Monday, December 21, 2020

In His Footsteps


When we research the collateral lines of our family tree, we seldom expect to run into biographies of those caught in the middle of history's low points. And yet, in following the strands tying together the life story of a man connected to my paternal grandparents' land of origin, the saga points straight toward the early years of the second World War.

Father Edward Gramlewicz, nephew of the Polish-American priest we discussed last week—Father Ignacy Benevenuto Gramlewicz, pastor at Nanticoke, Pennsylvania—was, at first, a name I picked up, only thanks to discovery of a genealogy website in Poland called BaSIA. There, I was gleaning information on every entry I could find for the extended family named Gramlewicz in the tiny town of Żerków. 

My original plan was to piece together a chart which could outline the lines of relationship between my second great-grandmother, Elżbieta Gramlewicz Laskowska, and another Gramlewicz-Laskowski marriage of the same time. If I hadn't discovered a young Gramlewicz woman declared as a niece in my great-grandparents' Brooklyn, New York, household, perhaps I wouldn't have begun such a research journey, but the further I became enmeshed in the research, the more tangled it became.

Thankfully, the discovery of a lengthy memorial article upon the passing of parish priest Father Benevenuto Gramlewicz helped confirm the relationships I had found on the BaSIA website. That niece, Annie Gramlewicz, did indeed have a fascinating heritage, as I discovered when I pieced together her connection all the way back to Blasius Gramlewicz

From her connection to Blasius, I simultaneously discovered his grandchildren Marianna Kujawa, Stanislaus Weinert, and Edward and Hedwig Gramlewicz—all nieces and nephews mentioned in Father Benevenuto Gramlewicz's obituary. That same article mentioned that nephew Edward was also a priest, so I searched to see what information could be found about him, as well.

To say that Edward Gramlewicz followed in his uncle's footsteps is one way to explain the outcome of his life—although the accolades at his life's end were greatly delayed and offered under far different circumstances. To be sure, both nephew and uncle dedicated themselves to serving their Lord in the Polish way of seeing integration of church and life—a viewpoint I can appreciate only after immersing myself in reports of church life written during their era.

Like uncle, nephew Edward was said to have been a passionate social activist. Not unlike the elder priest, for whose newspaper mentions journalists often included imputations of controversy, the younger priest also was said to have had a "hot tempered reputation" and seemed incapable of—or perhaps unwilling to—avoid conflicts, "neither with parishioners nor local authorities."

In a land of freedom of speech, heated discourse might have meant merely that two parties disagreed, but not in Poland. Father Edward Gramlewicz, ordained in Poznań in 1907—only three years before his uncle's passing in Pennsylvania—served in various parishes in western Prussia. By the end of the first World War, during the Greater Poland Uprising, Father Edward was deeply involved in the risky business of sheltering fellow priests targeted by various German terror programs designed to quell Polish opposition.

Perhaps that was a foreshadowing of events to come, both for that Polish homeland and for Father Gramlewicz and his fellow priests. Almost immediately after Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, various German "operations" detained the "intelligentsia"—teachers, professors, politicians, priests, physicians, community leaders—and destroyed them in mass murders. Estimates of how many Polish leaders and influencers were killed through such Nazi programs reach up to one hundred thousand.

One of those who faced such a fate was Father Edward Gramlewicz who, after being detained, was held in various prisons by the Germans until moved to the concentration camp at Posen, Fort VII, where he died in 1940.

While being outspoken in one's religious duties may brand someone like Father Benevenuto Gramlewicz as "controversial" in an American setting, obviously life's twists did not turn out so well for Father Edward Gramlewicz in German-occupied Poland.

Though memorialized years later in various websites—including one ten-page biography which includes a photograph (on page nine) of his mother, Antonina Nawrocka Gramlewicz, and the same sister Hedwig we've already discussed—the inability of his people to mourn their priest's passing publicly when it happened makes my borrowing these documents for family history research eighty years later seem incongruously chirpy. And yet, I cling to such reports to help me understand—and perhaps all those fellow researchers who bemoan our Polish ancestors' unwillingness to talk about their past life in the land of their birth—why they might have been so tight-lipped.

After all the horror of those years in their homeland—whether for those who lived through World War II, or the Great War, or the many Prussian battles which ravished their town for decades before that point—those (likely German-perpetrated) maligning epithets about Polish people which followed them post-war seem an unfairly-borne after-effect, considering the indignities already suffered. Even in my childhood, long after the close of the second World War, I can remember demeaning jokes about the supposed ineptitude of Polish people. How far I was, at that point, from even knowing I was one of those people, myself, let alone gaining the empathy to understand why such experiences would silence a people so displaced from ever speaking again of their heritage—or sharing its legacy.         


  1. A sad discovery. Sometimes it is hard to fathom the atrocities suffered by those who come before us. My husband's grandmother spoke only Polish after she came to New York state. His mother spoke Polish and English and translated for her mother. My husband refused to learn Polish.

    The circle comes around when my daughter married a man in another city whose grandmother learned Polish from her mother. And she taught my oldest grandchildren to speak it.

    1. What an interesting full circle your daughter completed, Miss Merry. Thank you for sharing that story.

      I have heard that Polish is one of the most difficult European languages for English-speaking people to learn. That is one of those languages far better to absorb by daily exposure from family--natural language acquisition. What a blessing that your oldest grandchildren had that opportunity.

  2. I went to the document you linked. What a fantastic find!! And the pictures!! What an important document.

    1. That is one of those fortunate Google discoveries--yes, a fantastic find. Glad you took the time to take a look, Miss Merry.

  3. I had a friend who was Polish and she took all the teasing in stride. You have been so busy with your research!

    1. For all the work done all year long on these goals, it wasn't until these last few months that I finally made a breakthrough--mostly thanks to help from those DNA tests.


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