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Sunday, July 21, 2013

A trip to Poland - Part 3 - Showing up unannounced

 We did what some said would be a waste of time.  We drove to a place that was barely on the map, using a route that included "turn right on the second unnamed dirt road" and found my grandmother's family.   My aunt, 3rd cousin (on the Furgal side), and I left Suchy Grunt and made the roughly 1.5 hour trip to Smerdyna to see if we could just show up and ask anyone we saw if there were any Sierant descendants still in the area.  Needless to say we passed by the second dirt road on the right in our travels and had to circle back.  We took a guess at which dirt road was the right one and started to drive through a few small villages.  Google maps told us we would only be driving for a few minutes but after 10, we stopped beside the first sign of life we saw along the road and asked if we were going in the right direction.  We were told by some very nice farmers that we were close and it was just a few km away.   After driving 5 kms away we came to a fork in the road.  Hmmm we weren't told about that.  We turned right and proceeded to drive up to another man and ask him for directions.  He told us we were very close and sure enough we drove a little further and saw the sign for the village.  Luckily the road took us straight into the heart of the village and stopped to talk to 3 ladies who were working their field.  They told us that people with the name Sierant lived straight ahead.  We pulled up in a laneway but the house was fenced in and there was a rather big dog behind the fence.  We walked to the front of the house and luckily a woman came out to talk to us.  Her husband who followed close behind her was indeed a Sierant and after a few minutes we figured out that we were related but we weren't sure how.  They let us know that there was another Sierant family up the road and down the right laneway.  We worked our way over there but there was no one home (and another gate and dog).  We walked up to another man working his field and asked him about the family.  He wasn't sure if  his neighbors were related to the Sierant family but another neighbor heard our story and suggested that we talk to the elderly man who ran the store in town.  We visited with him but he wasn't able to help us. We worked our way back to the potential Sierant house and a different next door neighbor let us know that the family was out working the fields but would be back at lunch and he would tell them that some people from Canada were looking for them.  In the meantime, he gave us directions to get to the cemetery (which took us FOREVER to find) and headed over there.  We saw many Sierant stones which I took pictures of but the cemetery was larger than I imagined it would be and it was hotter than Hades so we did not walk through the entire thing.  The church was also locked up and the rector was not at home (we later found out he was probably teaching school).  Eventually we worked our way back to the house and sure enough we met our family:  Teresa, her husband Tadeusz and her sister Irene.  Teresa and Irene are the daughters of Andrej, my grandmother's brother.  Teresa and Tadeusz were living in Katazyna's house (my grandmother's sister).   We were so happy to meet them because we know so little about my grandmother's side - she was the only one from her family to immigrate to Canada.   During a great but too short visit, Teresa gave me the names of all of her siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins to help me with the family tree.  We showed them the pictures that we took in the cemetery but surprisingly none of the stones were for our close/direct ancestors.  Irene offered to take a break from harvesting and showed us the stones of my great grandparents, great aunts and great uncles. 
  The biggest surprise was my great grandfather's stone.  My great grandfather died when my grandmother was 13 and they were too poor to buy a gravestone.  After my grandmother came to Canada, she sent money to Poland so they could place a stone on her father's grave.  Something neither my aunt nor my dad knew.
  We were a little nervous at first about just showing up somewhere and asking people for help but we are so grateful that we did. We are thankful to have found so many kind people who were genuinely interested in helping us track down and reunite with family that we didn't know!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Trip to Poland - Part 2 - Traditions

I asked my relatives to give me some examples of family traditions.

 Janek inherited his farm from his father. He told me that he inherited the land because his younger brother Josef was emigrating to Canada.  I was surprised to hear that Joseph, the youngest would inherit the land and not Czeszek, the eldest.  Janek explained that the youngest always inherited the land because as each older sibling married, the younger siblings and their parents always helped the couple establish themselves in their new life.  By the time the youngest was ready to marry, his/her siblings already have farms of their own and the parents are older.  The youngest is given the established farm to give them their head start in life.
  When I asked Czeszek, his son Piotrek described a Christmas tradition that they continue to do every year.  On Christmas Eve, hay is brought into the house and set on the table (symbolizing Christ's birth in the stable). Oplatek (a wafer similar to communion host) is placed on the hay and everyone in the family breaks off a small piece and eats it.  The hay stays on the table until Dec 26 and is taken to the barn. Any small pieces of hay left in the house are swept up and burned.  I didn't ask if this was a widespread Polish tradition or one within our family only so I started to poke around the internet.  I was surprised at the number of websites that talked about this Polish Christmas tradition, that I had never heard of.  I found this website particularly interesting because it includes lots of interesting information about Poland including brief descriptions of the history of Poland throughout the ages:,319.html

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A trip to Poland - Part 1

 After 30+ years of talking about it, my aunt and I went to Poland.  After a 12 day organized tour with StayPoland (which I highly recommend) we visited Suchy Grunt, where my grandfather and the entire Furgal line dating back to at least the 1750s were born.  Our relatives honored us by allowing us to stay at their house for 3 days,  took us around to visit the cemetery where our ancestors are buried and to visit other relatives and neighbors who were willing to let me grill them with genealogy questions.  What an amazing trip.  My relatives were great and I learned things that I don't think I can learn anywhere else.  
  We stayed with Janek, my first cousin once removed.  He lives in the house his father (my grandfather's brother) built. I asked Janek  if the German came to Suchy Grunt in WWII.  It turns out they did and setup camp just to the right of the house, the camp kitchen was in front of the property.  When the Germans took over the area, they didn't kill the villagers only forced them to move to nearby Dabrowa.  They did however burn the house where my grandfather was born, which was just down the road.  When the Germans left (because they were scared of the Russians) the villagers were allowed to return to their homes (or what was left of them).
  I explained to Janek that when I queried some of our relatives in Ontario about how and when my great grandfather died, I was told that one day he went out to fight (in WWII) and he never came home, no one knows what happened to him.  I told him that my grandfather had mentioned he died around 1921 (and fought in WWI) which seemed more likely given that he was born in 1869.  Janek explained that my grandfather did die around 1921.  He went to a local fair, came home with a bad stomach ache, and then died.  Another relative, Czeszek later confirmed this story but he heard that my great grandfather wasn't at a fair but was working in the fields.  Grazyna (Janek's wife) took us to the cemetery where my ancestors are buried but she explained that no one knows where my great grandfather rests.  My great grandmother put a statue at the gravesite but someone took it and over time the spot was forgotten. 
  Visiting with Czeszek and his family was great too, he spent 8 months in Canada back in the early 1970s and impressed me with his ability still remember some of the English he learned.   He was able to give me some insight into how my grandfather ended up in Canada.  There was an office in Poland that was recruiting men.  I've learned a bit about Canadian Immigration through courses I have taken and I asked if the office paid his  passage.  I was surprised to hear that they didn't, the men had to come up with the $200 to pay their way. A pretty big amount, particularly for a man whose father died when he was 13 and his mother was left to raise 5 children.  When I asked how he got the money, Czeszek explained that my great grandmother sold everything she owned (except for one cow) for $150 and then she borrowed the remaining $50.  My grandfather paid her back in full but Czeszek also mentioned that when my grandfather first got here, the company sent him to a mountain near Hamilton to cut down trees for $1 a day.  The problem was, the company also charge the men $1 a day for food.  At some point my grandfather ended up out West for awhile before he made his way back east and settled permanently in Toronto. 
 Everyone I talked to was very quick to tell me how kind, generous and good my great grandmother was.    Grazyna took me to my family's ancestral property which my grandfather's sister Stephanie inherited and where her descendants now live.   I met Zofia who also lives there and she is the mother-in-law of one of Stephanie's sons.  Zofia remembers my great grandmother and explained that my great grandmother gave her sister and new husband a calf as a wedding present because they were very poor and needed something to give them a head start in life.  Czeszek and his sister Zofia both remember my great grandmother giving them an egg to take into town and sell so that they could buy candy.  Janek told me that after my great grandfather died, another man wanted to marry my great grandmother (who was 18 years younger than my great grandfather) but she declined because she did not want to put a bachelor in the position of supporting and raising her 5 kids.   Hats off to my great grandmother whose selflessness benefited so many people!