From personal history to Reading’s history (& beyond)

In my 20s, or even earlier, I disowned parts of my life. My Polish and German ancestry, my Catholicism, and even the town where I grew up. I was ashamed, or I was disillusioned, or I wanted something better, better than my lower middle-class upbringing, better than the hand-me-downs from cousins, a city that wasn’t in decay but one that was a vibrant center of culture and opportunity … something else, something more.

And eventually, after college and the disappointment of having chosen the wrong profession, I moved away from that city. My mother had died before I even thought of college, and in some ways, I wanted to be far from all of it, all the family messiness and unexpressed grief and all the things I chose by default. Not knowing what I wanted or who I was.

Years passed and as I worked, pursued graduate studies, and embarked on relationships, I started discovering “myself” and my interests and goals, hopes and dreams. I found my own eclectic spiritual path, and that was okay. I spent time with family at the holidays, although less and less over the years, for various reasons. I made friends in Philly and then in more rural PA and more recently in DC, and I felt like I belonged. At times, I wanted nothing to do with where I came from; at other times I missed what I had identified with or had been attached to during my younger years.

Now I feel a shifting … back to beginnings … wanting to reconnect with family and know more about where we came from. Feeling proud of my immigrant ancestors for realizing their ambition of a better life in America, in spite of hardships during their long journeys, negative stereotyping in the U.S., or poor working conditions in factories in Pennsylvania. No longer embarrassed to say that I’m part Polish, which was a grade school concern, and no longer hesitant to say I have German blood too, since Germany had a rich culture that was there long before the word Nazi was ever uttered (although I am still learning about German intellectual and cultural history).

And as far as my hometown, Reading, PA, my interest has been rekindled. The place where I was born, where my parents wed, where my maternal grandmother lived her entire life, still has meaning to me, even though I was happy to move away in the 1990s. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to get married in my hometown, even though I hadn’t even initially considered it (and of course, due to my love of history, I had to choose a restored Victorian hotel, and my fiancé happily indulged me).

Stirling_Hotel

But there’s more there than my own family history, and that’s what fascinates me and provides the backdrop for this family history project: Reading’s impressive industrial past and its gritty present (with its current mix of decay and development), esp. the stories of the industrialists and the immigrants who were part of that past and built the city where I grew up. Reading may continue to revitalize, or it may not, but the past will always remind us of what the city of Reading was once capable of building and becoming.

Berkshire Knitting Mills

As I mentioned in my very first blog post, my grandmother worked at the Berkshire Knitting Mills (called the Berky) when she was young (probably in her 20s, sometime in the 1930s). According to the Reading Eagle, Vanity Fair Corporation acquired Berkshire in 1969. Years later, in the late 1980s/early 90s, my sister and I (at around the same age) both worked at the VF Outlet as cashiers, on the site that had been the mill. Large pictures of women who worked in the mill were displayed in the large buildings housing the outlet goods (the Red Building and the Blue Building), although, disappointingly, I never saw my grandmother’s face in any of those.

Today, I read that part of the former mill and current outlet are to be demolished:

Earlier this year, the VF Outlet buildings and land were acquired by a new owner. There are currently development plans in the works to turn much of the area into a campus for UGI and home to new restaurants and shops. Most of the “Blue” building and the entire “Red” building are set to be demolished late 2017.

See: http://berksnostalgia.com/berkshire-knitting-mills/

Now that I’ve read this, I need to go see the mill/outlet one last time and take some pics. I’ll be planning a trip to Reading, PA soon!

 

 

Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History

A detailed history of Poland and its partitions. Fascinating!

From Shepherds and Shoemakers

Newcomers to Polish genealogy often start with a few misconceptions.  Many Americans have only a dim understanding of the border changes that occurred in Europe over the centuries, and in fairness, keeping up with all of them can be quite a challenge, as evidenced by this timelapse video that illustrates Europe’s geopolitical map changes since 1000 AD.  So it’s no wonder that I often hear statements like, “Grandma’s family was Polish, but they lived someplace near the Russian border.”  Statements like this presuppose that Grandma’s family lived in “Poland” near the border between “Poland” and Russia.  However, what many people don’t realize is that Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation from 1795-1918.

How did this happen and what were the consequences for our Polish ancestors?  At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the story, I’d like to present a few highlights of Polish history that beginning Polish researchers should be…

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Expanding the family tree

I’m continuing to expand my family tree on Ancestry.com. I’m having better luck with my female ancestors and the families they married into than my blood relatives. I’m especially interested in immigration records, so I grab those whenever I see them online.

So, I started with the Menets, my great-grandfather being my focus. I remember my grandmother telling me about her father and that he never learned English. Of course, my grandmother was born in the U.S. and was fluent in both Polish and English. I wish she had taught me some Polish words, but other than the words for certain foods, I never heard her speak Polish. My grandmother displayed her parents’ wedding photo in her home, not her own wedding photo. I was struck by the dark clothes worn by her mother, the bride. However, this is from memory, as I have not been in her house since she died in 2001. I hope to get a copy of that photo someday when I am back in Pennsylvania for a visit.

Continue reading “Expanding the family tree”

Old photos, old maps

My family research continues, although I’ve been so busy packing that I haven’t had time to post here. But it’s always on my mind.

I have been geeking out on old family pictures and old maps of Poland (Galicia or Austrian Poland). I’m hoping to get more family photos, but I’m glad of the photos I do have. Meanwhile, the Internet has been a great source of antique maps. I will share a couple here.

First, a photo taken at the time of my maternal grandmother’s first communion, probably around 1919 or the early 1920s.

Menet_family5

Next, a map of Galicia from 1897, around the time my great-grandparents emigrated to America. All or most of my ancestors came from the western part of Galicia, in villages, towns, or parishes named Sanok, Tarnow, Zmigrod, Krosno, and Dembica, among others.

Galicia_1897_1

Local genealogy conference

I registered to attend a local family history conference on May 6th:

(Bad timing, in that I *currently* live very close to the conference location but am moving at the end of the month; however, I’m only moving to DC, which is not far. Conference registration is free, and I have a lot to learn about genealogy research, so I’m definitely going!)

Polish geography lesson

Well, I’ve traced back to my 4th great-grandparents on the Polish side. Most of their records list their birthplace as Rogi, Krosno, Poland, which apparently is in the Podkarpackie Voivodeship or Podkarpackie Province (aka Subcarpathian Voivodeship). Thanks, Wikipedia (for help w/my preliminary research). I’m still learning the geography, which seems complex, esp. considering the history of the region and the redrawing of boundaries in central and Eastern Europe. Rogi is not included on the list of towns in that province, which added to my confusion:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podkarpackie_Voivodeship#Cities_and_towns.

Then I realized that it’s a village, not a town! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Villages_in_Krosno_County

Other areas referenced in records include Ostrava, which is actually in the Czech Republic; Równe; Poznań; Galicia; and Austria (Austrian Poland, probably).

More to learn, I’m sure …