Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Meet Sophie


Sophie was my paternal grandmother. She is likely one of the top reasons why I was drawn to pursuing family history in the first place. Besides her husband—my even more tight-lipped grandfather—she was a black hole in the family constellation.

For whatever reason, my grandfather did not want anyone to know where he really came from. At times, he represented himself as someone born in Brooklyn, New York. At other times—and I wonder whether it was because he surely had to have spoken with an accent—he capitulated and admitted he was foreign-born. But despite the very Irish-sounding surname he went by, the man actually came from Poland. But that was a story he never told.

It was a part of Sophie's family which prevented my grandfather from fully pulling off his ruse. Sophie's parents were Antoni and Marianna Laskowski, a clue that the Irish story wasn't quite what the tale should have been. When her parents became elderly and unable to live on their own, everything from snippets of a foreign language being spoken to dress, food, and other customs were too obvious to hide the truth of the matter.

Still, it was hard for us curious cousins to figure out what the story really was. Even though a doting grandfather, Sophie's husband would not tell anything about his past, no matter how much his oldest grandchildren would pester him with questions. Sending for a snail-mailed copy of Sophie's death certificate was my first chance to see any confirmation of her parents' names. With a surname like Laskowski entered as her father's surname, the answer became straightforward and clear.

Over the years—but ever so slowly—I've learned a bit more about the Laskowskis. The discovery of a 1920 census entry where the enumerator failed to follow official instructions allowed me a peek into just where in Poland Sophie's family once lived. Researching collateral lines—Sophie had two brothers, John and Michael—helped confirm I was on the right path. That exercise also helped right some errors gleaned from previous mistaken entries, such as the wrong name given on her death certificate as Sophie's mother's maiden name.

Stepping back beyond the Laskowskis' arrival in New York City during the late 1800s, however, was a bigger challenge. Unlike online search results for other international records, there are not as many available for Poland. Partly, the history of the region is to blame—everything from a war-torn history to the messy power plays of an empire no longer in existence overran Poland and all the records it contained. The language issue was another obstacle to confront. But there is also a dearth of digitized records from Poland and its predecessor governments to confront, as well.

Over the last few years, there have been local initiatives in regions of Poland to make more records available online. Every year I return to see what is available, I find more information. That is a good thing. I hope it is still a continuing process. My hope with this month's research goal is to find additional resources to help me piece together the story of Sophie's parents and grandparents and their collateral lines, both in New York and in Poland. 

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