Ghosts of distant past: looking for relatives in 19th century Poland (Part I)

It’s almost midnight, and I’m supposed to be in bed, but my head is buzzing like a group of ravenous bumblebees because I found a picture of a graveyard monument. Yes, when you spend months holed up in a tiny room on the outskirts of Paris things could get even stranger. There, before my eyes, covered in green ivy, lay the tombstone of one 70-something Dimitry Bartniczuk, year of death 1912. My great-great-great-somebody from my mother’s side of the family. His grave was just at on the other side of the screen, and quite frankly, I was ecstatic about it.

Dimitrii Bartniczuk, lived 78 years, died on January 28, 1912

Researching my Polish relatives became a personal question for two reasons. One – the fact that our family history – and the way people moved around countries – is not exactly the most common story you may hear. Blame it on the journalistic instincts, or the pure and enduring love of history, but the matter of people long dead yet not forgotten was too fascinating to let go. And the other…  The other reason shall remain not for print.

Places, letters and Russian language

The search for family members born in the late 19th century is bound to be a story of trial, error and ultimately, discovery. We’ve always heard that my great great great grandfather Ivan moved to Russia before the Revolution, married a local girl and they wound up in Central Asia, of all places. He had a number of brothers and sisters, his mother and some of the siblings fled the First World War in a horse-drawn cart, one day arriving by train at the station where my great great grandfather used to serve.  After the war, they returned to Poland, which was soon to become independent. His sister got married and immigrated to Canada, but nobody really knew her name… That was pretty much everything that we knew, aside from Ivan’s last name and the name of the village he was from. As I discovered, both ended up being wrong.

Screenshot 2015-02-06 23.31.49
Ivan Bartniczuk, his parents and his siblings. Poland, 1880s. Photoshop coloring in progress

Bortnichuk. That was the name was the maiden name of my grandmother. That’s what we always thought it was. Until I saw my grandfather’s name written down in Polish transcription. Doubt crept in.  At one point I started to Google Bortnichuks from the village of Czuchleby, hoping that the all-mighty search engine would give an answer to a century-old questions. Unfortunately, it did not, and, as it turned out – no wonder.The only thing that I managed to unearth during my first attempt, was that the village of Czuchleby still existed and that anyone looking for 19th century data should most likely get it from church records. Which effectively means, getting in touch with the State archives. Some of the books still existed. This is where the first attempt ended.

Then came the question of spelling. Yes, you read that right. When it comes to Polish, some last names have a different spelling, than, for example, the language it may have been used in for almost a century. Spelled in Polish, my last name would have been Donec, this is how Bortnichuk became to Bartniczuk. Then, Google game me a hint of what could have happened.

A Polish-born  Joseph Dimitry Bartniczuk, teacher that lived in Moscow region, came up in the lists of individuals executed during the Stalinist purges. I searched for his birth village  called Chotyche it turned out it was  about a 6 minute drive( in Google maps estimation) from the village my relatives were supposed to be from. But what if they actually weren’t from there?

Winding back the clock

The earliest family document that we have is Ivan’s birth certificate, which gave quite a startling revelation. First, for decades, our family had an erroneous idea of my great great great grandfather’s last name. The second letter was indeed an A, CH became CZ, which perfectly explained why the first search gave no results before that. Second, the village of birth was, in fact, Chotyche. Secondly, Dimitry Bartniczuk was one of the “witnesses” of birth registration on my great-great-great grandfather’s birth certificate. Yes, that Dimitry, the likely father of Joseph, whose grave on a deserted orthodox cemetery I have managed to find online. Thank you, almighty Google!

Church records should have existed, that I knew, and after finding extra photographs of Dimitry’s grave I started a thorough investigation into the fate of my long-gone family-members. There was a fair chance that no information survived – after all, the region suffered three major wars in a quick succession. First World War, Soviet-Polish war and Second World War… The surrounding villages were sites of pogroms and one of the villages even had a ghetto…

Russian language came in handy when asking for advise. I wrote a message on a Russian genealogy forum, uniting ancestry research enthusiasts from all over the former Soviet Union and beyond. As my research revealed, the most likely next step would have been a request to Polish national archives regarding the Chotyche records; so, I asked whether anyone may know what regional archive would I need. Instead of an address, I got a link to 1875-1910 church books, all scanned and beaconing!

Needless to say, mum didn’t believe it when she first heard it. Same could easily be said about the other family members. Some families did not get the chance to ask the right questions in due time, some would not be interested at all, while the others would not believe that it would be possible to find anything after so many years and from hundreds of kilometers away. My great-great-grandfather was a Polish orthodox who wound up in Russia before World War I and the Revolution. I wanted to get a glimpse of where he came from, and I succeeded. I wish I would have started this search much sooner, but, writing these lines, I do hope somebody may be inspired to start searching. 

PART II to follow



3 thoughts on “Ghosts of distant past: looking for relatives in 19th century Poland (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Different Red: Blog Post selection | A different shade of red

  2. Pingback: Different Red: Blog Post selection | Three Moleskine Pages

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