Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Project to Discover Schenectady County’s Eastern European Roots

Vilnius, Lithuania - Korycinski Family Reunion –– I’m in the 2nd row, center, wearing a red shirt - July 28, 2013. Photograph collection of the author. 

A Project to Discover Schenectady County’s Eastern European Roots
Date: Saturday, November 9th
Time: 10:30 a.m.
Location: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Avenue, Schenectady, NY 12305
Cost: Free and open to the public

This blog entry is written by Schenectady County Historical Society member Phyllis Zych Budka.

“To me it is a mystery why I must study history” – those sassy words are the opening line of a poem I wrote for the Mont Pleasant High School Watchtower student newspaper over 50 years ago.  More a fan of my math and science classes, it has taken me until recently to solve that “mystery.”  What changed my attitude?  My retirement pursuit of genealogy and a feeling of responsibility to preserve my more recent family history!

As a result of 5 trips to Poland and 2 trips to Lithuania since 1999, I have records of my maternal and paternal ancestors going back to at least 1800 and, more importantly to me, many “new and LIVING” relatives and friends!  Both sets of grandparents came to Schenectady from . . . well, they spoke Polish but, as I later learned, Poland did not exist when they left their homes in the early 1900s.  I now have an understanding of their reasons for leaving and am most grateful to them for making Schenectady, New York, their home and mine.

Nowy Targ, Poland – Young Adam Zych and his father.  We are probably related, but don’t have the facts yet. –– August 2011. Photograph collection of the author.

The process of visiting the Schenectady County Historical Society library and a visit to the Schenectady City Archives made me aware that, in general, there is very little information available on the thousands who share my Polish heritage.  Thus, my efforts to launch this project with friend, Bernice Izzo.  And, when I opened the box with my parents’ 1930s “Maska” scrapbook, I felt a responsibility to digitally capture and share this combination of personal and community history.

Torun, Poland – Meeting of cousins from both sides of my mother’s family – August 2013.  “Newest cousin” Krystyna (on my right in purple) found me last fall.  She has done an amazing amount of genealogical research and discovered that we are connected on my mother’s father’s side through a female ancestor who died in 1833 in Traki, Lithuania.  “Oldest cousin,” Joanna (next to Krystyna) and son, Wojtek (on my left) – on my mother’s mother’s side - Joanna’s grandmother was my grandmother’s first cousin. Photograph collection of the author.

“Maska,” Polish for “mask,” was a word I heard many times growing up in the 1940s and 50s in the Mont Pleasant section of Schenectady, New York.  The “Maska Dramatic Circle” was where Dad, Stanley Jacob Zych, and Mom, Sophie Victoria Korycinski, met in 1936.  Now, many years later, opening their Maska scrapbook full of play programs, newsletters, news clippings and pictures, I am surprised and delighted to learn more about who they were as young people, before they married in July 1940.

Maska existed from 1933 until 1942, presenting more than 55 plays, all in Polish.  The scrapbook was Dad’s and contains Maska’s first program from Sunday, November 1, 1933.  As I read the contents of the scrap book, both in English and in Polish, I realized that this was more than a family history, more than a recounting of the young adult lives of my parents; it is the history of a community of first generation Americans, the children of the Polish immigrants who came to Schenectady in the early years of the 20th century, before the Great War, hoping for a better life.

“Krewniak z Ameryki,” Sunday, October 6, 1935, at the Polish National Alliance Hall, Crane Street, Schenectady, New York.  Stanley Zych, my Dad, back left with white top hat; Joseph Drapala Sr., kneeling, center.  Photo courtesy of Joseph and Seena Drapala.

The Maska community was largely centered in Mont Pleasant (Schenectady’s 9th Ward).  Few people had cars.  Most members lived in walking distance of the Polish National Alliance (P.N.A.) “Home” on Crane Street, their “theater.”  While I associate the people with Saint Adalbert’s Polish Roman Catholic Church, also on Crane Street, Maska was not affiliated with the Church.

Bernice Izzo and I are leading an effort to share information and discuss what additional help is needed to fill the void – lack of documentation – on the substantial population of Eastern Europeans who came to this area from Eastern Europe who helped to build Schenectady.

Come to the Schenectady County Historical Society on Saturday, November 9th, at 10:30 a. m. to help launch this project.  The meeting is free and open to the public. The pictures included in this blog entry illustrate how I learned to solve the “mystery” and my personal reasons for studying history.


  1. Dear Phylis Budka,
    I wish I had seen your post to meet back in November! I have been researching my Polish ancestors with the surname Gajewski who settled in Schenectady. I would love to connect and learn more about your research and any advice you may have. Please email me when you have a moment. Also, I have found a connection to my Gajewski family to some Budka family members so perhaps there is some relation there!

  2. Thank you for your comment! I have passed it along to Phyllis Budka, who can respond to you directly.