The Quern: A Woman’s Weapon during WWII

A simple quern, likely one passed down from her great grandmother, was probably a Polish village woman’s most treasured possession during the brutal years of the Second World War. A quern, or żarna in Polish, is a simple hand mill typically consisting of two circular stones for grinding wheat, rye and oats in flour.

To the Germans, this ordinary object was a threat to their complete control of the population through implementing food quotas. It was immediately outlawed during the first year of occupation, and the villagers had to turn over their querns that were then smashed and burned. To not comply and then later found with a quern resulted in immediate death by shooting or hanging. Even at risk of death, some women refused to hand over their precious quern. They instead hid their querns in the undergrowth of the wilderness forests and in specially dug pits.

Hand held Quern at Kolbuszowa Museum

My great grandmother, Jadwiga Bryk likely she was one of the few who successfully hid her quern from the nearby SS and played an important role for many people during the Second World War. Jadwiga was mentioned in the letters of Anna Grabiec as a kind person who brought food to the starving forced laborers at a German farm near her home not far from Camp Heidelager in occupied Poland. She also was the person who brought food to Ks Jan Kurek, a priest while he hid from the SS in the roof area of his empty church for six months. Jadwiga lived across the street from the church and knew of his impending arrest. This true story is told in my historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness.”

Jadwiga Bryk in front of her home in Niwiska, Poland
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The Young Partisans: A Time Travel Adventure in WWII Poland

 

Just Released: “The Young Partisans: A Time Travel Adventure in WWII World War Poland”

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With the world truly turned upside down due to coronavirus, our children need to learn from the past and see real-life examples of how others triumphed over adversity.  My newest historical novel, “The Young Partisans,” is especially relevant for the Polish American community and their children and grandchildren.

“The Young Partisans” is a story adapted from my historical novel “War and Resistance in the Wilderness: A Novel of WWII Poland.” Although written for middle grade and young adults, everyone will appreciate this intriguing adventure mixed with lessons about history and real people who not only survived the German occupation during WWII but demonstrated courage and resilience.

Things are about to get really weird for Colin and Elise when a lightning storm hits and the lights go black. They hear buzzing sounds and explosions from outside their home and then remember their mysterious candle from Poland called a gromnica. It came with specific instructions: only light it during a lightning storm or if someone is about to die.

Upon lighting the gromnica, Colin, Elise, and their two dogs are transported back in time to real events during WWII in Poland. Travel back with them to Camp Heidelager, a Nazi SS training camp, and discover how these time-traveling siblings meet some of their ancestors and are woven into the dramatic events of the Second World War. Can these kids help make a difference during this treacherous time in the face of adversity?”

I invite you to read this historical, time travel novel with your children. Consider how the real people of the tiny village of Niwiska in WWII Poland and Colin and Elise, fourth-generation Polish Americans from the present, rose to the challenge and risked their safety and well-being to save Poland for the benefit of their family and others.

https://amazon.com/dp/B08639SZD9

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Life in Polish Cities During the Second World War

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   In late September 1939, the deafening roar of war was replaced with ominous silence on the streets of Warsaw. The survivors emerged from their cellars and other hiding places and glanced upward, expecting the hail of bombs and shells to resume their terrible destruction. It was a terrifying scene of utter destruction and tragedy.

  Warsaw, like most Polish cities, had been cut off from the outside world since September 1. Rumors of surrender were whispered about, and the possibility was terrifying.  Soon, the dreadful truth was revealed, and many officers committed suicide when it was clear the people were bitter with the military and now former government.

Seige of Warsaw

German soldiers marched into Warsaw on September 30, 1939, and were soon in complete control. Immediately, work began on removing debris and barricades, extricating corpses from beneath the ruined buildings, and removing the hundreds of dead horses lying in the streets. Restoring transportation, power, gas, and water were the top priorities.

soup kitchen in Warsaw

Soup Kitchen in Warsaw

Food supply was the most immediate and difficult problem, and at first, army field kitchens were used to feed the population. While the presence of the Germans was depressing to the Poles, these two weeks before Himmler’s men took control was relatively peaceful. Continue reading

Village Life for Polish Christians During WWII

 

Americans who descend from Polish immigrants often have limited or no knowledge of their families who were left behind. Those of us who have found the parish, ancestors’ names, and dates are often missing the life stories of not only their ancestors but those of the families who did not immigrate. An understanding of their struggles helps us to comprehend the worries of our now deceased grandparents, especially when we learn what their families went through during the Second World War.

Most Polish Americans descend from the peasant class, and it is likely their families remained in the villages and small towns. Their wartime experience was vastly different than the Poles who lived in larger cities such as Warsaw and Krakow. Unfortunately, much of our information comes from romanticized movies and novels that place a compelling story over reality and facts.

During my research for my newly released historical novel, War and Resistance in the Wilderness, I visited Poland three times and interviewed numerous Polish priests and historians, and my relatives who still live in the villages. Their collective memory of WWII gave me insight into the Poles’ struggles, daily lives, and their efforts to provide food, shelter, and assistance to the persecuted Jewish population and compelling reasons why they couldn’t.

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Nazi Germans forcing Polish peasants from their homes for the expansion of Camp Heidelager in 1941.

The Polish people throughout the country suffered deliberate targeting by the Germans with almost every city, town, or village affected by random raids and massacres.  My relatives in the wilderness villages of Niwiska and Trzesn in southeastern Poland were at mass on Sunday, Sept 3rd, when German gunfire exploded around the peaceful church while planes dropped their bombs.

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War and Resistance in the Wilderness: A Novel of WWII Poland- a new historical novel on Amazon!

WIW cover for publicity

War and Resistance in the Wilderness: A Novel of WWII is a newly released historical memoir of Polish villagers who suffered under the German and Russian occupation during the Second World War. After three years of research and writing, it is now available on Amazon in print or e-book through this link:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1689779586

When the Germans invade their Polish village in September 1939 to build the largest SS training camp outside of Germany, Anna, Jozef, and Stacia must work as forced laborers serving the Reich. Then, in 1943, Hitler moves his top-secret V-2 missile research project into their wilderness area. With test missiles exploding over their homes, Anna, Jozef, Father Kurek, and other villagers become partisans for the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK.)

Just as it appears the Germans are losing, Stacia finds herself inside the cattle car of a train headed to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. The rest of the village bursts into chaos, and the priest who was working with the Home Army goes into hiding in the church’s roof for six months to avoid arrest.

The History of War and Resistance in the Wilderness

As an author, my desire was to tell the story of the Polish Christians who have been largely ignored in most books and movies about the Second World War. This novel will, therefore, be of great interest for those who descend from the courageous nation of Poland, and those who appreciate military history.

I was inspired to write this novel during my first visit to Niwiska, the village of my grandparents. My Polish cousins told me amazing stories that are unknown outside this area and took me to Blizna Historical Park, the site of the Nazi’s V-1 and V-2 missile launches. When I heard the story of how my great-grandmother Jadwiga brought food and supplies to the priest in Niwiska who was forced to hide in the church roof for six months to avoid arrest, I just knew this epic story needed to be told!

The many letters of Anna Grabiec, a young woman from Niwiska who became an AK partisan and the Ravensbrück records of her sister Stanislawa helped me to further personalize the novel. Anna and Stacia’s children also provided numerous stories and details, although they were surprised by some of my research from translated histories. As we all know, sometimes survivors of war just want to forget and don’t tell their children many details.

My research also surprised me.  I had decided to put my great uncle Jozef in the story because he was the correct age to be an AK soldier, and he lived right across from the church in Niwiska. When I told his daughter (my cousin Maria) of this creative liberty, she said, “My father Jozef WAS an AK partisan!”  My premonition was very correct!

I returned to Niwiska in 2018, and three local Polish priests, Polish historians, and eyewitnesses to the German and Russian occupations granted me interviews. I toured WWII museums in Blizna, Pustkow, Rzeszow, Krakow, and Gdansk and had hundreds of documents and histories translated. The result is a novel filled with real peoples’ stories conveyed as accurately as possible.

Most of you probably don’t know the story of the damaged American B-24 bomber that landed on the Russian airstrip in Niwiska in December 1944. I traveled to Virginia to meet the daughter of the pilot, Edward List. His amazing story of Anna’s lost letter begins the novel, and the complete story of the American crew’s adventures in Niwiska is near the end of the novel. Edward List and his crew found hidden letters addressed to America in their outhouse, and one of them was Anna’s letter. It was undeliverable, and he kept it in his briefcase for forty-five years. I almost titled the novel “A War, A Letter, and an Outhouse.”

The famous story of Operation Wildhorn III is an integral part of Poland’s history and is told from the point of view of the Home Army who captured the first intact V-2 missile and transferred it to the British allies by plane on a beet field in rural Poland. Most histories of this military operation are usually told from the British point of view, but they tend to omit all the details on the ground by the Polish Home Army that produced real success.

Another important story in the novel is of Monsignor Antoni Dunajecki’s role as a rescuer of a Jewish man. As a result of my research, the priest’s application to be designated as “Righteous Among the Nations” is currently being processed by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust organization in Israel. My research indicates this one rescue was not an isolated incident, and Monsignor Dunajecki and many others richly deserve this posthumous award.

The book’s cover is an authentic picture of a V-2 missile launch from Blizna, just a few miles from Kolbuszowa. I pondered what these villagers had to endure with several hundred missiles being launched over their homes during the war.

PRAISE FOR War and Resistance in the Wilderness

“As a combination of memoir and historical fiction, War and Resistance in the Wilderness pays homage to the victims and heroes of World War II and promotes knowledge about important forgotten events from the area of Niwiska in the years 1939-1945. This book helps to better understand how cruel the German occupation was in Poland.”

−Fr. Antoni Wiech, historian and author of The History of Niwiska Parish in the Years 1918-1945

“War and Resistance in the Wilderness, based on real events, places, and people, is the story of villagers trapped in the pressure cooker of Nazi-occupied Poland.

Donna Gawell fleshes out the complexities of interpersonal relationships with a savvy understanding of Polish mores. The verity of the circumstances is enriched through an entertaining storyline that builds empathy and suspense comparable to the insecurity experienced by all villagers.

She brings to life clashing viewpoints and dangerous choices. Thorough research ferments into a unique work that informs, entertains, and lights up the audacity and courage of Polish people, including the many who joined the AK.

This is a significant contribution to the resistance genre and a riveting read.”

−Talia Moser, daughter of Captain Edward List, the American pilot in the story

“Based on real people, real events and a real place, War and Resistance in the Wilderness, gives us a picture of what life was like for the inhabitants of one tiny village during the darkness of the occupation of Poland by the Nazis. All too often we read of that time globally, in broad terms, but here we see the war brought home to their back yard, impacting real people on a day to day basis and through the long years of that war.

Though the author’s prose, I could vividly see the countryside of Poland, experience a way of life torn asunder and the very realities of war.”

 ̶ Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945, Polish Customs and Traditions, and other titles of Polish interest.

“It is often said that the past is another planet. This could not be truer of the lifeworld created by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland from 1939 to 1945. It is often taken for granted that places such as Bełżec, Treblinka, Sobibór, and Chełmno were once ordinary and obscure Polish villages with a history and life of their own that took on world-historical significance after the war. It was in the Polish countryside, behind the fog of war, that the Germans established the infamous Nazi machinery of death and destruction etched into popular understanding today.

The story of War and Resistance in the Wilderness unfolds in the village of Niwiska, which found itself in the midst of an enormous Nazi German military complex known as “Heidelager” supported by an elaborate camp system, labeled a “city in the woods” by locals. Under German occupation, the center of gravity in the region shifted to a concentration camp equipped with a crematorium in Pustków and a launch site for Hitler’s Wunderwaffe in Blizna. All three villages – Niwiska, Pustków, and Blizna – became part of a new local constellation of German power that shaped the everyday life of all of its inhabitants. In this planet born of the German occupation, the skies at times rained down mysterious metal objects – or human ashes.

Even as the Holocaust was a tragedy of Biblical proportions, its course on the local level was intertwined with the struggles of non-Jews caught up with their own life-and-death drama. Based on a clever reconstruction of historical events and documents, the book conveys a sense of the tragedy experienced by its chosen protagonists. In doing so, it restores a measure of dignity to the ‘little people’ inhabiting provincial Poland, who faced unprecedented moral dilemmas and whose lives were forever changed by the war.”

 ̶ Tomasz Frydel, University of Toronto and Fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC.

 

 

 

 

 

Rescuing Your Family’s Treasures From a Natural Diaster- Like Flooding!

By Donna Gawell

(Update in September 2018: This article was written last year after seeing the incredible loss some people experienced in the flooding. Please share with your friends on the East Coast.)

It is the wise person who learns from the mistakes and tragedies of others. Americans were glued to their TVs for weeks after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma witnessing residents drag out mattresses, sofas, and chairs from their flooded homes, and our hearts ached for their loss. Furniture and household items can be replaced, but some of our most precious items might be lost forever.

Family photos, records, and documents are amongst the most difficult to replace. A grandfather’s original naturalization document, parents’ wedding photos, and their own baby pictures might be floating in a massive soup of muddy water. Those of us who don’t live by the coast have our own natural and manmade disasters such as tornadoes and fire that can cause similar destruction.

Your Family’s Heritage and Story

You may be the guardian of your family’s history or just the owner of a few scrapbooks. Some people don’t appreciate their ownership responsibilities, not understanding that they are the guardians of their ancestors’ legacies. The thought that you are the only one who cares about these documents is misguided. The desire to know more about our history is hotwired in some from birth but comes later in others. A thirty year old launching their career while raising a family may show minimal interest. Trust me: your children or maybe their descendants will someday care. We were all there once. It is up to you to consider various ways to save what your descendants will someday treasure. That box of old artifacts you passed down to your son might be thrown in the trash bin during a nasty divorce.

Learn from Professional Genealogists: The Diversification Principle

So, what steps can be taken to avoid this heartbreak? The underlying principle is that your losses will be minimal if you diversify. Just like the wisdom about portfolio diversification from your financial advisor, genealogists will tell you that you should consider at least one or two strategies for more secure preservation. That said, none of these ideas can guarantee your precious items survival if you suffer a fire in the midst of a digital shutdown compliments of Kim Jung Un. These suggestions will give you some assurance that our family treasures and heirlooms items can be preserved and protected.

Share with Your Family

The best advice is to share with others! While most of my siblings and cousins willingly share precious family photos, I have encountered one cousin who is holding on to the items she inherited with a death grip. It is sad we can’t-do anything to change her distorted thinking, but we can proceed with what we all have and ignore those who have an attitude.

Access to a scanner is essential although taking a photo of a document or picture is second best. Sort out the items most precious to you and create a folder with subdirectories to keep scans in order. You can also store the photos sent to you in these folders. Be sure to label them with the first and last names of the items, not just “Grandpa, or mom.” Try to give a date and place.

I have organized small family gatherings of cousins with the sole purpose of sharing what we each have, and these have turned into memorable events. We all walked away benefitting greatly. Try to invite someone who is tech-savvy and has access to a scanner.

For those family and friends who live far away, ask them to send you copies of the photos and documents by email. Of course, reciprocate to those who have offered their treasures. You are on your way to becoming the family historian.

Create digital family history books- for free!

Donna’s Family History Books Available on Amazon

Many people have a desire to make a scrapbook and love the creativity of all the cute details. As a genealogist, I am more practical. Consider this: who is going to inherit this one scrapbook, and who has room or even wants your huge collection? Even if you have just one child, they will likely have at least a few children. You get the point. A digital scrapbook makes so much sense since you can easily produce multiple copies for less than the cost of conventional scrapbooks when you consider the necessary investment in supplies.

I started out using sites like Shutterfly, and there are hundreds of companies that offer a similar service including your local drug store. The problem is that the cost for each book gets out of control at about $34 for a 9×9, 20-page book. Most companies do not offer a significant discount for multiple copies. The books were lovely but became cost prohibitive for my goal of sharing with the family.

That is when I began to use sites like Create Space, Amazon’s self-publishing company. As an author, I had a few self-published non-fiction books on Create Space and saw that it was a relatively easy process, more efficient and less expensive. There are several “print on demand” companies similar to Create Space such as Lulu and Ingram Spark. Use caution in selecting your company as some are more like old-fashioned vanity presses from the past. They want you to make an investment up front−not a good idea! You don’t want to be stuck with a case of books in your basement that cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars up front. Note: CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing are merging on Amazon in Oct. 2019.

That is the beauty of publishing on demand or POD companies. You create the book, order maybe five very inexpensive proof copies, and then hit the publish key so your family can order their own copies!

The process is easy for anyone familiar with Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. All of these companies offer their professional design services for a fee, but have confidence! You can do this if you take a deep breath and commit a few weeks to the development.

  • Write out your family’s story
  • Insert photos and documents (family trees, copies of the census, scans of documents, etc.)
  • Do a bit of simple formatting:
  • Choose an easy to read text type and size (Roman New Times, size 12 is popular)
  • Decide on single, double spacing, etc. and indentation (all in paragraph in MSWord)
  • Left align -If you are unsure, just google formatting AND self-publishing, and many guides will pop up.
  • Use spell check and perhaps a free grammar and writing checker like Grammarly. Your work will look more professional.
  • Design your cover- it’s easy! Find a photo of your own or use a free one offered on these sites. You also make decisions about the cover layout and color background. The creator can easily make changes, save it, and come back another day to finish the process.
  • Upload your book to the site. Many will provide an ISBN for free.
  • Decide on the size of your book and if you want it in color or black and white. I use the 8.5 x 11 and color, but if your photos are all black and white, you might want to choose that option.
  • Now comes the trickiest part: pricing. On CreateSpace, you can purchase very inexpensive proof copies and reduced cost author copies of your books. The cost of selling the book to others has a bottom line because Amazon has to make some profit, but you will be able to see what the royalty you as the author will receive from your book before you make the final decision. Because all this work is my gift to the family and future generations, I simply round up the price to the next dollar. You might feel differently.
  • Submit the book for review. The company will inspect it for formatting issues and usually reply within 24 hours with suggestions or their approval. Keep in mind that the computer they use doesn’t realize that many of your photos are not high resolution, so ignore those issues. You can keep tweaking your work and resubmitting until you are satisfied.
  • Hit the approve key, and you are now an Amazon author!

Off-Site and External Backups

Backup your photos and documents in the cloud, on DVDs and flash drives or memory sticks, etc. A little research on the internet will provide instructions for those of you not familiar with these lifesavers. These backups come with their own limitations as experts warn us that the devices needed to read a DVD or memory card may be obsolete in ten years. Once again: heed the advice to diversify!

Advice for That Dreaded Disaster

There are some emergencies for which you can prepare. Consider the storage location of your photos and documents. Most basements are the worst place for these items because of inevitable mildew issues. Inspect antique clothing periodically and store them in plastic bags.

If you are forced to evacuate and leave many of your precious items behind, consider using your dishwasher as a reasonably airtight storage container. Take out all the racks and put in items that are treasures. Your dishwasher can be locked and should be reasonably waterproof. I would put the items in new zip lock bags and maybe even secure airtight plastic containers first. Might your dishwasher go floating down the street in a flood or burn up in a massive fire? Perhaps, nothing is perfect or 100% guaranteed, but this seems like a prudent alternative to leaving the items exposed on a shelf.

There are countless internet sites with instructions on how to recover photos and other items the owners thought were damaged beyond repair. I watched videos of photo restorations carried out with surgical precision as the items were carefully cut out of the wet plastic sheets and then washed. The efforts seem laborious, especially for people who have so many other emergency tasks in front of them.

Expert Advice for Damaged Photos and Documents

Try to get to flood-damaged photos within two days or they will begin to mold or stick together making saving them much more unlikely. Carefully lift any photos from the mud or dirty water. Remove photos from waterlogged albums and separate those that are stacked together. Be careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface. Also, remove photos from plastic sleeves from these wet albums right away if possible.

Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise, the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To successfully remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.

If you have time and adequate space immediately after the disaster, lay each wet photo face up on any clean blotting paper, such as a paper towel. Do not use newspapers or printed paper towels because the ink may transfer to your wet photos. Change out the blotting paper every hour or two until the photos dry. If possible, try to dry the photos inside, as sun and wind will cause photos to curl more quickly.

After the photo is dried you can remove any mud or dirt by gently rinsing both sides of the photo in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. Don’t rub the photos and be sure to change the water frequently.

If you don’t have time right away to dry your damaged photos, rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax or parchment paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. Some experts recommend freezing the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly. Others believe that freezing will cause small cracks to appear and don’t recommend it.

It is important to note that some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older photographs should also not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator. You may also want to send any damaged heirloom photos to a professional photo restorer after drying.

Rescued and restored photos can give the owners a little piece of themselves back when so much has been lost. The stories from recent natural disasters should motivate all of us to write that family book and make the preservation of your photos a priority.

 

A Real Puritan Woman: Joan Braybrooke Penny

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Mehitabel’s Evil Stepmother : Joan Braybrooke Penney

Joan Braybrooke, one of the main characters in “The Shadow of Salem: The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke, had every reason to be angry. Her husband, Richard Braybrooke, and their indentured servant were accused of fornication in 1652 by the courts in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  After being whipped and fined, Richard fulfilled the next part of his sentence: he was to raise his infant daughter Mehitabel in the Braybrooke home.

It was also a historical fact that Joan held Mehitabel in contempt throughout her childhood. The Braybrooke’s neighbors attributed their opinions of sixteen-year-old Mehitabel to their conversations with her stepmother Joan. The actual court records quote them to describe Mehitabel as “unchaste and spiteful,” and as “a liar and a thief.”

How tragic that Mehitabel would be the only child in the Braybrooke household. Joan Braybrooke was a barren woman; a situation considered a sign of God’s disfavor in the Puritan culture.

Joan made it into the Ipswich court records for her own offenses on several occasions. In 1653, she was brought into the quarterly court for “wearing a silk scarf,” a crime in Massachusetts if her husband’s property was valued at less than 200 pounds. The Puritans viewed the wearing of lace or silks as a privilege only for the wealthy. She was proven not guilty on that charge. Joan was also charged four years later with “a breach of the Sabbath” for “carrying a half bushel of corn or pease” on her way to church. The Puritans had rather draconian punishments for those who violated the Sabbath rest!

The most dramatic event in Joan’s life came in the year 1692 with an accusation that would be punishable by death if proven true.  Read about Joan Braybrooke Penney in The Shadow of Salem. 

This article is part of a series telling the history of some of the real Puritan women who were part of Mehitabel’s life in the historical novel In the Shadow of Salem. The book is in print and e-book format through Amazon.   Linked here:  https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

My Grandparents’ $5.00 Gift

 

My Polish immigrant grandparents who immigrated around 1906 sent $5 twice a year to thirteen sets of families they left behind in Poland. The Polish cousins who told me this story didn’t mention the years but emphasized how this gift helped them get through some very desperate times. The entire family in this small Polish village was severely impacted by the two world wars, the worldwide depression, and then the decades behind the Iron Curtain. A few of their oldest siblings also immigrated, but the immigration act of 1924 made coming to America almost impossible for most Central and Eastern Europeans. The law discriminated in favor of those immigrants who came from Northern and Western Europe. The younger siblings were forced to stay behind in the villages and work as poor farmers.

My great-grandmother Jadwiga, a widow in Poland, born in 1865.

 

My Polish cousins whom I met on two trips in 2016 and 2018 remember the stories of my grandparents’ generosity to this day−a hundred years later! Like the scarf my grandfather sent to my cousin, the stories were handed down through the generations.

Scarf my grandparents sent to my cousin Maria

My cousins were shocked when I told them my grandparents, in my opinion, were rather poor.  They assumed my grandparents had become rich Americans. They owned their own house, but my grandfather, according to the 1940 census was a floor sweeper at a local steel mill. He became a crane operator in later years.

A family history book I wrote about my grandparents’ family history

My cousins’ perceptions made me wonder how much this $10 a year gift was worth in today’s dollars, so I did some research.

$10 a year in today’s dollars* Total to 13 families
1910 $258 $3,354.00
1920 $122.56 $1593.28
1930 $146.78 $1898.00
1940 $175.08 $2276.04
1950 $101.70 $1322.10

*From US CPI index

Those are pretty hefty sums of money, but then consider how much more they would have been worth in a depressed economy such as Poland’s during these decades. In addition, my grandparents sent medicines and clothing. I remember my First Communion dress being sent. It probably was sold on the black market for more necessary items.

Zofia, an elderly cousin who was about twenty during WWII, told me a poignant story that brought tears to my eyes. After the war, the villagers who had to evacuate their homes in 1942 were allowed back in the village. Zofia had only one tattered and worn dress, but my grandparents sent her some printed fabric. This is what she said: “Because of your grandparents’ gift, I made some nice printed dresses for myself, and I was the prettiest girl in the village. A nice man asked me to marry him, and it was all because of your grandparent’s gift of that fabric!”

My visit with Zofia in 2016

I remember her telling me that story with the same seriousness as she would have related any other war story. The end result of this gift was a good marriage, and that was a fact!

Those of us with such generous immigrant ancestors should be so proud!

The Tragic Life of A Real Puritan Woman: Rachel Clinton

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The story of Rachel Haffield Clinton’s tragic life lies buried in the early records of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her family emigrated to New England on the sailing ship named The Planter in the spring of 1635. She grew up in an affluent household when Ipswich was a new village in the colony of Massachusetts, but the Haffield family’s fortune dwindled shortly after their arrival.

The years to come would find Rachel destitute and then accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Rachel is one of  the fascinating characters in the newly released historical novel In the Shadow of Salem.” https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

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An Interview with Mehitabel Braybrook Downing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could interview an ancestor from long ago?  Please enjoy my interview with Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing, the main character in my historical novel, In the Shadow of Salem.

DONNA: Thank you for this unique opportunity to interview you, my 8th great grandmother. Would you start out by telling me about your beginnings−your birth?

MEHITABEL: I was born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts which was a Puritan colony. My birth mother was my father’s indentured servant. She and my father were brought before the Ipswich courts for the sin of fornication, and they were both whipped, and my father was fined.

DONNA: Tell me about your early years in Ipswich.

MEHITABEL:  The courts insisted my father Richard had to take me to his home and raise me as a good Puritan child. Joan, my stepmother, always resented me and didn’t treat me kindly even though she had no children of her own. I was their only child.

DONNA: How did you and your husband, John Downing meet?

MEHITABEL: We were both born and raised in Ipswich. Everyone knew one another as the colony was still so young. He was ten years older than me, so we were not childhood playmates.

DONNA: You married him at quite a young age.

MEHITABEL:  Yes, like you mentioned in the story, most Puritan women didn’t marry until they were about twenty-two, but things were not going well for me after my time in prison for arson. John wanted to marry me, but my father also rewarded his willingness with a very handsome dowry.  My father gave John about half of his lands.

DONNA: So your in-laws really were the illustrious Emanuel and Lucy Downing?

MEHITABEL: Yes, but they had moved back to England and Emanuel had died by the time we married. Lucy was not attentive to her children she left in the colony. I heard that historians have even written about how Lucy foolishly put all her attention on Sir George, her eldest son. He certainly didn’t treat her well when she became elderly and was forced to depend on him.

DONNA: In your opinion, were the book’s details of your arson trial accurate?

MEHITABEL: Oh, yes!  As I read the court reports about the trial, I am deeply embarrassed. The records present me as a fool and pretty evil, but I was only sixteen. The fire was really a horrible mistake, but I was guilty of starting the fire with my pipe. Standing back now, it all seems so surreal.

DONNA: What about the horrible things said about you in the testimony from your neighbors?

MEHITABEL:  You can see where my neighbors got their wrong opinion of me.  My stepmother, Joan’s words were quoted by others in the court records, calling me unchaste and a liar.

DONNA: It must have been horrible living with a stepmother who hated you.

MEHITABEL: Yes, I didn’t have a loving mother to guide and teach me. The goodwives of the village would criticize and gossip about me.

DONNA: Can you talk about the incident with the pigs tearing at your clothes?

MEHITABEL:  That really did happen. Just like my setting the Perkins’ house on fire, I landed in court, and there is an account that exists to this day.

DONNA:  So, was my accounting accurate?

MEHITABEL:  Let’s just say that you were very kind, but you got the basic story correct.

DONNA:  What about John Beare?  Was he your real cousin?

MEHITABEL:  Absolutely. He lived with us for quite a few years, and father gave him some property when John Beare was of age.

DONNA: What were the most difficult times in your life?

MEHITABEL: My two times in prison were horrible experiences. Prisons back then were vile, cold, and filthy. If your family did not bring food for you, you had to pay for it. If shackles were necessary, the prisoner had to pay for them, and we were given a bill for the cost of our time in prison if we were released.

DONNA: Did I spell your name correctly?

MEHITABEL:  I notice my name was spelled differently in various records, but you chose the one I used: Mehitabel. I used that spelling in that letter “The Ten Persons of Ipswich”−the one we wrote in prison in 1692. That was my signature! Your readers should know that spelling wasn’t standardized back then. My maiden name is spelled Brabrook, Braybrooke, Brabrooke and even Brubruck on different records. Whoever was doing the writing decided on the spelling of a person’s name.

DONNA: How do you feel about having a novel written about you?

MEHITABEL: I am thrilled that finally an accurate and complete story of my life has been written. For the past 350 years, the only things known about me came from those Quarterly court records. It has been so hard to accept that my descendants could only read about my youthful foibles and sins, and even some of those were distortions. Can you imagine how hard this injustice has been to endure for over three hundred years?

DONNA: Is there anything else that the readers of your story should know?

MEHITABEL: They might be interested to know I am probably the only Puritan woman of my time who had historical documents from birth to my life’s end. Court and town records have left me with a rather scurrilous reputation, and I am grateful that you made a valiant attempt to see beyond the cold facts.

In the Shadow of Salem can be purchased on Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Salem-Donna-Gawell/dp/1946016500/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1532380324&sr=8-2&keywords=in+the+shadow+of+salem+by+donna+gawell

 

 

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation-Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

This article has been modified from one of the chapters in my book Travel Back to Your Roots which is available on Amazon. The book describes how to begin genealogy for your immigrant ancestors, how to research and find records in Europe,  and how to achieve your end goal of traveling to Europe to visit their birthplace and even meet long lost cousins!  I did it and want to show others that it isn’t impossible, even if you did not inherit any information about your ancestors.

Three Sets of Cousins Mark and Donna Found and Then  Met in Sweden and Poland in 2014 and 2016

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation

Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

Traveling to Europe doesn’t have to be expensive, and the internet allows you to be your own travel agent. For those who are not tech savvy, an agent might be an option, but they typically will provide mainstream and obvious options. Independent travelers will find less expensive alternatives online that will make the trip more customized.

The ideal travel months for inexpensive European travel are just before and after summer vacation months. The prices and weather are likely more favorable, and the traveler has fewer people with whom to compete. Also, many European hotels do not have air-conditioning, and some that do will not allow the guest to control the settings. The popular areas around the Mediterranean in July and August are crowded, warm, and come with premium prices. Also, August is historically the month when many Europeans travel and you will have stiff competition.

You have two options to get to Europe: a round trip flight or a one-way transatlantic cruise with a one-way flight. If you have a flexible schedule and have three to four weeks for your trip, consider booking a transatlantic cruise for your journey to or from Europe.

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How to Save Your Family History Treasures from Natural Disasters

 

By Donna Gawell

(Update in September 2018 This article was written last year after seeing the incredible loss some people experienced in the flooding. Please share with your friends on the East Coast.)

It is the wise person who learns from the mistakes and tragedies of others. Americans were glued to their TVs for weeks after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma witnessing residents drag out mattresses, sofas, and chairs from their flooded homes, and our hearts ached for their loss. Furniture and household items can be replaced, but some of our most precious items might be lost forever.

Family photos, records, and documents are amongst the most difficult to replace. A grandfather’s original naturalization document, parents’ wedding photos, and their own baby pictures might be floating in a massive soup of muddy water. Those of us who don’t live by the coast have our own natural and manmade disasters such as tornadoes and fire that can cause similar destruction.

Your Family’s Heritage and Story

You may be the guardian of your family’s history or just the owner of a few scrapbooks. Some people don’t appreciate their ownership responsibilities, not understanding that they are the guardians of their ancestors’ legacies. The thought that you are the only one who cares about these documents is misguided. The desire to know more about our history is hotwired in some from birth but comes later in others. A thirty year old launching their career while raising a family may show minimal interest. Trust me: your children or maybe their descendants will someday care. We were all there once. It is up to you to consider various ways to save what your descendants will someday treasure. That box of old artifacts you passed down to your son might be thrown in the trash bin during a nasty divorce.

Learn from Professional Genealogists: The Diversification Principle

So, what steps can be taken to avoid this heartbreak? The underlying principle is that your losses will be minimal if you diversify. Just like the wisdom about portfolio diversification from your financial advisor, genealogists will tell you that you should consider at least one or two strategies for more secure preservation. That said, none of these ideas can guarantee your precious items survival if you suffer a fire in the midst of a digital shutdown compliments of Kim Jung Un. These suggestions will give you some assurance that our family treasures and heirlooms items can be preserved and protected.

Share with Your Family

The best advice is to share with others! While most of my siblings and cousins willingly share precious family photos, I have encountered one cousin who is holding on to the items she inherited with a death grip. It is sad we can’t-do anything to change her distorted thinking, but we can proceed with what we all have and ignore those who have an attitude.

Access to a scanner is essential although taking a photo of a document or picture is second best. Sort out the items most precious to you and create a folder with subdirectories to keep scans in order. You can also store the photos sent to you in these folders. Be sure to label them with the first and last names of the items, not just “Grandpa, or mom.” Try to give a date and place.

I have organized small family gatherings of cousins with the sole purpose of sharing what we each have, and these have turned into memorable events. We all walked away benefitting greatly. Try to invite someone who is tech-savvy and has access to a scanner.

For those family and friends who live far away, ask them to send you copies of the photos and documents by email. Of course, reciprocate to those who have offered their treasures. You are on your way to becoming the family historian.

Create digital family history books- for free!

Donna’s Family History Books Available on Amazon

Many people have a desire to make a scrapbook and love the creativity of all the cute details. As a genealogist, I am more practical. Consider this: who is going to inherit this one scrapbook, and who has room or even wants your huge collection? Even if you have just one child, they will likely have at least a few children. You get the point. A digital scrapbook makes so much sense since you can easily produce multiple copies for less than the cost of conventional scrapbooks when you consider the necessary investment in supplies.

I started out using sites like Shutterfly, and there are hundreds of companies that offer a similar service including your local drug store. The problem is that the cost for each book gets out of control at about $34 for a 9×9, 20-page book. Most companies do not offer a significant discount for multiple copies. The books were lovely but became cost prohibitive for my goal of sharing with the family.

That is when I began to use sites like Create Space, Amazon’s self-publishing company. As an author, I had a few self-published non-fiction books on Create Space and saw that it was a relatively easy process, more efficient and less expensive. There are several “print on demand” companies similar to Create Space such as Lulu and Ingram Spark. Use caution in selecting your company as some are more like old-fashioned vanity presses from the past. They want you to make an investment up front−not a good idea! You don’t want to be stuck with a case of books in your basement that cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars up front. Note: CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing are merging on Amazon in Oct. 2019.

That is the beauty of publishing on demand or POD companies. You create the book, order maybe five very inexpensive proof copies, and then hit the publish key so your family can order their own copies!

The process is easy for anyone familiar with Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. All of these companies offer their professional design services for a fee, but have confidence! You can do this if you take a deep breath and commit a few weeks to the development.

  • Write out your family’s story
  • Insert photos and documents (family trees, copies of the census, scans of documents, etc.)
  • Do a bit of simple formatting:
  • Choose an easy to read text type and size (Roman New Times, size 12 is popular)
  • Decide on single, double spacing, etc. and indentation (all in paragraph in MSWord)
  • Left align -If you are unsure, just google formatting AND self-publishing, and many guides will pop up.
  • Use spell check and perhaps a free grammar and writing checker like Grammarly. Your work will look more professional.
  • Design your cover- it’s easy! Find a photo of your own or use a free one offered on these sites. You also make decisions about the cover layout and color background. The creator can easily make changes, save it, and come back another day to finish the process.
  • Upload your book to the site. Many will provide an ISBN for free.
  • Decide on the size of your book and if you want it in color or black and white. I use the 8.5 x 11 and color, but if your photos are all black and white, you might want to choose that option.
  • Now comes the trickiest part: pricing. On CreateSpace, you can purchase very inexpensive proof copies and reduced cost author copies of your books. The cost of selling the book to others has a bottom line because Amazon has to make some profit, but you will be able to see what the royalty you as the author will receive from your book before you make the final decision. Because all this work is my gift to the family and future generations, I simply round up the price to the next dollar. You might feel differently.
  • Submit the book for review. The company will inspect it for formatting issues and usually reply within 24 hours with suggestions or their approval. Keep in mind that the computer they use doesn’t realize that many of your photos are not high resolution, so ignore those issues. You can keep tweaking your work and resubmitting until you are satisfied.
  • Hit the approve key, and you are now an Amazon author!

Off-Site and External Backups

Backup your photos and documents in the cloud, on DVDs and flash drives or memory sticks, etc. A little research on the internet will provide instructions for those of you not familiar with these lifesavers. These backups come with their own limitations as experts warn us that the devices needed to read a DVD or memory card may be obsolete in ten years. Once again: heed the advice to diversify!

Advice for That Dreaded Disaster

There are some emergencies for which you can prepare. Consider the storage location of your photos and documents. Most basements are the worst place for these items because of inevitable mildew issues. Inspect antique clothing periodically and store them in plastic bags.

If you are forced to evacuate and leave many of your precious items behind, consider using your dishwasher as a reasonably airtight storage container. Take out all the racks and put in items that are treasures. Your dishwasher can be locked and should be reasonably waterproof. I would put the items in new zip lock bags and maybe even secure airtight plastic containers first. Might your dishwasher go floating down the street in a flood or burn up in a massive fire? Perhaps, nothing is perfect or 100% guaranteed, but this seems like a prudent alternative to leaving the items exposed on a shelf.

There are countless internet sites with instructions on how to recover photos and other items the owners thought were damaged beyond repair. I watched videos of photo restorations carried out with surgical precision as the items were carefully cut out of the wet plastic sheets and then washed. The efforts seem laborious, especially for people who have so many other emergency tasks in front of them.

Expert Advice for Damaged Photos and Documents

Try to get to flood-damaged photos within two days or they will begin to mold or stick together making saving them much more unlikely. Carefully lift any photos from the mud or dirty water. Remove photos from waterlogged albums and separate those that are stacked together. Be careful not to rub or touch the wet emulsion of the photo surface. Also, remove photos from plastic sleeves from these wet albums right away if possible.

Photos in frames need to be saved when they are still soaking wet, otherwise, the photo surface will stick to the glass as it dries and you will not be able to separate them without damaging the photo emulsion. To successfully remove a wet photo from a picture frame, keep the glass and photo together. Holding both, rinse with clear flowing water, using the water stream to gently separate the photo from the glass.

If you have time and adequate space immediately after the disaster, lay each wet photo face up on any clean blotting paper, such as a paper towel. Do not use newspapers or printed paper towels because the ink may transfer to your wet photos. Change out the blotting paper every hour or two until the photos dry. If possible, try to dry the photos inside, as sun and wind will cause photos to curl more quickly.

After the photo is dried you can remove any mud or dirt by gently rinsing both sides of the photo in a bucket or sink of clear, cold water. Don’t rub the photos and be sure to change the water frequently.

If you don’t have time right away to dry your damaged photos, rinse them to remove any mud and debris. Carefully stack the wet photos between sheets of wax or parchment paper and seal them in a Ziploc type plastic bag. Some experts recommend freezing the photos to inhibit damage. This way photos can be defrosted, separated and air-dried later when you have the time to do it properly. Others believe that freezing will cause small cracks to appear and don’t recommend it.

It is important to note that some historical photographs are very sensitive to water damage and may not be recoverable. Older photographs should also not be frozen without first consulting a professional conservator. You may also want to send any damaged heirloom photos to a professional photo restorer after drying.

Rescued and restored photos can give the owners a little piece of themselves back when so much has been lost. The stories from recent natural disasters should motivate all of us to write that family book and make the preservation of your photos a priority.

 

The Fascinating History of Polish Honey

Honey produced in Poland has always been esteemed as a type of liquid gold. Historically, many bee colonies were under control of the royal landowners. Stealing honey from their estates was often met with death on the gallows.  Destroying an entire colony of bees, even if they belonged to the accused, resulted in an unimaginable punishment: evisceration. The person would “be handed over to the executioner, who shall take out the entrails and wind them round the tree in which the bees were willfully destroyed and shall afterwards hang him on the same tree.”[1]


A Polish beekeeper from 1870

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Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 24: Nominating Polish Christians for the “Righteous Among the Nations” Award- I Need Your Help!

Monday, April 24, 2017 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I am in the process of completing the application for two Polish people to posthumously receive the “Righteous Among the Nations” award from Yad Yeshem in Israel. This distinction is awarded to gentiles who assisted Jews during the Holocaust. Please read the story and about the ways you can assist so the application and testimony would be favorably received by the committee. Maybe next year in Jerusalem?

A Tree is Planted in Israel for Each Recipient of the Award

The research for my next historical novel led me to a little-known story about a Catholic priest and a widow only known as “Pani Kotulova.” The details of their kindness and bravery took place in the small town of Kolbuszowa in 1942. Father Antoni Dunajecki, the priest from the town’s church and Pani (Mrs.) Kotulova” are the two rescuers of Norman Salsitz, a young Jewish man. Salsitz wrote about these courageous people in his remarkable book “A Jewish Boyhood in Poland: Remembering Kolbuszowa.”

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What the Son Wishes to Forget the Grandson Wishes to Remember: Why Our Ancestors Didn’t Talk About Their Past (Me Too)

As genealogists and family historians, we often ponder why our ancestors didn’t tell us much about their past or the old country. Our lament as grandchildren is we neglected to ask our grandparents and parents questions about which we now care so deeply.

In my senior years, I now have a laundry list of questions that should have been asked. What were the reasons you came to America, what was life like in your village, how much schooling did you have, what did your house look like? etc. Oh, if we could only have them in our lives for just a week so that we could uncover all the mysteries and stories that died with them.

I “get it” now. If there is blame to be placed, it likely is on my shoulders. It wasn’t until I became an empty nester that I began to genuinely care about my heritage. My interests centered on me during my younger years, a common theme of those interested in family history. We probably sat on the couch in our grandparents’ living rooms just waiting to go home. Continue reading

How to Publish a Create Space Book on Amazon for Free

This post is for all of my friends who have been impressed with the family history books I have written using Create Space through Amazon.com.  It costs nothing to put your book on Amazon, although of course there is a charge if someone wants to buy it.  This post is taken from my book “Travel Back to Your Roots”, also available on Amazon.  Enjoy!

Three examples of the covers of my family history books.

Chapter Eleven

Writing a Family History Book

Writing a family history or travel memory book is an easy project for almost anyone. Some companies offer self-publishing options for the novice. The final product is a wonderful keepsake and so much more efficient and less expensive than a traditional scrapbook. The only requirements to produce a book that will impress your family and friends are basic word processing skills and some knowledge of digital imaging (uploading and inserting photos, cropping, etc.)

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Niwiska and Blizna during World War II (part two)

Niwiska World War II

The village of Niwiska is surrounded by the wild Sandomierz Forests and provided great strategic significance in World War II. The Nazis overtook the area and evacuated Niwiska and Blizna to test their experimental V-1 and V-2 missiles. The goal was to shift the balance of power with these new weapons. The seclusion of the forests made it a perfect location for such tests.  This isolation also led refugees and partisans to the Niwiska forests for a place to hide and conduct subversive activities.

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Woods near Niwiska

Many of the villagers were in church when the first Nazi bombs struck. They were listening to Father Kurek’s homily and were startled by these initial explosions.  Panic broke out, and the parishioners stumbled over one another as they fled.

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The Galician Farm and Home of Michal Grabiec

The Farm and Home of Michal Grabiec as described by his granddaughter, Anna Grabiec (revision by Donna Gawell*)

The farm of Michal Grabiec was located at the edge of the village of Niwiska, not far from the forest. The house stood on the hill a little way from the main road that leads from Kolbuszowa to Rzochow and Mielec.  The remains of the Sandomierz Wilderness stretched further on the horizon.

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The house was built of unhewn trees using a construction method that used coal. The trees were stacked with bricks of coal, and the bark was stripped off.

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A War Memory (World War II) written by Anna Grabiec

A War Memory (World War II) written by Anna Grabiec

From Donna: This story will tell you about the bravery of the Polish people who assisted the Jewish population who lived in the forests during WWII. 

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This photo was taken by Donna in Niwiska in 2016. It is the rebuilt barn on my ancestor’s property. A fifteen-minute walk through the woods leads to the Blizna Historic Site.

(Preface from Donna Gawell: the village of Niwiska and the adjoining village of Blizna were evacuated so the Nazis could build a research facility and testing site for V1 and V2 missiles. I will write another story about this important part of WWII history. Many villagers, including Anna Grabiec were active in the Polish Army’s covert activities that assisted the Allies.)

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Ebook now available for “Travel Back to Your Roots”

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Travel Back to Your Roots has just been released on Amazon.com. My goal in writing this book was to inspire others who wish to research their European immigrant ancestors and hopefully discover cousins back in the old country.

Travel Back to Your Roots is for beginning genealogists and those who may not know how to make the jump over the pond to research parish and village or town records in Europe. The reader will learn how to first find the necessary US census, church, and immigration records before tackling those in European churches and archives.

One chapter on immigration will give the reader insight into the reasons for immigration and details the Ellis Island experience to better understand our ancestors’ bravery and the struggles they encountered.

I’m optimistic you will have success in your research and therefore have chapters to explain how to find living descendants in Europe and then how to contact them. The reader will also learn how to plan a budget-friendly ancestral heritage trip.

Finally, another chapter explains how to self-publish beautiful and professional family history books and genealogies at no cost using Create Space. Check out my Amazon site to see examples of these types of books.

Starting genealogy just four years ago, I been able to go back to the 1700’s in the European records with seven out of eight of our immigrant ancestors (Polish, Swedish, and German.) I also found three groups of cousins in Poland and Sweden and was enthusiastically welcomed to visit them in 2014 and 2016. They all exemplified the saying “A Guest in the House is God in the House.”

A ebook version was released just a few days ago, so both versions are now available on Amazon.

Please ask questions!