So…at work, they’ve been going on and on about women’s history month. Since I worked for a defense contractor, it’s been interesting learning about women who’ve climbed the ranks through the military and have become four star generals, like Ann Dunwoody. With that in mind, I started wondering “how to tie that theme into genealogy?” I really have no famous relatives, my ancestors were farmers and carpenters from Poland. My ancestral kinswomen fit the stereotype that 1970s feminists railed against: they stayed home and had a lot of babies and took care of the house and family. Yet, these women were intelligent, strong, and capable. I viewed them in the context into which they were born.
The more I pondered that situation, the more I came to realize that women like my mother, my grandmothers, and my great-grandmothers really were women to admire and to see them from positions of strength and strong character rather than women who were held back or demeaned because of their traditional ways of life or religious beliefs.
Both of my maternal great-grandmothers traveled here to the United States with small children in tow. They came here to follow their husbands and to practice their religious faith in freedom. That’s not a small accomplishment considering their context: late 1870s or early 1880s Germany (Poland). 1871, Bismark launches his Kulturkampf. This alienates many Catholics, of whom were my great-grandparents. Their priests were imprisoned or exiled. Jesuits were being expelled. This kerfuffle dies down a bit in 1878 when Leo XIII becomes pope–Pope Leo negotiates with Bismark to rid Germany of the most anti-Catholic laws; but at the same time, there was a great worldwide depression occurring. A lot of political fingerpointing happens. Under Bismark, “Germanification” starts to occur about the same time as the depression happens. Bismark then begins hostile policies against Poles–he compares the the Polish population to animals that must be shot and he privately confesses that he would like to exterminate them.
So, there’s the reasons my great-grandparents came here. However, from what I am able to discern, it seems as if at least Eva Plenzler came here by herself with her first two sons, Martin and Joseph. Her husband, Joseph likely was here already. The manifest I located for Eva to sail from Hamburg provides only her name and her sons’ names. Imagine a young woman of possibly 25 to 28 years of age with two small children, sailing to an unknown country, not knowing English, and hoping to meet her husband at some unknown port. Joseph needed work to support his family. Eva supports his travel to the United States and follows. To me, that most certainly indicates a leap of faith and a strong woman to be able to cross an ocean alone with small children!
And then I thought of my paternal grandmother, Helena. She married a man, Wladyslaw, who comes and goes between Poland and the United States a few times. They have a small farm that supports them, they mill wheat and have a few animals to provide milk. Wladyslaw is working in the United States, sending home money and helping to get others into the United States in the period between the two World Wars. Helena experiences some frightening occurrences: before or about 1922, the farm is burned by an invading White Russian army. Helena flees the farm to the home of an elderly relative. This relative dies while Helena is there with her children and she must tend to the burial. I am unsure of where Wladyslaw is at this point–if he is still in the United States or in Poland. (A big question I have–would he have been able to travel during the period of the Russian Revolution? Oral history has also told us that that the White Army was trying to force men from the region into their Army, so possibly my grandfather was attempting to evade them.)
However, Helena manages to take care of the burial and await her husband. They embark on a ship to the United States from Cophenhagen–I have a manifest that enumerates her, Wladyslaw, and my aunt and uncle. Imagine the courage and stamina of a young mother to have to cope with the fear of an invasion and burning of her home, travel to a relative’s home (likely by foot or horse) for shelter, tend to that dying relative, and await a husband to make the decision to travel from near Tomasze to Copenhagen. Again, oral history here, but I have been told part of the journey from Poland to Copenhagen was on foot. This during a period of famine and great upheaval. Poland had just become a sovereign nation, again, in 1918. Political culture in Poland was difficult–censorship, intrigue, and the need to merge together the three former partitions: German, Austrian, and Russian. So there were many external forces driving my grandparents out of Poland. For my grandmother to have successfully come here after awaiting her husband and a difficult journey to Copenhagen is difficult for me to comprehend.
Here’s to the women who have come before us, enduring journeys and great uncertainties. While it’s wonderful to know what publicly powerful women like Ann Dunwoody have taught us and to honor their great example, we shouldn’t neglect or forget those with humbler roots. Those women, without whom we would not be here and who taught us great faith through their experiences and journeys.