Last weekend, following Question Cathy's lead, I reached the "signed up for a free trial of" level of cabin fever. Don't worry, I canceled in time.

It wasn't that I found the process uninteresting. There simply wasn't that much to learn. I confirmed what I already knew: everyone in my lines of ancestry is from Poland. And I mean everyone. There's none of this "Well I'm 1/16 Irish" stuff. It's all Poland.

Additionally, there is nothing to be found much earlier than 1900. The paper trail starts when they arrived in the U.S. as immigrants. The documents (Army draft cards, immigration records, passports, naturalization paperwork, etc.) reflect the root of the problem – each person has a different birth date on almost every document. These were illiterate or barely literate people. They didn't even know with certainty their own birth dates, which was not uncommon in that era. And they inhabited a part of the world where written records that survived are not exactly ample. Some European countries like the U.
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K. seem to have a long and well-preserved tradition of records. Poland, which was overrun and traded among rival European powers for centuries, does not.

The other unsurprising find is that I descend from lines of entirely unremarkable people for the most part. I suppose everyone does genealogy hoping and expecting to find interesting stories or rich and famous long-lost relatives. I didn't harbor any illusions, but it's incredible the extent to which everyone prior to my dad (who was born in the U.S. and went to college) we were all…peasants, I guess. Because that's what the overwhelming majority of human history has been – anonymous people living anonymous lives trying to fend off death long enough to reproduce. My ancestors did what almost everyone's ancestors did for generations. They worked with their hands and their lower backs and aside from children they left essentially nothing to indicate that they ever lived.
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But here's the interesting part.

Many key people from my father's lineage hail from a place I'd never heard of called Bolestraszyce in southeastern Poland. I looked it up on a map.

Ethnicity and nationality are funny things. For all the family members who lived long enough for me to meet them, our ethnic identity as Poles has been extremely important to them. Polacks tend not to broadcast it in the same way that, say, Irish or Italian Americans do (like on t-shirts, for example) but like anyone else they seem to consider it a core part of their identity. And looking at that map, I can't help but laugh a little at how silly it is. Had they been born a few miles to the east, everything they ever felt about being Polish would have been Ukrainian. A little farther south and it would have been generations of Slovak pride.

Now, I know the borders in that area of the world have shifted around a lot, and there is more to the concept of an ethnic identity than to a national one. Plenty of people are living in X despite being Ethnic Y's. I just think about all the minor changes that could have taken what I believe is a long line of people in that area a few miles one way or the other. Would I feel any differently about myself if I were the exact same person, but "Ukrainian"?

Probably? I don't know. My guess is that whatever need ethnic identity fulfills for us psychologically can work regardless of which identity is involved. The cultural cues are different (Ukrainian churches are…something else) but fundamentally all of these people would have been the same. Jog the border a little bit one way or the other on a piece of land in modern Poland that has been Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and a half dozen other nation-states that no longer exist and I can't imagine that the long-term outcomes across generations would matter much.

Perhaps the biggest difference would have been in immigration patterns. European immigrants famously had preferences for going where their ethnic predecessors went. Chicago was heavy on Poles and Slavic people in general. Ukrainians appear to have preferred staying on the East Coast, in the New York to Philadelphia belt. So maybe they wouldn't have gone to Chicago, and thereby everything would be different for me. Maybe I wouldn't even be here. But holding all else constant (I know, I know, it's a hypothetical) I can't imagine feeling fundamentally different about myself if I found out I was descended from people born on the opposite side of the metaphorical street.

25 thoughts on “NPF: A MATTER OF INCHES”

  • In the early 70s, there was a detective show called Banacek, starring George Peppard. The ads for the show featured the announcer mispronouncing his name whereupon, he stopped rowing the boat he was in, turned to the camera and corrected the announcer's pronunciation. That show resulted in a flurry of Polish pride, at least in my area. 'Thank God I am Polish' tshirts, even 'Kiss me I am Polish'. Annual packed out St Stanislaus Festivals and Polish festivals. One guy I worked with, whose family had previously changed their name so it wouldn't sound so polish, took to proudly calling himself by the old name.

  • Cackalacka says:

    Given what happened to the Ukrainian/Polish border in 45, not sure if a matter of inches is necessarily the right word.

  • SeaTea1967 says:

    I'm a genealogist, and while I'm not really familiar with the actual Polish-language records from (now) Poland, I am VERY familiar with the Prussian records from (now) Poland. The Polish national archives are HUGE and rich and almost zero of the records are on Ancestry.

    The name you mention does pop up in a search, so it's not impossible there's a lot to find if you can dig around:

  • Chris Gerrib says:

    Well, some Ukrainians made it to Chicago – Ukrainian Village is a neighborhood here.

  • My mom is from Germany. She had half a dozen siblings and the oldest one would get a lot of crap from her other relatives when they were growing up. One day my great grand mother took my mom aside and explained to her why everybody hated on her oldest sister. Apparently one day while my grandmother (who was a young girl at the time) was out working in the fields one of the men pulled her into some bushes and raped her and the oldest sister was the result.

    And it blows my mind to think how close I am to being a peasant toiling in a field like that.

  • My wife once worked for a guy named "Blank". Per him, his actual family name was some sort of all-consonants-plus-a-y Polish name and family lore was that when great-grandfather came through Ellis island his poor grasp of english lead him to misinterpret the "Fill in the blank for your name" directive from the immigration officer.

    My own family tree offers two different spellings of our last name…

    (And I loved Banacek as a kid. Even caught some episodes more recently on cable and was mildly surprised at how well it held up…some series from back then don't at all…)

  • My father's parents met in the U.S. but immigrated here around 1900 from what is now Slovakia.

    He told me that they were determined to be American, cutting all ties with the homeland and raising their kids as Americans.

    My mother immigrated from France just before I was born. She too identified as an American.

    So, ethnic or national origin were just never a thing in our house. I tune out folks who thump their chests over national or cultural identities, particularly those from third generations and higher. Same goes for Texans.

  • My great great grandfather moved from Finland to the U.S. but made a stop in Norway for a few years. My great grandfather was too young to go to school before he got to the U.S. but his bothers were old enough. There's a whole branch of the family which considers themselves Norwegian.

  • Don't forget about Lithuania. Poland baptized us (RC), when we were content with being pagans! In addition, we united during "Union of Lublin":

    In addition to "Bloodlands", a terrific history book covering the 15th and 16th centuries is contained in : Tannenberg and after : Lithuania, Poland, and the Teutonic Order in search of immortality by William Urban.

    Chicago has the largest concentration of Lithuanian descent outside of Lithuania. I am the first generation American of the "displaced person" diaspora and was raised in that culture. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, even more Lithuanians have emigrated to the US

    BTW Enjoy your blog and follow you the "The Baffler" and other publications

  • Poland’s lesser-known but equally satisfying colleague of Kafka and Bulgakov is Gombrowicz, primarily with ”Ferdydurke”. Lots of Poles in London for many years, most notably Joseph Conrad.

    Growing up in the U.K. it Irish jokes were de rigeur (between pub bombings). I never understood upon moving to the States for high school why or how the stock ethnic butt here was “polack” jokes.

  • My wife started doing her genealogy a few years ago. Learned a lot. We already knew her father was from Yugoslavia. But we ended up finding out that while her grandmother was Pascua Yaqui, the entire rest of her mother’s side of the family were Arbëreshë Refuges who settled in Sicilia, with documented roots going back into the 15th century. It took years and a number of trips, but I was honestly blown away going to her ancestral town of Piana degli Albanesi, and seeing how complete and easy to access, birth and family records were, compared to even getting her great grandfather’s certificate of non-naturalization from Los Angeles County, or their immigration records from New York State. I suppose it makes sense in a way, the Eastern European ethnic identity passion, coupled with the Italian focus on family and history, created a practical bear trap for records. She has a consulate appointment in June to claim JS citizenship for her and the kids. Plan B firmly in place.

  • I used to work with a guy who claimed his 90 year old Hungarian uncle had lived in five different countries without ever moving out of the house he was born in. He said he joked that he had to check the flag over the post office to see who to pay his taxes to.

  • CarolineLaffs says:

    Even tho I'm only 1/4 Polish (3rd gen here), I have one of those "polish" faces that cause studdabubbas and recent immigrants/native polish speakers to start chatting at me expecting comprehension (all I've got is gramma and southside american polish – and that's way faded). Family history (that 1/4 part) is further complicated by the ever-movable border in SE Poland that you're talking about, and yet, if I'm in a mixed group of eastern europeans (which happens in Chicago a lot more than elsewhere) – we can easily pick out each other's ethnic-derivation, down to to the RC vs Jewish level – my 1/4 part has also been accused of being "secret jews" – but that's another freakish aspect of the insanity that defines/divides all these movable (your point) identities and cultures…and whatever they still mean to people generations physically removed from whatever that origin ever really meant (other than peasantry, poverty, and roving rape gangs and pogroms), there's no castle waiting for me to claim it.

  • Well, seeing as how 1/2 my family is from Sanok (maybe 50km from Bolestraszyce), you relatives may have left behind some legacy. Perhaps they mistreated mine ;)

    [The other half is on the *other* side of Bolestraszyce — Ukraine and maybe Belarus.]

    Our ethnic pride–if not cultural—is largely in that we've been booted from every country we've ever lived in. The aforementioned, and, most noteworthy, Germany.

  • Might be useful to think about all the opportunities for "Genetic diversity" go along with war, think about what young men get up to and it largely deflates ideas like "Ethnic purity". My ancestry, according to "23 and me" is German, UK and Ireland, French and whatever else was loose in northwestern Europe, FWIW, I think we're better for it.

  • Racial purity went out the window when Adam had his dalliance with Lucy who was visiting his Garden from the Olduvai Gorge. Word is, Eve was verklempt!

  • Because that's what the overwhelming majority of human history has been – anonymous people living anonymous lives trying to fend off death long enough to reproduce.

    I was decades old before this same thought occurred to me.
    About the time I decided religion was a crock and there is no afterlife.
    So, I'm slow, but I got there.
    Still unsure whether to be relieved or pissed.

  • xjmuellerlurks says:

    My mom's side of the family is german from Burgenland in Austria (50 miles south of Vienna?). Before WWI, there were Hungarian, Croatian (maybe Slovenian?), and German villages in the area. Grandma went to work in Budapest as a young woman, not Vienna. After WWI most folks thought Burgenland would go to Hungary during the empire breakup, but it stayed in Austria. (There are no more Hungarians or Croat villages there.) When Grandma and Grandpa moved to Chicago around 1905 they settled in the Back of the Yards area. It was just like the old country but instead of ethnic villages, it was Catholic parishes that were the ethnic centers.

    That's mostly gone now as the younger generations don't identify closely with their immigrant roots. It's funny to think that my grandma would let my mom date an "italian" guy, but my sibs and I married whomever we wanted. My kids are part german, irish, italian, and english. They're Gen-X and early millennial. They don't think of themselves in european ethnic terms. They have other tribes that they belong to now.

  • NotConnell says:

    Similar experience here, my family are Black Sea Germans that worked the fields in the Russian Empire (Now Ukraine, maybe part of Russia again) with the blessing of Catherine the Great. Almost no family records, someone lost the family bible, and our modern family story picks up in Liverpool, UK with my great grandfather getting the fuck outta Europe a few years before WW1. Good call on his part. I have to wonder if my nagging feeling about leaving the US is a hereditary trait.

  • HaroldFoop says:

    If your family was from near Przemysl, their Polishness had nothing to do with geography and everything to do with religion. First of all, at the (assumed) time of their emigration, Poland did not exist as an independent state; in the interwar years, the Polish border lay a long way further east. And there would have been "Ukrainians" in the vicinity, probably even in the same town, whose national identity was entirely determined by their religious affiliation – to the Eastern Church and not to the Catholic one. Poland was forcibly moved westwards after 1945, losing its eastern territories to the USSR and gaining formerly German Silesia and Pomerania, with the Germans chased out and the "Poles" (Catholics) of the eastern border regions resettled there. Then, "Action Vistula" in 1946-47 was the new Communist government's excuse, based on the fight against remnants of the pro-Nazi Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the southeast, to engage in its own ethnic cleansing of the ethnicities adhering to the Eastern Church. Those designated as Ukrainian in the prewar nationality classification were sent to the USSR, the 'Lemko' ethnicity (speaking a Polish dialect but Greek Catholic in religion) were forced into the emptied German towns of Silesia.
    More than the vicissitudes of history, this shows just how strong religious endogamy can shape genetic outcomes.

  • HaroldFoop says:

    Re: Ronzie

    The elderly Hungarian, assuming he lived in Ruthenia, could have lived by some counts in six different countries:
    – Austro-Hungarian empire (until 1918)
    – Czechoslovakia (1918-1939)
    – 'Independent Republic of Subcarpathia' (a pseudo-state for about two weeks following the Nazi dismemberment of Czechoslovakia)
    – Kingdom of Hungary (1939-1945)
    – USSR, Ukrainian SSR (1945-1991)
    – Ukraine (1992- )

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