Bapcia and Dziadek – researching our Polish ancestors

Researching our polish ancestors turned out to be a whole lot easier than I thought it would be.  The first piece of advice I received from a volunteer at the local Family History Center turned out to be the best. Start where you are and work backwards.  We had a few false starts when we ignored this advice. But by and large we try to stick to it. You can waste a tremendous amount of time, spend a good deal of money, and get very meager results relying on random searches in online databases (despite the commercials to the contrary). Worse, in glossing over the important details you might glom on to the wrong family tree!

To start, we had our own birth and baptism certificates. No surprises there. We had our mother’s death and marriage certificates. We knew when and where she was born.  We knew her parents, Sofia Szczerba and Jozef Mirota (our Bapcia and Dziadek, polish for Grandma and Grandpa), had emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. Stop the genealogy train! Where in Poland? All I could remember was they were from neighboring villages nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains.  And who were Bapcia and Dziadek’s parents? We had no idea. We had never asked back when someone would have remembered.

Through a series of trial and error, we eventually found the right repositories for the information we were searching.  We wasted a lot of time, but learned along the way. For example, under the assumption our grandparents would have petitioned for citizenship shortly after they arrived, like our Irish ancestors did, we focused our research on Pennsylvania.  We searched LDS microfilms, online databases, microfilms at the National Archives in Philadelphia, and wrote letters to agencies in Pennsylvania to no avail. Our grandparents didn’t take the steps to naturalization until after they owned their own farm in New Jersey (vestiges of the peasant culture that ingrains the belief you have no rights, and you are no one, unless you own land).  So where did we find their immigration papers? In the basement at our own County Court House! Lesson learned: if you don’t start where you are, you’ll end up there anyway.

We found out from their immigration papers and passenger records that both of our polish grandparents emigrated in 1906 from the Austrian occupied region of Poland called Galicia.  Eastern Europe was in unrest. It must have seemed like everyone was leaving.  Born in villages only a few kilometers apart, our grandparents did not know each other in Poland, although they undoubtably had family connections and mutual friends. In 1906 Jozef had already fulfilled his military service requirements under the occupier regime. Austria had the right to recall him into military service at any time. He hated the idea of serving again under Austrian rule.  He hoped for Polish independence. Sofia, still living with her mother and step-father and other extended family members just wanted a better life. Her older brother, Paul Szczerba, had already come to the States to work, returning to Bobowa with sufficient money for his sister’s passage to Carnegie.

Sofia Szczerba came first, sailing alone in steerage class, from Bremen, Germany on the SS Rhein. She was not able to read or write in English or Polish. She was 26 years old. In Poland at that time she was considered a spinster. And though pretty and gregarious, with beautiful blond hair and lovely blue eyes, she a mind of her own and was afraid of no one (especially as the stories go, if she had a stick nearby). She arrived at the port of Baltimore, Maryland on June 22, 1906 and most likely took the train to Pittsburg, where she was going to meet her cousin Teresa Motyka, who was living in Carnegie.  Her last place of foreign residence was Berdehof Grybof, Poland.

Jozef Mirota sailed on the Hamburg Line steamer, the SS Patricia, out of Hamburg, Germany. He traveled alone, arriving at Ellis Island, NYC, on November 26, 1906. He also most likely took the train to Pittsburg. His passenger record indicates his last residence was with his mother Margaret Mirota, Plawna, Poland. He was going to a friend, Jozef Popiela, who had found him work as a fireman in one of the coal mines in Cherry Valley, PA.  That meant he put out the fires in the coal mine.  Scary work but it was a start and he saved his money so he could marry and buy a small farm.

Dziadek’s declaration of intent wasn’t filed until 1927 and Bapcia didn’t petition for naturalization until 1944 when she probably became worried about deportation during the war years. What a treasure trove of information their naturalization papers contain!  Misinformation found on passenger records was clarified in these papers. The incorrect spellings of their names on passenger records (her surname was spelled Azezerba instead of Szczerba and his was spelled Marotor on the steamship ticket rather than Mirota) were explained. But most important for us these papers gave us the names of their parents and their places of birth! However, these papers also contained errors, so it’s always good to have multiple sources of primary information to confirm the facts. For example, Jozef’s naturalization papers incorrectly state that his wife Sofia was born in Zyndranowa while her immigration papers correctly state that she was born in Berdechof-Grybof. We wasted a little time searching the wrong village, but I’d still love to go there someday!

Along with finding their original naturalization papers, we located their passenger records on the National Archive microfilms; we sent for Jozef’s SS-5 Form; we wrote to the Pittsburg Roman Catholic diocese Archivist and received information on the family baptism records; we wrote to the court in Allegheny County for a copy of their marriage application, and so forth.  Bit by bit we pieced together the records of their lives and followed their paths back to their ancestral villages of Pławna and Berdechow au Bobowa.

And then we located the LDS microfilms of the Roman Catholic Church records for our ancestral villages. These microfilmed church records, written in Latin, have records entered as late as the 1940s and go back in time to the first partition of Poland. The Bobowa records go back to the 1600s but they are difficult to read and are written in a log format in Polish. As our brother said in response, we used to know we came from poor dirt farmers in Poland – and now we know we came from poor dirt farmers in Poland, but they have names.

To be continued.

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