I went to Łódź in search of my great grandfather’s birth certificate. It was my first time there. I had heard Łódź is an ugly, dying industrial center, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it is full of attractive 19th century brownstones. Many are in disrepair, some are in ruins, but others have been renovated and recall the former prosperity of the city. I need to reread Reymont’s Ziemia Obiecana, a novel involving relations among Polish, German, and Jewish cloth manufacturers; as I recall, it provided a snapshot of the business relationships as well as the prejudices among them.

Plac Wolnośći, archive on the right.

Plac Wolnośći, archive on the right.

The archive is in an old building in Plac Wolności, a circular intersection which, depending where you look, evokes either socialist monumentalism or the bourgeois elegance of the century before. Archives are odd places, and archivists generally seem more comfortable around paper and books than around people. In Łódź the documents I wanted are on microfilm. In other places, I have been fortunate enough to leaf through the original record books. They are large ledgers with thick yellowish paper. Some of the hardbound covers are riddled with insect holes. The handwritten entries can be hard to read—some scribes were neater than others; some added their own unique flourishes.

Still, I hit the jackpot—records from Skierniewice dating from the 1840s-60s. I found Hiel Piwko’s birth certificate and traced his line back two or three more generations. I found out that his father and mother came from smaller towns near Skierniewice, Rawa Mazowiecka and Bolimów. These older records are in Polish, though the handwriting can still be hard to decipher. I learned that my great-great grandfather Josek was a tanner (garbarz). This is consistent with what Aunt Pat has in her notes, but Hiel’s mother is listed with a different name—instead of Lucyna King, she’s Cywia Rajch. I traced back further after getting home, and found reference on JRI (Jewish Records Indexing) to her birth certificate, which lists her as Lieba Cywia Raich. Pat also lists Babcia’s sister Libe Piwko as Lucyna, so that likely explains the first name. Lucyna, Libe, Lieba can easily be versions of the same name. Could King and Rajch be related, too?

The birth records follow a standard pattern. They identify the father, the date he came to the record office, his age, town, and sometimes profession. Next, two witnesses’ names, ages, towns, and sometimes professions are listed. Then comes the name of the mother, her age and town, and finally the sex, birthdate, and name of the child. The witnesses and father sign, along with the clerk. I’ve been paying particular attention to signatures, which are occasionally in Hebrew, but are mostly in Polish.

The language used in these record books mark the political transformations of the 19th century. After the Uprising in the early 1860s, records in the Russian partition switched to Russian instead of Polish. In Lęczyca (where I went the next day to trace the ancestry of Pinkus Kolski, who married Babcia’s sister), although the records were in Russian, peoples’ names were listed in both Russian and Polish.

I also was able to trace other historical facts about the Piwko line. Great-great grandmother Cywia, Josek Piwko’s first wife, died in 1862 at age 32, just a month after giving birth to a son Dawid. According to Aunt Pat’s records, Cywia (Lucyna) died of cholera (but at age 27). Hiel would have been just 7 years old in 1862. Three years later, Dawid died. Within a year, Josek had another son, Nusen Dawid with a new wife, Sura Burgierman. She was 24 and he was 42.

According to Aunt Pat’s notes, Josek had four wives. I am still looking for mention of the other two. Maybe I’ll find something when I get the Russian language records I collected in Grodzisk Mazowiecki translated.