Why you should care
Because a lost package could lead to a newfound family.
Abraham Mahshie is a Madrid-based writer. His work has appeared in The Miami Herald, Outside online, and the San Antonio Express-News.
The village was so small; I could almost count the wooden houses on one hand. An old man with bushy grey eyebrows stepped out of one of them and greeted us: “Yes,” he said, in Polish, “I remember a man named Boleslaw Jadczuk.” The old man walked barefooted into the quiet road and pointed us toward another house. In front of it was a small vegetable garden with a single sunflower. Zenon turned to me, “It is never this easy.”
We knocked and an old woman answered the door. “Is this where Boleslaw Jadczuk lived?” Zenon asked.
“Yes,” answered the woman.
Did he have a brother named Ludwik who immigrated to America?
On a Sunday in August I drove to a farming village in Eastern Poland where I believed my ancestors lived more than 100 years ago. I was led there by the elegantly inked words in a 67-year-old Polish letter that belonged to my great-grandfather, Ludwik Jadczuk, who had immigrated to America in 1913.
The only clues to my family’s whereabouts were in the letter written by Ludwik’s brother. It began, “Village of Kamianka, 3 August 1947.”
Most of my childhood I was just a gringo from Miami, one of the few non-Hispanics in a cacophonous mix of Spanish speakers from across the Americas. I flew to Poland to find my roots.
But before I arrived, I asked all my living relatives for any fragment of information they had and did extensive research on Ancestry.com. I found details of my family after they settled in America, but not what part of the Russian partition of Poland they had immigrated from or if any family still remained. The only clues to my family’s whereabouts were in the Polish letter written by Ludwik’s brother, Boleslaw Jadczuk. It began, “Village of Kamianka, 3 August 1947.” It went on to say that the family was well and sent their love, and that the five parcels sent the previous year from America had not arrived.
I hired a Polish genealogist named Zenon Znamirowski to help me bridge the gap. He hosts online discussion forums about genealogical research, helps families translate documents and operates a tour company that specializes in “roots travel” tourism that centers on discovering the country of your ancestors. Each year he runs several group trips, and takes about 15 families back to the areas where their ancestors lived. Together, they visit cultural sites and conduct records research. He says no matter how many families he has reunited, he still gets a tinge of nervous excitement each time it happens.
Zenon had warned me that most of his clients had much more documentation than I did. We didn’t even know which of the five Kamiankas might be the one where my family lived, let alone if they had simply moved on during 70 years of lost communication. As we left the concrete communist-era buildings of Warsaw and headed east through the rolling hills of Poland’s least developed region, Zenon explained to me the difficulties of keeping in touch during communist times, and how contact between many families ceased altogether.
And yet, there we were, in a tiny village, on the doorstep of what we believed to be my great-grandfather’s house. The old woman began to reveal details of a letter her father wrote to America when she was eight years old: the five parcels that Ludwik sent to Poland from America had not arrived. I showed her my iPad with a photograph of my letter. Gathered family stood silently behind her in the doorway. A woman about my age was befuddled: “He is family?” using the Polish word for family, rodzina.
For generations, they had passed on the story of the Polish letter and talked about their family they had long lost contact with. Until I arrived.
His voice quivering, Zenon began to ask more questions about the family tree. Everyone was quiet. I was waiting for the first denials to be translated from Polish, for conflicting details. But they did not come.
For generations, they had passed on the story of the Polish letter and talked about their family they had long lost contact with in America. Until I arrived. We spent two emotional hours huddled around the kitchen table, beneath a black and white portrait of our shared family, my great-great-grandparents. I showed photos of American family members. I asked about the past.
The old woman, my great aunt Janina, told stories of escaping the Nazis. How as a child she fled with her mother into the fields to hide. When the Soviets arrived, a battle raged in their village. Janina recalled that the Russians shouted “Hurrah!” as they charged. After the war, the Soviets came back to the village to take men to Siberia. Boleslaw hid in a cold basement. Shivering, he emerged that night having avoided deportation. He wrote the Polish letter to his brother, Ludwik, two years later.
My second cousin, Urszula, called her sister, Jolanta, who eagerly invited me to visit her in a nearby town. In Jablonna Lacka, across from the church where my great-grandparents were baptized, Jolanta met me at her doorstep with three wet kisses on alternating cheeks. She wore a broad smile. Inside, she served us cake and coffee, shaking with excitement as I shared photos and stories. She dropped her head and shook it in disbelief. After a moment of silence, she said, “Tell me about your life.”
That night, I stayed up late in my hostel posting my brand new family photos on Facebook. Heartfelt comments from friends and family came flooding in. A few days later, I met Jolanta’s daughter, my Polish third cousin, at a Starbucks at the train station in Warsaw where she was attending university, and connected her to her American cousins. Facebook messages streamed in, promising of overseas trips and meetings, someday.
My Polish-American mother was perhaps the happiest of all. She called her cousins in Syracuse, New York, where Ludwik had first settled and where she had grown up, to relay the joy. This summer, I will take my Mom to Poland to meet the family. We’re both taking Rosetta Stone Polish classes to prepare. And Mom did something else to bridge the gap: She rallied a representative from each family to send a box to Poland with photos and mementos from America — five in all — to replace the parcels lost three generations ago.