Our late father’s father and paternal grandparents and their families before them were born in Szczawnica Wyżna, immigrating to the USA in the mid to late 1890s. Happily we were able to verify some vital details and inconsistencies in our family tree while researching at the archives in Tarnów. Now, in Szczawnica, we planned to search the locations of their homes, perhaps find living relatives, and learn more about the area.
As we entered Szczawnica, we were welcomed by “Figura Górala na Skale Kotuńka”, a carved wooden statue of a highlander on a large river rock outcrop. The town is located in the Grajcarek River valley, nestled in the foothills of the Pieniny Mountains. My sister and I were anxious to start exploring this beautiful place!
We spent a wonderful morning searching out several of the old house locations that PolishOrigins had identified for us on the 1850s cadastral map. It was very moving walking along the winding lanes where our ancestors lived and worked for generations.
During our exploration we searched out current residents to inquire about our old property ownership and our family surnames. The lady of the house where number 94 once stood confirmed it was the location of our great grandmother’s family, but sadly no longer owned by them. The couple where number 136 once stood, our father’s paternal grandmother’s home, said the property had long since changed hands. He directed us to his elderly aunt who lived several streets down who might have more information. Unfortunately, the aunt was visiting relatives out of town and her borders could not help us.
After knocking on many doors up and down the lane where houses 102 and 124 once were, we came upon an elderly lady who said her late husband’s mother had lived in the area and had our family surname! Since she was busy preparing and cooking chestnuts, she invited us back the next evening when her daughter would be home. We could all then review the mother-in-laws photos and papers!
This elderly lady also happened to know the priest who was the archivist in Tarnów, originally a Szczawnica resident, and further advised us on where he had told us to look for a potential relative. We found the couple in question just as they were leaving their home to pick mushrooms. There was a possibility that his great- grandfather was the brother of our great-grandfather! The gentleman could not remember his ancestor’s birthdate, so explained to Lucjan where his grave was in the cemetery. We told them if the dates matched, we’d be back!
Three Great Discoveries!
The next evening we brought the elderly lady and her daughter a bouquet of fresh flowers and a begonia plant as a thank you for their time. We enjoyed some tea and freshly baked plum cake as we discussed our family tree and shared our photos.
Our first discovery was a name day card mailed to the mother-in-law from Chicago that the elderly lady had saved. The writing on the card read, “Wishes for the day of your name”, signed, “Salome W”. I was so happy to see this unusual name because our grandfather had a first cousin in Chicago named Salome W. who was born in Szczawnica and later lived in Chicago! The writing on the back of the card, dated August 1957, noted an upcoming marriage in the family. I emailed Salome’s youngest daughter, our second cousin once removed, whom I had recently come into contact with. She quickly confirmed that it was indeed her mother’s handwriting with reference to her older sister’s wedding! We suspected a probable close cousin connection between Salome and the mother-in-law.
Our second discovery was an old photo of several people. I immediately recognized the young man in the photo as our grandfather’s first cousin from Pennsylvania, who happened to be the younger brother of Salome from Chicago! I also emailed this photo to Salome’s daughter and to her cousin (the young boy in the photo!), and they both confirmed I had correctly identified three of the people! They also told me that the older couple were their grandparents, but they did not know the other two people or where the photo was taken, but suspected Pennsylvania. We told our new Polish friends that the old gentleman in the photo was our great-grandfather’s brother, and that they both were born and lived just a few doors down the street where house 102 once stood! Since both Salome and her brother kept in touch with the elderly lady’s mother-in-law, my sister and I continued to think there must be a close cousin relationship to the mother-in-law.
Our third discovery was a very old photo with some unknown relatives of the elderly lady’s mother-in-law. This time I did not have a clue! They gave us a copy of the photo and agreed that we could circulate it to our relatives and paternal DNA matches to see if any of them knew who was in the photo. I thought this was just the kind of photo that would be sent to family in the USA, so I was very excited for future identification opportunities!
All of us laughed that it was a small world when strangers from the USA could knock on a door in Poland and discover letters and photos with a common connection! We exchanged email addresses to keep in touch. Lucjan took all the details that they had for the mother-in-law, who had our surname, in order to search for her marriage record at the local city hall.
Another Great Discovery at the Parish St. Wojciech Bishop Martyr
Our next stop was Parafia p.w. św. Wojciecha Biskupa Męczennika, first established in 1350, with the current church finished in 1892. Our grandfather and grandparents likely worshiped at both the old and the new churches. The church interior was beautiful, as expected. My sister lit candles for the family, as in every church we visited. Lucjan said that the baptismal font was likely from the previous church, so perhaps our ancestors were indeed baptized at this font!
While walking around the church grounds we discovered a plaque displayed on the exterior of the church which appeared to commemorate a foundation in the name of people with two of our family surnames. I plugged the names and relationships into our family tree and found matches! It seems that the Stanislaw Gondek mentioned in the plaque was our 1/2 third cousin twice removed. His 2x great-grandfather was our 4x great-grandfather (of house number 124). I passed this discovery on to a 5th cousin on that branch, who confirmed that Stanislaw was his 2x great uncle. Inside the church was another plaque from the same family!
Part of our plan was to meet with the parish priest during his office hours but wouldn’t you know it – it was the weekend the office hours had changed from summer to fall hours! Lucjan wanted to wait or go back another time, but as my sister and I were short on time, we decided we would probably have better luck with the town records.
The Town Hall
Lucjan and I went to the town hall to search for the marriage record of the elderly lady’s mother-in-law, to see if her father was our great-grandfather’s brother. Lucjan and the clerk found the marriage record, but, alas, her father’s name was unknown to us and did not appear in our tree. We were stumped – there had to be a connection, but how was the mother-in-law related to our family? I decided to make a small family tree for them to see if I could find any clues. The search goes on!
They continued searching for our mysterious great-uncle to no avail. He was the only one of eight siblings that we were not able to further document during the trip. Lucjan suggested we revisit earlier microfilmed death records in case we missed that he had died in childhood.
Lucjan and the clerk also looked for some records for one of our distant DNA cousins, a genealogist in Chicago. This cousin had been very helpful to me in some of my past research, so I was happy that they were able to find two of his 3x great-grandparent’s post WWI death records. Before departing, we left some souvenirs for the clerk who seemed shy and pleased at the same time.
The Parish Cemetery
Our last stop was the local parish cemetery. Lucjan found the grave of the “mushroom hunter’s” great-grandfather, but sadly the birthdate did not match our elusive great uncle’s birthdate. There were many headstones with our father’s paternal surnames – Gondek, Mastalska/ski, Polaczyk, Ciesielka/ski, Węglarz, Szczepaniak, Zachwieja, Malinowska/ski, and Słowik. We took photos of many of the oldest headstones so we could later check them in our family tree for matches.
Our trip was drawing to a close, but we had saved some time to become more acquainted with the history, culture and scenic beauty of the region, including revisiting our Polish cuisine bucket list!
To be continued –
Thank you for taking the time to share your trip in such detail. Having taken a trip with Lucjan, I so understand the feeling and emotion that comes through in what you publish. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in your story!
Thank you, Stephen. We were so happy and amazed with our discoveries it was a joy to share them with others who might be considering their own visits. So cool that you also toured with Lucjan, too – he certainly knows his stuff!! I just sent in my next, and last installment!
my Polish father came to the UK during WWII – he never returned home due to the Soviet occupation and their executions of those Poles who fought alongside the allies. My father never spoke of his Polish family but he did receive regular letters from them and he wrote to them. He died in 2008. I tried over the years to find my cousins, but without success. However by chance (?) I came across a picture of him on a Polish airman website which gave his birthplace! I contacted the village historical society via facebook to enquire if anyone knew of his family. By a miracle the president of the historical knew my family one of which worked with him at the society! He put them in touch with me and I found not two cousins but a further four. Since then I have visited them many times. I now have my Polish family tree going back to the 1600s. Such joy!
Wow, Margaret, what an amazing story! Such a great example of serendipity to finally find your Polish relatives. How sad, though, that your father was never able to return to Poland. I bet he would be so pleased that you have been able to connect with your relatives!
Hi Valerie, I’m curious what items you left the clerks during your trip.
Oops. reply follows!
Sure, Mary. We brought small souvenirs from our local area for the clerks – cork coasters, can koozies, and hanging ornaments. We always gave them a postcard as well that showed where our grandparents had settled once in the USA. I had “calling cards” printed with our names and my email address on one side, and the three ancestral villages with corresponding family surnames on the other side. We also gave the calling cards and postcards to many of the people we talked to along with some old family photos just in case they discovered family ties in the future or wanted to keep in touch with us. For family members, we brought more substantial gifts like small family photos/albums, college and state-branded caps, local books and food specialties, and handmade decorative items. We also brought stuff for kids like chocolate/peanut butter candy, ABC/counting books, and smaller toys.