Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It's A Small World After All

As soon as I was able to determine my ancestral villages in Poland, I started mailing out letters in search of living relatives. My goal was not so much to further my research but just to see if I could find a connection. I wanted to know if there was still family in the area or if they had all relocated to other parts of Poland or emigrated out of the country.

I was at a huge disadvantage because I don't speak or read Polish. The villages that my ancestors were from were very, very small. Most of them were too small to have a library or a community newspaper. But the one thing you can pretty much count on in Poland is that most people go to church, and their religion is most likely to be Catholic. All my ancestors were Catholic. So I wrote letters to the Catholic churches in their villages or the closest neighboring parishes, had them translated into Polish, and mailed them out.

As you might expect, I got mixed results. In some parishes the priests were very helpful, making announcements after Sunday Mass and writing back to me to report the results of their efforts. Some knew the families in the parish well and simply shared my letter with those who they suspected might be related to me. Some were too busy and simply couldn't help me.

One priest in particular, Ks Niemiec of Zgorsko parish, was eager to help me out. He's the kind of guy that goes the extra mile for you. Not only was he helpful in looking up family records for me but he also sent me photos of the interior and exterior of the parish church, a photo copy of an entire chapter of a local history book describing the history of the area (it's in Polish but I vow to one day get it translated!), and the name and contact information for someone he believed might be related to me… someone who lived right in my own neighborhood! I KID YOU NOT!

This priest in Poland put me in touch with Al T. who lives about 2 miles away from me. It turns out we aren't actually blood related… He's my paternal grandfather's sister's husband's brother's son. I guess you could say we're connected or linked by marriage although according to my Legacy software there is "no relationship" between myself and Al T. In my mind, we are family because he's on my family tree.

I called Al up one day and explained who I was and where I'd gotten his name and phone number from. He was very surprised that Ks Niemiec had kept his contact information. He had made contact with the priest when he'd visited Poland a few years back. His father's family was from the same village as my grandfather. He was more than happy to tell me all about his visit to the parish church in Zgorsko. He told me all about Ks Niemiec, described the church and local cemetery to me, and told me about the legacy he had left in the parish in the name of his father.

Eventually, our conversation turned to discussing our common connections. It turns out that when he was growing up, his family lived right next door to my paternal grandfather's sister's family in Detroit. I had no previous information on what would be my grandaunt's family and he was able to tell me all about them. What a stroke of luck! This was information I wouldn't find on microfilm or in databases. This was genuine family history... funny stories, sad stories, and lots of good-time stories.

I picked George's brain for a good couple of hours on the phone that day before he finally cried "uncle". He told me that I should talk to his sister, Jane, because she would have even more information to share about my grandaunt's family. He gave me her phone number and wished me well.

I figured, what the heck? I'm on a roll here. So I called up Jane (who lives about 3 miles from me) and told her who I was. She was delighted to talk about the old days and living next door to my grandaunt's family. She had some wonderful memories to share with me. After a while, the conversation turned to more current topics. She asked about my immediate family and I told her about my kids. She told me about her grand kids who went to the same school my kids did. A few more questions and wouldn't you know it, we discovered that her grandson was one of the boys my daughter hung out with!!! Talk about a small world.... and all of this information came about as a result of a letter written to a priest in Poland. Amazing, isn't it?

Al and Jane were just two of many, many living family contacts I have discovered in the course of my genealogy research. One of these days I'm going to write a whole series about the family I've found. Al and Jane were very helpful and forthcoming with information. I truly appreciate their help. We have not continued our connection or developed a relationship. I've never met either of them in person though I did meet Jane's daughter and grandson... wonderful people. But my family history is richer for having made the contact with them. And Ks Niemiec, well, I have him to thank for putting us together. I am still amazed that we were driving the same streets, shopping the same stores, sent our kids to the same schools, and if it weren't for Ks Niemiec we would likely never have known of our connection. Makes me wonder who else I'm walking by in the shopping mall that I might share a family connection with...

The photos above were taken by Al when he visited Poland. The first is the village church in Zgorsko and the second is Ks Niemiec.