The pictures from Great Uncle Antoni’s recent 84th birthday party arrived in my email the other day, sent by his daughter Janina. Here were his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of whom I had met in Vilnius in 2010. I can still remember the group of smiling people who met me at Vilnius station, holding a sign with my name. I was the first American relative to visit them in Lithuania and their joy at my coming is something I will never forget.
My grandfather and Antoni’s uncle, Peter Korycinski, was an ethnic Pole from Russian-ruled Lithuania. He came to Schenectady, New York, in the United States from Zailgy with his two brothers, Ignacy and Joseph, in 1911, leaving his parents, two sisters and youngest brother, Antoni, behind. My maternal grandmother, Victoria Gzyms Korycinska, was born in Bopty, also in Russian-ruled Lithuania, of a German father and an ethnic Polish mother. In 1911, she followed her two brothers to Schenectady, arriving in 1911 with her parents and a sister.
Peter met Victoria in Schenectady and they were married in 1916. Their first child, Peter Francis, was born in 1917; my mother, Sophie, came along a year later. Wanda and Alexander rounded out the family.
As I sit at my kitchen table and click the link near the top of the list on my laptop’s browser, www.thenews.pl/, I travel electronically from my Schenectady home to the of all four of my grandparents left more than 100 years ago. My interest in the News from Poland and New Eastern Europe, in general, stems from four trips to Poland between 1999 and 2011 and one to Lithuania in 2010, as well as the personal ties I feel to this region. Meeting cousins and searching for family ties ruptured by time and wars have left me with a desire to know more about their histories and, especially, who and where my relatives in the “New Eastern Europe” are today.
Contact with grandfather Peter Korycinski’s family was lost in the late 1950s, following the deaths of the three immigrant brothers, until about 1970. My family’s history compiled by my first cousin Jane Korycinski Smith, recounts how, at that time, my uncle Peter (Jane’s father) made a Radio Free Europe broadcast, speaking as a Polish American who had achieved a high position at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A man in Krakow wrote a letter to Uncle Peter asking if there might be a family connection. Uncle Peter, who lived in Virginia, sent this letter to my mother, Sophie Korycinski Zych, in Schenectady, who was fluent in Polish. She determined that there was no family connection and related the family history back to this person, asking him to help find family members. The man from Krakow used his amateur radio contacts and located the family of Antoni Korycinski in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1970.
On a trip to Lublin, Poland, in 1991, Uncle Peter and daughter Jane met several members of the Vilnius Korycinski family, including Great Uncle Antoni and his daughter Janina, who travelled there to meet them. Second cousins Jane and Janina began corresponding. Since Jane does not understand Polish and Janina does not understand English, my mother, Sophie, was again the translator.
The letter of July 22nd 1992 from Great Uncle Antoni Korycinski was sent to my mother and is recorded in our family history book:
“First, I acknowledge that by the Grace of God, we are alive and well. This is the first letter I write to you. I obtained from Poland your address from Jaremczyk [the Krakow amateur radio contact]. This is how it happened:
A lady came to our house and asked if Anthony Korycinski lived here. Yes, I replied. Later she said she wanted to speak to Anthony Korycinski, son of Peter. I called my father. She repeated Anthony Korycinski, son of Peter, What was your mother’s name? Father said, “Sophie.” Then she asked the names of father’s brothers. Father replied, “Joseph, Ignacy and Peter.” These names checked with the information she had. She said that Mr. Jaremczyk received a letter from Sophie [my mother] asking for assistance in finding members of the Korycinski family.
Dear sister and the whole family, I am very happy that you had not forgotten us. I am writing to you as the son of Anthony Korycinski, because I too am Anthony. Father has asked me to write to you.
Now a few words about the family. Joseph, Ignacy and Peter left for America from Zailg. Anthony, the youngest of four sons, remained in Zailg with his parents. In addition to the sons were two sisters. Sophie married Alexander Kudrewicz. One year later she died in Zailg. Stephanie married Pacirza. He died. She then married Lokowicza, and he died. Your great grandparents, Peter and Sophie are buried in Zailg. My grandmother and yours had the maiden name Pankewicz. I don’t know why, after the war, Uncle Joseph sent us several letters. After his death Aunt Helen sent us two photos. That was the end of our correspondence. I sent several letters but received no reply. I am sending you a photograph. I have a photo of my three uncles, Joseph, Ignacy and Peter. Surely you have such a photo. I also have a First Communion photo of Sophie and Peter. I lack a photo of Wanda and Alexander. I am sending you a photograph of my family with my father.
And so farewell, we look forward to seeing you. I kiss you all and will be expecting an early reply with impatience. Please tell the rest of the family.”
1950 to 1970 to 1991-1992 and another long time until 2010…
During my 2010 visit, the cousins took me to Bopty. We walked through the churchyard cemetery, looking for old tombstones with any mention of great-grandmother’s maiden name, Szymanski or Szymanska. We did find a fairly modern tombstone with perhaps the Lithuanianised version of that Polish name, “Samansko.” Was this a relative? Unfortunately, to date, we have yet not found any family connections there.
Our next stop was the Church where grandfather Peter was Baptised, in Semelisko. A short drive and we were at Moni, a place with two houses and a small stream. Uncle Antoni pointed to a place across the stream. “The manor house was there. Your great grandparents had serfs. When the manor house was burned, the family moved to Zailgy, nearby. This was before your grandfather Peter was born.
On to the hill surrounding Lake Zailg, where the family built their new home, and where my grandfather was born. “The glue and felt factory was over there. Your grandfather and his brothers worked in the factory,” I was told.
Language…I can get along in Polish just enough to make myself understood. The Russian language was my undergraduate college major, a logical choice for a student in the Sputnik Era. Thanks to two years of high school Latin, I can even navigate through old Latin Church documents.
While it is exciting and interesting to learn about one’s ancestors, my personal quest is to reconnect family ties with living relatives. I met many warm, delightful, interesting family members and we exchanged email addresses. We now share news of births and deaths, Christmas and Easter greetings, pictures and genealogy charts. I sent a PowerPoint file of pictures from my recent birthday party, labelling my children, grandchildren and local cousins. Cousin Jurate’s teenage daughter, Brigita, is now on Facebook. My three children and I have become Facebook “Friends” with Brigita, sharing pictures and connecting the next generation of Korycinski cousins. I’m hoping we will connect on Skype soon.
However, communicating with cousins in Lithuania is an interesting challenge. Despite their Polish ethnic roots, only the older generation speaks Polish. Their daily language is Lithuanian. A few of the younger cousins know some English. When I write an email to a cousin in Lithuania, I paste it into Google Translate, select “Translate to Polish.”. After looking over the translation for obvious nonsense, and most of the time it looks quite good to my unsophisticated eyes, I then copy the entire English and Polish into an email message.
While my visit to Lithuania has invigorated my interest in family history, I have always had more interest in the present and the future, thus I am drawn to reading www.TheNews.pl and New Eastern Europe regularly. The following are some of my thoughts: 1. I am keenly aware of the hardships suffered by these people, my relatives included, through two world wars and Soviet domination. Had my grandparents not left these lands, my life would have been very different; 2. When I first met the many cousins, I was puzzled by some of their surnames, part Polish, part Lithuanian. I then learned about the order long ago that required all Poles to “Lithuanianise” their names. I learned that this is still an issue today. As an American, I cannot imagine the government requiring me to change my surname; 3. The issue of government support for “Polish schools” in Lithuania is divisive today. When Victoria and Peter came to America, they went to night school and learned English. Their children were bilingual, typical of first generation Americans. In contrast with today’s Poles in Lithuania, the immigrants of 100 years ago chose to leave their birthplaces and most wanted to become Americans. I find it hard to imagine my own ethnicity and language being changed by the change of a border, i.e., by government decree. I feel strongly that there must be a common language that binds a country together, also an issue of debate and discussion in the United States today; 4. During my adult lifetime, English has become the international language. In my opinion, it is important for the young people from the former Soviet countries to learn English and travel to other countries. In July 2008, I participated in the UNESCO-Kosciuszko Foundation’s English Language Immersion School for Polish high school students in Krakow. I still have contact with some of the students through Facebook and hosted one of my former students in my home for a week this spring.
In retirement, as I continue my search for family roots and work to extend and strengthen these new ties, I think about the “Iron Curtain” of my student days that prevented me from study and travel in those lands. The internet is a “magic” communication tool but it, alone, cannot open minds and hearts. Physical travel by any means is expensive. So, I dare to address the Contest Organisers (Editors of New Eastern Europe): what can you and I do together to connect students in your countries with students in the United States to encourage communication that has the potential to open their young worlds and develop mutual understanding?
To paraphrase the closing words of Uncle Antoni’s 1970 letter:
“And so farewell, I look forward to hearing from you and will be expecting an early reply with impatience.”
This essay was submitted as part of New Eastern Europe’s 2012 “East to West” Report competition and received the prize of “Honourable Mention”.
Editorial Note – We acknowledge the author’s appeal and would like to open it up for comment in the comments section below as well as on Facebook and Twitter. How can we all work together to enhance mutual understanding for a New Eastern Europe?
Phyllis Zych Budka is a second generation Polish American who lives in Schenectady, New York, USA. She has 3 children and 7 grandchildren. A retired metallurgical engineer with a passion for finding her roots, Phyllis delights in meeting and getting to know her cousins in Poland and Lithuania.