandparents would be shocked to see what the USA has become today. I’m sure my hospital bill from having COVID-19 would make them pass out. It would probably make any modern European faint, honestly.

I am eager to see the Poland of today while investigating the “old country” my great-grandparents left. They were undoubtedly Polish in their culture, but may have lived geographically in what is today Belarus. I am also wanting to find out how many of our relatives died of fCJD, which runs in our family. Every piece of information helps us research CJD. Every bit of information helps me uncover a story I was never told. For me, I feel it’s time to uncover my Polish roots and finally be able to tell a story 119 years in the making.

2 Replies to “The Three Most Shocking Things I Learned From Studying My Polish Genealogy”

  1. My great-grandmother was recorded as born in Germany 1857, but when she married 1881, she was described as “the parish priest’s Polish housekeeper”. Maiden name Wirtschoreck, which Mom said she pronounced “Bercherk”.

    1. I’m still only learning beginner Polish but that pronunciation sounds about right! So cool. This is why it’s so hard for us to research Polish ancestry! (And also why learning Polish helps, even if it’s just the beginning level, like alphabet and pronunciation).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *