Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Marching Through Siberia

American history students generally focus on "our" wars: the Revolution, Civil War, the "Great War," WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, and now Iraq 1 & 2. How much do we know about Japanese history, outside of WWII? The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 included many ethnic Poles among the 300,000 troops who were transported across Siberia to the Manchurian front in the winter of 1904. Family lore has it that our grandfather, Piotr Szymanowicz, was conscripted by the Cossacks and traveled to Harbin, and probably further toward the front. Before he died, his remarks about being in China were recorded in the hospital record. This may have been "his" war.

Nothing is known about Peter's early life in Poland. The vital records in his own hand are his date of birth, recorded on his petition for Naturalization, his parents' names, recorded on his Social Security application, his marriage, his children. We have no information about any siblings. The ship manifest says his last place of residence was Siedlce, which was the Polish province south of the Bug River. He was a fisherman who came from a fishing region.

Born in 1881, he would have been 23 when the Japanese attacked the Chinese coast at Port Arthur in February 1904. The Russians may have wanted a diversion from domestic political unrest, and wanted to secure the valuable trading center of Harbin, but their participation in the war went badly and became very costly. The Navy suffered from the length of the trip from the west to the East China Sea, and the infantry was seriously delayed coming across Siberia in the winter. Was Peter among them? The photo came from Google images, but it gives an idea of what they might have looked like at that time.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Szymanowicz Family in Northampton MA

Fifteen years after arriving at Ellis Island, Peter Szymanowicz and his wife Valerie purchased a home and opened a neighborhood store on the corner of Holyoke and Hawley Streets in Nothampton, MA. Their children attended local schools and were becoming more Americanized as time went by. They continued to speak Polish at home, and among friends and family in the local ethnic community.

Workers were needed in the early 1900s in the farms and factories and they were recruited from Canada and Eastern Europe. Witold Zawacki, the first of the family to arrive in this country, chose industry. When Peter left the mills of Easthampton, his corner grocery still depended to some extent on another factory; the Belding Silk Mill was located nearby on Hawley Street and the store provided sandwiches and snacks to the workers.

When he turned 18 in 1926, their oldest son Benny, who was born in Poland, filed a Declaration of Intent to become a United States citizen. He described himself as a store clerk, 5 feet, 5 inches tall, 130 pounds, with light brown hair and blue gray eyes. He was described in the City Directories in later years as a restaurant worker, working for Federated Baking Company, and later as a gas station attendant.

Valerie also filed her Declaration and later, the Petition for Naturalization in 1929. She described herself as 5 feet 4 inches tall, 159 pounds, with brown hair and eyes; a housewife. Her friends Theresa Golash and Mary Borowski were her witnesses. Peter's Petition was witnessed by John Franchi and Antoni Zaleski, both of Easthampton, also in 1929.

The Szymanowicz family first belonged to St. John Cantius parish on Hawley Street, which served the large Polish American community. In 1931 a large group left the church in a disagreement with the pastor's "tyrannical" attitude. Some of them founded the Polish National Church on King Street. Valerie transferred her family to Sacred Heart church and school on King Street, a predominantly French parish. The boys served on the altar. Henry, John and Joe made their first communion at Sacred Heart on 28 May 1933 and were confirmed on 30 April 1936.

In 1936 the Connecticut River valley experienced its worst flood in at least 100 years, when ice jams in the river combined with torrential rains and frozen ground. Flood waters rose on Hawley Street and the inventory of the Szymanowicz grocery was ruined. The family salvaged some of the unlabeled canned goods and had "mystery meals" for weeks after. But the toll taken by the storm was much worse. Benny contracted an infection during the clean-up after the storm and died 15 April 1936 in Dickinson Hospital. At 27 he was a member of the Knights of Columbus, who served as poll bearers. He was buried at St. Stanislaus cemetery in Easthampton.

On 26 November 1936 Valerie died of ovarian cancer at the age of 47. The date was Thanksgiving Day. Her obituary states that she died "after a short illness," but she had been seen by a surgeon in Boston who determined that the condition was inoperable. The obituary enumerates her membership at Sacred Heart Church, Our Lady of Czestokowa Society, the Polish Women's Alliance of America, the Polish Roman Catholic Union, St. Anne Society of Easthampton, and the Polish National Alliance Wolna Polska of Northampton, which were represented at her funeral. She was buried with her son in Easthampton.

After Valerie's death, 20-year-old Jennie assumed the household duties for the family. Charlie was working in Connecticut. Bert was 16; Henry was 13; the twins 11. Jennie worked in a variety of jobs around Nothampton during the following years. She was a waitress at Smith College between 1937 and 1938. In 1938 the Belding Silk Mill closed and so did the Szymanowicz' store.

Bert was the first of the children to graduate from high school. The Nothampton High School year book in 1938 said, "Her composure and wit never fail her even at the most critical moments." As a senior she was on the staff of the Students' Review and was listed as Advertising Manager, and was photographed with the Literary Club and Science Club. She then attended Smith College and graduated in 1942. After Henry and Joe graduated from high school in 1943, Peter sold their home. He was 62 and moved to an apartment on Main Street above the store fronts with his children Jennie, Henry and John. John joined the Navy after graduation in 1944, as Joe had in 1943. Thus the next chapter of the Szymanowicz family closed after 18 years of home ownership.

Drohiczyn nad Bugiem, Our Polish Roots

Detailed gazetteers of historic Poland give valuable insight to the land our ancestors left behind. Because the information was compiled only a few years before the wave of migration from Eastern Europe, it provides a snapshot of their home town. I found a great deal of information in
Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich : Warszawa 1880-1902. T. 1-15 or Geographic Dictionary of the Former Kingdom of Poland and other Slavic Lands.

Drohiczyn-laki, on the east bank of the Bug River, was within the Bielsko region, Grodno Govern. The population was 1,402, having grown from 173 residents in 1800. The demographics consisted of 682 men and 720 women; 384 Catholics, 498 Jews, and 530 Russian Orthodox. There was one Catholic church, two orthodox Churches, and a school up to third grade.

The Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity was established about 1350. In 1660 the Jesuits had established a "collegium" and high school. There were 285 students in 1784. There were also ruins of a seventeenth century castle.

The town was populated by farmers and fishermen, boasting one windmill and no industry. A large farmers market was held four times a year. The community was often flooded by the river. A ferry provided access across the river.

Today, Drohiczyn is a seat of the Roman Catholic Bishopric. There are three church-monastery complexes from the 16th and 18th centuries. A small Jewish cemetery remains in Drohiczyn. although there are no longer Jewish inhabitants. The oldest known grave stone is from 1876.

Between Niemirow and Drhoiczyn, this portion of the Bug River is known as the Podlaski Gorge. River trips are offered by boat or barge, where travelers can view "its lofty banks where towns with magnificent pasts and historical monuments are situated."

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor

Piotr Szymanowicz arrived at Ellis Island in New York on 29 March 1910. The 28-year-old immigrant had $33 in his pocket, according to the ship's passenger list. He had left the port of Antwerp, Belgium eleven days earlier, in steerage aboard the steam ship Kroonland. His first name is recorded as Franz on the manifest. His occupation is entered as fisherman, his "race" as Polish, and his prior place of residence as Siedlce, Russia. He was recorded as being 5 feet, 7 inches tall with brown hair and brown eyes

Piotr was no wide-eyed boy when he sailed into New York harbor 100 years ago. He had been conscripted by the Russian Army and traveled as far as Harbin, in Manchuria. He had a young family and set off from the small village on the Bug River to make a better life for them.

Piotr is believed to have been born on 29 June 1881 in Drohiczyn Russia/Poland. He was the son of Jozef Szyanowicz and Zofia Kapuca. They were fisherman, and his sons remembered his ability to tie string into nets in later life. When he was 24, Piotr married Walerya Zawacka in the local Catholic Church in Drohiczyn on 19 January 1906. Their first child, Kazimierz, was born in Drohiczyn on 4 August 1907, followed by another son, Bonifacy, born 21 December 1908. Their first son died before his second birthday, on 16 June 1909.

Jadwiga Zawacka, Piotr's 19 year-old sister-in-law, had accompanied him on his journey to this country. When they arrived in the United States, their destination was Easthampton, Massachusetts. They were to join Witold Zawacki, Jadwiga and Walerya's brother, who lived at 2 Harrison Avenue in that city. Witold was employed at the West Boyleston Manufacturing Company. Peter also secured employment at the cotton mill, and sent for his wife and young son.

Walerya and her year-old son departed Antwerp five months after Piotr, on 13 August 1910 aboard the SS Finland. The Kroonland and the Finland were sister ships of the Red Star Line. When they arrived in New York ten days later, Walerya was recorded on the ship's manifest as 5 feet, 3 inches tall with fair hair and blue eyes at 22 years of age. Her previous residence was listed as "Rygican" (Drohiczyn?) Grodiev. She could not read or write.

The strong manufacturing climate in Easthampton at the turn of the last century attracted many Polish workers. City directories list Piotr, later "Peter" as employed by West Boyleston Manufacturing Company or Easthampton Rubber Thread Company. Their residences near the factories were likely owned by the mills. Walerya's other brothers, Karol and Waclaw (Karl and Walter), followed her to Easthampton and had families nearby.

The family grew in Easthampton for the next 15 years. The children born to Piotr and Walerya are recorded in Easthampton, and in the records of Sacred Heart parish, a church built in 1909 to serve the Polish population. Their children were:

  • Casimir, born 17 April 1912, baptized 21 April with godparents Stanislaus Kozakiewicz and Ludowica Kosakowaka.
  • Janina Helen, born 20 October 1916, baptized 29 October with godparents Wenceslaus Zawacki and Francisca Florczyk.
  • Bronislava, born 7 June 1920, baptized 13 June with godparents George Mancruk and Jadwiga Szysko.
  • Henry, born 9 August 1923, baptized 19 August with godparents John Szysko and Sophia Bednarz.
  • Joseph (twin) born 1 August 1925, baptized 1 August 1925 with godparents Anthony Guodj and Mary Storogoj.
  • John (twin) born 1 August 1925, baptized 9 August 1825 with godparents John Franchi and Antonio Lagonska.

In 1919 Walerya "Valerie" became a founding co-president of the local Polish Women's Alliance of America, Group 289 of Easthampton. She served with Dr. Julia Bauman. The national headquarters in Illinois has not retained records from this period. She was also a member of the Saint Anne's Society of Sacred Heart church, which was founded in 1917. A parish school was constructed and opened in 1919, and enrollment for eight grades in 1921 totaled 500 students. A convent was later constructed in 1922 for the Franciscan teaching sisters. Benny, Charlie and Jenny probably attended this school.

Peter filed a Declaration of Intent to become a United States citizen in Hampshire County Superior Court on 3 November 1923. He described himself as 5 feet 7 inches tall with dark brown hair and blue eyes. This important step toward "ownership" in their new country was followed by the purchase of a home and business in Northampton, Massachusetts on 1 September 1925. The home on the corner of Holyoke and Hawley Streets included 1/10 acres and was subject to a mortgage to the sellers for $3,500 as well as $2,500 to the Northampton Institute for Savings.

Fifteen years after arriving in this country with only $33 and a dream of a better life, the Szymanowicz family and their six American children were ready for the next chapter.