Posted by Juliana Szucs on May 3, 2014 in Ask Juliana, Website

Jan, Henry, Sophie, Bertha, and Julia [Cukras] Mekalski
Jan, Henry, Sophie, Bertha, and Julia [Cukras] Mekalski
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.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 19 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Mark Kenney

    Thanks for the Polish stories, Juliana. My family of Ptaks, Wolaks, Rachwals (Birds, Vollacks, Rockwells in this country)from the vicinity of Krakow, Poland have stories that weave in and around the general stories (fictional) of the Baronees d’Orsay and involve the royal line of the Sobieski’s – and I would dearly like to put some real “flesh” on those bones. For me this is a hard nut to crack, having so little to go on…not knowing the language, the topography nor enough of the “real” history involved. Knowing a bit of his Polish ancestry, my father in WWII (Patton’s Lucky Forward) carried out of Danzig a stamp album in one hand and his M-1 rifle in the other…

  2. Adriana

    In a way, the historical context are the personal details of our ancestors. They’re not unique to our ancestors, certainly, but the political goings-on in Poland greatly affected how your ancestors lived. If someone were telling a story of me, that story wouldn’t really be complete without discussing my thoughts and ideas about the world. I consider them to be a pretty important part of who I am.

    Juliana – I don’t know if you’re reading these comments, but was that photo taken in New York? And if so, do you know around what time period? The reason I ask is that I have a VERY similar photograph of my family taken in New York City around 1910. There’s a fake-looking window on the left. The scene itself looks similar, as does the coloring of the photograph. The man is sitting, the children standing – so the posing is also similar. As soon as I saw your picture, I thought this has to be the same studio!

    • Juliana Smith

      Hi Adriana, The photograph was taken in Cleveland, Ohio, around 1914-15. I don’t have the original, so I don’t know the name of the studio. The older daughter is my grandmother.

  3. Adriana

    It’s a beautiful picture!

    Maybe it was just a common background set or style of the time. 😀 Thank you for responding to my question!

  4. BEE

    Juliana, thank you for the article on Polish history! My ancestors came from all three partitions, but by the time I was born, I had only one living grandparent. Unfortunately, I never asked my Dziadek anything about Poland! My dear “Matka” knew her Polish history and always spoke of her family. Perhaps she planted the seed that led me to my love of history, and my search for information on all these branches of my family tree. It has been an amazing journey. She loved the Polish language, and my greatest regret is not being able to read and understand it.
    About the photo – I think many photo studios had similar backdrops. I have photos from three different states around that time and later.

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