My mom has been updating our family tree for the past few years. Whenever we visit Poland and see our family, we ask for any dates or photographs or information they may have of their parents/grandparents/relatives. My mom even bought an expensive iPad app and computer program to store all the information.
Now, I’m in Poland again, but my mom and I came here with a different goal than normal: to find out more about our family mystery. About 2 years ago, on my last trip here, we heard the first ever mumblings about my great grandma having 2 daughters who somehow died before any of the other grandchildren that we know of were born. When we asked around, people gave extremely varying tales of what happened: they were babies, they were twins, they were killed, they drowned, etc.
When we asked my grandma and my great aunt (my great grandma’s daughters), they started crying (!) and told us never to speak of it or ask them about it again. What? Who were these girls and why was my family so unwilling to speak of them?
With our minds racing to the craziest conclusions, we decided once and for all to figure out the family mystery for ourselves.
When we arrived in the small farming village (Wrocen, northeastern Poland), we started off by asking my grandfather (my mom’s dad, related to my grandmother only by marriage) what he heard of the rumors. He told us that he had heard that they drowned, but back in the day no one really wanted to speak of tragedies. He invited over Pan Pietrowski, his 88-year-old neighbor who rode his bike over (!) to tell us stories. His memory is incredible. Pan Pietrowski told us their names and said that the eldest girl was born around the same time that he was, and he remembers going to school with her for until about the 4th grade. He also said that her sister was a few years younger. That gave us a whole lot of information, and we took that to the local church where everyone was christened and then buried.
The Provost was helpful enough (once we slyly suggested giving the church a donation, of course). Unfortunately, the local church only had records after WWII, so starting in 1946. We also weren’t able to go through any books ourselves, because they contained private information about other people. Luckily he let us take some pictures of the contents that pertained directly to my family.
It was hard getting a lot of information there because the books are organized by year, and the birth/death dates are the ones we mainly need in the tree. Because we weren’t able to go through the books ourselves, it made it a lot harder to get any information. The provost was kind of unwilling to go searching through all the books looking for my family last name (makes sense…) so we didn’t find too much.
Because the only books in that church came from after the war, we weren’t able to find the sisters in those books, but we found some other interesting family secrets too!… Apparently, my grandpa had a brother that only lived for 2 weeks that his mother never really told him about 😦 He was really surprised to hear that.
We also found the birth records of my grandma! That was really awesome.
The provost sent us to the official church archive for the area in Bialystok, the nearest big city. All of the archives from the past 100 years were off limits to the public because they contain private information about people who may still be alive. The books prior to 100 years, so before 1916, were written in Cyrillic… which neither my mom nor I know. The priest was pretty helpful going through a couple of the newer books to help us find the names of the girls, and then going through older books to find more information about my family in Russian.
We found the older girl pretty quickly. If Pan Pietrowski was 88 and they were around the same age, she was probably born around 1928. We found her in that book, and we knew that she died about 10 years later. Looking through the 1938 book, there was nothing, so the priest brought us 1939. Both of the girls’ deaths were written there, next to each other. Apparently they both drowned in the river that goes through Wrocen, the Biebrza, when the older tried to save the younger who was drowning. How sad 😦
It turns out that they also both had different fathers, and those fathers are different than all the rest of the children my great grandmother had. It didn’t say their names, though, so that’s a mystery still. I don’t know if this is the reason that my grandma and great aunt had such a hard time with this, especially because they died years before either of them were born! Older generations may just have a hard time discussing tragedy, though.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures there, but I still got one (or two) sneakily:
It also turns out that my great grandma was born in 1907 instead of 1908, which everyone in the family had previously thought!
If we were able to read the Russian handwriting, we would have loved to go back even farther in time to search for my great grandmother’s parents and other family members. Unfortunately, it’s hard to not speak the Russian language and the books are also dated by year, so we’d have to thumb through every single huge volume looking for names of people we don’t even know.
My goal is to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet and come back one day, and just spend hours going through the books, filling in the blanks to our family tree. The church is also in the process of scanning all of their archives, but they still wouldn’t be “searchable,” just able to be viewed electronically.
So there we have it, a mystery solved but a lot more questions to answer. I think all this drama and intrigue in the past calls for someone (me) to write a historical fiction novel about it!