Monday, October 7, 2019

A Path to Poland

Tracing an immigrant ancestor's way back to the home country may not seem that difficult. Records abound with assurances of our relatives' origins—everything from census enumerations to naturalization records. Everything, that is, as long as those records can be found—and as long as those oral reports were true statements.

In tracing the origin of my paternal grandfather, however, we've noticed a few aggravating things about him. First, of course, was his reticence to admit his true national origin. This was not simply a case of politically-correct reporting in an era when Polish immigrants were documented as part of the domain of the German empire; in many of my grandfather's records, he deliberately chose to use a name more common to an Irish ethnicity than a Polish heritage. This name change, in and of itself, became a second snare to me in researching his roots.

And yet, unrelated to anything I've managed to learn about this ancestor in New York City, I've stumbled upon another clue to his true identity. That gift came courtesy of several DNA matches over the summer, each of which contained one single name in common: Michalski.

Don't think for a moment that Michalski figures prominently in the family pedigree I've managed to eke out for this mystery man. It doesn't even count as a blip on his genealogical radar. But not one, but about six separate DNA test takers turned out to have that surname somewhere on their family tree. And somewhere on that joint family tree is a node to which my paternal grandfather likely attaches. My task is to figure out just where that precise connection lies.

To determine that path from the old country to the new likewise seems simple: find passenger records from either the port of departure or that of arrival. In theory, that would provide an answer. In this man's reality, even the ships' captains seem to be part of his immigration conspiracy; I can find no records. Not for my grandfather. Not for his supposed sister, the family's beloved Aunt Rose. And not even for his mother, the unfortunate Anna of the many possible surnames.

One link in the family's chain of events, though, was one my grandfather couldn't conceal: his genetic identity. Just as when I look at his photograph, I can see his details in my own facial structure, the genes that made that similarity so visible also coded some other, more hidden, connections.

Those connections lead to several family members whose landing place in this New World was not New York City, as had been my grandfather's arrival, but Milwaukee in Wisconsin. Whether their path to their new home included a trip through the Great Lakes—and thus, possibly, passage through a Canadian port—I can't yet say. What I can say, though, is that this extended family of DNA matches has been able to isolate their originating location in Poland as one particular spot in the region known as Pomerania, a village called Czarnylas.

As much as my mind struggles to comprehend the viability of a genealogical detail without a supporting paper trail, I also stand in awe over the connections provided—seemingly out "in the ether"—by DNA. Yes, I can understand the science of how it works, but I also appreciate the serendipity of being able to connect with a match, a person who also had to independently come to the decision to see what taking a DNA test might turn up, genealogically. But for those matches, I might never have learned of this possibility. It certainly would not have been among my highest guesses for what else might have been my grandfather's immigrant saga.

And yet, just as many people from that pre-Internet era still have the need to touch and handle the paper upon which their information is stored, I find myself needing the tactile assurance of that research path back to Poland for my ancestors, whoever they were. Perhaps that is a symptom of transference, that my mind finds necessary a proxy for its inability to take confidence in a science based not in records compiled on paper, but embedded in microscopic codes comprising the essence of life, itself.

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