(The article was originally published in a newsletter of the Downriver Genealogical Society: ‘The Downriver Seeker’)
My plans this summer were for a trip to Poland with my daughter Emily, my mother Doris, and my best friend Nancy. I never thought it would turn into an experience of a lifetime. After trying to get my Polish great aunt’s birth certificate transcribed for several years, I was finally successful. After attending a program at DGS about Polish genealogy, I was guided to the Michigan Polonia Center where I found Kamila who, for a price, would ‘correctly’ transcribed the certificate. I had been led in many different directions because my great grandfather’s immigration record was incorrectly transcribed and because there are only a dozen cities by the same name in Poland. Now I finally had the location, Sarnowo, north west of Warsaw. Once I had the correct location, I ordered the L.D.S. films for the parish of St. Joseph in Sarnowo, woj. Mazowieckie, Poland.
There I found a great deal of records in Polish and, the dreaded Russian language. However daunting, with some help from the Westland L.D.S. Thursday night crew, I slowly started to accumulate information about my family. My mother, who is 81, wanted to see where her grandparents came from before she died. So we decided this was the year. Our plans were to go for a week, see as much as we could, and with the help of a genealogy guide, Zenon Znamirowski from PolishOrigins.com we would take a daytrip from Warsaw to the family villages..
We flew into Warsaw then took a train to Krakow for a three day visit. The first evening we had dinner in the majestic Market Square, one of the most beautiful in Europe. The next day we took a car from our hotel to Auschwitz. A place I didn’t want to go to, but was outnumbered on. It was a day I won’t forget. Words cannot describe the experience. I now believe everyone should see Auschwitz in person.
On Wednesday, we again took the hotel Mercedes for a trip to Zakopane, in the Polish Alps. We went by little villages where people were cutting hay by hand and building tall, skinny haystacks. We also saw storks, the ones that deliver babies, nest on stands erected by the homeowner. The families believe it is good luck. The Tatra Mountains were completely majestic in their beauty. It was a wonderful day!
Friday brought a visit to the Wawal Castle in Krakow. The Polish “Westminster Abbey” where Poland buried their kings and dignitaries. Then it was on to Schindler’s Factory where we saw the museum that tells the tale of Otto Schindler and how he saved so many Jews by outsmarting the Nazis. We saw many other things in Krakow. It is truly a beautiful city and well worth visiting. Next it was back to Warsaw on the train. I was excited because tomorrow we were going to my family’s village.
Zenon picked us up in the morning and we took the 1-1/2 hour trip northwest of Warsaw to the village of Sarnowo. Our first stop was the Church of St. Joseph. The church where my Polish family attended since at least l804. We entered the little village. There were no pizza places, no gas stations and no grocery stores. It was just a tiny, neat little village. St. Joseph was surrounded by a walls on all sides; it was rebuilt in l860 after being destroyed by a fire. The priest, who did not speak English, told Zenon that he had a number of baptisms that day so he was limited on time but could take us on a tour.
Once inside we knelt down and said a Hail Mary for our ancestors with the priest. He showed us the alter with the revolving paintings and the 300 year baptismal font. This was the church my great grandparents were married in in l896. It was awe-inspiring.
Meanwhile, the priest asked the groundskeeper to call Chojnowo (the village my great grandfather Joseph ORLOWSKI was born in) and asked the ORLOWSKI family if they might be related to us. After taking many pictures, we headed outside where the priest rang the bells in our honor. Zenon, our guide, explained to us just how great of an honor this was. The bells resonated thru the village echoing down the streets, in our honor, the American family returning to their village in Poland. I cannot describe the feeling. I think my great grandmother and great grandfather were watching and smiling over us.
The ringing bells in Sarnowo Church
The groundskeeper came back, said that he made the call and that they were related. He said that their grandfather Antonio loaned my great grandfather Joseph the money to go to America. Antonio had inherited the family farm and Joseph received nothing, so Antonio loaned him the money to go to America. The family never knew what happened to Joseph and that they were coming right over.
We looked in shock at each other. Could this really be happening to us?
The priest told us that if they did not invite us to dinner that he would have us over for sauerkraut after the baptisms. It was very nice of him, that he would worry about feeding us.
A few minutes later a car pulls up, with two women and one man. They run into the courtyard, crying and hugging and kissing us. They only spoke Polish, so thank goodness for Zenon. They said they had prayed for this miracle. Joseph left in 1902, the war with Soviets took place in 1920 and after that point any communication was cut off. They always hoped the American family would come back to Poland. This was another amazing moment that tugged at our heartstrings. There were people that were waiting for us all these years, and we never knew it.
They took us to the church cemetery, and showed us the family graves.
Then on to their house where we pulled into a courtyard by a modest house, and a charming barnyard filled with cats, and chickens and ducks. We got out of the car and I asked Zenon to ask about the farm. Could this possibly be where Joseph was born? They nodded, yes; this was indeed the ORLOWSKI farm. This was the farm where my great grandfather was born and, it was still in the family.
They ushered us into the house, where they brought out paczkis, roasted chicken (from their own farm raised chickens), kielbasa, cookies, vegetables from their garden and their best polish Vodka. We had a wonderful time, talking to them with the help of Zenon, the family exchanging information, looking at pictures and eating. We exchanged addresses and vowed that the family would not be separated again.
With hugs and kisses, we left our new family, sad that after finally being reunited our visit was too short, but it was on to Zalesie to look for my great grandmother Antoniny PODSIEJ’s family. The priest’s groundskeeper told us that there was a family still in the village with their name, which was where Antonina was born.
Within 10 minutes we were there. Zenon stopped at a small store to ask directions to the PODSIEJ home. We stopped in front of an old wooden house. The door was in the back, where again we entered a courtyard with two barns and ducks, geese, chickens and a barking dog. The double doors swung in with a curtain hung to keep the bugs out.
A woman stuck her head out and Zenon engaged in a conversation in Polish. The woman started to nod her head, and Zenon looked at me with a broad smile. This was indeed the home Antonina was born in. This was the PODSIEJ farm. This was where my great grandmother Antonina grew up. They knew there was a sister who went to American, but they never knew what happened to her.
The woman, Charlotte, had a dream after her grandfather’s funeral that the American family had come back to Poland. They had waited years for this day. After being invited into her home, she called her daughter Lucyna who had done some family history. When Zenon made the call, you could hear a woman screaming on the other end of the phone and talking a mile a minute. He covered the phone, and told us ‘she’s excited’.
My new cousin, Lucyna, lived two hours away, and was terribly disappointed that she would not be able to meet us. So instead we exchanged e-mail addresses, thru Zenon over the phone. Once again, we had Babka, cookies, candy, tea and coffee. Again reluctantly, we had to leave our new family. Zenon told us, even as excited as we were to meet our family; that the news of their American relative’s return would be talked about for a long time in these villages.
That day had turned into one that we would never forget. We had come so far and found both of my great grandparents’ family homes and that they were still owned by the family was indeed a miracle. As Lucyna told me over e-mail, there was a reason her grandfather had told her the family history, and she knew that even after 100 years the history was important. After the 100 years my great grandparents had left Poland, we indeed, came home again.
We happily drove back to Warsaw, amazed at our day, it being so much more than we anticipated. Zenon explained this was why he does what he does, as he described it, it was because of these tender moments. He had reunited a family, he had done his job.
The next day we spent touring Warsaw, the city the Nazi’s destroyed. The Royal Palace, the Warsaw Uprising museum, the Royal Lazienki Park and it’s beautiful Old Town were rebuilt to look exactly the way they did before 1945 when the city was bombed down to the cobblestone. An amazing country, with an amazingly strong and resilient people. We had an absolutely wonderful trip to Poland. We learned so much about the country, the history and the people. We were as fascinated with them, as they were of us.
My suggestion for all of you is go visit the past. As Zenon said to us, that in just one more generation the information would have been lost. Pack your bags, go visit your past. It is life changing.