I’ve just finished reading Roots, by the late Alex Haley. For the uninitiated, Mr. Haley wrote his best selling book chronicling his “roots” back to a remote African village. He described his ancestors’ lives, how his great-great grandfather was captured in the jungles of Africa and taken on a slave ship to America where he worked as a slave on a Virginia plantation.
This book had me riveted from the beginning. It is a whopping 886 pages and I was reading upwards of a hundred pages per night. Couldn’t put it down. It was revealing for me. because I am doing roughly the same thing when I hit Poland in early March and later, Ukraine.
I realized that Mr. Haley had to take some artistic license because there is no way anyone could remember details over two centuries about what someone specifically said or what color a dress was. This gives me a bit of freedom in my attempts to describe certain events. After all, it is the basic facts that matter. If all I do is recite facts, then I’m being a reporter, not a writer. I will use the information I have, the information I was given and the information I’m able to acquire in order to write what I hope will be a compelling work discussing a family’s escape from war-torn eastern Europe to the safety and prosperity of North America.
It’s been difficult trying to figure out how to write a total book based on the information I’ve got so far. I’ve been researching WWI and it’s devastating impact on Poland. I’ve been researching refugee ships heading to America. I’ve found passenger lists with my family’s name. I’ve got death and marriage certificates. I’ve even uncovered a family secret that I believe no one else in the family knew, save for my maternal grandparents.
It is pretty much a given that I won’t be able to visit Bremen, Germany, most likely my family’s point of departure for London (the port of departure from Europe) and Quebec the port of arrival in North America. Got that? Krakow-Bremen-London-Quebec. I doubt I will be visiting London either, to find information on the shipping companies. Even visiting Calgary is probably out of the question. I will have to try to find information online about my family–addresses, school records, birth certificates. I did find the address of my family’s first address in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Checking Google Maps, I found the house which, of course, has been altered. Yet knowing they lived there after fleeing Poland was very exciting.
Each bit of information helps to complete the puzzle. Each document, each photograph helps everything come together. Waiting for my departure to Poland is driving me a bit nuts. I wish I had decided to leave sooner. My reason for not doing so was due to the weather; it’s quite cold now and they’re still getting snow. I did not relish the prospect of trudging through the snow and ice on my way to a church or government office. I didn’t want to get stuck in an out of the way town if the weather turned while I was in some bleak hall reading documents.
And, when it comes right down to it, I don’t think I’ll be spending that much time in Krakow. I already have a lot of information which (I hope) will grease the skids in my search. My grandmother was born in Rosvausch, Poland which looks to be about 1-2 hours east of the city, maybe farther. I cannot find “Rosvausch” on any map of Poland. However, I can find “Rzeszow” which could be the Polish representative of our Anglicized version. It’s entirely plausible that my family, speaking only Polish, in their attempts to communicate, tried to enunciate their town and the clerk wrote what he thought he understood them to say.
The city of Rzeszow, ironically enough, is on the highway to Lviv! And this starts to get me excited. How did my grandparents meet? Rzeszow looks to be about midway between Lviv and Krakow. Chances are my grandmother rarely went to the big city. I’m surmising that they were probably quite poor and that she remained in her general area. Did my grandfather seek to escape the instability of Austria-Hungary by heading to North America? Did he sense war was inevitable? Was Russia biting at his heels? Or was he just on a quest to get the hell out of Europe and on to the Promised Land, only to find his soul mate along the way in Rosvausch? The excitement builds in my soul.
What pushed him to Poland? When did they get married? Was his goal always North America? Why Canada? Why not the U.S.? Most refugees flooded into America, millions via Ellis Island. He left for Canada in 1912 at the age of 34. Did he meet my grandmother along the way and fall in love and convince her to follow him? He left the same year my aunt was born which was quite nervy to say the least–leaving his wife and infant daughter with the acrid thickness of war in the air.
Damn! I can’t wait to get to Poland.
And I have a feeling that most of the information I get will be in Poland. I have no info on my grandfather save for his birthday. I don’t know his parents’ names, my paternal great-grandparents. No idea of his religion or his occupation in Ukraine. Did he finish school? How far did he go? Did he get a university education? If so, he would be targeted most likely for extermination because the “intelligentsia” are usually the first to be murdered in any despotic uprising. They are the ones who push for reforms and freedoms and who are more liberal in their political leanings. Will I find any of this in Ukraine when I visit after Poland? How many archives are available?
So the possibilities are endless–or seem to be. Poland looms ever closer, ever more fascinating in the potential it holds. Even if the truth isn’t necessarily gripping, it’s still the truth. I’m finding out, for myself anyway, how fascinating and completing it is to know more details about my origins. It’s fantastic to know what all these people went through and how it culminated in my existence. Chance? Grand design?