This post was written by SCHS Executive Director Mary Zawacki. It focuses on a database of Polish parish records created by the Jaminy Indexing Team. The database search engine is available at https://jzi.org.pl/geneo/.
Despite my surname, which bears the Polish hallmark of unpronouncibility, I've never had a connection to my Polish heritage. This is probably common for third and fourth generation Americans, who have increasingly mixed ancestry, grew up on red milk cartons from the school cafeteria, and can recite at any moment the profound truth of George Washington's cherry tree incident.
Even my father, who had two Polish immigrants as grandparents, didn't have much to say on the matter: "I remember an old lady who couldn't speak English. I believe she had an arranged marriage." Other relatives indicated that the ancestors had come over from Warsaw (no) or were secretly Jewish escapees from the Pogroms (also no). So much for family history!
I visited Poland twice as a young twenty-something and enjoyed my time there immensely, but left both times unconvinced about 'getting in touch' with those elusive Polish roots. The language, I thought, is complicated. Plus the borders of Poland were ever-shifting. Sometimes it was an autonomous state, other times not. Beyond Googling the house of a few great-grandparents in Easthampton, Massachusetts, I thought, what was the point? Even Ancestry.com couldn't help beyond confirming that Frank Zawadzki (born 1883) worked in a rubber plant. How industrial of him! I bet the plant is luxury condos now.
Earlier this year, however, during quarantine, a series of events occurred. First, I discovered a marriage record of these Polish great-grandparents which listed their parents' names. Ah, more information! Second, I employed my excellent internet creeping skills to locate the family's immigration records which enabled me to trace ol' Frank Zawadzki and his wife, Stephania Jurewicz, to a very, very small village near Lithuania. Bingo! An email here, an email there, and an email everywhere related to the village in question, and thus I was introduced to the wonderful, incredible world of https://jzi.org.pl/ or the Jaminy Indexing Team (JZI).
|Members of the Jaminy Indexing Team, 2019. Photo from the 8th Meeting of the JZI Photo Gallery.|
JZI is a group of dedicated volunteer researchers who have digitized church records from just about every parish throughout northeast Poland. That includes, of course, the Jaminy parish as well as 41 others. The Jaminy Indexing Team eloquently states their mission on the website, and I believe their mission perfectly parallels much of the work we do at SCHS. On the JZI website, they state:
"Who we are? Where did we come from? Where are we heading? These questions and slogans illustrate the essence of things and the reason for our actions. We try to convert and recall once written words into specific actions. Save the past generations from oblivion...the words read and written take the form of specific people, hidden behind dates and letters of the name. People who once lived in these lands among the same roads, rivers, and forests. In this way, we realize the well-known sentence '...the word become flesh.'"
For JZI, and for SCHS, it's a question of translating the deeds and documents of people long dead into flesh; making history come alive.
|A map of the parishes documented by JZI.|
If your ancestors happen to hail from this region of Poland, the JZI database is the holy grail of genealogy. By utilizing their well-developed search engine, I've been able to trace my family's Polish roots back to the mid-1700s. There's still a lot more work for me to do, like filling in details, and figuring out how/why a few Prussians ended up in the mix. It's a fascinating project that will carry me through winter, and I hope will result in a trip to Poland and Lithuania. The database also holds true to JZI's mission. It's not just names and dates I'm looking at while searching their records. With godparents, professions, and people who attended births and deaths listed, I can begin to see the web of people and families who have been connected to each other for centuries. They know each other and are there for each other through every milestone. The life of a Polish peasant in the 1800s is dramatically different from modern American life, with kinship and family ties being the center of everything they did. A great resource for understanding more about family structures of Polish peasants is The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, a classic sociology book from 1918 that studies Polish immigrants and their families.
I reached out to the Jaminy Indexing Team to try to understand a bit more about their project and to see if similar databases exist in other parts of Poland. Krzysztof Ziecina was happy to help with my queries and his English is excellent. He explained that "there are a couple of similar projects across Poland. None of them index registry books to the level of detail we do. However, I would recommend Lubgens as a group similar to us, which does their job with passion and carefully. They cover [the] area near Lublin. Unfortunately, their page is only in Polish."
The JZI team is also able to put records from their database into context which helps those of us with a limited understanding of late 19th century Polish history. I asked Krzysztof why there was such an exodus of young people from the region. He explained that it was due to the January Uprising when Poland was part of Russia. In 1863, when the "Russian partition of Poland ended, the Tsar granted each peasant a small piece of land taken from noble landowners. That was fine until the farmers' children grew up. There was not enough land to feed them all, so typically the oldest son inherited the farm, and [the other] children had to find jobs on their own. It was really hard. Some of them decided to emigrate. Very often the first sibling who emigrated and had a good life in America, he/she invited brothers, sisters, and friends to join him/her."
We see this pattern not just in the Jaminy to Massachusetts pipeline, but also in immigration patterns from other parts of Poland (or Italy) to Schenectady. Indeed, the 2015 SCHS "Boomtown" exhibition explored how family connections in the 'old country' meant certain neighborhoods and streets in Schenectady were filled with immigrants from a single European village.
|Screenshot of a baptism record for the author's great-grandparent from the JZI database.|
As I head back into their extensive database to continue my quest for answers, I'm endlessly grateful to the JZI volunteers for making this resource possible and accessible to English speakers. I'm also personally fascinated by some of the family history I've uncovered thanks to JZI. Apparently, the Zawadzki clan hails from a village very close to an ancient shrine deep in the woods. Perhaps that explains my own draw to nature; it's in my blood, after all. And, above all, I found humor in discovering that Frank Zawadzki wasn't the son of a nobleman or landowner or anything we Americans tend to imagine when we think of our ancestors. Nope, Frank's dad was a beggar. Thanks to those intrepid Poles, making the journey to America in the early 1900s, I can happily say the Zawacki family is no longer known as the village beggars.
Uroczysko Święte Miejsce, the holy shrine near the village where the Zawadzki clan lived. Photo from Gosi Szymańskiej's blog "Po Kraju"