Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Looking For Not-Walter

Someone I'm seeking, in my quest to find my Polish roots, is not named Walter. But that is apparently the name he went by, once he came of age in this country.

Of course, I don't know that for sure. This is a story from a hundred years agothe kind that can get horribly mangled in the repeated retelling of it.

The man I'm seeking was born Władysław Janczak, somewhere around Żerków in the old Province of Poznań, now part of Poland. He was son of my grandmother Sophie's aunt Stanisława Jankowska and her husband, Franz Janczak. Depending on which document you believe, Władysław was either born about 1903 or 1900. In any case, it was before the Janczak family arrived in the United States around 1907.

Whether this confusion can be blamed on a census enumerator's mistake or the common habit of adapting one's hopelessly-foreign-sounding given name to better fit in with the crowd in a new hometown, Władysław may have turned out to be known as Walter.

Walter was not his real name, of course. But our not-Walter may have spent the rest of his life being called exactly that: Walter Janczak.

Since the family settled in the vicinity of Buffalo, New York, I looked through all the documents I could find online for Janczak descendants in Buffalo. And though that was not his name, you know I had to include not-Walter in my searches, too.

The problem was, by the time our not-Walter became an adult, in a city of by then over five hundred thousand people, even a surname like Janczak might yield more than one person by the same name. Yes, even not-Walter Janczak might have a double.

Sure enough, pulling up a city directory at randomin this case, the 1933 directory, courtesy of Ancestry.comthere were two Walter Janczaks. One was a moulder for the Richardson & Boynton Company. Living on Rogers Avenue, he was married with his wife listed in the directory as Victoria J. The other entry for a Walter Janczak was for a day laborer residing on Clinton Street with his wife, Cecelia.

This information would turn out to be helpful in the quest to identify my not-Walter, but not soon enough to assuage my impatience. As it so happened, only one of those Walters from the 1933 city directory would show up in the 1940 censusat least as far as I can tell. That Walter, though no longer living on Clinton Street, was the one with wife Celia. Now in a house on Willet Street, he was head of a family including children Mary, Rose and Walter.

Walter, husband of Victoria, had apparently shuffled off from Buffalo before the taking of that 1940 census, doing absolutely nothing to help my research cause.

If you are beginning to think this, in itself, would resolve my dilemma, think again. Remember the obituary I mentioned finding yesterday? The one for the Walter who died in November, 1967? It stated he was "beloved husband of the late Victoria." So he couldn't have left Buffalo behind for too long. It could very well be he still was in the running to be my not-Walter.

However, if you are getting ready to throw in the towel on this search for what became of Władysław Janczak, there was one other complicating factor. The other Walter really was still somewhere in or around Buffalo, for in the Social Security Death Index, there is a listing for a Walter Janczak who died in Buffalonot in 1967, as we had already seen for that obituary entry, but in 1972.

Don't be tempted to assume my not-Walter was not-dead in 1967. Apparently, there still were two Walter Janczaks in Buffalo before that point. This second oneI'm presuming he would be the husband of Celiawas born in 1901. His death was in August, 1972.

It would have helped somewhat if I could have found an obituary for this second Walter, but try as I might, I couldn't locate onenot in the free resources I often mention, not in the two for which I hold subscriptions. This is one of those instances in which I wish I could instantly transport myself to Buffalo and backjust long enough to look up that missing obituary and snap a photo of his headstone for Find A Grave.

Of course, there are still a few old-fashioned options open to us for determining which one of these menif eithermight have been my not-Walter Janczak. For one thing, I can post a query on a genealogy forum for Erie County, New York. I can email the local library, in hopes they provide a lookup service. And I can look up family trees posted online which might include a Walter Janczak.

In fact, there is one already resident in the collection at Ancestry.com. All I have to do is send a message, sit back, and hope for a quick reply from a careful researcher who can provide lots of documentation. This may be a faster route to meeting a cousin than I had imagined. And an answer to my question of whatever became of my not-Walter. Or a brief discussion with someone who is not related in the leastin any way other than to share that fascinating obsession with genealogical research.

Above: Buffalo from the Erie Basin in 1911; photograph by W. H. Brandel; courtesy United States Library of Congress via Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. My husbands Valclaw (who became Walter), Stanislas (who became Stanley), Michael and Andrew Hamernik, were listed on the back of their mothers immigration card. I have never seen a document with the same birthdate for Valclaw/Walter. My mother-in-law shared that he once told her that he was not sure how old he was or what the date was, his mother just made these up whenever asked. When he entered the army, he chose one and then stuck with it the rest of his life. Most of his family Americanized their names as soon as they arrived.

    1. Interesting perspective! Thanks for sharing that, Miss Merry. Apparently, Walter seems a handy substitute name for a number of others, rather than a standard anglicized version of a specific Polish name.

      Your husband's relatives' experience is indeed something to keep in mind--useful to explain that frustrating quest for the birth date that seems to keep changing. (Um...it is!)

      We tend to see everything from our own perspective, the one we learned by growing up here, when the experience of immigrants may be vastly different and their point of view on something as "basic" as birthdays nothing like we've come to expect. Something to keep in mind as we research these family members fresh from foreign lands.

      A very useful illustration, indeed!

  2. The obit you found has some descendants... but I hope your Ancestry connection will yield you the correct info! :)

    1. Well, I wrote...and I can hardly wait for an answer!!! I may have found another way around the dilemma, though. This may not be my man, after all.


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