Genealogy: How I Began My Search For My Polish Family
The television program, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has sparked a great interest in Americans in learning more about family heritage and genealogy. In my case, I began researching- in earnest, over twenty years ago. However, I didn’t find any meaningful information until two years ago. It’s taken me several decades, and countless hours of reading German documents (not understanding the form of writing or language), blind alleys, researching local, state and national sources, and finally success!
I would like to pass along what I’ve learned: pitfalls to avoid, how to identify which sources are important, and when you should pay for services and information. Through my search, I’ve been frustrated, annoyed at the lack of sources and elated to discover people (complete strangers) who were willing to help me. Most of all, I’ve learned how the internet became my most valuable tool in locating information, sources and documents in tracing my family heritage and genealogy.
My search began when I was in junior high school (now, interestingly called-middle school). My eighth grade history class was given an assignment of researching our family trees. When I approached my mother, she had a great deal of information about her family. However, when I asked my father, he had very little to share with me except for the following information: his mother and father came from Poland, or Prussia, which was under Germany’s control at the turn of the 20th century.
The region in Prussia his parents came from was called ‘Posen’. They came to America in 1906. His older sister, Sophia came over with them, along with a baby named ‘John’, who died either during the trip across the Atlantic or shortly after they arrived in America. That was all, I had to go on for my history assignment. Needless to say, I focused on my mothers’ genealogy which I found more interesting, and learned a great deal about who to talk to in the family, and learned how to find new sources of information from old documents. However, I felt a nagging sense of emptiness not knowing about my grandparents, Constantine and Anna (nee Lassa) Placzek, their family in Poland, and their story about why they chose to come to America.
When I began seriously researching my Polish heritage, (in my early twenties) everyone directed me to my fathers’ sister, Aunt Sophia. I have no memory of Sophia, and according to my mother, the last time she saw me was when I was a small child. I began making calls to find out where she was living and learned she was in the hospital dying from cancer. I was facing a race against time and I made the trip to St. Paul, not knowing what I would find. When I arrived at the hospital and found the station where her room was located, a nurse escorted me to her room, and opening the door, whispered, “She’s been sleeping for a while and should be awake soon. Please have a seat.”
I sat down at the foot of Sophia’s hospital bed, and gazed out the windows. It was a bright, sunny day and I tried to think of meaningful questions I could ask her, if she was able to have a conversation. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of ‘eyes upon me’, and instinctively looked in her direction. Sophia was awake, and she was staring directly at me.
I leaned forward in my chair and said, “I don’t know if you remember me….”, when I was cut off in mid-sentence by Sophia stating, ” You must be Joe’s daughter, Mariann.” Astonished, at her revelation, I was nearly speechless and when I finally found my voice, asked incredulously, “How do you know I’m Mariann?”
She smiled and said, “You look exactly like my mother when she was young. There is only one person in the family that would be….you”.
That day, I learned a great deal about my grandparents. I also had hundreds of unanswered questions. I wish I had brought a tape recorder with me, in order to make a recording of her stories. To this day, I regret not having done that.
If you’re beginning your search:
1. Start with interviewing family members who have information or knowledge of the first immigrants who came to America. Ask if they know of anyone else in the family who may have pictures, documents, family Bible , and government documents that lead you to new sources of information.
2. Bring a digital camera, DVD movie camera and a stout notebook. The digital camera will come in handy if you come across documents, which are precious to their owners (and may not want to lend them to you for copying/scanning) so you can photograph papers, pictures and documents, allowing you to have your own copy. Make a DVD movie of people, family residences, family cemetery plots and churches, so you have a record of what you find.
3. Set aside a dedicated space to keep all of your information (mostly paper documents) in an organized system.
4. If you’re starting or have been doing your own personal search into your family heritage and genealogy, please tell us about it!