Two questions and no answers: My long search for my ancestry and identity. Part 2.

>It was in fall of 1989 when I asked my father where his father came from originally. Being as na’ve as I was back then, I thought it was an easy to answer question. Sometimes I wonder how things would have developed if he had he given me some names, shown me some old family pictures, and told me a little bit about his father’s side of the family. Would I have been satisfied and stopped asking questions? Would I ever have researched the paternal side of my family as obsessionally as I did for many years, had his answer to my question not have been a plain and simple “I don’t know”?

I couldn’t understand then how it was possible that my father knew nothing about his father’s heritage. Had they never talked about it in the family? “The adults talked about these things amongst themselves when we were kids”, my father said, “but not with us”. He didn’t recall his father ever talking about his family or home country when he was around, and, like many of us, he never thought to ask about it while he still had the chance.

After many years of genealogy research I know now that many descendants of immigrants to the United States have asked their parents the question I asked my father and have received the same answer he gave me: “I don’t know”. It may differ from family to family, but I think it wasn’t unusual for the first generation of immigrants not to talk about their family and life in the ‘old country’ and for their children not to know where their parents came from.

Why? One reason could be that the majority of Polish immigrants to America at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century were peasants or descendants of peasants from the overpopulated south who had lived in rural poverty and for whom emigration was the only opportunity to escape a future of hunger and deprivation. While starting a new life in America may have been an adventure for some of our ancestors, I imagine it was hard for many of them to leave their home village and kin behind, their parents and grandparents that had raised them, knowing they would most likely never see them again. And life in America was hard for most of our immigrants ancestors. They struggled to survive and had to work very hard to make enough money to meet the basic needs of their families. Due to often low education levels and unfamiliarity of the language, the jobs available to them were usually low-paid, dirty, hard-labor, and often dangerous ones, e.g. in coal mining, construction, steel factories, slaughter houses, and so on.

During the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s many of them lost their jobs and were forced to use up all their savings, if they had any, to survive. The conditions my father, born first generation American, was brought up in during the years of the Great Depression in Chicago are unimaginable to us who, for the most part, never had to worry about where the next meal would come from, if we could afford to see a doctor and get the health care we needed when we are sick, if we had decent clothes to go to school in, and if there was enough money to pay the rent on time. After having experienced poverty and his father’s struggles to support his wife and ten children by working as a roofer in Chicago, his father’s death at the age of 50 years from falling off a scaffold to the pavement below while working on a building, it is only understandable that my father put all of his energy into creating a better life for himself and his children than he had it when he grew up.

Both generations, the immigrant generation as well as the first generation born in the United States, were too busy coping with the present and striving for a better life, getting ahead economically and socially, to worry about the past. It is us, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the first immigrants, who are asking the questions now and are rediscovering our ancestors’ culture and roots in a country that is ‘foreign’ to us, whose language we don’t speak, but to which we nevertheless feel deeply connected.

Ute H. Wyatt,


  1. My family too knows little of our Polish roots – it was not shared by my immigrant grandparents. They came to America and wanted to be American – stories of “the old country” were not shared with children or grandchildren. What a great loss but on the other hand I am sure they had good reason for their action. It’s up to us to discover our ancestors and heritage.
    I am enjoying your blog.

  2. While reading this I couldn’t help but think of my Polish great grandparents Dzia Dzia and little Busia(Kasimierz Tenczar/Honorata Januszek) and that they probably lived this before coming to the U.S. in the 1890’s. My little Busia came from south eastern Poland, she had a stroke and lost her ability to speak so I could never ask her about Poland but my aunts say she never spoke about the old country, Dzia Dzia died before I was born so I didn’t get to spend time with him. I still don’t know where my Kania side of the family lived in Poland. They immigrated in 1872 and settled in southern Illinois.

  3. I have been searching my Polish roots for the past 15 years and it has been an amazing trip. My next adventure will be to visit the villages of my Busia and JaJa in Southern Poland. Both of them came to Chicago in 1897 and 1903. I can only guess what it must have been like traveling from southern Poland to Bremen, Germany and then crossing the ocean in steerage to get here.

  4. The genealogical journey for me started in 1975 when my mother passed and among her things I found a copy of her father’s birth record from Poland. It was in pieces (and Latin) and took a great amount of learning for me to discover where he was from. Rakowo, Poznan. I had the advantage of going to Polish schools where I learned to read and write the language, and read the history of Poland, but it was assumed that I was learning to speak it at home -which didn’t happen. Both parents were American born, but spoke Polish,only to each other, or at church. Grandparents didn’t speak of Poland – my feeling is that is was painful for them because of all the family they had left behind and never saw again. After two visits to Poland, I found distant cousins, and there are possibly more, and saw some of the things I learned of in Polish history classes. Go to Poland if you can – it’s a wonderful country and I’m very proud of my ancestors and my heritage.

  5. My mother is the first generation born in America and her father came from the Russian occupied part of Poland and grandmother from the German occupied part of poland. I have searched in vain for my great-grandparents Jan and Josephina Kolasinski. My mother wrote down information about my grandfather’s home in Poland but I can’t find the village. The information I have is Gmina Jeleniewo and Powait Sulwaki. My great grandfather purchased a small farm there and also came to America several times to work in the coal mines?I presume in Pennsylvania. My great-grandfather and two of my grandfather’s brother were in the kossack army. My grandfather came to the US alone when he was 16years old. My mother also has the last name of Kolaszewski and possible for my great grandparents. It is frustrating because my grandmother received a copy of my grandfather’s baptismal record from Poland but destroyed it because my grandfather lied about his age so he could get a job in America and she was afraid he would get into trouble for lying about his age.Some day I hope to visit Poland.

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