The other day marked my paternal grandmother’s 108th birthday and although she’s been gone nearly 18 years, I still miss her dearly. I can remember sitting and listening to her tell me about the trips she’d gone on and the days of her youth when she and Grandpa won dance contests in Cleveland. I especially loved hearing about her father, my dad’s Dziadzia, Jan Mękalski.
Grandma was very proud of her Polish roots and she taught me to embrace them. I remember when I was in grade school and had to choose a country for a project, I chose Poland. I can still remember being completely overwhelmed by the complicated history of the country my grandmother loved so much. The partitions and fluid borders of the country were a little rough for a 4th grader trying to put together a poster and report. But I clung to it and if I recall, did o.k. grade-wise.
The Polish Constitution of 3 May 1791 came after the first partition gave portions of the country to Prussia, Russia, and Austria. It was heralded in Poland as a rebirth and its democratic tenets resonated in France and in the U.S. The Polish Constitution was the first written constitution in Europe, and second in the world, following the U.S.
Unfortunately it would be short-lived. With the French Revolution and the fall of the Bastille in 1789 still looming large in the minds of the powers surrounding Poland, this spark of revolution posed a threat to the status quo. A second partition of Poland followed in 1793 giving more territory to Prussia and Russia. Although Poland rebelled under the leadership of Tadeusz Kościuszko, he was defeated and captured in the Battle of Maciejowice in 1794. In 1795, the third and final partition gave the remaining portions of the country to Russia, Prussia, and Austria. (If you’re a map person like I am and would like to see the visual representation of the partitions, there’s a map on the Polish GenWeb page of the partitions—and for other years for that matter.)
So that was that. The country of Poland ceased to exist for more than 100 years until it was reconstituted after World War I.
Dziadzia came to this country in the 1890s and many of Grandma’s stories talked about the Russian occupation. She was not a fan. One story was that her father had gone back and forth several times before finally settling in the U.S. and that the last time he was chased out by Russian soldiers for spitting on a picture of Czar Nicholas II. Pretty dramatic, but was it true?
Since I don’t think I’ll be getting proof of the entire story, I looked for the parts of the story I could prove. Passenger lists would have recorded his trips. There was one small wrinkle. I couldn’t find him. That is until I remembered my grandma’s story of how he couldn’t get work because they weren’t hiring Polish workers. He noticed they were hiring Germans and since he spoke German, he went back and told him his name was Wagner and got the job. When I found a cousin coming into the U.S. saying he was going to meet Jan Wagner, it prompted me to look for him using that name in Philadelphia in 1900 in the census. I later find him traveling with that surname to and from Poland.
What’s interesting to me, is that in every record I’ve found for him using the surname Wagner, although he’s passing himself off as German with that surname, he consistently lists his ethnicity as Polish. Perhaps that was his pride coming through as well.
So getting back to Constitution Day. Why would there be such a celebration around a constitution that didn’t last very long and eventually led to the country disappearing from the map? Well, it’s a pretty awesome thing that the Polish people stood up in the midst of a turbulent Europe, and that a group of nobles, no less, came up with a document that was intended to better the lives of all the people—not just the nobility. And there’s the fact that that Polish pride carried that country through all those years and through Soviet occupation after that.
Sometimes we get really caught up in the personal details of our ancestors, and that’s not a bad thing. But when you take a step back and learn about the history of the places they came from, well, that makes those details all the more meaningful. So today, I wanted to take a moment to remember my grandma and her parents, and all of my Polish ancestors. I guess I must have inherited a bit of that Polish pride too.