Most people have a pretty good idea of the basic outline of their family tree. For those who personally knew their four grandparents—or at least knew something about those relatives—not only the names were familiar, but also the stories of these people's lives.
Not so, in my case. While I never personally met my paternal grandparents—they died before I was born—I at least could glean the basic information to complete a pedigree chart. Besides, even though these were relatives I never met, I had older siblings and cousins who had met them—spent quite a bit of their growing up years in their grandparents' company.
So why wouldn't I have really known about them? Because of one small glitch in this assumption of grandparent familiarity: a grandfather who had decided that nobody—nobody—would ever know his true identity.
It wasn't until one of my cousins' daughters got to the age when schoolchildren are assigned that build-your-family-tree project that she stumbled upon a red flag. Grandpa's name was apparently not his real name.
Sure enough, in retrospect, it was easy enough to see in tracking the family backwards in time, a big change had occurred at the point of the 1915 New York State census. That was the earliest point at which one could find our grandparents and their household with the names we knew them as. Before that point, what we found in the earlier United States census in 1910 showed a family with an entirely different surname. Why the change?
Looking at the date of that pivot point—the 1915 state census—can help explain the secrecy. With the sinking of the British passenger ship, the RMS Lusitania, in May that year, Americans certainly had turned against Germany, but that sentiment was obvious even before that point. While regulations imposing "enemy alien" registration on German-born men—and, eventually, internment in some cases—did not occur until a few years later, the growing pressure leading up to America's entry into the first World War was evident long before that point.
The only problem with this scenario was: my grandfather was not German; he was Polish. However, in years leading up to World War I, there was no such entity as Poland. Though they resented it, the people residing in the western part of the land at that time came under German rule. Thus, even in America, Polish immigrants were documented as if they were German.
Facing this dilemma of being identified with a people group soon to become America's enemies, my grandfather must have sensed the need to take action. Whether acting in fear regarding the ability, as a husband and father, to support his family through his employment, or for another reason, my grandfather apparently decided to make his move by establishing a new residence—complete with new surname—in a different county. That was in 1915, but even after the close of the war, the family continued to assume that alternate identity.
There was only one problem with that plan. My paternal grandmother eventually needed to care for her aging parents—who were also Polish. Try as they might to hide this fact—their by-then teenaged children seemed oblivious to the contradictions in the role the family had assumed—this must have been a detail which got tucked deep within their subconscious minds. Hidden, that is, until the "discovery" decades later, revealed it to be true.
That was the beginning of the discovery that we had an entirely unknown-to-us branch of the family tree. The secret has unraveled, slowly at first, then accelerated with the advent of genetic genealogy. While I have learned much about this hidden Polish branch of my family tree, there are still pockets of material yet to explore. For the research goal for this new month of October, we'll step from the world of Irish genealogy and the quest to find one of my father-in-law's ancestors to an entirely different research venue: digging deeper into the history of my own father's hidden Polish roots.