Sunday, October 25, 2009

Serendipity and Staro Gierniki

This is a story about serendipity and a pink Post-it. Serendipity basically means making a fortunate discovery by accident—kind of like good luck sprinkled with magic dust. Every genealogist I know has a favorite anecdote or two about the role serendipity has played in their research. We love to share these stories because they represent some inexplicable source of help in our quests to learn about our ancestors. To me, serendipity is like some guardian angel dropping a gift in my path, or pointing me in some surprising new direction and whispering in my ear, “Here, look right here!”

Serendipity brought me the pink Post-it affixed to the Scucin/Szczuczyn area of the Belarusian “Grodno and Environs” map shown here. About 12 years ago, when I was looking for contemporary maps of Belarus, I found this one (along with the Welcome to Belarus map detailed on October 21) online at a now-defunct Canadian Web site that I think was called I wanted to make a credit card purchase, and since there was no way to do a secure transaction online back then, I had to phone Ontario to provide my card number.

The young woman who answered the phone was quite personable, and I got the sense that this map store, whatever its size, was a warm and friendly operation. I took the opportunity to explain why I was buying these maps, and that I did not read Russian or Belarusian, so I didn’t know how well I would be able to understand this Grodno area map when it arrived.

“Do you know what villages you are looking for?” she asked.

“My grandmother’s village of Gierniki,” I said. “It’s near a small city called Szczuczyn.”

“Ah!” she replied. “No, no, not Gierniki. Your grandmother would have lived in Staro Gierniki. I will put a small label on the map for you, showing the name in the Cyrillic letters and in Polish. Now, are there other locations you would like identified?”

Stunned, I named a couple others, then asked, “But how do you know the village I’m looking for is called Staro Gierniki?” To distinguish when two neighboring and similarly named settlements were founded, Polish village names may be modified by staro (old) or nowo (new).

“That is where I am from, that area.  I know the village,” she said simply, as if it were an everyday occurrence for a young Belarusian expatriate in Canada to be handling a credit card transaction on the phone with a Polish American trying to locate a one-street village of 15 houses where her grandmother had been born in 1882.

Really, what are the odds of this happening?

I never learned that young woman’s name, but I think of her every time I see her carefully printed pink Post-its on my map.  Over the years, I have become familiar enough with the Cyrillic alphabet not to need these notes anymore, but I keep and treasure them as a testament to serendipity.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Map of Western Belarus: Hrodna (Grodno) Province, 1993

Shown here is most of Hrodna (Grodno) province in Belarus, bordered on the west by Poland and on the north by Lithuania. (For an enlarged view, click inside the map.)  Hrodna is a beautiful, historic old city with a population of about 325,000. About 65 miles (112 km) east of Hrodna (and about 60 miles south of Vilnius, Lithuania) is Lida, with a population of about 100,000. Midway between them is Scucyn (Szczuczyn), population 24,000. Both Lida and Scucyn have functioned as county or district seats at various points in time.

My maternal grandparents came from villages near Scucyn. The family of Aleksandr Prokopowicz lived in Kozarezy, about 7 miles east, and the family of Stefania Ruscik in Staro Gierniki, about 3 miles north of the city. I have traced their roots there back to the 1700s.

My paternal grandparents came from villages near Radun, a town of about 4,500 people, located about 18 miles northwest of Lida. Radun is only about 8 miles from the Lithuanian border and the small city of Eisiskes (Ejszyszki). The family of Julian Prokopowicz most recently resided in a series of small villages to the north and west of Radun; where they lived before the 1890s I do not yet know. The family of Anna Blaszko, however, has roots in Skladance back to at least 1810. That village is very close to Bastuny, east of Radun.

This map, Welcome to / Bienvenu en / Willkommen in Belarus (scale 1:800,000), was published by the Committee of Geodesy of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus in 1993. It is the first contemporary map of Belarus that I acquired, and I have stared at it so much, it’s amazing that I haven’t burned holes in the paper. Although it is not detailed enough to show my ancestral villages, this is my favorite map of today’s Belarus because, first and foremost, the city and town names are transliterated from Cyrillic Belarusian to Latin script, and the map legend is in English, French, and German, so I can read it. Dzieki boze! (Thank God!)

It shows important features like major and minor roads, railway lines, rivers, streams, lakes, forests (in green shading), and the “zone of radioactive contamination” from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine (horizontal orange stripes, very sobering to consider). The customs inspection points near Hrodna, Druskininkai, Salcininkai (Soleczniki), and Pahranieny are indicated by red circles crossed by red bars.

This map came folded in sections, and its creases are now so tattered I expect it to fall apart every time I pick it up. In retrospect, I wish I had made a full-size color copy while it was still in pristine condition. I acquired it 12 years ago through an online map store in Ontario, Canada. The store seems to have gone out of business, and I have never found another source for this map. Detailed English language maps of Belarus are rare. I also have a Ravenstein Verlag road map, Weiss-Russland / Belorussia / Bielorussie (1:750,000), which has locations labeled in both Latin and Cyrillic script and provides an extensive index.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I love maps. Love them, love them, love them. For me, genealogy is the perfect blend of many things I love: playing detective to solve mysteries and find the truth of a situation, organizing information so that the big picture is as understandable as the small detail, making cold calls to third cousins who have never heard of me, translating text from foreign languages into English, and spending hours poring over maps. I enjoy genealogy the most when it’s a good balance of show-and-tell, rich with old photos, vintage postcards, maps, and other illustrations that make names and dates come alive.

A photograph captures a moment in time. A postcard preserves a landscape, a building, a passenger ship that may no longer exist. A map identifies exactly where on Planet Earth a family lived hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away across an ocean. All these images carry enormous power. To me, they’re just plain magical. When I find a family village on a map and touch that place-name on that piece of paper (or stare at it on my computer screen), I feel like I am touching all the generations of my family who lived there. (In the interest of full personal disclosure here, I should note that if I could have one wish—excluding, of course, world peace—it would be time travel.)

Over the past 13 years, I’ve collected a variety of maps that illustrate the geographic area my Prokopowicz families have called home for hundreds of years. It is the Lida region in today’s western Belarus, populated predominantly by ethnic Poles. This territory at various times in history has been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, part of the Russian Empire, part of the Second Polish Republic, part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Depending on the era, maps may label this region Bialorus, Wilno gubernia, wojewodztwo wilenskie, wojewodztwo nowogrodskie, Byelorussia, Belarus. Many Poles still refer to it as part of the kresy, Poland’s eastern borderlands. The most detailed maps of the Lida area—the ones that identify even the smallest villages and hamlets—were created in Polish, German, and Russian. Since this area today shares borders with Poland and Lithuania, villages along the “frontier” are sometimes included in Lithuanian maps as well.

Coming next: Some maps of the Lida area. (A current map of Belarus and a map of Partitioned Poland are among my August 17 posts.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where They Came From

Wilno, Poland. For most of my life, that was as closely as I could pinpoint my grandparents’ birthplaces. I didn’t know that Poland did not exist on the map of Europe when they were born in the 1880s-90s, or that the Partitions of 1793-95 had carved up Polish territory to be claimed and governed by the Prussian (German), Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires. I didn’t know that Wilno was the name of a large province (gubernia) in the Russian Partition, as well as the province’s largest city. I didn’t know that my grandparents actually lived about 65 miles south/southwest of the city in rural villages within Wilno gubernia.

Looking back, I can’t decide whether I’m surprised or not that I knew so little about my grandparents’ birthplaces specifically and about their homeland generally. Growing up in a Polish American household that included my babcia (grandmother) Stefania, I had endless opportunities to ask for details about her early life. But for whatever reason, my babcia’s later years offered no obvious prompts to such conversations—no photos or mementos, no letters from family who had not emigrated, no documents, no stories related without prodding. She died when I was 15 and just on the cusp of a more meaningful curiosity about her past.

My Polish American education

As to Poland in general, it seems that I should have learned a lot academically about this complicated country since I attended a Polish American parochial school for 12 years (St. Mary’s in Worcester). For decades after its founding in 1915, St. Mary’s offered a bilingual curriculum with a strong concentration on all aspects of Polish heritage: language skills, history, the arts, and of course, religion. That emphasis had weakened by the 1950s, when I began elementary school. St. Mary’s offered us baby boomers three years of Polish in reading (I still own a copy of Moja Pierwsza Ksiazeczka) and religion (a bilingual Baltimore Catechism). From fourth grade to high school graduation, Polish was more typically limited to classroom prayers, choir practice, and cultural and religious events. We learned the Polish national anthem, Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginela ("Poland Is Not Yet Lost," first sung in 1795 when the country was partitioned), but we didn’t learn much about Poland’s very recent loss of lands, people, and freedom in World War II and its aftermath.

Where were Polish history and geography? I’m certain they were on the high school curriculum through the 1940s, when St. Mary’s was overseen by Monsignor Boleslaw Bojanowski, a pastor passionate about preserving Polish heritage through education. Certainly Poland’s critical wartime experiences kept the country in high profile in the classroom in that era. Why did Polish history and geography drop from the course of study so soon after? A couple possible reasons, not mutually exclusive, come to mind.

Monsignor Bojanowski, who was born in 1877, retired in 1956 and died eight years later. His waning influence and replacement by Reverend Charles Chwalek mirrored the larger experience of Worcester’s Polonia—the decline of the immigrant generation and the rise of the first generation of Polish Americans, whose lives teetered between ethnic continuity and mainstream assimilation. That generation may have felt more oriented to an American future than a Polish past.

It may be that our first-generation Polish American parents, nuns, and clergy envisioned us learning all about Poland through simple osmosis. After all, many of us grew up in Worcester’s three-deckers with our grandparents and extended family all living under the same roof. It seems that we could have learned a great deal informally from our immigrant elders in the course of daily life. Yet I never asked my babcia the name of her village in Wilno. At St. Mary’s, I learned the Polish national anthem when I was five years old (before the American anthem, if I remember correctly). I never learned the boundaries of the Polish Partitions, or where the Vistula and Niemen rivers flowed, or who was king in 1674. I knew precious little before I got involved in genealogy in 1996, so I was happily surprised to discover that my Polish American home and school life—growing up bilingual and bicultural—had given me a solid base for exploration.

More than map coordinates

Initially, I was thrilled to identify where my grandparents were born, to be able to point to the names of their villages on maps. Before long, though, I wanted to know more than latitude and longitude and administrative divisions. What was life like for them? What did the land look like? the houses? the clothing? What were the area’s resources? its lacks? How did the larger world impact these villages? Why did my grandparents leave?

Learning more about where my grandparents came from is an ongoing challenge. In general, small villages don’t tend to be the subject of detailed historical chronicles. Lengthy works on obscure villages in the Polish kresy (eastern borderlands) are rare, and those translated into English, rarer still. But resources exist in both languages (and in Russian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian as well, though regrettably I don’t read those languages). They range from 19th-century books to 21st-century Web sites, and often include maps, photos, and other illustrations that help bring the past to life. In my next entries here, I will share some information and images to paint a picture of where my grandparents came from: villages affiliated with the Roman Catholic parishes of Szczuczyn, Iszczolna, and Radun in Lida powiat (district) in Wilno gubernia (province) in the Russian Empire. This area fell within the borders of Poland when the nation regained its independence in 1918, but has been within western Belarus since 1945. Such are the vicissitudes of Polish history and geography, subjects that add depth to genealogy.