Z is for Zarecze


Ah, the last day.  We’ve made it!  Congrats to all!

I may have been stuck on Y, but I’ve known from the very beginning what I wanted to do for Z.


Because Zarecze is a mystery, and I’m hoping someone will be able to offer some clues.

Here’s what I know:

My grandfather, Josef Urynowicz, traveled to America on the Pretoria, which sailed from Hamburg, Germany and docked at New York Harbor on November 15, 1907.

Here’s his line from the ship’s manifest (the text version, since the handwritten original is almost unreadable):

0005. Urynowicz, Josef M 24y S Russia, Polish Zarecze, Russia


Reading from left to right, it tells us he’s #5 on the manifest list; it gives us his name and tells us he was male, he was 24 years old, he was single, he was from Russia but ethnically Polish, and he was born in Zarecze, Russia.

Problem #1:  Russia’s on there twice.  According to the manifest, he was from the Russian partition.

I have no problem with that except that it’s in direct conflict with what my mom and other family members have told me, which is that Grampa was from Krakow.  The problem is that Krakow wasn’t in the Russian partition—it’s in the southern part of the country, which was the Austrian partition.

Problem #2:  There’s no town called Zarecze anywhere in the Russian partition.  Nor is there one anywhere near Krakow.  It appears, in fact, that there’s no town called Zarecze anywhere at all.

However,  Google is happy to provide me with an alternative spelling.  It’s not Zarecze, according to Google.  It’s Zarzecze, with an extra Z (perfect for today, right?).  And as it turns out, there are lots of Zarzeczes, including one near Krakow and one near Vilnius (a major city in what was the Russian partition, now the capital of Lithuania).

So now I’m stuck.  What I’ve just given you is the sum total of all the information I have about my grandfather, so when it comes to tracking down my great-grandparents or any other relatives (none of whose names I know), I’m pretty much looking at a brick wall.  Was he from a town that no longer exists, or was it just spelled wrong?   And if it was actually Zarzecze, then which one?

And there’s nobody left to ask.  My mom, who passed away in 2010, was the last of her siblings.

Incidentally, my mom always told me my grandmother was from Krakow, too, but Grandma’s ship’s manifest says she also was from the Russian partition, specifically from Kaunas (Kowno), which is also in present-day Lithuania.  I don’t know any of her parents’ or siblings or other relatives’ names, either.

Any ideas?

X is for Xmas


Ah, the letter everyone’s been dreading.  I was briefly torn on Saturday, deciding whether to do Weddings for W, or Wigilia.   As you know, I opted for Weddings.

That was because of the looming spectre of X.

Wigilia is the Polish Christmas (ahem, Xmas) Eve celebration.

So yeah.  X.

The Chris Xmas Eve celebration starts at dusk with the children going outside to watch for the first star, which of course represents the Star of Bethlehem.  Once it’s been spotted, Wigilia (the direct translation is Eve, but it means Vigil) begins.

The meal consists of a set number of courses, but the number may vary depending on the region.  It’s often set at an odd number—seven, nine, or eleven—but in my family, it was customary to have twelve, I assume for the twelve months of the year and/or the Twelve Disciples.

Twelve courses is a LOT of food.  And it’s all supposed to be meatless.  One very traditional dish is “rollmops” made of herring.

I was never able to spend a Christm Xmas with the whole family in Michigan, but I’ve been told that at those Michigan Wigilia vigils, the meals were indeed meatless, and that the children were required to have twelve different foods on their plates.  As my cousin Judy put it to me recently, “There were 9 of us cousins and we would divide one ‘glue ball’ … we felt that the gb’s were the lesser of 2 evils. The other one was herring! Raw fish just didnt make it!”

When my grandmother started spending her winters with what my mom called “the California contingent” of the family, we stuck to the twelve courses but threw the “meatless” requirement out the window.  There was always a Christmas goose, and often a turkey and a ham, and golabki for good measure.  The California contingent were rebels.

The California bunch also skipped the hay, which is traditionally placed under the white tablecloth and also in the four corners of the dining room to remind everyone that the Christ child was born in a manger.  I recall my mom telling me that when she was growing up, she always felt like Grandma was “bringing the barnyard indoors,” but I actually think it’s a pretty cool tradition.  I wish I’d known about it back then because I’m sure I would have insisted on it.

One tradition we didn’t skip was the sharing of the Christmas wafer, or oplatki, which looks like the wafer distributed during Mass but is pressed with a Christmas design, and which my aunt would take to the church to have blessed beforehand.  In California, my grandmother was always the master of this ceremony, but traditionally, it’s the man of the house who performs this rite.  He says Grace, then breaks off a piece and gives it to his wife, and from there, everyone gets a piece and shares it with everyone else, always with expressions of love and appreciation.  The oplatki ritual is among my favorite Chris Xmas memories, but unfortunately, I never continued it with my own family.  I now wish I had.

(I found a great article about the oplatki ritual, which you can read here if you’re interested.)

It’s customary to share the wafer with livestock as well, because of the belief that animals can speak with a human voice at midnight.

There’s always one more place setting at the table than there are people, so there will be room for an unexpected family member, friend, or other guest–and at the California parties, someone unexpected almost always did show up, usually one or more of my cousins’ friends.  The Poles are very welcoming to visitors and even have a saying that goes, “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom,” which means, “a guest in my house is God in my house.”

When the meal was finished, we’d clean up the kitchen (OK, everyone else would clean up the kitchen while a few of us hid) and then we’d migrate into the living room to open gifts, and then, if there was time, we’d play poker until midnight approached, at which point it was time to go to Midnight Mass.

This was another of my favorite traditions.  Just being allowed to stay up so late was an adventure, but there was something about the Mass itself, during which we all sang Christmas carols and there was a special, magical radiance cast over everything, that was different from any regular Sunday Mass.  Even though I was never baptized a Catholic (a story for another time), Midnight Mass always made me feel especially happy and warm with the glow of good tidings.

I’m sorry to say that nearly all of my family’s Polish traditions died with my grandmother, who passed in 1977.  But the more I recall them, the more I think it’s high time someone brought them back.

Do you have any special Chris Xmas traditions?

U is for Urynowicz


My grandfather, when he arrived in America in 1907, was Josef Urynowicz, but his headstone reads Joseph Urenowicz.  You may have noticed that I use the two spellings interchangeably, and that’s why.

Josef and his friend Jan Chmiclewski sailed out of Hamburg, Germany and docked at New York Harbor on November 15, 1907.  This is the Pretoria, the ship they traveled on:

the pretoria from ellis island dot org[1]

I can only begin to imagine how foul it must have been below decks, which is where the 2382 steerage customers endured some pretty horrific living conditions for the duration of the voyage.

Josef and Jan were coming to stay with Josef’s brother Alex, who lived in Jersey City, New Jersey.  This was where my grandfather would soon meet my grandmother (Apolonie / Apolonia / Pauline).  They married there in June, 1909, and had their first two children there—my Aunt Joan and my Uncle Joe—before the New York Central Railroad, for which my grandfather was a boilermaker, transferred him to Jackson, Michigan in 1913.

This is their wedding picture:

grandma grampa wedding pic scanned 4-24-14

In Jackson, my grandparents bought a small bungalow on Loomis Street, where seven more children were born (including my mom); and in 1926 they sold the Loomis house and moved to a farm just north of town, where one more child, my Uncle Ray, was born.  I have many, many fond memories of the farm.  This is me at about age four:

me feeding the chickens, michigan

My grandfather (known as Grampa to his many grandchildren) had been drafted into the Russian army as a young man and sustained a leg injury in a fall from a horse that left him with a limp throughout the rest of his life.  In 1964, he developed gangrene and was told that the leg must be amputated.  His response to this news:  “I came into this world with two legs, and I’m going to go out with two legs.”

And so he did.  In November it will be fifty years.  I’d sure give a lot to be able to go back and speak with him now.

My grandparents’ 50th anniversary photo, taken in 1959:

grandma grampa 50th anniv june 1959 scanned 4-24-14

May they both rest in peace.


Are you interested in discovering your own family history? 


[1]   http://www.ellisisland.org/search/shipImage.asp?MID=13541073640892562880&LNM=URYNOWICZ&PLNM=URYNOWICZ&first_kind=1&last_kind=0&RF=13&pID=102135050365&

P is for Pisanki (Polish Easter Eggs)


My mom was a big one for hobbies.  Just a few of the myriad projects we tried our hands at as I was growing up were crewel embroidery, decoupage, cloisonné, acrylic painting, rock tumbling, resin grapes and other resin crafts (enter “klick-klacks”—anyone remember those?), and several different types of crystal growing.  That one came in handy when I needed an 8th grade Science Fair project, since all of my crystals were already well underway when it was assigned.

One year, something inspired my mom to dye Easter eggs the way her family had done it when she was growing up.   I hadn’t thought about this in a long, long time, but the collision of the A-Z Challenge, my Challenge theme, and the approach of Easter jogged the memory.  I know exactly which of my stories this recollection will make it into, too.

We skipped the brightly-colored store-bought dyes and stickers that year; instead, Mom got out a bag of brown onions and started peeling off the dried outer skins.   When she had a whole saucepan full of skins, she covered them with water and brought them to a boil.

“What color will the dye be?” I asked doubtfully.  It just looked brown.  I wasn’t too impressed.

“Brown,” she said.  “The most beautiful brown.”

Brown Easter eggs?  I thought she’d lost her mind.  Why dye Easter eggs brown?  You can buy brown eggs.  I longed for bright pinks and greens and yellows, and robin’s egg blue.

I confess, I wasn’t a very good sport about this one.

While the dye was boiling, we blew a bunch of eggs.  Everyone knows how to blow eggs, right?  Poke a little hole in one end with a needle, and a slightly larger hole in the other end, and blow through the smaller hole until all of the egg has exited through the larger one.  Make the holes large enough that the blowing won’t damage your eardrums, and keep count so you can use the eggs in cooking later, or just make scrambled eggs.

We sat down at the kitchen table with our clean, empty shells and set to work with clear wax crayons, drawing intricate designs and patterns on our eggs.  I know now that an even better method—the traditional Polish method—is to use melted beeswax and apply it with a pin.  Crayons are smeary, and candle wax is hard to see, but beeswax, when it gets hot, turns a dark enough shade to be easily visible as you work, and it leaves a clear, sharp image.

When our designs were finished, we lowered the eggs into the dye and left them there until they had achieved the shade we wanted—a lovely deep reddish brown.

The next step, as with any other Easter eggs, was to remove them from the dye and let them dry completely.

Once they were dry, we held the eggs over a candle to melt the wax and used a paper towel to wipe it all off.  The eggs lay on the table and glowed.  They were beautiful.  I don’t have any photos of ours, but they looked something like these:

Coffee and Vanilla[1]

And they don’t have to be brown—you can use the same wax method with any type of dye.  There are actually several types of Polish Easter eggs, depending on the region:

  • Kraszanki, dyed with plant materials (leaves, flowers, onion skins, beet skins, etc.—what my mom and I did was a combination of this one and the next one)
  • Pisanki , decorated by applying a wax design before dying
  • Skrobanki or Rysowanki, decorated with a design scratched upon their surface
  • Wyklejanki, decorated with yarn, attached with glue
  • Nalepianki, decorated with paper cut-outs or straw glued to them
  • Malowanki, hand painted

You might want to give it a try, whether you have kids or not.  With a little practice, maybe you can make some like these:

pisanki-wydrapywane-2 rabbit skrobanie[2]

That one is a goose egg–that’s the skrobanki style.  The ones below show you can also use color:

PolishEasterEggs 4-17-14[3]


Take a look at these eggs, too—there are so many, I couldn’t possibly post all the photos I would have liked to!

Here’s a Pinterest collection of them for good measure.  I think you’ll agree that they’re just beautiful.

My mom and I never did eggs like that again.  I don’t know why it didn’t become a tradition.  I’m sorry to say I never tried it with my own kids when they were young, either—but I can’t wait to do it with my grandkids!

Happy Easter!


[1] http://www.coffeeandvanilla.com/traditional-polish-easter-eggs-dyed-in-onion-shells/

[2] http://manualni.pl/jak-zrobic-pisanki-cz-2/

[3] http://thehungariangirl.com/2012/03/23/easter-egg-styles-from-central-and-eastern-europe/


N is for National Anthem


Most Americans know “The Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem. Most of us, I assume, also know at least most of the words, even if we sometimes injure ourselves in our efforts to carry the tune.

The song commemorates the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, after which, “by the dawn’s early light,” Francis Scott Key was inspired when he saw that “the flag was still there.”

One could argue fairly convincingly that the song came into being just as the country itself was coming into being, though it wasn’t officially declared the national anthem until 1931.

In Poland, it’s the opposite.

That is to say, the Polish national anthem, “Dabrowski’s Mazurka” (“Mazurek Dąbrowskiego” in Polish), was written by Józef Wybicki in 1797, two years after the final partitioning of the country led to its total obliteration from the map.

That’s right: the Polish national anthem came into being a couple of years after there was no country to sing it to.

Somehow, knowing this makes the opening lines of the song even more powerful . They can be translated in several ways, the most common of which are these:

     Poland has not yet died / So long as we still live.

     Poland is not yet lost / So long as we still live.

     Poland has not yet perished / So long as we still live.

Whichever English version you prefer, you can feel the hope, the spunk, the spirit of these people. They were not giving up on their country just because it didn’t currently happen to exist.

In fact, Adam Mickiewicz explained to his students in 1842 that the opening lines of the song “mean that people who have in them what constitutes the essence of a nation can prolong the existence of their country regardless of its political circumstances and may even strive to make it real again.”[1]

You might say that while Americans were celebrating the birth of a new nation and in search of people to fill it, Poland—or more accurately, Polonia—was comprised of many people in search of a place they could freely call home while still maintaining their Polish identity.

Poland’s physical presence was re-established at the end of WWI in 1918, and the Mazurka became the unofficial anthem then. It was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1926.

You can listen to it here (with lyrics in both Polish and English).


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poland_Is_Not_Yet_Lost

K is for Kotlety Schabowy


My mom was not particularly proud of her Polish heritage. She adored and was devoted to her brothers and sisters, and she always told me she was “Papa’s favorite” (though I suspect Papa—my grandfather—was the type who routinely made sure all of his kids and grandkids thought they were his favorite, and I even suspect that each of them was his favorite in different ways and at different times—cf the Erma Bombeck article of many moons ago) –but she just really didn’t much like talking about her Polish roots. She was American, she said, “from the day I was born, right here in the good old USA.” The only time she ever made anything Polish at home, as far as I knew, was when my grandmother was staying with us.

This is why I was surprised to discover only recently that her wonderful pork chops, the pork chops I grew up on and that I still make for my own family today, were actually Polish. My mom just called them “breaded pork chops.” She never bothered to mention that “breaded pork chops” in Polish is kotlety schabowy.

Hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

You will need:

ingredients for mom's pork chops 4-12-14

  • Pork chops (any cut is fine; my mom always used center cut loin chops—the ones that look like little t-bone steaks—but boneless loin chops work well too.)
  • 1 egg  (this is enough for up to about 8 chops)
  • saltine crackers, crushed to small crumbs, but not to powder (I usually just crush a whole tube of crackers, but half a tube is enough for 3 or 4 chops)
  • salt and pepper
  • Lawry’s season salt or McCormick Season-All (they’re basically the same thing, you know)
  • cooking oil
  • three dinner plates
  • a cast iron or other oven-safe heavy frying pan with a lid that fits tightly

pork chop prep

Procedure (the oven should be preheating to 350 while you’re doing all of this):

  1. Break the egg(s) onto the first plate and scramble well.  You can add a teaspoon of water to make it stretch a little further.
  2. Put the crushed crackers on the second plate.
  3. Lightly season the chops to your taste with salt and pepper on one side and Lawry’s on the other.
  4. Dip one chop at a time into the egg and then into the crumbs, coating thoroughly.
  5. Set prepared chops on the third plate while you do the rest.
  6. Heat about 1/3 cup of oil in the cast iron skillet (depends on how many chops you’re doing).
  7. Fry the chops on medium heat, 3 at a time, about four or five minutes on each side until golden brown.   It doesn’t matter if they’re not cooked all the way through.
  8. If you’re only doing three or four, they should all fit in the pan you fried them in.  Just put the lid on the pan and bake at 350 degrees for ½ hour to 45 minutes (depends on thickness of chops). Remove the lid in the last ten minutes or so.
  9. If you’re making more than 3 or 4 chops, you can put them all on a jelly roll pan and cover it with foil so they can all bake at once.  That’s what I did tonight.

pork chops cooking 4-12-14

These are tender and juicy, never dry or tough, and they have fantastic flavor. My mom always served them with corn on the cob and some kind of noodles or macaroni and cheese. A great comfort food dinner!

BONUS: How to make perfect corn on the cob every time!

  • Clean the ears and cut off the ends.
  • Heat water to boiling in a pot large enough to hold however much corn you’re making.
  • Add about ¼ cup milk and 1 tsp sugar for every quart of water. DO NOT ADD SALT.
  • Put the corn in the boiling water. Cover and turn off the heat.
  • In 15-20 minutes you will have perfect corn.



I is for Identity


I was looking for inspiration for my “I” post and coming up blank. I knew I wanted to talk about Identity—specifically, American identity, and even more specifically, my Polish-American identity.

I don’t come by it very honestly, really. I’ve never been to Poland. I don’t speak any Polish. I have in me, of course, several other nationalities and ethnicities, as most Americans do; and of course I am very interested in and proud of the stories and accomplishments of my English and Swiss ancestors.  But my Polish immigrant ancestry is the most recent, and thus the most immediate, and it’s also the most . . . well, the most. Fully fifty percent.

In my search for inspiration, I googled Polish American Identity, and one of the hits gave me this article by Caroline Puckowski, in which the author, a young woman whose parents came from Poland, recognizes and then laments the loss of the Polish part of her identity as her family becomes more and more Americanized.

She opens her article with the following lines:

I stood on a gravel path between two perfectly straight rows of gravestones, hands shoved into my pockets as I tried to hide from the blustering wind. Despite the unseasonably cold weather, a number of visitors strolled about the cemetery. Flowers and candles adorned the majority of graves, testaments to friends and family who had recently come to pay their respects. I, too, had come to do the same.

The cemetery she’s referring to is in Poland, and she’s there to leave flowers on the grave of her grandfather. The article is dated May 31, 2012.

It got me.

It got me because in the last days of May 2012, I too was trying to get my bearings in a cemetery far from home, though not as far as Puckowski had ventured.

st john's cemetery jackson mi 5-20-12

This cemetery is in Jackson, Michigan, where my grandparents settled when my grandfather, a boilermaker for the New York Central Railroad, was transferred there from New Jersey in 1913. I was in Jackson on a research trip (much of my novel is set there), though my first stop was to visit the graves of my grandparents and nine aunts and uncles buried there.

But it took me three days to find them all.  It’s a big cemetery, and I didn’t have a map.

I found my grandparents’ headstone last; it was clear on the other side of the cemetery from the others. The names on this stone, in addition to those of my grandparents (Joseph and Apolonia), belong to my much-beloved Uncle Eddie, who never married; my grandfather’s brother Alex; and Josephine, a child who died in infancy, though I like to think of her as my Aunt Josie.

urenowicz headstone 5-22-12

That my other aunts and uncles are in the same cemetery but so far removed from this site, as well as from each other—and two other aunts and uncles are interred in California, while my mom is here in Wisconsin—strikes me as symbolic: the scattering of a family across time, across so much time.

In my mind, though, they are all still together. Laughing. Making jokes. Cooking and eating the most marvelous meals. Celebrating life.

I spent quite some time at each grave, remembering their smiles, their laughter, and their sparkling eyes, and marveling that the last time I’d seen most of them, I was fourteen years old.

I shed many tears.

This, I thought—this is my Polish-American identity: my enduring love for beloved relatives who, though I haven’t seen them in forty years, still and will forever shape my worldview, how I think, and who I am.

I speak no Polish. I’ve never been to Poland. But Poland and its people, its customs and traditions, are in me. In my heart of hearts, I know these Polish-American souls have shaped who I am.

But I brought no flowers.

I wish I had.

And when I go back again, I will.

G is for Geography


As part of a recent Washington Post survey asking Americans what they thought the U.S. should do about the current conflict in Ukraine, participants were asked to identify Ukraine on a blank world map. You can see the map here; each dot indicates someone’s guess. Red means you’re warm. Blue is cold.

The upshot of the article is that the less able the respondents were to locate Ukraine on a map, the more likely they were to support the idea of American military intervention there.

Such a conclusion leads to plenty of pretty interesting and potentially disturbing implications, but the WP does a pretty fair job of covering those, so I’ll leave them to it.

I was more than a bit distressed, however, to notice the number of respondents who plunked their cold blue dots smack in the middle of America’s heartland. One should not infer from this that anyone is silly enough to think Ukraine is actually in Nebraska, but rather that the Americans who put their dots there (or in Florida, Iowa, Tennessee, Colorado, or Alaska) can’t locate the United States on a world map at all.

I did an exercise like this in one of my classes several years ago. Preliminary to a unit in which the students were going to be reading The Kite Runner, I gave them each a blank map of the world and asked them to identify Afghanistan with a red X. Only one student got it right — and when I told her she was right, she laughed and said, “Really? I totally guessed!”

We were already at war in Afghanistan. Some of these students had friends and even family members there. But not a single one of them knew where “there” was.

It’s true that none of those students actually put their red X anywhere within the United States, but a couple of them did put them in Canada, and one or two in South America. And these were college students. Not just college students but honors students.

Americans in general really are notoriously bad at geography.

I don’t always know where countries are either, to be honest—no high horse here—but I like looking things up. When something’s going on in a place I can’t already identify on a map, I go online and find it.

But in looking up where my grandparents came from, I got pretty confused.

(You were wondering what all this has to do with my WIP, weren’t you?)

My grandparents were Polish. I’ve known that all my life. And I assumed, logically, that that meant they came from Poland. A logical assumption indeed, but wrong. In fact, on both ships’ manifests, they’re both listed as Russian.

I went in search of a map to find the cities they were from, but as it turned out, those cities are both in Lithuania.

Needless to say, I was pretty confused.  It was a real game changer for me, to discover after all these years that we were actually Lithuanian.

Except we’re not.  Or not exactly.

As it turned out, the problem was that I knew nothing at all about Polish geography, history, or psychology. I was looking at a present-day map of Poland and assuming that it was the same now as it always had been. Anyone looking at a present-day map will find the cities of Wilno and Kowno (aka Vilnius and Kaunas) thriving just fine, well within the borders of Lithuania.

But when my grandparents came to the U.S., Poland didn’t look like that.  In fact, at that point, Poland didn’t exist at all.

Until the late 1700s, Poland was quite large. But in 1772, the surrounding kingdoms (Prussia, Russia, and Austria) divided it and each took a big chunk. Then in 1793, Prussia and Russia each took another chunk, and in 1795, the three countries divided the remainder among themselves, and Poland as a country was no more. It was not reinstated until the end of World War I, and its borders were shifted yet again during World War II.

My grandparents were born in what was known as the Russian Partition, but they never identified as Russian.  They were ethnically Polish, and that distinction was a source of great pride among Poles.  Their country, during the period from 1795 to 1918, existed within their hearts.  They were Polish just as surely as they would have been if there’d been a country to actually hail from.  But there wasn’t, so on official documents, they were listed according to the nationality of whichever kingdom had absorbed their land.

Poland as we see it on a map today has only existed for about seventy years, and it’s only 120,726 square miles in size—less than half the size of Texas.

So now you’re wondering, maybe, what the current situation in Ukraine has to do with all of this, and why the Ukraine situation is relevant to my WIP.

The answer is this: Poland borders Ukraine, and in fact much of Ukraine was once part of the original Poland. Some of the same land that was disputed and partitioned in the 1700s is the same land that Russia is once again interested in today.

And I don’t know about anyone else, but I think it’s important to know where it is.

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