In 2017, I hit a brick wall when trying to trace the Polish ancestry of my maternal great-grandmother (Agata Kolanko). I have her parents’ names and birthplace, but not much else. However, thanks to FamilySearch, I found passenger tickets for ships bound for America for a Kolansko and a Kolano in the early 20th century. Both were from Austrian Poland, as was my great-grandmother, and since the names are similar, they may have been related.
The ticket from 1903 belonging to Josef Kolansko:
The ticket from 1912 belonging to Stanislaw Kolano (Kalano?):
A great find! Both arrived in the port of Philadelphia, as my great-grandmother had in 1899. (I enjoy the Philly connection, as I lived there after college and through grad school, and I still feel some emotional ties to that city.)
After my wedding this past October, I finally resumed my genealogy research, albeit not with the same energy at first. I’ve hit some brick walls with the Polish genealogy research, but my aunt mentioned something interesting, that our Polish family surname Menet was actually French in origin. She wanted to know why our Polish ancestors possessed a French surname (and as I learned a bit about the importance of focusing with a research question, this is my first one). I decided to just throw the surname into a Google search and see what came up. I can’t even recall the trail that I followed on the Web, but it led me to a small village in France called Menet, and I wonder if our Polish ancestors came from that village, which dates to at least the 12th century:
Owing to my Polish brick wall (in that I could only trace the Menet line back to the late 18th century in Poland), I have no idea of their French connection. My aunt also had a DNA test, which indicated that she has *possible* French ancestry. (More preliminary research revealed that Menet is a Huguenot surname, but I know nothing about that history.)
When I hit that brick wall, I had turned to my father’s side of the family, which I was told was mostly English and Welsh (with some French Canadian added into the mix). My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Disney, and I also discovered the French origins of that name! (So I may have French ancestry on both sides.) My Dad’s family tree has been easier to trace, and I discovered what I consider a fascinating history: Continue reading “French ancestry?!”
In my 20s, or even earlier, I disowned parts of my life, particularly my Polish and German ancestry and the town where I grew up. I was ashamed, or I was disillusioned, or I wanted something better. 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 made friends in Philly (which felt like my true hometown during the years I lived there) 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 — home and family — a sense of place that only Pennsylvania could provide.
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).
As I mentioned in my very first blog post, my grandmother worked at the Berkshire Knitting Mills (nicknamed 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, both my sister and I (around the same age as our grandmother had been) 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.
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…
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.
I’ve 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 Holy Communion, probably around 1919.
From L-R: Agata (Agnes or Agatha) Menet (née Kolanko), Stanislaw (Stanley) Menet, Frank Menet, Mary Menet (later Uliasz), Anna Menet (later Siatkowski), John Paul Menet, Harriet Menet (later Schneidenwind), and Hieronim (Jerome or Henry) Menet.
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.
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.
I found the actual ticket for my great-grandmother’s passage to America. Thank you, National Archives!
In the ticket, she lists her birthplace as Galicia and her nationality as Galicia-Austrian! Wow. I read a bit about Galicia on Wikipedia:
The Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, also known as Galicia or Austrian Poland, became a crownland of the Habsburg Monarchy as a result of the First Partition of Poland in 1772, when it became a Kingdom under Habsburg rule. From 1804 to 1918 it was a crownland of the Austrian Empire. After the reforms of 1867, it became an ethnic Pole-administered autonomous unit under the Austrian crown. The country was carved from the entire south-western part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Among the many ceremonial titles of the princes of Hungary was “ruler of Galicia and Lodomeria”.
I’ve been thinking more about family secrets and unearthing family skeletons. I discovered something today while searching an index for records in the county where members of my mother’s family (the side I’m researching) lived, worked, and died. It’s related to a family secret that wasn’t that much of a secret, really. In fact, it’s related to something my own mother told me when I was a teen. Now I just have to wait for the records to confirm what I think I discovered today.
My research is taking me in all kinds of directions, which I love. Not just genealogy, but the larger history of a place or a period of time (even a house), and what it means to write a family history memoir, the end goal of my project. I’m fascinated by how families tell their stories, to reveal or to conceal, to uplift or to discourage, to celebrate life events or to regret what happened or what could have been.
I don’t expect to learn everything I want to know, especially as the older generation ages and dies. But I’m starting to feel like this is my life’s project and is the book I am meant to write, not for any direct descendants (as neither my siblings nor I have children), but for me. Perhaps it’s a sort of vanity and a way to live in a past that I never experienced. But really, it’s more about wanting to know my mother, who died when I was 19, and whose life was a closed book in many ways, as well as knowing better the grandmother who meant so much to me and whose loss I still mourn.