Finding Roots in Poland
Exploring Family Ancestry
I had traveled much of the world, but I’d never explored my roots; the task seemed so overwhelmingly difficult that I never gave it a second thought. But in May 2009 when Sue and I decided to take a two-week tour of Eastern Europe, I was excited. We would focus on Poland, the original home of my maternal grandfather, Ignatius Matusiak. The appeal of Poland was fourfold: (1) we had never been there; (2) it was part of my ancestral background; (3) I had always wanted to visit Auschwitz; and (4) the trip was highly recommended by some dear friends who had visited the country several times.
Before this trip, the only things I’d known about my grandfather were what my mother had told me: his name, that he came to America on “the boat,” and that he lied about his age—saying he was eighteen when he was really fifteen—to avoid being denied access to a ship. Those scanty facts certainly didn’t seem like enough information to begin a genealogical search.
The plan was to spend three nights in Krakow before going on to Warsaw. While in Krakow, we spent a day on a private tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps, which was far more intense than I had anticipated. For the first time in my life I sobbed uncontrollably. Perhaps it was my Christian faith or my German heritage (on my father’s side). Perhaps it was the exhibit of human hair, four or five feet deep in a room that was sixty feet long and fifteen feet wide. We were told this much hair was clipped from the bodies before cremation . . . every single day! Perhaps it was the whole thing. I was speechless as I observed the Auschwitz exhibits and the gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau, where every day 10,000 human beings were exterminated and cremated. If ever anything could test my faith, it’s wondering how and why God didn’t intervene more quickly to stop this. My faith has not faltered but I have some tough questions to ask when I get to the other side.
The next day, our third afternoon in Krakow, we decided to look up my mother’s maiden name in the local telephone book. The thought of my ancestors living in Poland but leaving before the Nazi era somehow inspired me to see what we could find. What if my grandfather had not left in 1909? I wondered. Would he have known what the Nazis were doing in his country? Would he have been killed in the war? Would he have been part of the resistance movement? It took us a few hours to locate a phone book; we started at the hotel’s front desk, went to the local post office, and were finally directed to a cellular telephone shop in a downtown shopping mall. There was one Matusiak in the Krakow phone book with an address for a shop in the town square that was literally less than a hundred yards from our hotel. Sue and I thought the same thing: God is putting us in touch with my grandfather’s Polish relatives! Hurriedly we made our way to the Matusiak craft and jewelry shop only to learn that the employees did not speak English—but, thanks to a customer who served as an interpreter, we learned that Mr. and Mrs. Matusiak were out of town. We left handwritten notes for them with contact information but never heard back. We struck out! However, given the unlikely possibility that we would return any time soon, I was unwilling to give up—I had an idea.
As we packed our bags to leave Krakow that afternoon, I emailed my assistant in Connecticut and asked her to search Michigan’s Wayne County death records—I thought I remembered my grandfather dying in Detroit when I was in high school. She found his death record easily, which indicated a birth date of July 25, 1894.
“Can you search the Ellis Island database for an Ignatius Matusiak?” I typed by return email. “Look for someone who might have arrived in New York sometime between 1905 and 1915.”
To our delight, she found just one Ignatius Matusiak who’d arrived in 1909 and gave his age as eighteen, which was precisely consistent with my mother’s account. According to the death record, he was born in 1894 and would have been fifteen in 1909. The Ellis Island entry card indicated he was Austrian Polish, and his last place of residence was a town called Bulowice. Imagine our excitement: within just a few hours of that first email to my assistant, we had found him—not to mention his birth date, his hometown, and his arrival date at Ellis Island. When we learned that Bulowice was only thirty miles away, we asked the hotel if we could keep our room for one more night. Fortunately for us, there was a single room available in the hotel that night. Surely God’s hand was in this. We went to bed not knowing what to expect but we were thrilled by the potential adventure ahead.
The next morning our English-speaking driver took us an hour away to the quaint town of Bulowice, nestled in the rolling hills of western Poland—less than five miles from Auschwitz! Again I thought of what might have happened if my grandfather had not emigrated in 1909. Would he have remained in this town where the smell of burning flesh blew daily? Would he have known what that smell was? Would he have discovered the truth of the Nazi co-option of his homeland for the systematic, state-sponsored murder of millions? And how would he have confronted the extremely difficult ethical decision either to remain silent and complicit or to become part of the resistance movement? It is frightening to think of how this may have affected his life and perhaps ultimately my own.
The driver had never before been to Bulowice but he eagerly told us he had been on many such genealogical searches. He knew from experience to take us to the only Catholic church in town, and when we arrived he rang the bell at the parsonage. Though the conversation through the intercom took place entirely in Polish, it was clear that the priest was uninterested in helping us. But our driver was persistent and the priest finally let us in.
As our driver interpreted, the priest listened to our story with a face blank of expression. Then he pulled a large book off the shelf behind his desk—birth records, 1873 through 1898. Repeatedly he searched through the entries for July 1894 but there was no Ignatius Matusiak. We were about to leave when I remembered the issue of my grandfather’s age—fifteen versus eighteen. “Would you look up July 1891?” I politely asked him through our driver. And once again the priest scanned the book.
Perhaps my grandfather had simply lived here before he emigrated but had not been born in this town. I was about to accept defeat, when suddenly the priest uttered something in Polish to our driver—and for the first time a smile crossed his face.
There was Grandpa Matusiak, born on July 25, 1891, right in this little village! The priest pointed to the beautiful handwritten calligraphy naming the place and date of his birth, his mother’s and father’s names, the names of all four of his grandparents, his godparents’ names, and even the name of the midwife who delivered Ignatius in his parents’ home!
Ecstatic, we recorded all of the information and photographed the appropriate pages of the book. The priest, who had finally warmed up to us, gave us a tour of the church, which had been built in 1817. He claimed that it still looked exactly as it had when my grandfather was baptized at the altar in 1891. In this very place, 118 years earlier, the same God that we worship today had presided over this blessed sacrament—just as He had presided at my mother’s baptism, my baptism, and my children’s baptisms. I suspected that an omniscient God knew in 1891 that we would be standing in that same spot in 2009.
Sue and I were absolutely delighted and felt certain it was God who had given us this wonderful experience in the middle of an already exciting trip. We were totally satisfied and didn’t think about pursuing the matter any further. But little did we know that God and our Polish driver had more in mind for us.
Meeting the Mayor of Bulowice
Next, as he had done on many prior searches of this type, the driver took us to the town cemetery, where we found more than twenty tombstones memorializing other Matusiaks. We photographed every Matusiak gravestone; with those birth and death dates in hand, we could easily return to the Bulowice Catholic Church in the future to develop a full family tree.
Again, we were satisfied and prepared to go back to our hotel to finish packing for the trip to Warsaw. But our enthusiastic and aggressive driver had other plans: We were headed to the home of the mayor of Bulowice. We were concerned that the driver might be overstepping his welcome, and we were naturally somewhat reluctant to impose on the mayor. But sensing God’s involvement, we went with the flow.
To our amusement, the driver stopped numerous passersby to ask for directions to the mayor’s house, and within a few minutes we were ringing his doorbell. He graciously invited us into his home; while the driver related our entire story, the mayor’s wife and daughter prepared drinks and snacks for us. They seemed genuinely happy to invite us in and guide us further on our journey of discovery.
The mayor and his family spoke no English, but we sensed what he was doing when he got on his cell phone and began calling current Matusiak residents to explain our story. After several such apparently productive calls, we finished our snack, hugged the mayor’s wife and daughter good-bye, and left with the mayor himself. He drove us to the site where my grandfather was born and then to the workplace of the home’s current owner to chat with him about what he knew of the former residents.
We learned that the actual house in which my grandfather had been born had burned down in the early 1920s and had later been rebuilt by the current owner’s grandfather. The current owner knew little about any earlier residents but seemed very interested in our story. “The elderly woman who lives next door might know more,” he told us.
So back to the birth site we went. There we were able to visit with the neighbor, a woman in her late eighties or early nineties, who was delighted to tell us about members of the Matusiak family that she remembered from “next door.” My grandfather left in 1909, so she had not known him personally, but she named numerous other family members who had left for America, many of them destined for Chicago or Detroit.
How strange it must have been for Bulowice residents to see so many friends, family members, and neighbors leave for America—and then never see them again. Perhaps this woman lost a boyfriend or lover to the allure of a life in America, the land of opportunity. As she waved good-bye, we could see in her eyes that she was sad to see us go.
We had learned so much more than we had ever imagined possible. Surely we had gathered every possible bit of information available. But by then we should have known that God held still more in store.
Learning More of the Story
Our final stop on the mayor’s guided tour was a visit to the home of the oldest living Matusiak in town. A woman in her eighties, she was a family historian and told story after story of my ancestors who had lived in Bulowice a century earlier. While she was too young to have known Ignatius, she did know his name and knew many relatives whom she suspected were cousins. She too had a likely connection to Ignatius based on his parents’ names from the birth records. She showed us the gravestones of her own grandparents, which were prominently displayed in her backyard.
Her husband and her brother lived with her and invited us in for drinks and more food. Our driver, the indefatigable interpreter, translated for us, and they thoroughly enjoyed our meeting and conversation. After a lovely visit, we left with our driver and enthusiastically thanked our hosts and the mayor. As we left, the mayor gave Sue a lapel pin that proudly displayed the name of his town, then he kissed her hand.
What an exciting twenty-four hours! The providential digression from our planned itinerary resulted in many revelations, some of them quite profound. It turned out that Ignatius hadn’t lied about his age on the boat to America; he really had been eighteen. He had lied to everyone else, and he maintained that lie throughout his life. Perhaps he subtracted those three years in order to make himself seem younger; he was actually twenty-five when he met my grandmother, who was fifteen at the time. Perhaps he told her the truth. Perhaps she told him it wouldn’t work. Perhaps he was so in love with her that he was unwilling to give up and thereafter declared himself three years younger.
One impression from this experience will remain with me forever. In this idyllic western Poland town in 1909—three years before the sinking of the Titanic—an intrepid eighteen-year-old boy left his home, his parents, and the rest of his family to travel to America. He and millions of others who viewed the liberty and opportunity in this country worthy of that personal sacrifice simply would not give up.
I thank God that Grandpa left Poland before World War II and never knew the fumes of the ovens of Birkenau or faced the gut-wrenching decision of how to deal with the knowledge of a genocide playing out in his own backyard.
Though he wrote letters and sent money, Grandpa never returned to Poland. My recollection of him, now enriched by this marvelous experience, was that of a happy man very proud of the family he raised here in his America.
Few of us take the time to ask our parents and grandparents about the passions and the exploits of their ancestors—and those recollections are then lost forever as death claims our elderly family members. While I missed the opportunity to learn about my ancestors directly from my own family, how blessed I was that on a trip to Poland with my wife, Sue, God revealed to me what my own grandfather sacrificed and left behind in order to pursue his dream.
The fact that he left an idyllic village in close proximity to Auschwitz and Birkenau, death camps that would soon thereafter become the epicenter for evil in the world, makes the story even more intriguing. Only God knows how the lives of my parents and hence my own existence would have developed differently if Ignatius hadn’t had the courage and wanderlust to pursue his dreams in America. And what a shame that I never thought to discuss with him his youthful adventures before his death.
If you have living parents or grandparents, you can be certain they have interesting and wonderful stories to tell of their own life journey and encounters with God. Perhaps you will hear echoes of your own characteristics in the stories of their lives. Don’t make the mistake I made and miss the opportunity to learn from their experiences and to express your wonder and appreciation for their sacrifices. Chances are good that they too were guided and nurtured by our loving God in a way that has impacted your life in ways of which you may be unaware.
As the Psalmist indicates at the beginning of Psalm 78, it is important to pass from one generation to another the stories of our ancestors’ faith traditions as well as their encounters with, and promises from, God.
Comments from the Original Post
Carol Tamara 3.22.16
My husband and I visited Poland in 1985 while Communism was on the way out. I have been researching my genealogy for many years and could not find my roots. I felt very sad that I was unable to celebrate my heritage until this month. I FOUND YOU GRANDMA, GRANDPOP, and I am sooo proud of you. Meeting the
Black Madonna was a blessing and carrying her beautiful renditions home was a trip then ended here in the US with a feeling of pride and grace. By the way Theresa, my great great grandmothers name was Weronika Gadomska Miloszewski.
Theresa Gadomski Marks 8.16.13
My grandmother was born in Wawsaw Poland. and as a child I loved listening to her tell us stories from poland and teaching me little polish songs.. when I went to school here in America where I was born kids used to make fun of our polish heritage and our names..not to mention we were on the poor side..but I love my polish ancestors and wish I couldve visited the Country of Poland.. I thank God for my family and for his mercy and Grace…………
Sibylle DeCarlo 11.12.12
I truly feel for you all visiting your Family History in Poland. To see, learn of how so many were massacred breaks my heart! My mother was born near Krakow, Poland. She grew up in Schloss Minkowski as an only child. Her mother Leonare Scheider died during WWII while they were escaping from the Russians (she was 49). My mother married an American after the war, & never was able to return to Poland. Does anyone know if your folks lost All, do you have any rights to their land or property? Millions lost their lives, SO Tragic! Keeping our family histories and memories alive is Key for all of us. God Bless ! I hope you all connect with your families and keep their Cherished memories alive! Thank you! Sincerely, Sibylle DeCarlo, Mass, USA
Sandy Vallery 10.16.12
I too will be visiting Poland, for a missions trip with my church. God amazingly ordained that we would go to the very town that my 5th Generation above me Grandfather was from before taking the boat to America.
Good going, Fred - glad you and Sue found so much info. 9.13.12
Getting late – off to bed – more veterans to help tomorrow!
Daniel Hale 8.24.12
REMARKABLE! God is truly an awesome creator 🙂
Chris Huhn 8.23.12
I can relate to this true story, we came to the U.S.A in 1951. Mom and Dad moved from Poland to Germany in 1940 to avoid the Russian front. My brother was born in 1940, and I was born in 1942 during the war, two more sister’s were born after me. Some how with GOD’S help we came to America. There is just to much to tell. Thank you for your story, I enjoyed reading it. God Bless.
Wonderful. Just came back from a Tour thru Central Europe and went thru Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz – incredible history, asking God to the reason he tugged at my heart to go on this trip to these nations, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Moravia, Czech Rep.
I enjoy watching shows like “Finding Your Roots” and “Who Do You Think You Are” … The shows have explained that often times young immigrants came over with an agreement to work as servants until they reached the age of a legal adult. This was a way of paying their fare. But often their age would be changed so they would be forced to work for more years.
Carol Schofield 8.21.12
I got a call from an Aunt and now a big bunch of cousins and family I have never met will meet 23rd 24th and 25th in Pensacola, as I did not get to grow up with my real Father. How exciting!! I too feel this is a devine reunion!!
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I am sorry you did not have the fortune of finding out more on your family. My fathers family is also from Warsaw his grandparents came fleeing the wartime with their children then after they immigrated only to return, but his parents did come & stay in New York. My husband has done the ancestry search & the trails are fabulous history. I know some of mine but there is more research to be done. I am especially curious since my paternal grandfather always told me if his family had not had their lands taken over bit by bit during the wars they would still have nobility & I would have been a Baroness, so on with the search this winter. I can not imagine what they may have gone through during wartime, what spiritual ties led them back as I know it is a large family and of course the family ties meant more than new beginnings to them, yet many did come to stay, so I look forward to the stories and what ties I have and have never known.
I am sorry you did not have the fortune of finding out more on your family. My fathers family is also from Warsaw his grandparents came fleeing the wartime with their children then after they immigrated only to return, but his parents did come & stay in New York. My husband has done the ancestry search & the trails are fabulous history. I know some of mine but there is more research to be done. I am especially curios since my paternal grandfather always told me if his family had not had their lands taken over bit by bit during the wars they would still have nobility & I would have been a Baroness, so on with the search this winter.