Friday, June 21, 2019

The Problem(s) With Polish Research

The trouble with trying to glean the truth from a tight-lipped grandfather—who delighted in playing the enigmatic immigrant to his grandchildren—is that one never knew what, exactly, the real story was. Even discovering—years after his passing when those grandchildren were having children of their own—that his real name wasn't John T. McCann, but Theodore J. Puchalski, we still couldn't be sure we had finally arrived at the truth.

Besides that, where did he come from? That sense of not being sure what to believe can be a persistent tormentor of those wanting to know about their family history. Census records lumped him in with my grandmother and her parents, as well, when it reported their Polish heritage by whatever national designation was the politically correct label of the day. But when I try to find any mention of that Puchalski—or Puhalski—surname in the records for the region around tiny Żerków, the origin of my Laskowski family, I come up with zero search results. Yeah, my grandfather's name might have really been Theodore J. Puchalski, but where did the Puchalskis come from?

It all comes down to one problem with this Polish research. It isn't so much the location. Certainly not the spelling—despite Poland being the home of a language far different than English, that Polish surname issue will all straighten up in the end with a large grain of phonetic forgiveness. What is really at the core of my research woes is much deeper than that. Just like what I discovered as I delved deeper into my mother's southern roots with the Broyles family story, to really understand a family's history, you need to dig deeper into the broader history of that local region. And I know absolutely nothing about the woes of the former Prussian state.

Singular among those stories I've heard of researchers stumped by their Polish ancestors is this one detail I'm experiencing: this strange need of our Polish ancestors to keep one's personal story hidden from others. Why the big secret? If I didn't know any better, such secrecy would tempt me to wonder what crimes—or, who knows, maybe real skeletons—I might find in the proverbial closet.

That's when I need to take hold of myself and realize there might be external reasons for such behavior. I need to consider the time period in which that massive immigration voyage was taken, and what circumstances the immigrant might have left behind. The age of the immigrating young man might line up with explanations in the homeland, such as strict military service laws, devastating wars, or other circumstances. Then, too, the enforced invasiveness of a government into the private lives of its subjects could not only instigate a man's plans to flee the country, but a lifelong habit of keeping close at hand any personal details which might be used against him.

While I might not be experiencing these stressors as an American woman in 2019, what my grandfather might have been living through in the 1870s and 1880s most certainly influenced his future behavior. But I can't know those details until I take the time to learn what was going on in the time and at the place he once called home.

Just like I've taken to reading the books—and their footnotes—about the local history of Pendleton and Anderson County for background on my mother's Broyles ancestors, I'm launching out into the deep of background information on the Poland of the nineteenth century. But in learning more about the Poland of my paternal grandfather's origin, I discover there really is more than just one problem. Not only is it a matter of learning the foreign history of my grandfather's early years, but it is a matter of discerning which ethnic group was his among a number of different groups lumped into the German Empire which contained Prussia. Nor is it "simply" adding that; there are issues of language and all the limits to accessibility in books, documents, records, and even online resources that come with that key to understanding we call language. Google Translate may be a wonderful tool, but it still renders a stilted version of what is really being communicated on those Polish websites—if we even can find them from our non-Polish vantage point.

With all that said, there are resources in the English-speaking world for those with Polish roots, and I certainly intend to take advantage of them. First off is the Polish Genealogical Society of America on whose website, scrolling to the bottom, I discovered the free offering of their monthly publication, "Genealogy Notebook." Then, too, I've heard good things about the Foundation for East European Family History Studies, and their annual conference in Salt Lake City in August. Besides that, there is the Canadian organization, East European Genealogical Society, which not only has meetings in its home city of Winnipeg—don't forget my research to-do list includes some work in that Canadian city, as well—but includes a Facebook page. There are more than ample resources to help me get up to speed with my background studies on the heritage I never realized I had.   


  1. Great Post. I will be checking out the Polish resources.
    All four of my husband's grandparents immigrated from Poland---not. Seems there was a large migration from Poland to Austria at one point.
    Which explains why his grandmother lovingly remembered the prairie grasses of Austria being taller than she was.

    1. Gayle, that is a great example of the details that only come with knowing the inside story on the specific locale we are researching. Thanks for sharing! And I hope you will find those resources helpful. I'll be peppering next week's posts with a few more online suggestions, too.

  2. I wish you were in Ohio! Our local genealogy group meeting is Monday and our speaker is an expert on researching your Prussian ancestors!

    1. Oh, to think how many times I have been in Ohio, Miss Merry...and now I'm not :(

      However, I'd love to know the name of the speaker. Sometimes these presenters speak at several conferences and meetings, and while I wouldn't be able to catch that presentation on Monday, I might keep an eye out for the same person at a different conference.

  3. Here are the details!
    Stephen Wendt, MLIS and owner of Tree Tidings Genealogy, will present his program “Searching for your Elusive Prussian Ancestors: A Case Study”.
    I will let you know how it goes. Our programming committee is the bomb!

    1. Thanks so much for that, Miss Merry! I found Stephen Wendt's entry on the website for the Association of Professional Genealogists, and also took a look at his own website and blog. Now that I know his name, I'll keep an eye out at conferences.

      It's great to hear your local society has such a great programming committee, too!


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