What’s in a name? A question that has been asked before by no other than Shakespeare himself. Family names can tell us a lot about the origin of ourselves, yet we are very rarely presented with the opportunity to examine such a past. In April 2015, I undertook the task of researching my family’s origins in Poland. As exciting and adventurous as it sounds, it was a daunting task that led to many dead ends and many nights wide awake at 3 am.
The truth is – and I’d be lying if I didn’t say this – genealogy research is difficult. Long forgotten among my millennial peers, researching your ancestors is not a typical after-breakfast activity, but rather an art of tedious pursuit and sensible hope. Not to mention the very few ancestral websites that exist, only to make you sign up and pay. Let’s just say, I’ve gone under several identities and maxed out all six of my email addresses. Here is my story.
When I was about 23 years old, I was given a drawing my aunt did of our family tree on my grandfather’s side. I knew we were Polish and Russian from a young age, but what always perplexed me was how little we knew about our Polish side before the 1900’s. Perplexity turned in to interest, and at 27 years old, I finally decided I wanted to know more than I wanted to remain indifferent.
When I initially started my research, ancestry.com only led me so far through American records, and most of those records had already been on my radar. What really sealed the deal was my search for my great-great grandmother on the Ellis Island Passenger Search website. Unbeknownst to me at the time, her place of birth was probably the most important piece of information I could have acquired. From there on, the tiny Polish town of ‘Dobrzechów’ was ingrained in my every genealogical move.
Dobrzechów brought up a few interesting search results. I learned that it was a small town of about 1,600 people, predominately Roman Catholic, and was a farming community that, luckily, wasn’t too devastated by WWII. This meant that they likely had well-preserved records. If you were to search for your family in Warsaw, however, I’m afraid it would be near impossible to find the records you were looking for since most of the city was in ruins after WW2. In this sense, I was very very lucky.
Probably my greatest discovery was coming across a paper about Dobrzechów immigrants by Patricia Yoccum. She compiled a database of female immigrants who came to America from Dobrzechów in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Long story short, I reached out to her and she ended being instrumental in piecing together my records. We still talk over email to this day.
After a few more searches, I discovered a small team of Polish genealogy researchers based in Kraków and I enlisted their help in my investigation.
The research soon came pouring in. I felt like a freshman in college again, unable to keep up and slow to process it all. One of the oldest documents the team in Poland was able to find dated my family back to 1813 in Dobrzechów. I also found out my family lived in a large mansion (we were servants, don’t get too excited) which was designed by famous Polish architect Teodor Talowski. It housed famous works of art and a plethora of literature. The mansion was unfortunately burned down by Russian soldiers in WWI.
In April 2016, I had the chance to take my own little trip to Poland. I brought my mom along with me and on a Saturday at noon, we boarded a flight to Kraków. A few days later, we set off on our adventure to Dobrzechów with a dark blue Skoda Octavia and an English translator. Childhood memories of my grandparents saying ‘szkoda’ to me while pinching my cheeks (it means ‘poor baby’ in Polish) lingered in my head after many Skoda Auto sightings. I knew at that moment, that I was exactly where I was meant to be.
When we arrived in Dobrzechów there was lots of staring, as if people didn’t quite know what to make of two Polish-looking American women and a quirky big city Polish guy equipped with a GPS and an iPhone. I have a vivid memory of our English translator taking us to the only restaurant in town and dumping ketchup on his pizza. Probably not the memory one wants from Poland, but it’s the memory one gets when ketchup is served with pizza. After lunch, we slowly combed through the cemetery looking for the graves of my great great great great grandparents Wojciech and Marianna Szetela and my great great grandmother’s sister, Victoria Tenczar.
After combing the cemetery for about 20 minutes, we came across some gravediggers. We asked the gravediggers if they knew where a ‘Szetela’ grave was located and they laughed and pointed in several inauspicious directions. That was my first realization that there were, in fact, Szetela graves all around me. How had I not noticed? It turns out that our two sir names were the most popular names from Dobrzechów. With a little persistence, we were able to find the two graves we were looking for with about 40 minutes worth of effort. Unfortunately, we were not able to officially corroborate them, even after speaking with the priest. This was my first experience with genuine disappointment.
I had come so far to find out the truth and that day wasn’t the day. I remember standing in the middle of a cemetery in Lesser Poland and feeling so connected to my roots, but so discouraged that I couldn’t finish the puzzle. But I was exhausted from the day and exhausted from dedicating the last year of my life to research. There was something still very closing about not having closure. I was satisfied. I had done something that I only had read about in books. I felt like Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated, discovering my past one unexpected turn at a time.
We drove back to Kraków that day with a blood red and mandarin orange sunset in the distance. My mom said from the backseat, “You know great grandpa used to always say that a sunset like that meant it would be warm and sunny the next day.” The next day, it rained all day long.
No offense to Shakespeare, but the reality is that our sir names are rooted deeply in hundreds of years worth of history. A last name is a discerner of births, baptisms, wars, immigration, name changes, deaths, and if you’re a man, a sense of mortality in generations to come.
So what makes genealogy a lost art? People tend to believe that such stories like mine are out of reach for them, that the potential just doesn’t exist. However, if you have a sir name, you have a history. If a 27-year-old fourth generation American girl can trace her family back to a town in Poland of 1,600 people, then anything is possible. Everyone should attempt to know where they come from, and maybe one day we can recognize the art of the genealogical pursuit.