Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Little Mistake That Went a Long Way

© Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy
Nobody likes to make a mistake. I certainly don’t. But I’m glad for one solitary government worker 91 years ago who didn’t quite follow official instructions.

If I can read his writing correctly, his name was John J. V. McGuigan. His title, according to the papers he carried, was Enumerator. Like those many who have served in the same capacity for the nine times since he took up his post, he was walking the streets of Brooklyn, New York, with the license to ask nosy questions.

By January 13, 1920, he had made his way to North Eighth Street in the 14th ward. When he called at the household of Anton and Mary Laskowski, he repeated those weary questions he had rehearsed so many times before.

“What is the name of each person whose place of abode was in this family on January first of this year?” Names duly noted.

“What is the relationship of each person to the head of this household?” Anton: head; Mary: wife. Two gentlemen also living at the address, of no relation to the Laskowskis, were listed simply as “boarder.”

“Do you rent or do you own?”

“If owned, free or under mortgage?”

Sex, race, age, marital status: the list of questions went on. The Enumerator was entitled to know all this and more.

When he reached the part of the form labeled “Nativity and Mother Tongue,” however, Mr. McGuigan mercifully forgot his official duties and for this one time let his hand be guided by the dictates of the respondent. What he was supposed to write, for foreign-born residents, was the country of nativity. Above the currently-blank line on this page were several examples indicating his understanding of this requirement: Ireland, Italy, England. Why he wrote in anything more specific, I’ll never know. Regardless of the reason, I’m grateful.

This time, the “country” of nativity had as its entry, “Posen.” Some unnamed supervisor, reviewing the form later on, evidently corrected the mistake by writing in “Ger” for Germany, the region’s geopolitical sovereign of that time period, but the original slip of the pen was still there to glean.

Posen: wherever that was, my great-grandfather was from it. Here was my first tangible proof of my father’s family origin. There was—and still is—a lot to be learned about this, but at least I now knew where to begin the search.

I found out that “Posen” was actually the German designation for the Polish city of Poznan. I later discovered that Poznan indicates a region as well as a city. I’ve got a lot more to learn before I can open any books and hope for just the right historical document to verify the things I want to know about my family.

But at least now I’m on my way.

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