Thursday, August 25, 2016
A New Home for Old Stories
They may just be old pieces of paper, but they tell the stories of people long gone from a place no longer in existence. The papers are marriage records from well over one hundred years ago. The place was once known as the Province of Posen—at least to those who took over the territory. To the natives in that area, at least those claiming a Polish heritage, the region was called Poznań.
Poznań was where my father's maternal grandparents were born, and where—sometime after their 1879 wedding—they bid goodbye to their extended family and headed for America.
Finding any proof of that sequence of events had been difficult, until I located the mention of at least Anton's wife and children in a passenger list for the Wieland, arriving in New York in 1889. The ship's document indicated that Marianna Laskowska had reported her last place of residence to be in a small village in Poznań. That place was called Żerków.
Now, knowing the town and the province, one would think I would be equipped to launch out into the wide research world and capture my prize: documents proving the existence of my ancestors. Think again. Not in the international collections at Ancestry.com. Not at the far-ranging collections offered for free at FamilySearch.org.
My only alternative was to launch out into the deep and brave the international waters, rife with the risks of undecipherable, handwritten notations in languages I cannot read. After all, learning to speak my grandmother's mother tongue is not a genetic propensity.
When a reader at A Family Tapestry passed along the welcome word that there was a website in which I might be interested, I was primed to brave those waters. When I followed the link shared by Patrick Jones, it led me to this site called Geneteka. That became an open doorway to a cache of Polish genealogical records.
There was, of course, one drawback: even in the English language version, it was hard to get around the site—or even to understand exactly what the collection contained.
One bright spot in that struggle, though, was finding a note at the bottom of the website's landing page. It was headed "other databases," followed by clickable links labeled in Polish.
As confusing a language as Polish might seem, with its interminable strings of consonants and its unfamiliar diacritical marks, it does render some words recognizable to English-speaking people, probably because so much of our own lingual heritage is owing to old German words.
Right away, in that list of databases, I spotted the words, "Wielkie Księstwo Poznańskie." I recognized Poznań in that phrase—sure enough, Google Translate confirmed that hunch when it told me the phrase means "Grand Duchy of Poznań"—and I was headed in a direction sure to yield me my heart's genealogical desire.
I clicked on that link, and it brought me to the website of the Poznań Project—a site made possible by volunteers dedicated to transcribing the nineteenth century marriage records of the historic Province of Posen and ordering them in a free to use, searchable database.
The Poznań Project began in 2000. As of this past June, volunteers from several countries have transcribed 1,389,141 marriage records—an impressive feat, considering the population of the region was only two million total by 1900. The project's coordinators estimate that number of transcribed records covers about seventy five percent of the total records currently accessible for the time frame they have chosen—the entire nineteenth century. Of course, some documents have been destroyed by ravages of war and other hazards, but for those still in existence, this becomes a wonderful resource, especially for those unable to travel to Poland for research.
An impressive cast of players coalesced to make this genealogical dream possible. The idea started with current coordinator, Łukasz Bielecki who, himself, brings an impressive resume to the table. The computer programming enabling the project to materialize is the work of Maciej Glowiak, who created the search engine. The website itself is hosted by the Poznań Supercomputing and Networking Centre. But the numerous names catalogued in the project itself are there, thanks to the efforts of "dozens" of dedicated volunteer indexers. They even have a Facebook page, albeit—of course—mostly in Polish
Just as I've already mentioned about my own ancestors—and their relatives who also emigrated from the region—most people who find themselves fortunate to have discovered their ancestors were from "Posen" turn out to descend from residents from the region, not the city. There is more to do to locate the actual residence of an ancestor whose documents indicate, simply, "Posen." This website helps researchers drill down to the locale where further documents may be located.
There are success stories, of course. The website includes a brief summary of what one researcher did to locate the roots of a high profile U.S. governmental official, using the Poznań Project. I found another victory report of a more common sort in an article posted at HubPages.
While these may be heartwarming stories, there's nothing like being able to tell about your own victory. And so, putting the Poznań Project through its paces, I looked for any sign of my great grandparents, Anton and Marianna.
Without much trouble at all—I did have to ditch my original approach of searching for all Laskowskis and drill down to first names, as well—I found what I was looking for: Anton and his bride were married in 1879, with records found both at the local parish and the civil registry.
Above: Image of the search results for marriage records related to the terms Anton Laskowski and Marianna Jankowska, courtesy of the Poznań Project. Bonus gift from the civil registry: confirming Anton's parents' names (which I already knew) and correcting those for his bride (specifically, her mother's maiden name as Olejniczak, instead of Aktabowski).