Where They Lived: Every Address Tells a Story

(Original Image and Text, Copyright (c) 2010 Cynthia Shenette) Back in June I started blogging about my aunt Helen Bulak's 1937 trip to Poland. Unfortunately, due to an unexpected and extended trip of my own, my plan to write regular posts about her trip using photos, memorabilia, and entries from her travel diary was waylaid. Our document analysis assignment for the 98th COG provides the perfect opportunity to get back on track and re-immerse myself in my research. It also offers the opportunity to take a look at a "document" that frankly doesn't look like much, but despite its appearance provides a significant amount of information. I'd also like to briefly mention three of my favorite resources for locating information on people and places in Warsaw, Poland. I would not consider one to be a "traditional" genealogy resource, yet it provides a unique source of information not found elsewhere.

When I started researching my family history about seven or eight years ago I knew little about my grandfather Adolf Szerejko's family in Poland. I knew that my grandfather came from Warsaw, that some of his family were killed during World War II, and that family still lived in Warsaw at least up until the 1960's or 1970's.

Most people know Warsaw and Poland suffered significant losses during World War II. After the Warsaw Uprising in August and September of 1944 the city was systematically destroyed by its Nazi occupiers and the surviving population was relocated to camps of one sort or another for the remainder of the war. The human, cultural, and historical losses suffered by the people of Warsaw was immense. Because of these losses research into the lives of 20th century Warsaw ancestors presents its own unique set of challenges. Records and repositories were destroyed. Churches and church records were destroyed. Until recent years churches, if they survived, were not required to retain records. Family records were destroyed. What's a genealogist to do?

Using a variety of sources--photos, the Ellis Island database, vital records, family letters, and e-mail correspondence with a long-lost cousin--I've managed to discover quite a bit of information about the family in Poland. My Aunt Helen stayed with my grandfather's brother, Feliks Szerejko, and his family when she visited Warsaw in 1937. I know from her travel diary that she visited other family members as well. When I first found my Aunt Helen's diary I also found a folded piece of paper with family addresses tucked inside. The address list and the travel diary, together, provide a significant amount of information about my grandfather's family in Warsaw.

At first glance, what does the address list tell me? There are four addresses from Warsaw. Three are for my grandfather's brothers--Feliks, Jan, and Henryk. This tells me the three brothers are still alive as of August of 1937. When I compare the names with what is in the diary and the names on the backs of my photos, I can put a name and and identity to a face. The final address is for my grandfather's aunt, Julja Bileska. I have photos of a Julja Bielska, and I know my great-grandmother's name was Jozefa Bielska, so my guess is Julja and Jozefa were sisters. In parentheses is the word Ciocia, Polish for aunt. That pretty much confirms it for me. Feliks' address is listed as ul. (ulica or street) Dzialdowska 8-37. I learned from my cousin Marek, who grew up in the greater Warsaw area, that
ul. Dzialdowska is in the Wola district of the city. Henryk's address is listed Grochow (the district) and Omulewska (the street) and Warszawa (the city). Julja Bielska is listed as living at ul. Kopernika 31-7.

When doing research in World War II Warsaw, knowing the district where someone lived can be very important. My mom told me Feliks' wife Leokadia was killed during World War II--the Germans shot her and everyone else in their apartment building. I have no idea when and why this happened. Since Feliks and Leokadia lived in the Wola district, I suspect this may have happened as part of the
Wola Massacre during the Warsaw Uprising. After doing some research, I have discovered there were barricades, fighting, and mass executions in the area of ul. Dzialdowska. In this case knowing the district where a street is located also provides significant background information about the inhabitants of the street.

If I want to locate one of these addresses on a map what would I do? So much of Warsaw was destroyed during the war. How do I know where these places are or use to be? A couple of years ago I found a unique source,
Fotoplan '35. Fotoplan '35 is part of larger resource, Warszawa 1939. The fotoplan contains fragments of an aerial photograph of Warsaw taken in 1935. The folks at Warszawa 1939 are using the fotoplan to document pre-war architecture in Warsaw. If you click on a section you can look at architecture for that area. Red indicates buildings that are no longer there. Green indicates buildings which still exist.

Fotoplan '35 is in Polish. When I use it I pop it into
Google Translate which does a pretty decent job translating what I need to know. Unfortunately not all of the addresses I need are available on the fotoplan, however I did locate Julja Bielska's home. I found ul. Kopernika on Google Maps, then I checked the fotoplan for that part of the city. When you hover over a building, the building number appears. With a little persistence and patience I found number 31! One of the photos of ul. Kopernika 31 was taken in 1941. It amazes me to think that Julja may have been in the building the day the photo was taken. I have not yet, but plan to use it to try to locate churches near ancestral homes, to try to figure out which churches family members may have attended. I can then check to see if the churches and/or church records still exist.

Another resource I have found helpful is the
1938/39 Warsaw Telephone Directory. It's an incredibly interesting resource. It's also incredibly sad. I look at the lists of names, particularly the all the Jewish names, and wonder about the fate of all of those people. What happened to them? As a whole, the telephone directory provides snapshot in time, a picture of Warsaw society as it existed on the eve of World War II. Unfortunately I did not find my specific family members in the telephone directory. It is reasonable to think that not everyone had a telephone at that time. I did, however, find some of the surnames I'm looking for. I can follow up on the names listed, do a surname study, and try to make a connection between the people in the phone book and my known relatives.

One other resource I have found helpful is the Polish version of Wikipedia. I do offer a word of caution when using either Wikipedia or the Polish version of Wikipedia. Wikis by nature are compiled by people like you and me. Some people do careful research and cite their sources. Some people don't. When I use Wikipedia I usually look to see if the person who wrote the entry cites their sources and provides external links. Do I notice any glaring errors? That said, why do I like the Polish version of Wikipedia? The Polish version often provides more information on topics relating to Poland. Here is the
English version of the entry for the Wola district, and here is the Polish version for the the entry. The Polish version has more information and related links which is often the case.

One final tip when looking for family in Warsaw, or Poland for that matter. If you have an old address, consider sending a letter to the to the address, even if it's a pre-war address. My experience has been that if people returned to Warsaw, they often returned to the same area or even the same address once they were able to.

When it comes to research, I believe in documenting and verifying as much as I possibly can. Unfortunately research in Warsaw presents some unique challenges. I may never find the records I'm looking for. I may never be able to document my research or have sources to cite. It's something that I have to accept. It doesn't mean I won't keep trying though. Sometimes the information is there. We just need to be creative to find it.


Nolichucky Roots said...

Wonderful explanation of the vale of less common resources. Helpful in any research, especially where war has destroyed records. Thanks for some great ideas.

J.M. said...

A great post. I admire your perseverance.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Hi Ladies - Thank you so much for your nice comments. Doing research in 20th century Warsaw definately presents challenges. I've made contact with family, and I will say they have been my best source for information. Sadly, as far as documentation--photos, letters--I think I have more than they do. Much of what they had was destroyed during the war, or they were afraid to keep during the Soviet Cold War era. That's another post on it's own...

Kristin said...

Your research is so good. I think following these posts about the war one after another is getting me down though so I may have to come back later to read more.