Wigilia with my great-grandmother

(The story was sent by email to Tad Wysocki and Zenon. Kathy plans to arrive in Poland in 2013 and she agreed to publish her earliest childhood memories as an introduction to her travel blog.)

Tekla came to the US around 1909. She was still alive when I was a little girl, and I actually met her once. I thought you might like to know a little more about what happened to Tekla after she emigrated, especially since it involves a Christmas story.

After her arrival here, Tekla continued to live a life of many joys and sorrows. Teklas’ husband Jan came first and worked as a smelter and goldsmith in Newark, New Jersey, a small industrial city. Within two years he was able to pay for the passage of his wife and three children who each arrived with $25 in their pocket, the equivalent of over $500 today. Jan and Tekla had one more ‘American’ child after they reunited, a daughter Irene.. However, they lost their 17 year old son Waclaw to pneumonia, probably at the start of the Great Flu Pandemic. The two older daughters, Bronislawa and Eleanora married and started families of their own. Jan died sometime in the 1920s from lung problems related to his work. Their lives were centered around St. Casimir’s, an important Polish American parish in Newark.

The 1930 census shows Tekla remarried to a Mr. Alex Caplicky and living in North Hempstead, Long Island., New York. Mr. Caplicky was also a widower, with two older daughters married and out of the house and a younger daughter the same age as Tekla’s daughter Irene. We don’t know how Tekla met Mr. Caplicky. In those days, North Hempstead was probably a three to four hour train trip from Newark. They may have been introduced through networks of family and friends who were matchmaking for two middle aged widowers with children. I saw an Alexander Czaplicki in the Dzerzgowo records and I wondered if perhaps, they knew each other from back home. Another mystery.

Alex Capikcy worked as the head gardener on the estate of a wealthy family. Tekla and Alex lived on what seems to have been a small farm. This was a happy marriage. My father remembers the family making trips to the ‘country’ for weekend picnics. He spent several weeks of the summer each year with his grandmother while his parents worked. He was very fond of Tekla and thought of Mr. Caplicky as another grandfather.

Tekla lived to about age 85 and in her elder years, had a secure life in the home of her daughter Irene..

Meeting Tekla has always been one of my earliest childhood memories. I was four or five years old. At that time the families weren’t traveling so often with very young children and elderly parents. But that year, Irene and her husband brought Tekla to my grandmother’s apartment in Newark for Wigilia with the entire family. Tekla seemed to be in good health, but she was getting on in years and probably enjoyed the family reunion while she could still travel. It seems that the highlight of that evening was for great-grandmother to meet her first great-granddaughter. I remember my mother preparing me for what a special visit this would be and explaining what a ‘great’ grandmother was.

Tekla arrived after the whole family was gathered, maybe 14 adult, children and grandchildren and some babies. She was a very small and thin woman, not much bigger than a child, but with a very large personality. (This was a surprise because her daughters were tall and quiet women) There was so much excitement when she arrived, like a movie star on a red carpet! I was brought forward to greet her. She was quite happy and insisted that I have the seat of honor next to her at the center of the table for dinner. I remember her small hands as she helped me to cut my pierogis. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, I felt very connected to her. I’m sure that she is somewhere smiling now to know that her little great granddaughter has found her birthplace and family records, which we assumed were forever lost.

Like many new immigrant families, ours continued to struggle for many years, but I know that Tekla and Jan fulfilled their dream of a better life for their descendants. While they lost their own four sons before adulthood, their four grandsons fought in WWII and survived to raise their own families. It was amazing to read the birth record for her last son Wladyslaw and to imagine Tekla, described as illiterate, giving birth in a farmhouse , her husband thousands of miles away, her mother acting as the midwife and then facing the loss of the baby. Could she have imagined that less than 70 years later, all four great-grand-daughters would have university degrees and healthy children?

Finally, while this family information is wonderful for everyone to have, it has a special meaning for me. My apartment building in NYC is on the west side of the World Trade Center site and also visible from Ellis Island. On September 11 our building was hit by the fall of the south tower, our home was seriously damaged, and our view was of the recovery of the dead. As I tried to find some strength to deal with this event, I found inspiration from past generations of my family who had to overcome difficult circumstances. I knew that when I could I would try to look a little more deeply into what I could find out about their lives.

I can’t begin to tell you how much this information means to me and to my family. I’m sure that many of your clients have a similar reaction. Our Polish American parents and grandparents took great pride in their heritage and tried very hard to celebrate and preserve it for future generations. But until recently, no one ever imagined that we could one day return to Poland, or that records were actually kept in those days or that we would ever be able to access any information if it existed.. There was always a missing connection in our lives and I’m so pleased to close the gap and to be able to pass this knowledge on to the next generation of my family. I think it’s a great tribute to the people of Poland that they preserved their cultural heritage through so much economic hardship, two world wars, and outside occupations. We look forward to a trip next year to visit the places where the earlier generations of our family were born, lived and worked.

Our family was delighted to receive your translation of the birth record for my great-grandmother Tekla Jaroch. The place, people and other details are consistent with the record of her marriage to Jan Majewski, found for us last year by Tadeusz Wysocki at Roots Poland. Together you have given us two very special Christmas gifts..

Best wishes for the Christmas holiday and the New Year.

Kathy Zaborowski

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