I started with family research in 1999, after my uncle’s passing, using the information he had collected on the maternal side of my family, the names and dates I had taken from my paternal grandparents’ headstones, and the information my father had given me about his parents. Within the last three years I had lost two people I dearly loved, my father and my uncle who was my mother’s only sibling. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and a relapse after undergoing chemotherapy and radiation had destroyed our hopes that she could win the battle against cancer. Today, when I’m reflecting upon the reasons why I suddenly developed such a strong interest in family research that at times almost became an obsession, I believe it was the shock of losing one whole generation of my family within a short period of time and the painful realization that we hadn’t talked enough, that there were many open questions, and that I hardly knew anything about my ancestors on both sides of my family.
I remember sitting with the adults at family gatherings when I was a kid and teenager and listening to them talking about family, work, things that were going on in their lives, and my grandmother talking about her parents and siblings. I’m sure it would have made her happy if I had shown a little more interest in the conversation and the family, but I listened to all this with only half interest and snuck out as soon as I got a chance. I also remember my uncle showing me his family research folder and his efforts to get me interested in it as well, but it never seemed much fun to me. Learning about the old people and things that had happened so many years ago was simply not important to me at the time.
Now, decades later and in a different phase of my life, I was eager to learn more about my family. I visited my mother two to three times a week during her sickness, and we sat and talked about her life growing up in a small town in Germany, her parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, friends and classmates, and the things they did. We looked at the records my uncle had put together and at old family photos, and there was usually a little story to go with each picture. I listened to my mother as she talked about her life, about happy years and about years filled with problems and disappointment. As a teenager, when I had asked her about my birth father, she hadn’t answered my question. I never understood why, and although we got along well otherwise, that was something that always stood between us. Now she spoke openly about him and their relationship and tried to explain why she had been so reluctant to talk about him. Each fact that I learned about my mother and her difficult life helped me to understand her better and moved me closer to her. It was very important that I made peace with her in my heart, and I will always be grateful for the special time I had with her during the last months of her life.
I learned quite a bit about the maternal side of my family during this time, but still knew very little about my father’s ancestors and nothing whatsoever about where my father’s father originally came from. With the Internet opening many doors it was tempting to try to find out more about this side of my family as well. Just out of curiosity I started to look for information on the family name Roll in the web and was amazed by the large amount of genealogy information on that name. There were more than 400 entries for the name Roll in the Ellis Island database alone. Soon I spent all of my spare time at the computer checking out all kind of genealogical records that were available online, posting queries at genealogy message boards, and corresponding with other family researchers and volunteers who answered my questions and did lookups for me.
Although I searched at length for information on my father’s father, I made little progress until a volunteer found my grandparents’ church marriage record and later also my grandfather’s death certificate. My grandparents’ church marriage record indicated that my grandfather was from Budapest, the son of Jacob Roll and Rosalie Bejach, and that he married Julia Szott from Pilzno, Poland, the daughter of Jacob Szott and Agatha Obrych on August 6, 1912 at St. John Cantius Church, Chicago, witnessed by Joseph Bryjak and Anna Szott. My grandfather’s death certificate listed his and his parents’ place of birth as Budapest again and confirmed that his father’s name was Jacob Roll. His mother’s name was not given in the death certificate.
I now had the names of my grandfather’s parents, and once again I searched all available databases to find a Hungarian-born Frank Roll, Jacob Roll, or Rosalie Bejach — without success. However, there was an entry in the Ellis Island database for a seventeen year old Franciszek Roll who arrived at the port of New York in June 1909. The ship manifest indicated that his ethnicity was Polish, his citizenship Austrian, his place of birth Dlugopole, his nearest relative abroad his mother Rozalia Roll in Dlugopole, and that he was headed to Chicago to join his brother Jozef Roll. What puzzled me was his Polish ethnicity, his Austrian citizenship, and that Dlugopole was a village in South Poland, while the records I already had indicated that my grandfather was born in Budapest, about 140 miles away from Dlugopole. The age also didn’t fit. My grandfather would have been 18 years old in June 1909 and not 17 years, as given in the ship manifest. No, that couldn’t be my grandfather! There were too many pieces to the puzzle that didn’t fit together!
At that time I didn’t know that official records are often incorrect regarding age, place of birth, spelling of names and locations, and so on, and that they should be interpreted with this in mind. I also didn’t know yet that back in 1909 there was no such thing as “Hungary” or “Poland” as we know it today. Until World War I, Poland was partitioned into three parts, the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian part. Budapest as well as Dlugopole were part of the Austrian Empire at this time, and a person born in the Austrian part was legally a citizen of Austria, regardless of his or her Polish ethnicity.
The information given in my grandfather’s obituary that had appeared in the “Dziennik Chicagoski”, Chicago’s leading Polish newspaper, when he died in 1940 added an important piece to the puzzle. Among his surviving relatives were a brother Jozef Roll and a sister Karolina Chrobak. I found several Jozef Rolls in the Ellis Island database, but neither one of them fit to the information I already had. However, there was an entry for an eighteen year old Carola Rol who arrived at the port of New York in September 1912. Part of the information given in the ship manifest agreed with that in Franciszek Roll’s: Her ethnicity was Polish, her citizenship Austrian, and Dlugopole was indexed as her place of birth. The manifest also indicated that her nearest relative abroad was her uncle Jendrzej Bryja, and that she was headed to Chicago to join another uncle by the name of Jendrzej Bryjak.
So, back to the Ellis Island database! There was an entry for a Josef Bryjak from Dlugopole who arrived in the United States in November 1905 to join his brother J. Bryjak in Chicago. Could he have been the Joseph Bryjak in my grandparents’ church marriage record? Carola Rol’s uncles’ names were Bryja resp. Bryjak, and a Joseph Bryjak was one of the witnesses in my grandparents’ marriage — that couldn’t be a coincidence! Marriage witnesses were often close relatives or godparents of the bride or groom — there had to be a connection between the Roll and Bryjak families!
But how were they connected? Was it possible that my grandfather’s mother’s last name was misspelled in my grandparents’ marriage record? Was the correct name “Bryjak” instead of “Bejach”? It wasn’t more than a guess, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. A search at the LDS website revealed that the Dlugopole parish records weren’t microfilmed. I had reached a point in my research where I needed somebody familiar with the Polish language who could do research on my behalf in Poland. Again, I posted queries at genealogy message boards hoping that somebody would be able to help me. And I had luck! A Polish genealogist who lives close to Dlugopole responded and offered to search the records he had access to for me. And he indeed found records that proved my assumption: A Jacob Rol had been married to a Rozalia Bryjak from Dlugopole. My great-grandparents!
Ute H. Wyatt,